Did Ancient Prayers Actually Come From Birdsong?

The syntax of obscure Hindu Vedic chants whose origin is lost in time isn't like any known human language, but matches the patterns of two bird species

Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
Go to comments
Rituals in India
Illustration: Some Hindu rituals go back thousands of years, and involve verses whose meaning is long, long lostCredit: AFP
Nicholas Ben-Marcus
Nicholas Ben-Marcus

Some things are so old that they transcend history, like pottery. Music is the same, but it’s harder to study.

When we have a physical object in our hands, it is easy to detect patterns and see cause. We can date a ceramic pot, deduce the origin of the clay by analyzing the isotopic decay of its elemental composition, and even determine if it was used to store grain, cook plants or meat or brew beer thousands of years ago.

This cannot be said of music. Sound can be classified according to the languages we speak, and since the advent of writing, musical notes can be "written down" – represented in symbols. But studying the beginning of a musical tradition with roots in prehistory, whose origin was never written down, is no easy feat.

A good working assumption is that the simplest explanation is often the most correct. By a long process of study and deduction, the simplest theory for presently-unintelligible Brahmin chants dating from prehistory are that they are not based on a lost language, but on birdsong.

Cheep shot

To this day, the sounds of nature can find expression in the music of our daily lives. The desire to imitate nature may also explain a mystery in the Indian subcontinent regarding certain incomprehensible mantras used in a very, very old, and not often performed Hindu ritual. Many Vedic rituals and observations have receded into the rural provinces, sometimes with mere dozens of people even being aware of the more arcane rites.

In the Andhra Pradesh province of south-eastern India live an ancient line of Brahmins, who learn – father to son, by ear – the rites and rituals they will need to perform as Vedic priests.

They themselves don't know how far back in time this ever-repeating cycle goes, only that it is supposed to be perpetuated infinitely. Nor do the Brahmins themselves necessarily understand the meaning of the sounds they are reciting any longer. They were taught a procedure and follow it exactly, as did the elders who taught them.

In his 1975 documentary, “Altar of Fire,” Frits Staal, emeritus professor of philosophy and South Asian Studies at University of California Berkeley, led a study of the 12-day long Agnicayana ritual, a fire-based Vedic rite in honor of the God of Fire, Agni. Correct performance guaranteed the sponsor entry into heaven. (Agnicayana historically involved animal sacrifice, but didn’t for this recreation and hasn’t in any known performance of this ritual in the last 150 years.)

Altar of FireCredit: YouTube

In general, Vedic ritual maintains a one-to-one ratio between a vocal mantra and a ritual action, representing a type of symmetrical balance.

Agnicayana involves building an altar shaped like a bird over 12 days (following six months of preparation by 12 priests beforehand). It is extremely expensive and labor-intensive process and is therefore rarely done. In fact, when Dr. Staal led the commission of academics that filmed the ritual, they believed it might never be done again.

The priests building the long house that protects the fire altar, and then the altar itself, chant throughout the construction process. When the altar is ritualistically finished, however, the chants are not done yet: the priests continue to "construct," using 120 black pebbles as a ritual substitute for bricks, in order to maintain the balance between the chanting and the physical actions.

At the end of the whole thing, the Brahmins immolate the altar with its housing.

It is true that the mantras are written down, in Sanskrit, a phonetic alphabet. Academics have managed to interpret some of the verses.

But there is a whole body of unintelligible mantras in the Agnicayana ritual that nobody can make out. Though written in language, they have no known linguistic meaning.

Staal examined the first of these strange songs, the Jaiminiya Gramageyagana. First it was determined that its syntax patterns could not be matched to any known language anywhere.

Then, inspired by a hunch – he sought the mantra syntax in local birdsong.

The structure of the Vedic patterns were found to mimic two migratory birds known to be present in the area: Blyth's reed warbler (Acrocephalus dumetorum) and the common whitethroat (Sylvia communis).

Blyth's Reed Warbler songCredit: YouTube

The Stravinsky precedent

The way sounds turn into language reveals something about the structure of our brains. While we can characterize birdsongs in nature as being sung for a variety of reasons, usually in courtship, we can postulate birds sing because they enjoy it.

A WhitethroatCredit: Andreas Trepte

Ornithologists would be horrified by such anthropomorphisms, but ethnologists and behavioral ecologists would suggest that over a hundred million years ago, an early bird sang for fun, a lady bird was intrigued, and the rest is natural selection.

The intricacies and attention to the mating “ritual” are as detail-oriented as a tax collector; even without apparent meaning, you don’t need to know why a bird does all the small movements it does when courting to know they are courting – the bird certainly doesn't.

The way language works in our brains is similar. When we learn our mother tongue, we quickly observe that units of sound strung together are associated with specific meanings.

In both birds and humans, we see virtually no difference in the structure of a song for a known purpose and a song for pleasure (assuming the birds gain such pleasure). Because of this, we can understand that the song exists both with and without meaning.


All in all, the evidence can be summed up as: the song may have predated its own meaning in birds. If that holds true for people as well, song in general and these mantras in particular could have predated the development of language, though when our genus developed that ability is fiercely debated: some suspect that ancestral Homo erectus had language, while others find that unthinkable.

Blyth's Reed Warbler Credit: J.M.Garg

It could be that the mantras themselves were simply a nice melody calling out to be used for ritual. They were sounds of nature that were given honorific status in a ritual to connect man to the divine.

This phenomenon of emulating nature is not unique to India. It was documented in research on famous composer Igor Stravinsky. While living and working around the River Bug in northwestern Ukraine, the songs of the European pied flycatcher (Ficedula hypoleuca) must have caught his ear, because studying the syncopation, or patterns of beats, showed them to possess the same traits as some of his works.

European Pied Flycatcher Bird CallCredit: YouTube

You may ask, how do scientists "know?" Easy. The same way your teacher knows that when five friends all turn in a test with the same answers on number seven, they copied one another.

In keeping with the teachings of Noam Chomsky, Staal postulates that analogous adaptation between birds and people reveals a "deep generative grammar": they postulate that all cognitive structures between animals are similar at some level. That there is a similarity to how brains think, as opposed to how language works. If a biological ritual like singing can exist with or without contextual meaning, if different animals do this, then perhaps we can gain insight from that ritual into how cognition works

A bird sang a song, maybe to attract a mate. Stravinsky didn't know that; it just sounded nice to him. Then he used the bird’s song in one of his compositions. The song existed to the bird before it did for Stravinsky; it had its own discrete meaning. He then took it, modified it, and created his own meaning.

You may ask, “But doesn’t the fact that they are both learned automatically disprove this thesis?” No, it doesn’t. In fact, it supports it. The songs themselves are learned, but the capacity and propensity to sing are instinctual.

Like chicks, the young Brahmins learn from their parents how to create the sounds and make the movements to communicate with others.  And they continue the ancient rituals, the movements, methods, sounds, scents, without necessarily remembering the reasons behind the rites they perform. As Staal says: you don't need to know what you're saying if your focus is just on saying it correctly.