Bhajan: Hindu Devotional Music

Disciples of Lord Krishna singing Bhajans at an ISKCON temple
Disciples of Lord Krishna singing Bhajans at an ISKCON temple. Getty Images

Music to human ears is heavenly. And if it's purely devotional, it's truly divine. Such a genre of music is the bhajan. Nothing is more deeply rooted in the Indian tradition than bhajans--simple songs in soulful language expressing love for God, a complete submission or self-surrender to him through singing.

History and Origin of Bhajans

The groundwork for bhajans was laid in the hymns found in Sama Veda, the fourth Veda in the Hindu scriptures.

They are distinguished from the Sanskrit shlokas (hymns that accompany religious rituals) by virtue of their easy lilting flow, the colloquial renderings and the profound appeal to the masses. They are sung in a group of devotees following a lead singer and the fixed tunes and repetition of words and phrases lend a kind of tonal mesmerism. Anecdotes, episodes from the lives of Gods, preaching of gurus and saints, and description of God's glories have been the subject of many bhajans. Another form of the bhajan is the kirtan, or songs in the Haridas tradition.

Different Genres of Bhajans

A plunge into the past reveals that the bhajans genre has adapted greatly as it built of home for itself in the human heart. Various traditions of bhajan- singing have been formed over the ages, including Nirguni, Gorakhanathi, Vallabhapanthi, Ashtachhap, Madhura-bhakti. Each sect has their own set of bhajans and their own way of singing them.

Champions of the Bhajan Tradition 

The medieval age saw devotees like Tulsidas, Surdas, Mira Bai, Kabir, and others composing Bhajans. In the modern times, composers like Pt. V. D. Paluskar and Pt. V. N. Bhatkhande have tried to mingle bhajans with Raga Sangeet or Indian classical music – formerly the exclusive domain of the elite – thereby democratizing the Raga tradition.

Popularity With the Popular Masses

The appeal of bhajan-singing for the people may be because these traditional methods of invoking the divine can have tremendous stress-removing benefits. Bhajan mandalis (a gathering to sing bhajans) have been in existence in the Indian villages since the beginning of the Bhakti era, and are a great social leveler in which people set their petty differences aside as they unhesitatingly participate in the singing. Such participatory action is recreational and leads to a kind of mental relaxation. Participants close their eyes to ensure that they concentrate and thereby meditate on this near ecstasy. The words, tunes, rhythms and the typical repetitive style of the bhajans give a certain sense of permanency that is known as shashwat (freedom from the state of flux).

Are Bhajans an Expression of Fundamentalism?

Those worried about the spread of religious fundamentalism often aim their attacks at any religious devotional gathering as a target for criticism, even such simple expressions as the singing of bhajans or other popular devotional songs of the masses. However, to suspect that this trend of devotional singing may be in any way related to the spread of fundamentalism is distorted thinking, as Bhajans are not remotely propagandist in nature.

 

It is only when religion breeds the desire to dictate mass feelings and direct it to a preconceived end that it becomes fundamentalist, bringing communalism and destruction in its wake. Singing a bhajan or a 'qawwali' is a cultural expression without a political aim of any kind, and it is a mistake to equate them with fundamentalist aims.