“The human body is like a musical instrument, expressing numerous frequencies and rhythms in a constantly changing spectrum of life. It responds and resonates in consonance with music, sounds, speech and thought from the environment, and undergoes changes of heartbeat, breathing, blood chemistry and circulation of energy in various energy centres (chakras) of the body,” writes Pandit Roop Verma, a world-renowned sitarist and music therapist in his blog post Healing, relaxing music to release stress in body and mind, based on the ancient sacred music of India. His words could not be truer.
Quantum physics has proven to us that we, as energy beings, vibrate at different frequencies. It is said that certain frequencies can even treat ailments. Raga chikitsa (raga therapy) is an ancient Indian practice within the discipline of Ayurveda. It is based on the premise that Indian ragas can treat physiological and psychological disorders in individuals. In this therapy, a health professional assesses the strengths and weaknesses of each patient, and treats them by rendering music in specific ragas.
‘Raga‘ is roughly the same as the scales and modes of western music. However, this definition is limiting, as ragas mean much more. Every raga, unlike a western scale or mode, is characterised by its own rasa (emotion). According to the rasa theory of Natya Shastra, a Sanskrit treatise on performing arts, a raga can evoke one of the nine emotions: sringara (love), hasya (happiness), adhuta (wonder and curiosity), vira (bravery), shanta (serenity), karuna (sorrow), raudra (anger), bhayanaka (fear) and vibhasta (disgust). “For instance,” Carnatic musician Mangala Karthik explains, “Raga Shankarabaranam evokes a happy feeling. Interestingly, the tunes of several nursery rhymes for children correspond to this raga.” She also cites Raga Shubhapantuvarali as an example of a melancholic raga. Carnatic maestro Thyagaraja’s compositions in this raga express sorrow as he longs for God.
To understand the concept of rasa and raga better, psychologists Laura Lee Balkwill and William Forde Thompson conducted a study A Cross-Cultural Investigation of the Perception of Emotion in Music in 1999. They asked 30 Western listeners to associate an emotion to 12 Hindustani ragas, and the results surprised them. Despite being unfamiliar with Indian classical music, western listeners were sensitive to the intended emotion of the ragas. It is remarkable how ragas can strike an emotional chord with many, even if they cannot understand the language or the lyrics.
To unravel the therapeutic effects of ragas, several modern-day researches have started exploring raga chikitsa.
Ragas are assigned a specific time of the day and are said to be most effective in those allotted times. “It is more pronounced in the Hindustani school of music than in the Carnatic system,” Mangala clarifies. For example, Raga Bilahari and Bowli are usually played in the mornings. Ragas Madhyamaavati and Multajni are supposed to be played in the afternoons, and Ragas Kalyani and Kambhoji in the evenings. Ragas are also associated with seasons. For example, Raga Sura Malhar is sung during the monsoon season. Raga Amrita Varshini is especially associated with rain. Vasant is the raga of spring time and Deepak the raga of summer.
This specific assignment of ragas to the time of the day and seasons is based on the premise that their very vibrations affect our doshas (life-force energies) – Vata (airy and ethery element), Pitta (fiery and watery element) and Kapha (earthy and watery element). A study titled An effect of Raga Therapy on our human body, published by the International Journal of Humanities and Social Science Research, says, “Early morning is the natural kapha time for Ayurveda. A kapha-type person should be treated to an early morning raga like Bhairav, to cure physical imbalances.” It further states that during afternoons, pitta is dominant and that Raga Bilawal can be used during these hours to treat patients. Late afternoon and evening is vata time, when Ragas Pooriya Dhanashri and Marwa can be used in the treatment. “It is very important, however, that the Ayurvedic constitution of the patient be kept in mind–as to whether he or she is a vata, pitta or kapha person”, the study emphasises.
Clearly, ragas are an established part of healing through music. Their benefits don’t stop at balancing doshas. Ragas also affect the energy flow through nadis (astral nerves). Swara Shastra, an old Indian text, states that the 72 melakarta (parent) ragas control 72 vital nerves in the human body. The ragas must be sung with due dedication, accuracy, and sruti shuddhi (purity of pitch) for their effect to be felt. For instance, if rendered accurately, Raga Todi is said to cure hypertension, and Raga Sahana helps one control anger issues. Ragas Kafi and Khamaj are said to cure sleep disorders. Ragas Hindolam and Vasantha give relief from gastritis and Raga Yaman from rheumatic arthritis.
To unravel the therapeutic effects of ragas, several modern-day researches have started exploring raga chikitsa. Dr Sumathy Sundar, founder of Chennai School of Music Therapy, says, “We are striving to understand the ancient wisdom of raga therapy with the help of science and clinical knowledge.” While she concurs that raga chikitsa is still in a nascent stage, she believes this ancient healing practice has a lot to offer.
Many of us might have grown up listening to one form of music or the other. We might have attended concerts, and during the performance, we might have felt inexplicably relaxed and energised. Music can indeed be therapeutic. However, Indian classical music, in particular, seems to have been used formally in therapies, since ancient times. It is a good thing we have begun tapping into this ancient knowledge. After all, raga therapy brings about a sense of wellbeing through music, something that every individual enjoys.