Saturday, January 29, 2011

Enchanting Chants

I was surprised when one morning I found myself humming an old vedic chant. I have not performed a havan for months now..neither have I participated in one. In any case, I am not a religious person to suddenly start chanting vedic mantras. But I wanted to. In fact I went ahead and searched for Arya Samaj havan video clips on You Tube and played them on my computer. Those familiar sounds of my childhood had something very soothing about them. Whole day I was unconsciously repeating the havan mantras in my mind .

I was born in an Arya Samaj family. On every occasion- festival, birthday, anniversary, the family used to perform a simple havan. As far as I remember, by the time I was six or seven, I knew all the mantras, without knowing the meaning of course. Though later on I learnt the meaning as well but I just liked the sound. For me the best sounds on a troubled moment is the way my father used to recite them loudly. These were of course not the only chants I knew.

One good thing about going to a missionary school is that they change something in you forever. Some of the hymns and chants are part of the memories too. Most favorite prayer of my childhood- Ave Maria, whether performed in our school chapel or by Luciano Pavoratti, has an immediate effect on me. I never bothered to know the meaning – not even now. I just like the rhythm, the ups and downs of voices singing it together – some with deep faith and others (like me) just mechanically. All getting affected by it nevertheless. These sounds are so powerful, so moving and at some level, very comforting. Somehow, they belong to a world where parents, teachers and elders were in control of things- where life was protected. I tried hard to remember who taught me Hanuman Chalisa. It must be one of the servants or may be some family friends. This beautiful chant also contains a lot of power for me. Somehow, it got into my mind that in case of any fear, crisis or danger, I should recite this. Though I can’t remember who gave this wisdom to me but I still do that . I was mentally chanting it when I travelled alone for the first time, when I feared a really bad result….even when I went to collect my father’s medical tests. I do not believe things turned out any different because of it. But I felt stronger and more capable of dealing with them. That is the power of chants .

Come to think of it, it can be anything. It need not be religious too. Any mantra, any poem, any words that give you strength or peace just by repeated recitations. Have you ever wondered why these chants are so powerful? Why they have such calming effect on us? Why almost all established religions of the world believe in them? I can think of Vedic mantras, Buddhist chants, Gregarion chants, Bahai chants and even African chants. Chanting of psalms and prayers is an essential part of most religious services - be it Hindu or Catholic. In all cultures rituals like marriage, birth and death involve group chanting. Even the new age gurus accept the power of positive affirmation. The power to tell your mind repeatedly what you want it to believe. They say if you can visualize something as if it’s true, it happens. Even in the battles they had chants and war cries. And this remains a tradition of wars and battles from ancient times till date. In contrast to the calming effect of the religious or spiritual chnats, battle cries aim to invoke patriotic sentiment. Their purpose is a combination of arousing aggression and esprit de corps on one's own side and causing intimidation on the hostile side. And they work. Team sports too believe in the power of these chants. Teams and their supporters have their own chants. Protesters too use these chants to express solidarity for a cause. Even some of the punk bands use the chants to involve their audiences. Isn’t it amazing how sounds have so many different effects on us? Sometimes bestowing power and strength and sometimes pouring divine bliss on us. Sometimes making us strong against an enemy and sometimes making us control our anger .
May be we never notice it but even in our daily life we unconsciously use many of these rhythmic sounds. Can you remember the familiar sound of “Haiyya ho” which is used to carry or move heavy objects? In literature too we come across such songs/sounds used for a particular occasion/by a particular group of people. I can think of the palanquin bearers using a rhythmic “ hun huna” and then there are sounds to which even the birds respond. Coming from a culture where the teaching of almost everything was passed on by recitation and oral tradition - the power of spoken word is not difficult for us to understand. If in our eastern classical tradition we have our trust in healing powers of chants, the western world too looks at this tradition as much more than a musical genre .

I had a French teacher who used to listen chaupaiyya of Ramcharitmanas every morning with much devotion. I once asked her what is in this sing song style of recitation that she likes. She told me that it takes her in to a different world. A world of bliss and glory. That -I think is the beauty of words well spoken. Even if you do not know the meaning, just the faith is enough to take you where you want it to be. Enchanting indeed!


ajitbiomed said...

too tell u honestly...i n-joyed it through keep it up

krsriram said...

Chants of any religion can be quite awesome. The Gregorian chants in Carmina Burana (by Orff) are great, although most of us (myself included) associate it essentially with the background score for the Old Spice ad (which is also spectacular).