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tradition of mantra and sacred music from India: interview.

Interview by Yoga Aktuell Magazine Jun/Jul-2020 Artikel in Deutsch hier

“This is an ancient culture of more than ten thousand years, with roots in spirituality and inspired by wise and enlightened beings, who have been able to touch spaces in the most hidden corners of sound, allowing to unfold its natural powers when rightly applied.“

Manish Vyas is composer, singer, multi-instrumentalist and has produced a wide range of albums. Many also know him from his concerts, workshops, retreats and teaching of Mantra, singing, Harmonium. Born and raised in India, Manish has recently moved to Switzerland where he lives with his wife. He studied with some of the most masterly Indian musicians and spiritual teachers. Manish says about his path: “The musical journey helps the spiritual journey and vice versa. They are complementary.”

We talked with him about certain issues with the Mantra and sacred Indian music in the West such as poor presentation of the authentic tradition, lack of proper musical elements in context with Mantra, dilution due to mispronunciation as well as distortion of the real purpose. We asked him to give some basic insights into the actual essence of this science and sacred Indian music.

YOGA AKTUELL: Manish, you are currently working on a documentary movie which will be out by the end of this year. Can you tell us what it is about?

Manish Vyas: I came to realize that many people related to Yoga in the West have an immense interest in Mantra. But seeing how this tradition is represented, I think it is about time to introduce people to the authentic sound and understanding of this tradition. It is much more than what the west knows so far. When one grows up in a certain culture, one clearly has the feeling of what the cultural elements are like and if one has been a student of a tradition, one knows this even much more in depth. So when you go to another continent and you see that your traditions or culture are presented in a distorted way, in a “weird” way, then you are simply stunned what is being presented in the name of Mantra, Kirtan and Indian sacred music.

I was really fortunate to be in the company of great musical maestros as well as great spiritual teachers who knew about the power and the purpose of sacred music. So through this film, it is the idea to reveal the authentic essence of the ancient tradition of Mantra and sacred music of India. I intend to make people aware of the magnificence of this tradition through conversations and dialogues with trained musicians, Sanskrit scholars and spiritual teachers, who have worked in this field all their lives. It is time people who love this tradition discover the real sound of mantra, its true application and practice.

So you have witnessed several falsifications of Mantra and Kirtan throughout the West now… If one represents something from one’s own culture, one is always part of it; but if one tries to represent something from another culture then it is a big responsibility to impart it in its most authentic form, keeping its roots, the essence and the fragrance of that culture. Now if somebody takes only few elements from a certain culture and adds their own ingredients in a little wishy-washy way it is an improper approach. If I had to represent Flamenco from Spain for example, I know I couldn’t do it. And if I sing some Spanish lyrics in Indian style, people would say: “This sounds Indian, where is the Spanish fragrance in this?” Honestly, to do that, it would require someone from another culture years of learning, spending time in Spain, understanding the language, music and spirit. Even I myself as an Indian still know nothing but a drop of the ocean of this ancient tradition of Mantra, because it’s so vast: the more I discover, the more I realize how little I know.

I feel it is important have a certain kind of discerning sense to differentiate between the real and the fake. If I want to have the taste of authentic Tango music, it would make sense to listen to the Argentine musicians who are best at representing it, not only in technique but in character. Would I listen to Japanese if I love Tango? But in the west, this has not happened when it comes to Mantras and Kirtan and very few people know great sacred music singers from India; this is hilarious for me and I think it is because people relate to the church music they have heard as children, or the pop music they heard as teenagers – so they just add the Sanskrit text on top and they feel familiar with it. But it doesn’t work like that!

Interestingly, western students of Indian classical music are aware of the fact that it takes many years of study until they can bring it on a stage. They know they first have to master all the techniques and elements. But when it comes to Mantra there is a lack of this awareness. It could be that people enjoy the music because it’s familiar to them, but yet the Mantra energy is not working in this way.

Mantra is a science of sound. In Sanskrit we speak of it as Mantra-Vigyan: science of Mantra. Every science needs a certain understanding. If applied correctly it can give great benefits, but if applied wrongly the same science leads to no result or wrong result. We see this in nuclear science for example. So in Mantra the primary thing is the pronunciation, meaning comes later. The preference is given to the sound, to the vibration. Each syllable represents an element. It has to be pronounced correctly as only then it connects with that form. Pronunciation works like a call– and it has to be a correct call. It is like with an e-mail address: spell it wrong it will bounce back. So this is the first requirement, but then there are many more rules in Sanskrit: accentuation, length of syllables, separation, prolongation, sound differentiation – so you can imagine how it is important to know accurately the alphabet phonetics, so that the vibration and meaning will be right.

I guess that people think it is just about the intention: like if you recite or sing the Mantras with a good intention in your heart then you basically can’t go wrong. That’s what I actually hear very often. But to really serve your intention you need to have the proper knowledge: if I am a pharmacist, but my intention is to be a heart surgeon – would you come to me for your heart surgery? Would I not need proper training, or is my intention enough?

Let me clarify something important: if one is practicing Mantra privately, then what is important is the recitation, pronunciation and faith. But when it is presented in public domain or being taught, a lot more responsibilities are involved and if the correct understanding of Mantra and the right ingredients of Indian music are not used, then it is a false representation.

Can you share some basics of your knowledge and give us a few insights into the rich tradition of Indian music?

Indian music has its foundation in spirituality. The ragas (notes combinations of Indian music) emerged from people in evolved states of meditation. Classical Indian music has always been considered sacred and initially, music was played in temples only. There is one ancient style of singing called Dhrupad and if you wanted to listen, you had to go to a temple.

In India, Mantra and Kirtan are not entertainment. I have never been to a Mantra concert all my life. There are public Kirtan or devotional gatherings, where a few Mantras may be recited at the beginning or end, but the whole approach is not entertainment. In India, famous singers may be invited for Kirtan concerts, but even then it is not about the musician: let’s say there is Shiva-Ratri celebration and they invite a well-known singer, then people are still focused on Shiva and not on the singer. So it is not about 'stardom' but about connecting with the essence, the divinity. (It is also important to clarify that in India there are no 'mantra singers' but impeccably trained singers, who had been trained in the highest music system, and also may sing mantras.)

Could you also clarify some of the key terms: For example, what is the difference between chant, Kirtan and bhajans? And what is a Mantra by definition? How is it to be distinguished from just a verse line?

When it comes to the sacred music of India we have Kirtan, we have Bhajans, Stotras, Stutis, Shlokas, Gurbani from Sikkhism, prayers from Buddhism, Jainism and so on... Not everything from India is a Mantra! So what is the meaning of Mantra? A Mantra, by definition, is a sound which protects the mind from repetitive, compulsive thinking. Of course this can also be interpreted as a sound that brings certain tranquility. Then there are Saguna-Mantras and Nirguna-Mantras. That means there are Mantras dedicated to certain deities and there are Mantras that simply address the wisdom and truth of life. Then we have Beeja-Mantras or seed Mantras like om, gam, hreem, shreem which don’t have meaning but they relate to different energies or forms. Mantra is purely sound connected to a certain vibration and has a certain purpose in reciting and that’s why the meaning is not always significant – like in nature when the animal makes a certain sound to attract the female, like the peacock – it doesn’t have any meaning, but it serves that purpose – but only that sound, if you change it, the female won’t come!

Bhajan or Kirtan is a different phenomenon. It is nãma-smarana: remembering the names of the divine. Here the pronunciation is not as crucial as in Mantra. Kirtans happen spontaneously in our homes, in gatherings, spiritual events, temples, even in metro trains. Again here, the singer “does not exist,” he is absent because the purpose of Kirtan is to disappear, to dissolve the ego, not to enhance the artist.

Mantra practice is very different from Kirtan. Actually, what many people don’t know is that it is traditionally Mantra chanting, not Mantra singing. It is known as Japa Yoga. And what is Mantra chanting? You get a Mantra from your guru – it would be given to you very secretly, whispered in your ear and only you and your guru know it. Along with the Mantra the guru gives you guidance about how and when to practice it. Then the Mantra-practice is that you go to your private space, take a mala, like for instance a Rudkraksha-Mala and then you sit there all alone and chant this Mantra each day for as many times as you have been told. You can see how private and personal this practice is.

Mantras don’t need music. Mantras are complete in themselves. While in the traditional Vedic chanting there are three notes. So if one decides to create music for a Mantra then first of all one has to consider their sacred nature. For example if the musician chooses a Mantra for Shiva, first the essence of Shiva must be understood, as all the deities have their respective qualities and their prime characters. Shiva is very energetic and fierce, while for example Krishna is more loving. That does not mean that Shiva is never loving and Krishna can’t be roaring, but they have a main quality. According to that, we choose a Raga for the Mantra: Shiva Mantra cannot be too romantic while a Krishna Mantra cannot be too fiery. It’s a wrong call, like trying to sleep a baby with heavy-metal. So according to the energy one finds the right elements in the Indian music and when doing that, the body and the soul of the Mantras come together. It needs the right ingredients. One cannot do a hiphop version of OM GAM GANAPATAYE NAMAH; it simply just doesn’t go. On the contrary it is an insult to its sacredness. Nothing wrong with hiphop, but it suits to a certain kind of lyrics and culture. Mantras need different ingredients. How hilarious would it sound if I sing the famous song from Queen “We will rock you” in Indian ragas? It will lose its soul, isn’t it?

Is the genuine music tradition still fully blossoming in India these days? Or do you face dilution or simply a widespread forgetting about the old spiritual treasures there, too?

In the daily life of an Indian, there are Mantras for every purpose! In the ancient scriptures, Mantras have been described for every stage in life. We even have Mantras for a woman who is pregnant which she recites for her child so that the child receives good Sanskaras – so the bond to Mantras starts even before the birth! When people get married, start a new project, enter a new home, at death - all through these situations in life there are specific Mantras and most people still practice that. In times of the so called modernization or globalization few people are losing touch with it, but thankfully the tradition is still very alive and very present – anybody who visits India will notice that. Every time I visit my hometown, these sounds of chants, temple bells, prayers... immediately surround me. Also Kirtans happening in nearby homes or connected with some festival. In India, sound is everything. That is why the ancient Rishis called it NADABRAHMA: Sound is Brahman, sound is Divine, sound is All.

Interview by Nina Haisken, Yoga Aktuell

June 2020


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