What is chanting?
Chanting is a practice found in every spiritual tradition; it is the musical repetition of the names of God or deities from that tradition.
In India chanting is known as namasankirtana—singing the divine name. Namasankirtana is a devotional practice that is usually done in a group, in a call-and-response fashion, with musical accompaniment. One can also practice namasankirtana individually and a cappella.
On the Siddha Yoga path, namasankirtana—chanting—is one of the four core practices; the others are meditation, seva, and dakshina. The Siddha Yoga practice of chanting is a powerful means to experience the divine within.
Why are Siddha Yoga chants in the Sanskrit, Hindi, and Marathi languages?
Many of the scriptures and mantras that are recited and chanted on the Siddha Yoga path have their origins in the Sanskrit language of India. Philosophically and scientifically, the syllables of the Sanskrit language have been credited with holding powerful sound vibrations that have beneficial effects on the one reciting them as well as their surroundings.
The pure sounds of this sacred language were first heard thousands of years ago by great yogis while in deep meditation. These yogis rendered the sounds they heard into the letters of the Sanskrit alphabet.
Gurumayi Chidvilasananda and Baba Muktananda have extolled the lives of the great saints of all traditions. The poet-saints of India were prolific composers, and wrote many devotional songs, known as bhajans in the Hindi language and abhangas in the Marathi language. Gurumayi and Baba have added their own translations, melodic refinements, and musical arrangements of these songs.
Through Gurumayi and Baba’s appreciation of and faith in the wisdom of these great beings, numerous chants, hymns, and devotional songs in Hindi and Marathi have become part of the canon of Siddha Yoga music.
Why does the music ensemble sing first and everyone else respond?
In the Indian tradition, singing in a call-and-response fashion is one of the ways of chanting, or practicing namasankirtana. In a namasankirtana satsang, the lead singer is called the kirtankar. The kirtankar narrates stories about incarnations of God—as deities, great beings, and avataras—and sings the verses and hymns written in their praise or written by them.
On the Siddha Yoga path, the music ensemble plays the part of the kirtankar—explaining the meaning and importance of the chant, educating the chanters about the raga (the scale of musical notes upon which the melody is created), and establishing the melody and rhythm by singing first. The other participants in the namasankirtana sing the response.
Chanting in a call-and-response fashion has many benefits; it allows chanters to listen intently, it encourages the group to sing in a unified voice, and it gives the voice rest while others are chanting.
Why are the same words repeated over and over?
In the practice of chanting namasankirtana, repetition focuses one’s mind and energy on the names and qualities of God. The one-pointed focus achieved through repetition can support the chanter in becoming immersed in the sacred sound vibrations and in experiencing the qualities inherent in the names being sung. This calms the mind and leads it into meditation easily.
Is it important to know the meaning of the words of the chant?
Understanding the meaning of the words of the chant heightens one’s experience of the divine qualities of the chant. However, the power of chanting can be felt whether or not you know the exact meaning of the words.
I prefer meditation over chanting. Is that okay?
On the Siddha Yoga path, one of the purposes of chanting is to focus the energies of the body and mind in preparation for meditation. In this way, engaging in the practice of chanting can strengthen your practice of meditation. That said, each individual has their preferences and, at various times, may focus on a specific practice.
Sometimes I start to go into meditation during a chant. Is it more beneficial to go into meditation or to keep chanting?
Both practices—meditation and chanting—have power. Sometimes during meditation, a meditator may want to start chanting; sometimes during chanting, a chanter may be drawn into meditation. These practices do complement each other. Focus on the Siddha Yoga practice that you have chosen to do, and you will notice how this ability to focus will support you in everything you do.
How can I explain why I chant to friends and family who are unfamiliar with the practice?
Most people understand the joy of singing. If you lead with that—how you feel good when you sing and how you have discovered the benefits of chanting—then you will be able to convey the positive effects that you experience through this practice.
I am a university student, and I’m uncomfortable chanting or listening to chants, because my roommates do not practice Siddha Yoga. What can I do?
It's wonderful that you are a considerate roommate! You can listen to recordings of chants with headphones. Listening and chanting along in your mind is one way to practice chanting. You may want to plan times to chant when your roommates are not at home. You may also schedule time to attend satsangs held at a Siddha Yoga Ashram, meditation center, or chanting and meditation group in your area.
What is the difference between chanting and mantra japa?
On the Siddha Yoga path mantra japa is the practice of repeating – either silently or aloud – the mantra, the sacred syllables received from one's Guru. Mantra japa is done by oneself; it can be practiced by using a japa mala or japa ring. In chanting, the divine names are sung – alone or with other likeminded people.
During a chant, does clapping or dancing bring about a more blissful experience?
It's not that clapping or dancing brings about a more blissful experience, per se; however, the spiritual practice of chanting engages the full body. It is natural that, when a person dives into the vibrations of the chant, the body may find expression for this experience. For example, a chanter may clap in the rhythm of the music, or begin dancing. And at the same time, Gurumayi and Baba have taught chanters to focus on the blissful vibrations that arise during the chant and the movement of the energy within themselves, and learn to assimilate the power of the chant.
I find my mind wanders when the lead group is chanting. What can I do to stay present?
Even if your mind does wander, know that it is wandering in the vibrations of the chant. Therefore, you are imbibing the power of the chant, by virtue of being present.
Can I chant when I am feeling upset or sad, or do I need to be feeling happy?
The practice of chanting is for everyone and for every mood. If you are upset or sad, the power of the chant will uplift you; if you are feeling happy already, the power of the chant will make you soar even more. You can chant no matter what you are feeling, and you will find that the chant has the power to break all shackles.
Can chanting take away the stress I feel in my busy life?
One of the ways a person can become free from stress is by ensuring that there is discipline in their life. There is no shortcut to this. If you are disciplined in making time to chant, then certainly you will notice that chanting takes away the stress you feel in your busy life.