Hindu Devotional Music and Chant

Tutor: Prof. Guy Beck
Start date: 10 October 2021
Enrolments still open for a limited time


This course presents a historical and theoretical study of Hindustani chant and music. We begin with sacred sound in ancient India and proceed to important forms of chant and devotional music that have developed since.

Chant and music are interwoven throughout the entire fabric of Hinduism. Subject to theoretical discussion as well as practical prescriptions for use, chant and music are indispensible to Hindu life. The link between chant and music is the predominance of ideas of sacred sound going back to ancient India. Thus a familiarity with the basic concepts of sacred sound and Indian music are vital to an understanding of Hindu religious experience.



Course Video

Videos are one of the most important parts of an online course.

Our courses offer two distinct types of video.

  1. Video on demand. Core videos for your course available to watch at any time. Audio versions are also available for download.
  2. Live Zoom sessions. We have six Zoom sessions open to all our students. These cover a range of topics. They let you explore other areas of study, and to meet tutors and students from other courses. Recordings are also made available after the session has ended.

While there is a section on musical instruments in Session Three, the main focus of this course is on vocal music, which is the central focus of performance practice in terms of Hindu worship and devotion. Each session contains practical details involved in the manner of understanding the proper execution of Hindu chant and music, as well as listening examples in the form of audio files. Musical training is not required.

Session One: Om and Veda – The Foundation of Hindu Sacred Sound, Chant, and Music

We look at the main sources of music and chant, including theories and practices of sacred sound as understood from the Vedas and Upanishads, beginning with the syllable Om, the Rig Veda, and ending with the Sāma Veda.

Session Two: Mantra – Sacred Sound as Chant

This session will focus on the theory and practice of Mantra in the Hindu tradition, beginning with a general outline of Mantra in ancient India, including linguistic debates and Tantra, followed by examples of key Mantras from selected lineages. Two recorded selections of Mantra chant conclude the session.

Session Three: Sangīta – Sacred Sound as Music

This session begins the topic of music or Sangīta, with information on the mythical origins, theological concepts, ritual associations, structural forms and genres, along with explanations of how music actually directs the human mind to the divine in contemplation and worship.

Session Four: Introduction to Bhakti Music –Kīrtan and Bhajan

This session will cover Kīrtan and Bhajan, the two most important and most widely prevalent categories of Hindu devotional music in India and in the diaspora. Appearing in ancient scriptures as simply ‘praise or worship of a deity’, the terms Kīrtan and Bhajan were later associated with musical performance, and for the past thousand years or more have been primarily linked with a musical event comprising songs of glorification and worship of God or the chanting of the names of a deity. They are nearly synonymous with ‘Bhakti Sangit’, devotional music that became central to the growth of the medieval Bhakti traditions.

Session Five: Bhakti Music – Haveli Sangit

The final three sessions will focus on three specific forms of Bhakti Sangit, classical devotional music, that have flourished within the traditions of Vaishnavism: Haveli Sangit, Samāj Gāyan, and Padāvali Kīrtan.

This session examines Haveli Sangit, the temple music tradition of the Vallabha lineage.

Session Six: Bhakti Music – Samāj Gāyan

This session continues the focus on Vaishnava music by examining another important tradition, Samāj Gāyan. Three of the ‘Krishna Sampradāyas’ established in medieval Braj have adopted Samāj Gāyan as their primary devotional music. Samāj Gāyan is the most vocally interactive style of Pada-Kīrtan, and as a form of responsorial singing requires training and diligence to perform properly. Despite the fact that it is often obscured from the general public, Samāj Gāyan is regularly performed and cultivated within the Rādhāvallabha Sampradāya founded by Shri Hita Harivamsa (1502-1552), the Nimbārka Sampradāya founded by Shri Nimbārka (ca. 1200), and the Haridasi Sampradāya founded by Swami Haridas (ca. 1475-1580), all centered in Vrindaban. Although Samāj Gāyan conforms to the definitional parameters of Pada-Kīrtan, the specific terms Kīrtan or Bhajan are not employed in these three traditions.

Session Seven: Bhakti Music and Classical Music – Padāvali Kīrtan and Khayal

This final session consists of two parts. Part 1 will examine the topic of Padāvali Kīrtan, the most important form of Bhakti Sangit in eastern India. Part two describes the tradition of Khayal, the most popular form of Hindustani vocal classical music currently performed in India and abroad. In addition to an example of Padāvali Kīrtan, there are four examples of Khayal that convey Hindu teachings of philosophy and devotion.


Course delivery is 100% online

7–9 weekly sessions

Study in your own time

Your tutor is available by email and forums

Communicate online with your fellow students

All course materials are delivered via the web

Student forums with tutor participation

Recorded lectures available in video and mp3 format

All required lecture notes included

Audio interviews with specialists in Hindu Studies

Supplementary materials taken from the Oxford Centre for Hindu Studies teaching and research programme

Assessment is optional and is on the basis of successful completion of a single essay of 2000 words, with the exception of our Sanskrit courses which are assessed on weekly course work.

Courses can be completed in as little as seven weeks. There is a final deadline for essays or course work of twelve weeks from the beginning of the course.

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