About the veena

The Indian Veena has always been considered as an instrument of the Gods and hence the name ‘Divine instrument’ has been attributed to it. From the earliest times, the Veena has been a guiding star for the development of Indian Music in general. But Carnatic music cherished the Veena and the Yazh as gifts of the gods and through centuries of study and experiment, coaxed out of them a system of music that has no parallel in the whole world.

Veena is the favourite instrument of several important deities including Saraswathi, the goddess of arts and learning. The Veena handled by Goddess Saraswathi is known as ‘Kachchapi’. In the sloka ‘Vipanchya gãyanthi’ in Soundarya lahari, Jagadhguru Adi Shankaracharya portrays a beautiful scene in which Saraswathi plays the ‘Vipanchi’. Saraswathi is the goddess of all muses and is the Veena pustakadhaarini – one who holds the divine source of sound and wisdom. No picture, icon or poem of her or about her is therefore complete without the Veena and the pustaka (book).

Not only goddess Saraswathi, but goddess Parãshakthi also has a Veena in her hand. This is described by kãlidasa in the ‘Navarathnamala Sthothra’. He says that the goddess Parãshakthi plays the Veena with her fingertips and glows in the musical splendour created by the chaathurya of Saptha swaras. ‘sarigamapadani rathaan thaam veena sankratha kaantha hasthaan thaam’.

Mãthangi Devi, the goddess of Music is always depicted as holding a Veena in her hands. ‘Veena sankranta charu hastaa’. Goddess RajaMãthangi is the most important deity for Veena. She has to be worshipped fervently to understand the divine nuances of Veena. The ‘Mãthangi Shatkam’ is full of references to the Veena and we get phrases like ‘Veena Vadanavela Kampita siva sam’, ‘Veena rasanushangam’ and ‘Vama kucha nihita Veenam’. The sloka ‘Mãnikya Veenam upalalayantim’ is found as the last sloka of the ‘Mãthangi shatkam’ and the first sloka of the ‘Shyamala Dandakam’.

Lord Shiva is also depicted as being fond of Veena music. Saint Thyagaraja describes him as ‘Veena Vadhana loludu’ in his krithi ‘Mokshamugaladha’ in the Raga Sãramathi. ‘Veena Vãdhana loludou sivamano vidhamerugaru’. In this context, Shiva is known as ‘Veenadhara Dakshinamoorthy’. He is frequently depicted as holding a fretless Veena with a single gourd resting on his chest and teaching the wise ones like Sanaka. It is no wonder that the Veena is held in the hands of Lord Dakshinamoorthy, the god who confers pure Gnana or knowledge to release the soul from its bondage.

In Pallava or Chola temples of the South, Lord Dhakshinamoorthy is worshipped with a Veena in his hands. Lord Shiva was known as ‘Veena gãnapriya’, that is, as one who enjoys Veena music. Appar (one of the legendary Tamil poets and scholars) has also mentioned that Lord Siva himself is adept at the instrument in one of his poems. (‘Em Irai nal Veenai vasikkumme’). In ‘Thiruvilayadal Puranam’ Lord Shiva takes the form of a woodcutter and plays the Yãzh for the sake of his disciple, Panipataran. The lord stated that Yãzh or Veena is an instrument bubbling with life because ‘kuril’ and ‘Nedil’, that is, the musical dynamics (short and long) can be played on it with ease and without interruption.

Liberation is difficult for people who do not understand the mind of Lord Shiva, who enjoys playing his Veena in tune to the universal Naada. Attuning oneself to the divine mind of Shiva is Moksha itself. Lord Dhakshinamoorthy, therefore, conveys such ultimate Gnana through Veena.

Apart from Gods, many sages are depicted as Veena players, the most notable being the divine sage Narada. His Veena is known as ‘Mahathi’ and it was his inseparable companion. Thyagaraja describes this beautifully in his Krithi ‘Sri Narada’ (Kaanada) as ‘Veda Janitha Vara Veena Vaadhana Thathvajna’, meaning, Narada is one who knows the mysteries of ‘Veena Vaadhana’. The great sage, Narada did Nadopasana by tuning his consciousness to Veena.

Legends have it that Sage Agastya was also a Veena exponent and once had a competition with Ravana in Veena, wherein Maha Meru stood in judgement. In ‘Lalitha Sahasranamam’, Lord Hayagreeva refers to the Veena in Sloka 11, by saying “Nijasallaba mathurya vinirbarthsitha kachchapee”.

The saint of recent times Sri Raghavendra swami of Mantralaya was engaged in the contemplation of his soul while playing divine music on his Veena. He was an unparalleled exponent of the Veena. There is a story that he sang his own Bhairavi composition “Indhu enake Govinda”, playing Veena, just before entering Brindavana, for which song, his Golden Santhana Gopala Moorthi Vigraha came alive and danced, in full public view. And this did not happen in some ancient puranic time, but just about 300 years ago (1671 A.D).

Paramacharya Jagadguru Sri.Chandrasekharendra Saraswathi of Kanchi Kamakoti Peetam has stated in his ‘Deivathin kural’ that japam, dhyanam, puja and other rituals are not necessary for a real Veena artiste to achieve divine glory.

In ‘Sangita Rathnakara’, Sarangadeva says ‘Veena is an instrument that eradicates all evils and sins and bestows all good things in life.’

“Darshnasparshanechaasya Bhogaswargaapavargadhe Puneetho Viprahathyaadhi Paathakaihpathitham janam
Dandahshambhurumaa Thanthree kakubhah kamalapathihi Indiraapathrikaa Brahma Thumbu Naabhih saraswathee
Dorako Vaasukeerjeeva Sudhamshuh Saarika Ravihi Sarvadevamayee thasmaath Veeneeyam Sarvamangalaa”.

The meaning is like this: Even if one sees or touches the Veena it bestows comfort both during and after one’s lifetime. It cleanses and purifies all sins and evils of not only the downtrodden but also of those who have committed heinous crimes. The Author further attributes different Gods to the different parts of the Veena. Lord Siva in the body, Parvathi in the strings, Vishnu in the bridge, Lakshmi in the Main resonator, Brahma in the secondary resonator, Saraswathi in the naabhi (center part of the chest board which resonates the sound), Vasuki the serpent king in the pegs, Moon in the Jeevala (the cotton thread pieces used between the string and the bridge) and Sun God in the frets, and thus all Gods are invoked in the Veena, and hence it is indeed a very auspicious instrument.

The following are the names of some of the Veenas believed to have been played by celestial beings from ancient Vedic times.

  • Lord Shiva – Rudra Veena
  • Lord Brahma – Brahma Veena
  • Goddess Saraswathi – Kachchapi Veena
  • Nãrada – Mahathi Veena
  • Rãvana – Rãvana Veena or Rãvana Hastha
  • Raja Udayana – Ghoshavathee Veena (Mentioned in the ‘Swapnavasavadatta’ of the great poet Bhaasa)

Significance of Veena strings

According to the Vedas, a Veena player is said to be a master of Sruthis. It is not enough if one knows merely to play the Veena. He/she should know the secrets of the instrument and how it responds to a devoted votary. It can even make him reach Moksha or final beatitude according to the sloka from the Yajnavalkya sruthi:

“Veena Vaadhana tathwagjna suthi jaathi visharadhaha thaalagjnanascha aprayaasena Moksha margam sa gachchathi”.

One, who knows the mysteries of playing the Veena and is adept in Sruthi and jãthi and has a sound knowledge of Tala, effortlessly finds himself on the way to Moksha.

The Buddha reinforced his teachings with music from his Veena known as Parivadhini. It had twenty-one strings made of gold (Swarna Sutra). Yedathore Subbaraya Sharma had written and published a book in kannada ‘Sandhyavandaneya Thathvartha Vedaprakaashike’ (Veena Rahasya) in the year 1936. Here are some excerpts from that book along with some sketches. “Veena has twenty four frets, four strings along the frets and three strings at the side. The above four strings depict the four Vedas, namely Sãrini which signifies Rig Veda, Panchama which signifies Yajur Veda, Mandra which signifies Sãma Veda and Anumandra which signifies Atharvana Veda. All the four strings are said to have Sudha Sathvaguna.”

This first string Sãrini signifies ‘Gnanashakthi’, the second string Panchama signifies ‘Kriyashakthi’, the third string Mandhara signifies ‘Ichchashakthi’ and the fourth string called Anumandhara also signifies ‘Ichchashakthi’. “The importance of the twenty four frets comes from the sound (Naada) produced from them and not merely by the physical presence of the inanimate metal frets. Hence the twenty-four places (frets) of different pitches of sound (Naada) covering the two octaves depict the ‘Gaayathri mantra’ with twenty-four letters. “Thath savithur Vareniyam Bhargo Devasya Dheemahi dhiyo yo nah prachodayaath”.

Now, the significance for the three Tala strings: Naada has got the three aspects of srishti, sthithi and Laya (creation, protection and destruction) just as the universe has these three aspects.” The three Tala strings symbolize these three universal actions.

The Veena has also been compared to the human body. The spinal chord in the human body is held through out the length of the body right from the anus point to the top of the head (Brain) called Brahmarandhra. It is divided into 24 vertebrae as the twenty-four frets of the Veena.

According to science the human anatomy has seven cervical, twelve thoracic and five lumbar vertebrae in the spinal chord from top to Bottom. The distances between the frets commencing from the Vyala side are wider and become narrower towards the Tara Sthayi. In the same way, the vertebrae are thicker at the anus side and become smaller and thinner towards the Brahmarandhra. Mandra Sthayi Swara emerges at the lower end of the body and as the pitch is increased it reaches the Brahmarandhra which is called the sahasraara kamala, a place where the Jeevala of music is found. Naada is produced by the clash of wind and fire (Praanagni samyoga). It starts at the lowest pitch at the Mooladhara chakra (that is, near the hipbone of the body) and the pitch goes on increasing as it moves up towards the other six charkas namely swadhistaana chakra, Manipoorachakra, Anaahatha chakra, Vishuddha chakra, Aajna chakra and sahasraara Kamala culminating in Omkaara.

The music gushes forth in the Merusthan (bridge) and consequently, the Prana floating and touching the Mooladhara lingers at a particular distance and only from this point, the music originates in a human body. The phenomenon of music originating from Prana is described in Silappadikaram. More so, in the famous Krithi, ‘Shobillu sapthaswara’ of the great saint Thyagaraja.

The center of the human body is prescribed as the place two inches above the Mooladhara. The Veena resembles the human body both in the sthoola form and in the subtle Naada form. The Prana in human body flows in the upper six and lower six, that is, in twelve sthanas (regions) and creates breath. Similarly, the Naada in Veena flows in the upper six and lower six sthanas and produces raga Moorchanas.

The human body is divided into Moolasthanas, Swargam, Martyam and Patalam. Similarly in the Veena, there are three Sthayis (ranges or octaves)- Mandhara, Madhya and Tara. All these similarities created by god are striking evidences that Veena is a divine instrument to be used by human beings for the liberation of soul and to detach oneself from the unending cycle of births and deaths.

It is said that the Veena Naada kindles the fire in Kundalini that lies curled in the Mooladhara, the lowest of the six nerve centers in the spinal column. The Vibrations that are set in motion by the body heat and the life breath (Anala and Prana) gathers momentum as they travel up the spinal chord. Eventually, they release extraordinary powers of concentration and meditation leading to cosmic consciousness. Nãdopasana(worship through music), in fact, is a less arduous path than the three well-known paths of Salvation, namely, Karma, Bhakthi and Gnana margas.

Mention in history

There are numerous poetic descriptions of the Veena in all our literatures. In the Rãmayana, Hanuman visits the seraglio of Ravana in his search for Seetha. There, at midnight, he sees many musicians asleep. The poet likens one of the women Veena players embracing her instrument to a cluster of lotus stalks clinging to a boat in a river. We are told that the Rãmayana was sung (not recited) by Sri Lava and Sri Kucha, sons of Rãma. They are said to have played the Veena and sung along with it.

The symbol on Rãvana’s flag was the Veena. He was also famous as an extraordinary exponent of this instrument. As far as Mahabaratha goes, we find that Arjuna – one of the five Pãndava princes taught the Virat princess the Veena. The Veena is described as ‘Saptatantri Pratitha’ meaning that it was a seven stringed one, ‘Saptha’ meaning seven. Then, there is the famous story of prince Udayana who charmed princess Vasavadatta by the music of his Veena. The legend goes that he also charmed a wild elephant in the course of his wanderings by his prowess on the instrument. Lately, of course, Bharathiyar has sung “Nalladoor veenai sayde” and also when he sang in praise of Saraswathi, he wrote “Vellai thaamarai poovil iruppãl – veenai seyyum oliyil iruppãl”.

An incident that happened in as recent as the beginning of 19th century proves how much of a divine sanction Veena has. Muthuswami Dikshitar of the music Trinity, on completion of his training with Chidambaranatha Yogi, was told to go and pray in Ganges and ask for what he wished. When Dikshitar did the same, wishing for a Veena, a celestial Veena descended on his hands from nowhere! The said Veena, which was unique with the Yãli turned upwards and the words Shri Rãm in Sanskrit inscribed, is still available with the family descendants of Dikshitar. Hence, not surprisingly, many of the Dikshitar’s compositions have references to Veena. Notable among them are:

  • ‘Daasarathe’ in Sankarabaranam (western note style), wherein he refer to Rãma as enjoying Narada’s Veena gãna,
  • ‘Bhãrathi’ in Devamanohari, a song on Saraswathi of Tiruvaroor,
  • ‘Mãmava Meenakshi’ in Varali
  • ‘Meenakshi Memudham dehi’ in purvikalyani and many more krithis

The ancient treatises promise the four purusharthas for the Veena player:

  • Dharma – In return for offering Veena Music during sacrifices like Ashwamedha and Rajasoorya, the Veena player gets to do a lot of Dharma.
  • Artha – By playing Veena, the player earns a lot of wealth.
  • Kãma – His lust is satiatated with the women who fall for his music.
  • Moksha – As per yagnavalkya’s declaration. (Playing Veena is the easiest path to Moksha)

As mentioned earlier, Veena is a very ancient instrument dating back to the Vedic times. This instrument is in the hands of Saraswathi, the consort of our creator, who therefore is our mother. While the Vedas, the storehouse of our knowledge have come out of the different faces of Brahma, the creator, all emotion, feelings, experiences called the rasas have emanated from this instrument in the hands of goddess Saraswathi. This instrument is therefore of divine origin and fills our emotional lives. If our emotions are noble and sathvic in nature, they find expression in music played particularly on the Veena.

In Hindu astronomy, Tula Rasi, (Libra in Western Zodiac system) contains the star Swathi. This constellation is also described as Alpha Cygnus indicating Hamsa (swan), which is the seat of Saraswathi. The constellation’s name Swathi forms the major part of the Goddess’s name Saraswathi, as Saraswathi means white swan. Swathi also indicates Swetha (White colour) and according to our ancient scriptures, the goddess is always adorned in white garments. Venus, the lord of Libra or Tula rasi is again astrologically indicated through the white colour. Also, this constellation, Swathi presents the picture of a lyre or Veena. Many decades ago scientists and philosophers discovered a cosmic hiss emanating from this constellation. This is the Naada, the musical resonance that pervades the universe. It pervades the human body also, only to be discovered by one within oneself. This Naada is the mother of all ragas, which are expressions of emotions. Naada in all ragas therefore is like gold in all ornaments.

The instrument Veena, finds description in Vedic literature as well as epic literature. “Atha khalviyam deivi Veena bhavati tadanukriti rasau maanushi Veena bhavathi”. The above quote is from ‘Aithreya Brahmana’. It says that Veenas are of two kinds. Deivi Veena (Divine) and Maanushi Veena (Human). The human body created by god is the Deivi Veena. The Veena made out of wood by the human being is the Maanushi Veena.

The divine Veena obviously expresses the emotions of the immortals in the higher worlds. The human Veena expresses the emotions of the mortals. The human body is also known as ‘Gaathra Veena’. Gaathra means human body and not human voice. The Veena played by the humans is known as Dharu Veena (Wood Veena).

A sloka in Sãma Veda says “daaruvee gaatra Veena satve Veena ga na jaatishu Saamikee gaatra Veena tu srutyai lakshnam”, meaning, the body known as Gaathra Veena and the Veena made of tree known as ‘Dharu’ Veena are meant for divine music. Veena playing as a highest form of yoga brings about the merging of Jeevathma and Paramathma only when the Veena player handles the Veena through the sheer force and power of his Praana or Kundalini Shakthi arising from the Mooladhara and not merely by moving his fingers across the frets and strings. The Naada of the Veena and the Kundalini Prana of the Veena player enter together like passionate lovers seeking union to become one. As they unite, they take shape of the finest thread and make contact with the finger tips of the Veena player that are already moving across the frets and strings of the Veena. Now, the Veena player is a full-fledged Yogi, rendering divine music on the Veena and in Kumbhakam (neither inhaling nor exhaling- in other words, retention of breath) without effort or consciousness. If the artiste is able to develop and improvise along these lines, at some point, it will become possible for him to have the vision of god and to merge with him.

The yogis who practiced Vasi Yoga played the Yazh or Veena when heat was generated due to Yoga saadhana. The right kind of raga on the Veena can create the Saathvic and noble rasa and Bhãva in human beings. The human being needs to be elevated from the mundane materialistic and ignoble thoughts and feelings of his material life to noble and Sathvic feelings and consciousness. The Naada of the Veena is much more perfect than the human voice itself, capable of creating Saathvic peace in the human heart and elevate him to super human or divine plane of consciousness.

The Veena, perhaps the most complete musical instrument, figures in the ‘Daya satakam’ in a beautiful sloka that is as follows. ‘Vedantha desika pade vinivesya balam devo daya shatakam etat avadayan mam Vaiharikena vidhina samaye griheetham Veena visesham iva Venkata sailanatha’ says swami Desikan. “I am but a child, in age, knowledge and devotion. The lord, as part of his deeds, placed me on the high pedestal of Vedanthacharya, (master of Vedãntha). Not content with that, he created a beautiful sthotram too, using me as an instrument. He has put me in the place of a high quality Veena, which produces melodies that gladdens the heart and uplifts the soul. Even though I am, by myself, (like the Veena), incapable of composing a sthotram, the lord (like an expert musician who can produce soul stirring music from the most ineffective of instruments), has composed this excellent poetical work of Daya Satakam using me as but an instrument.”

What we have seen are but a few glimpses on divine references of this ancient musical instrument, which is a precious part of the priceless heritage of India. Veena is the only instrument prescribed by the divine scriptures as an instrument containing many universal code secrets to help reveal the ultimate truth to human beings. That is why Veena has this exalted status in Carnatic Music.