31 May Mantras for peace of mind (part 7)
The Elusive Closing Chant
The Astanga Yoga Closing Prayer is a bit of an enigma. Because of the nature of Mysore rooms, it’s possible to attend one for many months or years before becoming aware of its existence. This is a pity because the chant is a fine way to close one’s practice with its widescreen focus on global happiness and prosperity.
If you look for the closing prayer online you might find it listed as the “Mangala Mantra” and attributed to the Rig Veda.
The teachings of the Rig Veda are amongst the oldest religious texts in existence. I say ‘texts’ but once we go as far back as the Vedic age we are certainly dealing with teachings that were handed, not written down. Estimates for the dates of the earliest transmissions of The Rig Veda vary between 1800 and 1500 BCE. The oldest written versions appeared between the 8th and 11th Centuries CE.
The contents are almost as mind boggling as their antiquity. There are approximately 1028 known hymns in the Rig Veda. The Mangala Mantra is not one of them.
Which begs the question, where on earth does it come from? It’s a bit of a mystery.
The name Mangala Mantra doesn’t give us much in the way of clues and might even be the cause of some confusion about its origins.
Mangala is a word with more than one meaning. In the Vedic Pantheon planets are often depicted as Gods, just as they were in Ancient Greece and Rome. Mangala is Mars. He’s the God of War. In the Hindu calendar, Mangalavara is Mars’ Day. To you and I, that day is Tuesday.
The connection between Mars and Tuesday continues in many modern (indo) European languages. It’s most apparent in French (Mardi), Spanish (Martes) and Italian (Martedi) but our word can be traced back to the Red Planet, too. In old English Mythology Tiw (sometimes called Tyr) was the God of combat. The second day of the week is Tiw’s day.
In some cultures Mars needs appeasing on a Tuesday, to make sure that he doesn’t kick off. In Spain and Greece the day is seen as unlucky. In India it is not regarded as unlucky as such but one is discouraged from starting new ventures (business or otherwise) on a Tuesday. If you practice in very traditional yoga shalas you will not be given new postures or encouraged to start a new series on Tuesday.
This is interesting because the non – astrological translation of Mangala is ‘auspicious’. It’s also translated as ‘successful’ by a certain Sanskrit grammarian called Patanjali, writing in the 2nd Century BCE. While we are on the subject of enigmas, there is some debate amongst historians as to whether this Patanjali and the ‘author’ of the Yoga Sutras are the same person. When applied to our closing prayer, Mangala Mantra almost certainly means auspicious.
That’s if Mangala Mantra is even the correct name for our prayer. To add yet more mystery to its origins, in Modern India the prayer is widely known as the Lokaksema and is used as a shanti mantra. One of its most famous proponents, Amma (aka the Hugging Mother), encourages her followers to learn it.
Lokaksema is two words strung together, a common feature of Sanskrit. Loka means world and Sema is wellbeing. The oldest written source of this mantra can be found on stone tablets dating back to the 14th century CE so whilst that is pretty modern compared to the Rig Veda, it’s still pretty old!
Whatever its age or origin, for as long as its been around the mantra has been used at the end of pujas and religious ceremonies and this is why it quite logically sits at the end of our asana practice. If you read last weeks’s article about Vinyasa and Its relationship with ritualization you’ll notice that, as with all the asanas (and their order), everything in the practice has a right place and a right function. The same is true of the opening and closing chants. They contrast and complement one another. The opening chant has a very personal theme. The student acknowledges the healing actions of the practice and thanks “the Gurus” (most notably, Patanjali). The focus is very much on what the practice is doing for the student. The closing chant is different. It identifies the practice as a sacred duty (very much like a Puja). The benefits of performing the duty are widely felt, as we shall see from the translation. So the focus is external, rather than internal.
Here is a phonetic version to accompany the audio:
Please note the true transliteraton is at the top (complete with accents etc…)
Swasti praja biyah / Pari -pala -yantam
Nyayena margena / mahim mahi shah
Go Brahmanebyah / subamastu nityam
Lokah Samastah / sukino bhavatu
Om / shanti, shanti, shantih.
And a translation:
May all humankind prosper and be well,
May rulers protect them by keeping to the right path
May all that is sacred thrive
May all the worlds be happy.
You will find quite widely differing translations depending on where you look. This is partly because if translated word – for – word some of the text comes across as anachronistic. It’s the middle two verses that require a bit of imagination.
Directly translated, swasta can mean success or wellbeing. When applied to Pari pala yantam (all of humanity) it demonstrates that the scope of the prayer is very wide.
Then the next verse refers to the ‘Mahishah’ or the ‘Kings of the earth’, which obviously refers to a time when leaders were all male and unelected. So we can be a bit liberal with that translation and think of “world leaders”. The existence of a right path obviously indicates that there are rules for Government as much as for anyone else (ahem!) so despite all the olde worlde reference to kings its clear that this is still a very relevant sentiment today. When I interpret those two lines for myself I say,
“May all leaders serve those they lead.”
The next phrase: Go-Brahmane biyah, subamastu nityam when directly translated means, “may cows and Brahmins be eternally auspicious”. When the mantra originated, cows and priests would have been highly recognizable as representatives of the scared. So the language is symbolic. It will make perfect sense to a Hindu or anyone who has spent time in India. But you can replace the image with anything you think of as sacred.
Finally, in the last lines we see the title word ‘Lokah’ meaning ‘worlds’. It’s different to the whole world of the first verse. Originally Lokah referred specifically to three worlds: this one, the underworld and heaven. So modern translations tend to say “all the worlds” which can also mean ‘universal’. The last line appeals for universal wellbeing (Samastah) and happiness (sukino) and the mantra concludes with the three wishes for shanti (peace).
It’s a powerful and positive affirmation. Its intentions are obvious but as with the opening chant and its ‘divine, multi -headed serpents’, some of the symbolism gives pause to certain students.
If you have a faith, or are an avowed atheist, you might be uncomfortable with the religious imagery. In that case it’s perfectly reasonable to insert your own prayer or affirmation. Or to offer none. Personally I find the mantra helpful because I attach it to a daily dedication. In keeping with the idea of practice as a duty of world – care, I dedicate each day’s practice to someone or something that might benefit from the dedication. It could be a person, or people, or a cause. Often I start with an individual and then widen the scope, little by little. This can work as a brief but powerful meditation. I’ll give an example so that you can try it.
In the current situation I might start by dedicating the practice to someone like my partner who is a nurse and currently working in quite difficult situations. Then I visualise all the nurses and medics working hard. Then all the other staff in hospitals or the people who are driving ambulances for example. Then all the people supporting them, and all the people caring for the sick at home. Then all the people staying at home to stop the spread and all the people suffering with the virus so on and so on…It helps to imagine you are directing a film scene and you ask the camera to keep zooming out, wider and wider…Its worth trying sometime!
If you wish to chant the closing prayer as part of self practice, the traditional place for it is after Utlputih, just before taking rest. You could return to Samastitih for this or remain sitting.
The chant is spoken not sung (which is a strong indicator that it is not vedic, since all vedic chants have a set ‘tune’). If you would like to try it with yours truly I have attached an audio file below.
There are some extra verses to the Lokasema mantra which are not included in the closing chant.
Here they are:
Kale varsatu parjanyah prthivi sasyasalini / Desoyam ksobharahito brahmana santu nibhayah
Translated as :
“May the rains fall on time, may the earth yield abundance.May this country be free from disturbances”.
Here is my audio file of the closing chant
How far would you like to widen the scope of your dedications? Proof that the sky is not the limit…
The Amma foundation’s blog post dealing with our mantra here