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The Nondual Highlights
#2239 - Tuesday, August 23, 2005 - Editor: Jerry Katz

    This issue features a selection from Raga Mala: The Autobiography of Ravi Shankar. The material was typed from the book and appears nowhere else.   The following Amazon review says what I would have said about the beauty of the book's design. The book overflows with photographs and is highlighted with gold: gold endpages, gold lettering for chapter headings, and several gold pages within the book.  

"Raga Mala is the autobiography of pandit Ravi Shankar, told in story, profusely illustrated [some in color], beautifully bound [with luxurious endpapers], on high quality, beautiful papers. It tells his story [introduced by George Harrison] from his early childhood, stage [as a dancer in his brothers famous troupe] to his study of sitar and Hindustani music with a master[Khan], to his gradual emergence in the west. I had no idea, that he had performed at Carnegie hall in the 1930's, that John Coltrane's son ravi was named after him, or that he was well known BEFORE the Monterey pop or woodstock concerts [he called woodstock"terrifying']. This is a wonderful book, it tells the ENTIRE ARC of the life of pandit Ravi Shankar [including his apparent heir and pupil, his daughter Anoushka], and does so with such a well put together volume. The papers, the binding, the photographic reproductions are exquisite. The publisher has done a remarkable job. A classic book, both in form and content."    You may order the book at    


Our tradition teaches us that sound is God – Nada Brahma. That is, musical sound and the musical experience are steps to the realization of the self. We view music as a kind of spiritual discipline that raises one’s inner being to divine peacefulness and bliss. We are taught that one of the fundamental goals a Hindu works toward in his lifetime is a knowledge of the true meaning of the universe – its unchanging, eternal essence – and this is realized first by a complete knowledge of one’s self and one’s own nature. The highest aim of our music is to reveal the essence of the universe it reflects, and the ragas are among the means by which this essence can be apprehended. Thus, through music, one can reach God.
Ravi Shankar


Being a Brahmin, I learnt some mantras from gurus as a child, and still repeat them in my mind as often as I can today. I do firmly believe that they have tremendous power. For a few years in the late Fifties and early Sixties, I regularly practiced hatha yoga, but gradually the pace of my life made it impossible to continue with it (although I still maintain my regular morning meditations, plus one before giving a recital). Many times in my life I have been attracted with great surges of love and bhakti (reverence or devotion) to some godly persons I have known, such as Tat Baba, Ma Anandamayi, Satya Sai Baba and the late Shankaracharya of Kanchi. Some I never saw have also exerted a strong pull on me, such as Ramakrishna Paramahansa, Lahiri Mahasai, Trailange Swami, Babaji and Swami Vivekananda. But in one’s daily life and existence it is hard to attain cosmic consciousness. Most of the time the only self-realisation states one is aware of are physical and mundane ones. I am sure many of you have felt this too.


But MUSIC – that is the thing for me! Mostly it has been when deeply immersed in my music that I have felt that surge of joy, merging into the indefinable ‘drunken with beauty’ moment. Especially when I become attuned to my sitar, that is the route for me to touch the heart and the God within myself, and within my millions of listeners over the years.


The spiritual element in Indian music is absolutely essential. From the very beginning our music was handed down by the yogis, and musicians were invariably great saintly people, leading a very religious life. Many of the old songs were philosophical and devotional in nature, written in praise of our gods like Shiva, Vishnu, Ganesha and Saraswati, and the most popular character in the songs, Krishna, who is treated more like a human being, going through all the different phases of life. He is loved not only for his miraculous feats but for his childhood pranks, his adventures with his friends as he is growing up, his flirting and erotically-charged encounters with the gopis (milkmaids), and then his great teachings to Arjuna on the battlefield of Kurukshetra which constitutes the Bhagavad Gita. Our songs and poetry beautifully convey his charm and eroticism, and tell of his pranks and special love for Radha. Having in my childhood all this background and the whole atmosphere of priestly living (as a Brahmin), I could grasp and feel the spirituality in music much more quickly than most.


Sometimes I feel blindfolded, completely susceptible to spiritual atmosphere and prepared to believe whatever I am told, like a simple village person. Whenever I visit Balaji, the temple to Lord Venkateshwar in the South Indian state of Andhra Pradesh, my heart is thrown completely open to the power of the spiritual forces that seem to be present. I feel the same innocent openness when I think of Saraswati, Krishna, Buddha or Jesus Christ, or when I go to church, synagogue or House of God of any other religion. That blind faith is part of my tradition. It is in my heart and mind. I know I am someone who likes and often needs to depend on someone or something.


But then at times I ask myself why I should depend on anyone. God is in me, not in these figures. These are supports which are there for when we need them; true religious experience is to be found in one’s own heart. This comes back to the age-old philosophical questions: Who am I? Where did I come from? Where am I going? I believe I am both the atman (soul) and the paramatman (supersoul). Within me there is both the seeker and the one I seek.


Meeting George Harrison


I met George Harrison for the first time in June 1966, one evening in a friend’s house in London. At that time, although I had heard of The Beatles, I knew only that they were an extremely popular group. Something clicked from the very beginning with George. The other three I met on different occasions through the years, and Ringo especially was very warm and friendly, but I never really had anything much to do with any of them.


From the moment we met George was asking questions, and I felt he was genuinely interested in Indian music and religion. He appeared to be a sweet, straightforward young man. I said I had been told he used the sitar, although I had not heard the song “Norwegian Wood.” He seemed quite embarrassed, and it transpired that he had only had a few sittings with an Indian chap who was in London (a student of the late Motiram, my disciple in Delhi) to see how the instrument should be held and to learn the basics of playing. “Norwegian Wood” was supposedly causing so much brouhaha, but when I eventually heard the song I thought it was a strange sound that had been produced on the sitar! As a result, though, young fans of The Beatles everywhere had become fascinated by the instrument.


Then George expressed his desire to learn the sitar from me. I told him that to play sitar is like learning Western classical music on the violin or cello. It is not merely a matter of learning how to hold the instrument and play a few strokes and chords, after which (with sufficient talent) you can prosper on your own, as is common with the guitar in Western pop music. I told him this nicely, getting him to understand the seriousness of Indian music.


I said, “I have given so many years of my life to sitar, and by God’s grace I have become very well known – but still I know in my heart of hearts that I have a long way to go. There’s no end to it. It is not only the technical mastery of the sitar – you have to learn the whole complex system of music properly and get deeply into it. Moreover it’s not just fixed pieces that you play – there is improvisation. And those improvisations are not just letting yourself go, as in jazz – you have to adhere to the discipline of the ragas and the talas without any notation in front of you. Being an oral tradition, it takes many more years.


“And there is more to it than exciting the senses of the listeners with virtuosity and loud crash-bang effects. My goal has always been to take the audience along with me deep inside, as in meditation, to feel the sweet pain of trying to reach out for the supreme, to bring tears to the eyes, and to feel totally peaceful and cleansed.”


Then I asked him if he could give time and total energy to work hard on it. He said he would do his best, and we arranged a date then and there. It was not practical for him to come to my hotel, so he invited me to visit his house in Esher soon afterwards. I went twice within a week or so. Initially I gave him some basic instruction – how to hold the sitar properly, the correct fingering for both hands, and some exercises. I also wrote down the names of all the notes in the sargam (the Indian solfeggio) to make him familiar with them. That was all. We fixed it that he would come to India for a couple of months to learn in more depth.


I felt strongly that there was a beautiful soul in him, and recognized one quality which I always have valued enormously and which is considered the principal one in our culture – humility. Considering that he was so famous – part of the most popular group in the world ever! – he was nevertheless quite humble, with a childlike quality which he has retained to this day.


George Harrison writes: Ravi was very friendly and easy to communicate with. By this time The Beatles had met so many people – prime ministers, celebrities, royalty – but I got to a point where I thought, “I’d like to meet somebody who could really impress me.” And that was when I met Ravi. He was the first person who impressed me in a way that was beyond just being a famous celebrity. Ravi was my link into the Vedic world. Ravi plugged me into the whole of Reality. I mean, I met Elvis – Elvis impressed me when I was a kid, and impressed me when I met him because of the buzz of meeting Elvis – but you couldn’t later on go round to him and say, “Elvis, what’s happening in the universe?”


Ravi came to my house in Esher, and then he had arranged that we should sit in the afternoon for an hour or two, and he showed me how to get started on the sitar. After that he’d arranged for Alla Rakha to come, and they were going to give a little concert, so John and Ringo came, and they played for us for an hour and a half. It was really nice.


The moment we started, the feelings I got were of his patience, compassion and humility. The fact that he could do one of his five-hour concerts, but at the same time he could sit down and teach somebody from scratch the very basics: how to hold the sitar, how to sit in the correct position, how to wear the pick on your finger, how to begin playing. We did that and he started me going on the scales. And he enjoyed it – he wasn’t grudging at all, and he wasn’t flash about it either.


One thing he said was, “Do you read music?” I said, “No,” and my heart sank – I  thought, “I probably don’t even deserve to waste his time.” But he said, “Good – it will only confuse you anyway.”
Ravi also gave me the book “Autobiography of a Yogi.” The moment I looked at that picture of Yogananda on the front of the book, his eyes went right through me and zapped me, and to this day I have been under the spell of Yogananda. It’s a fantastic great truth.


When we were on the houseboat in Kashmir, owned by a little old guy with a white beard called Mr. Butt, it was really cold in the night because it was on a lake right up in the Himalayas. Mr. Butt would wake us up early in the morning and give us tea and biscuits and I’d sit in bed with my scarf and pullover on, listening to Ravi, who would be in the next little room doing his sitar practice – that was such a privileged position to be in.


What I’m getting at is that pure essence of India. You could easily be diverted in India by the smell or the dirt or the poverty, but I was fortunate to have Ravi as my friend. The Indians I saw were the ones who got up early in the morning, had a bath and put their clean doti on, did their prayers, and then practiced their music for a couple of hours before they had their breakfast. The ones who had all the respect for the past. The temples and the incense and the music, the whole thing – it was like I got the privileged tour. All the people I met were the best musicians, and I didn’t have to go through the rubbish to find the gems. That in itself was worth a few years of saved time. And that’s what a guru is, anyway – the word “guru” means “dispeller of darkness.”

Ravi and Anoushka Shankar

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