A Hindu's Search for Meaning in Sound And Silence

02/08/2011 08:37 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

In the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, a Hindu spiritual treatise, a sage tries to describe Brahman, the indescribable force motivating existence, to a skeptically curious king. "There is a spirit in the sound of the steps of man, and that spirit I adore as Brahman," the sage explains.

On a less deep level, I think that my 4-year-old self would have empathized with this description. At the time, I enjoyed trips to the mall simply for the opportunity to hear the rhythmic click of high heels on tiled floors.

I grew up constantly listening to an eclectic mix of sound and, relatedly, music. My mother played Sanskrit chants, shlokas, each morning, normally sung by famed Indian classical singer M.S. Subbulakshmi. My mother's personal listening preferences rested with Pink Floyd and the Beatles, my father's with ghazals and occasional Tamil film songs. As a Suzuki piano student, I was often force-fed a steady diet of classical composers, like Haydn, Brahms and Beethoven. I reveled in the sharp shouts of vegetable sellers on trips to India, or the piercing drone of the vacuum cleaner at home.

It all fit together strangely cohesively. Sounds were good friends, whether this friend was introduced to me through the booming voice of classical Indian singer Bhimsen Joshi or from Carl Czerny's technical piano exercises.

Yet, something was missing. In my listening world, music hinged solely on tune. Words, when they were present, simply went in one ear and out the other -- I barely noticed them at all. I always dismissed lyrics as a cheap ploy to distract listeners away from tonal nuances.

This all changed when I started learning Indian classical vocal music after years of learning piano. Initially, the transition was not too difficult. In classical Indian music, learning and performance are based on listening, imitation, repetition and, for advanced students, improvisation. This was similar to the Suzuki style of learning piano, which encourages students to learn by listening to recordings.

At the same time, I was distinctly challenged. Music was no longer solely instrumental, because vocal songs have lyrics. In Carnatic music, the South Indian style of music that I was learning, lyrics are inextricably linked to melody. With compositions often written by meditative poet-saints, lyrics and music combine to form a metaphor of the individual soul's unique longing for the Supreme, whether this individual is composer, listener or singer.

This confluence is reflected in the song's lyrical nuances and in the raga, or melodic mode, in which a song is set. The word raga in Sanskrit, crudely translated, can mean color. The way in which raga and lyrics combine when exercised by a skilled musician paints rasa, a unique emotional hue, in the listener's mind and heart.

After learning Indian music, I found myself revisiting recordings of piano pieces I'd learned, this time searching for meaning in instrumental music. Recordings of Beethoven and Bach posed unfathomable puzzles. Solving these puzzles required imagining figurative conversations between characters given life by the music. Leonard Bernstein, in a lecture series given at Harvard University, put it simply: "Metaphor is the generator -- the powerplant of music."

Today, thanks largely to iTunes, I, like many, have a daily listening regime, in which I collect pieces rather like an art collector accrues beloved paintings. I've found that my mind pulls pieces out of this collection frequently and randomly; When I miss home while traveling abroad on work, I hear Rachid Taha's Ya Rayah. When I see twilight draping itself stealthily over a city, I hear Liszt's La Campanella. And when listening to the drenching rain of the Indian monsoon, I always hear the notes of Raag Megh Malhar. Based on whimsical inspiration, I can pick a song out of my collection and make it a momentary metaphor of existence.

The Maitri Upanishad, another Hindu reflection on consciousness, says "There are two ways of contemplation: in sound and in silence. By sound, we go to the End: immortality, union, and peace. Even as a spider reaches the liberty of space via its own thread, the mindful one reaches freedom via vibration and void." The sense of sound is a distinctive feature of human experience. Take a minute to stop and listen to anything -- it can easily turn into a rather profound metaphor of life's experiences.