Excerpts from the writings of Paramahansa Yogananda
[Ancient chant traditions from many cultures are recognized today not only for their intrinsic beauty but also for their spiritual power. Paramahansa Yogananda was a pioneer in introducing India’s art of devotional chanting to the West. His book Cosmic Chants was written in the 1930s, offering words and music to more than 50 chants that he composed or adapted from traditional songs of India. In the following excerpts from his preface to that book, and from his other writings, he explains how “spiritualized” chants help to quiet and focus the mind in preparation for meditation:]
Popular songs are usually inspired through sentiment or passing interests. But a song born out of the depths of true devotion to God and continuously chanted, audibly or mentally, until response is consciously received from Him in the form of boundless joy, is a spiritualized song.
Such songs like live matches produce the fire of God-awareness whenever they are struck on the foundation stone of devotion. Ordinary songs are like wet matches that do not produce any spark of divine realization.
Each of the Cosmic Chants in this book has been spiritualized; that is, at various gatherings each song has been sung aloud and mentally until the chanters found actual response from God. It is hoped that every reader will sing these chants, not as ordinary music to please the ear or emotions, but as soul-saturated songs to be used for divine communion.
Sound or vibration is the most powerful force in the universe. Music is a divine art, to be used not only for pleasure but as a path to God-realization. Vibrations resulting from devotional singing lead to attunement with the Cosmic Vibration or the Word. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (John 1:1).
Singers of these songs who want the best results should chant them alone or with true devotees of God, with ever increasing devotion and fervor. After the notes are learned, one’s undivided attention should be given to repeating them with deeper and deeper devotion, striving fully to understand the meaning of the words in the chant, until one is immersed in the bliss of singing. This joyous feeling is the first perception of God.
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Sankirtans or musical gatherings are an effective form of yoga or spiritual discipline, necessitating intense concentration, absorption in the seed thought and sound. Because man himself is an expression of the Creative Word, sound exercises on him a potent and immediate effect. Great religious music of East and West bestows joy on man because it causes a temporary vibratory awakening of one of his occult spinal centers. In those blissful moments a dim memory comes to him of his divine origin.
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One of the Ten Commandments in the Bible is: “Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain.” Whenever one repeats a chant or prayer absentmindedly, without complete attention on the Lord, one has taken the Divine Name in vain; that is, without result, without utilizing the omnipresent power of that Name, and without receiving God-response. The Lord does not answer such parrot prayers. To repeat a chant with ever-increasing understanding and devotion is to take the Name of God, not in vain, but effectively.
One who sings these spiritualized songs, Cosmic Chants, with true devotion will find God-communion and ecstatic joy, and through them the healing of body, mind, and soul.
Each of these chants should be sung not once but many times, utilizing the cumulative power of repetition, until the singer feels great bliss wafting through the radio of his heart. When this joy is felt it is proof that God has answered the singer, and that his devotion has been properly tuned; the broadcasting of his ardor in chanting has been true and deep.
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If harmonious music and sweet words can be converted into soul awakening, they are contributing to the cause of one’s liberation…. If a piece of music has no high or holy vibrations, it arouses frivolous, nervous, or even base emotions. Spiritual music, such as hymns and devotional chants, raises the listener’s consciousness, dispelling coarser vibrations.
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Music that is saturated with soul force is the real universal music, understandable by all hearts. I have had many demonstrations of this truth during years of appearing before American audiences. I was giving a series of lectures at Carnegie Hall in New York in April 1926 and at that time I suggested to some musical friends the idea of my singing one of these chants, asking the whole audience to join in, without previous rehearsal. My friends thought the chants would be alien to American understanding.
I protested that music is the universal language of the soul’s devotion to God and that all soulful people, whether familiar or not with Eastern or Western music, would understand the divine yearning of my heart during chanting.
One evening I started to chant “O God Beautiful” and asked the audience, who had never before heard the song, to join me in chanting it. For one hour and twenty-five minutes, the thousands of voices of the entire audience chanted “O God Beautiful” in a divine atmosphere of joyous praise. Even after I had left the stage, the audience sat on, chanting the song. The next day many men and women testified to the God-perception and the healing of body, mind, and soul that had taken place during the sacred chanting, and numerous requests came in to repeat the song at other services.
This experience at Carnegie Hall, the music temple of America and the scene of the triumphs of many great singers and musicians, was a spontaneous tribute to the universal nature of soul music and to the untutored understanding of Westerners regarding the Eastern chants.
Since that evening I have sung these chants thousands of times with Western and Eastern audiences and have seen divine benefits showered on devotees who chant with love the Lord’s blessed Name.
Listen to kirtan chants