Influence of Music in the Major Religions of Asia

“Music gives us the capacity to express the deepest feelings of the human soul.” Worldwide, music has an important and varied range of application in religious practice. In the major religions of Asia, music is an especially vital part of theology and worship. In

India and China, the most prominent religions are Hinduism, Daoism and Buddhism. Hindu religious chant and music are firmly rooted in theological principles of sacred sound. Taoist music is commonly used in the form of simple melodies and peaceful songs to aid in recitations and rituals. In Buddhism, sutras sung as hymns and other songs praising the virtues of the Buddhas have attracted and helped purify the hearts of countless disciples. With such large sects of the continent being members of these religions, it can be determined that music is used in worship and religious settings may affect the way music is played and listened to in the secular world. What does each religion bring to the table in its influence on the music of Asia?

Hinduism is the major religion in India. Hindus make up approximately 85 % of the population in India. In Hinduism, music is recognized as a divine art that awards all four aims of human life to both the performer and the listener. These four aims are dharma, artha, Kama, and moksha. Dharma is the aim of righteousness. Artha is the aim of wealth and prosperity. Kama is the aim of enjoyment and moksha is liberation of the ways of the world. Music in Hinduism, from the earliest times was a source of not only moral but also spiritual achievement. The process of learning to play music is comparable to traditional Hindu spiritual discipline. There are 3 key elements to spiritual discipline that relate to music. First is the guru or disciple succession, meaning that one becomes a disciple of what he is learning. Second is vinaya or humility. Third is regular and disciplined practice.
Hindu music is called sangeet and is associated with heavenly singers called Ghandharvas. The oldest Hindu musical texts were called Sana Veda, which had melodies that were used to in reciting hymns. Today music in Hindu worship consists of bhajan (hymns) and kirtan (chanting of mantras). Instruments used commonly in Hindu worship are drums (tabla and mridangas), the manjira (small hand cymbals), and the harmonium. Flute, vina, and sitar are also used in worship music.

Predominantly, music heard on radios in India is “cine music”, or Indian pop music. A majority of these songs are from hit movies, and most movies in India are musicals. Songs from these musicals are a bizarre blend of eastern and western music. Characteristically, they involve choppy, hyperactive melodies, built around oriental scales, with a nasal singer. The rhythms sometimes are Latin, and the accompaniment can include trap set, organs, guitars, violins, bongos, traditional sitar and tabla, bamboo flute, and xylophones. Folk musicians and street performers play music that can be traditional folk music, like snake charmers using punjis or a gourd and reed bagpipe, or, it can have a slight western influence, using western instruments and ideas. Generally, all other music is connected with forms of worship. Seemingly, Indian music for worship and popular music doesn’t overlap. Principally, Hindu beliefs disagree with some forms of modern and popular music, especially where western music is concerned.

Daoism, or Taoism, is commonly practiced in China, and usually, if one is not Buddhist, then he is likely to be Taoist. Music in Daoism is said to reflect the pursuit of longevity and noninterference, which are two important principles of the Taoist belief. Melodies are solemn and peaceful, as well as seclusive and serene, as to exaggerate the religious atmosphere. Mostly Taoist music is calming and sets the mood and mindset for worship. Each day there are drum calls for morning and evening rituals. Music that is performed in both the morning and evening ritual is called pure and clear tune. It is performed to accompany recitation of scriptures. Its purpose is to purify the mind in preparation for cultivation of the scriptures. Other than everyday ritual, music is primarily used in Taoist worship for the praise of immortals and gods, praying for the blessing of the gods, releasing purgatory of the departed and practicing ascetics.

Taoist music has undergone much change over the centuries. Music in Daoism was first utilized in the Southern and Northern Dynasties of China (420-589 CE). Original percussion used in worship included an L-shaped musical stone, bells, and drums. By the Five Dynasties period (907-1279 CE), wind and plucked instruments were added to the mix. During the Song Dynasty (960-1279 CE) string music was added to worship. With the Qing Dynasty (1368-1644 CE), Taoist music was standardized by imperial orders. Generally Taoist music today consists of two parts: vocal music and instrumental music. Vocal music can include vocal solos as well as unison singing. Instrumental music includes solo instruments as well as group playing. Both vocal and instrumental music is used as accompaniment to recitations as well as rituals and calls to worship.
Buddhism is the largest religious sect of not only China but a large number of India’s population also practices Buddhism. Music is a large part of Buddhist teaching. In the Amitabha Sutra, nature sings its own melodies and harmonies with the breeze, and heavenly singing and chanting can be heard day and night. Buddhists believe that when one hears these sounds they become mindful of the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha. In Buddhism, sutras are sing as hymns and other songs are sung to praise the virtues of the Buddhas. Seemingly these songs have brought forth and purified many disciples of the Buddha. Buddhist believe that beautiful music will soften people’s hearts and in return, their minds are more receptive and easier to educate and transform. Therefore, music has been brought forth as a type of ceremonial offering made to the Buddha. Also, music is used in various forms for ceremonies including weddings and funerals.

Buddhist music has undergone much development as it spread throughout Asia. From earliest times in India, Buddhist music began to include copper gongs, drums, flutes, conch horns and harps in its ceremonial music. When Buddhism was first introduced in China, focus was mainly on the translation between languages. This hindered the use of traditional hymns of India Buddhism. Consequently, monastics recomposed and adapted folk songs and court songs for royalty to create a Chinese Buddhist musical tradition. Today, traditional Buddhist hymns are performed alongside traditional Chinese music, as well as popular and western types of music like orchestras and small ensembles.
China is the most populous country on the Earth with 1.3 billion people. For most of its history, China has been ruled by dynasties. Music has been regarded as an important part of political life, as it can be used to reflect and influence their ideals on Chinese order. When China came under the Nationalist Party, music was a key component of the reformation of Chinese social and cultural life. Mostly China has a kept a clear line between yayue, which is refined and elegant art music of the court and rituals, and suyue, common entertainment and folk music. Religious music, however, has proponents of each type of music, which makes it a common bond between the two aspects of Chinese music. Generally religious music does not affect the way mainstream music is played and listened to. Rather, the Buddhists and Taoists use influences of modern and mainstream music in their religious practice and rituals to attract and appeal new believers.

Venerable Master Taixu of the Buddhist religion once said “Music gives the people of a society a means by which they can better communicate their moods and feelings with each other…For society to achieve some degree of integration, it is essential to be able to communicate and understand each other’s moods and feelings and as a result establish a sense of unity. This is one of the important functions of music.”
Music today, either in religious or secular settings, undoubtedly influences the way people live their lives in Asia. Many achieve a balance between music of both worlds and, in return, reap the benefits of entertainment and spiritual comforts. Music is an important means by which Indian and Chinese peoples convey thoughts, beliefs, principles and feelings. Master Taixu also said “The capacity of music to capture people’s attention, touch then deeply, and tug at their heartstrings makes it one of the most beautiful forms of human expressions.”