Tuning the Chanting Circuit

Sujatha R
11 min readOct 18, 2019

Exploring Vak Shuddhi and Pronunciation basics in aiding Gita Chanting

I recently started attending the Gita chanting classes along with a few other members in a neighboring park. We knew the script and had some familiarity with chanting. The horses were let loose. There was clouding and violation at times causing exception and crash like scenarios. Quickly we would recover from the hiccup in the next verse. Complex concatenations and unfamiliar transitions in real time rendering perhaps.

My friend once asked. What about the breaks? That set me thinking.

If an ordinary music player played music with such fidelity. It did not understand the language nor music ! It just followed a few rules.

We are attempting to chant and not even a musical opera. What are those rules to be uncovered?

A few observations, a few adjustments and a few learnings perhaps. Let us uncover these layers.

A comfortable and erect posture is ideal for breathing, undivided concentration and hence chanting. Consider this as your charging point and grounding.

samam kaye-shiro-greevam dharyan achalam sthira

Identify the Rhythm

Most of the Gita verses follow the Anustup meter of 8 8 8 8 syllables. And there are possibilities of multiple tunes. In this article, I have referred to the tune in Chinmaya chanting. Hear a few verses a couple of times and get a hang of the tune. Similarly there could be other tunes like the Sama veda chanting style.

Break the Verse into Quarters

Get a feel of the quarter verse. When you reach the length, It is time to break the verse and gulp in some air. Chant the second quarter and gulp some air.

Chant the third quarter and break. Chant the fourth quarter and break.

Resonate at the quarter ends

Every chanting style has unique resonance points. The points mentioned here is specific to the chanting style of Chinmaya.

Imagine the chanting of OM.. Feel the resonance at the end.. The idea is to get that kind of feel at the end of each quarter. Like the gong of the bell.

In case of a nasal sound like न् or म् just prolongate it like in OM chanting. In case of visargas, end it with the preceding vowel.

niyataṃ kuru karma tvaṃ(mm)

moghaṃ pārtha sa jīvati(ii)
tair dattānapradāyaibhyo(oo)
eṣa vo ‘stv iṣṭa-kāma-dhuk(a)
ye pacanty ātma-kāraṇā(ā)t
karma jyāyo hy akarmaṇa(a)
purovāca prajāpatiḥ(i)
mucyante sarva-kilbiṣaiḥ(i)

Calibration of the Vocal Apparatus

An observation checkpoint on the vocal anatomy of the sounds. Sounds are generated during the exhalation cycle.

Consonants क through ङ are produced by the movement of the epiglottis. च through ञ involves tongue hitting the top of the palette. ट through ण tongue hitting the palette further back, त through न tongue making contact with teeth and प through म involving contact of lips. Consonant sounds are produced by contact and hence short lived.

On the other hand, vowel sounds do not need any contact and can be sustained for long duration. Different sounds are emitted depending on the shape of the mouth and hence direction of the air flow. ऋ and ऌ need the tongue to be placed near the back and front palette but not touch it, hence qualifying for a vowel. The following picture gives the placement just for an idea.

Fine Tuning the Visarga

Now that we had a quick lesson, A few tips to improving the fidelity of the Sounds

  1. Visarga in between the verse should be a quick expulsion of air and not take any additional time for rendering. On the other hand, the Visarga at the end of the line takes form of the vowel sound. Good example is the Shanti invocation 3 times. शान्तिः शान्तिः शान्तिः would sound like śānti- śānti- śāntiḥi.
  2. In Verse 3.10 सहयज्ञाः प्रजाः सृष्ट्वा पुरोवाच प्रजापतिः only the ending visarga should like prajapatihi. There should be no extension in सहयज्ञाः प्रजाः

Alpaprana and Mahaprana Sounds

There is a subtle difference between the two. During chant it might be difficult to fix these. Let us have a look at a few of them. Is there a way we can remind ourselves about the Mahaprana sounds?

  1. √भू The root sound means to be.. There is a strong resonance of this feeling in all the words containing it..Hence we can fix our pronunciation with this feeling
  2. ख् means space..
  3. √धा means to hold.
  4. √स्था means to stand
भूतानि   भवन्ति   भूत्वा   ब्रह्मोद्भवम्  समुद्भवम्
श्रीभगवानुवाच इष्टान्भोगान्हि यज्ञभाविताः
कर्मभिः इन्द्रियेभ्यः संस्तभ्य (plurality)
भारत भेदं
सांख्यानाम् सुखदु:खबुद्धिं सिद्धिं श्रद्धा विद्धि युद्ध समधिनिष्ठा तिष्ठ प्रतिष्ठितम् श्रेष्ठ अधिष्ठानम्अनिच्छन्नपि गच्छति

Understand the Thermal Sounds.

Notice the subtle difference between श and ष. The tongue is rolled back in ष like in ट . Just observe your tongue and make a slight adjustment if needed. It may be doing it without your knowledge. सृष्ट्वा, प्रसविष्यध्वम्, एषः, इष्ट-काम-धुक्

Easy parsing of the Half Sounds.

Most of us have difficulty placing the different nasal sounds quickly. If you had difficulty speed reading the nasal sounds in its half form, good news is that you can mentally just skip it with anuswara.. Just place the tongue in the consonant position following it. So why bother decoding this letter and then deciding where to set..

Like ञ्ज, ङ्क, ङ्गः, Even the thermal sounds seem to have affinity with their counterparts. always श्चि and ष्ठ pairings.

भुङ्क्ते भुञ्जते सङ्करस्य सङ्गः साङ्ख्यानांकश्चित् निश्चित्यनिष्ठा तिष्ठ प्रतिष्ठितम् श्रेष्ठ तिष्ठन्ति अधिष्ठानम् सृष्ट्वा इष्ट

What is ऽ in between the alphabets?

In ‘लोकेऽस्मिन’ ऽ kind of indicates independence from previous syllables for Sandhi or Syllable combing purpose. Kind of word split for beginner understanding.

And how to break at the Quarters? Sandhi Viched

If you felt unsure how to break the quarters, no worries, this section will guide with chapter 3 verses.

Think of Sanskrit sounds as Elements of Periodic table and Sandhi like an alchemy at the joint. Think of welding elements A and B. Depending on the tongue placement and firmness at A and B, the sandhi operation could have different results..

  • Both A & B are preserved at the joint
  • A is slightly altered to allow smooth transition to B

The below table identifies different kind of breakups at the boundaries. Just by our understanding of vocal anatomy and mechanics of the tongue, these effects can be experienced and not treated as rigid grammar rules.

Section 1 is of kind where both A & B are preserved. In the typical case where first word ends with ‘m’ and second word begins with vowel.

Section 2 त् modified to softer form द्.. to aid the quick transition to अ and आ

Section 3 When there is union of Visarga(:) with consonant, the visarga is modified to the appropriate thermal sound depending on the placement of the consonant. Let us remind ourselves that visarga is a forceful quick expulsion of air. When we see a श् ष् or स् in the sandhi location, we can think about visarga ending of the first word and consonant beginning for next word.

Section 4: When there is a Sandhi of Visarga and Vowel or Semi Vowel (ya), the visarga is modified to र्. Therefore seeing a र् should indicate Visarga + vowel combination. [Again this is intuitive as visarga needs tongue to be resting down and vowels need tongue to be slightly upward in the natural position, so the visarga is modified to ra]

Section 5: 2 Repeating consonants stacked..TBD

If you have ever wondered why sandhi break for every word is not done in chanting, think of buffer overflow. There is additional time space consumed and we miss the 8 count.

Poise in Chanting: Balancing the syllable train

It is time to address the issue of cluttering and unhandled situations. Is there a paradigm to uncover this? Take a deep breath as this could be a new learning for some of us.

The famous musician Mozart had once said ‘The music is not in the notes, but in the silence between.’

Syllables are the smallest cluster of sounds. There is a small silence between each syllable. And a train of syllables makes up a verse.

Let us remind of this fact. A consonant always falls back on a vowel for its existence. And in complex words, we could even have 3 or 4 consonants at a stretch. So what is the formula? What is the quantum of sound in each carriage?

A look into few examples.

V or CV are examples of simple syllables.

Gita verse 3.1jyāyasī cet karmaṇas te matā buddhir janārdana
tat kiṃ karmaṇi ghore māṃ niyojayasi keśava
matā => ma tā
ghore => gho re
niyojayasi => ni yo ja ya si
keśava => ke śa va

In the opening of a word, as there are no vowels to fall on, the consonants get attached to the following vowel. In the closing of the word, similarly the consonant gets attached to the previous vowel.

jyāyasī     => jyā ya sī
cet => cet
tat kiṃ => tat kiṃ
māṃ => māṃ

When the consonant list gets longer, general guideline is to tag the consonants to the previous vowel and limit it to one consonant to the next vowel. This is where we generally do the mistake.

CVCCV would be split as CVC CV

Gita verse 3.1

jyāyasī cet karmaṇas te matā buddhir janārdana
tat kiṃ karmaṇi ghore māṃ niyojayasi keśava
karmaṇas => kar ma ṇas
buddhir => bud dhir
janārdana => ja nār da na
karmaṇi => kar ma ṇi

Gita verse 3.4

na karmaṇāmanārambhān naiṣkarmyaṃ puruṣo ‘śnute
na ca saṃnyasanād eva siddhiṃ samadhigacchati
na kar ma ṇā ma nā ram bhān nai karm yaṃ pu ru ṣo ‘śnu te
na ca saṃ nya sa nā de va sid dhi sa ma dhi gac cha ti

Gita verse 3.15

karma brahmodbhavaṃ viddhi brahmākṣara-samudbhavam
tasmāt sarva-gataṃ brahma nityaṃ yajñe pratiṣṭhitam
kar ma brah mod bha vaṃ vid dhi brah māk ṣa ra sam ud bha vam
tas māt sar va ga taṃ brah ma nit yaṃ ya jñe pra tiṣ ṭhi tam

CVCCCV would generally be split as CVCC CV

3.15_1
yast vāt ma ra ti re vas yād āt matṛ ptaś ca mā na va ḥ
3.10_4
eṣa vo ‘stv iṣṭa-kāma-dhuk
e ṣa vo ‘stviṣ ṭa kā ma dhuk [No fallback vowel, लोकेऽस्मिन ऽ indicates that fallback to previous vowel not allowed here. It is like start of sentence.]

This paradigm of balancing and equalisation known as ‘sama’ seems to provide so much balance and ease in articulation. Essentially we are keeping the beginning simple for each syllable and shifting some of the consonant load towards the end of syllable.

This defines Verse as a chain of syllables following the meter, tune and gently settling down like the gong of the bell. This whole schema of syllables seem like an interesting read and make room for chanting meter appreciation. How do we adopt it? Can we do it run time? I would suggest we should keep listening to the reference chant and practise a few words to get the hold. Run time changes will automatically happen and not be forced..

vid-dhi   sid-dhi    śrad-dhā  bud-dhi
kar-ma brah-ma āt-ma gar-bha

tas-māt vah-nir
nit-ya ā-vṛt-ya vāk-ya niś-cit-ya mith-yā
niṣ-ṭhā tiṣ-ṭha
niś-cit-ya kaś-cit
naiṣ-karm-yaṃ ud-bha-va muc-yan-te saṃ-nya-sa gac-cha-ti
ja-nār-da-na
yast-vin-dri-yā-ṇi manasā
ni-yam-yā-ra-bha-ter-ju-na
a-ne-na pra-sa-viṣ-yadh-vam
eṣa vo ‘stviṣ ṭa-kā-ma-dhuk
ye-tve-tad abh-ya-sū-yan-to (Q1)
saṃ-stabh-yāt-mā-nam āt-ma-nā (Q2)
du-pū-re-ṇā-na-le-na ca (Q2)
ni-yam-ya bha-ra-tar-ṣa-bha (Q4)

In summary, Proper breathing, syllable grouping, duration of the syllables and the gaps in between makes the rendition fluid, joyful, sustainable and accurate.

What is the Gita meter?

Most of the Gita verses are in the Anustup chandas and the longer ones in Trishtup chandas.

Anustup : 4 paadas of 8 syllables containing 32 syllables in each verse.
Tristubh : 4 paadas of 11 syllables containing 44 syllabes in each verse.

The syllables could be as small as a vowel and range as big as a consonant clustering. Hence there is a variability in the duration of the syllable. There are 2 kinds of syllables — Short and Long-Laghu and Dheergha.

In a verse of 32 syllables for example, there is a template fixed for few positions. for other positions, it is a dont care. And hence the verse complies to that meter. Did you ever feel a pattern in the Gita verses? At Least in the ending words?

In the words of Gita, It is about uncovering and not really discovering… The knowledge is all around us in its basic and most comprehensive form. It is for us to uncover this Gyana and Vigyana. There is nothing more purifying than Knowledge. Having seen some of the knowledge on chanting, let us bring them in practise one by one.

I hope you like this article. Do let me know your comments.

The Sandhi Quarter breaks for chapter 3 are marked in these pictures.

Some References in case you want to rewind or want to explore more.

CHANTING REFERENCES
http://mychinmaya.org/bhagavad-gita-all-chapters-audio/
http://www.geetachanting.net/bvg03v01-10/VOCAL ANATOMY & PRONOUNCIATIONSwara- https://youtu.be/a4rz9NbMq0M
Vyanjana - https://youtu.be/dq5VdY69RMc
SYLLABLES
https://bhagavadgitareader.wordpress.com/tag/syllables/
https://arshadrishti.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/04/Rules-of-Chanting-in-Samskritam.pdf

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Sujatha R

I write.. I weave.. I walk.. कवयामि.. वयामि.. यामि.. Musings on Music, Linguistics & Patterns