Topic: Culture
I am more and more convinced that there’s a giant gaping hole in Western scholarship, which is the extended artistic, philosophical and religious dialogue that seems to have gone on between India and Europe, probably by way of Arabia. I’ve seen Buddhist cave temples that predate Jesus by 200 years that are precisely the shape of Romanesque cathedrals, and the Byzantine art exhibit currently running at the Metropolitan Museum of Art contains an illustration for a story that is supposedly derived from the life of the Buddha. There were Jews in Cochin, in southern India, going back possibly to before Jesus. And tonight I stumbled across another fascinating artifact.

I was listening to New Sounds tonight and heard a South Indian devotional song that was described as a “Nirguni bhajan.” I knew the second word, but was surprised by the first, because among Chassidic Jews, a niggun is a wordless tune, often sung by rebbes and thought to possess (or express, or unleash) great spiritual power. They are sung as acts of passionate devotion, like Sufi prayers. The Jewish Encyclopedia has a slightly different interpretation of the word, defining it as “a droning, formless intonation set to a text, and, more especially, the particular mellody-type or prayer-motive to which a service is traditionally rendered, e.g., the Sabbath Niggun.”

A Google search on the term Nirgun turns up a fascinating set of associations. The term itself seems to mean “formless,” “unmanifested,” and also to refer to a genre of devotional music — just as the niggun is a formless (or at least wordless) devotional song. The term seems to have importance in the Sikh religion, and the search turned up a number of links to Sikh “Nirguni saints.” For the Sikhs, the word also appears to refer to the Absolute that is God.

I don’t know what to make of all this, except to say that it seems once again that the religions of East and West have been talking to each other pretty intently since the 17th century or so, and chatted now and again before then, too.