You into mantras? And Bhakti? If so, you will want to be part of this conversation.
Bhakti, quite simply, is devotion. It is, essentially, the act of devotion demonstrated by the human soul towards the divine. Apart from the disposition of the mind, and the openness of the heart, bhakti is, also action. One of the most important actions of bhakti is the way in which the devotion is expressed. While devotion can take many forms of expression, and it should, in the Bhakti tradition of Hinduism, the voice is the supreme means of expressing devotion. And kirtana (or in the South of India, bhajana), a rather specific form of chant-singing, is a high value means of cultivating devotion and the expression of bhakti.
Kirtana and Bhajana are ways in which the human voice expresses its devotion to the divine through song, through musical expression, that is somewhat a combination of both singing and chanting. The lyrics are, most often, not classic mantras of the Vedas, or Tantra, but words of praise extended to a personal form of divinity, such as, Krishna, or Shiva, or Radha, or Shakti (Parvati).
They are often quite simple, without requiring the techniques of classical singing, so the anyone can sing along, or respond to the call. And the words are also in the vernacular, common languages spoken in each Indian state, (Hindi from North India, or Tamil from South India, or some other of the 23 regional languages spoken in India, not the classical language of mantras, Sanskrit. Hence, the rules of Sanskrit pronunciation do not apply, even though some of these languages, like Hindi, may be derived from Sanskrit.
Sanskrit mantras, by their very nature of being in Sanskrit, which literally means “well pronounced, or well produced, or well shaped (the word Sanskrit, literally means these things), requires mantras to be properly pronounced. In the Bhakti tradition, because most of the time the words are not in Sanskrit, nor are they mantras, they are not required to be pronounced well. Sometimes, however, a teacher or kirtan leader may choose to take a mantra in Sanskrit and make it into a kirtan. What then? What is the underlying requirement?
Having studied the Bhakti tradition from the musical standpoint, and having a keen sense of the Bhakti tradition’s historical development within the vast unfolding of Hinduism and Indian spirituality, my approach to sacred sound, places Bhakti alongside other traditions of sacred sound that are no less important, significant, powerful, extraordinary, insightful, transformative and enlightening. These are the Vedic and Tantric traditions of sacred sound. In these forms of expression, proper pronunciation of Sanskrit is a an important element in the process. We teach this in our Mastery of Mantra Training.
However, let us examine briefly the tension between pronunciation and Bhakti.
Devotion could also be understood as our ability to appreciate the presence of another, as in, “He is so devoted to his wife”. Or, “She is so devoted to her friend”. Spiritually, devotion is our capacity to appreciate the presence of the unseen, the invisible. In other words, our devotion, spiritually, is our capacity to appreciate the unseen presence of God or Divinity as other, in a way that is real, and with a felt sense.
In the Bhakti tradition, we try and cultivate the quality of devotion in our voice by using devotional mantras. This is a special category of mantras often constructed around the name of a deity, like Krishna, or Radha, or Shiva, or Shakti. In addition to the words, there is also the music, the melodies and accompaniment that support the expression of the singing. The musicality contributes to the devotion, helping its expression in the particular form of singing kirtana, or bhajana. What though, when mantras, and specifically a Sanskrit mantra is expressed devotionally. Does pronunciation matter? Or should pronunciation be sacrificed to the heart?
The devotional category of mantras is different from the Vedic and the Tantric. We might apply the quality of devotion to Vedic and Tantric mantras, but these categories also have some clear rules and guidelines. For instance, pronunciation is quite important to Vedic mantras. When mantras fall in squarely in the category of Bhakti, pronunciation is not an issue. In fact, pronunciation is the least important criteria for the expression of Bhakti. With Vedic mantras, on the other hand, pronunciation is the most important aspect.
What could be the result, then, if we bring more devotion to our chanting of Vedic mantras while at the same time raising the standards of our pronunciation of Bhakti mantras? How would it impact our spiritual practice, our experience of divine, the quality of our chanting, the consciousness we enter into, the vibrations produced in our world? Of course, there are many variables to to considered here, such as choice of melody and accompaniment, especially since Vedic mantras are chanted without musical accompaniment. How do we open up this conversation to the world of Bhakti, especially as it is developing in the west?
In own practice and teaching, I have been seeking to be informed by both bhakti, as well as proper pronunciation, especially of Sanskrit mantras. It is not easy and there are different contexts in which criteria matter. Nevertheless, you are invited to check out the practice and questions and share your thoughts below …
Chant the Gayatri (gāyatrī mantra–Om Bhur Bhuvas) and the Mahamrityunjaya (Trayambakam Yajamahe) mantra, two classic Vedic mantras, in a way that conveys their power, precision and phonetic beauty. In other words, chant them the traditional way, paying attention to the pronunciation. Then chant a devotional mantra like the Maha Mantra (Hare Krishna Hare Krishna) and Om Namah Shivaya, two well known, devotional mantras. Notice the difference in energy and the approach to these types of mantras. Next, try and bring some of the power of the Vedic mantras into the devotional mantras. And bring some devotional abandon to the Vedic mantras.
Would you say that, east is east, and west is west, and never the twain shall meet? Or is there a place for the integration of Vedic mantra precision with the devotional sweetness of bhakti? Should we preserve the unique approaches to Vedic and devotional mantras as they are, the former emphasizing pronunciation, the latter, devotion? Or should we be fusing the two approaches into a hybrid? Or, should we do all of this?