The Search for Samhita

Art and the Vedic tradition.

A man who cultivates his garden, as Voltaire wishes.
He who is grateful for the existence of music.
He who takes pleasure in tracing etymology.
Two workmen playing, in a café in the South, a silent game of chess.
The potter, contemplating a colour and a form.
The typographer who sets this page well, though it may not please him.
A woman and a man, who read the last tercets of a certain canto.
He who strokes a sleeping animal.
He who justifies, or wishes to, a wrong done him.
He who is grateful for the existence of Stevenson.
He who prefers others to be right.
These people, unaware, are saving the world.

Jorge Luis Borges[1]

In an attempt to make sense of our world we have always devised models within which we could interpret the ‘human condition’. There are as many constructs as there are cultures but, historically, the tripartite frame, within which concepts regarding the nature of existence are couched, figures eminently; these trinary paradigms are very apparent in our received mythologies both religious and philosophical.

If we cite the Vedic tradition (the sacred writings of Hinduism) as among the earliest of human endeavours in structured thought we can also carbon date, as it were, the anthropogenesis of man’s conceptual thinking. The Vedas purport to hold the key to the development of the full potential of human physiology, that is, enlightenment, on the basis of neurophysiological refinement. Consciousness, within the Vedic paradigm, in its purest state, is the unification of three characteristics – the knower, the process of knowing and the known. A concept more beautifully and succinctly described in Sanskrit as the Samhita (unity) ofRishiDevata and Chhandas.[2] It is also referred to by some Western physicists (Quantum Physics has, in recent years, arrived at remarkably similar conclusions) as the observer, the process of observation and the observed.

The conclusion we can make here is that a tripartite model can be observed as a distinct essential component in numerous previous civilisations both Eastern and Western (consider the Holy Trinity). It may have manifested itself in different expressions but the fundamental concept of balance (Samhita) between the various aspects of human thought and endeavour has always been deemed necessary. Built into the socio-political structure of civilisations, was an understanding that in addition to the needs of the physical being, there was also the necessity for the development, purification and expression of human contemplation, consciousness, the metaphysical, and the non-verifiable. Hence, the perennial presence in all societies (in varying degrees of influence but always pertinent) of the theologian, the bard, the philosopher, the composer, the myth, the seanchaí, the dance, the trickster, the witch, the outsider, the libero pensatore, alongside the hunter, the chief, the councillor, the doctor, the tax man, the town planner and the rubbish collector.

The Absence of Samhita
The Western civilisation of the new millennium could be characterised for the absence of Samhita (unity) within its structures, for the predominance of the physical over the metaphysical, for an imbalance in favour of the material over the spiritual. But where do we look to scrutinise the genesis of this fracture? The implicit duality that had been held in Samhita in previous civilisations certainly became explicit in what we call the modern scientific era. Galileo’s astronomical discoveries (one can speak here both literally and figuratively) created the initial shift. One is conscious of the importance of scientific developments before Galileo, those, for example, made by Copernicus and Brahe to name but two. However, the combination of discoveries in astronomy, physics and biology made in the seventeenth century were so comprehensive that the era can justifiably be described as the progenitor of the scientific age. And it was scientific fact that would slowly but surely alter the paradigm of divine truth that had maintained Western civilisation in a monotheistic orbit for centuries.

Darwin’s and Descartes’ influence in this regard was also hugely significant. The latter’s philosophies further forced a wedge between the outer world of scientific objective verification and the unverifiable inner world of faith and subjective notion. As he stated, ‘… we have established that all the bodies in the universe are composed of the one and the same matter … since there are countless configurations that God might have instituted here, experience alone must teach us which configurations he actually selected in preference to the rest. We are thus free to make any assumption on these matters with the sole proviso that all the consequences of our assumptions must agree with our experience.’[3]

Herein lies the seed that ultimately sowed the dominance of the rational, empirical mode of enquiry, a system for which truth depended on experiment and evidence. The Enlightenment, with its nurturing of the one-sided sciences, reduced the world, increasingly, to a mere object of technical and mathematical investigation. Divine truth was replaced with scientific fact and, consequently, a breach was created between inner man and outer world; the foundations necessary for unity, for Samhita, were beginning to crack.

The effect of this rift on the artist was profound and irreversible. As the all-encompassing deity-based paradigm was slowly eroded, the artist moved away from representing divine truth. While the sciences forged ahead with their objective scrutinia, the art creator took alternative directions veering towards emotional and psychological interpretations of the world.

One is seduced by the idea that the arts embodied a humanistic subliminal attempt to counteract the forces of objectification the sciences were furnishing as bona fide explanations of existence. Hence, we see developing in music, for example, tendencies emerging from the Mannheim School towards a greater dynamic, expressive usage and the absorption of empfindsamer Stil (sensitive style) into instrumental works. The Sturm und Drang intensifications in literature penetrate into Haydn’s classical forms and lead, ultimately, to a position, from Beethoven onwards, where, in a very real sense, music is annexed by the personality of the composer.

Similar developments took place in painting. Consider, for example, the works of Rembrandt. His self-portraits (of which there are more than forty) are, in essence, psychological representations; the dark canvases signify efforts to interpret mood rather than objective accuracy. The very subject (in the later works old and haggard, perhaps even ugly, toothless) hardly fit into the inherited and previously accepted notions of ‘classical beauty’.

Even in overtly religious works like his final painting of 1669, Return of the Prodigal Son, the narrative takes second place to the inherent psychological drama. These art creations attempt to represent neither divine truth nor scientific precision but rather a subjective interpretation of an emotional event, neither the utopian promise of religious exaltation nor the purity of scientific specificity but rather the consequences of a distinct and human contrivance; they are one-off responses that can be neither verified nor disputed.

Art and science
Let us consider this incompatibility between art and science with regard to music. It should, of course, be acknowledged, that (as in all art forms) music has always been very profoundly persuaded by science. From the advancements in mechanical apparatus that improved the key and valve systems in instruments, to the influence of computer technology in the field of electro-acoustics, the impact of science on music has been prodigal. It is important to remember that the music emerging from the Enlightenment was one that shared the ideals of scientific proportion, balance, architecture and objectivity. Derek Mahon’s description of Mozart’s music as ‘heartfelt calculus’[4] conjures up perfectly the liaison music made with the scientific age. It could be said that in the extreme constructivist theories of total serialism, heard in some Boulez, or the highly structured minimalism, say, of Reich, that music comes closest to absolute objectivisation in form and content. Despite these characteristics, at no stage does this music (or Mozart’s for that matter) ever loose its internalised quality. There is a seamless characteristic here that would seem to deny both subjective and objective responses.

It is sometimes argued that the actual mechanical noises of the twentieth century have been replicated by composers like Varése (the siren has earned aesthetic merit in his Amériques) – resulting in a true incorporation of technology into music. But these sounds have the quality of the objet trouvé in art so that although his music is clearly integrated with the background reverberation of the scientific world it is more pertinently a socio-political statement.

In any case, the delivered execution and the received experience of music are, in the most minute details, exposed to and informed by such a limitless array of nuance and gradation, subject to the influencing factors of acoustics, psychology of aural perception and discernment of tempo, levels of cognition and familiarity, as to render no two musical events the same. This runs contrary to the notion, held resolutely to this day, that a scientific experiment must be capable of being repeated exactly if the result is to be verified. This exact repeatability, which is the cornerstone of scientific endeavour, is impossible in music, even with that of electro-acoustic music for tape only and under the most controlled conditions.

This signifies that music, amongst all the artforms, is the most remote from science and its insistence on verification, and allows us to contemplate with greater understanding Georges Braque’s maxim that ‘In art there is only one thing that counts; the bit that can’t be explained’. Ambiguity is the key characteristic here and music, being a construct of non-denotational symbols, enjoys a state of pure metaphor. Its message is conveyed not via denotation but rather connotation. Even exalted poetry and prose, which bathe in meta-messages, ultimately offer themselves up to that part of human cognition that deals with the interpretation of denotational, verbal syntax. The contact music makes with our consciousness, on the other hand, takes place outside the arena of ‘labelling’ cognisance. Music isn’t injected with metaphor, it is metaphor, and in this respect qualifies itself as gloriously ambiguous, or, in the words of Thomas Mann ‘…is ambiguity as a system.’[5]

Taking these characteristics into account, therefore, one has to contend with the concept that music (and art in general) can only exist in opposition to scientific precision and accuracy. Art leads us away from the codes of exactitude towards the relative, the ambiguous, the subjective, and, particularly in the case of music, to the arena of simultaneous possibilities.[6] This is not to deny the mathematical in art. One should keep in mind Zbigniew Herbert’s observations that ‘the architects of the Doric temples were less concerned with beauty than with the chiselling of the world’s order into stone’.[7]

It should be remembered that despite its essential metaphoric credentials, music is, paradoxically, the art form most connected with mathematics which, for its part, has always formed the fundamental building blocks of music from early monody through the great architectural feats of Bach to the calculations of proportion, Fibonacci numbers and set theories which are common practice for composers today. This apparent contradictio in adjecto can only be understood with the appreciation that the relationship between music and mathematics is concerned with association not computation. As György Ligeti so clearly expresses it ‘Somewhere underneath, very deeply, there’s a common place in our spirit where the beauty of mathematics and the beauty of music meet. But they don’t meet on the level of algorithm or making music by calculation. It’s much lower, much deeper – or much higher, you could say.’[8] This statement makes patent the dualities inherent in music, its duplicitous temperament allowing it to be mathematically constructed while, at the same time, refusing to be reduced to mere equation.[9]

Despite its architectonic (and architeutonic!) immensity, Bach’s Goldberg Variations remains one of the most mystifying works of art and an exemplary model for the statement ars est celare artem. The thirty-two bar bass-line of the opening Aria, with its resultant harmonic superstructure, provides the framework for all the following thirty variations. One can be aware of the system Bach devises of using canons for every third variation in a strict arithmetical progression of intervals from the unison to the ninth, but this will not really alter the received experience on hearing the Aria again when it re-emerges at the end, purified and illuminated by the preceding variations. It is one of the most transcendental moments in music literature.

The idealistic civilisation
This suggests that the very nature of subjective creativity disallows objective scrutiny and, therefore, the arts would always provide an alternative vision to the scientific. The driving argument here is that the inherent need within human consciousness for unbounded expression could never be adequately realised within the precisionist code of the sciences (we would do well to remember that the Latin praecidere means ‘to curtail’).

This very point has been the focus of philosophical debate from the aphorisms of the Rig Veda to the die Lebenswelt theories which emerged from Edmund Husserl’s development of Phenomenology. A more recent model for this thesis was proposed by Pitirim Sorokin[10] who suggested that civilisation falls into two fundamental categories – the ideational (or spiritual and ascetic), and the sensate(or materialistic and external), and offered that the balanced situation between these extremes is the idealistic.

Now, if this sounds familiar we can only deduce that it has taken Western civilisation until the mid-twentieth century to come to conclusions which the ancient Vedic tradition had long established, for Sorokin’s model is essentially no different to the RishiDevata and Chhandas structures mentioned earlier, including the plea for balance (Samhita). Sorokin’s idealistic civilisation could only be attained if the balance between the extremes is negotiated. He himself has suggested that this has happened rarely, offering only two cases in point – between the fifth and fourth centuries bc in Greece, and between about 1200 and 1400 ad in Western Europe.[11] We can conclude, therefore, that the opposing aspects in our civilisation – the inner, subjective, spiritual (ideational), and the external, objective, technological (sensate) would be held in beneficial balance by sustaining forces and a managed proportionality (idealistic) creating the unity (Samhita) required for a fully realised society. Without doubt, this supposition is presently unattainable in the context of the supra-technological forces that dominate our world today.


Having arrived at a position where a breach between science and art in the new millennium has been recognised, a separation in which science and technology are the dominant forces, vital questions emerge. What becomes of the role of the creative artist in the twenty-first century? Perhaps more than ever before the function of the artist would seem to some indefinable if not redundant. And the simple question as to what use a novel or a piece of sculpture has for us is one not too easily answered. In a world dominated by numbers, mathematical equations, market values, computer-generated formulae, profit systems, where is the value, one might ask, in, say, financing the commission of a new symphonic work; how can one justify the funding of such an apparently useless entity? Martin Heidegger’s simple question ‘what are poets for?’ still resonates.

Some have argued that the artwork provides a sense of ending, or containment, in a life existence which otherwise remains uncertain. A wise guru once said ‘the past is bygone, the future obscure but the present is in your hands.’[12] Notwithstanding the proposition offered in this statement to act now, the reality is that life in the present for the majority of us is as uncertain as our past and future and the artwork in some way provides a closed space within which to contemplate it, to find some sense of closure in an otherwise endless flow of confusion. Seamus Heaney has suggested something similar. He purports that the artwork in some way finds a correlation to the difficulties of human reality, that ‘the co-ordinates of the imagined thing correspond to and allow us to contemplate the complex burden of our experience.’[13] George Steiner has very cogently proposed that the work of art provides an opportunity to surpass the finality of death, not as an act of vanity but rather to direct a channel of high thought towards an improved, more enlightened futurity – ‘The thrust of will which engenders art and disinterested thought, the engaged response which alone can ensure its transmission to other human beings, to the future, are rooted in a gamble on transcendence’.[14] Inherent in this concept is a religious endeavour, not in the specific sense but in the broader spiritual, eschatological meaning of the term.

For those who believe that the religious phase, in any sense of the term, has passed, that the Judaeo-Christian epoch has disintegrated in the dust of the holocaust, in the nuclear wasteland of Hiroshima, art remains the only hope for a lost humanism. Ted Hughes’ comment that we better have some alternative for when we crawl from beneath the rubble of the churches might seem over dramatic until you take just a moment to contemplate that the scientific and technological developments in the twentieth century, under the powerless (consenting?) eye of the Christian church, made possible the annihilation of maybe seventy million people between 1914 and 1945.

And so the artist and the artwork would still seem to play a role in the modern age, as they previously have done. Whether it is Ted Hughes’ gamble on an old mythology or Steiner’s stake on an, as yet, unknown future, the artist, as shaman or custodian of inner consciousness, still seems of significance to our society, perhaps more so than ever before. Questions remain, however. In a world dominated by technology how does the artist work, in what way do the prevailing forces impinge on his or her creative process, and is there reason to consider that the role of the contemporary artist needs to be questioned anew?

Parameters of composing
One can detect in some recent composition an impotent subordination to technology itself. So often, new electro-acoustic works are merely bland constructs of the technologies that have been accessed to compose them. A new development in the field of electro-acoustic computer engineering produces a new programme, a new possibility to control a sound source, and suddenly a spate of works emerge constructed solely on the basis of this new technology. The fetish aspect is, fundamentally, negative and anti-creative, as the imaginative bias is often connected only to the newly developed programme and not, in the most essential point, to the thought processes of the composer. The composer has, in many cases, abdicated from his or her responsibilities and transferred the indispensable modus operandi of composition to the programme.[15] Pierre Schaeffer’s sad words uttered near the end of his exhaustive search for a pure syntactical electronic music perhaps might offer sobering advice – ‘… Unfortunately it took me forty years to conclude that nothing is possible outside Do Re Me … I wasn’t finding a way through. The way through is behind us.’[16]

Also fashionable is the flood of new compositions that celebrate the raw material noise, the aural detritus of the metropolis. Many of these works are covering old ground and so there seems to be a distinct lack of originality here. When one listens to Varése’s Amériques, the freshness of the music relocates you to your own first visit to New York. Many of today’s portraits of city life which purport to celebrate the metropolis in the utilisation of concrete, computer-generated, orAmbient sounds, to conjure up trains, cars, planes, truck horns, duke boxes, waiting rooms (the list is endless) seem so much reportage of an antiquated sort. In the numbing blandness of Brian Eno’s Music for Airports an attempt to create a functionless music that draws upon the muzak of the airport lounge is considered in some quarters a work of deep significance!

An essentially American genre, this trend in composition has a wide following. The raison d’etre of this phenomenon in music is summed up by a leading American exponent David Lang – ‘The phone rings. The fax machine goes off. The radio is on. So is the TV. The computer is running and hooked up to the internet … Outside my window there’s noise. The subway runs over the Williamsburg Bridge, screeching metal against metal that I’ve begun to like. I hear the overtones and harmonies in the noise. In the midst of this cacophony of world noise the parameters of composing have changed’.[17]

Of course, the idea that composers should respond to their surroundings is hardly a new one. From Domenico Scarlatti’s absorption of the Flamenco tradition into his harpsichord Sonatas to Olivier Messaien’s ornithological sketches, the environment has always had a significant influence on the composer. However, these recent portraits seem to pay homage not just to the modern cityscape, but also to the fact of technology’s supremacy in contemporary life, and the composers’ keen affiliation to that supremacy. One can therefore detect echoes of Boulez’s audience members clapping not so much the production but themselves at the show.

A significant aspect lies at the heart of this phenomenon – the rarity of effort to question the actual morality of the direction of technology in the sphere of contemporary socio-political structures. It should be mentioned that although the improvements brought about by the developments in technology in the last one hundred years are indisputable and widespread, silently, more or less unobserved and unregistered, exists the fact that this progress nearly always takes place at the expense of the environment, many types of animal life forms, and in no few cases, human life itself.

The majority of these eulogies remain largely and ignorantly on the surface level, mindless of the broader picture and darker potentialities of the technological era, and disinterested in tackling any moral aspect of the van of scientific progress. Could it be that the ultimate battle of the supra-technological-Capitalist hegemony is finally being won – the bringing into line, the silencing of the creative voice, the neutralisation of the artistic protest by means of technological seduction? Probably not, but Ortega y Gasset’s fear that ‘there are no longer protagonists; there is only the chorus’ does have some foundation. Communism ultimately failed to suppress the artist, the fascism of Western Capitalism is coming close to achieving it (consider its widespread success in the area of politics, food production, popular music and fashion). 

Art as questioning
Maybe this is all a little pessimistic and paranoid – maybe not. Although one wants to be charmed by John Banville’s suggestion that at a very fundamental level art and science are very similar. In this he is proposing that each new discovery allows us to be ignorant anew, that science, like art, is simply another way of ‘saying the world.’[18] And despite this rather beautiful approach to the question it must be said that here Banville also sidesteps the issue of the way in which scientific and technological developments have been instrumental in the widespread destruction of life and the environment.

Of course, I am not suggesting that every creative artist is obliged, by definition, to attempt through his or her work to tackle the sorrowful theme of human depravity in the technological age. Indeed, when you actually take time to consider it, the subject seems too great and awful to contemplate. There is a sense that any artist who tackles the issue does so only with the risk of recrimination. Sylvia Plath’s appropriation of the suffering of the victims of the holocaust to act as a metaphor for her own suffering at the hands of her ‘Daddy’ and her lover ‘with a Meinkampf look’[19] have not garnished her much sympathy. There are some who consider Penderecki’s Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima to be a rather opportunistic work. These are not necessarily my views, I am simply suggesting that the very awfulness, the utter brutality of human behaviour and the use, or more pertinently, the abuse of technology to this end over the last century makes of it an almost impossibly sacred subject for artistic rendering.

And yet, this remains for the creative artist the true challenge today. To work within the environment of the modern technological milieu without being seduced to a negative degree by it, without forgetting that, as an amazing tool, technology remains neutral to moral judgement and impartial to immoral use. And so the emphasis, the moral responsibility lies with the artist. If we consider the idea of the creation of art as a series of interrogations, investigations, as a way of questioning, perhaps we should take cognisance of Heidegger’s notion of the distinction between what is merely fraglich (questionable), and what is fragwürdig(worthy of being questioned).[20] This places anew, the value, direction and principles of the questioning, the creative process, at the foot of the artist.

In the context of this essay, the suggestion that a creative process dominated by the precisionist code of science, curtailed by the seductive forces of technology, may be possible but not necessarily worthy, is central, or should be, to the contemporary artist. A creative process, on the other hand, which works free from the verifiable, the objectivisation of the scientific age (this does not reject technology but suggests a move towards a healthy interaction with it), is one which can be worthy. The Fragwürdige graces the process, the questioning, with a non-verifiable, almost endless possibility of renewal and reply. As the answers remain unverifiable, there are, essentially, no answers, the process itself is the answer. As Heidegger says, ‘the peregrination toward that which is worthy of being questioned, is not adventure but homecoming’.[21]

The first part of this essay attempted to identify the shifting position of the arts vis-à-vis science throughout recent history. The second is constructed more as a series of questions with only some tentative suggestions as to what the role of the artist might be, as to how the artist might provide a positive counter-force to the imbalances experienced in a Western contemporary society dominated by technology. It is not fashionable these days to talk of refined thought, of hierarchies of thinking and human endeavour, but I do suggest that (to invoke Borges once more), in those areas throughout the world where chess is played silently, where a potter, or a painter, or a composer is contemplating a colour and a form, that there, Samhita is being restored, that the world is silently being saved. 

This essay is a version of a talk given at the Mostly Modern Open Day and Lecture Series on 30th October 2003. The Lecture Series was organised in association with JMI to mark the journal’s third birthday.

1. Jorge Luis Borges, ‘The Just’ (‘Los justos’) Selected Poems, ed. A. Coleman, Penguin, 1999, 455.
2. There are many other examples of this tripartite codification of Vedic theories the most interesting of which is the dynamic trilogy of RajasSattva and Tamas. These derive from ancient Sanskrit descriptions of the forces that govern nature. According to the Yoga and Samkhya traditions of Hinduism, RajasSattvaTamasare the three constituents or ‘Gunas’ that constitute nature or ‘Prakriti’. In very simple terms they each represent, respectively, creation, sustenance and destruction. In combination they weave the entire pattern of cosmic existence.
3. Oeuvres de Descartes, ed. Adam/ Tannery, VIII, 100-101.
4. Derek Mahon, The Yellow Book (V:Schopenhauer’s Day), Gallery Books, 1997, 20.
5. Thomas Mann, Doctor Faustus, trans. Woods, Vintage Books, 1997, 51.
6. Consider music’s capacity to have horizontal and vertical characteristics (melody and harmony), its capability to transcend its own structural and mathematical makeup (the ‘beauty’ of the fugue), to present numerous arguments, sometimes simultaneously contradictory (counterpoint, inversions, bi- or polytonality or polyrhythmic structures).
7. Zbigniew Herbert, Barbarian in the Garden, trans. Michael March & Jaroslaw Anders, Carcanet, 1986.
8. György Ligeti in a public conversation with Richard Steinitz (Huddersfield, 1993) published in ‘Music, maths & chaos’, Musical Times, March 1996, 14.
9. This, of course, excludes those works, emerging largely from the campuses of American colleges, where number-crunching and computer-generated algorithms rule.
10. Pitirim Sorokin (1889-1968), sociologist.
11. More recent historians have insisted that the Medieval period was not the ‘dark’ epoch that has been painted for centuries. María Rosa Menocal, for example, has suggested Medieval European culture included, centrally, the study of Greek philosophy as it was read by centuries of Muslim and Jewish commentaries (see María Rosa Menocal, Ornament of the World, Little, Brown & Co., 2002. Also, it should be remembered that Sorokin seems to have been unaware of the advanced state of Vedic civilisation that pre-dates his first example by centuries.
12. H.D. Swami Prakashanand Saraswati
13. Seamus Heaney, The Redress of Poetry, Faber & Faber, 1995, 10.
14. George Steiner, In Bluebeard’s Castle, Some Notes Towards the Redefinition of Culture, New Haven, Yale University Press, 1971, 89.
15. I am always struck by the great subtlety in the use of electronics by some of the great innovators of the genre like, for example, Berio’s Naturale and Laborintus 2or Boulez’s Anthèmes 2, which, of course, indicates that the electro-acoustic element has not been the central force in the compositional process.
16. The Development and Practice of Electronic Music, Jon H. Appleton and Ronald C. Perera, Prentice-Hall, 1975.
17. Programme note to Trance by David Lang, ‘Bang on a Can’ website (26 August 2003).
18. John Banville, ‘Beauty, Charm, Strangeness – Science as Metaphor’, Graph: Irish Cultural Review, 3:2
19. Sylvia Plath, Collected Poems, Faber & Faber, 1981, 222.
20. Martin Heidegger, Wissenschaft und Besinnung, The Question Concerning Technology, trans. James G. Hart and John C. Maraldo, Bloomington, Indiana University Press, 1976.
21. Ibid.

Published on 1 November 2003

Benjamin Dwyer is a guitarist and composer and the author of 'Different Voices: Irish Music and Music in Ireland'. He is Professor of Music at Middlesex University's School of Media and Performing Arts.

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