The Vedic chanting seminars in Chennai in India were always so special. Meeting people from around the world, walking the streets to the lunch places or to the temple, seeing the sights and hearing the sounds, absorbing it all and learning so much about the philosophy and culture by just being there. But best of all, the chanting. Being in that learning space, feeling blessed and happy to be listening with full attention, receiving and soaking up this precious knowledge. The learning space where the chanting wraps around you like a cloak, where you can relax into being fully yourself, and yet also forget your individual self.
The powerhouse that was our teacher, dear Radha Sundararajan, would be driving the pace of the seminar forward with her amazing energy and spirit. But sometimes there would be a pause. Usually, someone would have asked a question, answers and discussion would follow, and then Radha would fall silent and look into the distance, saying something like, ‘I don’t know why you are all here. What has brought you from all these different countries to India to do this chanting.’ She said something similar back in 2013, towards the end of my Vedic chant teacher training in the UK.
Nobody attempted to answer her, but it is a question I often contemplate.
I don’t think Radha was calling into question the many benefits of Vedic chanting, I think she was asking the question from a cultural viewpoint. Having been steeped in the Vedas and Sanskrit throughout her life, Radha would naturally feel that Vedic chanting was inextricably linked with her own culture. Why would people from such different cultures want to do it?
Vedic chanting is definitely part of Indian culture and the Hindu religion but does that mean it belongs only to that culture and religion or is it more universal? A traditional expression used by Hindus for their religion is Sanātana Dharma, which the author and scholar Georg Feuerstein translates as ‘eternal teaching’. Surely eternal teaching applies to everyone?
In the introduction to one of the translations of the Bhagavad Gītā¹, the author Aldous Huxley talks about the ‘Perennial Philosophy’ – a set of doctrines constituting a ‘highest common factor present in all the major religions of the world’ and finding expression in many spiritual writings, including Vedānta and the Bhagavad Gītā. Author and Sanskrit scholar Alistair Shearer, in his introduction to his own translation of the Upaniṣads, says, ‘The Upanishads are the oldest and clearest expression of the perennial philosophy that is the inner core of all the great religions.’ These deep thinkers certainly feel the Vedas have universal relevance.
Perhaps, if we go far enough back, our own culture may not be so different from Vedic culture?
I am fascinated by the Neolithic period of ‘pre-history’ (approximately 10,000BCE – 2000BCE). In many places throughout the world there are still existing today striking and enigmatic remains of structures made and used by these ancient ancestors. I have visited many of these sites in the UK and Ireland such as stone circles, burial mounds and chambered cairns. We know so little about the reasons these structures were built, and how they were used. There is plenty of speculation, and increasing archeological information, but much remains a fascinating mystery. I have always approached these structures with a very open mind and heart, cultivating a state of ‘unknowing’, similar to that I have been taught to cultivate when approaching the yoga texts such as the Upanishads; being open to the possibility of a deeper insight and understanding than that which can be put into words or understood with the thinking mind.
A few years ago, I visited a Neolithic chambered cairn on Orkney and experienced a powerful, visceral connection to yoga principles. (A chambered cairn is an expertly built stone structure; a beautifully corbelled stone dome, encasing a space within and accessed by a narrow, low stone passage, the whole structure covered by earth and grass. They are often built into the side of a hill and usually precisely orientated so that the only time the sun shines straight along the passageway to illuminate the space inside, is at one of the solstices or equinoxes.)
Some chambered cairns, such as Newgrange in Ireland, are large and famous, part of a World Heritage Site and visited by many thousands of people. This chambered cairn on Orkney was small and relatively unknown, up a hill, away from any habitation or road. It was a damp day, with low cloud obscuring much of the landscape. There were no people around, just sheep. I had the place to myself and it felt very much as it might have done thousands of years ago.
First, I walked around the outside of the cairn, in the way that you walk around the outside of a Hindu temple to gradually purify yourself, letting go of the outer world before approaching the inner sanctum of the deity. I had to crouch low and crawl through the passage to reach the space inside under the dome. Inside the cairn, the weight of the stone and earth created a dark, silent, still space (senses turning inward).
No sound, no movement, no vibration, and yet a space, not empty but full. I thought of the Sanskrit word and concept of śunya – the void that is full. The chant pūrṇamadaḥ pūrṇamidaṃ came into my mind (‘That, the eternal realm of the Absolute, is full. This, the transitory realm of the relative, is full.’ ²)
Inside it felt ‘clean’. The thickness of the stone shut out the noise of the mind and senses. The space inside felt like the truth, the ātman, the puruṣa. At only one time of year, the sun shines in to the chamber and illuminates the darkness and space, transforms it. I thought of the Gäyatrī mantra – tat savitur vareṇyam bhargo devasya dhīmahi dhiyo yo naḥ pracodayāt (‘We meditate on the supreme radiance of the sun, that it may reveal our inner light.’)
Is it possible that the people who built these cairns had travelled from the same culture as that which spawned the Vedas? Or at least were exposed to the same philosophy, the same ideas? When we look at what evidence there is for the movements of these ancient people across the world, that certainly seems possible.
Then there is the universality of the Sanskrit language. In the introduction to his translation of The Upaniṣads², Alistair Shearer says, ‘Vedic, the sacred language par excellence, believed to be…the language of nature herself, (is) composed of the primordial sounds that promote order in the evolving universe. These sounds, like music, communicate preverbally and have a universal meaning that transcends all cultural boundaries; they nourish and purify the physiology and thrill the soul.’
To those of us familiar with Yoga philosophy and chanting, this might all make perfect sense. But to others not so familiar, it might all sound difficult to relate to.
A student on my recent Vedic chant foundation course put it much more simply and personally. She was a total beginner to Vedic chanting, and was struggling with that same question that Radha had asked. She said,
‘On one level Vedic chanting feels so alien, and on another level, it just feels so right.’
¹ Bhagavad Gītā translated by Swami Prabhavananda and Christopher Isherwood ISBN 0- 87481-043-4
² The beginning of the śānti-paṭhaḥ that appears at the start of the īśā and bṛhadāraṇyaka upaniṣads. Upaniṣads selections translated by Alistair Shearer and Peter Russell ISBN 0-609- 61107-0
Original version for TSYP 7.3.22
This version edited with additions for BWY Spectrum 04.05.22