Human beings are physically unable to perceive certain 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 cycles per second. 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. Vedic texts suggest that if this is true of hearing in the material sphere, how much more true must it be of sounds that exist beyond the material world — sounds that we must distinguish ourselves, through spiritual practice, to truly hear.
Despite our inability to hear certain frequencies — whether material or spiritual — we tend to hear better than we see. This was recognized by psychologist Katharine Le Mee:
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.1
Thus, science has shown that our human senses are imperfect and limited, and that there is a world of sensual experience beyond human perception. Vaishnava 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 laying 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),” Vaishnava scriptures affirm that the entire cosmic creation began with sound: “By His utterance came the universe.” (Brihad Aranyaka Upanishad I.2.4) The Vedas add that ultimate liberation comes from sound as well (anavrittih shabdat).
Primal sound is referred to as Shabda Brahman — God as word. Closely related to this is the concept of Nada Brahman — God as sound. Nada, a Sanskrit word literally meaning “sound,” is related to the term nadi, denoting the stream of consciousness — a concept that goes back to the Rig Veda, the most ancient of the Vedas. Thus, the relationship between sound and consciousness has long been recorded in India’s ancient literature. Vedic texts, 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 the purpose of 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 (chakras) of the spinal column, as well as the ida, pingala, and sushumna nadis, or the three pranic channels of the subtle body, all respond to mantras, bringing practitioners to elevated levels of awareness.
A recently constructed device called a “tonoscope” graphically demonstrates the power of Sanskrit syllables to evoke forms in a physical medium. The tonoscope is a tube suspended over a thin membrane and covered by a layer of fine dust. When sounds are broadcast through the tube, corresponding designs form in the dust that can tell us something about the initial sound that went through the tube. While most sounds produce random, ill-defined images, the vibration of Sanskrit syllables produces quite a different result. When Sanskrit mantras are repeated at the proper pitch, for example, a perfect circle forms, and out of that a yantra, or a traditional geometric image used in worship. These experiments, which are still in their infancy, indicate that Sanskrit mantras embody objective vibratory energies that can act on the environment. If the sounds of mantras can activate a gross element such as dust, one can only imagine the power such vibrations might have on human consciousness.
The Power of God’s Names
The spiritual sounds most lauded in Vedic texts are the names of God. These sounds are said to have ultimate powers unlike any other sound vibration in or beyond the universe. Vaishnava texts state that in much the same way that one could awaken a person who is sleeping, by making a sound or calling out his name, man can awaken from his conditioned, materialistic slumber by calling out the name of God. 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 Vaishnava scriptures repeatedly 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.” (Brihad-naradiya Purana 3.8.126).
Praise of the holy name of God is found throughout the literature of the Vaishnavas. Here are some 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.” (Shrimad Bhagavatam 3.33.7)
“The holy name of Krishna is the spiritually blissful giver of all benedictions, for it is Krishna Himself, the reservoir of pleasure. Krishna’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 Krishna Himself. This name is not tinged by any aspect of material nature, because it is identical with Krishna.” (Padma Purana 3.21)
And, finally, Krishna says,
I dwell not in the spiritual kingdom,
nor in the hearts of yogis;
Where my devotees are chanting,
there, O Narada, stand I!
Because chanting the name of God is so much emphasized in Vaishnava texts, practitioners focus on chanting as a central devotional practice. Thus, deep meditation and great emotion accompany japa (the soft chanting), kirtan (the loud chanting), and sankirtan (the congregational chanting). When perfected, the chanting leads to awareness of God’s absolute nature, i.e., that there is no difference between the nami (“the named one”) and nama (“the name”). Elucidation on the absolute nature of Krishna and His name is the heart of Vaishnava mysticism, leading to love of God.
Norvin Hein, Professor Emeritus at Yale University, has witnessed enthusiastic Vaishnava kirtan, and in writing about it, 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, breath-taking 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 the “Hare Krishna” Maha-mantra
The Hare Krishna maha-mantra, or “the great chant for deliverance,” is considered by scripture to be the most powerful of incantations, for it includes the potency of all other mantras.
The maha-mantra can be expressed in two distinct ways. The most significant and well-known version is: Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare/ Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare. The medieval Chaitanya-charitamrita (Madhya 25.64), a seminal text for the Hare Krishna movement, provides another version: haraye nama krishna yadavaya namaha/ gopal govinda ram shri madhusudana — “I offer my respectful obeisances unto the Supreme Personality of Godhead, Krishna. He is the descendant of the Yadu dynasty. Let me offer my respectful obeisances unto Gopala, Govinda, Rama, and Shri Madhusudana, for these are all names of the same Supreme Lord.”
However, it is the chanting of “Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare/ Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare” that the Vedic literature particularly recommends for the current age. Statements to this effect can be found in the Brahmanda Purana (Uttara-khanda 6.55), the Kalisantarana Upanishad, and in many other Vedic and post-Vedic texts.
Breaking down this sacred mantra into its component parts,
the word “Hare” refers to Lord Hari — a name for Krishna that indicates His ability to remove obstacles from His devotees’ path. In a more esoteric sense, the word “Hare” is a vocative form of “Hara,” which refers to Mother Hara, or Shrimati Radharani, the divine feminine energy — Lord Krishna’s eternal consort and transcendental counterpart.
“Krishna” means “the all-attractive one,” referring to God in His original form. Etymologically, the word krish indicates the attractive feature of the Lord’s existence, and na means spiritual pleasure. When the verb krish is added to the affix na, it becomes krishna, 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 krish is a synonym for sattartha or “existential totality.” Another way of understanding the word krishna, 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 (Krishna’s elder brother) and Lord Ramachandra, a prominent incarnation of the Lord, discussed at length in the epic known as the Ramayana. It is also said, however, that “Rama” refers to Radha Ramana Rama, which is another name for Krishna, meaning “one who brings pleasure to Shrimati 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 in its pure form, it can only be heard by the pure devotee — in his “inner ear,” which is in his heart of hearts.
Notes 1. Katharine Le Mee,Chant (New York: Bell Tower Publishing, 1994), pp. 28-29.2. Norvin Hein, “Caitanya’s Ecstasies and the Theology of the Name,” in Hinduism: New Essays in the History of Religions (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1976), pp. 22-23.
Bio: Steven J. Rosen (Satyaraja Dasa) is an initiated disciple of His Divine Grace A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada. He is also founding editor of the Journal of Vaishnava Studies and associate editor for Back to Godhead. He has published twenty-one books in numerous languages, including the recent Essential Hinduism (Rowman & Littlefield, 2008) and the Yoga of Kirtan: Conversations on the Sacred Art of Chanting (FOLK Books, 2008)