Guest Author - Sangeetha Ekambaram
Songs of religious devotion known as bhajans play a prominent role in Hindu worship and practice. Although bhajans are sometimes performed outside the context of religious practice, such as at a formal concert, most Hindus think of them forms of religious expression. They are performed as regularly as other rituals. Like other rituals, bhajans are performed either in the temple or at home. Bhajans often follow or are interspersed between the ritual offerings (pujas) but sometimes are performed as separate events.
Bhajans are considered a part of one aspect of Hinduism known as bhakti. Bhakti is the devotional side of Hinduism and focuses on the worshipper's relationship to the deities. It is often distinguished from other forms of Hindu practice, such as certain types of meditation practice, that reflect the contemplation of larger philosophical questions. Therefore, bhajans often expression the worshipper's devotion to the deity. Many bhajans name various characteristics of deities. Others narrate scenes from particular epics or well- known religious stories. Some quote the words of holy saints.
The poetry of the bhajans traditionally comes from the writings of revered saints such as Tulsidas, Haridas, Surdas, Mira and Kabir who lived in India between the 1300s and 1600s. These works are considered sacred works of literature that have been passed down through various generations and traditions. However, contemporary Hindus also compose new lyrics that then become part of the musical practice.
The particular musical style of bhajans varies according to local South Asian tradition. However, as Hindus have migrated and continue to migrate to various locations around the world, certain standard bhajans have traveled with them. At the same time new melodies are often composed to reflect the religious sentiments and attitudes of the particular Hindu groups that gather. Furthermore, the melody might carry influences of a new musical style or use non-traditional instruments, reflecting the continued diversification of Hinduism.
Bhajans are usually sung in a group, although they are sometimes performed by a soloist. In the case of group singing, a soloist will lead the bhajan by singing a verse, and then the others will repeat the verse after the singer. A theme (sthai) is repeated in between verses. Normally there is instrumental accompaniment, including a percussion instrument and an instrument for melodic tuning. Other instruments, such a small finger cymbals, are played by the participants for added texture. Those leading the group vocally or instrumentally demonstrate varying levels of musical skill. Some have years of formal musical training, but many learn the bhajans growing up in the tradition. Likewise, the bhajan can be simple or complex in both form and melody.
For many Hindus, bhajans are the most beloved form of religious practice. Both the lyrics and the music can express profound devotional sentiments in ways that other forms of religious practice do not. Furthermore, the act of communal singing adds power and beauty to this musical practice.