Photo courtesy Saubhagya Gandharv

We all live in a world where we are constantly being shaped to be or become ‘someone.’ There is always an external goal or a standard by which our lives are constantly being measured. And in that process, we gain something as well as lose something. When our efforts are focused externally towards a preconceived ‘something,’ there is always a comfort that we at least know where we are heading. Even though the path may or may not be visible, knowing that we are headed towards a particular destination offers some comfort.

Listen to Sri's singing on her YouTube Channel,
SaMa Moments.

But, this comfort doesn’t come without a cost. It comes at the cost of losing the present-ness or the very creativeness of the moment. When we have to live our lives where neither the path is clear nor the destination is knowable, we then can only resort to what we have: which is the ‘now.’ Whitehead’s process philosophy, in my humble opinion, offers this great wisdom to cherish and enjoy the precious ‘now,’ for it is the ‘now’ where life happens. And when we begin to appreciate the novelty of each moment, it starts to penetrate through all aspects of our life creating colorful moments, much like sunlight penetrating through a glass prism.

“No matter how long the room has been dark, an hour or a million years, the moment the lamp of awareness is lit, the entire room becomes luminous. You are that luminosity. You are that clear light.”
—Tenzin Wangyal Rinpoche

I was trained in a genre of music called Carnatic music, which is also frequently referred to as South Indian classical music, and it represents one of the ancient traditional art forms of India. The music has evolved over many centuries, through the contribution of many great past masters and practitioners, who not just looked at it as a means of entertainment or pleasure for the senses, but as the end to attain spiritual oneness with God and every being on this planet. To them, practicing the art of music was a Yoga in itself, called Naadayoga ( the meditative practice of sound), a pathway to attain spiritual unity with the Divine, and also to transform oneself to lead a contented life, in total acceptance with the present moment. Music learning and practicing, as intended by such masters of the past centuries, is primarily for oneself, and not to please or entertain others. Of course, if such music pleases another being, it is only but a byproduct, but not the central objective of singing or playing music. An anecdote depicting this idea might be helpful here.

One of the great saint composers and Carnatic musicians of the 17th century was Sri Tyaagaraaja, known for his devotion towards his favorite deity of the Hindu tradition, Lord Raama. Although not much has been documented from this saint composer’s life (in an academic sense), a lot of inferences about his temperament and approach to music has been made from analyzing his musical compositions (both music and poetry), and also through information transmitted orally from his familial descendants and disciples. One such instance, associated with a composition called ‘Nidhi ChAla sukhama,’ offers some food for thought about this great soul’s conviction towards himself and his music. It is believed that Sri Tyaagaraaja was once summoned to sing in front of the King of Tanjore (the city in Southern India where he lived), who in turn, offered to give him much wealth, property, gold and other materialistic comforts for his music. At that moment, Sri Tyaagaraaja is said to have composed the following composition (in Telugu language) which could possibly depict his state of mind towards this incident.

Nidhi chAla Sukhama? Raamuni Sannidhi Seva Sukhama?

Nijamuga balgu manasa

Translation: Is wealth more comforting? Or is serving the abode of Raama more comforting?

O Mind! Please tell the truth.

Dadhi Navaneetha Ksheeramulu rucho?

Daasharathi dhyaana bhajana sudhaa rasamu rucho?

Translation: Does milk, butter and yoghurt feel tasty? Or does the chanting and singing the praises of Lord Raama (another name for Lord Raama is Daasharathi) tastier?

O Mind! Please tell the truth!

Dama shamamanu ganga snaanamu sukhama?

Kardama durvishya kupa snaanamu sukhama?

Mamata bandhana yuta narasthuthi sukhama?

Sumathi tyaagaraajuni keertana sukhama?

Translation: Does the practice of self-control and tranquility, which is like bathing in the holy river Ganga, comforting? Or is indulging in the evil-natured pleasures of the senses, which is like bathing in a dirty pool, comforting? Is praising a human, who is filled with egotism (mamata), comforting? Or, is singing songs of this Tyaagaraaja, who has been blessed with a pure mind by you (Lord Raama) comforting? O Mind! Please tell the truth.

This composition clearly tells us that Sri Tyaagaraaja, who was a true Naadopasaka (worshipper of sound) had the conviction that the purpose of his music was not to please the senses or attain wealth and appreciation from others, but both the means and the end to attain unity with his higher self and Lord Raama, who was his personal God.

Another great saint composer of the 17th century, who was a contemporary of Sri Tyaagaraaja, was Sri Muthusamy Dikshitar. Although the compositional and the musical styles of both these composers were very different, they both had one commonality; which is the spirituality that they spread through their musical practice and compositions. An anecdote, from Sri Muthuswamy Dikshitar’s life, could be a testimony to the above mentioned thought. It is believed that, once when Sri Muthuswamy Dikshitar was traveling through a drought-stricken place called Ettayapuram in Southern India, he composed/sang this following composition as a prayer to Divine Mother Goddess Amriteshwari, to alleviate the plight of the people of this land, who were at the verge of death due to hunger, thirst and draught.


Lord Rama. Painted in South India
(probably Thanjavur or Tiruchchirapalli) 1816.

Ananda amritaakarshini

Amritavarshini haraadi pujithe Shive bhavani

Translation: O Mother! The one who attracts and showers the nectar of happiness and eternity! The one who is worshiped by everyone, and the one who is eternal.

Sri Nandanaadi samrakshini

Sri guruguha janani chidroopiNi

Saananda hridaya nilaye sadaye

Satya suvrishti hetave tvaam

Santatam chintaye amriteshwari

Salilam varshaya! Varshaya! Varshaya!

Translation: O mother! You are the protector of many other Gods and forces in this nature, you are the form of consciousness, you dwell in the pure hearts of people, you are the cause of good vegetation, sustenance and rain. I think about you, my mother, O Goddess Amriteshwari. Please shower the rain (salilam Varshaya), Please shower (Varshaya), Please shower (Varshaya).

Legend says that as soon as he finished his soulful rendition, rains poured down in Ettayapuram for a long time and filled the place and the people with joy and happiness. Many more such instances are attributed to Sri Muthuswamy Dikshitar’s meditative music, where he helped and transformed lives through his spirituality and devotion through music.

Now, you may be wondering why I am writing about these masters and their spiritual music in a blog post that is supposed to shed light on my musical journey. That is understandable, but I believe this preface is needed to rightly get across what I intend to convey in this article. So, let’s fast forward now to the 1990s and the early 2000s when I was a budding student of Carnatic music, learning its fundamentals and other grammatical aspects from various teachers across India. Although I had heard such anecdotes about the spiritual nature of this music from my teachers and other sources, I didn’t have the chance to fully appreciate or experience it through my own experience, for most of my initial learning was focused on building adequate technique and vocal flexibility. I also grew up in India at a time where Carnatic music had mostly come to be learned and enjoyed more as a skilled performance, rather than a sacred ritual for connecting with one’s own spirituality.

I had the opportunity (and also the blessing) to inherit such necessary skills and techniques, and in a few years, I was one of the ‘performers’ of this art. I sounded technically fine, pleasant, and scholarly, won awards and competitions, and performed all over India. But something was seriously lacking. Something was missing. I did not know how to verbalize it, but I knew that the spirit of this music was much beyond the techniques and the scholarly approaches that I was employing. In short, I could say that throughout my adolescence and twenties, I had acquired what Whitehead would call ‘knowledge,’ but the skills somehow remained ‘inert,’ without adding much value to my own existence. Performances started to feel like a display of borrowed ideas and techniques, and there came a point where I really had to stop and ponder, ‘What does this music truly mean to me and why am I singing?’. As the puzzlement continued, life took me on an adventurous ride into uncharted territories much farther away from my home, family, country, performances, stage, awards — basically everything that I had known until that point. And due to that shake up, I was finally able to have a glimpse of my own relationship with music, from an objective as well as a subjective view. It felt like intensely zooming in and zooming out at the same time.

And when everything ‘external’ ceased to inform what I was creating and how I was relating to this music, I was finally able to create for myself. And such creating involved long hours of solitude, questioning my own ideologies of the should do’s and the shouldn’t do’s of Carnatic music, what is pleasant and what is unpleasant, what is musical and what is unmusical etc. In Whitehead’s terms, it could be said that I was going through a much-needed regenerative phase of generalization, and this process, somewhat similar to the conception and birthing of a child, was anything but easy. While it was liberating to move beyond the confines of traditions and norms on the one hand, it also called for enormous courage and a spirit of adventure on my part, to embrace the novelty of what I was creating and walk on this uncharted territory, where neither the path nor the destination was clear.

Photo courtesy Sam Moghadam Khamseh

As a performing artist, it always felt good to be surrounded by people who cared and cheered for my work, who believed in my talent and purpose, and who saw value in my creations. But, life opened up a situation for me where I had to believe in myself, my value and my creations, regardless of how others perceived, understood, received, criticized, or enjoyed it. And during such moments, there was only one source of support to rely on, and that was God, whom people address by many names and worship in many forms. When a deep sense of the Divine support permeated my heart, it did not feel like a lonely path anymore. The compositions and the poetry of the saint composers, which remained as ‘bits of information’ and merely performance materials, started becoming alive and fresh with the truth of my own existence.

And now, when I look back at the same composition which the saint composer Sri Tyaagaraaja had composed many years before, it not only reveals the literal meaning of the then penned lyrics, but also brings forth some interpretations derived from my own existential truth as well. It is then, not simply Sri Tyaagaraaja’s composition anymore, but also my ‘own,’ as it is infused with my life and experiences too. Consequently, Lord Raama, whom Sri Tyaagaraaja addresses in his compositions, is now not only a mental concept, a definite form or an abstraction of God, but is also ‘my’ personal God to whom I connect. Without such a personal connection to the higher self, the composition merely remained as a piece of information, that is ‘inert’ and ‘indigestible.’ But, when it got intertwined with my own existence, spirituality, and truth, it started transforming into what Whitehead would call ‘wisdom,’ from being merely ‘knowledge.’

Let us take a quick look at the composition again, but now with my added and extrapolated interpretations. You may also choose to listen to my rendition of this composition as you are reading: Nidhi Chaala Sukhama?

Nidhi chaala Sukhama? Raamuni Sannidhi Seva Sukhama?

Nijamuga balgu manasa

Translation: Is wealth more comforting? Or is serving the abode of Raama more comforting? O Mind! Please tell the truth.

Interpretation: Here we may possibly understand that by wealth, Sri Tyaagraaja does not just mean money. Wealth is anything that is of the world, that we chase and crave for. It includes knowledge, power, money, fame, money, respect, recognition, appreciation, love and many more. Has chasing anything given us any peace? It is only when we calm ourselves down and understand that there is nothing to be chased, the true peace dawns upon us. When we feel grateful, content and blessed, we feel most peaceful inside ourselves. Thus, serving in Raama's sannidhi could also be considered as a metaphor to emphasize that state of mind, where the chasing has stopped, including the search for God. When we are in Raama's sannidhi, we are already in his presence, so there is no need to chase him too. When all chasing and desires cease, true peace emerges!

Dadhi Navaneetha Ksheeramulu rucho?

Daasharathi dhyaana bhajana sudhaa rasamu rucho?

Translation: Does milk, butter and yoghurt feel tasty? Or does the chanting and singing the praises of Lord Raama (another name for Lord Raama is Daasharathi) tastier? O Mind! Please tell the truth!

Interpretation: There is a Tirukkural (an ancient philosophical text consisting of couplets in Tamil language) which says that ‘when good food for the ear ceases, then, maybe a little could be spared for the stomach’. The author here thus emphasizes the importance of digesting good information/knowledge for the soul and Sri Tyaagaraaja is also suggesting the same here. Similar to how good food nourishes the body, positive information passed through our ears, nourishes our thoughts, feelings and actions, and thereby the quality of our lives. And so, listening to positive words, affirmations and chants of the Divine add more positivity and energy to our entire being and they are much tastier (more enjoyable), because when we are experiencing such positive vibrations and joy, even hunger ceases to exist!

Dama shamamanu ganga snaanamu sukhama?

Kardama durvishya kupa snaanamu sukhama?

Mamata bandhana yuta narasthuthi sukhama?

Sumathi tyaagarajuni keertana sukhama?

Translation: Does the practice of self-control and tranquility, which is like bathing in the holy river Ganga, comforting? Or is indulging in the evil-natured pleasures of the senses, which is like bathing in a dirty pool, comforting? Is praising a human, who is filled with egotism (mamata), comforting? Or, is singing songs of this TyAgaraja, who has been blessed with a pure mind by you (Lord Raama) comforting? O Mind! Please tell the truth!

Interpretation: In the first two lines Sri Tyaagaraaja asks his own mind, which of the two options; taking a dip in the holy river Ganga or taking a dip in dirty water gives peace. He compares self-control and tranquility to the former, while equating the evil objectives of the mind to the latter activity. We always have a choice in life to respond to situations. Will anybody in their sane mind choose to be angry, sad or petty? Given a choice, we all would like to have peace and be peaceful ourselves. So, Sri Tyaagaraaja says that the choice to be peaceful is already with us and that we have to cultivate our mind power through perseverance to make wise choices in our lives that will lead to peacefulness.

In the next two lines, Sri Tyaagaraaja asks if praising an egocentric human instead of praising God would give peace. Praising a human or anything of the world will only lead to disappointment, for we can't please everyone all the time. There will be times when we fail to meet others’ expectations, and we all are imperfect and fallible in our own ways. To praise a human as an embodiment of perfection is equal to placing a burden on ourselves and also on the one we are expecting perfection from. Instead, choose to praise the ever-loving God, the Soul, the Consciousness (you can give any name and form for your personal God — Sri Tyaagaraaja chose to call him Raama), who resides within us, ever near and close to us, for that is when true peace could be achieved.

Some Final thoughts - Why Process Way of Living and Musicking?

Whitehead, an educator and a mathematician himself, took great interest in writing about the aims and purpose of education, and believed that a religious education inculcates, first and foremost, a sense of duty and reverence (Aims of Education, 1929). He clarified that the sense of ‘duty’ arises from preparing ourselves to make our own wise choices at any given moment in time, and the sense of ‘reverence’ arises from the deep acceptance that the ‘present’ contains within itself all the wisdom of the past and the potential of the future. In simpler words, he essentially suggested that education should help us enjoy and revere the present moment, while knowing that the present moment is also caused, in a way, by the conscious choices we make. So, education, at its best, can help us prepare to make choices wisely, so we can cherish the present moment to the fullest.

“The essence of education is that it be religious.”
—Alfred North Whitehead, The Aims of Education, 1929

Now, the word that might cause a little discomfort to non-process thinkers and non-Whiteheadians here would be ‘religious.’ Was Whitehead just talking about a specific religion here? I definitely do not think so. At his core, I believe that by using the qualifier ‘religious,’ Whitehead wanted to convey that a religious education is any process that can offer a sense of the infinitude that transcends our limited perceptions and comprehension of the world as human beings. And if an education doesn’t offer such a suggestion about our own limitations and dogmatic approaches to comprehend the world, then there is possibly no way that we may come to approach each moment of our lives with duty and reverence; for revering life requires attributes such as humility to accept our limitations, gratitude for being alive, and contentedness for not always looking for more but being happy and joyful with the present.

Most education systems today are focused on imparting more and more ‘bits of information’ instead of actually focusing on how such information resonates with the very existential truth of the learners. Regardless of the discipline, education has mainly become an avenue to gain technical expertise, where the focus is more on quantity versus quality. As a music student and an educator, I struggled for years to really let go of a lot of quantity to move towards quality. And when such an artistic shift happened, it was rather consequential that musicking became more contemplative, personal, and joyful for me, with the primary purpose to connect with the higher self, as opposed to approaching it as a technical, scholarly, and a social activity that was always bound by ideologies concerning how ‘others’ would perceive and enjoy it. In short, it was a transformation from fear to love — a love for the present and all the beautiful creations of the one true creator, the Divine.

A process approach to musicking has been liberating, for each moment is novel — so how does it matter if we make a mistake or miss a note? There is always a next moment to catch up, and, in reality, there are no mistakes. What we call mistakes, are simply possibilities of the infinite for Whitehead. So, why should we live in suffering, fear, guilt, and a false sense of ourselves, when all we have is a moment? Whitehead’s outlook on life, in a nutshell, is best summarized by Winnie, the Pooh.

“What day is it?”

“It’s today,” squeaked Piglet.

“My favorite day,” said Pooh.

In invite you to listen to some of my musical works on my YouTube channel, SaMa Moments. I named my channel after the concept of Sama, which refers to the practice of spiritual musical offering or gathering in the Sufi traditions of Islam. The purpose of Sama music sessions, as I understand, is to help us spiritually connect with ourselves, each other, and our higher selves.


  • Srividhya Balaji

    Srividhya Balaji is currently a PhD candidate in the mathematics education program at the Faculty of Education, Simon Fraser University, Canada. Sri's research is at the intersection of process philosophy, psychology of math/music creativity and holistic education. Her broader research interests include music therapy, multi-cultural music/math education, comparative philosophy/religion, and spirituality in education. Sri is a mathematics graduate and also an award-winning performing artist/educator of South Indian classical (Carnatic) music, and has performed/taught across India, USA and Canada for more than 12 years. Apart from academics and music, she is also passionate about learning new languages, poetry, writing, and interacting with people from different cultural and ethnic backgrounds.