When I first did an intensive course in Vedic Chanting five years ago, I was curious to experience the nuances of this dying art, which was presented to people as a discipline much after its inception. I was one of the three odd Indians in the class; Europeans, Canadians and oddly the Japanese outnumbered us. I was taken aback at the amount of concentration and skill that this art of vocalising the breath actually requires. When I heard the synchronicity with which my to-be mentors chanted complex chants with 11 different styles of recitation [karma, jata, ghana etc] and the peace that emanated from them, it immediately drew me deeper into the science and art of learning and teaching Vedic chanting.
Vedic chanting, as the name suggests, is chanting Sanskrit sholkas [verses] from the four Vedas—rig, yajur, sama and atharva. The school and lineage I am affiliated with— Krishnamacharya yoga mandiram—chants from the yajur veda tradition.
What makes the chanting and its origin [the exact dates are amorphous] so interesting is that these verses were actually ‘heard‘ or what is known as sruti, by the sages when they were in deep meditation who then passed on this vidya [knowledge] to their disciples, who further passed on the chants to their disciples in the guru-shishya parampara [student-teacher tradition]. Sruti is what forms the Vedas.
Vedic chanting is governed by strict rules of pronunciation, length of notes, continuity of the sound, the pitch, where to pause and the force of syllables, so that we can stick very closely to the meaning of the chant and thereby have the correct effect in terms of vibrations within the body and in the surroundings as well.
The benefits of chanting are innumerable
On the gross level, we work on the breath when we chant. A chant is done on an exhalation and therefore it becomes a pranayama. On the mental level it requires dharana [focus] on the rules, and correct and effective pronunciation of the words and sometimes complex sentences. On the subtler and energetic level, the mantras create vibrations, which in turn affect us in our vital energies or what we call the ‘pranic level’. Some mantras, for example, are heat producing, some cooling, and some meditative. Some are in praise of certain energies like Laxmi, the Goddess principle of abundance, some for Narayan to invoke peace or then the more intense Shiva energies. Some Mantras deal with the purusa [source] or the energy of creation, making the mantras more esoteric or abstract, requiring introspection and reflection; some mantras are chanted for health and some for protection.
One would ask how are these mantras relevant to us today?
My mentor Radha Sudarajan, a yoga and Vedic chanting teacher-trainer and direct disciple of TKV Desikachar says, “The relevance of the practice today is because of its multi-layered benefits. Mantras work on many levels. On the physical level, they are an act of exhalation purifying many impurities; as one lengthens ones’ exhalation one also lengthens inhalation thereby energising oneself and making oneself lighter. On the mental level, it’s absorbing and concentrating, and the vibration of the effect of the mantra is calming; hence it reduces stress and agitation. On the level of the heart, it alleviates tightness in the heart space and releases negative emotions. Finally, on the spiritual level, which is the final objective of the Vedas, it is to link with the paramatma, our higher selves.”
In my experience, the beauty of the practice lies in its universality; anyone can do Vedic chanting—men, women, children, people suffering from mental physical ailments and yes, even those who don’t understand Sanskrit, as the vibrations of these mantras are all pervading and powerful, inducing us into a state of yoga through abhyasa [practice], vairagya [dispassion], shraddha [faith] and ishwara pranidhana [self surrender].
This was first published in the May 2015 issue of Complete Wellbeing.
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