Mantras for peace of mind (part four)

We are still in the woods.

And just in case you thought I could get us out of here, I should come clean. I think I’m lost. In wanting to give you some nuggets of wisdom about this week’s mantra, I got drawn into a tangle of ancient teachings, the very earliest of the Upanishadic age. From what I can make out through the forest gloom, our mantra is embedded in a collection known as the Krishna YajurVeda. The word Krishna will be familiar to you. In this context it translates as “dark” or “black”. The God Krishna, who is not referred to in these teachings, is known as the “dark one”. Although most modern renditions of his image are blue, you will find black Krishna in older temples. The Krishna Yajur Veda are the ‘dark’ teachings. Not dark as in evil, just somewhat random. I think of it as ‘forest dark’ which has beauty all of its own but can be disorienting. Its worth remembering that the authors of this work were almost certainly renunciates who had left mainstream life and were living in nature. The lessons don’t apear to be arranged in any logical order.
The Krishna YajurVeda’s counterpart is the Shukla (white) YajurVeda and the teachings therein are described as ‘ordered’. The Brihadaranyaka Upanishad (which we looked at last week) is embedded in the Shukla Yajurveda.
The Krishna Yajurveda contains one of the best known Upanishads: the Katha. It is a truly extraordinary work that starts like a folk tale. Nachiketa, a teenage boy, angers his father by asking too many questions. His father loses his rag, says something along the lines of “oh go to hell”…and sends his son off to the abode of Yama, the God of Death.
When Nachiketa arrives at death’s door, the master of the house is absent. The boy is forced to wait three days before meeting his host who, by way of an apology, offers him three wishes (one for each day).
The first wish Nachiketa asks for is that his father will no longer be angry by the time he gets home. This is granted. Nachiketa’s second request is to be taught a sacred fire ceremony and this is also freely given. But the third request rattles Yama so much that he begs the boy to choose another. When that fails he tries to bribe him with offers of vast wealth, herds of elephants and horses, beautiful women, children who will live to be a hundred, you name it…but to no avail. What has Nachiketa asked Yama that is so hard to answer? Nothing short of the eternal question: what lies beyond death?
I can’t tell you the answer to that question, but I can recommend reading the Katha Upanishad for its beautiful imagery and spiritual musings. It’s not a long work. It is nothing like as opaque as some of the other Upanishads and it deals with themes that are still highly relevant to us today. Namely, “why am I here and what comes afterwards?”
The bulk of the text is wisdom that Yama passes on to his newfound pupil. For, in turning down all the offers of material wealth and longevity, Nachiketa appears to have passed a test. He knows all these things are transient and is worthy of greater rewards.
Nachiketa learning life lessons at the feet of death is an enduringly popular image of the ideal student. And today’s mantra is traditionally chanted at the beginning of study periods. It is one of the Shanti Mantras, most of which are extracts from Vedic or Upanishadic teachings.
if you study in Mysore, you learn to chant the Shanti Mantras as part of the curriculum. I say ‘curriculum’ but in truth some of the, ummmm, ‘course structure’ seems elusive, particularly on your first visit. On your first chanting class you are simply given the verses, in Sanskrit, and taught them parrot fashion, focusing solely on the correct pronunciation and (in the case of Vedic material) the right tune.
Translation, commentary, context and conclusions are all leg work that you undertake outside the shala. This is the essence of Swadhyaya (self – study), one of the five Niyamas of Patanjali – and of course part of the three Kriya I mentioned in another article. The Niyamas are aspects of ourselves we try to cultivate. The others are Tapas (often translated as ‘discipline’ but perhaps better thought of as ‘vigour’); Saucha (cleanliness); Santosha (contentment) and Ishvara Pranidhana (devotion to God).
The Niyamas are like a mirror image of the Yamas, those rather unhelpful drives or tendencies that we need to cessate. Did you spot Yama there? Our rather teacherly God of Death from the Katha Upanishad? The name is no coincidence. Yama in the context of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras can be translated as the ‘death’ or cessation’ of a tendency. In Patanjali’s Yamas that cessation is illustrated by the affix of the letter ‘a’ which stands for ‘not’ or ‘non’. This is why three of the five Yamas are often described as what they are not. Ahimsa (non violence); Asteya (not stealing) and Aparigraha (non attachment or, more literally, not grasping). The other two are Satya (honesty) and Bramacharya (sexual continence).
And there you have a prime example of how the rich subject matter of yoga studies can lead you down a side path and into a clearing, or maybe a thicket! Ive never been great at sticking to the script…
And that’s perhaps what I was supposed to learn this week. I began revisiting the texts determined to find out the name of this week’s mantra (it appears not to have one) and it’s exact location in the labyrinth of the Vajurvedas. I am none the wiser, but probably no poorer for it.
Here is the mantra. Ive written it in a phonetic version so you can use it with the attached audio file if you wish. I will post a link to the full Sanskrit script below.
Saha Nau-Vavatu
Saha Nau Bhunaktu
Saha Viiryam Karavavahai
Tejasvi Nav-adhi -tam-astu
Maa Vidvishavahai
Aum Shantih Shantih Shantih
Here is the translation
Om, May the universe Protect us Both (the Teacher and the Student),
May the universe Nourish us Both,
May we Work Together with Energy and Vigour,
May our Study be Enlightening and not give rise to Hostility,
Om, Peace, Peace, Peace.
Here is an audio file by yours truly in call and repeat format
Like most Shanti Mantra the contents are a set of affirmations. Perfect for a study session. I recite this one just before I begin my practice: not just asana, but reading or discussion, too. If you have attended a conference or workshop with me it will be familiar to you.
Its ultimate value to me is the constant reminder that I will always be a student of Yoga and the practice will always be my teacher. Moreover, it reminds me that there is something to learn from every experience if you keep yourself open to it. After I recite the mantra I silently invoke another affirmation which is my own. It came to me once as I was sitting quietly with a problem and now I also use it daily.
May today be the greatest teacher
May I be today’s willing student
May I hold what I learn without grasping
May I pass on what I learn without preaching
Knowledge is an experience
When shared without ownership or dogma
It is a light in the dark
It is a path through the forest.
A translation of the Katha Upanishad here by one of my favourite authors Eknath Eswaran
A PDF of the Katha Upanishad here, translated, with a running commentary (note another translation of our study mantra is included at the top, without explanation. It’s often attached to the katha Upanishad but is not part of the text).
A chance to see the Sanskrit text of our Shanthi Mantra here