Songs have been an essential element in the life of the individual disciple and in the life of the local congregation. Songs stir up a person’s heart to adoration of God. They also have a powerful influence on gathering a group of people together and developing a unified spirit of worship.
The Bible clearly reflects a value for song. God’s revelation to mankind is not given in narrative form alone. Poetic literature is spread all over the Bible and much of it is presented in the form of song such as the entire book of Psalms, the song of Moses (Exodus 32), David’s song of deliverance (2 Sam 22), the Song of Solomon, and Mary’s song (Luke 1:46-55) among many others. Songs are a reflection of the image of God in man.
The use of songs is essential for those walking alongside Hindus. For many Hindus, songs are at the center of their devotional life and few other things will stir up their hearts in reverence. Faithful devotees will be able to sing many songs on the spot with or without musical accompaniment.
For those who follow Jesus, singing songs that glorify Jesus is a part of sharing in the experience (anubhav) of the risen Lord. However, rather than songs that come from western traditions, there is a rich Hindu legacy of songs sung as a part of devotion. This Hindu style of devotional music is the bhajan.
Bhajan is the term used in India to describe a devotional song sung to a deity. It is derived from the Sanskrit word bhaj which means, “to share, partake” and is also related to the term bhakti, which means “devotion.”1 The bhakti tradition focuses on personal, loving devotion to God. Bhajans were developed from the bhakti tradition and many came from famous bhakti poets such as Ramananda, Surdas, Kabir, Tukaram, and Mira Bai.
One cannot miss the personal nature of a song such as this one from Kabir (15th century A.D.):
I would caress this day!
It is dearer to me than all other:
for my Beloved is a guest in my house to-day.
My chamber is radiant with His Presence;
my courtyard is blessed.
Lost in admiring His great Beauty,
my longings sing His name and are glad:
I wash His feet with my tears;
I gaze into His face;
I offer my body and soul, and all I have, to my Lord.
My Beloved, my Treasure has honored my house.
What a day of joy is this!
At the sight of my Lord all evils flee from me,
and my heart feels the buoyancy of delight.
Yea, today my Beloved is a Guest in my house:
and this day is dear to me above all others.2
Christians in India have also used bhajans throughout history.3 Two of the earliest Christian bhajan writers were Purushottam Choudhary (1803-1890)4 and Narayan Vaman Tilak (1861-1919).5 For Choudhary and Tilak, bhajans were their natural form of expressing worship. Their bhajans reflect the bhakti tradition in which they were raised.
A significant characteristic of bhajans is that they are meant to be sung together with a group. Unlike Indian classical songs or even modern Bollywood songs, bhajans are not to be sung by a performer while everyone else listens. Instead, they are meant to be sung together. As Dayanand Bharati says, “they are not for the purpose of entertainment.”6 Normally a bhajan is led by one singer who will sing one line and then the congregation will repeat the line. This format continues throughout the song.
Bhajans are also characterized by their repetitive and flexible nature. The lines in a bhajan can be repeated following the leader so that the audience does not have to read lyrics while singing. This repetition makes bhajans easy to learn and easy to remember. Bhajans are flexible in that the leader can add or alter words and phrases as desired.
Anyone who wants to walk alongside Hindus as they seek to know Jesus Christ must learn to value bhajans. Take the time to learn a few songs in such a way as to be able to genuinely worship the Lord even though the words are in a foreign language. Discuss the lyrics of the bhajan with a Hindu friend and ask them how the words help them see Jesus more clearly. Most importantly, learn to love bhajans about Jesus and sing them often in your own life.
One of the most helpful resources online is from the musical group Aradhna. This group has produced many professional-grade recordings of bhajans directed towards Christ from both past and modern authors. Here’s one originally written by Mumtaz Masih.
Yeshu raja trilokanaath
King Jesus, Lord of the three worlds
Deen dukhee ke tum ho vidhaataa
You are the God of the wretched and distressed
Laaj sharam more raakhiyo jagat mein
Protect my honor, save me from shame in the world
Tum bin naheen koee doojaa re
Without you there is no other
Paapin kaaran liyo avataaraa
On account of sin you became incarnate
Diyo praan diyo chhutkaara
You gave up your life and acquitted us7
- Bruno Nettl et al., The Garland Encyclopedia of World Music, 5 (New York: Garland, 1998), 254.
- A.J. Appasamy, Temple Bells: Readings from Hindu Religious Literature (London: Student Christian Movement, 1930), 67-68.
- For a helpful resource in understanding how the modern Indian church has utilized bhajans, see C. H. Dicran, “Hindi Christian Bhajans: A Survey of Their Use by Christians and A Critique by Hindu Professionals in the Music World,” Unpublished M.A. Thesis, (2000).
- Ravela Joseph, Bhakti Theology of Purushottam Chowdhari (Chennai: Christian Literature Society, 1980), 14.
- For an insightful account of Tilak’s life see H. L. Richard, Following Jesus in the Hindu Context: The Intriguing Implications of N.V. Tilak’s Life and Thought (Pasadena, CA: William Carey Library, 1998).
- Dayanand Bharati, A veteran bhajan writer in Bangalore, India, Telephone interview by the author, Wake Forest, NC, February 12, 2017.
- Mumtaz Masih, “Yeshu Raja,” Aradhna Music, 2007, accessed April 6, 2017, http://aradhnamusic.com/discography/amrit-vani/lyrics-amrit-vani/