17 May Mantras for peace of mind (part 6)
Lotus feet and serpent heads…
A look at the opening chant
“Let’s start at the very beginning, it’s a very good place to start”
I suppose I could have taken this advice several weeks ago when I began writing about Mantras. Not that beginning at ‘the beginning’ works for everyone. Do you remember the first time you saw Star Wars? I was eight years old when it was released for the first time in 1977. Back then my friends and I had no idea that we were watching ‘episode four’ of what would go on to become a story of epic proportions. It would be interesting to know how newcomers to the franchise approach it now. Do they start with “episode one?” Maybe the parents among you have had to ponder this question. If I want expert advice on all things Star Wars I can alwaysphone my friend Stevie. She has two ‘children’ (actually both now well into their twenties). Their names are Luke and Leia!
Talking of infinity, one could write a pretty epic post on the “Yoga of Star Wars”. George Lucas himself has alluded to it in interviews and there are multiple articles on the subject just a short google away from this website. Now there’s a sentence I couldn’t imagine writing back in 1977. Time flies…or does it? It warps…turns back on itself…ummm….where were we?
We were at the beginning. Or to be more precise the opening. We are looking at an invocation. It’s usually referred to as the ‘Opening Mantra’ and this is as good a name as any. Opening has two meanings here. It represents the opening of a ‘shala’, the traditional name of the space in which we practice. It also marks the beginning of practice. Because of the flexible start times in Mysore rooms it’s quite possible to practice for a while without encountering this chant. Where I teach, for example, you’ll only hear it in led classes or at the start of the day, unless someone arriving later chooses to say it to themselves out loud. Most people ‘chant’ it under their breath or mouth it silently. It’s not something we labour over when introducing beginners to self – practice (there’s enough to try and remember, already). For that reason alone it’s worth exploring it here.
What we call the Opening Mantra is actually a combination of two works. It divides into two roughly equal parts (represented by the spacing in the above translation). The first two verses are the opening lines of a poem called the Yoga Taravalli. This work, a treatise on Yoga dates back to the Eighth century CE.
Adi Sankara, author of the Yoga Taravalli (and a large number of other works) is an important figure in the history of India. During his lifetime he travelled the length of the sub continent teaching and consolidating the philosophy system known as Advaita Vedanta. This school of thought had a profound influence on the development of Yoga. Closer to home, Sankara founded the Smrta Brahmins. This is the Jois Family lineage.
The second two verses are lifted from an invocation to Patanjali, usually chanted before studying or reciting the Yoga Sutras. There is some debate surrounding the origins of this prayer. The general consensus is that it comes from one of several historic commentaries on the Sutras. It is certainly included in the Eleventh century commentary of Raja Boja but this doesn’t necessarily mean he wrote it.
Sankara’s verses are about giving thanks to his teachers (past and present). The words he uses translate directly as “I bow to the Lotus feet of the Gurus”. You may remember from another article that the Lotus flower represents perfection, so these are some powerful feet!
Let’s have a quick look at the word “Guru” which we will all recognize. It is usually translated as ‘teacher’ but the literal meaning is “heavy”. The modern English word gravity has its roots there. The ‘heaviness’ is knowledge or wisdom. Today In India you might still see people bowing to or even touching the feet of their teacher. This is not an act of groveling, as it might be perceived in other cultures. The feet symbolize knowledge. In our mantra the word used is ‘Gurunam’. There is some discussion amongst scholars over whether this implies multiple Gurus or one supreme Guru. It doesn’t matter too much when you consider that Sankara was au – fait with the concept of Parampara. This is a word for the direct transfer of knowledge from teacher to student, meaning that you can draw an unbroken line from one teaching to another. Ultimately those teachings (and those who taught them) can be traced back to one supreme source. For Sankara that would almost certainly have been Siva, who is often described as the first Yogi.
The next lines reveal what the teachings have given the author: The true knowledge of oneself or enlightenment: “Beyond better”. Then we have some fascinating imagery. This knowledge acts like a jungle physician, (for which you could read ‘witch doctor’) removing the ‘poison’ (Hala Hala) of delusion (Samsara). This word represents the endless cycle of suffering caused by birth and rebirth. The direct translation of samsara is “endless wandering”. It’s a bit like being lost. You may remember that Patanjali uses the idea of knowledge as a cure for all our afflictions (Kleshas) caused by ignorance in his Yoga Sutras.
This leads us neatly to the second part of the chant which is a direct invocation of Patanjali. Although it comes from another work it is also rich in symbolism with some quite fantastic imagery.
Now the author bows (‘prostrates’) to just one teacher. The author of the Yoga sutras. He is described in quite a bizarre way. Only half – human, with a thousand radiant heads.
The heads belong to Adisesa, a divine serpent and the ‘seat’ of Vishnu. In Hinduism Patanjali is an avatar of Adisesa. He was given to his devout mother by the Gods. The name Patanjali literally means ‘falling into praying hands’.
Not much is known for certain about the man Patanjali. Even dating his life and works is difficult. This is partly because the works we encounter as ‘written’ today were passed along orally. They may even be the work of several people over several centuries . As well as the Yoga Sutras Patanjali is credited with treatises on grammar and Ayurvedic medicine. These are alluded to in the first two lines of of the invocation (not included in our chant).
Yogena cittasya padena vacam
Malam sarirasyaca vaidyakena
Yopakarotam prvaram muninam
I salute Patanjali, the greatest of sages,
Who gave us yoga for purity of mind,
Grammar for purity of speech,
And medicine for perfection of the body.
In the invocation Patanjali holds three weapons to fight the delusion or Samsara alluded to in the Sankara verses. The sword is discrimination (knowledge), the conch represents divine sound and the disc is light (the disc when held by Vishnu actually represents all the stars in our universe). All the imagery is symbolic, you don’t need to believe in thousand-headed Serpent Gods to utilize it. In the classic image of Patanjali his ‘Sirsam Svetam’ float above him like a hood or canopy and are meant to represent the protection of his wisdom.
So there you have the literal translation. It may well give rise to the question, what does it mean to you and do you want to make it part of your practice? Only you will have the answer. I can tell you what it means to me and why I find it helpful. Much of that lies in its symbolism. So much of the practice is internalized. Even in a group setting it can be a very solitary place. When I chant the opening mantra two things happen. First, I feel as if I join this great flow of learning. It is la bit like stepping into a huge river with all the other practitioners, upstream and dowstream, through all the ages. My life and my practice may be very different to the two authors of the mantra but our search is the same. I like feeling connected with that. On a more tangible level, I like feeling connected with all the other people practicing today. My teachers, my fellow students of Astanga Yoga but also anyone who is seeking inner peace.
The other action of the mantra is to turn my practice space into a shala, no matter where I am. This is more important to me now than ever. The mantra transforms the imposed isolation of my living room into the meaning of the Sanskrit word: an “open place”.
If you choose not to include this mantra in your practice you could always replace it with an affirmation of your own choosing. It could be something from your faith if you have one. It could be anything that inspires you.
The mantra is traditionally chanted in samastitih just before you start practicing. In a shala, where you may well have arrived before the teacher, the etiquette is to pause your asana wherever you have got to, return to samastitih and join in. It doesn’t mean you have to start your practice again! You simply resume it.
The chant is not “Vedic “ which means that, unlike some of the other mantras we have explored, it has no fixed tune. So you can give it one of your own. The one you have heard me use was learned from Dr. M Jayashree in Mysore with whom I have studied Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras in the past.
Incidentally, I love hearing all the slightly different tunes people have learned. For this reason each morning when we open the Mysore Online Shala at 6.30 I ask if anyone would like to chant for all of us early birds. If you’re up and about come and join us!
Audio Files of the chant: First call and repeat for beginners
Then, all in one go if you just want a sing – song
Further reading and resources.
The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, a translation and commentary
By Edwin F Bryant (North Point Press, 2009). This is a really exhaustive modern commentary with a great introduction explaining the historical and philosophical context of Patanjali’s work.
Read reviews or Buy it here
A PDF and translation of Sankara’s Yoga Taravalli here
My good friend Patrick Nolan is a fellow teacher and student of Astanga Yoga. He is currently blogging on Sankara’s Yoga Taravalli and translating it for himself as part of his Sanskrit studies. You can read archives of the blog and subscribe to it if you wish, here
Cute blog comparing Yoda’s Jedi teachings to Krishna in the Baghavad Gita!
Full text of the Patanjali invocation and a little bit about it here by Geeta S Iyengar
If your eyes alighted on Sankara’s use of the words Hala Hala to describe the poison of delusion, you might know the story of the churning of the milky oceans, when the gods fought over a divine nectar (amritar). More fascinating imagery in this story, not to mention the turtle who inspired our very own Kurmasana!