Of Mind, Metaphors & Saint Thyagaraja’s Music

Understanding the human mind is the most challenging problem for the humanity. This is where metaphors come in handy.

How do psychologists describe the unpredictable nature of our mind? The modern psychologist Jonathan Haidt came up with an interesting metaphor of an elephant and a rider. Elephant represents the most incorrigible part of our brain which simply acts instinctively with a preprogrammed setup. That is why our responses are automatic to a variety of situations in life. Most of our emotions like love, compassion, worry, anger, jealousy are all preprogrammed.

Who is the Rider in the metaphor? Rider represents the intellect which is run by the conscious part of the brain.  Most of the emotions like anger are instinctive and unless the conscious part of the brain, the rider, is brought into play there is no way of improving our character.

The Psychologists like Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung (belonging to early 20th century)used the word Unconscious to describe the darker part of our mind which operates on an autopilot mode. Psychotherapy then involves bringing out this Unconscious through a few techniques involving the conscious part of the brain so that the corrections and improvements in one’s character can take place.

While psychologists were struggling to understand the mind, philosophers came up with interesting metaphors as a means to understand the complexity of the mind. For instance, the Greek philosopher Plato, describing the mind, came up with a metaphor of a chariot pulled by two winged-horses – one noble and the other wicked. One can easily imagine and sympathize with the plight of the charioteer. There is no way he can reach his destination.

Vedanta, known as Upanishads, has analyzed the problem of the mind in detail and came up with amazing metaphors. For instance, Kathopanishad came up with a very interesting metaphor to describe the mind (Bhagavadgita also uses a similar metaphor):

Atman or Self is the rider in the chariot,
and the body is the chariot,
Know that the Buddhi (intelligence, ability to reason) is the charioteer,
and Manas (mind) is the reins.The senses are the horses,
The rider, the Self or the Atman is a mere witness. His fate will depend upon how the budhi handles the mind & the senses, represented by horses.

The musical compositions of Tyagaraja, Annamacharya and Dikshitar abound in songs which address this problem of the Unconscious. How do they do it? They use two interesting techniques. In one set of compositions the saints address the Mind directly while in the second set of compostions the composers get into a dialogue with God Himself. In both cases budhi, the intellect, comes into play. The Unconscious, with its petty games, stands completely exposed. There are a number of songs falling into both the categories. In this post, I will present one such composition of Saint Tyagaraja:

In the composition Manasa mana samarthyamemi set to a rare raga Vardhini,  he addresses the Mind thus:

manasA mana sAmarthyamEmi O

vinu sAkEta rAju vishvamanE rathamu nekki tana sAmarthyamucE dAne naDipincenE

alanADu vashiSTAdulu paTTamu gaTTE palukula vini vEgamE bhUSaNamula nosagina kaikanu
palumAru jagambulu kallala nina ravijuni mAya vala vEsi tyAgarAja varaduDu dA canaga lEdA

This is a beautiful piece describing the true nature of the mind. The saint straight away hits the nail on its head. The vacillatory nature of the Mind is completely exposed.

It says: ‘’Oh, Mind, do not take any pride in your abilities. You are utterly powerless as the Lord seated on a chariot called the Universe is driving it with His prowess called Maya”. Maya is that power of the Lord which completely clouds the Mind of even the sanest person in inexplicable ways. The complexity of the Unconscious described by Sigmund Freud or Carl Jung may be likened to Maya and its effects on the mind.

The saint goes on to substantiate the effect of Maya by referring to the story of Ramayana where Kaikeyi becomes a victim of the Lord’s Maya. When the sage Vasishta announces the celebration of coronation of Rama as the King of Ayodhya, Kaikeyi, at first, was all jubiliant like everyone else. However, she made a volte face and rejected the whole proposal. Blinded by jealousy, she demanded that her son should be made the king in the place of Rama. This sort of irrational and bizarre conduct of people in the world can be explained only in the light of the effects of Maya of the Lord which acts as a veil hiding the truth from the minds of people. It prevents the mind from seeing issues in the right perspective and leads us astray. This is why the saint is asking a rhetorical question in the beginning of this composition: Oh, Mind, of what use is your assumed abilities when you are under the cloud of the powerful Maya of the Lord?  By implication, the saint is pointing out the bizarre nature of the mind and the need to surrender one’s mind to the Lord as a means to keep one’s mind under control.

Listen to this beautiful song sung by ML Vasanthakumari



More Light On Options – Examples from Saint Thyagaraja’s Compositions

After the last post on Options, I would like to present here a convincing example of a great saint who demonstrated through his life how silly it is even to think of options. The saint I’m talking about is saint Thyagaraja who composed great songs full of Vedanta.

In this post I’ll dwell on 3 famous compositions of the saint to make my point. His composition, Nidhi chala sukhama’in the Raga Kalyani is a great piece for its melody as well as meaning(Click on the link and Listen to this great song sung by MS). It is full of rhetorical questions giving options to choose from. The context in which the saint composed this song forcefully conveys the message. The Maharaja of Sarabhoji sends word to the saint welcoming him to his court and promising to gift a huge landed property. Thyagaraja just needed to say ‘yes’ to get rid of his poverty. Anybody else in his place would have accepted the offer as it was quite common, in those days, for men talented in arts and poetry to serve in the courts of the kings and earn their livelihood . But what did Thyagaraja do? He replied to the king with this song in Kalyani. Let us see the meaning and message of this composition: In this composition the saint is addressing the mind to set up an inquiry into the question of priorities in one’s life. He says: Oh, mind, Pray tell what gives more happiness – wealth or the closeness to Rama? The saint, in the next few lines, puts similar rhetorical questions the answers to which are self-evident. The questions are: Which is more delicious – milk, butter , curd etc or the nectar-like worship of the Lord Rama. The next two questions are even more direct in answering the King’s invitation:
If one is given a choice between the river Ganges versus a small well for taking bath, which one would one choose? Obviously the former. The saint goes on to compare the bath in Ganges to disciplined efforts like sense-control and forbearance(SHAMA & DAMA in Sanskrit). Forbearance is a special quality which equips one to show tolerance or restraint in the face of provocation. Obviously these 2 qualities are spoken of highly in our scriptures as indicators of one’s mental purity. That is, while the bath in the Ganges cleans the body thoroughly, the qualities like Shama and Dama clean the Mind. Just as taking bath in a narrow and dirty well would dirty the body, filling up the senses with gossip and small talk would dirty the mind.
Finally, the saint is posing an even more daring comparison which effectively answers the King’s(Sarabhoji Mharaja’s)invitation to join his court: Which gives one happiness and bliss? Flattery of conceited and egotistical men or the praise of the Lord Rama as sung by Thyagaraja?
The saint’s priorities in life were made very clear. He preferred the freedom he was enjoying through the worship of the Lord composing devotional songs over the prospect of gaining huge landed property. He knew that pursuing Artha or wealth would completely deprive him of the freedom and devotional bliss.

In another composition – VARAALANDUKOMMANI – he tells Rama: Do not tempt me offering boons. My only aim in life is to compose songs praising your glory.

The third composition I have in mind is – oka mata oka baanamu. This impressively highlights Rama’s steadfastness in pursuing goals without a wavering mind. The saint uses the word OKA four times in the composition – OKA maata, OKA baanamu, OKA patni, OKA chittamu. OKA in Telugu means One(and only one). The song depicts the character of Rama as one saying one word and sticking to it, using one arrow which sticks to its path and its target, committed to the vow of monogamy and a decisive mind.

I’m sure one can find several examples of great people in history, who had one focus in life and went about achieving their goals with a clear and steadfast mind.

Published in: on November 1, 2014 at 3:00 pm  Comments Off on More Light On Options – Examples from Saint Thyagaraja’s Compositions  
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Different Facets of Mukhari Raga

As many carnatic music lovers would know, the Raga Mukhari is associated SOKA RASA or sorrow. It’s in fact common among South Indian parents to plead with cranky children not to start off in Mukhari! But is this impression about the Raga true? Not completely. The same Raga in the hands of a creative composer can completely change its nature of  emotional expression. Let us see how.

At the outset I will give an example of a well-known old Tamil song from the film NANDANAR.  Listen to this link for the song composed by Gopalakrishnabharathi in the film.(please note that when you click on the youtube link you will see an ad – either you click on ‘skip’ or wait for the ad to be over to listen to the song).

I’m sure you will agree that the song clearly portrays a sense of Anger, which is appropriate to the particular context of the song in the film. I have taken this example to show how a composer can completely change the emotion expressed by creative handling of a piece. In this song, the change is brought about by simply singing in fast tempo. Technically savvy people would also notice that the change in emotion in this song is further enhanced by setting the “tessitura” of the song between the upper half of the middle octave and the lower half of the upper octave, that is, by maintaining a narrow range in octave. (Tessitura is a technical term which denotes the most predominant range used in a song. I think the term is Italian in origin).

Let us now turn to some examples of  compositions of the saint Thyagaraja. The saint brilliantly brought out different Rasas (or emotions) in different compositions in the same Raga by deft handling of swaras (notes) and shifting emphasis to certain phrases. Here are a couple of examples:

Listen to this link for the song ‘Sangita Sastra Gnanamu’ rendered by the artist Sowmya. It’s a great composition in terms of its aesthetic beauty. Don’t you think that the feeling of pathos, which is typical of Mukhari is greatly diluted? I would think so. How is it done? By choosing the note Rishabha as the Graha swara and giving prominence to certain phrases. Tempo of the song also matters. (Graha swara is the note with which a piece starts;  This song starts with the notes RMPND…).

The song Sarasiruhanana starts with the note Panchama as the Graha swara and has a different flavour altogether generating relatively more of the feeling of sympathy. Finally, the song Muripemu rendered by MS in this link is perhaps a typical Mukhari song expressing sorrow as the predominant emotion.


PS: Prof P.Sambahamurthy, in his rare publication on Great composers, has dealt with several subtle aspects of compositions of Thyagaraja. The book is a great read for carnatic music lovers. Some of the examples in this post are taken from this book.

Published in: on June 14, 2014 at 9:22 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Saint Thyagaraja in Conversation with Rama

It is not unusual for saints to get into a conversation with God. Hindu scriptures, especially Tamil Azhwars, excelled in this. One can find many examples of such conversations in the rich musical compositions of the saint Thyagaraja. In this post, I will briefly discuss one such composition.

Last week, I happened to listen to a great composition sung by the all-time great musician Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer! The title of the song is MARUBALKA KUNNAVEMIRA……..set in the beautiful Raga Sriranjani.

What an experience it was! It is difficult to describe such an experience in a blog like this. If I still chose to write about it, it is only because I felt I should try to make a genuine effort to share the experience with others.

First of all, let me try to capture the mood of the composition as per my  understanding. The saint is demanding to know why the Lord is NOT responding to his pleas. Why is the saint demanding His grace? Obviously because he knows he has done all the right things to deserve His blessings. The saint in fact questions: Have I done anything wrong? Have I sung in praise of the dishonest & the mean people? I have been consistently worshipping you and you alone. I have also realized that you exist everywhere far & near including in my lotus heart.

And finally, in the last line the saint says: O, Rama, in fact, I am overjoyed by the fact that I have discovered THE RIGHT PATH! And yet, you are silent and not blessing me with Your grace!

This aggressive or demanding stance taken by the saint might make one wonder whether there is any place for anger in the context of Bhakti. However, this is perfectly in line with what is stated in NARADA BHAKTI SUTRAS. The Sutra#65 says: Tadarpitakhilaachaarah san kaama-krodha-abhimaana-adikam tasminneva karaneeyam.

Translation: Having  once surrendered all his acts to God, he should feel desire, anger, and pride only with regard to Him.

The musical composition has to be viewed in that perspective.

Now, listen to Semmangudi’s brilliant rendering of the song at this link. Do NOT miss the Part2 of the song at the second link. The kalpana swaras after the NERAVAL are one of the rarest gems of music I ever heard!

The vocal maestro brings out the saint’s agony and ecstasy quite effectively. The agony is expressed in the first line where the saint wants to know the reason for the Lord’s silence. The ecstasy is brought out in the last line where the saint shows  excitement, having discovered THE RIGHT PATH! The brilliant NERAVAL was done  at the most appropriate place where the saint expresses his EUREKA moment, that is, at DAARI NERIGI SANTASILLINATTI THYAGARAJANUTA…, meaning that  ‘I have found THE PATH and am thrilled about it’. The brisk pace in which the entire NERAVAL & KALPANA SWARAS were rendered aptly captures the saint’s excitement at having found THE PATH!

Both Lalgudi Jayaraman on the violin and Trichy Sankaran on the Mridangam gave equally stunning performances and it was indeed a triple treat! And if you add to that the beauty of the composition and its meaning, the delight gets mutiplied several fold.

Published in: on July 6, 2013 at 11:30 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Four Stages of Evolution through Rama Naama Japa – Insights from Saint Thyagaraja

Hindu religion is perhaps the only religion which recommends NAAMA JAPA or NAAMA SANKEERTHANAM (Chanting the Lord’s name repeatedly) as an important spiritual practice. I tried to explore this subject further with Saint Tyagaraja’s musical compositions. Here are my thoughts based on my limited reading:

As I was browsing through various compositions on Rama Naama,  it occurred to me that there are 4 stages of evolution that the saint brings out through his songs on Rama Naama. The first level is typically of the ignorant masses, who keep chanting without any understanding whatsoever. This level of awareness is highlighted in the song JNANA MOSAGARADA….NEE NAAMAMU CHE NAA MADI NIRMALA MAINADI…  Here the saint is stating that chanting the NAAMA would purify one’s mind, which is the most fundamental requisite for a spiritual seeker.

The second level of consciousness deals with the importance of intellectually understanding and assimilating the meanings and significance of the Lord’s Name. This aspect is largely covered in the well-known song TELISI RAMA CHINTANOTO…., which I discussed in my post about a month back.

And the third level is indeed quite interesting and that is what I am going to write about in this post.

In the famous song SUKHI YEVARO RAMANAMA SUKHI YEVARO …..SATYAMU TAPPAKA….DAIVA BHEDAMULEKA…. set in the Raga KANADA and the song BHAKTUNI CHARITRAMU…. in the raga BEGADA, the saint drives home an important message to the people who routinely do Naama japa. The saint gives a list of Don’ts for those who practice this japa. Later on I came to know from a RamakrishnaMutt Publication (A book written by Shri Raghavan) that the inspiration for these compositions (or songs) comes straight from Padmapurana. Padmapurana categorically lists 10 sins that a japa doer should avoid, if he has to benefit from Naama Japa. If one goes through the list, one will find a close resemblance to Ten Commandments, the biblical laws on ethical living.(Of course, Padmapurana is more ancient than Bible).

The point I am trying to drive at is that our scriptures do NOT  make a prescription to be followed blindly. For instance, it doesn’t say that all will be well if one keeps repeating the Lord’s name. It has to be done with understanding of its significance as one evolves. More importantly, our scriptures are laying down  certain fundamental moral & ethical principles which the practitioners of Japa have to abide by, if they have to benefit from chanting the Lord’s name.  All the principles listed are important. However, I particularly like the one dealing with the sin of differentiating between religious faiths (or castes).

I would think the code of conduct is more important than even the Naama Japa. The strict adherence to the code itself would purify one’s mind and prepare him for spirituality.

In fact the saint goes one step further than Padmapurana with regard to the merits of Naama Japa. According to the saint, Naama Japa will ultimately lead one to experience Advaita  where the Bhakta becomes one with the Lord whose name he is chanting! This comes out clearly in the song …..ENDUKU PEDDALAVALE BUDHI IYAVU…BHEDA RAHITA VEDANTAMUNU TELISI (Raga Sankarabharanam) and NIKE DAYA RAAKA…. NENU NEEVANU JNANI….set in the Raga Nilambari………..   Note the expressions BHEDA RAHITA VEDANTAMUNU & NENU NEEVANU JNANI, which essentially point to the saint’s belief in the Advaita philosophy.

Indeed this 4th stage of evolution where the devotee & the Lord become one is the ultimate liberation!

Published in: on May 26, 2013 at 8:14 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Saint Thyagaraja & Azhwars – One Minor Point of Difference

It is quite common to draw parallels between Saint Thyagaraja & Tamil Azhvars. Both excelled in Bhakti as the underlying theme in all that they said or did. Recently, however, I discovered a minor point of difference between the two as I listened to one very well-known kriti of Thyagaraja – TELISI RAMA CHINTANATO.  We should first see what the kriti is about to appreciate what I am going to say. To me this kriti is all about awareness, awareness & awareness! That is why it starts with the word ‘Telisi’, which, in Telugu means ‘being aware’. While repeatedly advocating ‘Rama chintana’ (or meditation on Rama), the saint is saying – BECOME AWARE of what it means, what it implies and what it can do to the person who meditates on the name. Then the saint sarcastically points out that Rama also means a beautiful woman and asks if a person chanting the divine name keeps thinking of a beautiful woman will it yield any result? Not at all. In the next line the saint goes on to elaborate that Rama is another name for the ultimate Truth itself (PARABRAHMAN).

Sanskrit is an interesting language.The word ‘Arka’ in sanskrit has 2 meanings – one is a poisonous tree and the other is Sun. Using this word, the saint hammers down the same message and says that if one were to think of a poisonous tree and not the sun while uttering the word Arka, how can one’s ignorance vanish? Continuing in the same vein, the saint points out that the word Aja in Sanskrit means a goat as well as Brahma. The choice is yours whether you want to think of Brahma or a goat while chanting the word.

In contrast to this, my understanding of Azhwars is that although they did stress the need to combine Bhakti with Jnana, they made allowance for the utterly ignorant masses, perhaps out of compassion. They reasoned that even if a person unknowingly, unwittingly, and by mere coincidence calls out the Lord’s name without any idea of what it means, merit would accrue to the individual. It will be considered not only auspicious but would yield beneficial results!

Now listen to this great song at the link  rendered by TN Seshagopalan.

Published in: on March 30, 2013 at 7:53 pm  Comments (1)  
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Rama Naama Vaibhavam – Saint Thyagaraja’s Musical Insights (Part2)

The great philosopher, J Krishnamoorthy, famously said: Word is NOT the thing – the description is NOT the described. JK is basically nudging us to enjoy the essence of a word and not get hooked on to the word. This message of JK is profound in its own way in the context in which he said it ( I am not going to elaborate this further here).  However, our saints emphasized just the opposite when it came to the significance of  the Lord’s name. They maintained that His name or NAAMA is greater than the Lord Himself. Alwars also echoed the same sentiment when they said: The NAAMA is greater than the NAAMI (meaning the Lord). Saint Thyagaraja was equally passionate in bringing out this message in his own inimitable style in his famous song in the raaga BILAHARI – Naa Jeevaadharama…..(You can click on the link and listen to the Raga and the kriti sung by the great maestro Maharajapuram Santanam).

The kriti starts off in great tempo and waxes eloquent on the greatness of the Lord Srirama. A simple translation of this composition goes somewhat like this: Aren’t You the very source of  my life and the fruits of my Tapas? You are the brilliance in my sight and the source of fragrance of my nose. . and isn’t your human form the embodiment of the letters of the name that I chant. And you are the flower of my worship.

The key line in this composition is the 3rd line of the charanam: “Na Japa Varna Rupama”. A simple translation of this is:  Are you the form emerging out of  the letters constituting my Rama ‘japa’?

What a profound and significant statement this is! The more one thinks about it, the more one understands the different dimensions of  the saint’s thought processes. Let us explore this statement further.  How could a form emerge out of the letters? Isn’t it counter intuitive? It may sound so, but in matters of spirituality one has to use the heart and not the Mind to understand the significance of the words used by the saints. We will get an insight if we consider the limitations of  the form as against the Rama Japa. Look at the form. Doesn’t the form, being physical, limit the attributes and characteristics of the person described? Evidently, it does. On the other hand, Rama Naama can conjure up unlimited or infinite visions of the person or the entity described. For instance, the moment a discerning devotee utters the word Rama, he is reminded at once of all the glories and great attributes of the person described – the attributes ranging from truthfulness,virtuousness, righteousness, knowledge, prowess, firm resolve etc . Each attribute will inspire a certain image and vision in the mind of the devotee. Therefore, a limiting physical form of the Lord can never capture his limitless or infinite attributes.

Put differently, the word RAMA may be considered as the bridge connecting the NIRGUNA BRAHMAN and the SAGUNA BRAHMAN. Without this bridge, the form of the SAGUNA BRAHMAN will not have much significance. In that sense the bridge (NAAMA) is greater than the NAAMI.

Published in: on December 2, 2012 at 3:39 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Rama Naama Vaibhavam – Saint Thyagaraja’s Musical Insights

In the next few posts, I will make an effort to highlight several interesting compositions of Saint Thyagaraja, which give a peek into the saint’s philosophical insights.

My first topic for discussion will be NAMA MAHATMYAM  as elaborated by Thyagaraja through his ‘kritis’. There are at least 15 compositions by the saint on this topic alone. In this post I will discuss one such composition of the saint.

What’s in a name? This was the famous question posed in the Shakespearean Play ROMEO AND JULIET. A fitting answer to this can come only from the Hindu religious scriptures. For Hindus, Name is everything. That is because in the Sanskrit language words are built on the basis of root words known as ‘dhatus’ with specific meanings. Vishnu Sahasranamam explains the concept of NAMA beautifully saying ‘YAANI NAAMANI GAUNANI’, meaning names are based on ‘Gunas’ and denote the characteristics of the person described.

As we know, Thyagaraja is a devotee of the Lord Rama and  therefore Rama NAMA is the subject of several of his ‘kritis’. In this post, I will discuss a well- known ‘kriti’ which gives the essence of ‘Rama Nama’. It is EVARANI NIRNAINTURA….. in the Raga Devamritavarshini. In this composition the saint has elevated Rama beyond Narayana & Shiva. Perhaps a better way of putting this would be that RAMA is depicted as the synthesis of the two Gods NARAYANA & SHIVA.

The ‘kriti’ starts with a question: How will you decide or figure out the essence of Sri Rama? Will you equate Him to Shiva or to Narayana? He answers saying that the two letters of the name Rama are derived from two ‘seed letters’ (Bijaksharas) – RA from OM NAMO NARAYANAYA & MA from OM NAMAH SHIVAYA. He elaborates saying RA is the ‘Jeevam’ or life for the Ashtakshara Mantra OM NAMO NARAYANAYA while MA is the ‘Jeevam’ or the very life for the Panchakshara Mantra OM NAMAH SHIVAYA. Thus Rama is the ultimate  ‘Parabrahman’ combining the essence of both the deities Narayana & Shiva. This point needs further explanation. Before I do so, listen to this beautiful  song sung by the great musician KV Narayana samy @ the following link


If you carefully listen to ‘charanam’, it gives the essence of the RAMA NAMA as already explained above. ‘Charanam says: SIVA MANTRAMUNAKU MA JEEVAMU, MADHAVA MANTRAMUNAKU RA JEEVAMU.

Now let us see how RA is the jeevam or the life of the Mantra OM NAMO NARAYANAYA. To understand how, let us remove the letter RA from the above Mantra . It will read as  NA AYANAYA, which gives a meaning just the opposite of the word NARAYANAYA. That is – NOT A PLACE OF REFUGE FOR THE ASPIRANT. Similarly, if you remove the letter MA from the Mantra OM NAMAH SHIVAYA, it will read as NA SHIVAYA. Clearly this also negates the very meaning of the MANTRA. That is, it would mean NOT FOR GOOD.

One could derive one more significance to this composition. There seems to be a subtle attempt here to bring about a spirit of unity between the  Shaivites & Vaishnavites!

The song is befittingly sung in the Raga DEVAMRITA VARSHINI, which literally means ‘Devas raining nectar’. The tune of the song is delightful to listen to, the meanings are sublime and they  are conveyed in very simple words in just 6 lines.

NOTE: This interpretation of the letters of  RAMA by the saint Thaygaraja is taken straight from the Upanishad, titled – RAMA RAHASYOPANISHAD.

Published in: on November 9, 2012 at 2:26 pm  Leave a Comment  
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