Why Bother With Sanskrit Chants?

If you're bungling your Sanskrit, you may as well recite the phone book as chant a sacred mantra.

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If you’re bungling your Sanskrit, you may as well recite the phone book as chant a sacred mantra.

Have you ever followed your teacher in a Sanskrit chant thinking, “What the heck does this mean?” or even, “Can we skip this and get right to the postures?” Of course, once you understand something it always has more meaning. And if you’re a yogi, it’s worth gaining some understanding of this ancient tongue.

Why Speak Sanskrit?

In India, Sanskrit is considered a divine language—spoken by gods and capable of connecting mere mortals with the transcendent Self. Millions of Indians dutifully recite Sanskrit mantras daily, including what’s possibly the most famous of all, the Gayatri Mantra, found in the venerable Rig Veda. It means, according to Georg Feuerstein’s translation, “Let us contemplate that beautiful splendor of the divine Savitri [solar god], that he may inspire our visions.” Reverence for Sanskrit mantras, repetition of which is considered one of the great paths to transformation, has been adopted by many Western yogis—either in the form of invocations before asana practice, kirtan (chanting), or japa (mantra repetition).

According to tradition, the mantra’s efficacy depends on proper pronunciation—so if you botch that vowel sound, your efforts may be for naught. The word sanskrit means “well or completely formed; purified, hallowed; refined, polished.” And the essential meaning of each word or even of each letter in the Sanskrit alphabet (every one of which is considered a bija, or seed mantra) is said to be created by or contained in its sound. Given the importance of the sound, Vedic priests designate one of four officiating priests at a ritual offering to be something like a referee, responsible for catching and immediately correcting any mispronunciations, so as not to invalidate the ceremony.

Also seeBeginner’s Guide to Common Yoga Chants

How to Learn Sanskrit Mantras

Given today’s shortage of Sanskrit speakers—even in its heyday, several thousand years ago, the language was known only to a small clique of educated elite—what’s an American mantra aficionado to do? Check out Sounds of the Chakras with Harish Johari. Johari, who died in 1999 at the age of 65, has impeccable enunciation and he both educates and elevates listeners with this invaluable pronunciation guide for the 50 Sanskrit letters. This CD, a companion to his Chakras: Energy Centers of Transformation, is meant to take you on an aural tour of the chakras and is a valuable tool for students interested in Sanskrit and traditional Tantric meditation.

For a beautiful rendition of some of the great mantras, including the seed mantras of each of the major chakras, the seed mantras for each of the 12 “stations” in Sun Salutation, the Gayatri Mantra, the Purusha Mantra, the Sanskrit alphabet, and the dozen primary seed mantras of Tantra, check out Nada Om Mantra with Rani Didi.

Nada means “sound,” but in the yoga lexicon it implies a subtle “inner sound” heard only in the higher planes of meditation and said to produce a “plenitude of bliss” (Hatha Yoga Pradipika 4.81). The sounds on this CD are so enthralling it’s easy to see why many people find recitation so powerfully transformative.

Also seeKirtan 101: Can You Say “Om Namah Shivaya”?