Traditionally the preserve of men in the Brahmin caste, Krishnamacharya opened up Vedic chanting to all in the twentieth century.
Sound is a powerful tool that yoga practitioners have at their disposal. You may well have experienced the (often considerable) lengthening of the exhale if we use a sound like ’mā’ or ‘oṁ’ in āsana. Vedic chanting is, as the name suggests, chanting the Veda-s. These ancient spiritual teachings are the basis of the six classical Indian philosophies – yoga being one of them. The Vedic texts are presented in the Sanskrit language and contain the most ancient teachings on yoga, which are still relevant to the challenges we face in the 21st century.
The Vedic teachings were traditionally transmitted orally.
The teacher chants while students listen closely and then repeat the chant in exactly the same way; and this form of teaching still continues today in India. It is called adhyananam: the word is composed of adhi (inner-most self) and ayanam (to go towards), so it represents a journey to our inner-most self.
The process of transmission is as follows:
|Grahanam||what is heard is grasped|
|Dhāranam||it is held onto|
|Pravacanam||sharing what you know – teaching others|
Vedic chanting is precise.
This meant that the texts could be accurately transmitted over successive generations. To ensure this precision, in the Taittirīya Upaniṣad, I, 2, 2 we find six rules of chanting:
|Svara||notes or pitch (only 3 notes are used in Vedic chanting)|
|Balam||amount of strength used|
|Santāna||punctuation or continuity|
This precision typifies Vedic chanting. With kirtan and bhajan, other forms of chanting which tend towards devotion, there is no set form and the chanter’s personality and musical ability can enter into it.
How are these ancient texts made accessible so that we can use them today?
The Sanskrit alphabet is much larger that our 26-letter alphabet and therefore many more combinations of letters may be produced with their corresponding sounds. We use Romanised script (transliterated from Devanāgarī – the Sanskrit script), with pronunciation marks so that we can achieve this same precision when we chant the texts. In the Krishnamacharya tradition, when chanting the Bhagavad Gītā & Yoga Sūtra we use the same principles.
As we produce these sounds by using all parts of the mouth and throat, together with forceful or gentle use of the breath, chanting in Sanskrit is said to have powerful effects at a vibratory level and so we receive its healing effects, even when we do not know the exact meaning of what we are chanting
‘By chanting Sanskrit, you can put your whole body and mind into such a state of vibration that you begin to experience yourself as energy rather than a solid physical form, with boundaries and definitions.’Vyaas Houston, Yoga International, May/June 1992
If all of this framework sounds very complicated and theoretical to you, I think you are quite right!
The best way to learn and absorb all of this is to experience it by practising, by participating. It is important to have a teacher, who can observe and listen to you, and guide you through the rules, as well as helping you to explore chants that are appropriate for you. Being in a group which has more experienced chanters can really encourage a novice and help build confidence.
You may ask, is Vedic chanting religious?
Some chants are about higher beings, many are about health; some are stimulating, some are calming. So Vedic chanting is for anyone. At one time only men from the Brahmin caste were permitted to chant, but Professor T Krishnamacharya opened it up to all who are eager to learn. You do not need to be able to sing well in order to practise chanting – there are after all only three notes – and in any case, to quote my own chant teacher Radha Sundararajan, ‘It is essentially the feeling in the heart that is important.’ Repetition of the chants takes them into our hearts, rather than them staying in our heads.
Vedic chanting is a powerful tool for discovering, expressing and influencing all dimensions of the human system.
It may (in no particular order) improve focus; support memory and mental discipline; improve listening and communication skills; improve breathing capacity; reduce mental and emotional agitation or energise and activate. Many people find their voice by practising it and feel empowered. Vedic chanting may also be used in yoga therapy.
oṁ śāntiḥ śāntiḥ śāntiḥ
The act of chanting itself brings life to these ancient Vedic texts as well as to the person listening and reciting. The words oṁ śāntiḥ śāntiḥ śāntiḥ appear in many of these texts; so, if you chant them as part of your yoga practice or class (and I am guessing many of you do), you are, in fact, already doing Vedic chanting.
- Gill Lloyd
- TKV Desikachar (2012) Guide to Vedic Chanting, Media Garuda
- S. Radhakrishnan (1992) The Principal Upaniṣads, Humanity Books
- G. Lloyd & S. Ryan ‘Interview with Menaka Desikachar and Radha Sundararajan’, Spectrum, date unknown