The art of chanting correctly is, first, to practice it with full awareness of its inner
purpose. That purpose is not to awaken sentiments or to stir up
the emotions. It is to focus the heart’s feelings and raise them
The Maharani of Cooch Behar told me she’d once asked her family priest why he
intoned his chants so loudly. “Well, you see, your Highness,”
he explained, “God is far away. If I don’t shout, how will
He hear me?” God isn’t far away, of course. It is we who distance
ourselves from Him by the “noise” in our own minds, a
noise people often carry with them into their prayers and meditations.
Loud chanting does have its place. It is good at the start of meditation-not for
the reason that priest gave, but to command attention from our own
minds. For loud chanting creates a magnetic flow. Like a mighty
river, it can dissolve the eddies of thought and feeling that meander
idly along the banks of the mind. Like a magnetic military leader,
it commands attention from your thought-soldiers and fires them
Once you’ve got their attention, chant more softly, more inwardly. Direct your
energy upward, now, from the heart to the Spiritual Eye.
Once your conscious mind is wholly engaged in chanting, bring it down into the subconscious
by whispering. While chanting in the subconscious, offer the chant
there, too, up to superconsciousness at the point between the eyebrows,
until you feel your entire being vibrating with the words, the melody,
and the rhythm.
At last, chant only mentally, at the point between the eyebrows. Let your absorption
lift you into superconsciousness. Once it does so, and once you
receive a divine response, you will have spiritualized the chant.
From then on, any time you sing the chant it will quickly carry
you again to superconsciousness as if on a magic carpet.
To spiritualize a chant, keep it rotating in the mind for days at a time, if
necessary: not only in meditation, but as you go about your daily
activities. This practice is also called japa. Christian
mystics, too, speak of the continuous “prayer of the heart,”
and of “practicing the presence of God.”
Once the mind is focused by chanting, and the inner energy is awakened, take your
chanting inward. Don’t only “make a glad noise unto the Lord,”
as the Bible puts it: Listen for His answer. Meditation is
listening, as I’ve said. Feel yourself chanting in attunement, above
all, with the Cosmic Sound. Harmonize yourself inwardly with that sound.
What Words to Use?
There is not a strong tradition of chanting in the West. Most of the chanting
I’ve heard has been Gregorian chant, which is little heard outside
of monasteries, or chants transported from India. Buddhist chanting,
like Gregorian chant, is a recitation of scripture and is not, therefore,
an appeal of the heart to God.
India has developed a tradition of chanting as an expression of deep, intimate love
for God. There is power in such chanting, even if you don’t really
relate to the words you’re singing.
Paramhansa Yogananda, as a great yogi whose mission was to disseminate the yoga teachings
in the West, introduced a new kind of chanting here. It is based
on the repetition of meaningful phrases, rather than of the divine
names. Some of the chants he wrote he translated from Bengali or
Hindi songs. Others, he wrote himself. This kind of chanting is
more like a repetitive prayer set to music, and is better suited
for meditators, who understand the importance of combining the soul’s
appeal for divine grace with self-effort. For by singing God’s names
only, what remains in the mind is the thought “God will do
it all for me.” What Yogananda’s method of chanting accomplishes
is to awaken in the mind the thought “In these ways I will
cooperate with His grace.”
One of his chants goes:
“I am the bubble, make me the sea.
So do Thou, my Lord! Thou and I, never apart,
Wave of the sea dissolve in the sea,
I am the bubble, make me the sea.”
Very simple, you see? And very easily memorized. When such a chant is sung repeatedly,
the mind is easily lifted up into meditation.
Some of Paramhansa Yogananda’s chants go further in the direction of personal affirmation,
and are less similar to the traditional concept of prayer. An example
of such a chant begins with these words:
“Why, O mind, wanderest thou?
Go in thine inner home!”
These chants, too, are powerful, spiritualized as they were by a great master.
They are in many ways better suited for people who follow the path
of meditation. I myself have sung them for as long as I’ve been
meditating—nearly fifty years. The inspiration I derive from
them is precious to me beyond words.