The Symphony of Life (1991)
The Ancient Science of Sound
Beneath the cacophony of life there exists a sound of unsurpassed sweetness. It is not sound as we know it not something to be heard as much as something to be felt. It is a vibration. Sometimes you can feel it spontaneously, perhaps as you lie in bed waiting to fall asleep, or on a quiet morning in the country. For the most part, it takes an effort to feel it, simply because the powerful noises that surround us tend to block it out. Yet the individuals who seek depth in their lives will, at some point or other, befriend this sound and begin to explore it. And in doing so they can find assurance in the fact that they are not alone that all the great esoteric and spiritual traditions have studied the phenomenon of that subtle vibration for thousands of years. Perhaps nowhere was this carried out to a greater degree of exacting science than in India, where the whole topic falls under the rubric of the “science of mantra.”
It would not be an exaggeration to say that the investigation of sound was perhaps the single most important thrust of study for the ancient sages of India. In their fervor and passion for truth, these earliest scientists repeated the same experiment day after day. The watched themselves; they meditated on the Inner Self; they observed the Self functioning in different realms of experience. In the classical mythology, Shiva himself appeared to instruct these seekers, whether in dreams or in physical reality. From this contact, which was nothing other than the contact with their innermost Self, they evolved a profound teaching about the nature of sound and its relationship to all levels of life. The two most important things they discovered about sound can be summarized very simply (although to grasp them is another matter altogether): 1) sound (vibration) is the essence of the universe, and 2) understanding sound is the means to liberation or Self-realization. The remainder of this paper is a discussion of those two points from the tradition of Kashmir Shaivism the written and oral branch of Indian philosophy that originated in the northwest province of India called Kashmir.
First, a few words about Kashmir Shaivism. This philosophy is monistic, its basic tenet being that the entire universe is nothing but conscious energy, and that everything in the universe is that consciousness expressed in different forms. The word “Shaivism” is derived from Shiva, which is a name for the Ultimate Reality. Its principal text, the Shiva Sutras, which will be discussed further below, was revealed and studied in Kashmir, hence “Kashmir Shaivism.” The system is also known as Trika philosophy, because it is base on the threefold principles of God, soul and matter.
According to legend, in the ninth century A.D., the great sage and saint Vasugupta was told by Lord Shiva in a dream to go to a certain rock and read the teachings carved on it. These teachings, now know as the Shiva Sutras, consist of seventy-seven succinct sutras (verses) of revealed wisdom in simple language. Vasugupta copied these teachings, studied them, wrote about them, and passed the teaching on to his disciples. The Sutras and their associated commentaries are the heart of Shaivist philosophy. The major premise of Shaivism is that the single Ultimate Reality has two aspects, one transcending the universe (prakasha, lit. “the bright, or shining”) and one manifesting through it (vimarsha, lit. “experience”). The system categorizes cosmic evolution into thirty-six categories or tattvas. It discusses the origin of spirit and matter as well as the nature of Ultimate Reality, and explains the principle of spanda the principle that is the focus of this paper.
It should be noted at the outset that the insights gained by Kashmir Shaivites were by no means exclusive to their tradition. There is tremendous support for their insights in other traditions. For example, the Bible, in the New Testament Gospel of St. John, describes the Creation as proceeding from sound: “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God; all things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made.” The Greek philosopher Pythagoras likewise talked of the cosmic role of sound. “Each celestial body, in fact each and every atom, produces a particular sound on account of its movement, its rhythm or vibration. All these sounds and vibrations form a universal harmony in which each element, while having its own function and character, contributes to the whole.” And of course great musicians of all time have known of and written about the transcendental nature of sound and its power to bring the listener to a divine state. Beethoven claimed about his music that, “No evil fate can touch my music. He who divines its secret is freed from the unhappiness that haunts the whole world of men.”1
What is extraordinary about Kashmir Shaivism is the extent to which its founders delved into the nature of sound. They pursued their research with a rigor that parallels that of today’s great physicists and mathematicians. They wrote elaborate texts and created complex terminology to describe their experiences. The Kashmir Shaivites found that the universe originates from one completely subtle sound that gives rise to all other, more gross vibrations. In a sense there is a hierarchy of sounds, and one might talk about the descent of sound from the subtlest and most impalpable to the densest and most palpable. Yet, unlike a hierarchy, there is no separation between the levels. The subtlest incorporates the most gross. However, the untrained human is often only aware of the grossest levels. Just as the melody of a single violin is lost next to the clamoring of a subway car, so the awareness of the subtlest sound, the subtlest vibration, is lost to the distracted awareness of an untrained mind.
Critical to the Kashmir Shaivite discussion of sound is the principle of spanda. It means throb or pulse. It also means an urge. It might be described as the essence of a wave in the ocean of Consciousness an impulse or desire to create and enjoy. Perhaps originally it was a flutter of love. In any case, it is not an ordinary desire or impulse, for it emanates not only from the center outward, but from everywhere at once. From deep inside the ocean of Consciousness, something moves. From that spanda, the whole world comes forth.
This ocean of Consciousness is the Absolute; the throb is Its creative power. In another famous text of Shaivism, the Paryantapanchashika, the great master of Kashmir Shaivism, Abhinavagupta, says that the Absolute (Paramashiva) and His creative power (Parashakti) are the divine couple. He rests always in His eternal nature, and She is eternally active, expanding to reveal and to reabsorb the whole of the universe. She is His first stir and also the infinite stirring. This first stir is also called spanda. Abhinavagupta further describes spanda as unobjectified desire which leads Consciousness (Paramashiva) to feel incomplete. It is the first stage of consciousness before it crystallizes into the reasoning process. The senses get their power in spanda. The pulsation of spanda exists continuously; and in all the different states of consciousness there is spanda. It is the residual, foundational substratum of the manifested world.
The vibration of spanda moves in the atmosphere like a resonance. For this resonance, and the interplay of its vibrations, a symphony of energies comes forth. Substance and form are created without every losing unity in Consciousness. The whole universe is the result of the proliferation of these vibrations emanating from Parashakti or Paravac, the primal sound, the subtle sound that arises at a frequency before noise. Inherent in the expansion of Parashakti are the three powers of will, consciousness, and action (iccha shakti, jnana shakti and kriya shakti). From these three powers emanate the two currents of substance and form: vachaka, the current of words and meaning which further divides into varna, mantra, and pada; and vachya, the current of objects, which further divides into kala, tattvas, and bhuvana. These together form what is called the “sixfold path of emanation” from which everything ultimately manifests. Kala is time and space, tattvas in this context is the interaction of sound in time and space, and bhuvana is the resulting gross matter.
The discovery of the Shaivite scholars that matter comes from vibration is supported by the findings of the world’s great scientists. Physicists continue to find evidence that there is no substantive physical world. Because the special theory of relativity states that energy and mass are actually variations of the same stuff (called mass-energy), quantum physics is led to conclude that everything is a form of energy, i.e., that the “solid particles” that compose our world are formed by the intersection of waves of energy. When the Shaivite scholars characterized the world as a combination of different frequencies, they were saying much the same things as quantum physicists, since sound and movement are inseparable. Indeed, because sound in the Shaivite texts refers to much subtler vibrations than the gross sounds that we are familiar with, one would be safe in saying that the ninth century Shaivites and today’s scientists are saying exactly the same thing.
The Microcosm Contains the Macrocosm
According to Shaivism, everything in the universe exists in each individual. We can illustrate this in its most gross form by noting that all the elements that form the matter of our bodies (e.g., carbon, helium) are either given off by our sun or produced in other areas of the universe hundreds of billions of light years away. Another dramatic illustration is found in the recent work with holographic images and the resulting discussion of the “holographic paradigm.”2 Holography is a method of lenseless photography in which the wave field of light scattered by an object is recorded on a plate as an interference pattern. When the photographic record the hologram is placed in a coherent light beam like a laser, the original wave pattern is regenerated and a three-dimensional image appears. The interesting thing is that any piece of the hologram will reconstruct the entire image. The discovery has led to considerable discussion along the same lines that Shaivites held over a thousand years ago.
The Tantra Sadbhava says, “The universe is His form. All feelings exist in Him. Knowledge of the whole gives Him His universality.” Because of this, Parashakti, the supreme creative energy of life, manifests Herself in the form of vibration, called Paravac. In an individual, that vibration is called kundalini. Parashakti and kundalini are one, but kundalini is how Parashakti shows up in the individual, in you and me.
Just as the macrocosm manifests in stages from the Absolute through branches involving form and substance and their intersections, so we, the microcosm, are also manifested in stages. The whole of our individuated energy is called kundalini. Kundalini manifests in stages, beginning with the Absolute, Parashakti, the stage in which everything exists in potentiality. It is the stage of spanda in which that first impulse shows itself, the stage in which nothing has yet manifested, although the readiness to manifest is present. Then follow the three stages of unfolding: pashyanti, madhyama, and vaikhari. Pashyanti has as its root the Sanskrit word “to see.” It means the first showing. When a rock is dropped in the water, there is a lag time between when the rock hits the water and when the vibration starts to emanate. Para is that instant when the rock and the water meet, the instant that contains all elements: rock, water, and movement together. Parashyanti is the impulse to move, madhyama is crystallized thought, and vaikhari is gross speech.
Each of these stages of manifestation corresponds to the unfoldment of a chakra. “Chakra” is a general term meaning “wheel” or “circle,” and it refers not only to the energy centers of the body where the kundalini energy is strongly felt, but also to other collections of forces, as we shall discuss. In your body, they are the centers where you can most palpably feel the kundalini energy; they correspond to the “third eye” of the forehead, the throat, the heart, the navel, the sex organs, the base of the spine, and the crown of the head. The para stage of manifestation, known in the individual as parakundalini, corresponds to the base of the spine, the pashyanti stage to the navel center, the madhyama stage to the heart, and the vaikhari stage to the throat.
How does all this relate to sound? In Kashmir Shaivism, each of these chakras are associated with a “root-vibration,” which in turn is associated with certain letters. Thus, taken as a whole, the system of chakras (known as Matrikashakti) constitutes the primal alphabet, the alphabet formed of the essence of letters. From this alphabet, according to the tradition, the whole universe arises.
In a beautifully complex and elegant scholarly exposition, the ancient sages traced all manifestation back to a single root sound, the primal vowel, which formed all other vowels. Then from the vibrations of the vowels came the consonants, and from the interplay of the whole alphabet came the thirty-six tattvas. Shaivite scholars went so far as to explain exactly what utterance gives rise to a particular phenomenon. For example, the gutturals give rise to the five elements: earth, water, wind, fire and air. The palatals give rise to the five subtle elements: odor, taste, sight, hearing and touch. The cerebrals give rise to the five organs of action: speech, sight, movement, excretion and reproduction. The dentals give rise to the five organs of sense. And the labials give rise to five “sheaths” of mind the psychic instruments.
What is the salient point to be derived from all of the dividing and subdividing and classifying? It is that all of life is inherent in the power of sound. Sound has tremendous power, and, by extension, the individual who learns how to relate properly to sound has tremendous power. This is the key point to the remainder of this discussion: by applying sound theory and practicing the science of mantra, one attains not only the understanding of manifestation, but liberation from suffering and worldliness.
Matrika, Mantra, and Liberation Through Sound
The combination of letters described above is called the matrika chakra the group of letters. Matrika means literally the “unknown mother,” unknown because we are trapped (by our lack of understanding) in the most gross level of manifestation of the word. Matrika shakti is the power of sound that is the matrix of the cosmos, and manifests as the letters in the alphabet. Matrika is the subtle force behind thought and speech. It is important to remember that what is referred to here is several levels of subtlety removed from gross speech, and from words and letters such as you are reading now. The matrika chakra, and indeed the whole of science of mantra and sound, is based on an understanding of the essence of language, on “word” as referred to by St. John: “And the Word was God.” This is no ordinary phonology!
While in the abstract this may be hard to understand, a look at one’s own experience clarifies. Put at its very simplest, words have power. Take for example, the word “disgrace.” Imagine someone you respect accusing you of being “a disgrace.” The power of that accusation sets up a vibration in you that was not there before the accusation was uttered. It is as palpable as if someone had thrown a rock at you, yet all that was thrown were words. This is another fundamental concept of Kashmir Shaivism: that our mind, in the form of words, concepts, and ideas, is the source of bondage and suffering. According to the Shaivites, as long as we do not understand the true nature of matrika, we are bound by worldly actions and feelings remaining victims of words without ever really understanding the source of their power over us. With the study of mantra, we gain the understanding to see what underlies the power of words and the alphabet, and can begin to use that power for our upliftment.
In the Shiva Sutras it is said that “enlightenment comes from knowing the group of letters called matrika chakra.” Each of these letters in the Sanskrit alphabet can individually be called a matrika, because each is a power in its own right. When we think, the process involved stems directly from the vibration of these matrikas. Again, take your own experience. Think of a time when you lost your temper and spoke unkindly to someone. Where did the thought process and ultimately the articulation of anger come from? It arose from a vibration, a stirring in you that you responded to, which then manifested as thought and finally as words. The process of losing control is none other than taking the subtle vibration of a moment and allowing it to descend into its grossest manifestation in the form of words and actions. This descent parallels the one discussed earlier in the paper that of the subtlest sound (which is the essence of the universe) descending into the gross form of physical manifestation. In Kashmir Shaivism, the microcosm always contains the macrocosm.
Self control (and ultimately liberation) is the reverse of that descent, or rather the cessation of that process its earliest stages. Instead of articulating that vibration, or even thinking the thought that the vibration evokes, one simply feels the vibration fully. Two things then happen: (a) one attains a detachment from the emotional reaction the vibration evokes, and (b) the power behind that vibration forces one to a higher level of consciousness. Since the vibration is only a strong energy, if it is not reacted to but simply absorbed as energy, it will promote the individual to a new level of awareness.
And this is only the beginning. Through a spiritual practice of meditation and mantra, our experience is transformed completely. A spiritual mantra is nothing other than pure, inwardly-directed matrika. Mantra saturates and transforms our consciousness when repeated at the levels of manifestation talked about above. Yet while matrika usually (in our normal thought processes) moves through our awareness from the para stage down to the vaikari stage, in the practice of mantra the order is reversed. When repeated at the vaikari level (the throat), the gross body is purified. The feeling associated with it may be experienced as a vibration in the tongue and mouth. When repeated on the madhyama level, the mantra is said to have one hundred times the power as when repeated on the gross level, and may be felt as a stirring in the heart. In the next level, the pashyanti level, the mantra no longer exists in concrete form, but is simply a pulse of energy. The awareness of this pulsation releases ecstasy in the heart; a person who has attained this level has the power to create through words whatever such a person says has to come true. On the para level, only bliss exists. Pure spanda appears and the seeker is totally aware of the “I” consciousness that is our very essence.
And all this takes place from sound, from the basic vibration and combination of vibrations interacting with one another. One vibration becomes like a string that has a pitch of a certain frequency and sets up various resonances. Each resonance in turn becomes like another string that sets up further resonances. And from this symphony of creative energy, everything manifests. All things are forms of creative energy, the Shakti, which is never separate from Shiva, the Absolute. Through meditation, we experience Him directly. We penetrate maya and matrika, and reach the eternal mantra, the sound of the union of Shiva and Shakti, the vibration in which all is One. This is liberation.
The study of sound is an immense and ambitious project. Ultimately it is the project of one’s own liberation. We are fortunate to live in a time where we have access to the thinking of those who spent their lives delving into the subject. We can study their writings and marvel at the fastidiousness and thoroughness of their approach. Nonetheless, it is only by our own practice of mantra that we can come truly to understand their insights. Until one has experienced it, the topic is nothing but words. And while we have just discussed the power of words, that power is like the mere flicker of a candle in comparison to the furnace of our own experience. To seek the experience, to practice daily and become attuned to the vibrations of life at all levels this is the highest goal and the key to liberation.
1. J. Keys, Only Two Can Play This Game (New York: Bantam Books, 1971).
2. See ReVision 1, nos. 3 and 4 (1978).
Excerpt from MUSIC: PHYSICIAN FOR TIMES TO COME edited by Don Campbell, copyright 1991, 1993, 1995. Reprinted by permission of Quest Books/The Theosophical Publishing House, Wheaton, Ill.