November 2, 2013

Sacred Sound: Approaches (Part 2). ~ Laura Vanderberg

Read part one here.

Read part three here.

Sacred sound, or chanting, in its various forms, has been shown to improve memory and sustained attention as well as improve mood state.

Many other benefits have been ascribed to the use of sacred sound, but the publication of data documenting those benefits remains minimal. What we do have is personal experience. As we begin to explore different approaches to the use of sacred sound, it is helpful to have some historical perspective and thought. The latter perspective was the topic of a previous article.

In this article we examine key spiritual perspectives derived from Indian tradition and introduce the aural approaches which form the basis of our hypothesis: one’s intention and belief in the use of sacred sound can bring about tremendous benefits, and the particular methodology by which one uses sacred sound is of secondary importance.

For ease of presentation and to narrow the scope of our discussion to a manageable space, we will focus on audible sound used in the transmittal of teachings for praise and worship. Specifically we will examine mantra and mantra japa (the repetition of mantra), vedic chanting, kirtan (call and response chanting) and bhajans (the singing of spiritual songs).

There are many different ways and all have purported benefits (See table 2 for summary), but Is one approach better than another? We introduce approaches to sacred sound as spiritual practice in and of itself, or as a supplement to an ongoing spiritual practice.

After reading each section, you can click on the hyperlink to a sample of each style of sounding. See which speaks to you and let your sound journey begin.

Mantra is a Sanskrit term derived from manas, or mind and trai-, to protect or free from, leading to a definition of mantra being that which frees the mind. A mantra is any sound or group of sounds that create transformation; more specifically, they create transformation by connecting our awareness to deep states of consciousness and energy.  They are used to break through lower levels of existence (sensual, mental and intellectual) to purify and bring spiritual enlightenment.

According to Anodea Judith, author of “Eastern Body Western Mind”, the use of mantras replace the endless cycle of thoughts, and in so doing, simplify and cleanse the mind. Mantras are voiced sounds, traditionally spoken or chanted in Sanskrit and are among the easiest yoga practices to undertake.

The term mantra has been somewhat trivialized in Western society. Mantra, as we refer to it here, is a term or word of power. The power of a mantra is quite exact and specific. Any ordinary phrase, as opposed to a Sanskrit mantra, is a material sound that will not produce a spiritual result.

“What is of the spirit is spiritual and what is of matter is material. The Vedic scriptures of ancient India describe the natures of both the material and the spiritual planes of existence in great detail. Because we tend to absorb ourselves in material energies, our perceptions and our entire consciousness becomes adulterated to material conceptions.”

~ Anodea Judith

Russill Paul, author of “The Yoga of Sound,” says that the tradition of Indian mantra involves the refinement of sacred sound. What defines sound as sacred is left to interpretation. There are different types and uses of mantra, which are a function of a particular school of philosophy. Historically and traditionally, they are used as a spiritual means to attain one-pointedness.

Mantras were in Sanskrit and originally derived from the Veda-s in 2-line “lyrics” known as slokas.  Mantras may be exceedingly simple such as a single word (bija mantra) or more complex, like a 2 line verse (sloka) from one of the Veda-s. Dr. David Frawley, an internationally acclaimed Ayurvedic, Vedic and Sanskrit scholar recently published an entire book about Mantra Yoga entitled “Mantra Yoga and Primal Sound.” Om, a sound often chanted at yoga studios throughout the US, is considered a mantra in and of itself.

Mantra japa literally means the repetition (japa) of mantra. Mantra japa is also attributed to the Vedic sages, who saw mantra japa as a form of worship, leading to liberation (one-pointedness). The vibrations and sounds of the mantra are considered extremely important, with the sound symbolism oftentimes unrecognized by the cognate mind of the practitioner.

In mantra japa, some particular mantra is repeated an auspicious number of times (typically a multiple of 3), often to 108.

Some examples of mantra or mantra japa include:

  • Bijas:  Lam, vam, yam and others
  • Phrases that honor:  Om Namah Shivaya (I honor the teacher inside)
  • Phrases that call forth characteristics:  Om shrim shriyei (invoking the qualities of creative abundance)
  • Slokas from an important spiritual work (Smrti) such as the Bhagavad Gita or Yoga Sutras

Vedic chanting was the means by which the Rishis transmitted the Veda-s and their hymns. In later Indian history, Vedic chanting was a tool used only by high priests and was passed down to the Brahmins or Indian high castes through the centuries. As mentioned in the preceding article on the history of sacred sound, the politics of ancient times resulted in the loss of an unknown amount of original meaning, as well as loss of the hymns themselves.

In the Vedic world, mantra chanted in Sanskrit are a bit like a vinyasa yoga sequence where words are linked to awaken spiritual knowledge.

The uniqueness of Vedic chanting is a function of its connection to cosmic consciousness. The specific grammar and phonetics of the Vedic mantras, combined with the syntax and spiritual power of individual words, is thought to awaken intuition. Both chanters and listeners benefit from the power of the words.

The recitation of the Veda-s follows strict rules and a very precise approach to pronunciation and memorization of hymns. The precision is said to be such that no deviations or exceptions are allowed, not even on accident.

Sometimes students are instructed to memorize the Vedic hymns without understanding their meaning because the pronunciation accuracy was considered more important than the hymns’ meanings. This strict adherence to the exact mantra, such that no syllable is changed, has made Vedic chanting the most stable oral tradition in the world.

The key to transmission from student to teacher and its exactness comes from the approach that is used. The student sits in front of the teacher, listening intently and then repeating exactly as the teacher recites. The proper recitation has to be repeated several times without any mistakes. The benefits of this technique include learning from and maintaining the oral tradition of the Veda-s, and fostering a connection between teacher and student.

Having to pay attention to the teacher reciting a sloka, or verse, requires the student be present in the moment. The great Sanskrit scholar and teacher, Sri T. Krishnamacharya is credited with breaking down the walls of transmitting Vedic chanting to people other than the Brahmin caste. However, despite the opportunity for all to learn Vedic chant, the strict adherence to pronunciation and memorization, also makes Vedic chanting the least accessible of sacred sound practices.

Richard Freeman, well known yoga teacher and author of “The Mirror of Yoga”, stated that the memorization and chanting of traditional Indian texts is considered a sacred practice and enriches a cultural tie to ancient yogic philosophy. He further indicates that if people contemplate the words as they are being chanted, they gain insights that allow them to investigate their own immediate experience of reality”.

Here is a link to an example of Vedic chanting:  Sukla Yajur Veda.

Kirtan is the call and response repetition of mantra or hymns with melodies and accompanying instruments. It is part of Indian devotional traditions that some scholars date back to the bhakti (devotional) movement of the seventh and eighth centuries.

CE Chaitanya Mahaprabhu traveled India during that time, bringing Krishna (the incarnation of God in the epic Bhagavad Gita/Mahabarata) kirtan to the masses. The Sikh tradition of kirtan, known as gurmat sangeet, was started by Guru Nanak in the early 1600s and continues today. Kirtan is much younger, agewise, than mantra or Vedic chanting, and was a tool of bhakti teachers to illustrate the fundamental philosophy that God exists inside and doesn’t require external validation. Kirtan was seen as a way to make chanting and Self-realization accessible to all, not just to a small elite group (Brahmins).

Kirtan came west in the early/mid 1900s, with Paramhansa Yogananda chanting kirtan with several thousand people at Carnegie Hall in 1923. Gaudiya Vaishnavism was brought west by A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, the International Society for Krishna Consciousness’s (ISKCON) founder (more commonly known as the “Hare Krishnas”) in the 1960s. It gained more popularity in the late 1990s when Americans such as Jai Uttal and Krishna Das began to bring kirtan into yoga studios, using the traditional call and response approach of singing mantras and chanting names of God. Thus more people in the US were directly exposed to bhakti yoga.

Today, kirtan has gained tremendous popularity in the West, particularly in the US, where a revolution of sorts is taking place. American kirtan leaders are reinvigorating this ancient practice by infusing it with American rhythms and grooves.

The premise remains the same, however; and is well stated by kirtan leader Jai Uttal in a recent Yoga Journal article on kirtan:  “It gives people a joyful, easy way to break down the walls around their hearts…the mantras, they get in there and do their own work and allow our hearts to be opened to the spirit that is always around us and inside us.”

The accessibility and popularity of kirtan are clearly illustrated by the plethora of kirtan workshops, trainings and festivals that have sprung up around the US.

Here is an example of kirtan. 

Bhajans, or sacred devotional exercises, are a form of spiritual song. Since devotion is an act of acknowledging a higher power with love and reverence, bhajans use repetition of different names of God, in a melodious fashion that makes them easy to learn. Often they are taught with a lead singer singing a line and pausing for the congregation to repeat the words.

When sung with sincerity and love, they are thought to strengthen faith in and love of God.

This is Indian devotional music that may or may not include instruments such as the harmonium or drums.  It is certainly accessible, but most common to secular India.

Here is an example of a bhajan.

Sacred sound has been used for centuries and will continue to be available to all of us. The table below (Table 2) summarizes the approaches to the manifestation of sound described above. These, and others, which have not been included in the focus of this article, are among the many paths available to a peaceful mind and Self-realization. They are an additional uppayam (tool) at our disposal to help us reach that place.


Table 2.  Summary of sacred sounds and their benefits





Mantra/Mantra Japa Chanting and repetition of mantra Easy.  Many CDs, downloads, books on the subject Focuses the mind, like asana for the mind
Vedic Chanting Chanting of Vedic texts in a very specific way Challenging.  Some CDs, downloads for listening, requires trained teacher Higher states of consciousness and insight
Kirtan Call and response, sometimes singing, group practice Easy.  Many CDs, downloads, books and opportunities to participate Opens the heart, spiritual ecstasy
Bhajans Singing of devotional songs, often call and response Intermediate. CDs, downloads for listening, intertwined with variations on kirtan Establishes direct relationship with the Divine


Read part 3 here.

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Assist Ed: Renee Picard/Ed: Bryonie Wise

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Laura Vanderberg