Eastern Music and Human Rights by Katsuhiko Nakano

Eastern cultures emphasize raising awareness of the inter-connectedness between all beings, and seek harmony, rather than place emphasis on differences

In this essay, I would like to discuss Eastern music and human rights. First, I would like to describe one specific feature of Eastern music. Second, I would like to explain the Eastern concept of non-violent human rights. Finally, I would like to consider the relationship between Eastern music and non-violent human rightOne of the most notable features of Eastern music is that it has emphasized the relationship between music and the environment. To illustrate this, I will use the musical technique called ‘sawari’ as an example. When performers play Eastern stringed instruments, the strings vibrate and touch the neck of the instruments. This playing style and its resulting effect is called ‘sawari’. Defined by modern Western music, this kind of sound has been classified as ‘natural noise’.

‘Sawari’ is a Japanese term, but we can find this concept in almost all musical traditions in the East. Japanese stringed instruments like the biwa or shamisen and other Eastern stringed instruments all create the ‘sawari’ effect, but the origin of ‘sawari’ is in Hindi, or ‘jhuwari’, music. Hinduism is the cradle of this musical expression. Eastern musicians use ‘sawari’ in the most affecting musical passages. For Eastern music, the ideal sound is natural sound and ‘sawari’ is considered the gateway to nature. Thus, even today, Eastern musicians take great care to continue the tradition of using the ‘sawari’ playing style, which has been inherited from ancient times.

However, modern Western music has eliminated this natural sound and emphasizes artificial musical sounds. Considering this, we cannot help but admit to an important difference between the Western and Eastern attitude towards sound. How can this difference be explained? Possibly, it is that the East and West have differing views regarding the relationship between the artificial and the natural. Modern Western music has eliminated natural noise because of the Western tendency to consider the artificial and the natural as antipodal. On the other hand, Eastern music has emphasized the relationship between the artificial and the natural, and the harmonization of the two.

The different approaches to sound are also probably deeply related to the opposing world-views of the East and the West. The West, particularly influenced by Christianity, tends to have a dichotomous view (for example, human versus nature, self versus others, and good versus evil). On the other hand, Eastern cultures emphasize raising awareness of the inter-connectedness between all beings, and seek harmony, rather than place emphasis on differences.

This Eastern attitude is also reflected within behavioural patterns. One typical example is found in the non-violent human rights movement. While Eastern non-violent movements insist on their rights and justice, they simultaneously emphasize tolerance of the opposition, even toward the oppressor.

Incidentally, there is a uniquely Eastern way of thinking, which emphasizes the interconnectedness of all beings. This is called ‘engi’ (Japanese), or ‘dependent origination’. This concept explains that our very existence depends on all other beings in the universe, and vice versa.

Though we might detest someone or some situation, we were born together in this world and thus have a deep bond with all life in the universe. According to this thought, one’s deeds, good or bad, recoil back to oneself. So, if someone exercises violent means to reach his particular goal, the effects of his actions will eventually return to him with equally violent repercussions. This idea of a chain of conflict being a vicious circle is typical of the Eastern approach to the concept of ’cause and effect’.

This concept is closely related to the concept of ‘karma’. Karma refers to the sum total of all causes we have made, and which have produced who we are today. According to the concept of karma, making bad causes, or using violence, increases the proportion of bad karma, and its effects will inevitably appear in our lives in the future, or sometimes, immediately. Contrarily, if we make good causes toward our environment, including people, living and non-living beings, with whom we share a connection (‘engi’), we will accumulate positive karma based on the law of ’cause and effect’.

The origin of these concepts, especially karma, and ’cause and effect’, is Hinduism, where ‘sawari’ originated. These originally Hindi concepts have had a great impact on Eastern music and the Eastern approach to human rights. In this sense, it is inevitable that both ‘Jhuwari’ (Hindi music) and the idea of non-violent actions would originate within the same Eastern culture (specifically, Hindu). Both ‘Jhuwari’ and ‘non-violence’ emphasize harmonious relations with and tolerance for others, even during situations of conflict. ‘Sawari’ aims to bond humans with nature, while the philosophy of non-violence promotes a deep bond between humans themselves.

(1) ‘Cause and effect’ refers to the fundamental law of the universe, which teaches that if we make good causes we will receive good effects, and if we produce bad causes we will likewise receive negative effects. In accord with this thought, it follows that using violence to seek revenge is a negative cause that will come back to us in a negative or anti-value form


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