A raga, or raag, is a mood, a cosmic feeling, an atmosphere, that enraptures the mind, filling it with aesthetic delight. It is an application of the ancient Vedic science of sound and harmony based on the natural harmonics. It expresses the vibrations of the laws of nature enabling us to come in tune with them. By the penetrating force of sound, the distinctive harmonies employed in a raga have a strong uplifting and harmonizing power.
There are many different ragas that all have their own name and their own particular mood different from one another. Many of the ragas are also related to specific times of the day or seasons of the year when they are most in tune with the rhythm of nature. Hence, there are morning ragas, evening ragas, night ragas, spring ragas, rain ragas etc. It's assumed that there are about 150 ragas used in India today, while there originally shall have been about 300.
Every raga is related to a specific group of sound intervals by which it gets manifested. Each of these groups forms a particular music scale which commonly has 7 notes, while some have 5 or 6 and a few have 8 or 9. Sometimes the number of notes also vary between ascending and descending a scale. Each of the scales has the same name as the raga to which they belong. Thus, the name of a raga signifies both a mood and the music scale that creates it.
Another important feature of playing or singing a raga is slides from one note to another. In some ragas one only slides between certain notes of the scale, while in others one might slide between all of them.
A raga becomes manifest by singing or playing the appropriate notes of its scale based on the harmonies played by the tampura. The sound intervals of the scale have to be exactly right. The correct relationships, and also the correct slides, between the notes specific to a raga are what makes its manifestation possible.
When the notes of a raga are correctly tuned, the mood of the raga always remains the same independent of the rendering. Although a raga is expressed by improvisation, it stays the same despite different performances.
A raga is not likely to manifest by the use of an instrument based on the tempered scale of Western music, because it is not in tune with the natural harmonics. The original Indian classical music is much more subtle than Western music, as it employs many more tone intervals, and therefore also has many more scales - which all are different from the tempered scales. The tempered scales are based on a crude division of the octave into equal intervals that are only twelve in number. In ragas there are many more divisions between notes, and all of them are in accordance with the natural harmonics.
The scales of the ragas requires that the placement of the notes in relation to each other is very accurate, and the difference between a correctly and an incorrectly placed note can be so small that it can be difficult to detect for an untrained ear. By the help of a trained teacher and a tampura, we can learn the correct placement of the notes in a chosen raga.
Since each note in a scale has a unique and special relationship with the others, we experience that they also have their own special personalities. The relationship between these personalities creates a global atmosphere, a special mood, a unique feeling, which is what we call a raga, and which is a manifestation of the vibrations of the laws of nature.
The misconceptions are rules and regulations that restrict the potential for musical expression, and which are not necessary when the notes of the scales are correctly placed. Some of the most common of these regulations are what is called vadi, which is a note of the scale that is considered to be the most important to dwell on; samvadi, which is the 2nd most important note to dwell on; pakad, which is a distinct melodic phrase that is meant to differentiate a raga from others; and chaland, a fixed melodic movement.
These are artificial techniques created to compensate for the lack of knowledge of the accurate intervals peculiar to each raga. Because of this lack of knowledge, the original form of the Vedic science of music, which teaches the pure and perfect forms of the ragas, is actually today in danger of becoming lost.
"When we are in tune with God, the life force or the laws of nature, we always do the right action and do not make mistakes. We don't need to think which action to do or how to do it; it flows naturally and with no effort. It is the same with raga. When we have the right tuning of the raga, it flows through us naturally. We don't need to think if the phrases are right or anything. That is also why Dhrupad is a spiritual learning. It teaches us the right tuning and develops the experience of God consciousness in our dally life."