The Ashtanga Opening Chant is written in Sanskrit, transliterated it goes like this:
Vande Gurunam Caranaravinde
Sandarsita Svatma Sukhava Bodhe
Nih Sreyase Jangalikayamane
Samsara Halahala Mohasantyai
Sahasra Sirasam Svetam
If you want to hear it chanted there are many versions on YouTube. If you want to learn it, I have version on my website of me chanting each line twice with the words written on the screen.
The opening chant of Ashtanga is translated on the Ashtanga Yoga Research Institute website as:
I bow to the lotus feet of the Gurus,
The awakening happiness of one’s own Self revealed,
Beyond better, acting like the jungle physician,
Pacifying delusion, the poison of Samsara.
Taking the form of a man to the shoulders,
Holding a conch, a discus, and a sword,
One thousand heads, white,
To Patanjali, I salute.
The two verses of the chant come from different sources. The first verse is part of a longer poem called the Yoga Taravalli written by Adi Sankara, and is said to be one of Krishnamacharya’s favorites.
The second verse is part of the Patanjali Invocation, which is often chanted before chanting the Yoga Sutras. According to Geeta Ivengar:
‘The authors of [this] invocation are actually unknown….However, some traditional books mention that abahu purusakaram was written by King Bhojadeva in 1, 100 AD, author of Rajamartanda Vrtti a commentary on the Yoga Sutras.’
The word by word the translation is:
Vande I worship
Gurunam the supreme Guru
Charanaravinde I bow to the lotus feet
Sandarshita at vision revealing
Svatma true Self
Nih Sreyase beyond better (without comparison)
Jangalikayamane jungle doctor
Samsara conditioned existence
Mohashantyai peaceful resolution
Abahu all bodily limbs
Purushakaram having the form of a man
Shankhacakrsi conch shell, wheel of light
Dharinam sword of discrimination
Svetam brilliantly white
Pranamami I bow down
Patanjalim to Patanjali
As with most Sanskrit chants the meanings are many and each line can be interpreted in several different ways.
Vande Gurunam Caranaravinde—I bow to the lotus feet of the gurus (sometimes translated as ‘the supreme guru’). Vande means ‘I worship’, gurunam is ‘the gurus’ or ‘the supreme Guru’ and charanaravinde means ‘I bow to the lotus feet’.
Depending on what you believe or how you see it, here the chant acknowledges and expresses gratitude to all the people who have passed yoga on for thousands of years so we can practice it today.
An alternative or complementary interpretation is the “supreme guru” or “great teacher” is your yoga practice itself. Your practice teaches you what you need to know. And in bowing to your practice of yoga, you trust the process and let go.
Letting go of attachment is a key yogic concept. According to the Yoga Sutras, letting go of your attachment to your practice and its results, is just as important as the practice itself (YS 1.12-16). Abhyasa (practice) and vairagya (freedom from likes and dislikes or non-attachement) are two central aspects of yoga.
Letting go of attachment is also a key concept in the Bhagavad Gita (BG 2.55-59), and an important aspect of Buddhist practice. The first two of the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism are (1) that life is suffering and (2) the cause of suffering is attachment.
Sandarsita Svatma Sukhava Bodhe—the awakening happiness of one’s own Self revealed. Sandarshita means ‘at vision revealing’, svatma is the ‘true Self’, sukava is ‘happiness’ and bodhe means ‘knowledge’. The guru and the practice reveal to us our true Self so we can become happy.
The yogic idea of happiness is different from the usual western idea, it’s not an passing reaction to something positive, it’s more like a state where you are in touch with your place of stillness and balance. Life’s ups and downs don’t upset your equilibrium or your state of contentment. No matter what happens, you are ok. (YS 2.42)
Some strands of yoga philosophy view the Self as an eternal soul (eg the Yoga Sutras), some view the Self as a function of the mind (Buddhist). All seem to agree that in normal life we lose touch with our Self and this leads to unhappiness and suffering. Yoga is a set of practices that can help us to find our way to a clear place inside us where we see things as they are and can connect more deeply with others.
According to Pattabhi Jois:
‘The practice of asanas and pranayama is learning to control the body and the senses so the inner light may come forth. That light is the same for the whole world and it is possible for man to experience this light, his own Self through correct Yoga practice. This is the natural outcome of a good practice and one will gradually learn to control the mind because one eventually will come to experience the very support of it. But the mind is indeed very difficult to control, but everything is made possible with right practice.’
Nih Sreyase Jangalikayamane—‘Beyond better, acting like the jungle physician.’ Jangalikayamane is the ‘one who can heal or cure’, a ‘jungle physician’, and nih sreyase means ‘beyond better’ or ‘without comparison.’
This is referring to idea that the capacity of the practice to cure us (on many levels) is beyond compare. The practice can ‘cure’ us from physical aches and pains and ‘cure’ us of unconscious and unhelpful mental and emotional patterns of behavior so we can be ‘no more whirled around by fate’ (BG 13.23)
Samsara Halahala Mohasantyai—pacifying delusion, the poison of Samsara. Samsara is ‘conditioned existence’ where we go round and round, unaware, in a life of suffering. Halahala is the ‘poison’ and mohasantyai is ‘the peaceful resolution of delusion’.
Like line 2 and 3 this line is saying what the practice can do for you. The practice can bring about the peaceful resolution of delusion. The philosophical view of the Yoga Sutras represents the world as an illusion that can help us to realize our true Self. Whether you believe the world is an illusion or not I don’t think matters so much. It can be taken as a model, one way to make sense of the world.
In the yoga sutras, the mind is compared to a diamond and the practice of yoga cleans and polishes the diamond until it can become fully absorbed (YS 1.41).
One of the ways the practice can do this is by helping us to see our unconscious patterns of behavior. The practice is a mirror. If you have a pattern of behavior or an unthinking emotional response then the practice will bring it to the fore sooner or later. Once the unconscious becomes conscious we have the option to deal with it. So instead of reacting blindly without thinking, we can see more clearly and act more skillfully and intelligently.
Abahu Purusakaram—taking the form of a man to the shoulders, (and a divine serpent). Abahu means ‘all bodily limbs’ and purushakaram is ‘having the form of a man’.
For me, this is referring to the fact that as humans, we have an animal nature and a divine nature, both are amazing and both are part of who we are.
Yoga helps us to connect with our animal nature by bringing awareness, consciousness and a sense of unity and ease to our relationship with our body and mind. Yoga also helps us to connect with our divine aspect, allowing us to have clarity and connection and compassion in our relationship with our self and the world.
The divine serpent is Ananta (which means infinite). Ananta was the great serpent on which Vishnu rests after creating the Universe. Is strong enough to support the creator of the Universe and soft enough to be a couch – this represents two important aspects of yoga Sukha and sthira (ease and effort) (YS 2.46). He is depicted with cobra heads over him representing protection. His hands are together in Namaste or Anjali mudra.
Sankhacakrasi Dharinam—holding a conch a discus and a sword. Shankhacakrsi is a ‘conch shell’ and a ‘wheel of light’, dharinam is a ‘sword of discrimination’.
The conch is a shell that can be used as a horn. It represents divine sound. The sound is said to call people to practice and help people awaken in spiritual terms and the conch is often sounded before spiritual ceremonies. It symbolises people’s ability to listen and to be present with their life and people around them. It can also be seen as the state of alertness, attentiveness and readiness to face obstacles, which are part of the practice of Yoga.
The discus is a circle of light, it represents infinite time. One effect of practicing yoga is to bring our awareness into the present moment. When we are fully present, we do not notice time. In this state we are fully aware and engaged with life. It also refers to the laws of karma and cause and effect. When someone has attained a state of yoga they are beyond cause and effect (YS 4.7-11)
The sword of discrimination is the ability to cut through the confusion of our minds so we can see things as they truly are, understand why we suffer and move past our attachments to clarity and peace. It can also represent the spine.
Sahasra Sirasam Svetam—one thousand heads white. Sahasra is ‘1000,’ sirasam means ‘headed’ and svetam is ‘brilliantly white’.
I particularly like the image of a white serpent with 1000 heads and one tail. To me this is talking about the fact that we seem to be separate but actually we are all part of a whole. The there are many different ways of seeing the truth but there is only one truth (is that true?). We are all different but we are all the same. There is one destination but many routes. Etc etc.
Pranamami Patanjalim—I salute/bow to Patanjali. Pranamami is ‘I bow down’ and Patanjalim means ‘to Patanjali’.
This is idea that we surrender our small ego. This is our self that has its likes and dislikes, it’s story and desires. We need the small ego to live in the world and to help us function, but that’s not all we are. We also have a big ego or a Self that is pure and eternal and clear. In our yoga practice we surrender ourselves to the practice and in that process we can maybe start to transcend our small ego to experience our Self—clarity, peace and connection.
Line 1 and 8 start and end with Om. According to the Yoga Sutras (YS 1.27-29), chanting Om while understanding what it means will help the student overcome the obstacles to the highest spiritual attainment. This is kind of a short cut to spiritual evolution.
So what does it mean? Om is a seed mantra or bija mantra. In the Hindu creation myth out of the void came the vibration of Om and from that came everything in the Universe. The mantra “Om” is the name of God, the vibration of the Supreme.
When taken letter by letter, A-U-M represents the divine energy (Shakti) united in its three elementary aspects: Bhrahma Shakti (creation), Vishnu Shakti (preservation) and Shiva Shakti (liberation, and/or destruction). (Paramhans Swami Maheshwarananda, The hidden power in humans, Ibera Verlag, page 15., ISBN 3-85052-197-4).
The Bhagavad Gita (8.13) states that: Uttering the monosyllable Aum, the eternal world of Brahman, One who departs leaving the body (at death), he attains the Supreme Goal.
The Bhagavad Gita (17.24) says: “The repetition of om should be made with an understanding of its meaning.”
Opening Chant Sum Up:
So that’s the chant and some of the meanings. In short the chant starts and ends with a line expressing gratitude to our teachers and surrendering to the practice. The first verse is describing what the practice can give us. The second verse is a symbolic description of Patanjali in his form as Ananta.
The ideas I’ve given above are all things that make sense to me; there are plenty of other meanings and opinions. If you’re interested check them all out and see what you think and feel. The most important meaning is your own.
So if chanting feels right for you, you are probably already becoming aware of the physical and energetic and mental effects. It’s worth adding understanding of the meaning and intention to your chanting—and then see where that takes you.
Here are some reference links to discussions of the meanings of the opening chant I found helpful in writing this:
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Assist Ed: Dana Gornall/Ed: Sara Crolick