MANTRA: THE PRINCIPLES OF LANGUAGE AND MUSIC ACCORDING TO HINDU COSMOLOGY
This essay appeared in the Cahiers d’Ethnomusicologie N°4, 1991. Alain Daniélou deals with the question of mantra from an integral viewpoint, bearing in mind metaphysics, cosmology, language, music and psychology. This is the first part of the rather long essay originally published in French.
Hindu cosmology poses the fundamental problem of the possibility of communication, the principle upon which different forms of language are based: the language of smell, taste, touch, sight (gestures and symbols) and sound, as well as its two branches: spoken and musical language. Hindu philosophers regard the universe as stemming from an initial manifestation of energy and developing according to the principles contained in its germ, following a sort of genetic code based on mathematical elements.
Shaped out of pure energy relations, the world develops its multiple forms, using the same basic formal principles. All manifestations of matter, life, perception and sensation are parallel branches stemming from a common tree. The fundamental identity of energy components in matter, life, thought and perception enable relations and analogies to be established between them. This same identity also establishes a bridge between visual or acoustic language and certain aspects of thought, sensation, emotion and the harmony of forms. If such relations were lacking, we could not evoke one by means of the other, that is, none of them would have any vehicle function.
In the logic of creation, a world only exists if it is perceived. There is no perception without an object, or object without perception. For each state of matter there is, in living beings, a sense of perception and a form of awareness. In places perpetually devoid of light, fish have no eyes. Sound perception, particularly in mu- Alain Daniélou at the Labyrinth in 1982. Photo: Jacques Cloarec. TRANSCULTURAL DIALOGUES sic, is very important for us, since it can be easily analysed in terms of frequency ratios, that is, in numerical terms. By means of language (spoken or musical), we can gain insights into the equations on which the structures of matter, life, perception and thought are based. This is why, in antiquity, music was considered as a sort of key to all other sciences.
Thus, it is not fruitless to seek – after the fashion of ancient philosophers – parallels and affinities between certain peculiarities that musical intervals reveal to us and the various forms of matter and life, plants and animals, atom and planetary structures, as well as of the mechanisms of perception, emotive reactions or structures of thinking. In order to understand them, they must be expressed as equations, ciphered.
In a general manner, we can call ‘language’ the whole set of procedures living beings use as means of expression and communication. Language consists of a number of symbols making it possible to represent or evoke objects, persons, actions, emotions, feelings and even abstract principles. However, as with every symbolic system, a language is only an approximation, an evocation. It indicates or suggests an idea, a form, a person, a sensation, an emotion, but it cannot really represent them.
Every means of communication is, by definition, a language. Different kinds of language are classified according to a hierarchy referring to the different states of matter (or elements) and to the senses of perception relating to them. Visual forms of language correspond to the element of fire, which is the sphere of sight. To this domain belongs, for example, the yantra or symbolic diagram, as well as images, hieroglyphs, and in a certain way the system of writing, since they are all visual forms of communication. The sphere of sight is in turn related to gestures or mūdra, which are quite a broad means of communication. Ritual acts, which enable us to communicate with the invisible world of spirits, are to a great extent related to the language of mūdra.
The fundamental element is called ether. It is the domain from which other elements develop. The distinctive features of this element are space and time. A wave is composed of length and frequency. Its perception is related to the limited value of our perception of space and time. Living beings from other dimensions, with a different perception of time, cannot be known by us. Our efforts to establish contact with subtle beings or spirits presuppose that they have the same perception of time duration as we have. That is why such efforts are very often useless. If a day in the life of a god corresponds to the duration of a whole human life, this shows that the god is not on the same wave frequency as humans, and communication is therefore very difficult.
The principle of everything that exists is only a manifestation of energy or vibratory nature in space and time, that is, in ether. We have no organ that immediately perceives all the vibrations of ether, otherwise we would know the secret nature of the world and its formation process. We can only perceive pure vibrations through their repercussions in the air. That is the domain of sound. Since it is the closest representation of the process through which the thought of the Creator manifests itself in the universe, sound appears as the most suitable means to express – albeit in a limited manner – the different aspects of the world, of being and thought.
“In the logic of creation, a world only exists if it is perceived. There is no perception without an object, or object without perception.”
Sonic language is of two kinds. If we use only the numerical ratios between sound vibrations –analogous to the geometric ratios of yantras –, we obtain musical language. If we use the peculiarities of our vocal organ to interrupt, differentiate and pace the sound, we obtain spoken language enabling us to shape a great variety of distinct sonic symbols that we can use to represent objects, notions, and roughly circumscribe the forms of thought. That is the domain of mantra.
The world has no substance. It is a divine dream, an illusion to which divine power gives a semblance of reality. The world is but pure energy, tension, vibration, the simplest expression of which appears in the phenomenon of sound. That is why it is said, in the theory of the divine word, that the Creator utters the universe. The world is only a word, a divine song through which the Creator’s ideation is realised. This explains why, by means of yogic introspection, we can go back to the point at which thought becomes a word and emotion is born from musical sound, which allows us at least partially to understand how the divine makes manifest the world and life itself.
During such a process of introspection, we can observe that thought manifests itself in language in four stages: first of all in a substratum called para, the “beyond”, after which it arises as a precise and indivisible entity of which we have a kind of global view. This state is called paśyantī, vision. We then try to delimit the contours using the acoustic symbols we call “words”. This formulation is more or less precise according to the richness of our vocabulary, the number and the quality of words that we have learned to use. This state of mental formulation of an idea is called madhyamā, that is, the intermediate state. Then, we can exteriorize this formulation using an acoustic form called vaikharī, which means utterance, but we can also express it through gestures, such as a mūdra.
Ascent to the sources of the word is one of the most important techniques of Yoga. The process of manifesting the idea through sound uses the energy centres of the subtle body, the chakras, whose reality words help us to perceive. If we follow the path of manifestation of the word backwards, starting from the form vaikharī in the middle of the throat, we reach the point of formulation, madhyamā, in the chakra located near the heart. As a result of this, we arrive at pashyantī, vision or ideation, where an idea appears in the bulbous centre located at the level of the navel. Finally, beyond the idea, we can reach the very substratum of thought, the place of its coming into being, where human and divine are intertwined at the mūlādhāra, the centre of energy coiled up at the base of the spine. This return to the source of language is one of the most efficacious methods of attaining a perception of the formless bliss of the divine. Mantra- yoga with its use of articulated sound, and svara-yoga which retraces the source of musical sound, are essential aspects of the spiritual experience that is the ultimate purpose of Yoga.
Only from the state of madhyamā, or formulation, can we analyse the relationship between thought and language. In doing so, we realize that the possibilities of language are extremely restricted. The limits of our perception, that is, of the power of distinction of our ears, do not allow us to distinguish and use more than fifty- four articulated sounds that we call vowels and consonants – from which comes the material used to build all articulated acoustic forms, all mantras, and the totality of words used in all languages. It is with this scarce material that we must build nouns, verbs and adjectives permitting us to describe, in a more or less adequate fashion, the contours of an idea. At this point, a true inner conflict takes place: we seek words that enable us to express an idea, whereas in fact we are tentatively delimiting a contour. Acoustic elements are like tokens that we align to shape the outline of thought. That is the reason why it is dangerous and sometimes absurd to take words for ideas.
“The world is but pure energy, tension, vibration, the simplest expression of which appears in the phenomenon of sound.”
In the domain of music, we find a similar problem, since we can only distinguish fifty-four distinct sounds in an octave, which the Hindus call śruti (that which can be heard). The number fifty-four seems to indicate a limit both of our perceptive capacity and conceptual classification. As with all the senses, these limits determine our world view, what we are structurally preordained to perceive and our role in creation. There are similar limits in our perception of colours, forms, tastes and smells. The totality of articulated and musical elements constituting the whole range of sound material accessible to us is rated at one hundred and eight. That is one of the reasons why this number is considered sacred: it represents, for human beings, the totality of the Word. In the gestation of the world and the disclosure of divine thought, the number one hundred and eight corresponds to certain numeric codes found in all the different aspects of the created world.
It is relatively easy to explain the limits of our musical perceptions, since relationships between sounds can be analysed and expressed in numerical terms. Mathematics thus also enables us to establish affinities between musical sounds and yantras (geometric symbols), as well as harmonies, or proportions constituting what we call “beautiful”. Indian sacred sculpture, for example, is conceived according to a very strict canon of proportions. The image of a god is a figurative form based on a yantra, with proportional characteristics analogous to those uniting the notes of a rāga, a musical mode, or the elements of a mantra – the corresponding articulated formula.
A cosmic principle – a deity – may thus be evoked equally by a mantra, a yantra, a rāga, or an image.
The complementary forms of spoken and musical language are related to different aspects of our perception. Musical sound, svara, acts upon our emotive centres, while articulated forms, mantras, belong to the intellectual circuit within the field of language. These two aspects of our perception correspond to the two sides of our brain where the channels of the subtle body, iḍā and piṅgalā, are located. Through these channels flow the vital energies from the root chakra, mūlādhāra, to the lotus of a thousand petals, sahasrāra, above the crown of the head. Iḍā, the left circuit, is called lunar and stands for the so-called female aspects of our personality, the expression of which is musical language. Piṅgalā, the circuit on the right side, is by contrast of a solar nature and connected with the active, male and intellectual dimension. Here the expression is mantra. This order may be inverted according to the aspect of manifestation envisaged, that is, the female principle can become active and the male passive. It is because of the female aspect, śakti, that the world becomes manifest, and it is thus through music – being closest to the non-manifested vortex of pure vibration – that we can sense something of the divine state, a state of bliss that is inconceivable to our understanding. Mantra, for its part, enables evocation of the ideational (male) principle beyond manifestation.
Spoken and musical language are parallel and complementary aspects of acoustic language; furthermore, these two forms of expression are closely related to each other and impossible to separate. The flow of pure vowel sound in spoken language is a kind of combination or arrangement of harmonics. In addition to this, every language uses tones as means of expression. For example, if I want to leave a place, I can use the interrogative “Shall we go?” with a rising tone on the last syllable, and I can answer affirmatively with a falling tone: “Let’s go”. In chant or psalmody, words are entwined with the purely musical element. Spoken language makes use of tones, accents, rhythmical or durative elements belonging to the domain of music. For the japa (repetition of mantra), matra-yoga uses certain rhythmical elements or characteristic measures, or tālas. The gaṇas, clusters of long or short syllables serving as a basis for metric arrangements in poetry, are identical to those defining musical rhythms or tālas.
As a complement to articulated language, gestures, or mudrā, are sometimes added. Complete language does not consist only of word and music, but also of gesture. Thus, we can say that there is a correspondence and a complementarity between mantra (articulated sound), mudrā (gesture) and svara (musical sound). Rites and magic acts, which are part of tantra, use these three forms of language, adding elements from the language of smell (such as incense) and the language of taste (such as the consummation of sacrificial offerings). It is in the field of musical experience that each one of us can discover his basic vibration, sa, the tonic syllable corresponding to our most profound nature. The discovery of sa, the expression of our veritable nature and of the place assigned to us in a world that consists purely of vibration, is an essential element of self-knowledge and a necessary starting point of any learning process. Becoming aware of our most intimate sa is the first exercise in training a musician, an exercise that may take months, and that in the practice of yoga is extended to the search for nāda, the primordial sound or first manifestation of the creation principle. It is from nāda-brahman that the world arose. •