As you start the new year, there's probably nothing more valuable that you could introduce into your life than chanting. It's been practiced for centuries in so many different faiths but is especially powerful in the Hindu tradition, where the Shastras and gurus have extolled the virtues of chanting God's as an anchor in the turbulence of life.
Through the repeated recitation of single lines such as Om Namo Shivaya or Om Namo Narayana to five line slokas to potent mantras like Gayatri Mantra or the Hanuman Chalisa, Hindus have declared their own personal relationship with the deities. Chanting comes in many forms - you can even say the names of God silently in your mind without uttering a sound and that is called a chanting meditation.
"When you chant you don't necessarily say it out loud - you are concentrating on the Lord and that is also considered chanting, " says Dr. Uma Mysorekar, President of the Hindu Temple Society of New York. "Even if you do it within yourself - you're saying 'Om Namo Shivaya' over and over in your mind. You are concentrating on Lord Shiva and your whole body gets tuned to Lord Shiva."
While kirtan - singing bhajans in the company of other like-minded people - is always joyous, the name of God can be incorporated into one's daily routine in many ways. Anyone can do chanting and you don't have to learn Sanskrit to chant God's name. Says Mysorekar, "I encourage everyone to start with a simple sentence, then enjoy the bliss of the lord and go higher as one learns."
She describes the benefits of listening to chanting. Recently in the Ganesh Temple over 50 people participated in Rudra Chanting (praising Lord shiva) and there was pin-drop silence as hundreds of devotees absorbed the energy. She says, "Your mind gets drawn into it and you get lost in it. Chanting produces tremendous vibrations within the temple and energize the space. That is why temples are different than ordinary buildings of brick and mortar."
Listening to a chant can be as powerful as chanting yourself. Whether it is the sages chanting on the banks of the Ganges or a New Yorker commuting to work in the subway and listening to a CD of chants on her earphones, there's a way to keep the spiritual in your life, no matter what life you're living. As Mysorekar points out, listening to a CD has a double advantage - you are not only absorbing the energy as you drive or work but you are also learning the mantra as your mind repeats it.
Which brings us to Chandrika Krishnamurthy Tandon, a Grammy nominated singer, successful business executive and philanthropist, who feels spirituality has helped her connect the dots in her life. She has embraced the ancient practice of chanting in a very modern, stressful world, and shown that a balanced, blissful life is possible.
Tandon, whose acclaimed album of chants Soul Call was nominated for the Grammy and who has many fans around the world, has chanted since childhood and has now gone on to creating CDs of chants so that these powerful words can be shared with people all over the world.
"My family belonged to the Sama Veda lineage where ancient Vedic mantras are sung with a tune and meter in a most breathtakingly beautiful way," she recalls. "Chanting was all around me. We grew up in a very simple home in a very old city where Vedic traditions are performed to this day. So I have grown up hearing the priests and everyone else chanting long mantras. Also many of the major prayers like the Vishnu Sahasranamam were played in our home everyday so osmosis naturally happened."
Tandon uses ancient Sanskrit chants and syllables as well as traditional melodies, enriching the listening experience with complex ragas or scales from Indian classical music and world contemporary music. She says, "Chanting of mantras allows you to experience subtle energies of the universe. The best way to understand the power of chanting is to actually sing or continuously repeat simple chants after a deep meditation when one's mind is quiet. The transformation that takes place is sometimes profound. I experience it often - and thousands of people have shared similar feelings with me. So for me it is not a belief. It is an experience."
Asked if listening to chants can have the same effect as chanting yourself, Dr. Uma Mysorekar says, "It will have the same effect - you're enjoying the rejoicing and the Lord within yourself. The key is to concentrate otherwise your mind goes all over the place. Chanting is believed to produce certain neurological changes within your own brain cells, and people get some deep joy that they can't describe."
For Tandon, the creation of her first CD of chants was a most natural thing to do. She created it for her father-in-law as a special gift that could not be bought in any store: the chant of 'Om Namo Shivaya' which invokes the mighty Creator and Destroyer of the Universe.
The CD brought joy not only to her father-in-law but to countless thousands. Setting the chants to music and sharing it with the larger world showed the universal power of chanting among varied people. Says Tandon, "Literally hundreds of people across the world continue to share stories about how the chants on my CDs have allowed them to handle life and grief and joy. From parents of autistic children to cancer patients to everyday folks. They come from a cross-section of countries, race and religion."
Chandrika Tandon has made spirituality the guiding principle of her life, and a joyful part of it is the chanting and kirtan. She also conducts free community choirs in New York City bringing together the seniors and community in song. After all, what can be more life-enhancing than the name of the Almighty, both for the singer and the listener?
Tandon's second album of chants - 'Om Namo Narayana' invoking Vishnu the Preserver - was nominated for a Grammy and also a Billboard nomination for Top 40 Women in Music. Last year she took Mahatma Gandhi's favorite chant 'Raghupathi Raghava Raja Ram' and created Soul March, invoking the name of Sri Rama. The Soul Chants Music label is part of the Krishnamurthy Tandon Foundation, and all proceeds benefit organizations which support education, arts, health and healing and spirituality. Since its inception Soul Chants Music has partnered with over 40 institutions with free concerts and CD support.
The two major chants Tandon has used in her albums are om namah shivaya and om namo narayanaya. In her notes she explains that these two chants represent two of the three fundamental energies of the universal consciousness. One the energy of destruction and the energy of protection.
"Na Ma Shi Va Ya is the five syllable or panchakshara mantra that represents the five elements (pancha bhoota). Air, water, fire, space, and earth. Continuous repetition is said to destroy the bonds of attachment and human failings and let us get in touch with the light within. So it is the energy if destruction.
On na mo na ra ya na ya is the ashtakshara mantra which is said to keep all our elements in harmony while the billions of cells and subtle energies go through the nyasas of creation and destruction. (like the shristi and utpatti nyasas) The Narayana kavacha is a protective armor."
As she says, "In Hindu tradition we venerate these energies as deities. These are powerful primal energies. Propitiating them does have a huge impact. I added several prayers of prayer and surrender to these energies drawn from our great Vedic and Upanishadic texts."
Explains Tandon, "Quite by accident I discovered that repeating the eight phonemes Om Na Mo Na Ra Ya Na Ya work to cleanse the eight vital centers of the body. Most of the songs’ introductions are verses of surrender to the grace that is present in every atom of every being. For example, in one sloka in “Bageshri,” we say, you are the mother, the father, the teacher, my friend, the grace in me, the valor in me – I surrender all to you, Lord of all.
In the sloka in “Basanth Mukhari,” we say, I offer all the thoughts, words and acts I have done to the Lord again and again. The result is a physical transformation that I felt compelled to share. I personally discovered the healing power of the mantra after I found myself feeling physically great whenever I sang these words."
So chant! And supplement it by visiting a temple to experience community chanting; listen to a CD as you work or even commute or walk and surround yourself in a magnificent, blissful light-filled world.
"Singing and listening are simply activities and options for people at different times depending on one's state of mind," says Chandrika Tandon. " The bigger picture here is the one pointed focus of all the senses to transcend the activity by chanting. The more you do it the more it happens. I have been a singer of ecstatic chants and have had audience members entranced by ecstatic chants ; and I have also been an ecstatic listener and participant. So there!"