The advantages of this ancient form of worshipping the divine
are many and varied. Not only does chanting quiet your mind, it helps
you forget your troubles; produces a sense of connection with others;
and fosters a wealth of positive feelings such as serenity, lightness,
and joy. Many chanters--novices and veterans alike--even report the sensation
of having transcended their bodies during this practice. Chanting is a
technique that makes the best use of our love of pleasure, redirecting
our desires toward the Supreme. In this way, chanting is a shortcut to
Mantra repetition is a simple, enjoyable, and powerful procedure for purposefully reorganizing our consciousness. The uncomplicated nature of chanting seems at odds with some of the extravagant claims made for its power as a spiritual technology. After all, how could speaking or singing syllables from an ancient foreign language possibly generate such an amazing range of benefits? As you'll see, the very act of repeating a mantra induces relaxation, allowing you access to the sublime silence always abiding at the core of your being. Simplifying your mental processes by working with mantras will support you in increased concentration and emotional command. Additional benefits may be realized when you chant in coordination with other types of sadhana (spiritual practice). For example, the rewards of chanting are exponentially increased when also harnessing the force of imagination--such as repeating mantras while visualizing the Perfections that are being invoked (from the Introduction to Following Sound into Silence).
Devotional Chanting is all about using one's own voice--and indeed, the whole of one's embodied being--to cultivate and sustain an elevated emotional quality (bhav). One who engages in this musical alchemy is after the "spiritual juice" (rasa) that goes with intense longing for, concentrated attachment to, and resolute identification with, the Perfection (personified or not) that is celebrated in the chant and made experientially present through it.
A growing recognition of the benefits of devotional chanting has led to an exponential rise in the number of kirtans (interactive devotional chanting events) in the West during the past decade--just as the proliferation of kirtans has spread the news of chanting's benefits. In their October 6, 2003, issue Time magazine reported on this phenomenon in their "Society" section. People interviewed for this article make remarkable claims for the benefits of chanting with other people:
"This is the most happy-producing thing that I know right now"
"It is a combination of grounding and ecstasy"
"It's empowering to sing with others who experience the process with you"
"[Chanting allows us to] spend time with people on a spiritual path and share that passion with our voices"
"[When I chant] the stress melts in my body and I feel this opening in my heart." (Orecklin, 2003, p. 62)
Edward Henry (1988) observes that "when one sings kirtan, one forgets everything else." One of the informants in his study of this practice told him that when he chants, "in the mind a love [for God] is born...and the love grows." Another told him that "a kind of peace is found in the soul [when] I have sung a kirtan. From this, [God] will certainly drive my pains away. For this reason there is fulfillment in the heart. Worries have gone away. The mind becomes light."
Henry suggests that when one participates in devotional chanting, "the mind becomes totally occupied with" the Supreme. "Whatever the ideology, chanting...results in a changed state of consciousness which practitioners value." (Henry, 1988, pp. 142-143)
Above all, people who participate in devotional chanting
seek to exchange their ordinarily troubled consciousness for something
higher, more refined, and infinitely more vast. This is the birthright
that our deepest intuitions reveal is our essential nature as Radiant
Care and Awareness. And we can have it for a song.
Henry, E. (1988). Chant the names of God: Music and culture in Bhojpuri-speaking India. San Diego, CA: San Diego State University Press.
Orecklin, M. (2003, October 6). Can you sing Om? Time, 62.
What is that instrument you play?
This class of simple Indian drone instruments is commonly called "Ektara"; 'Ek' means "one," and 'tara' means "string" in Sanskrit. My instruments are all "Dhotara," because they're "two-stringed."
The body is made of a basket guord that has had one side cut off, with a goat-skin drum head stretched over the opening. The neck is of bamboo, and the bridge is "floating"; the tension of the two strings holds it in place against the surface of the drum head. Two wooden tuning pegs allow for the pitch to be adjusted. I use 0.12" brass wire for the strings. Because they are of slightly different lengths, no matter how closely one tunes them (to the same note, typically C#), they're always a bit out of phase, creating that pleasing "quavering" effect.
Playing the dhotara is simple, but calls for steady rhythm and consistent control, plucking only one of the strings, the other sounding in sympathetic resonance (being tuned to the same pitch).
The repetition of the single pitch sustains a root note, a "sonic anchor" around which the voice may meander and to which it must return during chanting. The drone is occasionally supplemented with a percussive tapping of the drum head with the other hand, for building the intensity of the musical--and therefore emotional--experience.
I'm too shy to sing in front of others. What should I do?
Your reluctance to sing in public may be the result
of ridicule you've received--even long ago--about your singing
voice. Let go of this
old wound. Indeed, one of the most important benefits of devotional
chanting is that it can help you dissolve your self-consciousness
(in the negative sense of worrying about what others' think about
you). By focusing exclusively on the Supreme, we become genuinely
self-forgetting. And that will surely leave us less likely to
sabotage ourselves with harsh self-criticism.
It's also the case that with regular practice (both alone and in the company of others) your singing skill is likely to dramatically improve. In devotional chanting, you're using the sound of your own voice as the object of your meditation. Speaking or singing the mantras means creating the very Sound Forms of Perfection. Rest assured that your vocal quality is increasing as you attend to the mantras. Let the mantras have their way with your mind, your heart, your voice; they're bringing you into a way of being that is more and more like the Perfection they represent.
Devotional chanting is a powerful yoga ("method for realizing Union"); it's a mental yoga, an emotional yoga, a vocal yoga. No doubt there are some benefits available to those who observe a hatha (physical) yoga class. For instance, one might be inspired to take up the practice, or learn something about a challenging asana (posture) by watching another enact the movements. But the greatest range and depth of benefits are only available to those who actually embody the practice--not spectators. It's the same with devotional chanting. The effects of the practice are most profound for those who routinely employ their body-mind vehicles in fashioning the Sound Forms of the Supreme.
Can non-hearing people chant? Is there some activity that members of deaf culture can participate in that's similar to kirtan?
I imagine that for deaf folks who sign, mudras would
be the analogue to mantras. These are styliized hand-shapes,
gestures the ancients used in much the same way as mantras, as
a form of perfection. They therefore function as objects around
which to organize (and reorganize) one's consciousness, re-minding
oneself of the Supreme. Here's a pretty fair basic introduction
A deaf devotee making (and remaking) a given mudra a great number of times in unbroken succession as an exercise analogous to japam (mantra repetition)--and if it was done with embellished movement (as in dance), with beauty and grace, that would be akin to chanting. Finally, a group of non-hearing devotees using mudras together, following a pattern set by a facilitator, would be a "deaf kirtan"!
I recommend that each person undertake those spiritual practices
that they are best equipped to process and most likely to persevere
in. It's not merely a matter of sensory perception, after all,
but of the ways of knowing, experiencing, and interpreting reality
that coordinate (and are habitually associated) with those senses.
We would expect the consciousness of a signing deaf person doing
mudras to be organized around vision, kinesthesia, and proprioception
whereas a hearing person's consciousness would likely be acoustically
oriented while doing mantra-work.
We all have the opportunity to use our senses to exercise and direct our basic nature--Awareness and Care--toward our own Highest Ideals. In so doing, the Divine is ever-more-clearly revealed in and as the Focused Love with which we intoxicate and enchant ourselves in devotional practice. The "gate" (vision, hearing. feeling, smelling, tasting, thinking...what have you) may vary, but the attention and affection are constant.
Why do you have dreadlocks? Are you Rastafarian?
(intentionally tangled) hair, called jatta in Sanskrit,
is part of the traditional self-presentation of sadhus
(professional spiritual practitioners) in India from pre-history
to the present day. Jatta are most centrally associated with Lord
Shiva, the Hindu God of Destruction, and paragon of all sadhus.
He is traditionally depicted with matted locks, meditating for
aeons of time atop Mount Kailash (the Himalayan mountain in western
Tibet that I'm named after).
Of course, locked hair is not limited to the practitioners of spiritual traditions from India. The custom is followed world-wide, from Senegal, to Somolia, to Sri Lanka and beyond. In the west, locked hair is most visibly associated with worshippers of Ras Tafari--one of the names of Halie Selassi (1892-1975), the former Emperor of Ethiopia--who Rastafarians believe to be the incarnation of God.
I believe that we all benefit from identifying something or someone as Divine, and then treating This One with the Ultimate Passion that is the appropriate offering to the Supreme. So I'm respectful of Rastafarian's worship of their Messiah, even though I don't share their object of devotion.