Portions of the Vedic literature are almost like textbooks on sound, informing us about an ancient art in which sound was used as a spiritual tool. The same concept is echoed in other cultures.
The Spiritual Dimensions of Sound
The Vedic literature reveals the sounds that can truly awaken the soul.
by Satyaraja Dasa
(Reprinted from Back to Godhead Magazine, Vol 38, No 1, 2004)
What?” asks my eighty-three-year-old mother.
This has become something of a personal mantra for her. Her hearing has been going for some time now, and “What?” is her frequent response to nearly every sound she hears. Or doesn’t hear.
My sister and I have been urging her to get a hearing aid for almost a decade.
“The ear is an important organ,” I tell her. “If it’s not working right, it affects more than your ability to hear. It can also affect your equilibrium, your sense of balance.”
“So I’ll sit,” she says.
On a more serious note, she wanted me to ask her doctor about her loss of hearing, and what, if anything, should be done about it. So I did. The doctor explained to me that the ear is made of three parts: the outer ear, the middle ear, and the inner ear. The fluid in the ear canals and the hairlike nerve cells at the end of each allow us to hear and to keep our balance when we stand, run, walk, ride a bicycle, and even when we sit.
The doctor said my mom’s inner ear was worn down and that this happens to a good number of people over time.
As his barrage of technical words entered my own ears, my mind wandered to another kind of sound vibration, and another use of the auditory sense altogether. The inner ear is an entirely physical phenomenon. But I was more interested in an inner meaning to the inner ear—one I’ve learned from Srila Prabhupada and the texts of ancient India.
The Unheard World of Sound
Human beings can’t perceive portions of the known vibratory spectrum. While extremely sensitive to sound waves of about 1,000 to 4,000 cycles per second (cps), man is all but deaf beyond 20,000 cps. Dogs and cats, on the other hand, can hear up to 60,000 cps, while mice, bats, whales, and dolphins can emit and receive sounds well over 100,000 cps.
In other words, there are definitely things we just don’t hear. And India’s ancient Vedic texts tell us that if this is true in the material sphere, it is even more true of sounds that exist beyond the material world. Such spiritual sounds, these texts tell us, can be vibrated and received only by people who qualify themselves through spiritual practice. Only then can these sounds be truly heard.
Despite our inability to hear certain frequencies, whether material or spiritual, we tend to hear better than we see. Psychologist Katharine Le Mee writes in her book Chant:
The sense of hearing . . . connects experientially with the heart, and music and sound touch us most directly. We do not resonate so deeply with the visual as with the auditory. This may be explained by the fact that our visual apparatus has a frequency range of slightly less than one octave, from infrared to ultraviolet, whereas our auditory system has a range of about eight octaves, approximately 60 to 16,000 hertz, or number of vibrations per second. We are sensitive to sound frequency as pitch and to light frequency as color. The frequencies of the visual field are much higher than those of the auditory field (by an order of 1010), and, as is well known, the higher the frequencies, the lesser the penetration of a given material. For instance, a piece of cardboard shields us easily from the light, but it takes a thick wall to block out sound, and the lower the pitch the deeper the penetration. We are very sensitive to sound, not just through the ear but through our whole skin, and all our organs are affected by it.
Thus, science has shown that our human senses are imperfect and limited and that there is a world of sensual experience beyond human perception. Vaisnava scriptures confirm these limitations in man’s seeing and hearing and elucidate untold categories of spiritual sound.
Spiritual Sound in the Vedic Literature
Portions of the Vedic literature are almost like textbooks on sound, informing us about an ancient art in which sound was used as a spiritual tool. The same concept is echoed in other cultures. Chronicles from lands as diverse as Egypt and Ireland tell us of a time when vibrations lying at the foundation of our universe were harnessed by spiritual adepts for the benefit of mankind. Like the Bible, which states, “In the beginning was the Word (John 1.1),” Vaisnava scriptures affirm that the entire cosmic creation began with sound: “By His utterance came the universe.” (Brhad-aranyaka Upanisad 1.2.4) The Vedas add that ultimate liberation comes from sound (anavrttihsabdat).
Primal sound is referred to as sabda brahman, God as word. Closely related to this is the concept of nada brahman, God as sound. Nada, a Sanskrit word meaning “sound,” is related to the term nadi, denoting the stream of consciousness—a concept that goes back to the ag Veda, the most ancient of the Vedas. Thus, the relationship between sound and consciousness has long been recorded in India’s ancient Vedic texts, which, again, describe sound as the preeminent means for attaining higher, spiritual consciousness.
Mantras, or sacred sounds, are used to pierce through sensual, mental, and intellectual levels of existence—all lower strata of consciousness—for purification and spiritual enlightenment. The sounds of different letters, particularly Sanskrit letters, have been shown to affect the mind, intellect, and auditory nerves of those who chant and hear them. The seven energy centers (cakras) of the spinal column, as well as the ida, pingala, and susumna nadis, or the three pranic channels of the subtle body, all respond to mantras, bringing practitioners to elevated levels of awareness.
The Power of God’s Names
Vedic texts tell us that in much the same way that sound can awaken someone, calling out the name of God can awaken the soul from conditioned, materialistic slumber. In fact, the world’s major religious traditions concur that it is by chanting the name of God that one attains enlightenment and freedom from the cycle of birth and death.
Mohammed counseled, “Glorify the name of your Lord, the most high.” (Koran 87.2) Saint Paul said, “Everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord will be saved.” (Romans 10.13) Buddha declared, “All who sincerely call upon my name will come to me after death, and I will take them to paradise.” (Vows of Amida Buddha 18) King David preached, “From the rising of the sun to its setting, the name of the Lord is to be praised.” (Psalms 113.3) And the Vaisnava scriptures assert, “Chant the holy name, chant the holy name, chant the holy name of the Lord. In this age of quarrel there is no other way, no other way, no other way to attain spiritual enlightenment.” (Brhan-naradiya Purana 38.126).
Praise of the holy name of God is found throughout the Vaisnava scriptures. Here are two examples:
Oh, how glorious are they whose tongues are chanting Your holy name! Even if originally low-born dog-eaters, they are to be considered worshipable. To have reached the point of chanting the Lord’s name, they must have executed various austerities and Vedic sacrifices and achieved all the good qualities of true Aryans. If they are chanting Your holy name, they must have bathed in all holy rivers, studied the Vedas, and fulfilled all prescribed duties. (Srimad-Bhagavatam 3.33.7)
The holy name of Krsna is the spiritually blissful giver of all benedictions, for it is Krsna Himself, the reservoir of pleasure. Krsna’s name is complete in itself and is the essential form of all spiritual relationships. It is not a material name under any condition, and it is no less powerful than Krsna Himself. This name is not tinged by any aspect of material nature, because it is identical with Krsna. (Padma Purana 3.21)
And, finally, Krsna says, “I do not live in Vaikuntha, in the hearts of the yogis, or inside the sun. Rather, My dear Narada, I am present wherever My devotees sing about Me.” (Padma Purana, Uttara-khanda 92.21-22)
Because chanting the name of God is so much emphasized in Vaisnava texts, we focus on chanting as a central devotional practice. Thus, deep meditation and great emotion accompany japa (soft chanting) and kirtana, or sankirtana (congregational chanting). When perfected, the chanting leads to awareness of God’s absolute nature, i.e., that there is no difference between nami (“the named one”) and nama (“the name”). Elucidation on the absolute nature of Krsna and His name is the heart of Vaisnava practice, leading to love of God.
Norvin Hein, Professor Emeritus at Yale University, has witnessed enthusiastic Vaisnava kirtana. In his essay “Chaitanya’s Ecstasies and the Theology of the Name,” he captures its most emotional components:
In the singing of verses like these, each line, separately, is incanted by the leader first, and the whole assembly repeats each line after him, one by one. As the verse is gone through again and again, the leader steps up the tempo. When the speed of utterance approaches the utmost possible, the whole group, in unison, begins to shout the lines, at the same time beating out the rhythm with sharply-timed clapping of hands. The singers begin to sway and let themselves go in ungoverned gestures. Faces flush. From the line of instrumental accompanists the bell-like peal of small brass cymbals swells up with the rising shouting and pierces through it. The whole process approaches a crashing, breathtaking crescendo. The point of explosion is reached: eyes flash, mouths drop open, a tremor runs through the entire assembly. The Power, the Presence, has been felt!
Chanting Hare Krsna
Scripture asserts that the Hare Krsna maha-mantra, or “the great chant for deliverance,” is the most powerful of incantations, for it includes the potency of all other mantras. Thus, for the current age the Vedic literature recommends the chanting of Hare Krsna, Hare Krsna, Krsna Krsna, Hare Hare/ Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare. Statements to this effect can be found in the Brahmanda Purana, the Kali-santarana Upanisad, and other Vedic texts.
In this sacred mantra, the word Hare refers to Lord Hari, a name for Krsna that indicates His ability to remove obstacles from His devotees’ path. In a more esoteric sense, Hare is a vocative form of Hara, which refers to Srimati Radharani, the divine feminine energy—Lord Krsna’s eternal consort and transcendental counterpart.
Krsna means “the all-attractive one,” God in His original form. Etymologically, the word krs indicates the attractive feature of the Lord’s existence, and na means spiritual pleasure. When the verb krs is added to the affix na, it becomes Krsna, which means “the absolute person, who gives spiritual pleasure through His all-attractive qualities.” According to Sanskrit semantic derivation (nirukti), it is also understood that na refers to the Lord’s ability to stop the repetition of birth and death. And krs is a synonym for sattartha, or “existential totality.” Another way of understanding the word Krsna, then, is “that Lord who embodies all of existence and who can help the living entities overcome the repeated suffering of birth and death.”
Rama refers to both Balarama (Krsna’s elder brother) and Lord Ramacandra, a prominent incarnation of the Lord who is the subject of the epic known as the Ramayana. It is also said, however, that Rama refers to Radha-ramana, another name for Krsna, meaning “one who brings pleasure to Srimati Radharani.”
Thus the maha-mantra, composed solely of the Lord’s most confidential names, embodies the essence of the divine. As a prayer, the mantra is translated in the following way: “O Lord! O divine energy of the Lord! Please engage me in Your service.” The selflessness of this mantra—asking to serve God rather than asking God to do something for us—situates it in a unique category, even among the best of prayers and the most powerful of incantations. But its pure form can only be heard by the pure devotee—in his “inner ear,” which is in his heart of hearts.
The Right Hearing Aid
When I returned to my mom’s home to tell her about my meeting with her ear doctor, she had already made up her mind: “I’m not getting a hearing aid.”
She just didn’t want to be bothered. Truth is, her doctor said that a hearing aid would just add to her discomfort and probably wouldn’t help her much anyway. I told her how, as I spoke to her doctor, my mind had wandered to Vedic mantras and spiritual sound vibrations. But she couldn’t hear what I was saying, literally or figuratively.
She asked me if I would get a hearing aid if I were her.
“Probably not,” I said.
I spoke up: “No, I wouldn’t get one.”
After some time, I added that I had already accepted a hearing aid many years ago. She knew what I meant, and let out a loud guffaw.
“You mean your Swami Prabhupada, right?” She smiled. “Your hearing was definitely in trouble, but Prabhupada taught you to hear things in a way that serves you well.”
She thought for a second, and added, “I should have such an effective hearing aid.”
Satyaraja Dasa is a disciple of Srila Prabhupada and a regular contributor to BTG. He has written twenty books on Krsna consciousness, and is the editor of the recently published Holy War: Violence and the Bhagavad Gita. He lives with his wife and daughter near New York City.
The Touchstone of the Holy Name
harinama cintamani akhilamrta khani
krsna-krpa bale ye paila
krtartha se mahasaya sada purnananda-maya
raga-bhave sri-krsna bhajila
“This touchstone of the holy name is a limitless mine of luscious gems. The fortunate soul who discovers it by Krsna’s grace is inevitably fulfilled by it. Such a person always experiences ever-increasing joy, for it leads him to worship Krsna in the mood of spontaneity.
—Srila Bhaktivinoda Thakura Harinama Cintamani 15.114