Words are the heart of Hindu traditions, stories, and culture. As I’ve returned to the scriptures over the years, I’ve begun to notice a pattern. Words come to the forefront, like in the Vedic creation story, where they inspire the creation of the universe.
This ancient fascination with verbal purity is kept alive by priests in India even today. By passing sacred hymns down the generations, priests have been able to preserve stories and prayers, some thousands of years old, almost perfectly.
When I looked into one of the most important Vedic texts, the Vedanta Sutra, this phrase struck me: “anavritti sabdat” in the original Sanskrit, or, “by sound vibration, one becomes liberated.”
I decided to start my search at the very beginning. According to the Vedic creation story, the first word ever spoken is tapa. A powerful being called Brahma, the builder of our universe, was born into darkness. All he saw was the giant lotus on which he was sitting, and a stem which disappeared into gloom. He didn’t know where the lotus came from, and he didn’t know how to go about his task of creating the universe. There was silence. Then, two syllables, “tapa,” resounded through space.
In Sanskrit, tapa refers to deep meditation or penance. According to the Bhagavat Purana, a Vedic text, at first Brahma “tried to find the speaker, searching on all sides,” but he then decided to “give his attention to the execution of penance, as he was instructed.”
This single, two-syllable word was what spurred Brahma, the first being, to create the rest of the world. The divine significance of words not only crops up at the heart of Vedic creation stories, but almost everywhere else in Hindu scriptures as an important theme.
The Mahabharata, the longest epic poem in the world, is also full of references to the power of words. Like the Vedas, it is a core text of Hinduism, and has a sacred status. The backstabbing, reversals of fortune through rigged games of dice, and its epic scale make it one of my favorite stories. It tells the tale of a great struggle between five brothers and the cunning Kuru dynasty, who usurp the brothers’ kingdom. The climactic war is dazzling in its scale and ferocity. The combatants use magical weapons called astras, which are capable of destroying planets. These astras are usually ordinary arrows, but they get their powers from certain words.
The warriors speak mantras (repeated sounds to aid in meditation), which infuse their weapons with god-like powers. In a section of the epic, an ally of the Kurus sends a powerful weapon, called brahmastra, to murder an unborn child in the womb of its mother. By chanting sacred mantras, the warrior is able to send the weapon in a way that harms the child without touching the mother. The weapons in the Mahabharata have fantastical characteristics, but they all work because of the underlying power of words. Words can create worlds, and also destroy them.
When I traveled to India a few years back, I got a chance to visit one of its most sacred cities — Varanasi. Thousands of tourists and pilgrims visit it every year. I went to one of its ancient temples with my parents. There I witnessed something I’d heard about, but never seen. A group of “Brahmans,” priests, sat next to the altar reciting old hymns from the Vedas. They sang without stop in a repetitive meter, eyes closed and legs folded. They wore a traditional dhoti garment, which is basically a length of cloth wrapped around the lower part of your body, but they were naked above that. They were still singing when I left, 30 minutes later, and they probably continued for many more hours. I’d just glimpsed a centuries-old oral tradition.
Back before the vast Vedic scriptures were written down, they were kept alive orally. This is quite impressive, since the texts contained thousands of verses. Verses were passed from teacher to student with extreme accuracy. To preserve the purity of these sacred words, Brahmans were expected to not only memorize the words in exact order, but the meter and pronunciation as well. The reason behind this obsession with verbal purity is that Brahmans believed that a word’s potency lay in its pronunciation and accuracy.
Since these words were of spiritual nature, even the slightest distortion could completely change its meaning, or leave it ineffective. The Vedas have a story that illustrates the importance of verbal purity in mantras. There was a man named Tvasta who had a burning hatred for the king of the gods, Indra. He performed a ceremony to obtain a son destined to slay Indra.
According to the Bhagavat Purana, he chanted: “Indra-satro vivardhasva ma ciram jahi vidvisam (Bhagavat Purana 6.9.11)”, or “O enemy of Indra, flourish to kill your enemy without delay”.
Tvasta intended to chant the word indra-satro, meaning, “O enemy of Indra.” Instead of chanting those words short, Tvasta chanted it long, and its meaning changed from “the enemy of Indra” to “Indra, who is an enemy.” Consequently, instead of a son who would kill the king of the gods, he had a son who would die at Indra’s hands. The smallest mistake in pronunciation led to his plans being foiled. Even today, centuries after these texts have been written down, there are a few in India who keep this ancient oral tradition alive.
I’m part of a monotheistic sect of Hinduism called Vaishnavism. I meditate every morning by repeating a few sacred words on prayer beads. It’s an important part of our religion. The words are supposed to give peace and a connection to God, and they help me through the day. My research gave me insight into the worldview of people who lived thousands of years ago, and their intense reverence for words. They seemed to treat words like deities. As a writer, this devotion inspires me. As a Hindu, it gives me a deeper understanding of my own religion.
Nimai Agarwal is in tenth grade. He has been practicing Vaishnavism, a monotheistic tradition within Hinduism, since his childhood. He enjoy sketching and painting, learning the flute, and writing. His is working on editing his novel, and hopes to have it published soon!
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