Monday, September 07, 2015

John Coltrane and Indian Spirituality

The ground-breaking jazz musician, John Coltrane, was deeply influenced by Indian spirituality. According to Bill Cole, the jazz musician and ethnomusicologist, he was a practitioner of yoga. By 'yoga', he almost certainly meant, not the system of physical postures, but the spiritual practice aimed at Self-realisation.

Raised a Methodist Christian, Coltrane came to believe in the truth of all religions. His first wife was Muslim, and his second wife, Alice, was a devotee of Indian spirituality who later established a Vedantic centre in California. It was probably at least partly due to Alice's influence that Coltrane also developed a strong interest in Eastern philosophy, and studied Hindu texts such as the Bhagavad Gita.

The Indian spiritual concept of 'raga' fascinated him in particular because of its application to his own music. 'Raga' (also spelled 'rag') can be translated as 'emotional state'. The word also refers to the ancient musical scales used to invoke specific moods, and associated seasons or times of day. 

Mian Tansen, the famous 16th century Indian master musician, had the power, according to legend, to influence nature by playing the appropriate raga. For instance, when he played Rag Deepak (named after a burning lamp), the weather would become hot, or lamps would magically light themselves. His performance of Rag Megha (cloud) was said to have summoned rain.

Coltrane was aware of the potential power of raga. He once said in an interview:

"I would like to discover a method so that if I want it to rain, it will start right away to rain. If one of my friends is ill, I’d like to play a certain song and he will be cured; when he’d be broke, I’d bring out a different sound and immediately he’d receive all the money he needed. But what are these pieces and what is the road to travel to attain a knowledge of them, that I don’t know. The true powers of music are still unknown. To be able to control them must be, I believe, the goal of every musician. I’m passionate about understanding these forces. I would like to provoke reactions in the listeners to my music, to create a real atmosphere. It’s in that direction that I want to commit myself and to go as far as possible,"

The Indian influence is obvious In the posthumously released album 'Om', named after the syllable sacred in Hinduism, Buddhism and other Indian religions. The track titles are references to Indian spiritual concepts, and the recording even features chanting from Hindu and Buddhist texts.

Coltrane described Om as the "first syllable, the primal word, the word of power". For him, this universal sound preceded and formed the basis of musical creativity. In Yoga philosophy, with its system of chakras, the Om is embodied as Shri Ganesha in the Mooladhara Chakra. This chakra is the basis of the whole subtle system, and is prerequisite for the existence of the second Chakra, the Swadisthana, which is the seat of artistic creativity. The Swadisthana is the domain of the Goddess Saraswati, often depicted playing a vina, an Indian stringed instrument.

Not long before he died in 1967, Coltrane had intended to spend six months studying Indian music in depth with Ravi Shankar. Shankar had already met Coltrane in 1964 and taught him the basics, noting his intense interest in the subject. It would have been interesting to hear how his music might have changed, had this training occurred. 

Coltrane's music is Jazz, not Indian classical music, but he no doubt drew from the spirit of the raga, and other traditions, in his own personal way. Specifically, he sometimes used an underlying drone, like the continuous tampura sound that supports the melody of the raga. He often improvised around a very limited set of notes, even focussing on a single note, as Indian musicians do when playing ragas. His time signatures often resemble the Indian rhythmic patterns known as 'tals'. Generally he moved from the conventional chord changes of jazz to a modal way of playing, similar to the raga, in which a single emotion is evoked.

Many jazz musicians have been deeply influenced by Coltrane and have also explored Indian music and spirituality with varying degrees of success.

Jazz-Indian fusion music doesn't always work for me. When it doesn't work, it's because only a superficial flavour of indian-ness has been adopted, rather than a deep understanding of the spiritual ideas underlying Indian music. Coltrane's universal spirituality touches the same depths as that of the Indian masters, without adopting Indian styles in a literal way.

Coltrane said that one day he had a very distinct spiritual awakening which changed him fundamentally. An overwhelming experience of joy led him to give up an addiction to drugs overnight, and prompted him to asked the Divine for the ability to spread this joy to others. For Coltrane, as it is in India, music was much more than a form of entertainment; it was a way to the attainment of truth.

Saturday, June 06, 2015


I don’t really know whether art can exist without a certain degree of tranquillity or spiritual poise; without a certain amount of quiet you can have neither philosophy nor religion nor painting nor poetry. And as one of the specialties of modern life is to abolish this quiet, we are in danger of losing our arts together with the quiet of the soul that art demands.

- Saul Bellow

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Inner Being

Deborah Stevenson, Time out of Mind, paper collage.
Image used with kind permission of the artist.
See more of her work at

Try to meditate. 
Meditate more, so that you reach that inner being. 
And this inner being is the vast ocean of bliss 
which exists inside every one of us.

-Shri Mataji Nirmala Devi, 1983

According to several Indian teachings, including that of Guru Nanaka, the founder of the Sikh religion, the inner Self and the universe "outside" are one and the same. No part of the infinite cosmos, with all it's countless swirling galaxies, is outside the ambit of who you are.

One of the main obstacles to meditation is the mind's objection to being quietened - something it tends to see as a form of limitation. However, contrary to the mind's expectations, genuine states of meditation are characterised by a sense of expansiveness in consciousness; something Buddhists call the Vast Mind.

The poet and translator, Patricia Donegan, uses the composition and reading of the Japanese Haiku form as an awareness practice, a means of realising the Vast Mind. In her book, Haiku Mind, she writes: "to create and appreciate this tiny form of poetry, one needs a vast mind like the sky." 

Sunday, December 14, 2014

The Inner Wheels

“There are beautiful wild forces within us. 
Let them turn the mills inside 
and fill sacks that feed even heaven.”
–St. Francis of Assisi 

Painting by Graham Brown

Thursday, October 02, 2014

Devi Mahatmyam

Detail from an illustration to the Markandeya Purana, a Hindu text containing the Devi Mahatmyam, an account of the heroic martial exploits of the Goddess Devi as she protects the world from evil forces. 

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Non Ownership of Happiness

"Just imagine to yourself that the purpose of your life is your happiness only - and then life becomes a cruel and senseless thing. You have to embrace what the wisdom of humanity, your intellect and your heart all tell you - that the meaning of life is to serve the divine will which sent you into this world: then life will become a constant joy."
-Leo Tolstoy

Tolstoy reading, by Ilya Repin

Sunday, August 03, 2014

The Inner River

When you do things from your soul, you feel a river moving in you, a joy.

Sunday, July 06, 2014

Thoreau the Yogi

The American writer and opponent of slavery, Henry David Thoreau, was influenced by the ancient spiritual texts of India. 
He wrote that the waters of his beloved Walden Pond "mingled with the sacred water of the Ganges". 
He adopted some of the precepts of yoga philosophy, and even considered himself a yogi.
He was particularly drawn to the Bhagavad Gita, the Song of Lord Krishna, deity of the Americas, and the Visshuddhi (throat) Chakra. Thoreau played the flute; also the favourite pastime of Krishna.

In an 1849 letter to his friend H.G.O. Blake, he wrote about yoga and its meaning to him:

Free in this world as the birds in the air, disengaged from every kind of chains, those who practice yoga gather in Brahma the certain fruits of their works. Depend upon it that, rude and careless as I am, I would fain practice the yoga faithfully. The yogi, absorbed in contemplation, contributes in his degree to creation; he breathes a divine perfume, he hears wonderful things. Divine forms traverse him without tearing him, and united to the nature which is proper to him, he goes, he acts as animating original matter. To some extent, and at rare intervals, even I am a yogi.

-Reference: Wikipedia

Thoreau's birthday is coming up on the 12th of July (a sensitive retiring Cancerian). He was born almost 200 years ago.

“The morning, which is the most memorable season of the day, is the awakening hour. Then there is least somnolence in us; and for an hour, at least, some part of us awakes which slumbers all the rest of the day and night... All memorable events, I should say, transpire in morning time and in a morning atmosphere. The Vedas say, “All intelligences awake with the morning.” 

- Henry David Thoreau, Walden

Saturday, July 05, 2014

Innocence as Reality

... Innocence is often thought of as a quality projected outward. It means, literally, ‘not harm’. If a person is innocent, they aren’t going to harm you. But another way to consider the idea of harmlessness is that which is unharmed. It is a place within our own self, untouched by harm. Hans Christian Andersen believed in an untouched innocence at the core of every person. “She cannot receive any power from me greater than she now has,” says the Finn woman of Gerda in The Snow Queen, “which consists in her own purity and innocence of heart.” 

Children had special access to this innocence – animals and grandmothers did as well – but the innocence was inside everyone. Innocence could be hidden and emerge, or it could be apparent and then corrupted. See, for example, the devil’s mirror in The Snow Queen, which had the peculiar power to make everything good and beautiful seem like nothing. The loveliest landscapes looked like boiled spinach and the very best people became hideous or stood on their heads and had no stomachs.

To be wholly innocent was rare. To be wholly innocent, for Andersen, meant to be wholly yourself. It meant that you were free from the distorted reality of the devil’s mirror. There is a connection in Andersen’s work between innocence and reality, then, because innocence is truth. And just as truth is eternal, so is innocence. Though many of Andersen’s tales are tragedies, ending in death or humiliation, they all affirm the importance of a life lived toward an eternal, personal truth. This is what Andersen meant when he said, “Every man’s life is a fairytale, written by God's fingers.” This doesn’t mean that every man’s life is a fantasy. It means that every man’s life is a quest toward reality.

- Stefany Anne Golberg

Rie Cramer's 1931 illustration for The Little Match Girl by Hans Christian Andersen

Friday, May 23, 2014

The Nabhi and Swadisthana Chakras

There is often confusion amongst practitioners of yoga over the qualities of the "2nd" and "3rd" chakras of the subtle body.

The Swadisthana Chakra, corresponds to the colour yellow/orange and the fire element, while the 3rd Chakra, the Nabhi (Navel centre) corresponds to the colour green and the water element. However, you often see contemporary chakra charts where the reverse is indicated.

I feel that the confusion has arisen because the Swadisthana Chakra actually orbits the Nabhi Chakra. So perhaps they should not necessarily be thought of in numerical order. Sometimes the Swadisthana is located in the 2nd position, and sometimes in the third, depending on where it is in its revolution.

It makes sense, though, to think of the Swadisthan as the 2nd Chakra, as it represents creation, the phase of existence preceding the evolutionary stage. The stage of evolution/preservation is at the Nabhi level (3rd centre) with its 10 Avatars or incarnations of Vishnu in progressively higher forms from fish to man.

Traditional depictions of the Hindu god Vishnu reclining on the cosmic ocean (see illustration) help us to properly understand the nature of these two closely connected chakras.
Lord Vishnu presides over the Nabhi Chakra, through which he and his consort Shri Lakshmi sustain the body at its centre, the navel level. He is shown reclining on a green cosmic ocean, and with greenish skin. There is a clear connection with the water element.
Lord Brahma, god of creation, sits on a lotus (chakra) growing from Lord Vishnu's navel. This is symbolic of the creative Swadisthana chakra orbiting the Nabhi chakra as a sub-chakra satellite.
In Indian mythology, as all over the world, creativity is associated with the fire element, which is yellow/orange.

In Hindu culture Shri LakshmiVishnu is the aspect of the Divine who provides wealth. Shri Lakshmi is often depicted dispensing gold coins. Perhaps this is why the Nabhi often is associated with gold or yellow.

The Nabhi Chakra (also called the Manipura - City of Gems) manifests physically as the solar plexus. According to Wikipedia, the solar plexus is so called because its many radiating nerves resemble the sun. This may be the reason that the Nabhi chakra is associated with the fire element in some systems - the sun being fiery.

Ultimately the qualities of the chakras, and the aspects of the Divine which govern them, are closely allied anyway, and best experienced for oneself through thoughtless meditation, rather than argued over on a mental level.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Lord Buddha on Meditation

Lord Buddha was asked, “What have you gained from meditation?”
“Nothing”, he replied, “However let me tell you what I lost:
anger, anxiety, depression, insecurity, fear of old age and death.”

Today is Shri Buddha Purnima, the full moon day on which the birthday of Lord Buddha is celebrated.

Shri Padmapani Buddha, Ajanta Caves, Maharashtra, India

Saturday, March 29, 2014

The Fountain

The Fountain
by St. John of the Cross

English version by Willis Barnstone

How well I know that flowing spring
in black of night.

The eternal fountain is unseen.
How well I know where she has been
in black of night.

I do not know her origin.
None. Yet in her all things begin
in black of night.

I know that nothing is so fair
and earth and firmament drink there
in black of night.

I know that none can wade inside
to find her bright bottomless tide
in black of night.

Her shining never has a blur;
I know that all light comes from her
in black of night.

I know her streams converge and swell
and nourish people, skies and hell
in black of night.

The stream whose birth is in this source
I know has a gigantic force
in black of night.

The stream from but these two proceeds
yet neither one, I know, precedes
in black of night.

The eternal fountain is unseen
in living bread that gives us being
in black of night.

She calls on all mankind to start
to drink her water, though in dark,
for black is night.

O living fountain that I crave,
in bread of life I see her flame
in black of night.

Ghent Altarpiece (detail), Jan van Eyck.

St. John of the Cross was a Spanish Christian mystic and poet of the 16th century.
The Eternal Fountain is an image of the Kundalini, the nourishing energy of the Holy Spirit, which John describes as the feminine aspect of the Divine.