Customs and Rituals

Are music and dance important in Hindu religious ritual?

Ordinary daily worship is generally conducted without instrumental or vocal music, apart from the priest’s chanting of Sanskrit prayers of praise and supplication. Ceremonies, however, can include congregational chanting and singing of hymns. Many temples, especially in India, employ temple musicians to accompany certain rituals and to walk ahead of portable icons of the deity during processions outside the temple. Playing traditional instruments such as oboe-like woodwinds, drums and other percussion pieces, the musicians fill the air with auspicious sound.

During medieval times troops of dancers, vocalists, and instrumentalists often performed works of classical religious poetry set to music on the steps of the great temples. Sacred dance reenacting mythic tales of the deities remains an important cultural treasure, but nowadays it takes the form of classical performance outside the context of religious ritual. Among the most popular dances are those that tell of the timeless romance of Krishna and his beloved Radha.

Hindu tradition includes a vast repertoire of devotional vocal music in dozens of major languages and regional styles. Singers pray to the various deities, often using classical poetry for their texts. Instrumental performers like the great sitar virtuoso Ravi Shankar have made classical Indian music known far beyond India in recent times. Working with the late violinist Yehudi Menuhin and the Beatles, to name only his most famous collaborators, Shankar popularized a tradition whose roots are deeply religious. Musical modes called ragas (“tints”) play to the emotions, creating subtle “flavors” (rasas) with sounds and rhythms tailored to every season and time of day. God creates the world through sound, and dances creation into existence. Human beings need music and dance to connect with the divine.

Burning ghats of Manikarnika, where many families bring their dead for cremation, downstream from the bathing ghats on the River Ganges in Benares (Varanasi), city of Shiva. Note the stacks of firewood along the bank. (Photo courtesy of Beata Grant.)


This is a web preview of the "The Handy Religion Answer Book" app. Many features only work on your mobile device. If you like what you see, we hope you will consider buying. Get the App