Since sound is the
non-material source of the material
it is the key by which we can become free from bondage. It is the
thread-like link between the material and spiritual realms.
of Sound in Four Features
by Jahnava Nitai das
published on VNN March 3, 2001, VNN6621
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Vedantic traditions sound is considered one of the
most important principles of existence, as it is both the source of
matter and the key to become free from it. One who can thoroughly
understand the four stages of sound as explained in the Vedic texts can
utilize this science to become free from the bondage of matter.
When trying to understand the four levels of sound, we must first
understand what is "sound" as defined in the scriptures. In the Srimad
Bhagavatam (3.26.33) we find an interesting definition for sound
(shabda) as follows:
lingatvam eva ca
who are learned and who have true knowledge define sound as
that which conveys the idea of an object, indicates the presence of a
speaker screened from our view and constitutes the subtle form of
This may not
be an absolute definition of sound, as there are various levels of
sound to define, but it provides us with a solid foundation to begin
our study of this topic. This definition, as given in Srimad
Bhagavatam, is very interesting in that it differs completely
western and modern views of defining sound.
First, those who
are learned and who have true knowledge define sound as that which
conveys the idea of an object. Sound is not just the vibration created
by the meeting of two objects. Sound is that which conveys the idea of
an object. The exact word used in this connection is "artha-ashraya"
"the shelter of the meaning". In the Vedic conception the aksharas
(letters) are bijas, or seeds of existence.
The audible sound
is categorized into 50 alphabets of Sanskrit starting from "a" and
ending with "ksha". Hence the alphabet is called "akshara",
literally means "infallible" or "supreme". Akshara is also a
for pranava (Om), the sum of all syllables and source of all
hymns. The Bhagavad Gita confirms this as follows:
activities are prescribed in the Vedas, and the Vedas
directly manifested from akshara, the sacred syllable Om.
the all-pervading Transcendence (pranava or the syllable 'Om')
eternally situated in acts of sacrifice."
Karma, or duty, is
manifested from the Vedas. This manifestation is not
for one is spiritual and the other is material.
indicated by the word udbhavam. On the other hand, the
the Vedas from the pranava (Om) is direct, and
thus the word used to
describe it is sam-udbhavam, and not just udbhavam.
In the Tantras the aksharas are traced back to
their material source level
which is a particular deity of Shakti. Each of her stages of
manifestation are phases in the evolution of the universe. Thus the aksharas
are potent sound, constitutionally connected to
sound (shabda) and its meaning (artha).
This is interesting in
that it draws a distinction between sound and noise. Noise, as distinct
from sound, is not the artha-ashraya, or the shelter of meaning.
Sri Baladeva Vidyabhushana in his commentary to Vedanta Sutra
says that the creation of all living entities proceeds from the
remembrance of their form and characteristics by Lord Brahma reciting
the corresponding words. From this we can begin to understand to
potency of sound and its meaning.
The second aspect of Srimad
Bhagavatam's definition of sound that is unique from modern
that sound is defined as "that which indicates the presence of a
speaker". Thus sound must be a product of consciousness. In this
senses, sound is sometimes referred to as vak, or speech,
the Vedic texts.
In the tantra system the purva mimamsaka's
theory of the eternality of shabda (sound) and artha
accepted. They go a little further to assert that shabda and artha
the embodiment of Shiva and Shakti as the universe itself. They name
their original source as shabdartha-brahman instead of a mere shabda-brahman.
For, that is the source of both the
objects and their
descriptions. Words and their meanings - what they denote in the
objective world - are the variety of manifestations of shakti.
As sound is of the nature of the varnas (syllables) composing
it, the tantra affirms that the creative force of the universe
resides in all
the letters of the alphabet. The different letters symbolize the
different functions of that creative force, and their totality is
designated as matrika or the "mother in essence".
sees the mantras as not just a mere combination of whimsical
as the subtle form of the presiding deity; and the real purpose of
one's meditation through the mantra is to communicate with the
that particular mantra.
Just as a sankalpa - a pure thought -
has to pass through several stages before it actually manifests as
concrete creative force, the sound of a particular mantra also
pass through several stages before it is fully experienced by the
listener in perfection. These stages are termed as para, pashyanti,
madhyama and vaikhari.
Each level of sound corresponds to a
level of existence, and one's experience of sound depends upon the
refinement of one's consciousness.
It takes a realized
consciousness to experience the full range of sound, the full range of
existence. The seers who can comprehend the four stages of sound are
known as Manishis.
The higher three forms of shabda are
described in the Rig Veda as hidden in "guha", or
within the self,
whereas the fourth is the external manifested speech, known as laukika
These four levels of sound correspond to four states of consciousness.
Para represents the transcendental consciousness. Pashyanti
the intellectual consciousness. Madhyama represents the mental
consciousness. And Vaikhari represents the physical
These states of consciousness correspond with the four states known
technically as jagrat, svapna, sushupti, and turiya
- or the wakeful
state, the dreaming state, the dreamless state, and the transcendental
Shabda-brahman in its absolute nature is called para.
manifestation the subtle is always the source of the gross, and thus
from para-vak manifests the other three forms of sound.
the manifestation of sound takes place from para-vak down to vaikhari-vak
(or fine to gross), in explaining these
stages we will
begin from the external vaikhari-vak, as that is the sound we
most experience of.
Vaikhari-vak is the grossest level of
speech, and it is heard through the external senses. When sound comes
out through the mouth as spoken syllables it is called as vaikhari.
Madhyama-vak is the intermediate unexpressed state of
sound, whose seat
is in the heart. The word madhyama means "in between" or "the
The middle sound is that sound which exists between the states of sushupti
and jagrat. Madhyama-vak refers
to mental speech, as opposed
to external audible speech. It is on this level that we normally
experience thought. Some hold that wakeful thought is still on the
level of vaikhari.
In the manifestation process, after sound
has attained the form of pashyanti-vak, it goes further up to
and becomes coupled with the assertive intelligence, being charged with
the syllables a, ka, cha, tha, ta, etc. At this point it
itself in the form of vibratory nada rupa madhyama-vak. Only
are endowed with discriminative intelligence can feel this.
the levels of madhyama and vaikhari, there is a
distinction between the
sound and the object. The object is perceived as something different
from the sound, and sound is connected to an object mostly by
Pashyanti-vak is the second level of sound, and is
less subtle than para-vak. Pashyanti in Sanskrit means
"that which can
be seen or visualised".
In the pashyanti stage sound possesses
qualities such as color and form. Yogis who have inner vision
perceive these qualities in sound. On this stage the differences
between language do not exist, as this sound is intuitive and situated
beyond rigidly defined concepts.
On the stage of pashyanti-vak,
speech is intuitively connected to the object. There is near oneness
between the word and the experience described.
the finest impulse of speech. The seat of pashyanti is in the
the Manipura Chakra. When sound goes up to the naval with the bodily
air in vibratory form without any particular syllable (varna),
connected with the mind, it is known as pashyanti-vak.
is the transcendent sound. Para means highest or farthest, and
connection it indicates that sound which is beyond the perception of
Para-vak is also known as "rava-shabda" - an
unvibratory condition of sound beyond the reach of mind and
intelligence (avyakta), only to be realized by great souls, parama-jnanis.
On the stage of para-vak there is no distinction
between the object and the sound. The sound contains within it all the
qualities of the object.
In terms of the universal cosmology, vaikhari, madhyama
correspond respectively to bhuh,
bhuvah, and svah. The para-shabda ultimately
corresponds to the Lord's tri-pada-vibhuti.
Within the pashyanti-vak exists the nature's iccha-shakti,
or the power of will. Within the madhyama-vak
nature's jnana-shakti, or the power of knowledge. And within
the vaikhari-vak exists the nature's kriya-shakti, or
power of action.
The pranava, or the syllable "Om", is the complete
the four stages of sound and their existential counterparts. The
existential realities are the physical (sthula) which is
the vaikhari-shabda, the subtle (sukshma) which is
connected to the madhyama-shabda, the causal (karana)
connected with the pashyanti-shabda, and the transcendental (para)
which is related to the para-shabda. These four existential
correspond to the
four states of consciousness.
The sthula sarira, or physical
body, operates in the state of jagrat (wakeful state). It is in
realm of consciousness, and through this body, that the vaikhari-vak
The sukshma-sarira, subtle or psychic body,
operates in the state of svapna. It is in this realm of
and through this body, that the madhyama-vak is manifested.
The karana-sarira, or causal body, operates in the state of sushupti,
deep sleep. It is in this realm of consciousness, and through this
body, that the pashyanti-vak is manifested.
The para-vak is manifested through the fourth state of
known as turiya.
The sacred syllable "Om" is composed of three matras, namely "a",
and "m". These three matras correspond respectively to bhuh,
bhuvah and svah; jagrat, svapna and sushupti; sukshma,
and karana; and vaikhari, madhyama and pashyanti.
three matras, the pranava ("a-u-m") is also
composed of a fourth
constituent, namely the a-matra or anahata-dhvani - the
unstruck sound. For our
practical understanding, this a-matra corresponds to the
after one recites the "Om" syllable. The a-matra represents the
transendence, the turiya, the para-vak.
Thus the syllable Om
contains all elements of existence. It is the reservoir of all energies
of the Supreme Lord, and for this reason Lord Krishna states in the Gita:
ity ekaksharam brahma
syllable Om is the supreme combination of letters."
Elsewhere the Lord states:
aksharam veda-vido vadanti
knowers of the Vedas recite Om (akshara)."
Why do they do this? Because the syllable Om is the Supreme Lord and
the potency of all Vedic mantras:
the Vedas, I am the symbol Om."
Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu established the pranava as the maha-vakya
the Vedas, for within it exist all Vedic hymns (and shabda).
itself is a manifestation of this syllable. It is the sound
representation of the Absolute Truth.
The vak is not a manifestation of the material nature, for the Vedanta
sutra 2.4.4 states as follows:
This indicates that the vak existed before the pradhana.
the root of the material manifestation - the three qualities
non-differentiated in absolute equilibrium. Yet prior to this is the vak.
Thus the vak is non-material.
For this reason we find in the Vedanta Sutras the
Since sound is the non-material source of the material manifestation,
it is the key by which we can become free from bondage. It is the
thread-like link between the material and spiritual realms.
describing the four phases of sound, sometimes the descriptions of one
will overlap another, or sometimes an aspect of one will seem to be
attributed to another. For example sometimes pashyanti is
"mental sound", whereas madhyama will be described as
sound". This will require a deeper explanation of the intricacies of
these stages of sound and their relationships. Such an explanation is
not possible here at this time.
To study these concepts in
greater depth one may refer to the Nada-bindu Upanishad,
Bhartrihari's Vakyapadadiya, Prashna Upanishad, Mundaka
Upanishad, Maitri Upanishad and Katha Upanishad,
as well as the
concepts of shabda, vak, matrikas, hiranyagarbha, four states
consciousness, etc., as found in the tantras and throughout the
Upanishads. One should remember that in Vedic study
one will not
generally find a book on a particular topic (such as "vaikhari",
One must study from numerous sources and assimilate a number of
apparently diverse concepts. These concepts must then be harmonized
internally. This constitutes the meditation and sacrifice of svadhyaya
For those who have assimilated these topics, they will
find all this information contained in detail within nine technical
verses of Srimad Bhagavatam beginning from 11.2.35 and
11.2.43. For example, if one sees verses 38 through 40 one will find a
complete explanation of sound in four levels and the process of
manifestation. One must be trained to see the inner meaning of words,
for these topics are discussed in esoteric and confidential manners:
mama ca priyam
seers speak about these topics indirectly in esoteric terms,
and I am pleased by such confidential descriptions."
When we see such words as pranah, manasa, sparsha-rupinah and chandah-mayah
as occuring in verses 38 and 39, we should
understand the indirect and esoteric nature of the discussion, and
thereby conclude the direct meaning being inferred by these words. We
must learn the transcendental code of the Vedas. In
is explained in the Srimad Bhagavatam in full, but
because we generally
lack the proper vision to understand the indirect and esoteric
discussions, we therefore need to study and refer to other more direct
scriptures. Thus the commentaries of the Acharyas will help us to
understand these topics.
The science of sound, shabda-vijnana,
as explained in the above mentioned verses of Srimad Bhagavatam,
also summarily explained in the Pancharatrik text known as Lakshmi-tantra
the area starting from the muladhara to the position of dvistkanta
with effulgence equal to the rising of
millions of suns,
fires and moons. Like a wheel from the adhara becoming the
as santa, pashyai, madhyama. Reaching the posititon of vaikhari,
situated in eight places, viz., the throat etc. Being the mother of all
sounds I bestow enjoyments like a cow."
Rittvik Representative of His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami
Trustee, BHAKTIVEDANTA BOOK TRUST
WORLD SANKIRTAN PARTY