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The Sound

Sound has many levels of meaning in Hindu philosophy. The broadest term in Sanskrit is shabda. Shabda is never simply noise; Hindus believe that shabda-sound has power. Especially powerful are sounds created by human beings because they are intentionally focussed releases of energy, whether in music or in speech, above all in mantras. It is believed, for example, that the spoken word when properly controlled can reconnect one with the source of creation, and lead to direct illumnation. Thus arises devotion to the folk goddess Vac, who is considered the mother of all mantras in the Tantric tradition, who channels sound into speech. Hence, too, the importance placed upon the chanting of the Vedas, which when sung properly are believed literally to release the wisdom they contain as real sacred energy that can “create the spiritual states of mind and of life which the words describe” , and influence the course of human destiny and even the order of the Universe. The sadhus who wander the land chanting the sacred mantras and singing bhajans are doing so not only for their own spiritual attainments, but for maintaining the equilibrium of the world as well. Sphota is the word used to name both the capacity that is in shabda to burst forth and manifest its source--and the source of all shabda is ultimately none other than Brahman who is the essense of all speech--and the eternal word itself that arises from the unmoving principle with the illuminating power of sakti. The Sarvadarsana-samgraha teaches that this “eternal word, called sphota” is actually the cause of the world, and is in truth identical with Brahman: “It shines out in the meaning of all things, and it is the source of the whole world.” Another broad term for sound in Sanskrit is nada, and there are two types of nada. There is anahata nada, which is struck sound, sound that is produced, sound that gives an immediate, usually pleasurable impact, sound of all kinds whether a human being can hear it or not. This, of course, is the same as the western understanding of sound as always coming from movement, from something having been struck, either the wind through the vocal cords or through a reed, or the percussive sound of the plucking of strings or the beating of a membrane. But according to Indian philosophy there is yet another type of sound which is the source of the first, anahata nada, cosmic sound. This is sound that is potential, thought but not expressed. This cosmic sound is perceptible only to the poet or the rishi; the unstruck sound which vibrates in space without a cause, the sound that is produced from the ether. Unlike the western notion of sound, this is not sound that comes from vibration; this is the sound that causes the vibration that in turn sets all life in motion. The anahata nada is also the sound of devotion and concentration, the sound that the yogi hears in deep meditation whose function is to liberate the soul. There is no sound in the external world that corresponds to this internal one, but it is said that all other sound comes out of this, the unstruck sound. We might say that the most primal reality of shabda is Nada Brahma, the sound of God, or God-as-Sound, the form of the formless. And that sound, the sound of Nada-Brahman, the sound of the sphota, the God-sound is OM.

God's manifesting symbol Is the word of glory OM.

And the first and last sound heard by the enlightened is OM.

When you worship God with form, you must have a name for Him. The last word the yogi hears before passing into the final condition of illumination is OM; when he passes out of it and comes to his senses again, the first word he hears is OM. Call Him what you please, but OM is His universal name.

All ahata nada, struck sound, is a manifestation of the unstruck sound, the anahata nada, that is to say of the OM. OM is the symbol of sphota, God as eternal Word. And since a symbol can never be separated from the thing signified, as both Western and Indian philosophy teach, so OM and sphota (God as Word) are one. Sonically, the mantra OM--and it actually is a mantra, the shortest of mantras--is made up of three sounds, A-U-M, and is thought to be the generalized symbol of all possible sounds, representing the whole phenomenon of sound production. As Vivekananda writes, even though any word symbol that tries to express the inexpressible sphota is going to particularize it in such a way that it will no longer be the sphota, still OM is its truest symbol because the combination of these three specific sounds, A-U-M, particularizes it the least and at the same time most approximately expresses its nature. So when Hindus begin and end every prayer with OM, they are beginning and ending with the Nada- Brahman, the God sound, or God-as-Sound.

It is the last support, it is the highest support; the one who knows it attains to Brahman. (Katha Up., 2.17)

"God spoke it came to be, God commanded, it sprang into being." What did God say? OM. The word that is with God, and in some way is God, through which all things come into being.

__The Word__

What do Christians mean when and if they chant the OM? Many, certainly Fr. Bede, and Le Saux and Monchanin before him, saw a foreshadowing of the Trinity in these three syllables. But it is not a very far stretch to see specifically the Christ as the Word hidden here; one can hardly avoid the similarity between the OM and the Word of Christianity, especially since both are associated with Creation. First of all from the Hebrew tradition, as Gerard van Rad points out, the Hebrews, too, like the Greeks, regarded language, composed of sounds, as possessing a creative power of it own to conjure things up. Language does not just convey meaning for the Hebrew; the very melodiousness and rhythm of the sound of language affect human beings even in their physical nature. So the spoken word does not serve only a phonetic purpose; it operates as a rhythmic and musical force at the same time as operating as language. It is “rational art-material which is shaped for it own sake.” In other words, Israel was convinced that the word possessed creative power, and the word of YHWH even more so, since it towers incomparably high above mere mortal words. So Moses insists that the people should not think of the Lord's word as empty, as does Isaiah.

"So shall my word be that goes forth from my mouth; it shall not return to me void, but shall do my will, achieving the end for which I sent it. And the psalmist says that

By God's word the heavens were made; by a breath of his mouth all the stars. . . . For God spoke it came to be; God commanded and it stood forth ."

And Psalm 147 says that the Lord "calls the stars by name". The divine word is an event, a happening in history. Just as sphota is the eternal Word without division, the cause of the world, the essential and eternal material of all names and ideas, the power through which the Lord creates the Universe, and is in truth itself Brahman, so in the Christian tradition we speak of Jesus as that Word that God speaks, the logos, and of course John begins his Gospel this way:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. And the Word became flesh and lived among us. . .

Could we justifiably translate John's prologue, In the beginning was the sphota? Certainly Le Saux would have us do so, he who found such "power and light" in the manifestation of the Word under the form of the Upanishadic OM. In his diary he translates the prologue of John into Sanskrit: agre OM as it. . .

In the beginning was the OM, and OM was in Brahman, and the Om was Brahman. All things were made through him and for him … Om was made flesh. He continues to speak of the OM resounding everywhere, not only in the Upanishads and Shaivite ritual, but in Christian liturgies and the in Bible, especially in the psalms, in a particularly moving passage, where he says it is "the groan of the afflicted, the song of the contented, anger at evil, the fervent appeal, the act of trust, of love." Christ is the Word, the sphota, made flesh, the Word that was made flesh to dwell among us, with the power to burst forth and manifest the source, the Father. “Through the vibratory power of the OM, God created and sustains the entire universe” and Paul sings in the canticle from the letter to the Colossions, “Through him all things were made; he holds all creation together in himself.” The Western monastic saint Hildegarde of Bingen writes: “The Son is in the Father that same way that a word is in a sound” , and the second Eucharistic Prayer for reconciliation of the Roman Rite affirms, “Christ is the Word through whom you made the Universe.” So OM, for the Christian, is the sound of the Word becoming manifest, the song of Jesus, the mantra of Christ who is the Word made flesh, the sound of the Word creating the universe through, with and in Christ, or, dare we say, the Word as the Christ creating the Universe. Abhishiktananda again writes of OM in Prayer,

In the symbol of its three elements merging in a single sound, some have seen a kind of forshadowing of the mystery of the Trinity. With equal justification we could recognize in the OM that Word which eternally proceeds from the silence of the Father. … It is in that same Word, made human flesh, mind and word in Jesus Christ, that all our prayer and worship ascends to the Almighty.

__The Silence__

The quote above by Abhshiktananda continues:

But even in a Christian interpretation of OM, it is always in the first place a symbol of God's ineffability, the very last step in our ascent towards him that is capable of outward expression.

The Maitri Upanishad (6,22) teaches

There are two ways of knowing reality: one is through sound and the other is through silence. It is through sound that we arrive at silence.

It continues to teach that the syllable OM is the Sound Brahma that the body uses like an arrow, with the mind as the point of the arrow; and, switching to visual images, darkness is the mark, that which is soundless, immortal and enduring, Eckhart's "abyss of the Godhead". In a similar vein Joseph Campbell in his video interview with Bill Moyers taught that the OM is called the “four syllable element”:

What is the fourth element? A-U-M and the silence out of which it comes, back into which it goes and which underlies it. Now my life is the A-U-M but there is a slience that underlies it and that is what we call the immortal.

So, just as the sound comes from the silence, who is God, it is meant to return to the silence who is God. Silence is the source and summit of all sound, speech and music. The Upanishads teach that we can simply take the path of silence, hoping to attain the state wherein we, like the rishis, can hear the anahata nada, the cosmic, unstruck sound. Or, what the Indian understanding makes so very clear, sound itself is capable of leading us to the silence, especially bhajans, mantras, the chanting of the sacred texts. This, though perhaps not articulated often in the west, is certainly not completely foreign to great musicians. Here are few of the quotes I have collected over the years regarding music: from Josef Levine, the pianist: "Music is painted upon a canvas of silence"; from Marcel Marceau, the French mime: "Music and silence combine strongly because music is done with silence, and silence is full of music." And my favorite is this from the great late pianist Arthur Schnabel who says of himself: "The notes I handle no better than many pianists. But the pauses between the notes--ah, that is where the art resides!" This is a very particular concept to the Hindu, "the space between the notes." It is called sandhya. What I found fascinating is the double meaning of the word sandhya. First of all it is the space between the sounds, notes or words. But also the traditional Indian spiritual practice is to observe three times a day when the devout stop for prayer, the threshold times of dawn, midday and sunset. These times are also called sandhya, and are always associated with the Gaiytri mantra, sung by our brothers and sisters at Shantivanam for the morning, midday and evening liturgies: Om bhur bhuva svaha. . .

What have we to learn or remember in all of this? In short, first of all, that this is what our liturgies, our prayer times, are meant to be--sandhya, threshold times, times in between. Even more, that our music, especially our sacred music (as if there were any other kind!) is meant to come out of the silence, grow from our listening, and should avail itself of the power to lead us back there as well, to the place or state in which we can await the sound of God creating the cosmos through the OM, because all sound ultimately has its source in the Word. My monastic prejudice will perhaps shine through if I say I think especially of the Christian chant tradition (including but not only Gregorian) and the so-called monastic style of liturgy in general (which is none other, it seems to me, than a contemplative approach to ritual), with its intentionality, its obligatory pauses, its focus on the Word, and attention to pace and flow. All designed simply to bear in mind how especially powerful are those sounds created by we human beings, because they are intentionally focussed releases of energy, whether in music or in speech, above all in music carrying sacred texts. What might the lessons of our friends from India, as well as the monastic/contemplative style of liturgy, have to offer western popular religiosity? At least the reminder that our music at its best is meant to be the Word Itself once again made flesh, thanks to our lips and strings and tongues and fingers.