Thursday, 25 August 2011


Swadhyaya is the sanskrit word for the recitation or reading of sacred texts within the Hindu/Vedic frame of reference. This practice has been part of my life for twenty years, more or less, and is a far more deeply satisfying thing to do than to listen to. Like brahmacharya, it turns up as one of the Yamas and Niyamas  of Yoga described by Maharishi Patanjali in the Yoga Sutras.

Why do it? How can I truly describe the glories of this practice? Simplest way to describe it is that it's a filtration system, cleansing and scouring you of a bunch of tendencies and psychic parasites you won't be aware that you have. It's a kavach, a shield and armour. It is an ecstatic exercise, beloved of saints and yogis. It keeps you out of trouble. It is a long love song to the Lord. It is a statement of intent. It is angelic, gandharvic, you name it. And there is something deeply satisfyingly human about the entire process. With it, life sings.

Worthwhile, though, to remember the very basic laws. Remember: WHY are you doing it? WHO are you doing it to? What is the BHAV (feeling) behind your intention? You are not going to be gabbling. You are not going to ask. It's not an exercise in begging or flattery. As a famous abhanga by Jnaneshwar Maharaj says, "the wife of a noble king, should never go begging." You are going to be surfing the waves of spiritual focus.

Bleary recitation of texts just because you feel you have to do it is a recipe for disaster. Just get up and have the courage to stop messing around and stop your chanting. But if you do decide to do this practice, do it absolutely whole heartedly, with focus, grace and at a MODERATE pace. Don't gabble, don't bray, don't show off your skills.

One thing many people forget is just to be silent after a loooong recitation, let it soak in.

You need to know two simple things:

1) How to pronounce Sanskrit.
2) The melody of the chant.

That's it...

Regarding pronounciation, you nowadays don't have to read it in the Devanigri script as in the leaf above, as most chants/texts are written in a slightly genetically altered western alphabet. The best simple guide can be found in the beginning of the Siddha Yoga Nectar of Chanting book. But the Hare Krishnas also have some good clear guides hidden in their many books.

One thing to remember, which needs to be borne in mind: Sanskrit places pretty much equal emphasis on every syllable of a word UNLESS the vowel has been lengthened. Thus sanskrit is not exactly like English, where we might stress one syllable over another (ie LONdon... whereas Sanskrit would pronounce it LONDON). Dang, that's a little confusing... anyway, follow the guides and you'll be fine.

Re the melody... use tapes and CDs but you can just wing it as well.

My own practice of swadhyaya over the years has centred on the following texts:

Well known to a whole generation of Siddha Yoga, this became staple morning chanting fayre of the movement from the mid 1970s. On one level it seems to be a disquieting "bigging up" of the Guru, which is why it ended up repelling westerners. But its real meaning is truly magnificent: the unfoldment what the Guru ... ie the teaching process of the universe... is all about. The Guru is not a single human. The Guru is God as teacher. The Guru manifests in everything, everywhere, ready to teach you, lead you, instruct you.

A few simple restrictions about how to perform the Guru Gita are contained towards the end of the chant, but its simple stuff.

I've chanted the Guru Gita in so many places across the world, on so many ocassions. Precious memories: of sitting at dawn by a river bank in England; of chanting it with Gurumayi while the ashes from a yagna fire settled on the pages; of early mornings blissfully chanting in a small room while the airplanes roared overhead, one after the other; of sitting at a big temple in Singapore by a massive statue of Shri Ganesh; and of being in Ganeshpuri, India itself - the home of yoga -  trying not panic as a big rat scuttled towards me and over my feet!

This chant is ancient... it is so old it dates from the time of the pyramids. And it is so hypnotic and beautiful. It is virtually impossible to learn unless you can hear the melody and follow it with a guide. Siddha Yoga publish a great little Rudram with the necessary marks of when to chant higher or lower.

Rudra is an older form of Shiva, fierce and wild, and the chant bubbles along like a fast moving mountain stream... or maybe a runaway horse would be a better analogy. If you can master it, the Rudram is truly intoxicating. Chanting it 11 times in a row (takes about 45 minutes per chant) is especially beneficial if you are in a time of trouble.

My best memories of chanting the Rudram again come from Ganeshpuri... used to be chanted at noon each day in the temple, by 2 Indians and a tiny gaggle of westerners of which I was one.

Also known as the Devi Mahatyam, this is the Queen of  the Chanting Scene, and takes up to 5 hours to complete... leaving you rung out like a wet dishrag. Time to chant it is during Navarartri (usually in October) and true devotees of Sri Devi, the Divine Mother, do it every night for nine nights.  I'm going to try and attempt this over navarartri, though my pronounciation can be pretty dire.

The first time I chanted it, I literally crawled out of my puja room and thought 'never again'. The chant promises to deliver prosperity in every way (not that I was after prosperity). The next day, 24 hours later, a new car was sitting in my driveway, a possession that came to me through sheerest accident. Jaya Ma! That's the power of that chant.

Shri Maa, who lives in the states, has published a great guide, great CDs, and a clear concise version so if you want to try this out, go toher movement's Devi Mandir website. She's a lovely, humble, saintly being.

These are protective mantras that you chant if you wish, to guard you in the face of any kind of trouble. But you have to be sincere. Two of the best known are the NARAYAN KAVACA and NRSIMHA KAVACA. Both involve a bit of preparation, but are a great focussing tool, and unlike other sacred texts are quick and easy. I try to recite the Nrsimha Kavaca every day.

Wikipedia has a really good explanation of this chant,  which interestingly is said to be only one of three scriptures that produces benefits in Kali Yuga. It is the most widely chanted text in all of Hinduism, and is the central text for the Vaishnava faith. Sahasranam means "1000 names" ... and this is indeed a recitation of the 1000 names of God as Vishnu. Worth reading, extra worth chanting! A beautiful, beautiful practice.

This is a chant that at present I'm trying to do every day. There is a long intro, and the "benefits" bit after the 1000 names. It's lilting, poetic,  and the most widely used version comes from the Mahabarata, also on the very battlefield in which Lord Krishna revealed the Bhagavad Gita - and mentioned in the Gita. Amazingly, despite my love of Lord Krishna, I've only recently started chanting this. In Siddha Yoga circles, this was included in the Nectar of Chanting book, but somehow was never actually used... wierd or what.  



What's a mouse got to do with it? Well, simple, really. In Hindu iconography the "vehicle" of Lord Ganesh is a mouse, or a rat. And Lord Ganesh is in turn the lord of brahmacharya, among other fine things. 

Brahmacharya is a Sanskrit word that essentially means "continence", specifically sexual continence or celibacy. That's the way it is described in Patanjali's famous Yoga Sutras which are the core text for Yogic spirituality. It is one of the "Niyamas", or restraints - ways of behaving and acting that cleanse and purify and make the spiritual aspirant fit for samadhi. Through brahmacharya, all sorts of benefits accrue, especially in terms of meditation energy, contentment,  sobriety and focus.

The word is also the term used for the second of the Vedic stages of life - traditionally from the ages of 12 to 25. This was the period of study, traditionally in the Gurukula, the school  of the Guru, before a child grows up to then marry. The study was not as we know it in the modern western world - it was more to ground the youth in the understanding of life and its relation to the Absolute.

Traditionally the brahmachari wears white, though in some traditions - such as Vaisnava sects - the brahmachari wears orange. A person who is a life-long brahmachari is also sometimes descibed as a "bal" brahmachari.

Robes, Ganesh, Vedas... colourful stuff but the basic core of being a brahmachari in the developed world, far from a cozy ashram nestling by the foothills of the Himalayas, is that it's a tough call to make at first. You will be wading upstream in a fierce, strong current.

Step outside the door, turn on the TV, open a magazine and the colourful appeal of the world will sweep you away in an instant.  Sex is everywhere, sells most things, and the cultural norm in the west is to regard sexual expression as a need, a right, and a necessity.

But is it?

That's what the practice of brahmacharya helps us find out. The first surprise is that you don't drop dead when you restrain your sexual impulses. You don't collapse in a welter of tears or plunge into a fathomless depression. Certainly skewed sexuality can manifest in strange ways - look at the problems faced by the Catholic church, priests and child abuse scandals. But actually that isnot the real story of what happens when you restrain your sexual expression.  

In fact, wonder of wonders, the opposite is true. Brahmacharya keeps you gloriously filled with light, with virya, the fire of enthusiasm. It is like having a glowing candle inside of you day in, day out. Sweet contentment dawns in your life. It is truly a glorious thing to aim for. It is a treasure. And, it must be said, it is far easier for a woman than a man!

The best actual book on brahmacharya I know is one freely available on the internet, written by the great Guru Sivananda, the "father" Guru of many brilliant schools of yoga, who died in the early 1960s. It's a short book and I first came across it, and the term,  back in 1976. Perhaps the most famous modern practitioner of brahmacharya was none other than Mahatma Gandhi, who also wrote movingly of the practice.

That was the period in my mid 20s when I kept an uninterrupted state of brahmacharya for nearly 3 years, at a time when young hormones are at their strongest. It was a wonderful gift and proved indispensable to spiritual practice. There again, it was relatively easy because most of the time I was in exceptionally supportive environments - TM ashrams in the mountains of Switzerland, segregated by sex.

The world eventually intervened in the form of marriage and children, and brahmacharya largely slipped away for years.

But here I am again, able to return to practice in its fullest sense... and it is like sipping the sweetest nectar. Truly wonderful.

If you want to meditate properly, I'd only say this: keep as celibate as you can, using common sense and skill and not going overboard about it. Yoga is above all, skill in action, with a close attention to time, place, opportunity. Sometimes your intention may be good, but the time simply not right.

Brahmacharya will provide the fuel for your journey. It  is a gift to God, too, a self-offering. A brave thing to do. But if you are serious about Sadhana, about the spiritual journey...

And in the words of Gandhi:

"An aspirant after brahmacharya will always be conscious of his shortcomings, will seek out the passions lingering in the innermost recesses of his heart and will incessantly strive to get rid of them. Involuntary thought is an affection of the mind which is even more difficult to curb than the wind.

Nevertheless, the existence of God 
within makes the control of the mind possible. Let no one think that it is impossible because it is difficult. It is the highest goal, and it is no wonder that the highest effort should be necessary to attain it."