The Nature of the True Religious Life
by Swami Krishnananda

Chapter 6: The Chanting of Veda Mantras and the First Mantra of the Purusha Sukta

For the first time in the history of the world the great vision of religion was proclaimed in the Purusha Sukta of the Veda, which can be regarded as the most magnificent vision bequeathed to us by the ancient masters. To the seers of the Veda, religion was life. The way they conducted themselves was their religion. What they spoke was their religion, and the vision that they had about things in the world was their religion. Religion was not a textbook; it was not a scripture. It was not a study, or something heard from other people. It was something that was seen directly. This seeing is called the Veda. It is called Darshana, the vision integral, not the vision of the eyes or the ears or the sense organs. It is not perception, but infusion. It is sakshatkara or realisation, an immediate contact with the quintessential essence of things – not a mediate contact as we have with the senses in respect of the objects of the world.

Thus, in the vision which is the Purusha Sukta we have a masterly stroke, unparalleled in religious history, where man ceases to be man in his envisionment of the Cosmic Man, whom he designates in the language of these mantras as the Purusha Supreme. Those of you who might have heard of this great hymn of the Veda will know what it actually connotes. It is a short prayer, or we may say it is an exclamation, a psalm, an ecstatic expression of a tremendous upheaval that took place within the recesses of the being of the great sage who had this vision.

The central principle of the culture of the whole of Bharatvarsha can be said to be impregnated within this single small poem, the Purusha Sukta. All the scriptures are ramifications, commentaries, explanations, annotations, etc., of this central truth; or rather, we may say, the other way around, everything else that it said in the other parts of the Veda is a large commentary, as it were, on this little poem called the Purusha Sukta.

It is a poem where man contacts God. Man in his essence comes in contact with God in his essence; and to this day, it is the accepted tradition of the culture of this country that religion has to be life, actually. This is very important to remember. Religion is not what you do in the empirical sense; it is what you see with your eyes. What you see with your eyes is religion, not what you do with your hands and feet. If you perform worship with the hands, and see an image of stone with the eyes, you are not practising religion. If it is only a portrait that you are worshipping and the eyes see only a portrait while the hands are waving a sacred lamp, that is not religion. You may wave any lamp, you may do anything with your hands and mutter anything with your tongue, but what you see is your religion. If you see only a temple erected by a mason and a metal or stone image that is installed, this is not religion. So religion is vision, seeing, and nothing more, nothing less.

Here is India’s religion before you, if you want to know what India’s religion is. There is no nomenclature that can be attached to this religion. All these names that are associated with the forms of religion in the world are later developments in the history of mankind. A vision is not a racial prerogative. The one who had this vision of the Purusha of the Purusha Sukta was not a Hindu, was not a Christian, was not a Muslim. He was not a man. When man has vision of God, he no more remains as man because man is the name that we give to an embodiment whose faculty is a conglomeration of sense organs. You can recall to your mind the words of Sri Krishna as recorded in the eleventh chapter of the Bhagavadgita: “These eyes cannot see Me.” Arjuna’s two eyes could not have the vision of the great Purusha who embodied himself in that description of the eleventh chapter of the Bhagavadgita.

What the Purusha Sukta means in the Veda, the eleventh chapter of the Bhagavadgita also means. They are one and the same. One is a Sruti, the other is a Smriti. By a Sruti we mean a sacred lore that has come down to us by the lineage of Guru and disciple. It has not come through libraries or textbooks. These sacred mantras were listened to by the disciple and chanted, recited or taught by the Guru.

As a little digression before I go into the meaning of the Purusha Sukta, I would like to mention the system followed in the study of the Veda in India. It is not like study in a college or university with which you are acquainted. The Veda cannot be chanted so easily. In a way, we may compare the system of the study of the Veda mantras to the study of music. You cannot read a book of music and become a musician. It requires a practical guidance from a person who can sing for you. You have to listen to the singing, and then only you can learn music. A mere notation in a book will not be a sufficient aid in the learning of music.

The verses of the Veda are called mantras. There are Sanskrit poems called verses in English. There are two types of verses: one is called the Sruti, the other is called the Smriti. The verses of the Vedas are called mantras; they are not called slokas, because they are charged with a divine potency. The verses of all the other writings including the Bhagavadgita, Ramayana, Mahabharata, Manusmriti, whatever it is, are called slokas: great sayings. A sloka is a well-said saying. And a mantra is distinguished from an ordinary verse in this sense, that a mantra is a vibration pressed into the configuration or form of a group of expressions called words or language. The mantra of the Veda is, therefore, condensed energy. It is not a word in an ordinary sense. It is not a language that you speak when you chant the mantra of the Veda. You are giving expression to a tremendous force, and therefore, your apparatus within also should be trained to receive the potency of the mantra which you are going to recite or chant. The modulation of the voice is very important – the intonation. As you hear raga in music, there is swara in the Veda. There are four feet of every mantra; and when the Veda mantra is taught, the teacher, the Guru, does not recite the whole at one stroke.

I am one of those, I should say, fortunate ones who had the occasion to study the Vedas under a very holy man, and I know how it is taught and how it is learnt. A foot is chanted first, and the student recites it three times. And the second foot is recited by the Guru; the student recites it thrice. The third foot is chanted; then the student chants it thrice. The fourth foot is chanted, and he recites it again three times. This goes on three times again. This recitation of a foot three times goes on three times, so it is nine times recitation of a single foot. Then the Guru chants two feet at one stroke. That is half the mantra, half the verse you may say, which again has to be conducted in the same manner: three times, three times, nine times again. So you know how many times it has been recited. Then the whole mantra is chanted, not only half, again three times. The process is repeated again three times, so that it is nine times once again. When this is completed, the student will know the whole mantra by heart automatically. He need not go on wracking his head. It is like mathematics. If this process is complete, you know it by heart automatically; immediately the mantra is complete, and you get up with great satisfaction: “Now I know what it is.” See, what a system they have introduced! And likewise is every mantra.

Religious men study the whole Rigveda, for instance, which consists of some ten thousand mantras. Ten thousand! And to study it in this way, how much time will be necessary? Some four years, at least, must be taken. To study the four Vedas, it may take a large number of years – sometimes twelve years, at least. Nobody studies the four Vedas. Each person is supposed to belong to one particular Veda, and I myself belong to the Rigveda school. Some belong to the Yajurveda school, and some the Samaveda. Nobody belongs to the Atharvaveda, as it is an appendix to the Veda. The religious essence of the Veda is in the three texts called Rig, Yajur, Sama; the fourth is only an appendix. That is not studied, generally. Well, so this is how the Veda mantras are recited – seated in a holy posture, facing the east, after washing the mouth and taking a bath, and not getting up until the study is complete.

The mantra is a great power. Why is it a power? Christ says somewhere in his gospel that what he spoke was not merely a word. It was spirit that came from his mouth. As I told you last time, all great men think alike. Whether it is a Christ or a seer of the Veda, they tell the same thing, finally. It is spirit that came out from the mouth of the great chanter of the mantra of the Veda; and when you are reciting it, you are getting en rapport with this great spirit that is enshrined in the mantra of the Veda.

Such a mantra is here before you in the form of the Purusha Sukta. How is it chanted? There are three types of intonation, sometimes a combination of all the three, the three being called udatta, anudatta and svarita. These are technical words of the Vedic language. You chant a passage with a lifted voice, and with a lowered voice, and without raising or lowering but with a middling voice. These are the three ways. And each mantra, each passage, each verse involves these three types of intonation. This is the difficulty in the recitation of a mantra. There is the famous Mahamrityunjaya, for instance, which comes in the Veda and is a Veda mantra.

I am taking the Mahamrityunjaya as an example because you are all acquainted with it and are chanting it. There are three types of intonation in this mantra, if you have properly observed. Please listen to the way in which I am chanting it according to the accepted tradition. Tryambakaṃ yajāmahe – this is one foot. I mentioned to you there are four feet. Tryambakaṃ yajāmahe – that is one. The second foot: sugandhiṃ puṣṭivardhanam. Urvārukamiva bandhanān – that is the third foot. Mṛtyor mukṣīya māmṛtāt is the fourth foot. Now tryam – that is elongated and raised; it is called svarita. Tryamba – the ‘ba’ is neither high nor low; it is just in the middle. It is ‘ba’, in the middling voice. Tryambakaṃ – ‘ba’ and ‘ka’ are in the middle. They are in a straight line. They don’t go up like tryam. Tryam has gone up. Tryambakaṃ yajāmahe – one line straight. Su – you have come down immediately. Sugandhiṃ – again you have gone up. So you see, the three intonations are in one foot itself. Tryambakaṃ yajāmahe. Su – you lower the voice. That is called anudatta. Sugandhiṃ – that is svarita. Puṣṭivardhanam – again down you have come.

How can you chant this unless somebody teaches you? You don’t know where it is to be up, where it is to be down; otherwise, it will be like broken music. Urvāru – you see, all the three are low. Ur vā ru – all the three are lower voice. Kamiva – again ‘mi’ goes up, and ‘va’ down. Bandhanān – ‘dha’ goes up. Mṛt – again down. Mṛtyor mu – ‘mu’ goes up. Ṣīya – ‘ya’ is down. Māmṛtāt – the tāt goes up. I don’t know whether any of you know this. This is one example of a Veda mantra. Sometimes all the three are combined, and it is more difficult to chant it. I will not touch all these things just now.

Thus, these are techniques of intonation which change the meaning if the intonation changes. This is the speciality of a mantra as distinguished from an ordinary sloka or verse. Though the word may be the same, if the intonation changes, the meaning will change. You might have heard the ancient story where some gentleman wanted to produce a demon to attack Indra by the performance of a sacrifice through the chanting of certain mantras, and the performers of the sacrifice were not willing to produce such a demon. They did not want that some terrific force should come up and attack Indra. But somehow, without knowing the intention of the performer of the sacrifice, they had taken this engagement of performance, and they started the sacrifice. When it was started he said, “My intention is to produce this force to attack Indra.” They were in a very great perplexed mood. They said, “This is very strange. Do you want us to do this kind of sacrifice?” They could not say no, they could not say yes. Once they started they could not say no, but they cannot say yes either because they did not want to undertake this kind of enterprise. So they chanted the mantra as it was expected, but changed the tune. Immediately the effect was the reverse. A force was generated. Indra shatro vivardhasva. That was the mantra: Enemy of Indra, rise up. That was the meaning of Indra shatro vivardhasva.

Now, the changing of the tune connoted some peculiarity there. The enemy can be one who attacks, or one who is attacked. Both can be meant by this word ‘enemy’. So the changing of the intonation converted itself into the most unexpected significance: Great force, rise up to be destroyed by Indra. That meaning was introduced, instead of saying: Great force, get up to destroy Indra. That was the intention of the man who wanted to perform the sacrifice, but these people who changed the tune put another meaning into it: Great force, rise up to be destroyed by Indra. And you know the story. Vritra got up, and a great war took place, and Indra destroyed him.

Panini, in his Shiksha, also says this. Panini was a great sage who was a master of Sanskrit grammar and the phonetics of the recitation of the Veda. He said that if a Veda mantra is not chanted properly according to the required intonation, it may come back upon you like a thunderbolt. And so the tradition of India does not permit the purchase of a book from a shop and a reading of it for oneself. You cannot read a chemistry book or a physics book even, what to talk of the Veda mantras. This is by way of digression. I have given you some information about the importance of Veda mantras, the glory and the force and the potency that is hidden, etc.

Now we come to the Purusha Sukta proper which, as I said, is the foundation of the religion of Bharatavarsha, wherein the vision of the Supreme Reality is proclaimed at the very outset, in the very beginning, in the first mantra itself. The Sukta says the Great Being has countless heads, countless eyes, countless hands and feet. Sahasraśīrṣā puruṣaḥ sahasrākśaḥ sahasrapāt, sa bhūmiṁ viśvato vṛtvā'tyatiṣṭaddaśāgulam. The immanence and the transcendence of the Supreme Being is declared in this one single mantra. In one mantra with four feet the integrality, the comprehensiveness, the absoluteness, the transcendence and the immanence, all are declared. Such is the concise form in which these great ideas have been expressed in this one single mantra.

When it is said it is a Being with countless heads and eyes and hands and feet, etc., we remember a parallel passage in the thirteenth chapter of the Bhagavadgita: sarvataḥ pāṇipādaṁ tat sarvatokṣiśiromukham, sarvataḥ śrutimal loke sarvam āvṛtya tiṣṭhati (Gita 13.13). Sarvataḥ pāṇipādaṁ: Everywhere it has hands and feet, everywhere it has ears and eyes, says the Bhagavadgita. He is quoting the Purusha Sukta, as it were. As I told you, the whole religion of India, in every aspect of it, is centralised in the Purusha Sukta, and you can find there everything that is said anywhere else.

This Great Being is all eyes and all ears, all hands and all feet, all limbs, and pervading Earth and sky. The whole universe is pervaded by this Being: īśāvāsyam idaṁ sarvam (Isa 1), says the Upanishad. The same thing is said here, even before that. The whole cosmos is pervaded by this Being. This is to declare the immanence of God.

Now you will realise that this immanence is of a very special nature. As you go forward, onward with the study of this Purusha Sukta, you will find that it is a novel type of immanence that is proclaimed here. I give you an example of an ordinary daily occurrence of immanence. You take a bath and wash your clothes. You put your clothes into a bucket of water. You will find that the water enters every fibre of the cloth. You may say that the water is immanent in the cloth – immanent water is inside the cloth. Every little bit of your cloth has been soaked in water. There is no part of the cloth which is not wet. The water is immanent in the cloth. But you know the cloth has not become the water, despite the fact that the water has entered every fibre of the cloth. Cloth is cloth, water is water. So this immanence is a very strange thing. It is an impregnation entering into the vitals of the substance, yet standing apart in one way. That is why in one passage of the Bhagavadgita the Great Lord says, “I am in all things, yet I am not in all things. I am in them, yet I am not in them. They are in Me, yet they are not in Me.” The water is in the cloth, yet it is not in the cloth, because you can wring it out and dry it, and find there is no water there. The cloth is once again the same cloth. So water can say, “I am in the cloth, yet I am not in the cloth.”

This is one type of immanence. Water entering into the cloth is one kind of immanence, but there is another kind of immanence: clay becoming a pot. Clay has been moulded into a pot, and clay is immanent in the pot. Now you see the difference between these two types of immanence. You cannot wring the pot out of the clay and have only the pot minus the clay. That is not possible. When the clay goes, the pot also goes. But when the water went, the cloth did not go. So that is one kind of immanence, and this is another kind of immanence.

There has been a history of study, controversy and contemplation on the actual character of the immanence of God in this world, whether it is as water entering the cloth or as clay entering the pot. How did God enter the world? We shall not consider this controversy just now. However, the Purusha Sukta says that the Supreme Being has enveloped the whole cosmos, and if He has become the whole cosmos as clay has become the pot – the entire clay has become the whole pot, and there is no clay left out afterwards – there is no transcendence, there is only immanence.

God is not only immanence because if that had been the case, there would have been no creator of the universe. That the Creator always stands outside the universe is a great dictum of Aristotle, for instance. The cause of an effect cannot be identical with the effect. It has to be a little bit away; otherwise, it cannot be called a cause at all. The whole cause has become the effect. There is no cause. The creator of the universe cannot be exhausted in the universe; then, we cannot call him a creator. There is an element of transcendence in certain constitutions of government. The President, for instance, is a part of the whole nation, yet he stands above it in some respects as a super-constitutional head. He maintains some power which is super-departmental – not in every form of government, but in certain forms of democratic or republic constitutions.

God seems to be transcendent in this way with a super-departmental power. He can set right everything in one stroke if He wants. But He will not interfere with the law operating, as the President does not interfere with the laws of the magistrate, court, etc., imagining that he is above everybody. It is a law that He has Himself set in and, therefore, the immanence participates in the requirements of the transcendent, as a constitution of the departments of the government may participate and associate with, yet not contradict, the supremacy of the President.

The Purusha Sukta says God envelopes the whole cosmos, yet transcends it – atyatistad. Atyatistad means ‘goes above’ in the homely language of the Veda. The Vedic language is very simple, homely, like a mother speaking, not like a professor proclaiming his knowledge in a college or a university. It is a mother or a father very lovingly speaking that is Veda. A homely example is given to a child: God is above the universe by ten fingers - ātyatiṣṭaddaśāgulam. By ten spans, as it were, He is above the universe.

By the word ‘ten’ we are supposed to understand that God is not exhausted in this world. He stands above the world also. He may be even one inch above, it does not matter; yet he is above the world. But the annotators, the understanders and the students of the Vedas tell us ‘ten’ does not mean merely the numerical distance of ten fingers’ length or ten inches, ten cubits, etc. Ten means numberless, because there are only nine numbers in arithmetic. The last one is a zero. There is no such thing as a tenth number. One and zero make ten, and zero being not a positive numerical, it is excluded from the series. There are only nine numbers. So when you say that God has transcended the universe by ten cubits or ten spans, ten inches, etc., they say we are to understand that He has transcended infinitely, not only by a little length of space. Infinitely God transcends the universe, though infinitely He pervades.

Sahasraśīrṣā puruṣaḥ sahasrākśaḥ sahasrapāt, sa bhūmiṁ viśvato vṛtvā'tyatiṣṭaddaśāgulam. The declaration that He is all hands and feet, all eyes and heads, shows that He has no limbs. How can there be many things in one place? You cannot have eyes where there are ears. You know very well by common sense that where one thing is, another thing also cannot be there. So how is it said that He is everywhere hands and everywhere feet and everywhere eyes and everywhere heads? There is no meaning in this statement, because all things cannot be everywhere.

The idea is that He is neither eyes nor heads nor hands nor feet. These are only symbolic descriptions for our understanding, because we cannot understand anything except in an anthropomorphic, human way. It means He can see through the head, walk through the eyes, and speak through the lips. Every limb can perform every other function, not like us where only the eyes can see, only the ears can hear, and only the legs can walk. Every limb can perform every function; every atom of creation can do anything. Every speck of space is filled with every kind of potency, and it is capable of doing anything. All might and supreme omnipotence is hidden within every speck of space, every unit of time, and every atom of man. Such is God’s force. His very existence is force, His very being is power, and being and consciousness come together in the Supreme Being. This is the connotation hidden behind this symbolic statement that the Supreme Being is all eyes, all heads, etc. Such an inscrutable Almighty is immanent in the whole creation, and yet transcends it.

This is a short explanation of the first mantra of the Purusha Sukta. A little more about it I shall tell you later on.