November 1, 2013

Sacred Sound: History & Perspective (Part 1). ~ Laura Vanderberg

“Sound has a lot of power; the voice has tremendous influence.” 

~ TKV Desikachar, The Heart of Yoga

“Huh?! What?!? I can’t hear you, there’s too much noise in here!”

Have you ever noticed how the quality of sound can really affect you? Just listen to the noise on a busy street, and then listen to sounds in a park. How different they feel!

Sound is everywhere. It’s so pervasive that most of us don’t notice it in the background, but it’s there. Sound can be pleasing or dissonant, loud or quiet, weak or powerful. In our lives today, in cities and towns, in stores and shops, and even in our homes, background sound is almost constant. Often we simply think of it as noise. But some sounds are different. Some types of sounds can actually create changes in the body.

As people today explore how to reduce stress and effect positive change in their lives, sacred sound is an accessible and powerful way of changing one’s life.

It is my hypothesis that 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.

But just what is sacred sound? And from where is it derived? This article examines the history of sacred sound derived from Indian traditions. In a related article, we’ll examine different ways to bring sacred sound into our personal spiritual practices.

Sound is caused by vibrations that form a wave through some medium (air, water, etc). The vibration of sound, heard or unheard, can have profound effects on the body. Deepak Chopra wrote, “…putting a primordial sound back into the body is like reminding it what station it should be tuned in to”. If one goes back into historical works such as the Veda-s, or the Bible, one finds reference to sound. Tapping into sound vibrations can reshape our external world and enhance our life experience.

Indian tradition uses the qualities of sounds for powerful purposes. These purposes range from building consciousness and manifesting energy to awakening the life force within us and healing. Some suggest that sonic consciousness, that is, consciousness that has been attained through sound, is the most direct path to realizing the state of yoga.

Today, entire books have been devoted to the subject of sound and yoga (for example, “The Yoga of Sound” by Russill Paul and “Mantra Yoga and the Primal Sound” by Dr. David Frawley). Indeed, sacred sound can be considered an additional tool (uppayam) of yoga.

My personal experience is that adding sacred sound into a yoga practice and lifestyle can lead to amazing insights, clarity and peace.

The harnessing of sound for transformation has been around since the very beginning. “By sound vibration one becomes liberated” (Vedanta-sutra 4.22). The sound om is described as the sound of the universe. The Vedas, thought to be the oldest of spiritual compositions, combine sound, word and meaning to create poetic inspiration, enhance intuition and increase spiritual perception.

The Vedas serve as the basis for all of the sounding approaches that will be described in this and upcoming related articles. They are thought to be sacred and revealed material, not manmade. They were delivered orally and received aurally.

Veda means “knowledge”, and for many, the Vedas are the ultimate spiritual guide. They are a group of works that, as Wayne Howard observes: “the Veda-s, although available for the last hundred or so years as printed versions, are not books in the typical sense, and further, their essence is lost when the Veda-s are relegated to paper as the human element is removed.”

The Vedas are composed of hymns, sung (chanted) in Sanskrit and were passed on by recitation using a strict set of rules. They were originally transmitted by the Lord to the Rishis (Seers), who carefully protected them and transmitted them to a select few. The Rishis were high priests, who used the Veda-s to protect kings and kingdoms, which, in so doing, protected their own high status.

Over time, the high priests found more utility in some of the Vedic hymns (mantras) than others. These hymns were primarily ceremonial ones. Because the Rishis were focused on a subset of hymns, some of the meaning of other hymns was lost. In later Vedic times, many hymns that didn’t have ceremonial or ritualistic import were forgotten completely.

The Vedas were thought to have been compiled by the great sage Vyasa. The oldest known Veda is the Rg Veda, believed to be over 3,500 years old. It was presented with a specific meter and as a collection of hymns that were devotional approaches to praising the Lord.

Rg Veda was followed by the Sama Veda, a work that contains all the mantra-s of the Rg Veda but was sung musically. Yajur Veda came next, and is arguably the most well-known of the Veda-s. It is comprised of hymns that described how to conduct rituals. It is not bound by the meter of Rg Veda, nor is it sung like Sama Veda. The fourth Veda, Atharva Veda, came much later than the other Veda-s and addresses magical powers.

The Veda-s were presented in different styles as illustrated in Table 1.

There are other great spiritual works in the Indian tradition; however, these other treatises are considered Smrti, meaning that which was remembered, rather than Sruti, meaning that which was heard. Smrti, such as the Yoga Sutra-s or the Mahabarata, was composed by sages, and their recitation does not follow the same strict set of rules as those used in recitation of the Veda-s.

Sanskrit, the language of the Vedas, is thought to have been divinely revealed to meditating Rishis (sages) thousands of years ago. It is a complex and multifaceted, melodious language, perfectly designed for human vocalization and readily usable for singing and chanting. Sanskrit originated as an oral tradition to help ancient sages pass along spiritual insights. By design, it aided in the retention of material as taught by teacher to student. According to Indian myth, the great Lord Siva created the Sanskrit alphabet by beating his drum 14 times. Each drum beat gave rise to a sutra that, in sum, gave rise to the Sanskrit alphabet.

These 14 sutra-s are known as Siva sutra-s. Sanskrit has 14 consonants, seven vowels, and demands very precise pronunciation as words that sound very much alike can have radically different meanings. Every sound of the Sanskrit alphabet is thought to be sacred.

Read part two here.

Read part three here.

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Assist Ed: Renee Picard/Ed: Bryonie Wise


Bachman, Nicholai. 2004. The Language of Yoga. Sounds True, Inc., Boulder, CO

Chopra, Deepka. 1990. “Quantum Healing: Exploring the Frontiers of Mind-Body Healing” Bantam, NY, NY.

Desikachar, TKV. 2000. “Vedic Chant Companion”. Krishnamacharya Yoga Mandiram, Chennai, India

Frawley, David. 2010. “Mantra Yoga and Primal Sound”. E-book.

Ghaligi, S., Nagendra, H.R, and Bhatt, R. 2006. Effect of Vedic chanting on memory and sustained attention. Ind. J. Trad. Knowl. 5(2) 177-180.

Gibson, S.S. 2002. Doctoral Dissertation, “The Effect of Music and Focused Meditation on the Human Energy Field as Measured by the Gas Discharge Visualization Technique and Profile of Mood States.

Howard, Wayne. Veda Recitation in Varanasi, ISBN 978-8120800717

Hummel, Christian. The power of sound. From http://earthtransitions.com/Alchemy-of-Sound/The-Power-of-Sound.html. Accessed on 080911.

Jayaram V. The history and tradition of the Veda-s. Accessed at www.hinduwebsite.com/vedicsection/aboutVeda-s.asp on 071011.

Lowitz, Leza and Datta, Reema. 2005. Sacred Sanskrit Words. Stone Bridge Press, Berkeley,CA.

Paul, Russill. 2006. “The Yoga of Sound”. E-book.

Sethumadhavan, N. 2010. The Shad Darshanas- Six Systems of Hindu Philosophy Accessed at http://www.esamskriti.com/essay-chapters/Shad-Darshanas~-Six-Systems-of-Hindu-Philosophy-1.aspx on 080911.




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