Some Elements of the Science of Vowels

Mar - Apr 2006

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Some Elements of the Science of Vowels

The science of mantras was derived from the eternity and omnipresence of primordial sound, as realized by the rishis (sages) of Vedic times in the state of deep trance. The specific structure or configurations of syllables in the scriptural representation of mantras in ancient Sanskrit can be viewed as a coded compilation, the rhythmic chanting of which with mental concentration (and hence at a consistent pace) generates distinct flow of the specific currents of SHabda Brahm1 and hence induce distinct impact on the mental and emotional state of the devotee.

Before venturing into the deeper science of mantras we should first understand the sonic power of some basic vowels used in the Sanskrit and Devanagari scripts. Whatever be the type of our language, we do come across a large number of such accents (and their phonemes) or various combinations of these in our day-to-day communications. Because of the special sonic effects, the proper use of the basic vowels and syllables of the ancient Sanskrit language can also be regarded as an elementary exercise in SHabda Yoga.

The properties of some of these basic vowels are as follows:   

-- (a):   Pronunciation of this vowel has a direct, though subtle, impact on the  heart.  The pumping action of the heart – especially its operation of pumping out pure blood – is supported by this accent. Repeated loud enunciation of this vowel at constant amplitude helps regulate the supply of pure blood from the heart to various part of the body.  In mantra vijnana this vowel is regarded to possess creative power.

-- (a):  The sound of this vowel affects the chest and the upper parts of the lungs. Its impact strengthens the upper ribs, helps clean the digestive canal and also energizes the mind.  Controlled and repeated enunciation of this vowel would be very useful towards the cure of asthma and chronic cough.

-- (i - i):  Stretched pronunciation of these has a direct positive effect on the throat and its connections with the  brain.  This activates upper chamber of the heart. Cleansing of the respiratory tract and the intestines is performed by regular stimulation by the continuous sound of these sharp vowels. People suffering from chronic headaches or cardiac ailments should benefit from consistently exercising the repeated ‘chanting’ of these vowels.  Short-tempered or mentally depressed persons are also advised to follow the practice of rhythmic recitation of these accents.

-- (u - u):  Pronunciation of these vowels has direct positive impact on the organs in the middle and the lower parts of the body – namely, the  liver,  stomach and the lower intestine. It reduces the weight of the belly. Constipation can be cured by regular recitation of these vowels over a continuous stretch of time. Women suffering from diseases of the abdomen would also benefit from such exercises.      

-- (e - ai):  The sound of these vowels has an impact on the  kidneys and also on the junction of the throat and the respiratory tract. Repeated pronunciation of these vowels helps cure of renal (urinary) diseases.  Rhythmic enunciation of these strengthens the soft membranes inside the vocal cord and hence it is very useful for the singers or teachers who have to sing/speak, at a constant pace, for relatively longer periods of time.

-- (o - au):  The natural functioning of  genital organs and  the muscles and veins of its peripherals are strengthened by the sound of these vowels. The regular practice of chanting these vowels also stimulates the central part of the chest and is useful in supporting the cure of pneumonia and pleurisy.

-- (am): Inhaling of oxygen with the humming sound of this vowel indeed helps increase one’s vital energy. It also activates healthy increase in the RBCs and purifies the blood. The practice of prañayama is an integral part of all yoga exercises; prolonged pronunciation of  ‘am’ is the root of perfection in the former. While pronouncing the ‘a’ part of this vowel our lips and mouth are kept open and the lips are closed at the time of  ‘m’.... This should be practised with a feeling that – all our evils have gone out in the first phase and we have closed their re-entry in the second phase.   Regular practice of this simple exercise is very beneficial for psychological uplifting too.

-- (a¡):  Its pronunciation titillates the tongue and the upper frontal part of the palate and creates useful  conduction effects  in the brain.  Recitation of this vowel, under deep meditation, stimulates the secretion of specific hormones that regulate the harmonious functioning of all components/organs of the body.  Open laughter also serves repeated enunciation of this vowel. This is the secret of the “laughing exercise” being so effective a remedy against stress and depression.

Apart from inducing positive effects on the body and the mind, specific practices of chanting these basic vowels (accents) help spiritual growth as well.  These aspects are covered in the context of Nada Yoga and Music.

Relation of Vocal Sound with the Panca Tatvas2:

Prof. Dobson and some other linguists have hypothesized that the primary speech of human race must have originated in the form of a verse because rhythm and accent of the vocal presentations seem to be universal vis-à-vis their implications in any language. Prof. Dobson had got this idea after observing that – if he would recite a French poem before his German students and German poem in front of French-speaking students, both the groups of students were able to get the central idea and feel of the poems. Whereas the prose pieces in the same foreign languages were non-comprehensible to these students.

That phonemes (and sound in general) would have a relation with matter (which belongs to the p—athvi tatva) is obvious from the fact that when any kind of material form is beaten it produces vibrations.  The type of vibrations (and hence the quality of sound generated by them…) produced by the same impact of beating would be different for different types and shapes of matter.  For example, the sound produced by a thin wire of sitara is different from that of the leather- sheet of a dholaka, etc. 

The role of air (which belongs to the vayu tatva in the group of the five basic elements) as a medium for the realization and propagation of sound is well known.   The controlling effect of air in maintaining the quality and type of sound is also obvious – as seen in whistling or in playing of the musical instruments like flute.  The use of water as a medium for communication by several marine species and also in some musical instruments (like the jal taranga) similarly explains the relationship of sound with the jal tatva.

The relationship of sound with heat and light – constituents of the agni tatva, can be seen / measured with the help of the scientific instruments like the thermometer, spectrometer and the tonometer.  The implications of their subtle relationship are well experienced by most of us in our day-to-day life; for example, ‘the heated exchange of words in quarreling’ or ‘the enlightenment of mind by an inspiring lecture’, etc.

That sound reflected in the form of music affects our sentiments – is an evidence of its relationship with the subtlest, the cosmic element – akasha tatva.

This world is like a small child that is born from the womb of the gigantic cosmos and is playing in the lap of its unlimited space – the Âkasha. The entire ensemble of stars, planets, galaxies, all the animate and inanimate creations of the universe are surviving under the shelter of Âkasha.  Before the creation of the universe and manifestation of Nature, there was nothing but the Âkasha.  The specific vibrations of the energy of SHabda pervading in the Âkasha gave birth to the creation of the five basic elements – the Panca Tatvas of Nature and the five fundamental forms of vital energy – the Panca Prañas.

Different combinations of the Panca Tatvas resulted in the formation of innumerable kinds of material substances and those of the Panca Prañas3 got manifested into different living forms (creatures). This concept of the origin of Nature as deciphered by the spiritual scientists of yore is also acceptable (with an obvious difference of terminology) vis-à-vis the latest theories of creation propounded by modern science.        

SHabda is supposed to be the mode of perception of the Âkasha Tatva.  The physical manifestation of this tatva is defined as ether and that is expressed as the gigantic ocean of sound waves. All electromagnetic energy waves – light, electricity etc, are generated from the vibrations of this primordial sound. Sound is also known in the physical sciences as the first source of energy; its combination with light lies at the root of the generation of different types of energy-currents and particles of matter.

As the physical existence of the universe in general, and the individual being – i.e., the body, mind and the manifestation of consciousness in it, in particular, is constituted by the panca tatvas (the five basic elements), its perennial connection with sound is quite natural.

In fact, our body as a whole and especially the vocal cord is like a sophisticated musical instrument. Its thin muscles, membranes and other particles get vibrations from the apatatva; when we speak, the currents of apatatva are received from the omnipresent sonic power of Nada around us.  When we think, this sublime element is generated by the SHabda, which is indwelling the conscious core of our mind. This is the reason why our mind talks to itself while in the thought process.

The infinite dimensional apatatva is immanent in the akasha tatva.  This is also regarded as the source of the physical existence of sound in our space. However, the presence of other four basic tatvas affects its realization in the eternal form.  The human mind has so far experienced / recognized about forty-nine different kinds of natural phonemes swaras (notes) – seven of which are regarded as the basic vowels and the others are komal (soft) and tivra (high) configurations of them. Various combinations of these swaras have been compiled into eight basic ragas (classical tunes of shastriya music) and so on.  The gamut of phonemes and varieties of sounds (musical or otherwise) have been generated thereby.

The panca tatvas existing in these varieties of sound do affect our body and mind according to their own natural properties.  Excessive presence of agni tatva in the sound heard or produced by us enlightens our praña by a subtle red color and gives physical effects like that of the thermal energy and the psychological stimulation. Similarly, the jal and the vayu tatva offer blue and white colors of praña, p—athvi tatva induces yellow color and the akasha tatva absolute black.  Each generates associated impulses in the physical and emotional environments.          

What is important for us to grasp from the above descriptions is – the significance of the immense hidden power of sound and its intimate eternal relationship with our life.  With this, we must begin to make our speech and thoughts as pure and true as possible. This would be our first step towards the realization of the paramount significance of sound as a manifestation of SHabda.

1. SHabda Brahm: The primordial, cosmic sound of the sublime vibrations of the omnipresent                     consciousness force.
2.  Pancha Tatvas: The five basic elements of the gross manifestation of the world are called Panca Tatvas. Namely, p—aithvi (solid matter on or inside the earth), jala (water, liquids and fluids), vay¿ (air), agni (source of fire and energy) and akasha (the subliminal etheric expansion and medium of mental and emotional perceptions).
3.  Pancha Prañas: The five extrasensory currents of vital energy indwelling the human body are called Panca Prañas. 

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