We need to listen. Most people, I would say, are not listening to anything other than white noise. What does white noise sound like? It’s something that is always somehow playing in the background. We usually think of meditation as something to do in seclusion–when it’s quiet and we’re comfortable–and when no one will come to disturb us.
And yet, even in this state of seclusion, our monkey mind is dancing around and having a party! The monkey mind is thinking about what it did, the events of the day and the events that are yet to be. And so even when we’re alone, there’s all this white noise.
Yesterday, I embarked upon a self-experiment. I went out for a walk by the river. It’s not a super crowded place, but it is central and in the city. I sat at a bench, as I often do. I decided to meditate there. I held my purse quite close to me, because I didn’t want anyone to steal it while I was meditating. Not that I actually thought anyone would. But better to be safe than sorry.
I closed my eyes, crossed my legs and I got into that state. The peculiar thing was that there was an actual semi-crowded environment around me. I wasn’t alone and I wasn’t in seclusion. So I closed my eyes and began meditating. I slipped into it quite quickly. There was no real difficulty on my part to get into that state.
The funny and ironic thing is that I heard the exact same sounds that I would have had I been alone. I heard footsteps. I heard a dog barking. I heard conversations I would momentarily pick up on of the people who walked past me. I could hear the forks, spoons and knives clinking away; residue noise from the restaurants that were nearby. I could hear the air-conditioning and all of these small sounds that were all around me.
I started to contemplate the true and full potential of human hearing. When we speak with our voice or with our hands (through writing) and we put something out there in the Universe; whether it’s a prayer, a request–something that we have articulated and voiced–I found myself wondering, how vast is this ability to hear?
Could we potentially pick up on voices that are really really far away? Because that is what sound is. Sound waves, you know, they travel. If you’ve done any sort of voice editing work, you’ll see little lines–they’re like the lines of a heartbeat on a heart monitor. Places where people are loud, places where people are soft. You would see this–through a device–that this sound that we cannot ‘see’ has a frequency. You see these waves go up and down, like the course and the trajectory of a river.
I wondered, who tuned into what channel was picking up on this frequency. I wondered if when we articulate the things that we articulate, to whomever it is we are articulating it to–even if it is to ourselves–if someone is listening to it and hearing it. Do they have to be tuned into the right frequency to hear it?
I’ve been thinking a lot about the feedback that one gets. If you’ve ever worked with microphones, sometimes you put things in and you get this loud shrill feedback. This awful sound emerges and you just want to make it stop. Somehow, we can’t handle that sound at that pitch. Like nails on a chalkboard. It’s pure torture.
I’ve always believed that we, as humans, are born with 5 or 6 senses, although I am leaning towards the latter. Of these senses, there are a few that are particularly heightened and it’s different for each person. For different people, different senses are particularly heightened.
In the Vedas, there is talk of Shruti, “that which is heard”. Someone heard this knowledge and they wrote it down or passed it on orally to their students who then passed it on. In the old traditions, it was not uncommon for students to have to memorise entire texts and be able to articulate it from their memory. You would hear your teacher’s voice and with time, that would become your voice, and that would become your student’s voice. And this knowledge would be passed down.
But then, we started to write, record and archive; and with that, we stopped articulating this knowledge. We would write it down, publish it and put it away.
But somehow… This knowledge never went away, even if we did ‘put it away’.
In addition to the ear, another symbol for Sravana Nakshatra are the three footsteps, which refers to how our words and the sounds we make are always travelling. I think about all the people who walked past me yesterday as I meditated in the city. They didn’t stop to say hello. They may have glanced at me–not that I was paying attention.
Now that I was physically in an environment where there were people going about their daily lives, I realised that so many of the voices that come into our minds and into our worlds; we can just let it pass on by like strangers walking on a street. If we don’t feel like engaging, we can just let it pass. We can just let it walk on by.
The power is, in the silence, yes, but the power is also in the sounds that we make. And anytime we feel we are tuned into a channel that we don’t want, we can always turn it off or let it pass us by.
To me, this Sravana Nakshatra is not just about the transferring of knowledge, between generations or between people. It is about the creation of thought forms–our mind-born children. In the myths, they talk about Brahma and his mind-born children. Just stop and think about the vast number of mind-born children that we have accumulated through the millennia of human existence.
If you’ve ever had this feeling, “I hear something… Wait, did you hear that?”
Let me know what you heard.
The Unsung Sound of Goddess Saraswati
It is said that the Saraswati River is no more. Is this a metaphor for the changing nature of life, knowledge, thought forms and our mind-born children? Or do the Vedas–a deep and vast emporium of human wisdom–refer to a physical river that has now ceased to be?
Scholars from different schools of thought approach Vedic verses differently. To some, it is literal, while to others–and dare I say most–the texts are symbolic, metaphorical and allegorical.
In popular contemporary thought, the interpretation of Goddess Saraswati and her role in the Hindu pantheon is vague. While it is common to associate Saraswati with Brahma, much like the other Goddesses, it isn’t altogether clear whether this association and this pairing is symmetrical in the same way that it is for the other two pairings in the Hindu trinity.
Despite Saraswati’s ‘natural’ association with Brahma; images of Saraswati with her counterpart are rare. She is portrayed as solitary figure who finds contentment in her own company. In iconography, Saraswati is seen with either a goose, a swan, a heron or a peacock.
Some scholars have traced the modern rendering of Saraswati to Tara, a Hindu-Buddhist goddess, who played a major role in the transformation and transmutation of Buddhism. As monastic orders rose around the world, knowledge was classified into a duality of ‘pure and higher’ forms of knowledge and ‘impure and lower’ forms of knowledge. The former can grant us spiritual bliss, but the latter seeks to arouse our senses in order to generate wealth.
The former came to be associated with priests, philosophers, writers, ascetics and the sainthood; while the latter came to be associated with entertainers, dancers, singers, musicians and performers. The former came to be commonly associated with the domain of Saraswati and the latter with Lakshmi.
To this day–and in all societies I have been a part of–‘commercial’ artists have been frowned upon and even called sellouts. To make money from their art and their artistic abilities is somehow seen to ‘take away’ from expanding the mind. This split revolves around this mind war that has plagued us since Vedic times.
What matters more in an earthbound life? The pursuit of wealth or the pursuit of knowledge?
In contrast to Shruti, which is ‘that which was heard’, Smriti refers to ‘that which is remembered’. The Shrutis are considered fixed. Smriti, on the other hand, exist in a myriad of many different versions with many different tellings. Smritis are fluid and freely rewritten. When we speak of the retellings of stories, we are referring to Smritis. They are human thoughts in response to the Shrutis.
You can think of the Smritis as ‘feedback’ to the Shrutis. If God hears our prayers, which I very much believe that God does, we can think of the Smritis as a correspondence with a higher power that has occurred over time and space. Should the Shrutis change? If their nature is to remain unchanging, then the answer is no. They cannot change.
The Smritis, however, shed light on the changing circumstances of life and even of our humble planet, which is but a small wanderer amid the vast galaxies. To study the stars is to peer into eternity; but to study the histories is to glimpse into the many temporal incarnations of humanity’s soul sojourn on earth.
As someone who was a second-language teacher for many years, I’ve taught what must now be countless people to read, write and speak a language that is not their mother tongue. Are the languages of the world an obstruction or a gift? Well, that all depends on which path you have chosen to travel.
And if you close your eyes, as I often do, by a body of water; you will hear very clearly where you need to go next.