SAMA VEDA: Seven Musical Notes That Lay The Foundation Of Indian Classical Music



The last of the three-part series


By Dr. Suresh Kurl




Sama-Veda consists of 1,875 verses, almost all of them taken from the Rig-Veda. Actually, Sama-Veda is Rig-Veda’s musical version. As it was and still is customary to invoke and invite devas (gods) to partake in the Yajnas (fire ceremonies), Rig-Vedic hymns, which are in prose form, were transformed into poetry to make them melodious. That said it would be appropriate to say that the Sama-Veda is Rig-Veda in poetry form. Despite its musical importance, Sama-Veda does not seem to have much historical or sociological importance of its own.


The word “sama” comes from the root “saman,” meaning a song of praise. Sama-Veda lays the foundation of the Classical Indian Music. Its seven musical notes: sa, ri, ga, ma, pa, dha, ni, also “correspond approximately to those of the European major scale,” writes Professor A.L. Basham in his The Wonder That Was India (pg. 282).


This Veda is the earliest authority on raga. Raga is a series of notes upon which a melody is based, and sung according to the time of the day, as deemed appropriate. We could say that chanting and practicing of Sama-Veda hymns is like practicing raga-yoga.


We also know that vowels and musical instruments add carrying power to vocal music, which the Sama Veda effectively use, the Sama-Veda also added three instruments to add to the length of a chant. They were: Vina (a guitar like stringed instrument), Venu (a flute, made out of a bamboo) and Mridagam (a drum; unlike a tabla it has two ends, looks like pakhawaj or a dholak).


Given that the Sama-Veda is the source of melodies (ragas), which fill our hearts with spirituality, ecstasy, tranquility, love, and connect us to God and Him to us, and believing that Lord Krishna was a spell binding Venu player, these factors must have compelled him to identify himself with the Sama-Veda. “Vedanaam Saam-Vedosmi;”   Amongst Vedas, I am the Sama-Veda.          [Bhagavad Gita; 109:22]



The Sama-Veda provides another cultural string that pulls Hinduism and the rest of the world religions closer. That is kirtana: the glorification of the name and qualities of God in music form. We hear beautiful kirtana in the Hindus, Buddhist and Jain temples, in the Catholic and Baptist churches, in Jewish synagogues and Sufi dargahs and in Sikhs gurudwaras. Therefore, I say, the Sama-Veda is SUNDARAM. It is beautiful.




The Atharva-Veda, the last Vedic scripture was likely developed around 1200 BC. It is a collection of 6,000 hymns. Athar” means Fire and “Atharvan” is the name of the priest, who is said to have instituted the worship of fire and soma prayers. Atharva-Veda is dedicated to Soma and its kingdom of plants, such as, bhang, dharbha and yava (barley) etc. offered in ceremony.

Atharva-Veda is rather worldly by nature, as opposed to being spiritual. Unlike the first three Vedas — Rig-Veda, Sama-Veda and Yajur-Veda, the Atharva-Veda secularized society. It granted rights to perform ceremonies even to the individuals, who were not versed in Vedic-Sanskrit or skilled in performing fire-sacrifices by the book (Yajur-Veda).


The Atharva-Veda mentions a class of individuals called, “Vratya”. They belonged to a non-Vedic/non-Aryan, mixed blood cult. They performed ceremonies, ritual dancing and flagellation as a religious penance. They travelled from place to place in a cart with musician, who performed for them and women, who prostituted for them.


Perhaps because of such non-Vedic social practices the Atharva-Veda was not included as a member of trayi-vidya (threefold-wisdom) composed of the Rig-Veda, Yajur-Veda and the Sama-Veda.


Atharva-Veda introduced the concept of death, something to be afraid of, whereas, death in the Rig Veda is a resting station. It comes before moving on to the next station; next life (punar-janma).


The foundation of the “Ayurveda” is Atharva Veda, but there is a difference between the two Vedas from the point of view of their treatment approaches. The Ayurveda depends on herbs only, whereas the Atharva-Veda not only prescribes substances such leaf, seeds and roots, it also prescribes methods such as, amulet, tantrik formulas, magical spells, charms and incantations to counteract diseases, calamities, evil spirits and demonic force and recover from illness and to prolong life. As you can see that the Atharva Veda covers a larger scope of life. These practices have not only existed but still exist in modern Indian; they have existed and still exit in Judaism, Christianity and Islam as well.


Exorcism — the practice of casting out demons  has been practiced in Christianity and in Islam. In Islam it is called ruqyah and is practiced to get rid of Jinns and other supernatural powers. This is another cultural similarity that exists between the Indian and Abrahamic religions.


Talking about amulet, millenniums ago, Shachi, the queen of god Indra, the ruler of god, tied a string around the wrist of her husband for his protection and victory in a war against demon Vritra. Today, that ancient string is known as Raksha-bandhan (protection-band) that sisters tie around their brothers’ wrists.


The Atharva-Veda also has mantras to create winning conditions. The following is a hymn to destroy the opponent in a debate; something practical to think about.

“May the enemy not win the debate!

Thou, O root that I chew to sooth my throat, art might and overpowering

Overcome the debate of those who debate against me,

Render them devoid of force, O plant!”

[Atharva Veda II: 27; H. Daniel Smith; Selections from Vedic Hymns pg: 67]


Or to create passion in a man:


“From thy head unto thy feet do I implant longing into thee!

Ye gods, send forth the yearning love: may younder man burn after me!”

[H. Daniel Smith; Selections from Vedic Hymns; Atharva Veda VI: 131; pg: 68].

Just as numerous Rig-Vedic, Yajur-Vedic and Sam-Vedic prayers and fire sacrifices are still practiced in Hinduism, the spells to ward off the evil as prescribed in the Atharva-Veda are practiced. One can easily notice a black kohl spots on the forehead of a new born, or wearing a black string around the neck, especially in villages,  or burning of red chilli, or leaving a saucer full of oil, black sesame seeds and black beans during dark nights on street inter-sections, and many more. I have personally observed a few practices, but have never stayed around long enough to experience their results.


Dr. Suresh Kurl is a former University Professor retired Registrar of the BC Benefits Appeal Board (Govt. of B.C.) a former-Member of the National Parole Board (Govt. of Canada), a writer and public speaker and a Member of the Provincial Committee on Diversity and Policing.