In ancient times words and music were used to attain an altered state of mind. Music was an aid to develop the mind, spirit, emotions and sensitivity. In this modern age different forms of music have developed, like rock, heavy metal, jazz, etc., but until recent times music was used not to please the mind but to tranquillize the agitations of the mind.
—Swami Niranjanananda Saraswati
In the beginning:
"In the beginning was Brahman, with whom was the Word. And the Word is Brahman."
"In the beginning was the Word, and the word was with God and the word was God."
New Testament, The Gospel of St John
Hinduism and Christianity obviously agree that in the beginning was the Word. There are many words: the Sounds of the Cosmos, Primal Vibration, the Logos, the Music of the Spheres, the Word, Celestial Harmonics, the One Tone, and many more. All of these concepts are included within the Sanskrit term Om or Aum.
The Word and Om are the same. There are other 'words' used by different cultures from ancient times which refer to the same universal concept: Aum, Amn, Amen, Ameen, Omen, Omon, I am, Hu, Yahuvah. The Creation in the book of Genesis took six days and nights and has to be taken allegorically to be understood. "And God said, Let there be light, and there was light. And God said . . . And God said . . . and it was so." The essential ingredient is that God 'spoke' in some form of sound or vibration from higher dimensions of reality. The Sumerians believed the gods to have created the Universe with their 'higher commands'. Similarly, the Hebrews, the Celts, the Chinese, the Egyptians the American Indians and the Quecha Maya all have myths which talk of sound and sacred words being the essential ingredients of creation.
Many ancient cultures believed that the musical scale mirrored the seven major tones of cosmic sound. A Gnostic Egyptian text states allegorically that in the beginning God 'laughed' seven times: "Ha - Ha - Ha - Ha - Ha - Ha - Ha God laughed and from those seven laughs seven Gods sprang up which embraced the whole universe: these were the first Gods."
The English Bible phrase 'Lord God' is actually a very poor translation of the Hebrew word Elohim. The original Hebrew version has it that Creation was due to the Gods of the Seven Tones.
"And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us."
In many religions of the world the Second Person of the Trinity is equated with the Word of God becoming incarnate. In the New Testament of the Bible there are many references to Jesus being the Word. It is interesting to note that the Latin word sonus became both the English word son and the French word son meaning sound. The Word, meaning both sound and son, indicates both vibration or God and consciousness or the Son. In Hindu scriptures, Vishnu, the second person of the Trinity, is also called 'the Voice' or the 'Great Singer'. It was Vishnu who incarnated in the form of Krishna and enchanted the Gopis with his flute-playing. In this story, the Gopis represent the human senses attached to worldly things. Krishna's flute symbolizes Om, with which the world was created.
In Egyptian history, Thoth is described as God's deputy whom God, in the form of Ra, brought into being by his word. Then Thoth steps down the vibratory frequencies of the One to the level of earthly materialism. There are accounts of Thoth, like Christ, having lived on Earth. Thoth was the name of Hermes Trismegistus, who was 'the inventor of music' and who wrote books on Egyptian chants.
We often assume that these ancient accounts of creation being the result of sound and vibration refer to events that happened many years ago. But the whole teaching of these scriptures stresses that this process of creation is ever present. It is as important today as it has ever been.
Thus the practice of nada yoga, of becoming more and more aware of the vibrations of our being, from the most gross to the most subtle and divine, is an ever-present reminder of who we are, where we are, and where we are going.
The Sanskrit word nada means sound or flow and yoga means union. Therefore, the practices of nada yoga can be understood as union through sound or the flow of sound. Nada yoga incorporates all forms of sound or music. This science of sound involves becoming aware not only of audible frequencies but also of frequencies that are inaudible to our ears. It is said that this path of yoga is the one to which all forms of yoga eventually lead.
The Hatha Yoga Pradipika, after describing the practices for yogic development such as asanas, pranayama, shatkarmas and bandhas, devotes much of its final chapter 'Samadhi' to the practices of nada yoga, which is referred to as laya yoga: "There are one and a quarter crore ways told by Sri Adinath to attain laya, but we think the one and only thing is nada anusandhana or the exploration of nada." (HYP, 5:66)
It is important at this stage to differentiate between the two kinds of sound. All sounds which we hear through our ears are the result of two objects striking each other. This is obvious when we think of clapping or drumming and other such percussive sounds, but more subtle when the interaction between the two surfaces is not so obvious - the sound of the wind in the grass, the wide range of sounds we are capable of producing with our voices, for instance, due to the effect of air hitting our vocal cords. These sounds are called ahata sounds or struck sounds.
Then we have the unstruck sounds or the anahata sounds. These sounds have no discernible source and are heard from within. The more subtle nada yoga practices are focused on these inner sounds. It has been said that when the mind becomes so absorbed in that sound that one is no longer listening to it, but vibrating in unison with it, then the final stage of laya yoga, Nada Brahman or Oneness with God/Sound is achieved.
Whilst it is true that it can take many years, even lifetimes, of spiritual practice to achieve this ultimate union with the Divine, we can and do catch glimpses of it in our daily yoga practice and living. The practices of mantra chanting, kirtan and bhajan singing are much more easily accessible and provide a springboard from which we can delve into sound and consciousness. This branch of nada yoga represents the technical, vibratory aspect of sacred chants. Through their positive vibrations they affect the different koshas and harmonize our physical, pranic and more subtle bodies. This is experienced daily and is one of the reasons why kirtan is so popular.
For many spiritual aspirants, singing, mantra chanting, kirtan and bhajans are part of a process of finding out 'who am I.' The human voice is not only a medium with which we communicate with others, it is also a medium with which we communicate with ourselves. Our voices are within us and outside of us at the same time. It is not possible to make any sound which does not vibrate within our bodies, our psyche and our souls. The smallest, softest, quietest sounds vibrate within us at the deepest level. Many religions attest to the power of silent repetition as a powerful means of prayer. Singing and chanting is a powerful method of getting in touch with our deepest being and also of communicating with others.
As we saw earlier, the Bible also refers to the power of sound as the ultimate creative force: "In the beginning there was the Word."
Sound then, is a connection to our deepest being, our innermost level of existence. This is true not only on a spiritual level, in terms of a higher consciousness, but also on a more basic evolutionary level. It makes a connection with our lower levels or our animal instincts. This inner journey, like the journey through the chakras, has the capacity to take us not only upwards but downwards as well. Human beings have evolved over many millions of years and we are animals of instinct. We operate on many basic levels. Our ability to touch our basic animal instincts is mirrored by our ability to move upwards into the lighter, finer and more subtle energies of our higher selves. When singing, many people find that exploring the deeper bass notes of our vocal range facilitates our opening to sounds at the other end of the register - going deeper to get higher. This is one reason why in India many classical vocal teachers encourage students to go deeper with their voices only after many years of practice. It works the other way round as well. Having explored high sounds for a while it seems to help the voice to go deeper.
It is worth remembering that when we come into this world we are given the same vocal instrument. Two open tubes which begin at the lips and the nostrils open up into the mouth and nasal passages, joining together at the back of the mouth, curving downwards into the throat where it widens into the larynx. The larynx contains what are known as the vocal chords. A more accurate description would be the vocal folds, two flaps of tissue attached to the Adam's apple, or thyroid cartilage, at the front, and to two movable cartilages called the arytenoids at the back. The hole through which the air passes between the vocal folds is called the glottis. The vocal folds are able to open and close hundreds of times per second, thus creating vibrations in the air, which then passes out of our body and is received by the membranes in the nearest passing ears, including our own, and translated into sound.
We are born to sing. The sounds that we make in the first months of our life are universal. It is not possible to distinguish between babies of different cultures or nationalities through listening to the sounds that they make. This is a valuable time in the development of our musical awareness. It is only when children begin to grow and learn to speak that their voices take on the particular sounds of different languages. For researchers like the pioneering psychologist Howard Gardner, this learning to speak often involves the simultaneous loss of song. As small babies our singing voices are welcomed and given free reign. Acquisition of speech and language make overwhelming demands on the small child and free vocal spontaneity and expression are often sacrificed.
When we sing we are engaging with ourselves at physical, mental, emotional and spiritual levels. Musical nada yoga practice is more than learning about vocal technique; we are celebrating, finding out and working with who we are. Singing is at the heart an inner journey, an investigation, experience and expression of who we are. On that journey we meet different aspects of ourselves, all of which have to some extent been shaped by our life's journey. It is very much a physical journey. Our voice resonates, is sounded and grounded in our body. It is about relationships and what we sound like, alone and together. Ultimately, it is about merging into one voice and re-emerging as individuals.
It is no coincidence that the act of singing is so connected with the act of breathing. Most of us live our lives allowing our breathing to remain the unconscious process which it is. It is not something we have to think about very much and for many people the only time they become aware of their breath is when they are OUT of it. Just as our heart beats throughout our life without any conscious effort on our part, so our breathing continues even as we sleep. Our breathing process, however, presents us with a wonderful opportunity, for it is something which we can consciously influence. We can stop our breathing for a short while, we can quicken it, slow it down, take a deep breath, breathe lightly, breathe a light sigh of relief and practice our heavy breathing when we desire. Therefore, breathing is capable of being both a conscious and an unconscious process, and as such is a valuable connection with our conscious and unconscious being.
The famous Sufi leader, Hazrat Inayat Khan, who was a renowned master of the music of northern India before he came to the West to spread Sufism, says, "When we study the science of breath the first thing we notice is that breath is audible, it is a word in itself, for what we call a word is only a more pronounced utterance of breath fashioned by the mouth and tongue. In the capacity of the mouth breath becomes voice, and therefore the original condition of a word is breath. If we said 'First was the breath', it would be the same as saying, 'In the beginning was the Word.'"
The act of singing makes us much more aware of our breathing. Nada yoga, as part of our ongoing sadhana, is even more dependent on improving our awareness and practice of breathing. It is well worth remembering that the Greek word psyche, meaning soul, has the same root as the word psychein, meaning to breathe. The Greek word pneuma means both spirit and wind, thus reinforcing an understanding of the body's intimate connection with breath, vibration and sound.
Hazrat Inayat Khan says, "The shortest way to attain to spiritual heights is by singing." When we are happy, we sing. When we are sad, we sing. Happiness can lead to song and singing can help us cope with sadness, pain, and suffering. 'Chasing away the blues' is a way of honouring, acknowledging our feelings, thus allowing us to reconnect with our natural state of happiness. There is a simple physical explanation of this process. Singing establishes a full, easy pattern of breathing and encourages release of the muscular system, with all the benefits of stress alleviation. It is a way of expressing our feelings and of linking up with other people and the world around us. This is true for all of us. Even atheists sing!
For those of us on a spiritual path, singing has an extra dimension. We are harnessing this principal of vibration, tuning our bodies and minds, and uniting back with the sources - and so realizing God or Aum or Truth. The process takes us to this state of realization and involves purification and refinement of all the systems of the body. And according to yoga philosophy we are not just talking of our physical body, the annamaya kosha, but of the other four bodies or koshas as well.
One of the easiest ways for us to move towards and experience this state of bliss is kirtan.
The kirtan that we know and practice is said to have been born in Bengal with the birth of Sri Chaitanya, thought to have been an incarnation of Krishna/Vishnu. Sri Chaitanya was a saint who wandered throughout the state of Bengal, singing the stories of the life of Krishna. He was a great bhakta, losing himself in devotion and entering into long states of samadhi while singing. His great instruction was to practice kirtan, particularly the Mahamantra.
One of the modern day revivers of kirtan is Swami Sivananda. He regularly held kirtan wherever he went and wrote profusely on the subject. He said, "Sankirtan is the easiest, surest, safest, quickest way for attaining God-consciousness." Swami Satyananda has also done much to revive and maintain the tradition, and Swami Niranjanananda continues this practice.
In the story of Krishna and the Gopis, Krishna symbolizes the transcendental consciousness and the flute symbolizes the nada yoga practices. The Gopis symbolize the five senses attracted by the sound of the flute. They cease to be attracted by the objects of the exterior world as they are drawn towards Krishna. There are four levels of sound in nada yoga.
Nadanusandhana, the practices of nada yoga, swara sadhana, singing the notes of the musical scale: sa re ga ma pa dha ni sa, brahmari pranayama, shanmukhi mudra and nada sanchalana are all practices of nada yoga.
The Nadabindu Upanishad, from the Rigveda describes the sounds that you might hear in meditation:" At first, the sounds are like those proceeding from the ocean, clouds, kettle drum, and cataracts, in the middle (stage) those proceeding from 'mardala' (a musical instrument), bell and horn. At the last stage, those proceeding from tinkling bells, flute, vina (a musical instrument), and bells. Thus he hears many such sounds more and more subtle." It is said that one hears these sounds as if in the right ear.
The Hamsa Upanishad describes ten different types of sounds heard in the various stages of nada yoga: (i) chini nada - like the sound of the word 'chini'; (ii) chini-chini nada - like the sound of the word 'chini chini'; (iii) ghanta nada - the sound of bells ringing; (iv) shankha nada- the sound of a conch being blown; (v) tantri nada - the sound of a lute (tantri) or vina; (vi) tala nada- the sound of cymbals; (vii) bansuri nada- the sound of a flute; (viii) bheri nada - the echoing sound of a drum; (ix) mridanga nada - the sound of a double drum; (x) megha nada - the roar of thunder, the ultimate sound.
The message of the ancient myths of creation is ever present. Creation is not something that happened millions of years ago. It is happening now and it is an ongoing process. We create every time we have a thought, move a muscle or speak and sing - especially sing.