Chanting with Sri Krishnamacharya

This article was written by Srivatsa Ramaswami and is published here with his kind permission:

“Between 1980 and 1995 I recorded for a recording company, “Sangeetha”, many chants I learnt from Sri Krishnamacharya and more. During my recent visit to Chennai I talked to H M SriKrishna, a partner of the firm, and he said that they were about to make available online about 18 of my titles—hope it works out. A list of my programs is available, in the following site. www.sangeethamusic.com

Open the site and type Srivatsa Ramaswami in the search window for the complete list. You may click on individual titles for more information on each program and some have a LISTEN button to listen to a clip. The total chant time of all the program may be about 30 hrs. I hope they will be able to organize the on line downloading soon.

(I just got a message saying that 18 of my programs are now available on line and are down-loadable.  I have not tested the sites and I hope they work. Two of the main works Sundara Kanda (10hrs) and Aswamedha (3hrs) appear missing though)

One of the highlights of the time I spent studying with Sri Krishnamacharya was learning vedic chanting. I had, when I was about ten, started having private training in Vedic chanting at home (for about 3 to 4 years I guess) and so was familiar with Vedic Chanting. So when the opportunity arose to learn more chants I took it with considerable enthusiasm. Sri Krishnamacharya’s chanting was very similar to the way others chanted in South India but had a superior quality. His chanting encompassed all the parameters of vedic chanting. The first one is varna or the letters. In Sanskrit the consonants and vowels have a definite character and they can not be changed and there are no silent letters in Sanskrit words. In fact each character has a distinct place of origin in the body and many experts have defined them. The next parameter is maatra or the time duration for each letter, the short and long syllables and a few having more than 2 matras like the pranava. Bala is strength of the chanting. Sama is modulation, usually the chanting should be in the middle tone not high pitched nor low. Santana is the observance of all rules of conjunction.

I studied chanting with  Sri Krishnamacharya for several years. I think I must have spent over 1500 hrs learning and then chanting with him. It was a great experience listening to his chants and also chanting with him long passages like Suryanamaskara or Mahanarayana Upanishad or Pravargya sometimes running for an hour or more at a stretch. The otherwise drab chanting appeared to have life and buoyancy coming from him. While Sri Krishnamacharya is known for his contribution to Hatayoga especially asanas, his willingness to teach vedic chanting or svadhyaya as he would call it to those interested, even breaking the conventional restrictions of vedic chanting, is not that well known.

On the strength of my learning chanting from Sri Krishnamacharya I was able to record almost all the vedic chants I had learnt from him. Suryanamaskara (Arunam) or Sun Salutation was one of his favorites and one of the most popular chants in South India. It runs for an hour and in every Teacher Training program I chant this text consisting of 32 sections and the participants  do one Suryanamaskara at the end of the chanting of each section. It  takes about two hours for the entire exercise. I have included Varuna Puja along with this in my cd, chanting of Suryanamaskara. This chant is said to bestow good health to all those who chant or listen. Sun is the deity for health. One may consider listening to the chant on Sundays and doing suryanamaskara at the end of each of the 32 stanzas. It may not be too strenuous as one rests for two minutes listening to the chants and does one Namaskara for let us say 1 ½ to 2 mts. This is the first chapter in Taittiriya Aranyaka.

The second chapter is called swadhyaya chapter and is also known asKushmanda Homa. It is contained in my program called “Aditya Hridaya and Vedic chanting”.  Aditya hridaya is a very famous chant, a loukika chant which can be chanted by everyone without any restrictions. The orthodox view is that vedic chanting should be done only by those who are initiated  by a vedic rite called upanayana but, there are other chants like in the Ramayana, Mahabharata, the puranas and other later day works. Aditya hridaym takes hardly  8 mts to chant and it is recommended that one should do it everyday before undertaking the day’s work. Lord Rama in Ramayana is said to have chanted before the final assault on Ravana. Kushmanda Homa or the swadhyaya chapter offers an  encomium to the famous Gayatri mantra and its efficacy. It is said to remove the blemishes of the mind. I have also chanted the third chapter of Taittiriya Aranyaka along with a laukika work called Indrakshi and Siva Kavacha. The vedic portion is very nice to hear. Indrakshi and sivakavacha are prayers to Siva and Sakthi and is very popular in the state of Kerala.

I also recorded the last four chapters of the Yajur veda, (1) the Taittiriya Upanishad (3 chapters) and also (2) Mahanarayana upanishad (the last chapter). Taitiriya upanishad is one of the masterpieces on Vedanta and several acharyas have written detailed commentaries on them. It is a good work to help understand the thought process involved in the enquiry into the ultimate reality. Both these upanishads are currently in vogue and many chant them. These two chants are very absorbing if we know the general import and follow the trend while we chant or hear them I also recorded another vedic masterpiece called Aswamedha. This is said to be the highest religious rite of the vedas and only emperors could do the actual ritual. But everyone can chant or listen to this three hour chant. It is normally chanted in the afternoon of the Ekadasi or the 11th day after New moon or Full moon days. The 11th day is said to be the day of fasting and cleansing the body and mind. So those who fast on these days chant this. Then on the following morning they have early lunch and prior to that they chant or listen to the three chapters of Taittiriya Upanishad. There are three chapters in Aswameda volume  along with achidra and all of them take about three hours. Fasting on ekadasi and doing chanting for 3 hours in the afternoon could have a deep cleansing effect on the mind-body system There were a few other beautiful chants that I learnt from Krishnmacharya that I did not record. One was the three chapters of Taittiriya Kataka running for about two hours and another the Pravargya portion which has two chapters and take about two hours. I wanted to record them and also the Bhagavat Gita but could not get the opportunity.

I had spent hundreds of hours chanting these vedic chants with my Guru Sri Krishnamacharya. For several years Sri Desikachar and myself would chant with him in chorus.  This was a  very satisfying time of my life. Thereafter I used to chant with my Guru. The last class I had with my Guru was  one afternoon when we chanted Suryanamaskara together. Even though I learnt vedic chanting from my Guru and was able to record them there were a number of other chants, the laukika chants, which any one can chant and which are very popular in India. My recording company asked me to do a series of such chants. According to Sankara there are 6 forms of orthodox worship in India. They are Ganapati, Subramanya, Siva, Sakti, Vishnu and Surya. There are innumerable works in Sanskrit and also in regional languages. I was able to record a number of such works. On Siva, I had Vedasara Sivasahasranama or 1000 names of Lord consistent with vedic tradition. Then Indakshi Siva kavacha in which Sivakavacha is said to be a mantra to protect oneself from external dangers. I had also chanted the famous vedic chant on Siva Rudrama and chamakam which contains the famous mrityunjaya mantra and it was part of the cd (now discontinued) that we  added to  the  Complete Book of Vinyasa Yoga. However the Spanish edition of my book contains the cd.

Ganesa Sahasranama is the work from Ganesa Purana. I think it is a very charming work in praise of Lord Ganesa. I also did the Sahasranama in the form of namavali for Subramania, the six headed son of Siva, a very popular deity in the South. I have also recorded the Saharanamavali of Anjaneya, Hariharaputra (ayyappa) and Sage Raghavendra.

There are two works which are very popular among devotees. One is Vishnu Sahasranama or the thousand names of Vishnu from the Mahabharata, the same text that contains the Bhagavat Gita. This is chanted by many every day. It takes about half an hour to chant this but it is sad that many people because of pressure of time try to do it in 15 or 20 minutes, in a great hurry, virtually mutilating the beautiful names of the Lord.

The other Sahasranama which is also quite popular is Lalita Sahasranama, from a Purana. It is very beautiful to chant and hear. A  few years back when I was in Los Angeles teaching at LMU, I received a mail from someone in India inquiring where he could find a cassette of my chanting of Lalita Sahasranama. I think I had recorded it in 1981 or 1982. He said inter alia that his father used to listen to this cassette and chant along with it as part of his daily worship of Mother Sakti. He said that his father had since died and the family wanted to continue the practice of chanting the work and wanted to get a cassette because the one his father had used had become defective with overuse.

I also recorded a number of other works on sakthi. One is called Devi Mahatmya which runs for about three hours and has about 700 verses. It is chanted during the Navaratri or Dasara celebrations. My grandmother used to chant a Tamil versions of this during every Navaratri. Another work on Mother is the work called Mooka Pancha Sati (The five hundred slokas from Mooka). It is an outpouring of Bhakti by a mute dumb devotee who became a poet due to the grace of Kamakshi the presiding deity in the famous temple in Kancheepuram about 40 miles from Chennai. It is written in some difficult meters and has 100 slokas for each of the five chapters. It takes about 3 hrs to chant the entire work. One can see the slokas inscribed in the walls of this famous Kamakshi temple. I had also recited two other works on Sakthi for another company and I find these are available still in some musical stores in Chennai. One is Gayatri Sahasranama  and the other is Durga Sahasranama, which again is a popular chant during Navaratri. Lalita Sahasranam mentioned earlier is often chanted on Friday evenings and also on Full moon days. When I was young my mother used to arrange for the Saharanama archana of Lalita in our house every Friday for a number of years.

Other works I had recorded included Ramodantam or the story of Rama from birth to end. I named it Balaramayana or Ramayana for children because in the olden days this text used to be taught to school children to learn Sanskrit and also familiarize them with Ramayana. Another work, that perhaps sold the maximum number of cassettes, was “Sandhyavandana” or the prayer ritual done at dawn, dusk, and midday by thousands of people in India. I wrote an article with many pictures about this subject in Namarupa magazine a few years back.

The last program I did for Sangeetha was the recitation of Sundara Kanda of the epic Valmiki Ramayana. Many households arrange for the recitation of the same in one go or over a week. Those who are afflicted by the adverse effects of Saturn or Sani try to get solace from Sundara Kanda. It is said to revive a person from the jaws of death or desperate situation as Sita was. It is a ten hour program.

Yoga is a subject which whatever be the entry point reveals its richness slowly (yogena yoga jnatavyah) Sri Krishnamacharya was a Guru who always had something more to give something different something higher uplifting always. I loved chanting with him. Chanting is helpful, it cleanses the mind. Listening to those vedic and old chants is very uplifting.”

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