Unveiling the Mystery of Bhajan
By Elizabeth Elwell
Coming home to the United States after spending nearly thirty years in India wasa traumatic experience. For the ﬁnal ten of those years I had lived in thespiritually charged atmosphere of an ashram, where my assigned role was toteach antiphonal chants known as
to the hundreds of foreigners whoarrived regularly from every quarter of the globe. Here at home everything hadchanged. I had to learn all over again, for example, how to pump gas and openchildproof pill bottles; as for television, it was ages before I could distinguish theprogram from the advertisements. I had come home primarily to help nurse myterminally ill mother and had not anticipated becoming involved in any public waywith the bhajan work that had kept me so busy in India. However, almostimmediately I was asked to give a talk about bhajan singing. One sings bhajansand rarely talks about them—so obviously I would have to learn a new way toapproach bhajan in order to explain it to others.
is a Hindi word derived from the Sanskrit
, meaning “to serve, honor,revere, love, and adore.” Generally speaking, prayers, psalms, anthems,rosaries, hymns, and oratorios like the Messiah are all bhajans. Bhajan alsorefers to a spiritual practice, originating in Vedic times in India and now used allover the world, in which names of God are chanted by a lead singer andrepeated by the congregation.My life in the ashram had been busy and very practical. I had to learn to readSanskrit in order to translate bhajans for the learners and really had no time toconsider bhajans in a scholarly or analytical way. Fortunately, I had a friend herein the States who had visited the ashram many times, and I turned to her foradvice. We began a conversation that has never really ended, and thus we wereled to many exciting discoveries. It all began so simply . . .“Well, let’s see,” said my friend, “what is a bhajan composed of?”“It’s a tune, some words, and singers,” I replied.“Well, a tune is sound, words are sound and . . .”