"What was that, mom?" my daughter recently asked after we had chanted before bedtime one evening. She continued, "It was if my belly was the earth and my heart was a huge sun. Out of the soil appeared a seed sprouting and it...", and her voice trailed off as her index finger wiggled upwards from her navel towards her heart. "What was that?" she repeated.
I responded that when you chant Sanskrit mantras you are "planting" seeds into your body-mind which will grow and blossom as long as you nurture them with attention and repetition. They can even expand into a vast field of spiritual energy.
Kiddo responded with a big-eyed, slack-jawed, “Whoooooaaaaaa”.
"Yup, it’s pretty cool", I said. And so it is.
THE SEEDS OF CONSCIOUSNESS
The Sanskrit language is founded on bija sounds which literally translates to "seed". Like a biological seed can grow an oak tree, a bija sound is energy in condensed form and the source of something. Each vowel and consonant of the Sanskrit alphabet is considered a bija, or a seed mantra, whose sound corresponds to a primordial vibration within Nature.
For example, the Sanskrit vowel "a" (as in article) is the sound of pure being, existence. It signifies the absolute, unchanging Presence. The vowel "u" (as in put) is the sound of the force-field or vibratory structure which holds creation.
These bijas are considered indestructible, eternal archetypal sounds which combine to create the phenomenal world. These sounds created and sustain the Cosmos. They also create and sustain us. And this is why chanting the alphabet is itself considered a sacred practice within Yoga, aligning one's being with universal forces and restoring integrity to the subtle body.
BIJAS WITHIN TANTRIC PHILOSOPHY
But typically when we talk about bijas within Yoga, we are referring to mystical single-syllable words from the Tantric tradition which have no literal meaning. Examples of these include simple syllables such as:
and Kshraum ... which starts to get a little more complex!
So the primordial vibrations, which correspond to the Sanskrit alphabet, combine to create more complex bija mantras which carry the forces of Nature, such as earth, water, fire, and electricity. To chant such bijas is to align yourself with these elemental forces. How might this be experienced? Well, for example, I recall at one time chanting the bija mantra "Hum" such as you may have heard in "Om hum Shivaya namaha" or "Om mani padme hum" and it repeatedly leading to a subtle yet tangible feeling of fiery, explosive, upward-thrusting energy. Like a rocket on lift-off! And not surprising when one later learns the bija is composed of "H", the seed of space or ether and also associated with the Sun, "U" which carries a powerful pranic force, and "M" which is the state of dissolution or a return back to the Source. (Now it is not necessary to know this when chanting and, in fact, it is important to experience these sounds energetically, going beyond the thinking mind and connecting back to the primal powers behind language... going beyond knowledge and connecting to experience.) So while bijas encapsulate the forces of Nature they also expand these energies within our own being.
BIJAS AND AYURVEDA
Because bijas correspond to elemental forces, they are heavily relied upon within the traditional Indian system of health, Ayurveda. For example "Shreem", as you would find in a Lakshmi mantra such as "Om shreem Lakshmiyei namaha", has primarily earthy, watery components to it and thus provides mostly a grounding, nourishing effect on the body. From an Ayurvedic perspective, it cools and calms the nervous system. (Just think how we instinctively harness some of these sounds when we wish to soothe a baby with a soft "Shhhhhhhhhhh"!)
Health, within Yoga, also depends on an optimal flow of energy which is modulated by the chakras, subtle energy hubs. Each chakra is envisioned as having a center which resonates to a bija sound, such as the root chakra which is thought to resonate to the sound LAM. Each chakra has a differing number of petals... each of which resonates to a different letter of the alphabet! These "petals" extend from the central chakras throughout the body as a network of subtle energy channels known as "nadis". Our body is considered to be a garland of sounds! So chanting mantras creates a "sound body, sound mind".
BIJAS AND DEITY ARCHETYPES
As I've alluded to, certain bijas also correspond to "deities", basic archetypal components of our psychological being and Beingness itself. Bijas create a certain pattern of energy through the nervous system which is considered to be one and the same as the deity and its qualities. The bija is the sonic form of the deity. (That's cool, did you get that?) For example "Aim" is the seed sound of Saraswati, the "Goddess" of speech and the creative arts. It is the flow of higher wisdom. "Aim" aids concentration. It opens one up to the flow of creativity, enhances communication, and speeds learning. One could simply chant "aim, aim, aim" or if one is more devotional, "Om aim Saraswatyai namaha" loosely translating to, "I surrender to the energy of higher wisdom".
THE SEEDS BLOSSOM!
Part of what drew me to the practice of mantra was a lifelong fascination with words themselves. Where do words come from? To what do they owe their power? Why do words have the impact they do? Read on, because in Yoga all of this starts coming together... and I'm lovin' it!
The original or great bija is OM which is also Brahman, the cosmic principle/God/Whatever You Want to Call It. In fact, the words Brahman and bija are both derived from "bhr" meaning "to grow"... and also meaning "to praise"! Out of OM expands the first subtle vibrations, a living energy known as Shakti, which projects itself out to create all vibrations, sounds, and ultimately all forms of the Universe. All letters and words are also forms of Shakti as "sound powers". These essential sounds, rooted in resonant universal patterns, expand out into our mind/body and are experienced as thoughts, feelings, and sensations. They also become transformed into complex language... sounds imbued with meaning.
If you are interested in the spiritual power of Sound, I suggest you read the wonderful book Nada Brahman: The World Is Sound : Music and the Landscape of Consciousness by now deceased German jazz producer Joachim-Ernst Berendt. There is a chapter I love where he describes the development of the word "word" itself. What is a word? How is it truly creative? He begins: two of the ancient Norn Norse goddesses, who wove the fates of individuals, Urth and Verthandi, have names derived from the Sanskrit root vrt. Urth means "fate" and Verthandi means "future". The root word vrt, means "to unroll, to become, to come into being". Vrt is also the root of Arabic vard and Aramaic varda signifying "the rose" and the Hebrew word wered which means both bud (that which comes into being) and rose (that which has become). These are also related to the Greek rhodos, rose. The etymological development, via Gaelic and German, is as such:
vrt - vard - wered - wairth - wort - word - rod(hos) - rose.
The word bud or seed (or bija), which encapsulates fate and future, unfurls to create the vibratory mental rose as a thought, an idea which is itself a reflection of the original w-o-r-d. The original word is OM or Brahman.
Whew! This is heady stuff here! Where does it end? Well, I am going to end this pretty soon actually... but not before providing you with...
A CAUTIONARY TALE (WELL, ACTUALLY TWO)
When we work deeply within a particular tradition a number of spiritual "seeds" become planted within our being. It is through practice, primarily meditation that these seeds come to fruition. Here comes Cautionary Tale Number One: once I leapt impulsively from one spiritual tradition to another. I was consciously propelled by a number of reasons and unconsciously propelled by a number of desires and fears. Shortly thereafter I dreamt of treading water in a black pond in the dark of night. I was struggling to keep afloat and flailing in a pool of white, dead seeds. When we abandon a path or, I believe, dabble shallowly in too many traditions simultaneously, these seeds may never grow into the light.
Cautionary Tale Number 2: These "seeds", as I've mentioned, need to be nurtured within the fertile soil of our consciousness through attention and repetition. This also implies a certain protection. And herein lies some of the need for occasional secrecy within certain spiritual traditions. It is not so much that such beginner practices need to be hidden from others, but that in order for seeds of spiritual practice and intention to come to fruition, they must go through an "alchemical" process which involves holding them within our consciousness until they are mature.
And in this sense a bija, according to the Buddhists, can be a thought, an emotion, really anything that leaves any sort of energetic imprint. The take-away here: to explore another metaphor from the alchemists, if we talk about our intentions, projects, and aspirations before they are "cooked", we may release the "steam" and destroy the process. Gone. You learn the hard way.
BACK TO THE SPROUTS!
I chant with my child because, among other reasons, I am introducing her to a "spiritual vocabulary", if you will. At school she is learning a grammar and vocabulary of the head. At home I wish to introduce her to a vocabulary of the heart. By chanting in Sanskrit we start to tap into the integrated, complex, living web of Consciousness. We are opening ourselves to the flow of Shakti, the living breathing body of thoughts, ideas, and inspiration. Whatever is sprouting within her will strengthen her and may contribute to her path, her choices later in life. For the next years, while she is young, I hope to continue to help her plant seeds to cultivate her interior landscape. May she grow many flowers!
There will be a Creating Harmony/Vivre en Harmonie family chanting and mantra workshop Wednesday, May 23 from 4:15-5:15 co-hosted by Transition NDG. There are still places left so just RVSP to firstname.lastname@example.org or just come on by! More info here.
Or join our monthly mantra and meditation session co-hosted by Transition NDG on Monday, May 28 from 7-8:30. More info here. This month we'll be exploring mantras of the Sacred Feminine.
Interested in private sessions for yourself or for using chanting/mantra as a parenting tool? Contact me here.
Here are my "musings" on mantra and sound as a transformative path.