“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.