Community of Scholars
SPARTANBURG, S.C. - Wofford junior Mesha Arant always has had two favorite class subjects – music and religion. Fascinated by Hinduism, she knew right away that she was going to combine her two biggest interests for her Community of Scholars research project this summer, titled “Seeing the Divine: Music’s Role in Hinduism.”
“I thought it would be cool to do my project on the connections between the two,” she says, “but as I began researching it, I figured out it was a lot deeper than that."
Arant is one of 19 student fellows in the summer program. The Community of Scholars is a unique cross-disciplinary enterprise of Wofford College undergraduate students conducting independent research full time during 10 weeks of the summer. These student fellows representing many different majors are housed in The Village apartment-style housing complex. They conduct their research in collaboration with faculty fellows who are themselves engaged in their own research projects. Student and faculty research fellows in the humanities, sciences and social sciences create a community of scholars by meeting frequently, often over meals, to discuss their individual projects and issues of mutual interest.
“If you take the music out of a Christian (religious) service, you can still worship and connect to God. If you take the music out of a Hindu service, it doesn’t work the same way. It kind of falls apart,” she says. “I believe that music plays such a role in this religion that without it the connection between believer and God wouldn’t be as strong, and that the road to moksha – the ultimate spiritual goal, the soul’s release from the bonds of transmigration – would be significantly more difficult.
Arant points to Hindu chants, used for prayer and to show their devotion to God. “Taking them away would disrupt the connection between them. Without mantras, believers would fail to understand the nature of the cosmos and clear their minds before worship. Because of this, I view music as having a vital and enduring role in Hinduism.”
Studying other religions, such as Hinduism, has helped Arant in her own Christian faith. She never really knew anything about other religions growing up in Jefferson, S.C. (population: 704). Her courses at Wofford opened her to a whole new world.
“I’ve always been fascinated by religion,” she says. “In my first course, which was an overview of all the major religions, I loved Buddhism, and I loved Islam, but when I got to Hinduism it was (much) more interesting than anything I have studied before because it’s just so complex.”
Hinduism lacks structure Arant sees in other religions. “You don’t have to believe that this god did this thing for this reason. There are a whole lot of things that can be considered Hindu, and I think that’s awesome.”
In talking to her fellow scholars, she has developed a deeper thirst for knowledge on all things Hindu. So much so that Arant, who has never left the South before and never stepped foot on a plane, plans to study music and the arts in New Delhi this fall.
“I’m teaching myself Hindi this summer,” she says. “Friends who have been there warn me that it’s very conservative, but I love that. I’m kind of afraid to shake someone’s hand wrong or something like that, but I figure if I can handle India I can handle anything, so I’m diving right in.”
She views going to India as “icing on the cake,” and she doesn’t even like icing.
She does like things that bring people together, and her research may lead in that direction.
“This summer, I have visited various Hindu temples in the Southeast, including BAPS Swaminarayan Mandir1 in Atlanta, Ga., and the Vedic Center in Mauldin, S.C.,” she says. “I have also interviewed a number of Hindus currently living in the Southeast, in addition to consulting a variety of academic works on the role of music in Hinduism. On the basis of this work, I was able to conclude that music plays a central role in the Hindu faith.
“Music works as a means of expressing passion and gratitude to the subject of worship and for religious adherents to convey their feelings to the deity of choice. The meaning behind Hindu music, the way it is used and the frequency of its use combine to make the role of music in Hinduism particularly interesting.”
Arant breaks it down for those who may be familiar with the terms of Hindu music and worship, but unsure of their meanings:
Mantra – “One of the most important aspects of Hindu music,” she says. It is a syllable, word or phrase chanted and meditated upon. “Mantras are believed to cause a transformation within one’s self by focusing the mind and spirit on God … they connect the soul to God.”
Om – “The most basic and important mantra, and every other sound or mantra is encompassed in this sound,” Arant explains. “The syllable has been used to represent a vast number of trios … such as the Hindu Trinity (Brahma, Visnu and Shiva) and the creation, the maintaining of, and the destruction of the universe.” Om also can refer to the triad of birth, life and death. “Om represents all sounds of life being combined into one … and brings peace to one who meditates on it.”
Chants – “Every puja, aarti, festival and ritual (in Hindu worship) are filled with chants,” she notes. “Hymns and chants were also used in India to determine social classes and social norms.” One of the most famous and important hymns, she adds, is the Purusha-Sukta, which describes the sacrifice of the cosmic man, Purusha, as well as the beauty and complexity of the human being and the creation of the universe. The hymn is the “source of the caste system … (and) has a large role in the way that the Hindu religion and social structure has formed.”
Repetition of chants is used to “focus the mind on God,” Arant says. “They tell the god that you are there and that you are coming before them, and they begin to bring you into communion with your god.”
Music is used as a tool for preserving Hindu in many cases, she notes. “The history, the beliefs and the practices of Hinduism can all be passed down in chants. Children learn and begin to chant stories of their gods even before they know the meaning of the words and sounds. Many parents believe that by teaching Hindu children songs about their gods, the children will develop a sense of their religion. This is especially important for Hindus that do not live in India.
“If you took music out of Hinduism,” she concluded, “generations and generations might lose a sense of Hindu traditions and beliefs.”
- By Brett Borden