Hazrat Inayat : The Vina

The following short talk was given by Hazrat Inayat Khan in response to a request from his students to say something about the vina, his chosen instrument. Near the conclusion, when he speaks of ‘jazz,’ he appears to refer to popular dance-hall music in general.

Friends, you wish to hear from me the praise of the vina. Therefore I shall quote the words of a great Indian poet in Sanskrit, who says in the praise of the vina (be not surprised to hear the interpretation of this), “That instrument of gut strings, by looking at it, by touching it, by hearing it, you can be made free, even if you kill a Brahman.” And to kill a Brahman is considered to be the greatest sin. 

This instrument was invented by the Lord of Yogis, Shiva, or whose name is Mahadeva, who gave to the world his lifelong experiences in the practice of yoga, and who is worshipped in India as a godhead. His literature is considered as holy scriptures. He was a great master of breathing and an ascetic. He lived in the mountains, where he sat and breathed the free air of the wide horizons of the East and practiced mantras, words and phrases which changed the whole being of man. There he wanted to make some instrument to be used for higher exaltation by the help of music. In the forest what he could do was to cut a piece of bamboo. He took two pumpkins, made them hollow and tied them around the bamboo. Gut strings he got from animals, and these gut strings he tied upon it. In this way he made his first vina. And he practiced on it in solitude. There is a quotation, that when the deer in the forest used to hear him play the vina, they used to say, “Make the gut strings of my own entrails and put them on your vina, but as long as I live, continue to play.” 

Mahadeva made his instrument by the help of the human body and mind, considering its condition in the morning, in the midst of the day, in the afternoon, in the night, and at dawn when wakening. He found that at every time of the day and night a particular effect was made upon the human body and spirit, and that a rhythm akin to that particular time must be prescribed psychologically and mystically in order to elevate the soul. And therefore a psychological science of music was made by Mahadeva, a science which was called “raga,” which means “emotion,” emotion controlled and utilized to the best purpose. When Parvati saw this instrument – Parvati was Mahadeva’s consort – she said, “I must invent my vina.” So she took half the part of the pumpkins and produced another kind of vina, the Saraswati vina. So there are two vinas: one is played by men, the other by women.

On this instrument not only sharp and flat notes are produced, but also semitones. And in this way the music becomes rich, but to develop to the science of semitones is so difficult that it takes a lifetime. The musicians of India devote twelve hours of the day or more to the practice of the different rhythms, improvising on them. And in the end they produce a psychological effect which is not music, but magic, a magic that can thrill a person and that can penetrate the heart of man. It is a dream, a meditation, it is paradise. By hearing it one feels in a different world. Yet their music is hardly audible. Instead of playing before thousands of people, only one or two or three persons of the same quality and nature must be together to enjoy that music thoroughly. If a foreign element is present, the musician does not feel inspired. 

You will be amused to know that once a musician was invited to play vina. The musician came and was welcomed. He opened his vina. Then he looked here and there, and found some discord. He covered his vina, saluted, and went. Those present felt disappointed and begged him to play, but his answer was, “No matter what you give me, I do not feel like playing.” This is quite a different thing from making a program for months ahead. The musician in the West is bound six months before to play a certain program, he is helpless. But in this way it is not music, it is labor, it is mechanically done. Would you believe that a singer in the East never knows what he is going to sing before he starts singing? He feels the atmosphere of the place and the time, and whatever comes to his mind, he begins to sing or to play. It is quite a different thing. 

I do not mean to say that music of this kind can be universal music. It belongs to some rare person in a remote place. In India musicians are dying now for the reason of lack of appreciation. Those potentates, those gurus, those teachers of high inspiration who lived in the past, they appreciated this music. Even in India people are becoming industrial and civilized and music is dying away. There are no more now those musicians of before who would make all those who listened spellbound; they do not exist any longer. Among millions there are perhaps three or four, and they will have vanished in a few years.

It maybe that one day the western world will waken to India’s music as now the West is wakening to the poetry of the East, as it is beginning to appreciate such works as have been written by Rabindranath Tagore. There will come a time when they will ask for music of that kind. And then it will not be found, it will be too late. But there is no doubt when that music which is magic, which is built on a psychological basis, when that music will be introduced in the West, it will root out all such things as jazz bands. People seem to spoil their senses; this music is destroying people’s delicacy of sense. Thousands every day are dancing to jazz music, and they forget the effect it has upon their spirit, upon their mind, upon their delicate senses. I know of a prince of Rampur who wanted to study music from a great teacher. And the teacher said, “I can only teach you on one condition.” He knew the character of the prince, who was fond of music, and he understood that many musicians would want to show their talent before him. He said, “I do not want you to hear any musician who is not an accomplished artist, because your sense of music must not be destroyed: it must be preserved for delicate music, it must be able to appreciate the fine intricacies of it.”

When the education of the public destroys the delicacy of its musical appreciation, it cannot help that it does not like to hear that which really is music, that they prefer jazz. But instead of going forward, they are going backward. And if music, which is the central theme of the whole human culture, is not helping people to go forward, it is a great pity. 

Vina music has a likeness to the human voice. If you hear the vina played, you will never think that it is an instrument, you cannot imagine that it is an instrument. Vina music is not as magnetic as the music of the human voice, but it is more attractive, more impressive. And all the delicacies of the human voice and the silky structure of it are finished in the sound of the vina. 

3 Replies to “Hazrat Inayat : The Vina”

  1. Howard Olivier

    What a wonderful example of the musician noticing discord in the room and opting not to play. There is not always a way to harmonize with discordance. In such cases, how freeing to now understand that the right thing is to close ones case and exit the gathering. Profound and liberating. Thank you!!

    • Nawab Pasnak Post author

      Thank you, dear brother. Probably we can find more than one lesson in this interesting anecdote. The musician, completely devoted to his sacred art, is supremely independent.

  2. Anwar Zijnen

    Fascinating, stunning, reading about Murshid Inayat’s ear for the Vina..To speak for myself, and I was lucky to hear the Vina being played in the Dargah last year. It seems like the bubble of innocence must be unfortunately unnatural without sacred music, Thank you Nawab


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