Welcome to Study Session VI.
My name is Swami Akhandananda. I am a Siddha Yoga monk, and I serve as the Managing Director for these study sessions focused on svādhyāya, the study of the Self.
In the Indian spiritual tradition, today is the final day of Navaratri, the nine nights in celebration of the Goddess, the Devi. Today is the third and final night on which Mahasarasvati, the goddess of knowledge, speech, and the arts, is honored and worshiped.
Tomorrow there is another celebration in honor of the Devi called Dasera, which literally means “tenth day.” In India, Dasera marks the victory of the Goddess over the forces of darkness, egoism, and ignorance after a nine-day battle, thus restoring light, truth, and dharma—righteousness—in the world. How fitting that at this auspicious time we are immersing ourselves in svādhyāya—study of the Self. The knowledge of the Self brings the light of Truth into our lives.
Several participants in these study sessions have had questions about reciting Shrī Guru Gītā. Thank you for these questions.
I’d like to address one question from a Siddha Yogi who asked: “Are the benefits the same if Shrī Guru Gītā is whispered or recited silently? Sometimes one is in a circumstance where singing out loud is not possible.” Several participants had similar questions about whether it is okay to recite Shrī Guru Gītā softly or mentally.
The answer is yes; it is fine to recite Shrī Guru Gītā in a soft voice, in a whisper, or silently if that is what is appropriate for the circumstances you are in and also what is possible and healthy for your voice. Regarding vocal health, I want to mention that whispering is quite tiring for the voice, particularly if you are hoarse, so reciting in a soft voice or silently is preferable when you are not able to recite in a full voice.
I would encourage you to pay attention to how you recite so that you don’t strain your voice. For example, if you find you can recite only part of the text aloud before your voice becomes tired, you can recite the rest silently. Or if you have chosen to recite all of the verses fully, you may find it is useful to sing only half of each verse and rest your voice for the other half. Experiment and find what works best for you.
The focus of this study session today is listening as an aspect of svādhyāya. Today you will be learning about the significant role of listening in the recitation of sacred texts. And later in the study session, you will be practicing methods for further developing your listening ability as it pertains to reciting Shrī Guru Gītā.
I will begin by speaking about how the scriptural tradition of India describes the role that hearing or listening plays in the study of the scriptures. Listening is at the heart of svādhyāya—study of the Self.
The earliest scriptures of India, the Vedas, are revered as revealed scriptures. They are specifically referred to as shruti, which literally means “hearing, ” or “listening,” in that these scriptures were originally revealed to—or heard by—the ancient rishis, the seers, in a state of samadhi, absorption in the Self.
Today, we have written versions of the Vedas; however, originally, and for many centuries, the Vedas were imparted from teacher to student exclusively in spoken form. There was no such thing as a written text.
A student learned the Vedas by listening intently to the teacher’s recitation and then repeating what was heard—including the exact pitch, emphasis, and rhythm. Students would listen and repeat—over and over again—until they could recite the mantras by heart and the verses of the Vedas became a living part of their being. Accordingly, a learned Brahmin is addressed as “Vedamurti”—one who embodies the Vedas.
Even today this method of verbal instruction—listening intently and repeating what is heard—is adhered to in Vedashalas, the schools where young Brahmin priests are trained in the Vedas. Thus, when it comes to the study of the teachings of the Guru and the scriptures, it is the act of “listening” that is fundamental.
The philosophy of Vedānta teaches a three-step methodology for such study. And it all starts with listening, or shravana in Sanskrit. The Sanskrit dictionary defines shravana as “the act of hearing” and also “acquiring knowledge by hearing.”1
This method is first referred to by the Vedic sage Yajnavalkya in the Brihadārnyaka Upanishad.2 Commenting on this method of study many millenia later, the sage Shankaracharya emphasizes the importance of listening to the Truth first from a realized teacher and from the scriptures before putting it into practice.
These three steps of studying and learning according to Vedānta consist of the following:
- shravana—listening to the teaching from one’s teacher and scriptures
- manana— contemplating in order to understand what one has heard
- nidhidhyāsana—meditating on the teachings so as to make the teachings one’s direct experience, so that the teaching becomes a living reality
There is an old English saying: “Knowledge is a treasure, but practice is the key to it.” This is a perfect proverb for svādhyāya. The wisdom contained in the scriptures and in the teachings of the great beings is truly the most precious treasure. That said, we access this wisdom—we understand its value and know its transformative power—only when we practice the teachings and make them part of our own being. “Practice” in this context means both the outer effort of reciting and following the teachings, and also the inner effort of immersing our intellect and hearts in the teachings so that they become our lived experience. Svādhyāya requires this kind of practice. The threefold method of learning and studying in Vedānta acknowledges this. Once the teachings are heard, they must be reflected upon and applied—that is, practiced.
Again, the first crucial step in your practice is shravana. Shravana, listening, is also considered of utmost importance because if you do not hear the teaching accurately and with the intent it is given, then your approach to the steps to contemplate and meditate on the teaching will be misguided.
Shravana requires the student’s mind, heart, and intention to be fully concentrated on receiving the teachings. What does listening involve? Your posture must be in proper alignment to support the mind’s ability to focus and be in the present moment. Your breathing needs to be steady and even, so as to settle the mind and prevent distracting thoughts. In these ways your posture and breath support the mind to be completely focused so that you can hear the teachings exactly as they are imparted, free of your own projections or preconditioned mental concepts.
To further strengthen your ability to listen with your entire being, you can mentally remind yourself of your purpose in studying the knowledge of the Self, and invite all parts of your being—your posture, breath, mind, and heart—to support you in listening. Stating this purpose to yourself can help to unify all parts of your being to support focused listening—shravana.
In his writings, Shankaracharya extols the power of listening even further, noting that for rare people, even just hearing once the mahāvakya, the “great truth,” tat tvam asi, “Thou art that,” is enough for them to fully internalize its full meaning.3 Shankaracharya is teaching here that from the act of listening alone, it is possible to fully realize the immortal Self as one’s true nature and thus become liberated.
So, in accord with the scriptures, seekers of the Truth must cultivate and develop a keen ability to listen—to listen to the teachings as they are imparted by the teacher and the scriptures, as well as to listen with great focus to the mantras in the recitation of sacred texts.
On the Siddha Yoga path, we cultivate the power of listening as an essential part of reciting sacred texts such as Shrī Guru Gītā. We cultivate the power of listening because the power and meaning of the mantras are conveyed through their sound. This is true even if we’re reciting the text in a soft voice or mentally—that is, silently, to ourselves.
The Vijnanabhairava, a revealed Shaiva scripture containing 112 meditation techniques, teaches other approaches to listening as a means to study and realize the Self. This scripture states that when you utter a sacred mantra or sound such as AUM, you should listen to the vibration as it continues resonating at ever subtler levels and extends beyond the physical or audible sound. This resonance ultimately resolves back into its source—which is the Self—and will carry your awareness with it.4 The Vijnanabhairava also teaches that listening with profound inner attention to any sound, such as the sound of musical instruments or of a waterfall, can also reveal the Self.5, 6
Based on the principles taught in yogic texts such as the Vijnanabhairava, when you recite Shrī Guru Gītā while listening attentively to the sound and resonance of the mantras, you can absorb yourself in the energy these sounds embody. This energy then draws your awareness inward toward the source of the mantras, which is the supreme Self.
At the end of reciting Shrī Guru Gītā, you may have found that your awareness is naturally drawn deep within. You enter the calm, tranquil, expansive presence of the Self. This is the fruit of listening with intent, with focused attention, as you recite a sacred text.
From the wisdom of the scriptures we can understand how listening is of great relevance to sādhanā —and specifically, to svādhyāya. Later in this session you’ll engage in methods for strengthening your listening skills that you will then apply to the recitation of Shrī Guru Gītā.
In these study sessions you have been learning and studying how svādhyāya purifies and expands the energies contained in the chakras, the subtle energy centers in your being. The chakras lie along the central channel, the sushumna nādī, which runs from the base of the spine to the crown of the head in the subtle body. The subtle body permeates the physical body and supplies the physical body with prāna, or life force, through a network of nādīs, or subtle nerve channels. Once Kundalini Shakti is awakened by the Guru’s grace, this divine energy rises up the sushumna nādī, purifying each of the chakras and, through the network of nādīs, our entire being. Svādhyāya nurtures this process of purification.
As you have learned, each of the first five chakras is the seat of one of the five elements.
- The mūlādhāra chakra, at the base of the spine, is the seat of the element earth.
- The svādhishthāna chakra, at the level of the sacrum, is the seat of water.
- The manipūra chakra, at the level of the navel, is the seat of fire.
- The anāhata chakra, at the level of the heart, is the seat of air.
- And the vishuddha chakra, in the region of the throat, is the seat of the element ether, or space, and is the focus of study today.
The Sanskrit word vishuddha consists of shuddha, meaning “pure,” and the prefix vi, implying intensity. So the term vishuddha means “extremely pure.” The Shat Chakra Nirūpana, a sixteenth-century Sanskrit compendium on the chakra system, gives as a synonym for vishuddha the word amala, which means “stainless” or “spotless,” as this chakra has the power to purify all the negativities of a yogi. Indeed, when one’s consciousness becomes established in this chakra, it is a sign that one has purified and transcended the negative qualities contained in some of the lower chakras and entered the realm of purity.
Here is a symbolic representation of the vishuddha chakra:
According to the Shiva Samhita, an important fourteenth-century scripture of the Hatha Yoga tradition, the vishuddha chakra has a smoky purple luster.7 Sometimes it is also seen with an intense gold luster. The sixteen petals that encircle it are a darker purple, and on each petal is written, in crimson, one of the sixteen Sanskrit vowels associated with this chakra. These vowels become visible to one who has been purified through yogic practice. The vowels on the petals of the vishuddha chakra are not like the qualities or negative emotions found in the lower chakras. Rather, these vowels are pure mantric sounds, as this center is the abode of mantra.
The vishuddha chakra is the seat of the element of ether, which is represented by the large white circle. In the pericarp within a downward-pointed triangle is a circular mandala called the “sky mandala.” It is said to be resplendently white in color like the full moon. The word sky used in this description refers to the free empty space associated with ether, or as it is called in Sanskrit, ākāsha.
The white lunar region of the sky mandala in the vishuddha chakra is often referred to as the “gateway of the great liberation” for those yogis who have purified and become masters of their senses. Though such a one has gone beyond the passions, there is still a sense of duality. If a yogi at this level continues to be faithful to sādhanā, then their awareness may, in time, rise above and transcend all duality.
The seed or bīja mantra of the vishuddha chakra, written in white, is ham, the bīja mantra for ether. It sits upon its mount, an elephant, which is white as snow.
Each chakra is also associated with a particular sense, and the vishuddha chakra is related to the sense of hearing. The element of ether is closely related to the sense of hearing and sound, as space is the medium through which sound is expressed and travels. So the sense of hearing, as well as power of speaking—which conveys sound through space—is associated with the vishuddha chakra.
The vishuddha chakra is considered the dwelling place of the Goddess Sarasvati, the deity of speech, music, and poetry, whom we are honoring today on this culminating day of Navaratri. Once Kundalini Shakti purifies this chakra, a yogi may gain divine vocal powers. One might become a skilled orator or an inspired poet. Or one’s speech may always convey the truth with no discrepancy between one’s thoughts and words. Also a person can come to express well what they truly mean—which is quite an accomplishment.
According to the Shiva Samhita, the yogi who dissolves his mind in the vishuddha chakra “…goes beyond the external world and absorbs himself in the inner Self. He becomes Lord of all yogis… and the secret meaning of the four Vedas is revealed to him.”8
As I said earlier, listening is an essential aspect of the Siddha Yoga practice of svādhyāya. Listening with focused attention opens you to the spiritual energy embodied in the sacred sounds.
We have a keen interest in these sounds, since they lead us to the goal of svādhyāya—which is to recognize that we are the Self. We want to fully hear them and become absorbed in them. For this we must be fully present, and, therefore, we listen with intent.
In modern English, the word hearing is defined as the process of receiving sound, and listening as paying attention to sound.9 Sound is all around us in our daily lives, yet we are not even aware of much of what we hear because we don’t give it our attention.
As you may know, sound is created when an object vibrates, and these vibrations move through the air in waves that reach your eardrums and send a signal to your brain. Did you know that you actually hear with your entire being? When a sound vibration reaches you, it touches your whole body and causes it to vibrate as well. It literally moves you. From this, you can understand why sound has such powerful effects. This is why we practice focusing on uplifting sounds such as sounds in nature, beautiful music, and the transformative syllables of sacred texts.
I will lead you now in an exercise to support your practice of listening with intent in order to give the sounds your full attention.
You can click on the video player below to listen to the instructions and follow along with them.
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As you practice listening with intent, it will become more easeful and will support you in remaining focused on and becoming immersed in the sacred syllables.
Participants recited verses 123 to 153 from Shrī Guru Gītā while practicing listening with intent and blending their voices.
Soon, Svādhyāya Study Session VI will be concluding.
Let me recap for you the topics you have learned in this study session.
- The philosophical basis of listening, shravana, and its relevance to recitation of sacred texts.
- The characteristics and features of the vishuddha chakra.
- Methods for listening with intent so as to blend your sound with the music and voices while you are reciting Shrī Guru Gītā.
Today’s study session, which is taking place on the culminating day of Navaratri, the festival dedicated to honoring the Devi, will be concluding with a verse from the Kundalinī Stavaha. This hymn from the Rudra Yamala Tantra exalts the great Goddess as Kundalinī Shakti, the divine energy that is awakened through the Guru’s grace and that transforms a seeker’s inner being, leading us to realize our own Self. In celebration of Navaratri, read this beautiful verse extolling of the Goddess Kundalinī.
जन्मोद्धारनिरीक्षणीह तरुणी वेदादिबीजादिमा
नित्यं चेतसि भाव्यते भुवि कदा सद्वाक्यसञ्चारिणी।
मां पातु प्रियदासभावकपदं सङ्घातये श्रीधरा
धात्रि त्वं स्वयमादिदेववनिता दीनातिदीनं पशुम्॥१॥
janmoddhāra-nirīkṣaṇīha taruṇī vedādi-bījādimā
nityaṁ cetasi bhāvyate bhuvi kadā sad-vākya-sañcāriṇī ।
māṁ pātu priya-dāsa-bhāvaka-padaṁ saṅghātaye śrīdharā
dhātri tvaṁ svayam-ādideva-vanitā dīnātidīnaṁ paśum ॥
The Kula Kundalini is always looking for opportunities to redeem her devotees from the cycle of birth and death. She is ever young. She is the origin of the Vedas and other scriptures as well as the seed letters. In this world, yogis comprehend her through the mind. Sometimes she lives in the words of saints. Let that auspicious one protect me so that I may attain divine union. I consider myself to be in the place of her beloved servant. O Mother! By your own nature, you are the beloved wife of the primordial God, whereas I am a bound soul, distressed more than the most distressed.
Kundalinī Stavaha, verse 1