Music & the Divine: When Tansen Came Out Second Best
Read in Hindi: तानसेन
Sadhguru: Music, which is an arrangement of sounds, can be a very useful tool for many people if it is structured and played in a certain way, and if it is approached in a certain way. There are many stories and legends in India about various musicians. One musician who became particularly famous was Tansen. Tansen's guru was Haridas, which means “slave of the Divine.” Haridas produced many musicians of a high caliber, but only Tansen was famous because he was willing to sing for the king; all the other disciples refused to sing for anyone except the Divine. Haridas taught music in such a way that it was only for the Divine. If someone were to overhear it, that was their blessing, but it was never performed for an audience, even a king or a court. Many times, when these musicians refused to sing, their throats were opened because crude people thought the music was hiding there.
Tansen compromised his guru’s ethic and his own consciousness in a way. One day, Tansen’s patron, Akbar, wanted to give him a title; he appreciated his skill greatly and said, “You are the greatest musician on the planet. There is no other like you.” But Tansen replied, “No my lord, I cannot accept this title because there are others who are far better than me.” Akbar said, “What?! There is somebody better than you and they are not in my court? Where are they?” A powerful emperor's court meant the greatest wealth, the most beautiful women and the most brilliant men. That is the king's desire. There used to be a practice for many centuries in India, where if a young girl of 12 or 13 was extremely beautiful, her parents would disfigure her or give her some blemish. Otherwise, the king would take her away.
So, when Tansen said, “There are better musicians than me, far better than me,” this piqued Akbar. “Who are they?” he asked. Tansen answered, “There are two sisters who are way above me.” So Akbar sent these girls an invitation. When a king sends an invitation, you either go or you hang; that is the kind of invitation it is. His messengers went to the home of these girls with a palanquin and offered all kinds of clothes and gifts to the family.
When the girls saw this, they realized they would have no option but to accept the invitation. So, they told the messengers, “We cannot travel right now, so please wait for three days.” While the retinue waited, the girls went into a magical display of music that could be overheard outside the house. And on the third day, when they were supposed to go to the king, they just died. People thought they consumed poison or jumped into a well. It could be, but looking at the way it has been described, they most probably left their bodies. It is very much possible that just with the utterance of sound, one can leave the body. I have witnessed people, by simply uttering “Shambho” they left. Any number of people have left in the tradition like this.
When this news went back to Akbar, he was very disturbed, “They could have come to my court. I would have treated them like queens. I would have given them anything they wanted. Why would they give up their lives?” Birbal replied, “For them, music is an offering to the Divine. Their life is not important. The wealth that you can offer is not important, nor is the court and the status. For them, mastery of sound and what it touches are the only two things; they know the highest pleasure. The best will never come to your court, my lord, because they will not settle for your court.”
Tansen, who was in Akbar's court, had such mastery, if he did the rain raga, rain would happen. They say he would do the fire raga and focus his mind upon the lamp and light it up. So, he was a master, but he said, “I am nothing” because those who refused to come to the court were way beyond this.
If you get the right equation in terms of the multiple forms of existence and the multiple sounds that the human voice can generate, you can bypass creation and touch the source of creation. So, music has been a powerful tool for one’s sadhana towards touching the Divine.
Editor’s Note: Yaksha, a 3-day festival of music and dance, is celebrated every year at the Isha Yoga Center. It features live classical music concerts by musicians from across the country. Catch the live webstream of this year’s celebration.