by David Courtney working tools

There is a ubiquitous statement about the history of Indian Music.  One constantly hears that "classical Indian music is derived from the Vedas".  Although no one can say that this statement is false, it is deceptively simplistic.  When discussing Vedic contributions to contemporary music, there are three things that should be kept in mind.

  1. There is not the least shred of evidence to support the belief that contemporary Indian music is derived from the Vedas.
  2. It is inconceivable that there is no Vedic contribution to contemporary Indian classical music.
  3. The commonly held model as to the nature of the Vedic connection is simplistic, incomplete, and fundamentally flawed.

Let us look at these points in greater detail.


Lack of Evidence

It is important to remember the old adage, "Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence".  It turns out that we cannot reasonably expect to find any clear evidence.  Let us quickly look at some of the possible sources of evidence and see why things start to break down.


Internal Musical characteristics - One of the first places to look for evidence is in the music itself.  However, this allows us to push things back only to a limited degree.

The situation is very analogous to owning a pair of socks.  Let us say that we have a pair of white socks.  As it wears out, we patch it with black thread.  After some period we have no white thread left.  At that point, there is no objective way to tell that there was ever any black thread at all.

This analogy is very similar to trying to ascertain musical influences by examining contemporary musical practice.  Music is constantly changing.  We need only look at how music styles have changed just within our own lifetime.  If we consider the change in music over longer periods, we quickly reach a point where there is nothing recognisable.

In a sense, this creates a "musical horizon" beyond which we cannot expect to penetrate.  There is considerable debate as to how long back this musical horizon extends, yet it is clear that it does not allow us to look back to the Vedic period.  Therefore, we cannot expect to find any unambiguous Vedic influence in any contemporary musical practice.


Literary Evidence - It turns out that literary evidence gives a better look at the musical cultures of antiquity.  These are frozen in time and not subject to change.  Although there are obvious difficulties when comparing written discussions with the actual musical practice, it is clear that the ability of literary discussions to extend our picture into the past is a very powerful tool.

It is fortunate that the Vedas, especially the Samaveda, are basically hymn books.  Therefore, elements of the Vedic musical system are expressed both implicitly as well as explicitly within them.  Furthermore, we are fortunate that India gives us the oldest surviving text on music and stagecraft in the world (i.e. The Natya Shastra).

Although there are very good musical texts which go back to the earliest periods, there are just not enough of them to provide a link to contemporary practice.  There is a geographical and temporal gulf which separates many of these texts.  Within the last millennium things are pretty clear.  In the millennium before that, the texts become fewer, but we are still able to interpolate what was happening in the intervening periods.  But as we approach the Vedic period, our ability to interpolate and connect the few surviving texts becomes almost impossible.  The inability to bridge the gaps between the Vedic texts and many post-Vedic texts is significant.  We are unable to establish any clear links between Vedic music and contemporary classical music.


Iconography - We are fortunate that virtually every aspect of life is depicted upon the walls of Hindu temples.  This provide a documents concerning aspects of life which are quite literally "set in stone".  The popularity of musicians and dancers as traditional themes, gives us information concerning the musical culture of antiquity.  Although there is a lot of information concerning musical instruments of the period, it just does not quite fill in the gaps


Overall Significance - When we put all of the evidence together, we get the following picture.  Although we get tantalising glimpse of the musical culture of antiquity, we just do not have evidence to either confirm nor deny a Vedic connection with contemporary classical music.  But we must not forget that due to the extreme age of the Vedas, it would not be reasonable to even expect to find clear unambiguous links.


It Is Inconceivable There Is Not a Vedic Connection

Vedic influence is felt in almost every aspect of Indian life.  This is not to say that contemporary life has not change with the passage of time and exposure to non-Indian and non-Vedic influences, but it does mean that Vedic influences are still felt in day-to-day life.  Given this, is it conceivable that no Vedic influence would be felt in Indian music.  I think that most would agree that this is not likely.


Models For Vedic Influence

It appears that the greatest error found in the Indian mindset is not the belief that there is a Vedic influence in Classical Indian music, but the manner of this Vedic influence.

The prevailing model of this influence is shown in the following diagram.

the generally held belief is that contemporary clasical music is derived from the Vedas by a process of differentiation

Although this model is the prevailing one among practicing musicians and the lay public, it is highly flawed.  It is a model that is based solely upon the principal of differentiation.  It totally ignores the process of amalgamation.

Musical amalgamation is a process whereby disparate musical influences come together to create new musical forms and practices.  Musical amalgamation is extremely common.  Both Hindustani, as well as Carnatic music, may be seen as amalgamations of various folk, classical, and foreign musical elements.  If we wished to express contemporary Hindustani music in terms of these various influences, we would get the following model.

A more accurate description of the relationship between modern north Indian music and the Vedas is through a process of amalgamation

It is interesting to note that the development of Carnatic music is surprisingly similar to the development of Hindustani music .  One difference is that the Persian, Arabic, and Sino-Asiatic influences are less.  More importantly, the folk influences are very different due to the different musical cultures found in the Dravidian peoples of the south.

We bring up the process of musical amalgamation as a supplement to the widely held view of differentiation; it is not a replacement.  At first it appears that having both processes together is very complicated.  Actually it is not so complicated.  One may look at the confluence of amalgamation and differentiation as being similar to a giant pool into which various musical influences are added and from which musical genre are derived.  This may be expressed in the following diagram.

When the processes of amalgamation and differentiation are combined it resembles a pool

We are the first to admit that this model is also simplistic.  However, it is a simple base that may be refined by academics to whatever level of precision that may be desired.  Conversely, it may also be simplified without introducing too much distortion.



It appears that there must be some type of contribution of the Vedas to contemporary musical culture and practice.  The musical practices of the Vedas were long ago added to the general pool of Indian musical culture, from which countless folk, classical, and popular musics were derived.  This Vedic musical culture was in turn enriched by unfathomable numbers of indigenous folk, tribal, as well as the musical cultures of every country that had any contact with India.




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