Sunday, 23 June 2019

Theosophical Basics: Sacred Sound and Mantra

People who appreciate H.P. Blavatsky's The Voice of the Silence, might care to know more about the philosophy behind it. Sacred Sound, in all its metaphysical theory and practical applications, is a fundamental part of the Theosophical teachings, perhaps best summarized as the doctrine of the Logos, equated with the Sabda;  H. P. Blavatsky describes Sabda Brahmam as “The Unmanifested Logos.” The Vedas; “Ethereal Vibrations diffused throughout Space ”. (Theosophical Glossary). In the same she states: ''This is why it is stated in the Purânas that Âkâsa has but one attribute, namely sound, for sound is but the translated symbol of Logos—“Speech” in its mystic sense.'' Her definition of Vach provides a brief general overview.   The classic work in the field is Guy L. Beck, Sonic Theology: Hinduism and Sacred Sound (1993). Blavatsky has also commented on the what is perhaps the best known exposition of the Logos concept, see her Notes on the Gospel of John. Another classic exposition of the concept is AUM! by William Q. Judge. The text below is a solid basic esoteric explanation from Isis Unveiled 2, Chapter 9:
Have the seven prismatic colors of the rainbow seen by Noah no other meaning than that of a covenant between God and man to refresh the memory of the former? To the kabalist, at least, they have a significance inseparable from the seven labors of magic, the seven upper spheres, the seven notes of the musical scale, the seven numerals of Pythagoras, the seven wonders of the world, the seven ages, and even the seven steps of the Masons, which lead to the Holy of Holies, after passing the flights of three and five.
Whence the identity then of these enigmatical, ever-recurring numerals that are found in every page of the Jewish Scriptures, as in every ola and sloka of Buddhistic and Brahmanical books? Whence these numerals that are the soul of the Pythagorean and Platonic thought, and that no unilluminated Orientalist nor biblical student has ever been able to fathom?
And yet they have a key ready in their hand, did they but know how to use it. Nowhere is the mystical value of human language and its effects on human action so perfectly understood as in India, nor any better explained than by the authors of the oldest Brahmanas. Ancient as their epoch is now found to be, they only try to express, in a more concrete form, the abstract metaphysical speculations of their own ancestors.

Such is the respect of the Brahmans for the sacrificial mysteries, that they hold that the world itself sprang into creation as a consequence of a "sacrificial word" pronounced by the First Cause. This word is the "Ineffable name" of the kabalists, fully discussed in the last chapter.

The secret of the Vedas, "Sacred Knowledge" though they may be, is impenetrable without the help of the Brahmanas. Properly speaking, the Vedas (which are written in verse and comprised in four books) constitute that portion called the Mantra, or magical prayer, and the Brahmanas (which are in prose) contain their key. While the Mantra part is alone holy, the Brahmana portion contains all the theological exegesis, and the speculations and explanations of the sacerdotal. Our Orientalists, we repeat, will make no substantial progress toward a comprehension of Vedic literature until they place a proper valuation upon works now despised by them; as, for instance, the Aitareya and Kaushitaki Brahmanas, which belong to the Rig-Veda.

Sarasvati riding a Peacok
Zoroaster was called a Manthran, or speaker of Mantras, and, according to Haug, one of the earliest names for the Sacred Scriptures of the Parsis was Manthra-spenta. The power and significance of the Brahman who acts as the Hotri-priest at the Soma-Sacrifice, consists in his possession and full knowledge of the uses of the sacred word or speechVach. The latter is personified in Sara-isvati, the wife of Brahma, who is the goddess of the sacred or "Secret Knowledge." She is usually depicted as riding upon a peacock with its tail all spread. The eyes upon the feathers of the bird's tail, symbolize the sleepless eyes that see all things. To one who has the ambition of becoming an adept of the "Secret doctrines," they are a reminder that he must have the hundred eyes of Argus to see and comprehend all things.

Agni
And this is why we say that it is not possible to solve fully the deep problems underlying the Brahmanical and Buddhistic sacred books without having a perfect comprehension of the esoteric meaning of the Pythagorean numerals. The greatest power of this Vach, or Sacred Speech, is developed according to the form which is given to the Mantra by the officiating Hotri, and this form consists wholly in the numbers and syllables of the sacred metre. If pronounced slowly and in a certain rhythm, one effect is produced; if quickly and with another rhythm, there is a different result. "Each metre," says Haug, "is the invisible master of something visible in this world; it is, as it were, its exponent and ideal. This great significance of the metrical speech is derived from the number of syllables of which it consists, for each thing has (just as in the Pythagorean system) a certain numerical proportion. All these things, metres (chhandas), stomas, and prishthas, are liable to be as eternal and divine as the words themselves they contain. The earliest Hindu divines did not only believe in a primitive revelation of the words of the sacred texts, but even in that of the various forms. These forms, along with their contents, the everlasting Veda-words, are symbols expressive of things of the invisible world, and in several respects comparable to the Platonic ideas."

This testimony from an unwilling witness shows again the identity between the ancient religions as to their secret doctrine. The Gayatri metre, for example, consists of thrice eight syllables, and is considered the most sacred of metres. It is the metre of Agni, the fire-god, and becomes at times the emblem of Brahma himself, the chief creator, and "fashioner of man" in his own image. Now Pythagoras says that "The number eight, or the Octad, is the first cube, that is to say, squared in all senses, as a die, proceeding from its base two, or even number; so is man four-square or perfect." Of course few, except the Pythagoreans and kabalists, can fully comprehend this idea; but the illustration will assist in pointing out the close kinship of the numerals with the Vedic Mantras. The chief problems of every theology lie concealed beneath this imagery of fire and the varying rhythm of its flames. The burning bush of the Bible, the Zoroastrian and other sacred fires, Plato's universal soul, and the Rosicrucian doctrines of both soul and body of man being evolved out of fire, the reasoning and immortal element which permeates all things, and which, according to Herakleitus, Hippocrates, and Parmenides, is God, have all the same meaning.

Each metre in the Brahmanas corresponds to a number, and as shown by Haug, as it stands in the sacred volumes, is a prototype of some visible form on earth, and its effects are either good or evil. The "sacred speech" can save, but it can kill as well; its many meanings and faculties are well known but to the Dikshita (the adept), who has been initiated into many mysteries, and whose "spiritual birth" is completely achieved; the Vach of the mantra is a spoken power, which awakes another corresponding and still more occult power, each allegorically personified by some god in the world of spirits, and, according as it is used, responded to either by the gods or the Rakshasas (bad spirits). In the Brahmanical and Buddhist ideas, a curse, a blessing, a vow, a desire, an idle thought, can each assume a visible shape and so manifest itself objectively to the eyes of its author, or to him that it concerns.

Every sin becomes incarnated, so to say, and like an avenging fiend persecutes its perpetrator.

There are words which have a destructive quality in their very syllables, as though objective things; for every sound awakens a corresponding one in the invisible world of spirit, and the repercussion produces either a good or bad effect. Harmonious rhythm, a melody vibrating softly in the atmosphere, creates a beneficent and sweet influence around, and acts most powerfully on the psychological as well as physical natures of every living thing on earth; it reacts even on inanimate objects, for matter is still spirit in its essence, invisible as it may seem to our grosser senses.

So with the numerals. Turn wherever we will, from the Prophets to the Apocalypse, and we will see the biblical writers constantly using the numbers three, four, seven, and twelve.

And yet we have known some partisans of the Bible who maintained that the Vedas were copied from the Mosaic books!* The Vedas, which are written in Sanscrit, a language whose grammatical rules and forms, as Max Muller and other scholars confess, were completely established long before the days when the great wave of emigration bore it from Asia all over the Occident, are there to proclaim their parentage of every philosophy, and every religious institution developed later among Semitic peoples. And which of the numerals most frequently occur in the Sanscrit chants, those sublime hymns to creation, to the unity of God, and the countless manifestations of His power? One, three, and seven. Read the hymn by Dirghatamas. (1)

"To Him who represents all the Gods."

"The God here present, our blessed patron, our sacrificer, has a brother who spreads himself in mid-air. There exists a third Brother whom we sprinkle with our libations. . . . It is he whom I have seen master of men and armed with seven rays."†

And again:

"Seven Bridles aid in guiding a car which has but one wheel, and which is drawn by a single horse that shines with seven rays. The wheel has three limbs, an immortal wheel, never-wearying, whence hang all the worlds."

"Sometimes seven horses drag a car of seven wheels, and seven personages mount it, accompanied by seven fecund nymphs of the water."

And the following again, in honor of the fire-god — Agni, who is so clearly shown but a spirit subordinate to the One God.

"Ever one, although having three forms of double nature (androgynous) — he rises! and the priests offer to God, in the act of sacrifice, their prayers which reach the heavens, borne aloft by Agni."

Is this a coincidence, or, rather, as reason tells us, the result of the derivation of many national cults from one primitive, universal religion? A mystery for the uninitiated, the unveiling of the most sublime (because correct and true) psychological and physiological problems for the initiate. Revelations of the personal spirit of man which is divine because that spirit is not only the emanation of the one Supreme God, but is the only God man is able, in his weakness and helplessness, to comprehend — to feel within himself. This truth the Vedic poet clearly confesses, when saying:

"The Lord, Master of the universe and full of wisdom, has entered with me (into me) — weak and ignorant — and has formed me of himself in that place* where the spirits obtain, by the help of Science, the peaceful enjoyment of the fruit, as sweet as ambrosia."

* To avoid discussion we adopt the palaeographical conclusions arrived at by Martin Haug and some other cautious scholars. Personally we credit the statements of the Brahmans and those of Halled, the translator of the "Sastras."

† The god Heptaktis.

The sanctuary of the initiation. 
(1) Blavatsky is referencing the famous Asya Vamasya Hymn from Rig Veda I.164.  See Vedic Origins of the Zodiac: The Hymns of Dirghatamas in the Rig Veda.  She is quoting from the work of German Orientalist Martin Haug.
(Isis Unveiled 2,  408-412)
For a good basic introduction, see Sacred Sound
For information on the practical aspects, see The Practice of Nada Yoga 

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