Of all the most ancient surviving rituals of humankind, none remains as widely practiced in modern times as that of engaging one’s voice in creating sounds that celebrate divinity.
Everything begins with a seed. The ancient scriptures describe this seed, or bija, as sonic in origin. They paint mystical pictures of a primordial sound from which the entire cosmos sprung. They see planets, stars and galaxies magically strung together by sonic frequencies. Even quantum physics has now discovered this unified and underlying field of dynamic vibrations upon which all life floats.
Our physical universe thus has an intrinsic musical quality to it. At an atomic level, everything is dancing and making it’s own “music,” vibrating at different sonic frequencies. There are sounds that either further our entrapment in the transitory world, or sounds that liberate us from it. In Yoga we attune ourselves to the liberating, or divine frequencies in the universe. And through our Yoga practice we can play our part in the symphony of sacred sounds.
Of all the most ancient surviving rituals of humankind, none remains as widely practiced in modern times as that of engaging one’s voice in creating sounds that celebrate divinity. Across the various faiths and traditions that decorate our world, whether one is aware of life’s sonic origin or not, the human heart has always been moved to express itself through sound.
After all, we first assert our very existence through the sounds we make as newborns. The validation that we exist then occurs when our first cries elicit appropriate and loving responses from our original nurturers. We thus learn that we have a powerful sonic effect on life, and conversely, that we are also dramatically affected by the sounds all around us. Auditory experiences leave imprints on our consciousness unlike any other stimuli perceived by our senses. The potential for sounds to affect us on a deep emotional level makes music our universal language. And according to ancient traditions, music is everywhere.
We hear musical language in the songs of birds, in the trickling of brooks, the beating of drums, crickets at night, stormy seas and the laughter and cries in everything. The ancient primal traditions believed that the universe surrounding us “sings” to us. The meaning of such songs requires no explanation, as the vibratory energy birthing each sound is self-evident. In Sanskrit this is called samskrita, or “perfectly formed communication,” as it denotes an intimate relationship between the structure of reality and the sound being produced.
The Mimamsa school of philosophy declares that all sounds already exist eternally, and they only require a shift in airs, or breath (universal or individual) for their manifestation. This shifting of prana (airs) is activated by agni (fire, or light); also symbolic of knowledge. The language of Sanskrit is thus believed to have arisen from an intimate knowledge with that which was being expressed through sound, and is to be understood as a most powerful medium of revelation.
The ancient Vedic hymns, believed to be direct manifestations of sacred sounds, were first “heard” (shruti) by the poetic sages who then synthesized them by putting them into written form. This “hearing” occurs first in one’s own consciousness. Then conscious revelation assumes a sonic counterpart. This consistency between sounds (shabdha) and their manifested meaning (artha), or the reality they signify, establishes clarity of communication. The Universe has always spoken to us in a clear language. But what is it saying to us?
The Universe speaks to us constantly about the divine nature of everything! The Chandogya Upanishad describes all music, all songs, all speech and all sounds, as being held together by pranava Omkara, just as leaves are held together on a branch. Yogis identify the sacred syllable OM as the original sacred sound from which all others come. It was never created, nor will it ever be destroyed. All sounds already exist eternally within OM, and it is mere vibratory shifts in our consciousness that lead to their reproduction. This conscious shift begins with speaking and singing from our hearts, as “the nature of the ether within the space of the heart” (antar-hrdayakasa-sabdham) is verily the same as the syllable OM (Maitri Upanishad). Practitioners of Yoga aim at creating only sounds that emanate directly from their hearts, or the space within us that is qualitatively non-different from that of OM. More often than not, it is a lonely, hungry or aching heart that initiates one’s journey into sacred sound.
The Vedic literature offers an illustrative narrative of the manner in which the first created being in our universe first experienced sacred sound. It is directly linked with a heartfelt desire to align oneself with one’s own divine purpose. Feeling unfulfilled and sitting alone upon the lotus flower of his blossoming consciousness, we find Lord Brahma, the Puranic deity of worldly creation. Inviting his raison de vivre to manifest, the first thing Brahma does is listen in quiet meditation. Attuning himself to the music of the universe, or Vak, she appears before him as Saraswati, the goddess of music and learning, and offers him a valuable tool to help him center himself within his heart.
The valuable tool is mantra, and it serves to release (tra) his mind (manas) into a state of receptivity to sacred sound. Once Brahma’s listening deepens, he feels his heart become impregnated with Shabdha-Brahman: the Upanishadic term for divine, or absolute sound (Bhagavata Purana 1.1.1). The enchanting sound was that of Krishna’s flute, non-different from OM in spiritual potency, which then blossomed into the Gayatri mantra, and then further, into the “four essential verses” or catuh-sloki of the Bhagavat Purana, and subsequently, the entire Vedas! Thus the search for life’s meaning and divine revelation becomes tightly bound with the experience of sacred sound. Mantra prepares us for this experience.
Mantras are recipes of creation. Like speech and music, their sound vibrations are infused with specific creative energies. The ancient healing science of Ayurveda recognizes three types of mantras, corresponding to the three distinct qualities permeating the physical universe. Vedic texts describe this constituent energy in sounds as the “blueprints” for the physical form a sound will assume, or the effect it will have on the environment.
Particular sonic “codes” inform matter as to what it should look like on the outside. Visual representations of mantras, involving specific colors and geometrical structures that imbibe the mantra’s energy, are called yantras. From the yantras, other forms are generated. Every material object we encounter, even every subtle emotion, has a sonic counterpart. Amazingly, mystic yogis are said to be able to physically manifest an object from the mere recitation of a mantra containing its sonic seeds. We have the same capacity to mystically manifest our own divine consciousness through engaging mantras with the appropriate sonic origins. This divine consciousness rests within us, at the very core of our beings.
The most powerful experience of a divine mantra occurs when we release our mind into its sonic manifestation through a circuitous recitation of sacred mantras: “That [verbal representation of the supreme divine object] is to be repeated constantly and its meaning is felt within one’s heart” (taj-japas tad-arthabhåvanam, Yoga Sutras 1.28, Dr. Graham Schweig’s translation). Here the sage Patanjali encourages the heartfelt, continuous repetition of a divine mantra, which then invites its spiritual essence to manifest in our lives.
Mantras are made of mysterious, timeless constituents that have the power to pull the reins on our fleeting thoughts and lure us into deeply joyful experiences of being. Mantras are keys that unlock our soul’s natural, inner dialogue with divinity. Mantras are therefore essential to a thriving Yoga practice. Whether recited aloud with musical accompaniment in the company of others who are doing the same (kirtan), or recited in prayerful, solitary meditation (japa), the intonation of sacred sound in the form of mantra stands alone in it’s unique potency to swiftly elevate consciousness.
The only prerequisite for effectively chanting a mantra is to entirely suspend one’s identification with the mind. For a yogi, the greatest sacrifice, or yajna, is to surrender one’s mind to the mantra. This offering of one’s mind unto the oral recitation of ritual language, or mantra, is the longest surviving means humanity has engaged to connect with its own divine origins. From antiquity to the present, kirtan and japa meditation thrive within a species that refuses to limit itself to the confines of matter.
Entirely beyond the dizzying cycles of material existence, in the divine realm where every word is a song and every step is a dance in celebration of divinity, ancient Sanskrit poetry reveals an awe inspiring kirtan that consisted of sixteen thousand main participants! The Bhagavata Purana’s tenth book, known as the Rasa Lila of Krishna, glows with beautiful descriptions of female masters of Yoga, called gopis. In response to a love call sent out by divinity (when Krishna plays his flute), the perfect yoginis are spontaneously inspired to link arms with one another, and with divinity, creating a perfect circle of song, music and dance. This circle is known as the Rasa Mandala, and great teachers reveal that it as the very seed of all the kirtans that have decorated the ethereal airs ever since!
When we offer our hearts to the practice of kirtan, sounding sacred verse or sacred mantras, we invite an intimate connection with Divinity, just as the gopis achieved with Krishna when they linked arms in the Rasa Mandala. This linking is at the heart of Yoga, embedded, in fact, into its very definition: from the Sanskrit root word “yuj”, meaning “to join” “to yoke”, to “connect.” But beyond the obvious intimacy between the soul and Divinity, the Rasa Mandala points to a powerful connection between the individual members of the collective community of yogis and yoginis who mutually strive to become intimate with the divine. This spiritual community is called sangha, and is meant to enliven our dance with the divine.
In Graham Schweig’s book The Dance of Divine Love, he extends the definition of sangha as symbolized by the Rasa Mandala, to embrace all different religious traditions. The gopis synchronized song and dance in the Rasa Lila (a manifestation of their synchronized sentiments in celebrating divinity), thus becomes a model of behavior for human beings to join together in the timeless dance of Yoga: “in which God and the souls lose themselves in the rhythms, melodies and movements of divine love!” This “dance of divine love,” then, is the arena through which kirtan ultimately emerges.
To lose oneself in love with the divine through sacred sound! What could be more enticing? Thus, a flourishing Yoga practice will make one especially sensitive to the sounds one creates, and the sounds to which one voluntarily exposes oneself, as both listening and uttering create the complete circle within the experience of sacred sound. The Vedic scriptures are known as shruti, or knowledge that is received through auditory means. Shruti is also known as apaurusha, or that which did not have human origin.
The “speaker” of sacred sound is divinity, as confirmed in the Bhagavata Purana (3.26.33). Yogis sound this immortal realm when they allow themselves to be engaged as an instrument in the hands of the divine through which sacred sounds are played. This very experience engulfs the hearts of sincere kirtan participants. In kirtan, the sound mandala is created within the traditional call and response pattern: The mantra is chanted first by the person leading the kirtan, (while the audience listens) and then responded in kind by the audience (while the leader listens). Sacred sound thus travels upon a cyclic, dialectical path.
This sacred dialogue between an audience and a kirtan leader serves as a model for what enlightened communication looks like—both parties highly attuned to each other, mirroring expression, and intent on keeping divinity as the axis around which the sounds being created revolve. Similarly, in individual japa chanting, a circuitous, mandala-like rhythm is generated through the aid of a mala – a garland of beads, which, while fingered, assists by engaging the tactile sense in keeping one absorbed in the hearing and sounding of the mantra.
One’s relationship with sacred sound is a most enlightening one. Our perceptions of reality shine brighter when we make a conscious effort to join the symphony of sacred sounds sustaining all of life. This act of joining is Yoga. Creating life-nurturing sounds align our very life-breath (prana) with the light of pure consciousness. The sounds we utter then aspire to become like the love-filled songs of the gopis, as we discover the power of sound to transport us into the most delightful of destinations—divine locations we already contain within us, if we only let the music take us there.
*This article was first published by Integral Yoga Magazine, Winter Issue 2008. Re-printed here by permission of the author.*
~ Prepared by Thaddeus Haas