I was recently asked to join with faith leaders from many religions for a panel discussion about music. The questions we were to address included “How is music used in your religion?”, “How is music changing?” and “What is the impact of those changes?” The conversation about tradition, pop culture invasion, and future relevance is not unique to the Sikhs. Although pop music has become standard fare in many churches, there are many who lament the new vacant music and carry an older memory of music with more “soul”.  This is the presentation I prepared:

How is music used in the Sikh religion? It’s an interesting question and could lead to a long discourse on Sikh philosophy, but to summarize, music is not used in the Sikh religion, music is the Sikh religion.

Most people in America don’t know much about the Sikh religion, so I’ll start by giving a little background information. What we now call the “Sikh religion” was founded by Guru Nanak, who lived from 1469 to 1539. He was born into a Hindu family in what is now Pakistan. Muslim invasions had begun in South Asia and there was a diverse mixture of various sects of  Hindus, yogis, Buddhists and ascetics, as well as Sunnis, Shiites and Sufis. In the feudal system of the time, Guru Nanak’s village was under the control of a Muslim landowner. As a child he learned Persian as well as Sanskrit. Guru Nanak was a precocious child who questioned authority and resisted meaningless rituals, unjust rules and ignorant superstitions. His parents held high hopes for this bright child, but as he got older they became concerned about his lack of motivation in education and business. He preferred the company of the many wandering holy men who would come through town. Eventually his parents secured for him a wife and a job and hoped he would settle down, which he did for awhile. Every morning he would rise early, bathe in the river and spend hours in meditation.  One day he didn’t come home. He had been missing for three days when he reappeared reciting “There is no Hindu, There is no Muslim.” He became recognized as a spiritual teacher and his mode of teaching was singing. Instead of preaching sermons, he sang beautiful mystical poetry, accompanied by his friend who played the rabāb, a stringed instrument. This is a song from Guru Nanak, sung by Bhai Avtar Singh Ragi:


Eventually Guru Nanak went travelling throughout the Indian subcontinent and wandered as far north as Tibet and China,  and west to Kabul, Baghdad, and Tehran. Wherever he went he sang. He wrote his poetry in a small book and also collected songs on his travels. The songs he collected were from other mystics like himself who used devotional music as the medium for spiritual experience. He collected the songs of Hindus, Sufis and yogis who in their own way had realized the unity of God, the brotherhood/sisterhood of humanity, and the virtues of reciting God’s name (regardless of which name that was). He collected the songs of like-minded holy men who also rejected religious values based on outward rituals and practices, recognizing instead that the inner journey and the transformation of mind and heart alone has value. This is a song from Bhagat Nam Dev, a Hindu mystic, sung by Bhai Avtar Singh Ragi:


When Guru Nanak grew old and was preparing to make the transition from this human life, he passed on his authority as Guru as well as his song book to his successor, who added his own songs. This happened four more times. The fifth Guru took this growing collection, added hundreds of his own songs and compiled it into one volume. The sixth, seventh, eighth and ninth Gurus did not change the book. Continuing in the tradition of Guru Nanak, the subsequent Gurus sang and hired musicians to sing the collection of songs in the darbār, the Guru’s court. The congregation would meditate or sing along. The tenth Guru added a few poems of his father, the ninth Guru, and then proclaimed that there would no longer be a human figure as the Guru. The Guru would now be the collection of songs. The book was renamed Siri Guru Granth Sāhib, which means Respected Great Guru Book.  To this day, when the Sikhs gather to worship, the book of songs presides in the darbār, while musicians lead the congregation in singing. This is the worship service. Some rituals of prayers and recitations have evolved over the years,  but most of the worship is the singing of songs from the Siri Guru Granth Sāhib.

Historically there was a tradition for how the songs would be sung. Although musical notation is not given in the book, the rāga, or musical mode, is given. India is a land rich in oral tradition and most of the ancient music was passed this way from generation to generation. I have had the privilege of learning many of the songs of the Sikh Gurus from a family who has passed the memory for thirteen generations, since the 16th century. Here is a song known to have come from the fourth Guru, Guru Ram Das, sung by Bhai Avtar Singh Ragi, the eleventh generation tradition bearer:


Indian music evolved over thousands of years. Just as verbal languages evolved differently in different regions,  different musical languages evolved throughout the world. Indian music took a unique path. Just as languages reflect the world view, the unique thought processes of a culture, even in the structure, the way words are put together, the language of music also reflects a people’s beliefs and values. Indian music had two separate paths of evolution: desi sangeet, the music of the people, and mārgi sangeet, the music of the path. Desi sangeet is folk music and light classical music, music for entertainment, concerts, festivals, for life’s celebrations. Mārgi sangeet is music for worship and meditation. It evolved in the temples and the musicians were people who spent their lives in devotional practice. Music for outdoor festivals and crowds needs a certain kind of instrument, music for entertaining wealthy patrons needs another. In the more intimate setting of the temple a different kind of music and different kinds of instruments evolved. Over the centuries practitioners discovered the sounds that carry the singer and listener into the state of meditation, sounds that sustain the peace and tranquility that is found there, or sounds that adequately describe the joy of that experience to others. Combinations of notes were revealed that describe the full spectrum of emotions experienced by the devotee as they walk the path. Deep weeping for the Lord, lamenting the sorry state of the human condition, longing for a glimpse of the face of the beloved, for union with the husband Lord, feelings of awe, wonder and amazement at the greatness of the Creator Lord, sounds of praise and adulation, or sounds of humble offering, sacrifice and surrender, peaceful reflection, immersion in the presence, and sounds of joy, celebration and delight. These emotions are different from titillating songs of romantic love, flattering songs of a patron’s feats sung in a nobleman’s court, songs for dancing in the village for a harvest festival,  songs of patriotism and national pride or songs to show off the wizardry of an amazing musician. There is a reason that the mārgi sangeet and the desi sangeet maintained a certain separation.

The Sikh Gurus sang in the tradition of the mārgi sangeet. There are four legs of Sikh kirtan: raga– melody, tala– rhythm, bani– lyrics, and chit– focus and intent. The spiritual experience comes when there is a symbiosis of all of these elements and the performer and listener are immersed in the sound meditation. Here is a song sung by Bhai Avtar Singh that brings all these elements together to convey deep weeping of the heart, “He truly weeps who weeps in Lord’s love”, :


In the 20th century, Indian music and Sikh music began to change. As Indians moved around the world they became immersed in other cultures and shared their culture with their new neighbors. People like me who were from other cultures were inspired by the universal message of Guru Nanak and began practicing the faith. In India, a new democracy meant an end to the feudal system where the wealthy patronized the arts and with advances in technology, recorded music and radio brought more music to more people. The marketplace made the public the new patron. The Bollywood explosion set the standard for musical performance. The musical tastes of the public have been influenced by a new global media culture and this has influenced devotional music in India and for the Sikhs. Popular musicians and Bollywood used to take inspiration from the great musicians in the temples. Now the musicians in the temples are taking their inspiration from Bollywood. (There is a similar trend here in America. Gospel music used to be the inspiration for a lot of top 40 hits, now gospel music copies the top 40 hits.) With the electronic age, blaring speakers broadcast music from the temples throughout the neighborhoods. The instruments have changed from the resonance of stringed instruments to the louder, more portable harmonium, which is a small pump organ. The melodies are often borrowed from pop songs or Bollywood film music.

A renaissance is gaining momentum now and many of the younger generation have become interested in seeking out the old music. There are several websites with archive recordings and there are camps and workshops where the old music can be learned. Several western universities have added Sikh Studies departments where research and documentation on the musical traditions is taking place.  Interestingly, a lot of the enthusiasm is coming from a new generation of Americans and Europeans of Indian descent who want to know more about their heritage, while in India many young people are enamored with the west and are abandoning their own traditions for McDonalds, MTV and iTunes.

However, also in the west there are people who have not been brought up in Indian culture for whom western music is the more natural means of expression. Inspired by Indian instruments and sounds, there is some interesting fusion music emerging. For the Sikhs, there are westerners who have added yoga to the traditional Sikh practices and chanting and mantra meditation have become popular. The chant genre is a successful trend in the recording market and there are several Sikh artists who are producing new chant music based on the old songs. This is Snatam Kaur, a popular American chant artist:


In the US and Europe guitars, mandolins, and other western instruments can be found in the gurdwaras of western Sikhs and in addition to the old songs in the original language, translations are sung and some talented songwriters have composed ballads and other types of devotional music to convey Sikh history and the message of the Gurus in the local language. A well-known anthem is sung here by the composer, Livtar Singh Khalsa:


The music of the Sikh Gurus survived centuries of hard times– the brutal persecution of fanatic Muslim invaders, the manipulation of British Imperial overlords and the tragedy of partition (the Sikhs were betrayed when their homeland was divided to create the new country of Pakistan, creating a cultural schism, and millions of Sikhs died when they had to flee into the new India). It is yet to be seen if the music will survive easier times, the comforts of freedom, tolerance and prosperity in this new age of democracy and globalization.

A family home usually gets remodeled to suit the needs of a new generation. Sometimes a family fails to recognize the value of the old structure and destroys valuable architectural elements in the name of modernization. Some walls are better to remove, to move past needless restrictions, expand the space, bring in the light. It’s important to know which walls are the load-bearing walls that support the integrity of the structure and protect the life within.

These questions are worth considering in a discussion of changes in the musical landscape and the impact of those changes:

How will people come to love the old music if they never hear it? Can old music compete with the airwaves?

Is the spiritual experience that was evoked by the music for the people of old available to people now? Is the music relevant to the modern listener?

How do we welcome the expression of a new generation and a global society while inspiring in them a respect for what has come before? How do we raise the next generation of listeners?

Do devotional people need to adopt popular trends to stay relevant? Should devotional music change to appeal to what people are already comfortable with or should devotional music provide a different kind of education? Do people need more of what they already have or do they need something else? Just because something is popular does it mean it is good?

What are the emotions, the intent of popular music? What is the intent of devotional music? Can the same music fulfill both intentions?

What is required for the craftmanship of devotional music? What is the state of the composer, the performer, the listener? What about the instruments and the instrument makers?

Just because something is old or traditional does that make it good? Guru Nanak challenged the status quo, are there elements of the status quo that need to be challenged now? What are the load-bearing walls that must remain?