Vedic Chanting: An Amazing World at the Intersection of Tones and Letters

Shri Gurubhyo Namaha Harihi OM

I was around 11 years of age when I first became really aware of the beauty of Vedic chanting.  I remember walking down to the temple at the end of the road in Matunga, Mumbai to fetch my paternal grandmother, when I was stopped in my tracks by the sounds of wonderful chanting. I immediately went to investigate. It was the Veda Paathashaala conducted for school children like me and even college students and office-goers by the Shri Shankara Matham. These free classes were conducted by a Vedic scholar by the name of Shri Ganesh Ghanapaadigal. (Ghanapaadigal is a title for any person that can recite the entire Samhiti part of the Krishna Yajurveda in Ghanam format.  As to what the Ghanam format is, I will come to it later.)

When I stood at the door of the Paathashaala aka Veda-class, I could see some of my schoolmates there, eagerly chanting the mantras being taught to them. Whatever the teacher chanted, the students repeated twice, in the time-honoured tradition. I was so captivated by this that I wanted to join the class then and there. But I was still not a Yagnopaveeti (my sacred thread rituals were yet to be conducted) and this meant that I had to wait. I immediately went crying to my paternal grandma, who was listening to a discourse at the temple and begged her to conduct my Yagnopaveetam immediately so that I could start learning. The Yagnopaveetam is a MUST for learning this highest of all learning: Brahmnavidhya. It is just like how one has to get a license to practise medicine by going to a bonafide medical school and getting a degree.

Coming back to my grandma, she was shaken to the core by my fervour to learn the Vedas and immediately persuaded my father to set the ball rolling regarding my Yagnopaveetam, which was then conducted the following year at Coimbatore (Tamil Nadu). I clearly remember how, after we got back from my Yagnopaveetam, my paternal grandma took me to the main sanctum of the Matunga Shri Shankara Matham. There was another Veda-class going on in the temple itself and this was conducted by an outstanding Vedic scholar by the name of Tiruvaiyyar Shri Viswanaatha Ghanapaadigal. My grandma gingerly escorted me to him and told him how her grandson (me) was very much keen to learn the Vedas and whether he could join the class. The great teacher immediately responded that I could join that very moment.

And from that point began my journey into this mind-boggling and awe-inspiring world of words and tones of the Vedas, a process of learning that stretched over the next 8 years of my life. Every evening after school, I would come home, then go outside and play cricket with my friends and then go back home and get ready for the Veda-class after performing the Sandhya. The performance of daily Sandhyavathanam is another absolute must for the chanting of the Vedas. The Sandhyavadhanam is a daily spiritual cleansing process because the chanting of the Vedas needs a very pure state of body, mind, and spirit.

Vedic chanting is UNIQUE in the sense that not only is the proper pronunciation of the Sanskrit a must, but also the proper tones. Tonal purity is mandatory.

Each letter has a tone and this tone cannot be changed, lest the meaning and the vibrations of the verse is affected. And the tones in the Vedas are not designated at random. There are solid principles of acoustics and the working of the human vocal chords that guide this tonal assignment. The tone of each letter is guided by the tone of the previous one. The teacher makes it a point that the students get the tones absolutely right. Any deviation is not tolerated. It is an all or nothing rule with no grey areas or space to err.  This explains why the Vedas are considered the forerunners of our Classical Music.

I started with learning the Navagraha Mantram (a hymn in praise of the nine planets) and from there progressed to the Sooktas (hymns in honour of various deities in the Hindu pantheon) and Shaanti Mantram before I started learning the immortal Shree Rudram and Chamakam, followed by Shree Rudra Tirusshati Archana, an amazing ode to Rudra. Then higher lessons followed like the Surya Namaskaaram, Taitreeya Upanishad, Taitreeya Kaathakam (the immortal Nachiketas), Mahaanyaasam (the purification mantras before chanting the Shree Rudram), and the blissful Udagashaanti which is the mantram chanted at marriages and other major Hindu functions.

Alongside these lessons, my Guru also inducted me into the advanced classes because I was picking it up pretty well and especially excelled in the recitation of the Shree Rudram and Chamaka Kramam. The Kramam is an advanced form of recital. He then taught me other higher forms of recital like the Padham, Jathai, and Ghanam. All these forms of recital are mind-boggling permutations of words and tones, which are the Hindu Vedic faith’s truly unique gift to the world. No other culture or civilisation can boast of such high sophistication.

Forms of Recital

Let me illustrate the Padham, Kramam, Jathai, and Ghanam forms of recital.

Let us take a simple sentence “YOU COME HERE”. Now this sentence has three words. So when you say the sentence as it is, it is called the Moola Mantram or normal chanting. In Padham chanting, you chant each word separately by spacing them out.

YOU – COME – HERE   And when you do this, each of the three words get their own tones, which may not necessarily be their tone when the three are chanted together as a string.

There is also the concept of Veshta-Padam or words containing sub-words, which I will not elaborate here as it may get too complicated for those not familiar with these Vedic concepts.

Next comes the Kranam format which goes by 1-2,  2-3, and ends 3-iti-3

So in our case, it would be   YOU-COME,   COME-HERE,   HERE-iti-HERE.

And here too the tones could change in each combination.

Next comes Jathai which goes by 1-2-2-1-2 and in our case we have two cycles for this sentence. The first cycle involving YOU and COME and the second one involving COME and HERE.

YOU-COME-COME-YOU-YOU-COME,

COME-HERE-HERE-COME-COME-HERE, HERE-iti-HERE.

And if you notice here, in the case of Jathai, the concept of self and reverse combinations of words come into play. If 1 combines into 2 as 1-2 in the forward direction, then 2 combines with itself before reverse combining with 1 and then 1 combines with itself before it forward combines with 2 again. And in the Vedas, 1-2 is not the same as the 2-1 combination, both in terms of words and tones.  As in the Kramam format, the cycle ends with 3-iti-3

This is followed by the exalted Ghanam format which goes by 1-2-2-1-1-2-3-3-2-1-1-2-3.

And here too we have two cycles for Ghanam chanting of the sentence. The first cycle involves all the 3 words:

YOU-COME-COME-YOU-YOU-COME-HERE-HERE-COME-YOU-YOU-COME-HERE

Notice the greater number of combinations in the forward, self, and reverse manner.

However, the second cycle has only two words: COME and HERE while Ghanam cannot be chanted with two words as it needs three words. So in this case, a Jathai cycle is chanted with COME and HERE:

COME-HERE-HERE-COME-COME-HERE

and as in the Jathai, it ends with HERE-iti-HERE.

Here’s a couple of YouTube videos of my Ghanam chants:

Ghanam and Reverse Ghanam invoking Lord Ganesha

(This is possibly the only Reverse Ghanam recording ever done)

Ghanam Chanting from the Krishna-Yajurveda from the album ‘Permutational Prayers Volume – I’ by Sydney Kishore

About my late Guru Tiruvaiyyar Shri Viswanatha Ghanapaadigal

My Guru was an ultimate exponent in Ghanam chanting in that he could chant the entire Samhita of the Krishna-Yajurveda in the Ghanam format and hence earned the coveted title of Ghanapaadigal. Getting this title is not easy. It is even more difficult than getting a Medical or Engineering degree because you need exceptional memory, diction and accuracy and the qualification test is one of extreme scholarship and rigour. The failure rate is also very high and each aspiring candidate gets only a maximum of three attempts. Any qualified Ghanapaadigal is worthy of the highest respect, such is the expertise that is required. Some portions are so difficult to chant because of the complex word and tonal patterns, that it requires enormous practice. Therefore, I dedicate my entire Vedic journey at my Guru’s feet.   He was an ocean and I am just a drop from that enormous saagara of knowledge. However, in spite of his enormous scholarship, he was not adept in the ways of the world and died in abject poverty, unsung and unappreciated.

Often in those days, one could spot him sitting on the steps of the Matunga Shree Shankara Matham in his unkempt and soiled dhoti, his lips constantly practicing the chants… Always generous to a fault with his knowledge and ever-ready to teach. One does not find Vedic teachers like him these days. Looking back, I’m stunned at how I got all that chanting knowledge FREE OF COST! I did not pay even a naya=paisa for those eight years of Ultimate learning.

And here, I will conclude on a personal note. At the completion of my eight years’ of study under him, I got ready to leave for America to do my PhD in my academic field of pharmaceutical chemistry. As any 22-year-old those days, my eyes were mesmerised by the USA and its stars and spangles. I was completely lured by the charm of the West. As I took leave of my Guru, he blessed me and told me something which took years for me to comprehend. He said, “Whatever PhD you do, in whatever field, it will pale in comparison with what you have learned from me.”  At that time, I did not pay much heed to those parting words because my heart was already with America. It is only today with age and the garnering of life experience, that I realise with absolute surety that what he said is nothing but the truth.

I haven’t met any other individual like him after that. The closest anyone could come to him, albeit in a very different realm would be my martial arts Kungfu master, 9th Dan Sifu Dr Ravi Aarumugham, in Coimbatore, who embodies the same level of expertise and teaching spirit in his fighting art without much consideration for money. It is indeed a great fortune to meet individuals like these and without doubt the product of some poorva-janma-karma.

Shri Gurubhya Namaha 

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Dr Sivaram Hariharan (Sydney Kishore)
When he is not spending time in Vedic chanting and Vedic teaching, Dr Sivaram Hariharan (aka Sydney Kishore) is a Professor of Pharmaceutical Chemistry as well as a writer who has recently released a mytho fiction novel 'Semmanthaka'. He is also a professional singer of Kishore Kumar songs and has performed all over India. In addition he is an avid practitioner of the Mansuria Kungfu Martial Arts under Master and 8th Dan Dr Ravi Aarumugham and won the gold medal for his age group at a national level Martial Arts tournament in 2016.

7 Replies to “Vedic Chanting: An Amazing World at the Intersection of Tones and Letters”

  1. gregorylent

    it would be nice to know the mystical reasons behind these things .. rote learning is great, and develops consciousness, but the nature of consciousness is ostensibly the reason for the rules .. i expect this is lost in this era

    • Shruti Bakshi

      Yes, agree. I know from my experience when I listen to it that it’s definitely impacting my consciousness but don’t know why or how exactly. I’m sure the patterns were devised with a very subtle and acute understanding of the effect of sound and vibration on mind and consciousness. Perhaps Sydney can enlighten us further…

    • Dr Sivaram Hariharan (Sydney Kishore)

      My main intent in demonstrating these higher modes of chanting Vedic Mantas was purely to demonstrate the scientific sounds of Sanskrit Sandhis and their interplay in the forward and reverse direction and more importantly the way tones combine in the forward and reverse direction in a highly sophisticated manner based on sound acoustics and the workings of the human vocal chords. The kind that one does not see in any other culture. For that reason alone, these modes of chanting stand out. Moreover, these higher forms of chanting also have the cardinal function of preserving the tonal purity of the original moola mantra.

      As to how they affects humans…let me give a very simple explanation without going into any empirical science like that of the soul or chakras and all that, over which one can endlessly argue..

      Why do humans seek motivation? Why do they attend motivational seminars and pay through their nose for them? Because positive motivational talk affects the psyche of the listener in a positive manner. The Vedas are nothing but affirmations of positivity both in the worldly and spiritual realm. These mantras repeatedly talk of universal peace, prosperity, abundance, victory, overcoming obstacles, environmental harmony and positive planetary interactions in space that affect the biosphere here on earth…Unlike some other faiths, they are not draconian verses of superiority of one creed over another…..They are not simple rote learning…yes rote learning to an extent to preserve the tones, but on a higher level, they are positive reaffirmations in ancient Vedic Sanskrit. If the listener understands this language, it will be MUSIC TO HIS EARS…And moreover, when these hymns are chanted in these mellifluous formats of Padam, Kramam, Jathai, and Ghanam, the effect just compounds and transcends the physical world.

      And finally, as we know, what we pronounce with our tongue, directly affects our brain centres.

  2. RAMGOPAL

    Great words, we need to take this great culture to our next generation also we should learn this immediately. Thank you Dr.Sivaram for this article.

  3. R. A. Krishna

    Thanks for a wonderful article.
    This tradition should never have gone from India, the Gurukulam taught everyone the Vedas and preserved our knowledge.
    Unfortunately, we have lost something so precious and worse still, most of us have no idea how precious.

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