Sacred Sound: Discovering the Myth and Meaning of Mantra and Kirtan

Sacred Sound: Discovering the Myth and Meaning of Mantra and Kirtan

by Alanna Kaivalya

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In yoga practice, mantra and kirtan (call-and-response devotional chanting) get short shrift in the West because they aren’t well understood, though they are an integral part of almost every Eastern spiritual practice. They are designed to provide access into the psyche while their underlying mythology helps us understand how our psychology affects daily life


In yoga practice, mantra and kirtan (call-and-response devotional chanting) get short shrift in the West because they aren’t well understood, though they are an integral part of almost every Eastern spiritual practice. They are designed to provide access into the psyche while their underlying mythology helps us understand how our psychology affects daily life. Sacred Sound shares the myths behind the mantras and kirtans, illuminating their meaning and putting their power and practicality within reach of every reader.

Each of the twenty-one mantras and kirtans presented includes the Sanskrit version, the transliteration, the translation, suggestions for chanting, the underlying myth, and its modern-day implications. Based on Alanna Kaivalya’s years of teaching and studying the myths and sacred texts, this book offers a way into one of the most life-changing aspects of yoga practice.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“Alanna Kaivalya is a storyteller, bard, and great teacher, using mythology and mantra to reintroduce us to deep basic truths.”
Ana T. Forrest, creator of Forrest Yoga

“An inspirational book, both for those who are new to chanting and mantra and those whose path is already blessed by the power of the sacred sounds.”
Deva Premal and Miten, chant masters and devotional musicians

“Alanna Kaivalya’s approach to mantra, mythology, and philosophy artfully balances magic, logic, mystery, humor, and practicality....In this accessible guide, Alanna shows some of the ways that myths and mantras can enrich our inner lives, and gives us an informed approach to meaningful living.”
— from the foreword by Dave Stringer, kirtan singer and performing artist

“Alanna Kaivalya seems both exuberant and wise. Her classes blend rigorous poses and soothing adjustments with bursts of yoga philosophy. And the effect is a contemporary understanding of ancient knowledge that can inspire.”
Yoga Journal

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New World Library
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5.40(w) x 8.40(h) x 0.60(d)

Read an Excerpt

Asato Ma Sad Gamaya (entry for the mantra)

In the Beginning…
The universe is sleeping. As a cosmic ocean, it lies dormant and quiet. Completely still and absent of light. There is no time and space, just the absence of those things. Lying dormant at the bottom of this ocean of nothingness, imagine there are millions and billions of tiny seeds, which in and of themselves are also nothing and without time, space or light. However, within those seeds is potential. Just as the great Banyan tree’s potential lies hidden inside each of it’s tiny seeds, those seeds require a certain kind of maturity and proper conditions to eventually sprout. Without these things, the seeds remain hidden and quiet and nothingness ensues.
In this no-time of the Cosmic Ocean, literally nothing exists, which is so hard to imagine! Scientists refer to this point as the origin of the universe, or the Big Bang, at which point everything in time and space existed as a sort of pre-singularity…a pre-potential state. In the yogic view, this pre-state is known in Samkhya philosophy as Purusha, sometimes referred to as consciousness, or unmanifest reality. Purusha can also be understood as the principle force behind our favorite sound of OM - the sound that eventually gives rise to all things, according to Upanishadic and Vedic scripture. It’s tough to put a finger on the formless, but suffice to say that purusha is the subtle, underlying source present within all things. It is this potential force that composes this original cosmic soup, without which, nothing eventually arises. And, eventually it does because the tendency is toward that of movement and creation, and so after a long period of what the tradition refers to as the “night of Brahma,” that creative source begins to stir.
At some undetermined period, through this indescribable force, the seeds ripen, the atom splits and suddenly time and space are born. Seeds grow and ripples appear on the surface of the ocean. Waves appear that affect other waves, seeds take root and develop into the fiery element of creation. We now have prana-shakti, or energy, the power of manifestation and creation that leads to the formation of mind, senses, dreams, desires and eventually the earth element that is the substance of what we recognize as the universe we see and understand all around us.
These manifestations that arise out of the Cosmic Ocean of purusha are known as prakriti, or the manifest reality. As prakriti continues to develop and materialize, it becomes denser and denser and further removed - or externalized - from the original source. Eventually, we ourselves become so cloaked in this externalization that we don’t recognize the original source vibration or purusha in the things that we see and experience. This cloaking effect is known as maya, or the illusory veil that pulls the world over our eyes so we see and experience only the veil, and not the Truth which is cloaked behind it.
This is exactly like the concept of The Matrix, the 1999 film in which the hero, Neo, has been “unplugged” from this externalized construct to understand what is Real. His venerable teacher, Morpheus, guides him through the process of understanding the Matrix, the symbol in this case for maya, so that he can see and understand The Matrix in order to recognize the Truth that lies behind it, which in our case is the Truth or Immortality. Neo realizes that he is beyond The Matrix, just as we, through yogic practices, eventually are able to see through the veil of maya to recognize the pure source at the heart of all things. We let go of the false understanding that this externalization of form is “reality” in favor of the Reality that is timeless, formless, and pure consciousness at the heart of everything.

The Ocean’s Drama
As the cosmic ocean churned and separated and divided further into the components of the mind, the sensory organs, and eventually the separation and creation of heaven and hell, the demons (known as asuras) and the gods immediately started war on one another. There are many tales within the vedas, upanishads and various yogic texts which recount the ongoing war between good and evil. Including within the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, where we find the chant:

Asato ma sad gamaya
Tamaso ma sad gamaya
Mrtyor ma amritam gamaya

As soon as the demons and gods started fighting, the gods were immediately outdone - there always tend to be more demons than gods around! The gods convened to create a plan to defeat the demons through tremendous power that mantra holds. Mantra, when chanted correctly, has the power to correct, redirect and reunify all that is separate - namely, the prakriti, or manifest reality, dissolves back into the purusha, Ultimate Reality. For us, as individuals, this means that mantra has the ability to reunify any feeling of separation we have from source. This is yoga!
The gods had their answer, they had their great weapon, or their golden ticket to defeat the evil demons. And, so the mouth, with it’s grand power of speech, was summoned to chant their chosen words - a chant so powerful and utterly divine that it can harness and channel the power of the Source to overcome evil. But, the demons got word of this great plan, and so they attacked the mouth, and wounded it’s speech, so that it spoke not just perfect mantra and uplifting speech, but harmful words as well. The mouth had failed, so the gods had to find another way.
They enlisted the eyes! The beautiful eyes! They thought there would be no way for the demons to pierce this beauty and so they asked the eyes to chant the sacred mantra to summon the strength they needed to defeat the demons. But, the demons were clever, and they attacked the eyes so that they eyes would not just see what is beautiful, but so that they would also see what is ugly and fearsome. The gods did not lose hope. They had others to enlist.
So, they recruited the ears, for perfect ears hear only perfect vibration. The ears chanted beautifully until they were pierced by the harsh words of the demons and they faltered, hearing not harmonious sound, but also cries and screams and terrible untruths. The gods then asked the fingers of touch to learn the chant, for how could touch be spoiled? It is so perfect in it’s caresses and ability to soothe. But, the fingers were pricked and started curling in on themselves withholding their power and transmitting pain as much as pleasure. The smelling nose was asked to chant the chant, but it was at once overcome with putrefaction and foundered.
Well, the mind had thought of this brilliant idea, so the gods finally pleaded with the mind to focus on the perfect chant that could help them win this war! The mind focused intently and was indeed harder for the demons to attack, but once they did, negative thoughts arose and suddenly the mind wondered about it’s own ability to do this task? Did it even have the skills? Could it do it? Doubt filled the mind and then the mind became useless in creating the power needed to overcome the demons.
The gods were heartbroken. They just knew that mantra would be the only sure way to harness the absolute power of formless, pure consciousness, but how else were they to get to it? All the other indriyas, or organs of action, had failed. But, suddenly, the gods had a thought… “What if it wasn’t an indriya who did the chanting? Indriyas are fallible, as they’re made of the divisive nature of prakriti! That’s it! We’ll enlist the prana - the driving force of purusha - to chant!” And so, they asked prana to chant for them. Prana politely, and humbly obliged. It began the chant, not just chanting the mantra, but literally invoking the very essence of the mantra and driving it forth as the supreme weapon of unification. The demons tried and tried, but all their attacks were hopeless against the impenetrable, infallible prana, whose ultimate connection to source is indivisible. There is no “other side of the coin” to prana whose nature is unity.
Through prana’s embodiment of the mantra, the most powerful weapon - perfect, harmonious sound - was used to defeat the demons and create peace once again. The gods could rest and finally become what they knew themselves to be: perfect, whole and complete.

The Devil in Disguise
As a mystical practice, yoga allows us to understand the external world on an internal level. In keeping with the hermetic concept, “As above, so below,” the yogi is one who seeks to understand the external world through inquiry into the internal landscape. This means that all life becomes refocused through an internal lens of inquiry where we see that the whole universe is simply a reflection of ourself. The macrocosm is a direct reflection of the microcosm, so to speak. If we look at myth as metaphor for this particular concept, as has been done by such luminaries as Joseph Campbell and Carl Jung, then we see that this metaphor of the gods and demons is simply an allegory to illustrate our own dualistic tendencies.
As humans who come from the Cosmic Source, and yet, are cloaked in the veil (maya) that hides that fact from us, we often fall prey to the dualistic nature that makes us feel separate from the Source. We allow the tongue to speak harshly, the hands to withhold tender touch and the mind to rationalize our self-doubt. Yoga, as a mystical practice, involves deep self-inquiry where we travel within to discover where the Truth, Light and Reality reside. The external world shows us our separateness, while the internal world reveals the Truth that we are from the source.
One of the most powerful methods of focus to help us reveal our internal nature is through mantra. As we channel our own energy, or prana, into uplifting phrases, then just like the gods we defeat our inner demons and reveal our own wholeness. The chant given in the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad that reflects this cosmic struggle with duality is a perfect tool to overcome it:

Asato ma sad gamaya
Tamaso ma sad gamaya
Mrtyor ma amritam gamaya

It is translated as:

Lead me from untruth to Truth
Lead me from darkness to Light
Lead me from death to Immortality

Through self-inquiry, literally allowing our constantly externalized attention to take a U-turn back in on ourselves, we discover the Source that resides within us. The veil of illusion is lifted. We stop seeing the external world as “real”, and like Neo in The Matrix, we discover the ways in which we can reshape and re-understand ourselves in order to see the world differently. Byron Katie, founder of “The Work:, and author of many books including Loving What Is, would say, “I can heal the whole world by working with one human being, and that is me.” This sentiment reflects the power we discover when we internalize our reality, knowing that all we see comes from within, and to change what we see, we can work on where it is coming from, our own hearts and minds.
And, if darkness resides in our hearts and minds, going deeply within will reveal the Light that is cloaked by the self-doubt and self-judgements that are present. Letting those go in favor of revealing the inner nature of the Self brings forth self-illumination, or self-effulgence. People with this quality are those who light up a room when they walk in it - simply through their presence alone. It is those luminaries who have the capability of transforming the world they live in. And, we are all capable of that, particularly because we are all of the same Source.
The Brihadaranyaka Upanishad gives us this history by revealing to us that the source of all things is without any measurement of time or space, meaning it is what always was, always is, and always will be. If this source material, purusha, is endless and timeless, then it is also deathless. The immortality expressed in this sacred mantra is not the desire for the physical body to live forever, but rather the desire for the realization that there is a Source within us - call it a soul, spirit, atman or jiva - that is also everlasting. As we make our mark upon the externalized world, it makes it’s mark upon us by showing us the way home - to our internal, deathless, Light and Truth filled essence.

Guru Brahma, Guru Vishnu
Guru Devo Maheshvara
Guru Sak Shat, Param Brahma
Tas Mai Shri Gurave Namaha

Meet the Author

Alanna Kaivalya, PhD, is coauthor of Myths of the Asanas, founder of The Kaivalya Yoga Method, and an internationally known teacher, author, and mythologist. In 2008 Yoga Journal recognized Alanna as one of the Top 21 Teachers Under 40. She travels the world teaching at conferences, workshops, and teacher trainings in The Kaivalya Yoga Method. She lives in New York City.

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