Universal Consciousness: Alice Coltrane’s Turn To Hinduism

You have your own conscience, your own intelligence, and you know your own mind.

–Alice Turiyasangitananda Coltrane

A portrait of Alice Coltrane, R. Divya Nair

In this clip, Turiya Coltrane, the grand-daughter of jazz pianist, harpist, and vocalist Alice Coltrane (née McCleod) reflects on her grandmother’s study and interpretation of Hindu philosophy through the gospel of the Detroit churches of her childhood. The Hindu bhajan (devotional) and the African-American spiritual together constitute the formal foundations and thematic touchstones of Alice Coltrane’s ecumenical sound. I may have mentioned that a few weeks ago, I had the great honor of singing her composition, “Om Shanti,” at Blessed are the Peacemakers, the Saturday Free School’s celebration of the philosophy of Robeson, King, and Du Bois, at the historic Mother Bethel AME Church in Philadelphia. I chose the piece because it is an invocation to world peace and a much-needed intervention in the politics of imperialism which thrives on perpetual war, war waged by the few at the grave expense of the many. The earth reels from many centuries of ceaseless destruction as humanity cries out for an end to oppression and a resolution to the degradation of the darker races in the past four-hundred years of white rule. Since then, I have been reading voraciously about her, focusing in particular on her spiritual evolution, namely her turn to Hinduism, the world-historical significance of her interpretation of it, and how it connects with the contributions of her contemporaries, familiars, and interlocutors.

After her husband, the legendary John Coltrane of North Philadelphia, passed on to the next world, Alice immersed herself further in the study of Hindu scripture and Indian classical music forms. She traveled to the city of Chennai in southern India to study with Swami Satchidananda. However, it was John Coltrane who would introduce her to the philosophy, theology, music, and meditation practices of Pan Africa and Pan Asia. John, who was ten years older than Alice when she first met him at age 26, likely encountered these sources during his world tour in the U.S. armed services–an experience which deeply inscribed upon him the evils of war and American imperialism. Coltrane would himself undergo a spiritual awakening in 1957.

Following her husband’s death, Alice fell into a deep tapas, a self-imposed spiritual retreat undertaken by Hindus committed to an intentional path wherein one lives a life of strict mental and physical discipline in order to reach a higher spiritual plane of existence and consciousness. Tapas often yields states of high spiritual vibration characteristic of Alice’s ecstatic compositions. During this period, it is said that Alice made connection with John’s spirit. She strove to continue advancing their common aspiration to create music capable of illuminating the totality of the human experience, the internal struggles of the atman (soul force) in the face of the external strife of humanity’s relation to itself and the physical world–songs of innocence, songs of experience, songs of pain, and songs of bliss. Indeed, her chosen spiritual name Turiyasangitananda roughly translates to the transcendental Lord’s highest song of bliss. In Hindu philosophy, turiya (Sanskrit: तुरीय or English “the fourth”) refers to the fourth dimension of consciousness, underlying waking consciousness, dreaming, and dreamless sleep. The seventh verse of the Mandukya Upanishad, which discourses upon these four states of consciousness which are accessible through the universal syllable Aum or Om, refers to the magnitude of Turiya’s infinity and incalculability in the following terms:

Not inwardly cognitive, nor outwardly cognitive, not both-wise cognitive,

not a cognition-mass, not cognitive, not non-cognitive,

unseen, with which there can be no dealing, ungraspable, having no distinctive mark,

non-thinkable, that cannot be designated, the essence of assurance,

of which is the state of being one with the soul

the cessation of development, tranquil, benign, without a second,

such they think is the fourth. He is the soul (atman). He should be discerned.

The Māṇḍūkya Upaniṣad is the shortest of the Upanisads and is associated with the Atharvaveda, which is chiefly concerned with the practice of everyday life. It is also an affirmation of the soul force underlying all existence and creation. It reflects on the physics of the four-part structure of the sound AUM–A + U + M + “silence,” which not only harnesses the past, present, and future of time, but bends them such that the transcendence of time by the soul force is made possible. The intonation of the Aum sound explains the progression of sound through the universe, tracking its movement from the syllable “a,” which signifies Apti (searching and aspiring), to “u” or Utkarsa (exaltation) to “M” or Miti (Reconstruction) followed by the punctuating silence that separates each intonation. The rhythmic chanting of aum thusrepresents the human will to know in this world and beyond, to be of one’s time and yet, reach beyond it.

As such, it is high time that we recognize the true significance of the commitment to Afro-Asiatic civilization in twentieth-century jazz composition, a realization which once again affirms the intercivilizational unity of Pan Africa and Pan Asia in the struggle against imperialism and European civilization’s ongoing attempts to repress the contributions of the darker races to humanity. It is not a coincidence, for instance, that John and Alice Coltrane, along with Pharaoh Sanders, Don Cherry, Sun Ra, Duke Ellington, Yusuf Lateef, and so many other black composers in the United States, re-imagine the relation of the darker races to one another at a time when W.E.B Du Bois, Martin Luther King Jr., and Paul Robeson were extending their hands in open friendship with revolutionary leaders like Gandhi, Nehru, Nkrumah, and others. They dedicated their life’s work towards establishing an epistemology that saw the civilizations of Africa and Asia in a historical continuum, so as to break free from the chokehold of the Western interpretation of human history.

Alice Turiyasangitananda Coltrane thus participated in the invention of a radically new form of world spiritual music that fundamentally re-interpreted Hinduism–not unlike her contemporaries Don Cherry (e.g: his record “Mahakali”), Pharaoh Sanders (e.g “The Creator has a Master Plan”), and indeed, John Coltrane (e.g “Om”)–in terms of the African-American spiritual tradition and political struggle for freedom, truth, and peace. Her work ought to be considered in dialogue with other Black composers of the period who increasingly turned to Africa and Asia to discover their relation to African-America and broadly, the truth about the origins of humanity and the shape of its future. In the wake of their musical and cosmological experimentations, they left behind a rich body of music characterized by a distinctive Afro-Asiatic sound . What distinguishes their aesthetic practice at this juncture in history is their grounding in the black anti-imperialist political tradition. Prophets and architects of peace, these artists were committed to fulfilling the Creator’s great plan for the advancement of humanity in the twenty-first century.

Alice Coltrane’s songs are hymns to truth, grace, love, and peace. Her oeuvre ought to be studied in light of her deep spiritual longing for what James Baldwin memorably christened the New Jerusalem. In the new galaxies of sound she maps out for the world, in her cosmic distillations of jazz, we see the outlines of all that which remains to be won by humanity in our common quest for a kingdom of heaven on earth.

Letter from Chanan Singh to W. E. B. Du Bois, May 7, 1963

In this letter dated May 7th, 1963 from Nairobi, Kenya, Kenyan official Chanan Singh writes to W.E.B Du Bois about the possibility of contributing to the Encyclopedia Africana. Du Bois had very early established the need for a an encyclopedia that presented the truth about Africa and its civilization in place of the lies of Western Enlightenment. He endeavored to develop a Black equivalent to the colonial Encyclopedia Britannica and thereby overturn Western epistemologies of knowing and being. As he put it in his 1945 essay, “The Need for an Encyclopedia Of The Negro,”

There is need for young pupils and for mature students of a statement of the present condition of our knowledge concerning the darker races and especially concerning Negroes, which would make available our present scientific knowledge and set aside the vast accumulation of tradition and prejudice which makes such knowledge difficult now for the layman to obtain: A Vade mecum for American schools, editors, libraries, for Europeans inquiring into the race status here, for South Americans, and Africans.

Notably, Singh–who was then serving in the capacity of Parliamentary Secretary to Jomo Kenyatta, Kenya’s first President from 1964 to 1978–inquires whether Du Bois’s proposed Encyclopedia Africana will include articles about Indians living in Africa and offers assistance with compiling historical and statistical information on the subject:

I wish to offer my services to help you in compiling information about the Asians of Indian origin… For 15 years, I wrote the editorials and editorial notes of a local weekly, The Colonial Times. I was a member of the Legislative Council Of Kenya from 1952 to 1956 and again from 1961 to 1963.

Singh’s letter is significant, in part, because it once again illustrates the geographic and epistemological continuities between Africa and Asia and the necessity of looking at their civilizations in a continuum. Many thanks to the folks at Black Agenda Report for picking up “Reflections on the Pan Afro-Asiatic Civilizational Complex.”

“The Truth Shall Make You Free”: The Friendship Of Paul Robeson, Shirley Graham Du Bois, and W.E.B Du Bois

Cover art of Freedomways magazine featuring Paul Robeson. The quarterly magazine was founded by Shirley Graham Du Bois. Paul Robeson was a great admirer of Dr. W.E.B Du Bois and was acutely sensitive to the significance of Du Bois’s contributions to literary, scientific, and philosophical inquiry in the common struggle of the dark nations against Western imperialism in large part because of their shared service to African America and humanity in the world peace movement. He shared a unique affinity and sympathy with Du Bois’s sacrifices in the freedom struggle, given the similarity in the charges leveled upon both men under the virulently anti-communist McCarthyite regime in America, but also because he was greatly admired by Du Bois’s second wife, Shirley Graham Du Bois.

Over the course of the nineteenth century, the violence of white civilization–its destruction of Africa, devastation of the Americas, and plunder of Asia–was obscured, or else rationalized, by a growing accretion of lies about the darker races and their civilizations, lies masquerading as truth, as Western art and science were directed towards the ideological consolidation of European values of beauty, truth, freedom, innovation, and development. Such values negated the presence of these aspects of human civilization amongst the darker races, given that the peoples of Africa, Asia, the Americas, and the islands of the sea, were progressively deemed peoples without history and civilization as European colonialism took root in humanity’s common soil. Nineteenth-century Europeans advanced what Martin Bernal in Black Athena has termed the “Aryan model” of history in order to consolidate their commercial interests in Africa, Asia, and the Americas, falsely positing Europe as the apex of humanity’s historical development . As such, it is important to underscore the significance of black political philosophers and artists like Robeson and the Du Boises, for like other leaders of national liberation movements in the dark world, they knew that the struggle against European imperialism had to be waged on both the material as well as the ideological front. For the denial of oppression is part and parcel of the oppressor’s strategy to maintain dominance amongst the masses. We know this because the people armed with the correct ideas and objectives, then and now, pose the greatest threat to the oppressor.

Robeson recognized Du Bois as a leader in the world peace movement, the movement away from a society founded on war, rape, and theft of dark civilization. Indeed, it was their decisive role in the fight for such a society that led to both Du Bois’s and Robeson’s indictments. Speaking of the “victorious and glorious conclusion of the case of Dr. W.E.B Du Bois” Robeson observed:

It was indeed wonderful to feel the underlying joy and happiness in the hearts of all. There were knowing smiles, handshakes, and congratulations. For this was one of the historic points in the Negro people’s struggle. The attempt to stop Dr. Du Bois from speaking was at the same time aimed to silence him in his defense of the rights of his people to voice their grievances, to call for vast improvements and changes in their condition of second class citizenship. Time and again one returned to the inspiring figure of Dr. Du Bois, to some evaluation of what this history means and can mean. Here was a most illuminating expression of the people’s power, of the people’s will of peace.

Robeson understood that that taken together, Du Bois’s scientific contributions, literary innovation, and historical insight served as an enduring political intervention in the greatest affliction facing humanity in the twentieth century: the problem of the color line. Du Bois’s intervention was a concretely imagined program for peace and the civilizational renaissance of the darker races throughout the world. For us, civilization was not the province of white folk, but the duty of dark folk to humanity. Under imperialism, science and art are deployed in the interest of war and oppression; by contrast, in the struggle for a positive peace in the dark world, they are put in the service of truth, freedom, and humanity. Indeed, this aspiration is also foundational to Robeson’s own artistic ambitions as a singer, linguist, jurist, orator, folklorist, actor, dramatist, and historian.

The two would also serve on the Council on African Affairs, which was as an important Pan-Africanist mouthpiece in the mid twentieth century. Robeson was appointed chairperson for most of the organization’s tenure, while Du Bois served in the capacity of vice-chairperson. The Council linked the struggles of the African-American nation for freedom in the United States to the struggles of the darker races against imperialism throughout the world. Alphaeus Hunton, who then taught English and Romance languages at Howard University, served as the Educational Director and editor of its publication New Africa. In 1953, the Council on African Affairs became the target of the Smith-McCarran Act, though the U.S. Federal Bureau Of Investigations began surveilling the group as early as 1942. Members were charged and indicted. Hunton would spend six months behind bars for his role.

Finally, that Shirley Graham wrote the definitive biography of Paul Robeson–titled Paul Robeson: Citizen of the World–deepens the connections between Du Bois and Robeson. The biography is itself a work of art, compositionally speaking, in that it is a grand synthesis of her musicological, literary, and political genius. Formally, she contends with constraints and possibilities of the biographical form, the challenges and complexities of limning with sufficient complexity the shape of a life. Her account of Robeson’s life is simultaneously operatic, novelistic, and epic in structure and represents a new kind of narrative in my personal study of twentieth-century world literary production. It parallels Du Bois’s The Souls Of Black Folk, in many ways, though particularly with respect to its incorporation of music theory and form into narrative form. James Joyce’s Ulysses attempts to do something similar. Graham Du Bois’s portrait of Robeson situates him in his milieu, as a character on the world stage and a decisive authority on his civilization. As Robeson himself said, “Artists are the gatekeepers if Truth. We are civilization’s radical voice.” Of Robeson’s pursuit of a career in acting, Graham Du Bois, herself a prominent playwright, writes:

This was then what the theater offered him–to speak to all men.

In Western literary criticism of the Romantic period, we often hear about the relationship between Byron, Percy Shelley, and Mary Shelley–its political and creative implications. The novel Frankenstein, for instance, was born out of a story-writing competition between the three during a mountain retreat. We must consider the literary consequence of the relationship that flowered between Robeson, Du Bois, and Shirley Graham over the course of their lives with equal weight.

Graham Du Bois also discourses extensively on Robeson’s organic connection to the Tri-State region of the United States in lush and memorable detail. I was struck by how she coaxes the story of Robeson’s life out of the social landscape of his life, which she presents by way of a political economy and historical sociology of New Jersey and Pennsylvania, giving special attention to the migration patterns structuring labor relations In the region historically. I️ found this interesting for autobiographical reasons, being reminded of where I️ am presently stationed: Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Much of the nation’s early history has been made in New Jersey. From the earliest days her land has served as a corridor between New York and Philadelphia. The old colonial post-roads grew hard with the passing of many feet. Her farmlands attracted immigrants during three centuries. To the colonial settlers Dutch, English, Scotch, and smaller numbers of French, German and Swedish had been added wave after wave of Irish, German, and Italian…from Ellis Island they could see the nearby fields and pleasant towns of New Jersey. They had converged on these growing towns and established communities in the shadows of the factories much as their peasant ancestors had clustered beneath the walls of the feudal manor. A few Negroes had been among the early settlers. Aided by state emancipation laws, they had passed from slavery into wage labor as coachmen, gardeners, house servants and tannery workers. They owned and operated barber shops, laundries and catering establishments. In such a community Paul Robeson’s father had pastored his church at Princeton. But about the year 1900 hundreds of frightened unlettered Negroes from the deep south began pouring into the state. They had no roots and were regarded askance by foreign- and native-born. It was to these people, thrown as they were among the newly arrived immi- grants, that Paul’s father took his ministry when he closed the door of the Princeton parsonage behind him.

When reading this highly literary biography, one gains a sense of Robeson as an actor in the world freedom movement and of the texture of the relationships that developed between thinkers and artists of the period–what they thought of each other, how they related each other’s work, where they grew up, their formative childhood experiences, and the arc of their hopes for the new world they sought to build. Shirley Graham Du Bois wields her pen with great control and yet her greatest gift is her commitment the principle of aesthetic freedom in all of its possibilities. Her ever so careful rendering of the deep impression left by Du Bois’s thought on Robeson leaves one with a palpable sense of the shadow cast by Du Bois as a member of the world intelligentsia. Shirley Graham also casts her husband in the biography with great alacrity, grace, and love. I️ will end with her reflections on a meeting of these two giants of African-American civilization at a Alpha Phi Alpha banquet:

Then came the last night of the year, when they came together for their closing banquet and to hear their most distinguished member, the internationally known savant, Dr. W. E. B. Du Bois.

Paul leaned forward studying this man of whom he had heard so much, whose books he had read. He observed the proud, handsome face which looked as if it had been chiseled in bronze, the piercing eyes, the haughty carriage of head. Here was a man who walked with dignity who spoke with authority, precisely, without emotion.

The truth shall make you free. There is no other way. Ours is the task of bringing about united action on the part of thinking Americans, white and black, to force the truth concerning Negroes to the attention of the nation.”

Each man listened attentively. Paul looked again down the long board.

“Scientific investigation and organized action among Negroes, in close co-operation, to secure the survival of the Negro race, until the cultural development of America and the world is willing to fight for Negro freedom as an essential part of human progress.”

He had concluded his speech. No flights of oratory, no impassioned peroration only the truth.

Paul was never to forget that evening. When but ten minutes of the old year were left everybody stood in a circle around the room, with arms crossed and each man’s hand grasping the hand of the man beside him. Standing thus they sang “Alpha Phi Alpha”

In our Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternal spirit binds all the

Noble, true and courageous.

Manly deeds and scholarship, Service to all mankind

Are the aims of our dear Fraternity.

–Shirley Graham Du Bois, Paul Robeson: Citizen Of The World


Peter Blackman, Robeson and Du Bois.

W. E. B. Du Bois, Shirley Graham Du Bois, Howard Fast, Paul Robeson, and others in New York, ca. 1950

Vito Marcantonio with Paul Robeson and sociologist W.E.B. DuBois in Harlem.

Shirley Graham Du Bois at her typewriter, c. 1945

नन्दि

“नन्दि” (Nandi), color pencil

Nandi stands vigil over Mount Kailasham, Lord Shiva’s abode, and is his bovine protectress. Shiva is also Kali’s consort. The image of the bull and its association with Shiva dates back to the Indus Valley civilization of antiquity, as envisaged in the Pashupati Seal, which dates back to Mohenjodaro c. 2500-2400 BCE. Bull seals such as this one discovered amongst the ruins of the Indus Valley have led historians and archaeologists to conclude that Shiva was an important deity for this civilization, for he is the patron god of fauna and so, particularly  important to keepers of pastoral, cattle-herding life. . It is also striking that in literary Malayalam the word “Pashu” today means cow.

James Weldon Johnson (1871–1938), O Black and Unknown Bards

O BLACK and unknown bards of long ago,

How came your lips to touch the sacred fire?

How, in your darkness, did you come to know

The power and beauty of the minstrel’s lyre?

Who first from midst his bonds lifted his eyes?

        5

Who first from out the still watch, lone and long,

Feeling the ancient faith of prophets rise

Within his dark-kept soul, burst into song?

Heart of what slave poured out such melody

As “Steal away to Jesus”? On its strains

        10

His spirit must have nightly floated free,

Though still about his hands he felt his chains.

Who heard great “Jordan roll”? Whose starward eye

Saw chariot “swing low”? And who was he

That breathed that comforting, melodic sigh,

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“Nobody knows de trouble I see”?

What merely living clod, what captive thing,

Could up toward God through all its darkness grope,

And find within its deadened heart to sing

These songs of sorrow, love and faith, and hope?

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How did it catch that subtle undertone,

That note in music heard not with the ears?

How sound the elusive reed so seldom blown,

Which stirs the soul or melts the heart to tears.

Not that great German master in his dream

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Of harmonies that thundered amongst the stars

At the creation, ever heard a theme

Nobler than “Go down, Moses.” Mark its bars

How like a mighty trumpet-call they stir

The blood. Such are the notes that men have sung

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Going to valorous deeds; such tones there were

That helped make history when Time was young.

There is a wide, wide wonder in it all,

That from degraded rest and servile toil

The fiery spirit of the seer should call

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These simple children of the sun and soil.

O black slave singers, gone, forgot, unfamed,

You—you alone, of all the long, long line

Of those who’ve sung untaught, unknown, unnamed,

Have stretched out upward, seeking the divine.

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You sang not deeds of heroes or of kings;

No chant of bloody war, no exulting pean

Of arms-won triumphs; but your humble strings

You touched in chord with music empyrean.

You sting far better than you knew; the songs

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That for your listeners’ hungry hearts sufficed

Still live,—but more than this to you belongs:

You sang a race from wood and stone to Christ.