Hazrat Inayat Kahn (1882-1927) was a Sufi musician, mystic, and scholar who migrated to the West from India in 1910. His following (rather long) essay is particulary meaningful because it proposes a broad definition of “music” as it relates to the cosmos and offers an enlightened path toward achieving a deep and harmonious appreciation of the myriad sounds of nature.
The Music of the Spheres
by Hazrat Inayat Khan
By this title I do not wish to encourage any superstition, or any ideas that might attract people into the fields of curiosity; but through this subject I wish to direct the attention of those, who search for truth, towards the law of music which is working throughout the whole universe and which, in other words, may be called the law of life, the sense of proportion, the law of harmony, the law which brings about balance, the law which is hidden behind all aspects of life, which holds this universe intact, and works out its destiny throughout the whole universe, fulfilling its purpose.
Music as we know it in our everyday language is only a miniature: that which our intelligence has grasped from that music or harmony of the whole universe which is working behind us. The music of the universe is the background of the little picture which we call music. Our sense of music, our attraction to music, shows that music is in the depth of our being. Music is behind the working of the whole universe. Music is not only life’s greatest object, but music is life itself.
Hafiz, our great and wonderful poet of Persia, says: ‘Many say that life entered the human body by the help of music, but the truth is that life itself is music’. I should like to tell you what made him say this. There exists in the East a legend which relates that God made a statue of clay in His own image, and asked the soul to enter into it. But the soul refused to enter into this prison, for its nature is to fly about freely, and not be limited and bound to any sort of captivity. The soul did not wish in the least to enter this prison. Then God asked the angels to play their music and, as the angels played, the soul was moved to ecstasy. Through that ecstasy – in order to make this music more clear to itself- it entered this body.
It is a beautiful legend, and much more so is its mystery. The interpretation of this legend explains to us two great laws. One is that freedom is the nature of the soul, and for the soul the whole tragedy of life is the absence of that freedom which belongs to its original nature. The next mystery that this legend reveals to us is that the only reason why the soul has entered the body of clay or matter is to experience the music of life, and to make this music clear to itself. And when we sum up these two great mysteries, the third mystery, which is the mystery of all mysteries, comes to our mind: that the unlimited part of ourselves becomes limited and earthbound for the purpose of making this life, which is the outward life, more intelligible. Therefore there is one loss and one gain. The loss is the loss of freedom, and the gain is the experience of life which is fully gained by coming to this limitation of life which we call the life of an individual.
What makes us feel drawn to music is that our whole being is music: our mind, our body, the nature in which we live, the nature that has made us, all that is beneath and around us – it is all music. As we are close to all this music and live and move and have our being in music, it therefore interests us. It attracts our attention and gives us pleasure, for it corresponds with the rhythm and tone which are keeping the mechanism of our whole being intact. What pleases us in any of our arts, whether drawing, painting, carving, architecture, or sculpture, and what interests us in poetry, is the harmony behind them which is music. It is music that poetry suggests to us: the rhythm in the poetry, or the harmony of ideas and phrases.
Besides this, in painting and in drawing it is our sense of proportion and our sense of harmony which give us all the pleasure we gain in admiring art. What appeals to us in being near to nature is nature’s music, and nature’s music is more perfect than that of art. It gives us a sense of exaltation to be moving about in the woods, to be looking at the green, to be standing near the running water which has its rhythm, its tone and its harmony. The swinging of the branches in the forest, the rising and falling of the waves – all has its music. Once we contemplate and become one with nature, our hearts open to its music. We say: ‘I enjoy nature’, and what is it in nature that we enjoy? It is its music. Something in us has been touched by the rhythmic movement, by the perfect harmony which is so seldom found in this artificial life of ours. It lifts one up and makes one feel that it is this which is the real temple, the true religion. One moment standing in the midst of nature with open heart is a whole lifetime, if one is in tune with nature.
When one looks at the cosmos, the movements of the stars and planets, the laws of vibration and rhythm – all perfect and unchanging – it shows that the cosmic system is working by the law of music, the law of harmony. Whenever that harmony in the cosmic system is lacking in any way, then in proportion disasters come about in the world, and its influence is seen in many destructive forces which manifest in the world. If there is any principle upon which the whole of astrological law is based – and the science of magic and mysticism behind it – it is music.
Therefore, for the most illuminated souls who have ever lived in this world, as for the greatest of all the prophets of India – their whole life was music. From the miniature music which we understand, they expanded themselves to the whole universe of music, and in that way they were able to inspire. The one who finds the key to the music of the whole working of life – it is he who becomes intuitive; it is he who has inspiration; it is he to whom revelations manifest, for then his language becomes music. Every object we see is revealing. In what form? It tells us its character, nature and secret. Every person who comes to us tells us his past, present and future. In what way? Every presence explains to us all that it contains. In what manner? In the form of music – if only we can hear it. There is no other language: it is rhythm, it is tone. We hear it, but we do not hear it with our ears. A friendly person shows harmony in his voice, his words, his movements and manner. An unfriendly person, in all his movements, in his glance and expression, in his walk, in everything, will show disharmony – if only one can see it. I used to amuse myself in India with a friend who became cross very easily. Sometimes when he visited me I would say: ‘Are you cross to-day?’ He would ask: ‘Now how do you know that I am cross to-day?’ I replied: ‘Your turban tells me. The way you tie your turban does not show harmony’.
One’s every action shows a harmonious or inharmonious attitude. There are many things you can perceive in handwriting, but the principal thing in reading handwriting is the harmonious or inharmonious curves. It almost speaks to you, and tells you the mood in which the person wrote. Handwriting tells you many things: the grade of evolution of the writer, his attitude towards life, his character. You do not need to read the letter, you only have to see his handwriting; for line and curve will show him either to be harmonious or inharmonious – if only you can see it.
In every living being you can see this, and if you look with an open insight into the nature of things, you will read even in the tree – the tree that bears fruit or flower – what music it expresses.
You can see from the attitude of a person whether that person will prove to be your friend, or will end in being your enemy. You need not wait until the end, you can see at the first glance whether he is friendly inclined or not, because every person is music, perpetual music, continually going on day and night. Your intuitive faculty can hear that music, and that is the reason why one person is repellent and the other attracts you so much: it is the music he expresses. His whole atmosphere is charged with it.
There is a story of Umar, the well-known khalif of Arabia. Someone who wanted to harm Umar was looking for him, and he heard that Umar did not live in palaces – although he was a king – but that he spent most of his time with nature. This man was very glad to think that now he would have every opportunity to accomplish his objective. As he approached the place where Umar was sitting, the nearer he came, the more his attitude changed, until in the end he dropped the dagger which was in his hand, and said: ‘I cannot harm you. Tell me, what is the power in you that keeps me from accomplishing the objective which I came to carry out?’ Umar answered: ‘My at-one-ment with God’. No doubt this is a religious term, but what does that at-one-ment with God mean? It is being in tune with the Infinite, in harmony with the whole universe. In plain words, Umar was the receptacle of the music of the whole universe.
The great charm that the personality of the holy ones has shown in all ages has been their responsiveness to the music of the Whole Being. That has been the secret of how they became the friends of their worst enemies. But this is not only the power of the holy ones; this manifests in every person to a greater or less degree. Everyone shows harmony or disharmony according to how open he is to the music of the universe. The more he is open to all that is beautiful and harmonious, the more his life is tuned to that universal harmony, and the more he will show a friendly attitude towards everyone he meets, his very atmosphere will create music around him.
The difference between the material and the spiritual point of view is that the material point of view sees matter as the first thing, from which intelligence, beauty and all else evolved afterwards. From the spiritual point of view we see the intelligence and beauty first, and from them comes all that exists. From a spiritual point of view we see that what one considers last is the same as first. Therefore in the essence of this Whole Being – as its basis – there is music, as one can see that in the essence of the seed of the rose there is the rose itself, its fragrance, form and beauty. Although in the seed it is not manifest, at the same time it is there in essence. The one who tunes himself not only to the external but also to the inner being and to the essence of all things, gets an insight into the essence of the Whole Being, and therefore he can find and enjoy that fragrance and flower which he sees in the rose, to the same extent even in the seed.
The great error of this age is that activity has increased so much that there is little margin left in one’s everyday life for repose. Repose is the secret of all contemplation and meditation, the secret of getting in tune with that aspect of life which is the essence of all things. When one is not accustomed to take repose, one does not know what is behind one’s being. This condition is experienced by first preparing the body, and also the mind, by means of purification. And by making the senses finer one is able to tune one’s soul with the Whole Being.
It seems complex, and yet it is so simple. When one is open to one’s tried friend in life, one knows so much about him. It is only the opening of the heart; it is only at-one-ment with one’s friend; we know his faults and his merits. We know how to experience and to enjoy friendship. Where there is hatred and prejudice and bitterness, there is loss of understanding. The deeper the person, the more friends he has. It is smallness, narrowness, lack of spiritual development which makes a person exclusive, distant and different from others. He feels superior, greater and better than others; his friendly attitude seems to have been lost. In that way he cuts himself apart from others, and in this lies his tragedy. That person is never happy.
The one who is happy is he who is ready to be friends with all. His outlook on life is friendly. He is not only friendly to persons, but also to objects and conditions. It is by this attitude of friendship that man expands and breaks down those walls which keep him in prison. And by breaking down those walls he experiences at-one-ment with the Absolute. This at-one-ment with the Absolute manifests as the music of the spheres, and this he experiences on all sides: beauties of nature, color of flowers, everything he sees, everyone he meets. In the hours of contemplation and solitude, and in the hours when he is in the midst of the world, always the music is there, always he is enjoying the harmony.
There are many in this world who look for wonders. If one only noticed how much there is in this world which is all phenomena! The deeper one sees into life, the wider life opens itself to one, and then every moment of one’s life becomes full of wonders and full of splendors. What we call music in everyday language is only a miniature of that which is behind this all, and which has been the source and origin of this nature. It is therefore that the wise of all ages have considered music to be a sacred art; for in music the seer can see the picture of the whole universe, and in the realm of music the wise can interpret the secret and nature of the working of the whole universe.
This idea is not a new idea; at the same time it is always new. Nothing is as old as the truth, and nothing is as new as the truth. Man’s desire to search for something traditional, for something original, and man’s desire for something new – all these tendencies can be satisfied in the knowledge of truth.
In the Vedas of the Hindus we read: Nada Brahma – sound, being the Creator. In the works of the wise of ancient India we read: ‘First song, then Vedas or wisdom’. When we come to the Bible, we find: ‘First was the word, and the word was God’, and when we come to the Qur’an we read that the word was pronounced, and all creation was manifest. This shows that the origin of the whole creation is sound.
No doubt the word, in the way it is used in our everyday language, is a limitation of that sound which is suggested by these Scriptures. Language is made up of names of comparable objects, and that which cannot be compared has no name. Truth is that which can never be spoken and, what the wise of all ages have spoken, is what they have tried their best to express, little as they were able to do so.
There is in Persian literature a poem by Hafiz who tells us that, when God commanded the soul to enter the human body, which is made of clay, the soul refused. Then angels were asked to sing and on hearing the angels sing the soul entered the body which it had feared to be a prison. It is a philosophy which is poetically expressed in this story. Hafiz remarked: ‘People say that on hearing the song the soul entered into the body, but in reality the soul itself was song’.
Those who have probed the depth of material science as far as modern science can reach, do not deny the fact that the origin of the whole creation is in movement, in other words: in vibration. It is this original state of the existence of life which is called in the ancient tradition sound, or the word. The first manifestation of this sound is therefore audible, the next manifestation visible. In the forms of expression of life, life has expressed itself first as sound, next as light. This is supported by the Bible where it is said that first was the word, and then came light. Again one finds in a Sura of the Qur’an: ‘God is the light of the heaven and the earth’.
The nature of the creation is the doubling of one, and it is this doubling aspect which is the cause of all duality in life. This doubling aspect represents one positive part, the other part being negative; one expressive, the other responsive. Therefore, in this creation of duality, spirit and nature stand face to face. And as there is the first aspect, which I have called sound, and the next, which I have called light, at first in these opposite nature aspects, or responsive aspects, only the light works, and if the creation goes still deeper there is sound. In nature, which is face to face with spirit, what is first expressed is light – or what man first responds to is light, and what man responds to next is what touches him deeper: it is sound.
The human body is a vehicle of the spirit, a finished vehicle which experiences all the different aspects of creation. This does not mean that all other forms and names that exist in the world – some as objects, others as creatures – are not responsive to the expression of the spirit. Really speaking, every object is responsive to the spirit and to the work of the spirit which is active in all aspects, in all names and forms of this universe. One reads in the great work of Mevlana Rumi, a Persian poet and mystic, that earth, water, fire and air before man are objects, but before God are living beings: they work at His command – as man understands living beings working under the command of a master.
If the whole creation can be well explained, it is by the phases of sound or vibration, which have manifested in different grades in all their various forms in life. Objects and names and forms are but the expression of vibrations in different aspects. Even all that we call matter or substance, and all that does not seem to speak or sound – it is all in reality vibration.
The beauty of the whole creation is this, that creation has worked in two ways; in one way it has expressed, and in the other way it has made itself a mold in order to respond. For instance, there is substance – matter to touch – and there is a sense to feel touch. There is a sound, and at the same time there is the sense of hearing to perceive the sound. There is light, there is form, there are colors, and at the same time there are eyes to see them.
What man calls beauty is the harmony of all he experiences. What after all is music? What we call music is the harmony of the audible notes. In reality there is music in color, there is music in lines, there is music in the forest where there is a variety of trees and plants, in the way in which they correspond with each other. The more widely one observes nature, the more it appeals to one’s soul. Why? Because there is a music there. And to the extent to which one sees more deeply into life and observes life more widely, one listens to more and more music – the music which answers the whole universe.
But the one whose heart is open – he need not go as far as the forest; in the midst of the crowd he can find music. At this time human ideas are so changed, owing to materialism, that there is no distinction of personality. But if one studies human nature one finds that even a piano of a thousand octaves cannot produce the variety that human nature represents: how people agree with one another, how they disagree; some become friends after a contact of one moment, and some in thousand years cannot become friends. If one could only see to what pitch the different souls are tuned, in what octave different people speak, what standard different people have! Sometimes there are two persons who disagree, and there comes a third person and all unite together. Is this not the nature of music? The more one studies the harmony of music, and then studies human nature – how people agree, and how they disagree, how there is attraction and repulsion – the more one sees that it is all music.
But now there is another question to be understood. What man knows is generally the world that he sees around himself. Very few people trouble to think that there is something beyond that which they realize around themselves. To many it is a story, when they hear that there are two worlds. But if one looks deep within oneself, there are not only two worlds, there are so many worlds that it is beyond expression. That part of one’s being which is receptive is mostly closed in the average man. What he knows is to express outwardly and to receive from this same sphere as much as he can receive by himself. For instance, the difference between a simple man and a thinking person with deeper understanding is that, when the simple person has received a word only in his ears, the thinking person has received the same word as far as his mind. So the same word has reached the ears of the one, and the heart of the other. This man whose ears the word has touched has only seen the word, but he whose heart the word has touched has seen deeper. If this simple example is true, it can be understood that one person lives only in the external world, while another lives in two worlds, and a third person may live in many worlds at the same time. When one asks: Where are those worlds? Are they above the sky, or down below the earth? – the answer is: All these worlds are in the same place as we are. As a poet has said: ‘The heart of man, if once expanded, becomes larger than all the heavens’.
The deep thinkers of all ages have therefore held one principle of awakening to life, and that principle is: emptying the self. In other words, making oneself a clearer and fuller accommodation in order to accommodate all experiences more clearly and more fully. All the tragedy of life, all its sorrows and pains belong mostly to the surface of the life in the world. If one were fully awake to life, if one could respond to life, if one could perceive life, one would not need to look for wonders, one would not need to communicate with spirits; for every atom in this world is a wonder for the one who sees with open eyes.
In answer to the question: What is the experience of those who dive deep into life, and who touch the depth within? there is a verse in Persian by Hafiz who has said: ‘It is not known how far is the destination, but so much I know: that music from afar is coming to my ears’. The music of the spheres, according to the point of view of the mystic, is like the lighthouse in the port that a man sees from the sea; it promises him that he is coming nearer to the destination.
Now one may say: What music may this be? If there were no harmony in the essence of life, life would not have created harmony in this world of variety. Man would not have longed for something which was not already in his spirit. Everything in this world which seems to lack harmony is in reality the limitation of man’s own vision. The wider the horizon of his observation becomes, the more harmony of life he enjoys. In the very depth of man’s being the harmony of the working of the whole universe sums up in a perfect music. Therefore, the music which is the source of creation, the music which is found near the goal of creation, is the music of the spheres. And it is heard and enjoyed by those who touch the very depth of their own lives.