Here at Ananda Sangha Seattle WA, we've been reading the published compilation of Swami Kriyananda’s letters of counsel in the book, "In Divine Friendship." Recently we got to the section of letters on chanting. Swami's "corrective" letter to the leaders of the Ananda communities on chanting in 1998 described the importance of melody in chanting and the importance of the new form of chanting given to us by Paramhansa Yogananda. Swamiji’s letter cautioned us on the overuse of chords, for example, or too much use of guitar with a strong rhythm and beat: forms of music with which we are accustomed from our upbringing in American culture.
He also distinguished traditional Indian chants from the chants Yogananda has given us, urging us not to chant Indian chants "just because" they are from India but only if they have a uplifting melody and have the vibration of Self-realization. (By this I believe he meant chants of soul aspiration rather than just loud repetitions of divine names which have little, if any, significance to Americans.)
Chanting, he reminded us, should express the primordial AUM vibration and should encourage us to go inward towards silent communion with Aum because we are yogis and neither Hindus nor hymn-singing Christians.
The reaction from Ananda members and leaders prompted Swamiji to modify his statements in the realization that too drastic a change would likely backfire and could prompt unintended results: an atmosphere of dogmatism, for example, or stark but lackluster chanting.
These letters were
from the late 90's and much music has flowed under the bridge of Ananda time
since then. Our current expression of chanting seems generally, to most of us,
to be a good balance between upbeat, rhythmic music that newer members can
relate to, and solitary, aspirational and vibrational chants such as Master has
given to us as yogis. We also sprinkle into our chanting chants from India that
have an uplifting vibration and beautiful melody, chants which, by and large,
Swamiji, too, enjoyed. (Sri Ram; Mahamantra; Aum namoh Bhagavate; Narayana Om;
and so on.)
One of the members, a professional musician, wrote to me with a series of observations. I wrote back and then we met in person in an harmonious exchange.
The conversation was not so much about chanting as about music. One of the questions was the importance and the role of emotion in music, not just in popular music but hymns and chants everywhere in the world. Why, it was asked, did Swamiji seem to “put down” emotionalism in chanting? After all, what's wrong with emotion? Why does Swamiji seem to discourage it? (Yogananda certainly had sessions of high energy chanting, using the drum for example and encouraging others to feel the power and "get into it!")
But not only was the
question about the role of emotion raised but it was identified as a preference of Swami's rather a guiding principle.
Another question was whether or not Ananda members should play or sing other forms of music. After all, there are many deeply inspiring pieces, for example from Beethoven, Mozart, Bach and other composers.
So here is the written response (edited for general reading) that I would like to share with you:
Dear friend, this is a big subject for emails, but I will try to respond to your comments. First, let's not personalize this to Swami, as if we are comparing him with, say, Beethoven or Bach. It's not quite fair to simply write off his thoughts on music as his "preferences" as if the spiritual importance of chants or music is only a question of taste. Ordinarily, our preferences in music ARE a matter of personal taste. Who doesn't like emotional music of one sort or another? The simple fact that we all enjoy music of various kinds doesn't enter the discussion when the discussion is focused on the spiritual practices of Self-realization.
In pre-covid times many of us would attend concerts and symphonies in and around Seattle. Padma and I just the other evening went to an Irish harp and storytelling performance in Seattle. Swamiji loved classical music of Mozart, Beethoven, Bach and others. He enjoyed and played traditional Indian chants as well.
But in his original chanting letter Swami Kriyananda was wanting to make a course correction away from some of the less yogic Indian chants and away from too much use of heavy Western style beat and chords. He explained that melody represents our soul’s aspiration; chords, emotion; and the beat, the ego.
He was wanting to uphold the aspirational yogic chanting that Paramhansa Yogananda gave to the world. Yogananda created a new genre of chants that are like affirmation put to melody. Mostly his chants are in English, the language of those to whom he was teaching. (He recognized that already in his lifetime English was becoming the “lingua franca” of the world.) But Swamiji’s counsel was not intended to be either-or, but rather, both-and.
But only comparing one form of music to another doesn't go deep enough into what Swami is saying. From the standpoint of soul consciousness, the goal is to transcend emotional states altogether. Consider the bedrock definition of the state of yoga given to us by Patanjali in the second verse of the Yoga Sutras: Yogas chitta vritti nirodha. (The state of “yoga” appears when the reactive mental and emotional processes of heart and mind are stilled.)
Emotionalism is therefore
not a preference or a mere matter of taste. That can't, at least within the
context of yoga teachings, be a subject of debate. Feeling is deeper than emotion. Feeling relates to the most elemental aspect of consciousness without which we are effectively comatose. True devotion is not emotion even if it starts with emotion.
The question then is: how should our public chanting be best employed to stay in tune with the vibration and goals of the path of Self-realization as Yogananda has given us?
Since you are in fact bringing up music, not really chanting, we find similarities nonetheless. Swami Kriyananda wrote over three hundred pieces of music: for voice, choir, instruments, ethnic, symphonic, and even an oratorio. Some are humorous; others light and tell a folk tale; some pieces echo themes from Japan, India, Egypt, Hawaii, Ireland, and Romania. But all have a message and the vibration of our soul’s memory. That memory contains that element of divine consciousness we call ananda, or joy! All are inspired in one way or another by the vibration and message of Self-realization.
So, my friend, you
ask whether Ananda would sponsor concerts of other music. In general, I
don't think we want to go in that direction. And since you have
asked, I don't think Ananda members AS members should be encouraged by Ananda’s
leadership to gather to sing and perform other forms of music. It's not a
question of permission, of course, but neither is it something I would want to
endorse, except on specific occasions, for example, July 4th,
Thanksgiving or other secular holidays or special occasions. Inasmuch as Ananda members live all over the world we mustn't be too strict in this regard.
especially those with musical talents, would do well to deepen their
attunement through the music we have (whether as singers or instrumentalists). We
are so accustomed to choose music (and art in general) on the basis of what
"I like or don't like." That is natural as it relates to our personal
choices, but we generally don't realize the impact music (and art) has on our vibration
and consciousness. And here we are discussing music that is endorsed and played in public settings at various Ananda functions like Sunday Service, satsangs, and holy days.
Swamiji was sensitive to the vibration of music, of people, and even of the consciousness of those who prepared his food. Music, as an outer expression of Aum, is especially important to our consciousness. Vibration is more than even imagery and far more than mere words or beliefs. Vibration is the first manifestation of God in the act of creation. It's not to say one genre of music is good and another bad in their artistic expression. It's rather a case that to the extent one is sensitive to vibration and is seeking divine a-tune-ment, it becomes a more important or serious question.
What other churches do for music is fine for them. But the vibration of both their music and their spiritual seeking is simply different. And what others do can be beautiful, positive, and enjoyable without necessarily being resonant with one's own spiritual path.
If Swamiji had not written a wide range of pieces (over 300), the question (or is it the answer?) would necessarily have to be very different. But he did and at Ananda we want to honor that fact as he himself encouraged us to do so. We do not wish to make rules about this, but we do want to be clear that focusing on the music that we’ve been given is a conscious choice we have made for the sake of our own attunement. It is, in fact, part of our sadhana (spiritual practice like meditation and service).
In divine friendship,