It seems that mantras or chants, be it repetitive single words or a series of words and even sounds, are found in all major organised religions or cultures. You might call them prayers or incantations, but any form of spiritual belief, spread throughout any of the ages and across the globe, has its own version.
Chanting ascribes to the notion of either immeasurable power, power to heal, power to change, power for good and for some even power for evil. And some are seen as opening a communication pathway to a higher Being or Creator – and the hope or belief that there will be a response.
The Power of “Om”
When one speaks about Hinduism, there is no escaping the mention of “Om” or “Aum”. It is the core and most powerful chant or mantra (Sanskrit for sound tool) and the basic tool for many meditation practices. It is made up of three Sanskrit letters, aa, au and ma. What is behind the reverence for Om and why does it have this power over people?
The Hindus consider “Om” to be the first sound that was created when the Universe was created, at the time of the Big Bang if you accept that theory of creation. It’s the sound that still reverberates throughout the universe, a primordial sound as it were, is their belief.
There has been research done on the properties and benefits of chanting “Om” and one published in 2009 concludes that it acts as a brain stabiliser and is calming, especially for those under stress. Also agreed upon by this team of researchers from India, the conclusion is that “Om is a spiritual mantra, outstanding to fetch peace and calm. The entire psychological pressure and worldly thoughts are taken away by the chanting of Om mantra.”
India’s National Institute Of Mental Health And Neurosciences (NIMHAN) has been studying whether yoga and meditation that includes “Om” mantras are beneficial for mental health. The researchers observed that the brain’s limbic region – the part of the mind that controls primal emotions and instinctive responses – was deactivated when subjects chanted “Om”.
Caption: There are many chants in Hinduism but the most basic is “Om”. Photo: Wikimedia Commons
Elevated by Buddhist Chants
“Om” is also one of the chants that Buddhists and Jains employ – understandable considering the links both religions or philosophies have with Hinduism. Buddhism though has its own set of chants (and this can differ according to the various schools – Theravada (Sri Lanka and South-east Asia), Mahayana (East Asia) and Vajrayana (Indo-Tibetan).
One of the main chants of the Tibetan branch is “Om Mani Padme Hum” (note the “Om”). A scientific paper published in 2013 looks at the effect of this chant and it notes that sound can travel much faster in water than in air. Up to 60% of our body is composed of water and several previous studies have shown that even in organisms without auditory apparatus, like snails, playing the chant has a direct effect on cognition.
The study confirms that the mantra “Om Mani Padme Hum” is made up of frequencies that are known to generate powerful vibrations when chanted. These vibrations during chanting are presumed to be creating a resonance effect, as a result of formation of constructive interference patterns between the frequencies of each syllable which maybe the reason this chant exhibits a therapeutic/healing effect on the body and its functions.
AUSTRALIAN ABORIGINAL SONGLINES
In an article titled “Australian Aboriginal Songs” in the Journal of the International Folk Music Council, TGH Strehlow writes that Australian native songs are a composite form of art, where their most striking feature is the element common to both music and poetry: rhythm. Songs were often chanted, combined with difficult rhythmic forms in an amazing series of variations. It was not unusual for the singers to bring out strong musical stresses in their chanting while simultaneously tapping out a different rhythm with their boomerangs.
Chants play a big part in Aboriginal ceremonies, also known as corroborees. Adult men gather around a fire to chant ancient songs, while others around them act out the elements of the song through dance. As all land is regarded as sacred, these songs must be continually sung to keep the land “alive”, describing the Aboriginal people’s strong relationship with the land of their ancestors.
Lewis Burns, a Tubba-Gah from the Wiradjuri nation, has spent most of his life learning about his Aboriginal culture. With about 400 nations left out of 900, Burns devotes his career to preserving the art form of his people, through performances, traditional dancing and art. Here, he sings a welcome song in his tongue at the Heart & Mind Festival in 2020. He accompanies his singing with clapsticks, oval-shaped percussion instruments made from wood that are hit against each other.
CHANTING IN AFRICAN AND NATIVE AMERICAN CULTURE
In African culture, chants are taught to children, teaching them of their heritage. These chants carry stories of an individual’s family, community and regional affiliations, as well as their clan and revered ancestors. Also known as “praise songs”, this form of poetry allows others to know each other better. This has also formed the basis of several African musical genres, such as izibongo and isicathamiya. Isicathamiya is performed in the Zulu language, in a style that is akin to a capella choral singing.
Native American music plays a vital role in history and education, where these rituals and chants are said to originate from deities and spirits. Stories are performed through chanting, telling epic legends about cultural and historical figures that have become an iconic part of the tradition. Passed on from one family member to another, these songs hold special meanings and are believed to possess spiritual power: whether for healing, success in hunting, memorials, or social gatherings.
Professor Willard Rhodes from Columbia University wrote in his article, Introduction to North American Indian Music, that “Indian music is basically monophonic, single-lined. The simplicity of this monophonic music may fall strangely on ears that have been conditioned by the thick harmonic and contrapuntal texture of Western European music. A concentration of attention on the melodic line of the songs will convince the listener that the rhythmic element is no more important than the tonal element, and that the songs, though repetitive, are not monotonous.”
“UNLOCKING” THE POTENTIAL OF THE MIND
The chants most well-known under Christian practices are the Gregorian chants (or plainchant), named after Pope Gregory The Great in 600 CE. In 1994, it even received attention on the pop charts thanks to the German band Enigma, whose song “Sadeness” became an international hit, selling 12 million units and reaching No.1 in 24 countries.
Following the popularity of “Sadeness”, Angel Records released Chant, an album based on Gregorian chants more than 1,000 years old, performed by the Benedictine Monks of Santo Dominico De Silos in Spain. Chant became the best-selling Gregorian chant album ever released, peaking at No.3 on the Billboard 200 music chart, going double platinum in the United States, and eventually selling more than six million copies worldwide.
As reported by The Washington Times, Benedictine Sister Ruth Stanley, who was head of the complementary medicine programme at the Central Minnesota Heart Center at St. Cloud Hospital, thinks chants are good for easing chronic pain and other ailments. “The body can move into a deeper level of its own inherent, innate healing ability,” she remarked, attributing her success in pain management to having her patients listen to chant. “About 85 percent of the time, the body goes into very deep healing modes. It’s quite remarkable.”
Neuroscientist James Hartzell coined the term, the “Sanskrit Effect”, after conducting brain scans on Sanskrit scholars. As chanting in Sanskrit involved a large amount of memorisation, Hartzell discovered that this helped to increase the size of brain regions associated with cognitive functions, including short- and long-term memory. “India’s Vedic Sanskrit pandits train for years to orally memorise and exactly recite 3,000-year-old texts, ranging from 40,000 to over 100,000 words. We wanted to find out how such intense verbal memory training affects the physical structure of their brains,” he explained.
While there is still much to be explored, healing experts agree that chanting is highly beneficial for the brain, especially when certain mantras are recited. Not only does this give peace of mind; the positive vibrations are said to eliminate negativity. Through frequent chanting, people have noticed an improvement in mental awareness and concentration, as well as a reduction in heart rate and stress levels.
What seems certain is that all these different chants from different cultures, despite their different tones and cadences, seem to get your mind working to tune the body in some fashion, or even independently of the mind.
Cover Credit: Mor Shani / Unsplash
Writer | S. S. Yoga
Yoga is a freelance editor/writer/media consultant who does not like to be limited in his interests and hence occasionally gets TMI-infections. That does not stop him, though, from exploring many rabbit holes all over the world. He loves the challenge of organising data and experiences.