The Flute

Great Symbols Series @ Theosophy Trust


Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard are sweeter;
therefore, ye soft pipes, play on;
Not to the sensual ear, but, more endear'd,
Pipe to the spirit ditties of no tone.


  Far more than a softly held sentiment for imagined scenes or a self-indulged yearning reverberating through the core of our inmost feelings is evoked by the playing of the flute. Truly its sweet melody has a timeless call that seems to play upon the tendrils of a heart of which ours is but a pulsating echo. The mournful, poignant tones would speak of sadness and a forgotten beauty that flickered within the households and flowed into the avenues of cities buried long ago. But can the magic of the flute be explained by mere reminiscence? What of the shepherd watching his flock? His simple wooden flute seems wedded to his occupation and possibly to his very soul. It is ever in his pocket or thrust into the sash around his waist and his fingers move to touch its smooth shaft without thought or effort, just as his lips take water and his eyes close in slumber. Within the lonely mountains, on the far side of steep and rocky slopes, the sweet, sad piping of this solitary watcher echoes around the hillsides and up the steep valleys to the peaks. While he is still invisible and his flock a pattern of strewn white fragments whose movements alone distinguish them from the boulders on the sloping mountainside, his simple melody evokes a depth of feeling surpassing that which could arise from merely witnessing the earthly nature of his tranquil pastime. It elicits a level of response which encompasses a vaster tale than time and place alone can tell, and perhaps some of its magic lies in the way in which the airy notes pierce the thickness of the darkened sky and rise up to charm the starry flocks that cluster in the heavens. This unconscious counter-melody seems to rise from terrene slopes in answer to the unheard music of Hermes, whom the Greeks thought to be the inventor of the flute. After all, was not Maia, the mother of Hermes, one of the Pleiades, those mysterious stars in heaven? And was not the Golden Messenger himself the keeper of the celestial flocks?

  While Homer sang of Hermes and of how he fashioned the flute, the Hindus held for ages that it originated in the hands of Krishna. In the second phase of his life, the Radiant One charmed all living things with his sweet airs and drew the village gopis irresistibly to his side where, through his divine dance, he mirrored upon earth the joy of transcendental love. The flute of Krishna became synonymous with those divine promptings which alone can melt the heart, erase the sense of separateness and merge the lover with the beloved, the worshipper with his god. For centuries richly diverse art-forms have depicted Venugopala - Krishna with the flute. In different forms of classical narrative dance there are associated with Krishna a series of singularly beautiful gestures or mudras delineating the playing of a flute. Exquisite renderings of Venugopala can be seen in the wonderful stone-sculptured temples of the Hoysala period, while Ashtakhuja - Krishna in his eight-armed state playing his murali - is beautifully depicted at Kanchipuram. Vaishnavite temples throughout India contain similarly inspired renderings, and year after year plays are enacted in small towns and villages portraying the marvellous and melodious feats of the beloved flute-playing god. Through his flute Krishna offered unconditional love, and through the ability to hear its music, man can find infallible help, rise above his sense of separateness, and begin to see Krishna within himself. Perhaps this sacred affiliation with Krishna suggested the self-manifesting powers Hindus came to attribute to the flute. This agrees with the widespread idea that the flute, like the conch, was revealed to man by nature.

  Archaeological evidence indicates that there were generic flutes without side-holes in Paleolithic times and simple flutes with side-holes in Neolithic times, though the transverse flute comes into its own later in the Neolithic period. Some contemporary writers have suggested that the earliest flutes, which were often of bone, were developed by accident as a result of effects produced by sucking or blowing on bones to extract their marrow. The Hindus traditionally held that the haunting music of the flute was produced by the invisible wind moving through the branches of bamboo forests. Small holes drilled by beetles can be found in varying sizes and locations along the sections of living bamboo. The wind coursing through such a forest can produce many tones at various pitches, creating a whole range of notes which sigh together in an ethereal harmony. Perhaps this is the breath of Shri Krishna, or perchance merely Varuna's play. Whatever the origin of the flute, it is said that out of all the materials - bone, clay, ivory, sandalwood, iron, gold and silver - bamboo produces the sweetest and purest sound. In fact, the most common Indian name for the flute is venu, which simply means 'bamboo'.

 Numerous Indian names for the flute are descriptive of the nature of construction, the mode of playing, the social function or even the tonal link with the sacred chakras or centres of spiritual energy within the human body. Krishna's flute is called murali; nasajantra is the nose flute, nedunkuzhal the long flute, padikuzhal the flute for beginners, the pillanagrovi the flute with a bamboo chip fixed at the blowing end. There is the bansuri, the magudi used by snake charmers, and the beautifully clear jaya, whose name means 'victory'. There are fifteen separate names for flutes differentiated by the distance between the mouth-hole and the first finger-hole alone. Each increment of measurement is made in terms of angulas or the length of half the thumb. Sangita Ratnakara gives the flute names muni, vasu, rudra, adiya, etc., which are those of the chakras, and it is suggested that the author of the chakra nomenclature possibly borrowed the names from an older tradition.

 Very long flutes, of up to fifteen angulas between the mouthpiece and the first finger-hole, are no longer used. Frescoes at the Ajanta Caves depict ladies playing these difficult instruments. Other archaeological evidence indicates a wonderful variety of flutes in the Old and New Worlds from early times. The earliest known flute - made of bone - dates from 28,000 B.C. Ancient flutes produced many scales, had different numbers of holes (although six plus the mouth-hole is most common), were either direct beak flutes, vertical flutes or transverse such as the murali. Several types were spoken of in Chinese writings of the twelfth century B.C., and many have been found from the Indus civilization as well as Mesopotamia, Egypt and all over India. Tracing back its development to some generic archetype has not been easy to do but ethnomusicolegists suggest that the evidence points to a Central Asian origin. Whether it was there revealed to man by nature or invented by Vishnu's Avatar before spilling its music into the subcontinent, it seems that all early flutes are wonderfully simple variations of an original instrument made of a single piece of some homogeneous substance.

 The flute is one of the simplest instruments in principle and yet it has been used in many sophisticated practices. Often flutes were depicted at burials in ancient times, and the old Roman saying, "Now you can send for the flute players", referred to the acknowledgement of oncoming death. In Japan a young prince dedicated the flute to the spiritual well-being of the dead and played until the gods were so charmed that Brahma himself offered his own daughter in marriage. Hermes, guide to the underworld, played upon the flute and many African peoples associate it with that fearful passage to the land of ghosts. But the sweet flute was also used at sacrifices where it was blown near the ear of Greek priests in order to aid their powers of concentration, and Aztec flutes were broken one by one on the steps of the great altar at the time of the sacrifice to Tezcatlipoca, The Greeks and Romans paid large sums for the services of accomplished flautists whose magical notes could attract a good omen from the god to whom sacrifice was being made. Plutarch tells an amusing story about Ismenias of Thebes who, as a famous flautist, was hired to play for such purposes. When no omen appeared after he had been playing for a considerable time, the impatient employer snatched the flute and quickly produced the desired results. This encouraged the unwary employer to ridicule the efforts of Ismenias, to which the gifted player wittily replied that the gods were so delighted with his own sweet music that they deferred the omen in order to hear more of it, but they were most relieved to get rid of the other's noise quickly.

 Together with being one of the simplest and probably the oldest, the flute is also the most widespread instrument m the world. There is no place on earth where man has lived that it cannot be found. It is thus the common instrument of humanity and some say that this is precisely why Krishna played upon it. The flute is not distinctive of any one culture or class and is thus the most democratic of all musical implements. This is significant from a symbolical perspective, for surely the love of Krishna could never be proscribed by social or geographic happenstances. The popularity of the flute has always endured despite temporary social or ecclesiastical sanctions and one notes with amusement that at a first meeting of an orchestra formed in Oxford long ago, fifty flautists and only two violinists presented themselves.

  The dimensions are also important symbolically, especially the size, ratios and relationships of the features making up the flute structure. A good bamboo flute maker in India is very particular about the pole he selects for his instrument. It must be the right size, having the joints at the proper intervals, free from notches or cracks, not too young or old, thick or thin, and should not have been rocked overly much by the wind. Before boring the holes in his selected piece, it must be dried in the shade for one year and then the holes precisely placed to produce a scale of a mathematically exact pitch. As an example, the Silappadikaram mentions a particular flute fixed for a particular pitch used in ancient Tamil music. The basic unit of measurement was five-eighths of an inch upon which was based its length of twenty units, circumference of four and one-half units, mouth-hole two units from the nodal end, first finger-hole seven units from the mouth-hole and all eight finger-holes bored so as to leave two units at the end. If the pipe was carefully constructed according to these ratios and the finger-holes were each the length of one paddy grain in diameter, it should produce the desired scale, and if the ratios shift and a small hole placed higher up sounds the same note as a larger one in a lower position, there will be a difference in quality and the flute would bear a different name. The size and position of holes reduces the effective length of the tube by stages. This is parallel to the Chinese arrangement of five pipes, each shortened by one-third length to produce a series of natural fifths, the basis of the pentatonic scale or the mohana of South India. This can be considered also in terms of vibrations.

  With a doubly-open tube there is a vibration frequency whose sound has a wavelength twice the length of the tube which is its lowest fundamental frequency. When an air column vibrates in its higher modes, it generates sounds whose wavelengths are integral fractions of the fundamental. This forms the harmonic series, and because of these consistent ratios ancient musicians were able to work out the mathematics of music as well as its psychological effects upon the player and all who listened to his tune. The awareness of the connection between the complex nature of the listener and the variations in sound produced by an instrument is illustrated by the fact that the precise measurements of various Eastern wind instruments were often based upon philosophical considerations rather than musical phenomena.

 The flute gave man the idea of the octave which is a product of the harmonics achieved by overblowing or underblowing without moving the fingers on the holes. This great gift of Krishna or Hermes played a fundamental role in the development of musical theory. Its mathematically precise acoustical qualities inspired the later invention of stringed instruments with frets which permitted the shortening or lengthening of the vibrating medium. The flute led to the acquisition of keen tonal perception and the appreciation of quarter and micro-tones such as those found in the incredibly complex and fluidic ragas of South Indian music. Because of the knowledge and control of pitch afforded by this instrument, the flute served as an indicator of absolute pitch for the tuning of subsequent instruments and an acoustical metre for the study of gamakas (graces), tattvas and other underlying musical phenomena in Indian music as well as all the modal shifts and refinements in music elsewhere. Rapid and flawless execution of runs, turns, leaps, shakes, fast passages and skips are all possible on the flute, and it is ideal for the study of acoustical complexities. All the delicate graces, curves, embellishments and shades can be performed to perfection on this instrument and for sheer purity of sound and mellow quality of tone it has no equal. Maximum flexibility and purity of sound are singularly relevant when considering the magic of the flute.

 The power of the flute is vividly illustrated in many descriptions of its spellbinding qualities. Besides aiding powers of concentration and evoking the gods, the music of the flute has profoundly affected men and animals alike. Antigenidas, a gifted flute player, once so transported Alexander the Great by playing a martial air at a banquet that the monarch seized his weapons and almost attacked his guests. In India the renowned genius Sarabha Sastri could play the Punnagavarali Raga and cause snakes to come out of their holes and dance before him. He once played the Kriti Nivada Negana so beautifully that the Bhagavatar, from whom he had learnt it the day before, exclaimed, "Oh! How I wish that my Guru, the great Tyagaraja, was bodily present here to listen to this polished, stylish and flawless rendering of this piece!" This teacher, himself a guru, was moved to tears.

 The shrill notes of the flute have been used to frighten man-eating tigers and their sweeter tones have tamed wild elephants in Ceylon and brought forth spiders from the walls. One man who spent years in a dungeon alone with his flute learned to play a dainty little melody which encouraged the eight-legged ones not only to present themselves but to perform a simple dance. The American Indians used the flute to cast a spell in order to draw forth from her home the object of their affection, and it is said that maidens not only identified the tune of their lover's call but were mightily drawn by its tone and individual message. The Algonquian peoples referred to it as 'love language'. Leonardo da Vinci employed the flute to evoke a spell to secure the expression of refined sensuality he was seeking in his model for the Mona Lisa. Perhaps one of the most enchanting uses of the flute as spell-caster is embodied in the score and acted out in Mozart's symbolically occult work, The Magic Flute, wherein the hero Tamino is provided with this marvellous instrument to subdue wild beasts and overcome other obstacles in his quest to free the lovely Pamina. After all these trials are met, it is the flute that leads the other wood-winds in a slow march, culminating in the successful conclusion of the final initiatory test of fire and water. Nine weeks after the first performance of this most delightful and inspiring musical statement on behalf of beneficent magic and brotherhood, Mozart died. But the spell of the flute had been immortalized in music just as the irresistible melody of Shri Krishna lives on in the ever-repeated tales of the adoring gopis.

 There are some striking similarities between sound produced by the flute and that produced by the human voice, and they are in many ways closer than is the flute to other types of musical instruments. Though the air from the lungs passes into the flute without setting the vocal chords in vibration and in such a way as to produce faster modifications of sound, the flute and the voice share in common a constant 'tone colour' which extends over the whole available compass and which is quite different from strings, whose vibrations inevitably produce differences in tone colour. In the flute, the air is directly affected whereas with strings the effect is indirect. Because it is air in a state of vibration which produces the sound of the flute, the vibration is longitudinal instead of transverse as it is in the case of vibrating strings. This vibration of air consists of periodic cycles of compression and rarefaction whose frequency produce the pitch. Thus there is a pulsation of an alternating densification and dispersion of air which produces the pure and resilient 'speech' of the flute. Of the archetypal and universally manifesting powers, the Mantrika-shakti is that whose crown is the ineffable Name. While one may tend to think of this power primarily in relation to human speech, one of its many manifestations is melody, the resilient speech of music. Perhaps the breathing forth of the ineffable sacred Word involves a process not dissimilar to that of the pulsating cycles of vibrating air which courses through the flute.

 The air blown into Krishna's flute is blown obliquely and only part of it enters the tube. The mouth-hole of the flute is an acoustic equivalent for the player's lips which carefully shape the thin jet of air. When it impinges on the sharp edge of the hole, the jet vibrates cyclically at a frequency determined by the velocity of air. The dimensions and stops of the resonating tube manifest as a series of tones analogous to the unfolding hierarchies produced by the Great Breath. This act of blowing and the oblique manner in which it is done provide an archetypal symbol, a profoundly suggestive clue as to the mode in which the invisible potency issues forth its essence into the visible world; obliquely, not directly. Lord Krishna might have said, "Obliquely, not directly-, thus did I create this whole universe, and yet remain separate from it."

 What might be the analogy of the confining tube at the macrocosmic level? Perhaps, due to its shape, many cultures have seen the flute as masculine, sometimes using it in fertility rites and in various types of magic concerned with generation. It is interesting to note, however, that the sound it produces is almost always considered to be feminine and associated with water, while the flute itself is modified with holes which are necessary for the production of a scale analogous to the seven basic sounds of manifestation. This archetypal interplay between masculine and feminine elements can be traced at all levels of manifestation, and the masculine flute with its feminine sound provides a richly meaningful analogue to the process whereby chaos is channelled and given form. This would imply that the Word became flesh through Vach, the Melodious Cow who, as the Female Logos, is both mother and daughter of the Heavenly Man, the Logos who is the presence of deity in its universal essence. As mother, she is the uncreate substratum of potential light and sound. As daughter, she is the mystic speech by whom spiritual wisdom is communicated to man. Thus Vach is said to have 'entered the Rishis' and in the guise of Kwan-Yin, she is the divine voice of the soul which speaks to the Initiate.

 The Great Breath breathed, and through the Manifesting Logos sound issued forth. The first sound must have been pure and infinitely flexible in its potential but it also must have been initially steady and constant. One shaft of the double flute of antiquity may have been a drone. One imagines a slow, strong and full but infinitely pure sound like that produced by the shenai in the beginning of the beautiful Todi Rag. There is no other sound, no harmonics, no octave, no rhythm, only the full, steady, single note which seems to penetrate every fold and corner of the universe to be, and which only gradually begins to move through related notes on the scale. Slowly octaves emerge, other levels begin to manifest and the pace of the singular music quickens. The notes collide and part in infinitely complex patterns and the urgency of manifest expression leads them into faster runs and leaps until they fall into the pervasive rhythm of the accompanying drum which marks their full descent into matter.

 There is a beautiful Orinoco Indian legend, reminiscent of the stories of Orpheus, which tells of the boy Milomaki who came from the home of the sun and sang with such wondrous charm that those who flocked to hear him were so transported that they died soon afterward. And so out of fear and ignorance they built a pyre and burned him, but even as he died within the flames he sang more sweetly than ever before. From his ashes grew the first paxiuba palm from whose wood people made flutes that gave forth wonderful melodies like those of the dead Milomaki. But they dared not look upon the flutes lest they should die, and so they clung to their earthy existence and could not hear the music of that boy-cum-spirit whose mask is the sky. Of the many ideas suggested in the poignant elements of this highly symbolical legend, the theme of sacrifice predominates. When chaos manifests as form, or when the gods reveal themselves, it is often accompanied by the sacrifice of the Messenger, the Avatar, the Bringer of the Word or the Player of the Flute.

 Hermes is said to have been the offspring of Zeus and Maia who, as one of the Pleiades, was a star connected with the manifestation of sound. In his childhood he constructed the seven-stringed lyre which he gave to Apollo and contented himself with the simple flute. While watching over his herds and flocks, Hermes, the Master Shepherd and Messenger of the Gods, wove together the notes of life and death and all the pairs of opposites in a melody of profoundly mournful joy that the Greeks call 'bitter-sweetness'. He is said to have been the father of Pan who metamorphosed soon after birth and then invented the multiple pipes with which he charmed the gods. Pan was, at the outset, thought of as a generative daemon of the flocks and it was only later that the fusion of human and bestial characteristics became emphasized. But just as Hermes was eventually downgraded in Greek mythology, so was his offspring Pan who soon descended to the level of the satyrs and other beings associated with the playing of the flute and participation in Dionysian rites. Thus was the Messenger of the Gods sacrificed. Through his progeny and through the reputation of his flute, the old Greeks divested him of his once glorious essential nature. Pan became the central perpetrator of carnal pursuits along the streams and meadows of Arcady while the flute-playing satyrs are memorable mostly for their drunkenness and for the tragic fate of Marsyas who, though one of these fallen creatures, dared to challenge laurel-wreathed Apollo to a musical contest. Though he played his flute with wondrous skill, Apollo's lyre was sweeter and in losing the contest, Marsyas lost his life. Apollo flayed him alive and Ovid tells of his dreadful agony, how he was reduced to nothing but a gaping, bleeding wound. The spirits of the countryside, Olympus and the earth itself wept for him and their tears became the source of the clearest river in Phrygia whose waters course to the sea and bear the name of Marsyas.

 Apollo continued to be associated with the lyre and with the more esoteric Delphic mysteries. It seemed as though a purer line from the great Orphic tradition was being transmitted through the golden-haired god of the strings. And so the flute became the lowly pipe and its wailing notes accompanied ecstatic rituals and degraded forms of magic. No more the helper of the concentrating priest or the producer of divine omen, the flute came to represent the defilement of philosophy. Plato said that no modest woman could hear the Lydian flute with impunity and Greeks in general came to believe that it was not a moral instrument. So tenacious was this bad reputation in the West that the early Christian church refused to baptize flute players and claimed that the instrument was modelled after the serpent in the Garden of Eden. This attitude was echoed later by Gosson, an early English Puritan, who termed flute players "the caterpillars of the Commonwealth".

 Perhaps one explanation for the suspicion and even fear that came to be focussed upon the flute lies in the fact that it did indeed have the power to cast a spell. The beneficent taming of the wild or the bringing of chaos into orderly formation had a shadowy side related to the desire for lower forms and the sensations engendered by them. Though the highest principles are always double-edged when they manifest in the world, this cannot detract from the arcane teaching that the world was called forth out of chaos by sound and harmony and that its construction took place according to the principles of musical proportion precisely like those revealed through the flute to early man. In the nineteenth century Mahatma K.H. wrote to Sinnett, "Whenever you are able to attune your consciousness to any of the seven chords of 'Universal Consciousness', those chords that run along the sounding board of Kosmos, vibrating from one Eternity to another, when you have studied thoroughly 'the Music of the Spheres', then only will you become quite free to share your knowledge with those with whom it is safe to do so." Only when one has gained the wisdom of an Adept would one be able to know to what extent the secrets of Vach may be revealed in the course of any cycle. For Vach is four-formed, her lowest vaikhari sheath which intones the objective world being that alone which most men know. Her madhyama form is the Light of the Logos, audible only to one who 'sees', and her pageant form is the Logos itself, the point of the first note of being. Greater than these is their synthesis which rests in ever-subjective sound and light, the Para form of Vach.

 The scale and harmony of the music of the spheres describe through vibrations the hierarchy of the gods and all the divine heavenly hosts; its seven octaves being strictly analogous to the scale of chemical elements as well as to colour. In the light of this the vast mathematical philosophy of Pythagoras can, perhaps, be a little better understood. He taught that a tone measured the distance from the earth to the moon, a half-tone from the moon to Mercury and so forth until the measurements touched upon the zodiac itself, thus making of seven basic tones the diapason of nature. Following this, one can begin to conceive of all forms, ratios, dimensions, densities and constitutions of matter in terms of vibrations, none of which are dead but every atom of which is alive with octave upon octave of divine intelligence. And one can conceive of the process of manifestation as traceable back to the fundamental principles of musical proportion which came to be revealed in the world through the magic flute.

 Venugopala, poised in the graceful attitude of drawing his murali to his lips, is the embodiment of the Logos. He is the noumenal force behind the whole of life and when he plays his flute inanimate and animate objects throughout the world become spellbound and still. That the grazinFluteThe-0278.htmlFluteThe-0278.htmlFluteThe-0278.htmlg cows forgot to eat and the gopis left their homes to rush to the music's source can only mean that those privileged to hear are lifted out of the conditioned realm and elevated to a purely causal plane where time ceases to divide and perfect harmony prevails. The seven octaves of the Lord's cosmic melody flow unfettered through the sheaths, each aperture of the divine flute leading the sound from one upadhi to another. It is said that the vibrating chords link such a privileged one to their echoing counterparts in the globes and planets of the solar world, and through the grace of Venugopala they come to realize the universe within themselves. He who hears and becomes flooded with the divine melody becomes like an instrument of Krishna, echoing the prince who ascended the Aztec throne praying, "I am thy flute; reveal to me thy will; breathe into me thy breath like into a flute, as thou hast done to my predecessors."

 In order to hear the pure strains of Krishna's flute, the gopi-disciple must maintain in ceaseless contemplation total devotion and unwavering allegiance to the beloved Lord. A carefully nurtured dialogue should be sustained within consciousness like a delicate interplay between the plucked strings of the manifesting harp and the divine promptings of the airy flute. The breath of Vach, of the soul's pure voice, can be heard when the transverse vibrations of the lower nature move in harmony with the longitudinal impulse of that divine melody. From above below, the octave notes descend through the chambers which the carefully aligned finger-holes of the flute create. Their names correspond to the chakras just as the mouthpiece corresponds to the soul's breathing-hole into the world. If the disciple would become a flute through which the Lord's music may pour, then every dimension and ratio of his being, every material which makes up his atomic nature, every breath that he evenly and slowly breathes, must be in perfect mathematical harmony with the music of the spheres. He must prepare the chambers for the divine breath of creation in order to share the 'joy of the dance of the Logos', and he must learn to focus his soul's breath obliquely so that its melody may pour forth in measured stages of beauteous proportion producing perfect harmony in and all around him.

 Within his heart his devoted disciple joins the gopis who became like flutes upon which the Lord could play. Joining them in the divine dance, the vessel of his being fills with the vibrations of the universe. Krishna is everywhere! The gopis and beloved cows merge into his universal form and his music pulsates within every atom of the manifest world. The flocks and herds of heaven dance and sway to his tune and the lonely shepherd on the hillside rejoices, for he senses an answer to his own soul's melody which he plays upon his simple pipe. The divine Keeper of the Flocks and Herds, the Glorious Custodian of the Melodious Cow, plays on within and through the disciple who becomes the perfect instrument, the vehicle of pure light and sound, the flute held to the lip of the Lord.

O Venugopala, I shall make of my life an instrument of thy music. The bells on my feet shall echo thy movements and the chambers of my heart shall fill with the notes of thy divine melody, O Blessed One, I join the stars who cluster under thy loving gaze and intone the harmony of thy Universal Presence. O Beloved Lord, may I never cease hearing the sound of your magic flute.