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Chakras, Sanskrit, and Shakti
If you have a thorough understanding of how mantras work, you may want to skip this chapter. On the other hand, various divisions of shakti are discussed in a way you may not have encountered previously.
Background of Chanting
In my book Healing Mantras, I discussed the mystical traditions of many cultures that orally record a rich legacy of tapping into seemingly hidden sources of information and energy through the power of chanting. Some cultures—the Melanesians, Mbuti Pygmies, Cibique Apaches—promote successful hunting and fishing through chanting. Those cultures have used the same methods successfully for hundreds, even thousands of years. But only one tradition has carefully organized and recorded the outcome of chanting in specific ways that is now available to Westerners. To access, bring in, and activate specific qualities of the Great Feminine within, ancient spiritual Sanskrit formulas from India, called mantras, can be used with great effect. Ultimately, various types and kinds of the feminine power within, called shakti, can be invoked and activated by Sanskrit Mantra.
The efficacy of chanting specific Sanskrit mystical formulas was carefully hidden and safeguarded by Brahmin priests in India for countless generations. Eventually, however, this information leaked to the secular world, and the use of mantras quickly spun out of control. The power contained in these Sanskrit phrases began to be abused by merchants seeking market supremacy, or by local warlords seeking military success. There was no spiritual foundation for these practices.
Just as the crisis threatened to lurch completely out of control, the Buddha appeared and taught that the Brahmin priests were not needed, the various temples were not needed, and mantras were not needed in order to achieve spiritual and material gain. Within the short span of a hundred years, millions of Hindus converted to Buddhism and gave up the practice of mantra altogether. As a result, thousands of corrupt Brahmin priests found that they could no longer make a living by selling mantra for- mulas and Sanskrit ceremonies (not unlike the Catholic priests who sold indulgences during the Middle Ages). Many fled to the cities and opened shops, and the great mantra leakage crisis was over.
Of course, even though the Buddha initially taught that mantras were not needed, he eventually did teach mantra practices to various groups. Buddhist sects from Sri Lanka, for instance, have chanted the great Gayatri Mantra for hundreds of years just as the orthodox Hindus do. The great Kalachakra Mantra discipline was the Buddha’s final teaching, recorded by only a handful of students who thought they were attending his wake. It is now taught and transmitted principally by Tibetans.
In his book The Kalachakra Tantra, the Dalai Lama writes, “Without depending upon mantra . . . Buddhahood cannot be attained.”* Clearly, this Buddhist leader places the highest importance on the practice of mantra. If this is the case, what is it about Sanskrit mantras that allows us to tap into some hidden sort of energy? The answer, it turns out, is built into the very spiritual mechanism we inhabit: the chakra system in our bodies.
Our Chakras—Energy Processing Centers
It has been taught for countless generations in the East that another nonphysical, subtle, energy-type body interpenetrates the physical body. The Chinese medical practice of acupuncture is founded on the same idea. In that system, needles are placed in the body at strategic points to aid the flow of energy in the subtle body to diseased or energy-deprived parts of the physical body. In the West, Kirlean photography, developed in the 1970s, captures images of the vibrant light energy emanating from every living thing, whether plant, animal, or human. Kirlean photographs have been taken of the energy emanating from the hands of healers. In its higher and more developed phases, this energy is responsible for the nimbus or halo surrounding certain saints and sages throughout religious history.
It is the energy coming from the subtle body that provides the key to the effectiveness of Sanskrit mantra chanting.
Similar in structure to the physical body, the subtle body has a spine through which energy flows and, through tubes similar to veins and arteries, called nadis in Sanskrit, is eventually distributed to all parts of the subtle body. Located along the spine in the subtle body are whirling energy processing centers called chakras
*Dalai Lama XIV [Tenzin Gyaltso] and Jeffery Hopkins, The Kalachakra Tantra (Boston: Wisdom Publications, 1992), page 165.
that correspond in location to the major nerve ganglia (cervical plexus, solar plexus, sacral plexus, and so forth) located along the spine in the physical body. To those who can see their workings, the chakras look like spinning pinwheels, which accounts for their name in Sanskrit, meaning wheel. To others, the chakras look like flowers, each possessing a different number of petals.
In healthy people, the chakras are vibrant and spin with vigor, facing out from the subtle spine. In those who are not well or who have abused themselves through drugs or alcohol, the chakra flowers are dull and spin sluggishly as they hang facing downwards, listless and only partially active.
The ancient Indian mystics with “second sight,” the ability to see clearly into the subtle realm, noticed that when certain Sanskrit syllables were pronounced, certain petals on some chakras responded very positively. For an indeterminate time, mystical mantra experiments were conducted and their results passed on orally to successive generations of spiritual teachers. Results of early experiments were verified as practitioners used mantra formulas identical to some of the early seers and found, amazingly, that later users of those same mantras all arrived at a nearly identical state of being.
Those ancient seers also noticed that when certain Sanskrit sounds, not all of which were words or meaning-based sounds as in modern language, were chanted in certain sequences, the resulting vibrational effect upon the chakras and physical body was remarkable. The sounds seemed to work synergistically, producing significant results in whoever chanted them, whether they understood what they were chanting or not.
The more the mystics investigated through expanded means of subtle perception, the more they understood what was happening. They saw that we are surrounded by energy all the time: spiritual energy. They also saw that when the Sanskrit formulas were chanted—that is, as the petals on the chakras vibrated in mystical resonances—a tiny amount of this spiritual energy was actually pulled into the subtle body. The chakras were accessing and drawing in the energy that surrounds us all the time. One may say by way of analogy that our chakras were little TV sets that, instead of pulling in television signals, pulled in spiritual energy. Continuing this analogy, the various chakras are the different channels. By the chanting of the Sanskrit formulas, people were experiencing a net gain not just in energy but in usable spiritual energy.
Over months and years of such activity, the energy gains were amazing. People who previously had no noticeable aura now had one. Among those who had been seemingly quite ordinary, some became healers, while others seemed to grow wise and mysteriously tap into realms of spiritual knowledge and understanding. The total amount of energy in the body was increasing as chanting continued over time, because the chakras were constantly accessing, pulling in, and processing new energy.
So astonished were these early seers that they acted just like the CIA of today. They immediately clamped a lid on the spread of this knowledge even as they continued to study it. As the years rolled by, the sages noticed that continuous chanting led to spiritual abilities, such as clairvoyance (mystical seeing), clairaudience (mystical hearing), as well as others. The subtle body, as it grew, began to work with the laws of the universe in ways that seem like science fiction today. These outcomes were carefully written down (after the advent of writing) and can be found today in the Vedas, the Upanishads, and most recently the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali.
Finally, the sages arrived at an understanding of how the energy-gaining process of the chakras was directly tied to the Sanskrit language. The six chakras located along the spine of the subtle body each have a different number of petals—or spokes, if you prefer. The total number of petals or spokes composing those six chakras is fifty. Similarly, the Sanskrit alphabet consists of fifty letters, with each one corresponding to a particular petal of a chakra. When a mantra built from the language is chanted, our chakras vibrate in tune with the Sanskrit sounds because Sanskrit is specifically vibrationally tuned to the activity of our chakras. Sanskrit is an energy-based language first and a meaning-based language second. It is not only the language of our chakras, it is a language that the feminine-based power within us understands, and to which it also responds.
In numerous texts on yoga, meditation, and Eastern mysticism, we find references to different types of shakti power—the Great Feminine energy that exists both within and without our bodies.
As a force in the universe, shakti powers everything, from the planets in their orbit to the radiant power of the sun. Whether referring to the power behind gravity or the power behind the speed of light, shakti is the term used to describe the operating power of the cosmos, from the smallest atom to the grandest galaxy. Any kind of force, power, or influence has its genesis in shakti, and shakti is feminine in nature.
In us, shakti is described in innumerable mystical texts as a serpentlike power cell coiled three times, sitting at the base of the spine. This atomiclike power cell furnishes the energy we use for both conscious and subconscious functioning. The housecleaning our bodies perform while we sleep is powered by the shakti that energizes the sympathetic, parasympathetic, and autonomous nervous systems to send instructions to the lymphatic system, the pituitary gland, and a host of other places in our slumbering forms. Whether it is blood circulating in the veins and arteries, a nerve impulse jumping a synaptic gap in the brain, our body straining while running the hundred-meter dash, or the working out of a physics or organic chemistry problem, our shakti provides the energy to accomplish the activity. Since many of these functions go on all the time behind our consciousness, we don’t think about them. But aware of it or not, shakti is the power behind them all.
From the Trade Paperback edition.