Unveiling the Mystery of Bhajan

Originally printed in the September - October 2004 issue of Quest magazine. 
Citation: Elwell, Elizabeth."Unveiling the Mystery of Bhajan." Quest  92.5 (SEPTEMBER - OCTOBER 2004):177 -179, 185.

By Elizabeth Elwell

Elizabeth ElwellComing home to the United States after spending nearly thirty years in India was a traumatic experience. For the final ten of those years I had lived in the spiritually charged atmosphere of an ashram, where my assigned role was to teach antiphonal chants known as bhajans to the hundreds of foreigners who arrived regularly from every quarter of the globe. Here at home everything had changed. I had to learn all over again, for example, how to pump gas and open childproof pill bottles; as for television, it was ages before I could distinguish the program from the advertisements. I had come home primarily to help nurse my terminally ill mother and had not anticipated becoming involved in any public way with the bhajan work that had kept me so busy in India. However, almost immediately I was asked to give a talk about bhajan singing. One sings bhajans and rarely talks about them—so obviously I would have to learn a new way to approach bhajan in order to explain it to others.

Bhajanis a Hindi word derived from the Sanskrit bhaj, meaning"to serve, honor, revere, love, and adore." Generally speaking, prayers, psalms, anthems, rosaries, hymns, and oratorios like the Messiah are all bhajans. Bhajan also refers to a spiritual practice, originating in Vedic times in India and now used all over the world, in which names of God are chanted by a lead singer and repeated by the congregation.

My life in the ashram had been busy and very practical. I had to learn to read Sanskrit in order to translate bhajans for the learners and really had no time to consider bhajans in a scholarly or analytical way. Fortunately, I had a friend here in the States who had visited the ashram many times, and I turned to her for advice. We began a conversation that has never really ended, and thus we were led to many exciting discoveries. It all began so simply . . .

"Well, let's see," said my friend,"what is a bhajan composed of?"

"It's a tune, some words, and singers," I replied.

"Well, a tune is sound, words are sound and . . ."

"A singer sings sound."

"Everything is sound. Maybe the singers are also sound."

"Maybe sound reaches sound!"

Our jaws dropped open; we knew we were on to something. Then, in a classic example of synchronicity, the very next day we received a notice that a lecture on sound was to be given at a local retreat center.

We attended, of course, and were shown a film about sound being used as a healing agent by many different practitioners. Both of us sat bolt upright, however, when a short piece of film showed a Swiss researcher named Hans Jenny making sounds with a violin bow that he scraped against the edge of a metal plate on which lycopodium powder (spores of the club moss) had been spread.

As he scraped the bow and produced a sound, the particles immediately arranged themselves into a simple pattern. As he made higher notes there was an instant of chaotic movement and then the pattern reappeared, this time a more complex one. The higher the sound, the greater the complexity became."Oh my, they resemble the diagrams of the chakras in Leadbeater's book," my friend whispered. We observed the various patterns made by more solid materials, like iron filings, which were very different in design.

So, in our first exploration effort, we had discovered that sound had the power to influence matter. Sound could destroy one pattern and create another of finer complexity. In the Hindu pantheon, Shiva creates and destroys, destroys and creates with his dance.

"Do you suppose singing the Name is creating and destroying something? Is it evolutionary and getting rid of the gross vibrations in us?" my friend asked. I could answer from my own experience:"Yes, most assuredly!" I knew that I had a body within myself that had not been there a dozen years ago. It wasn't composed of flesh and bones, but rather qualities like steadiness, a more refined love, patience, an indestructible contentment along with more intuitive skill at nurturing and caring for others. It had been tested and had proven strong and vibrant. A dozen years earlier not one person who knew me would have used the word"patient" to describe me. In fact, I thought one of the reasons I had been given the job of teaching bhajans was to develop this subtle body. Teaching bhajans would make me practice more than I would otherwise. I knew that I had been in a vigorous washing machine that had temporarily left me free of nagging, negative memories and bad dreams and that I looked at myself and the world in an entirely new way. I had developed a totally new paradigm of myself, the world in which I lived, and my role in that world.

Some of the questions Hans Jenny asked during the film were: How do we reach the primal cause of vibration? What part does chaos play? In my own experience, chaos is a common and recurring element in spiritual growth. It is like a storm that abruptly starts and just as abruptly stops. One just has to ride it through. While it lasts, one feels totally confused or terribly self-conscious and skinless. The most disconcerting experience for me is to be barraged by a torrent of negative thoughts and emotions having a nature different from any thoughts and emotions experienced before, in this lifetime at least. Then the chaos lifts as suddenly as it appeared. There is peace and a refreshed feeling. In time, one becomes aware of a greater degree of inner strength.

Jenny's experiment had given us our first clue, but all our layperson's explorations and speculation took a great leap forward with the publication of a book entitled The Elegant Universe by physicist, mathematician, and string theorist Brian Green. Oh, how we cheered on the super-string theory, which is the latest attempt to put forth a"theory of everything" and identify the very ground of matter,"mater," or"Ma," the grand Mother from whom all creation is born.

The super-string theory, or string theory for short, speculates through mathematics that the smallest indivisible stuff of which everything in the cosmos is made are one-dimensional stringlike formations that are the fundamental building blocks of everything! These strings or filaments oscillate at different frequencies, all vibrating their own creative identity in mass and force by their own"song." Does this mean that all things, huge and minute, have a vibratory identity composed of the full orchestra of strings of which they are composed? Is there indeed a great cosmic symphony to which we belong and to which we must become attuned?

At least we could now envision a universe tightly packed with oscillating strings in which we, also tightly packed with oscillating strings, live and have our being. Perhaps our own strings are a bit out of tune? The major part of the cosmos has been going along so well for 15 billion years, except, perhaps, for us newcomers who now need some tuning up and tuning in. We know that the spoken word can cause change when it enters another person; for instance, shout"Stop!" and the other person freezes. Shout"Stop, thief!" and the other person runs away. We have to remember that speech can vibrate the musical tunes and patterns of sound that make up language. If we think of space as being full rather than empty, then our spoken words disturb and rearrange the existing patterns outside ourselves as well as inside ourselves. At last we felt that we had a clue as to how mantras worked! Since some Indian bhajans often contain multiple mantras as their core construction, this was an exciting moment for us.

Mantras have been used for thousands of years as spiritual power generators, allowing spiritual practitioners to change from roughly hewn humans to near-perfect beings. A lama newly from Tibet, when asked by us what that change was that occurred, put his hand out and picked up the clean glass in front of him. Then he took his table napkin and draped it over the glass."You are like this," he said, holding the covered glass high."Now you must become like this," and he pulled away the napkin, leaving us looking at the sparkling clear glass."So our task is to reveal our Real Self?" He nodded.

This was an enlightening concept. What exactly must be removed? When brass or silver becomes tarnished, the tarnish has to be removed by repeated rubbing before the object shines forth again in all its glory. In our case, we are told by the masters of the mystical sciences that it is our wrong thinking about who we really are, our wrong habits of thought and action, and our negative feelings that obscure our real identity. A big point made by my spiritual teacher was that our thoughts, our words, and our deeds must all be alike. Someone whose thoughts, words, and deeds are not the same has a fractured spiritual body, and the true divinity of the person's atmic nature cannot shine through. Healing and mending our broken spirits is the reconstruction work that happens when bhajans are sung wholeheartedly. When we need to peel a potato, we look for a potato peeler. If we want to chop wood, we search for an axe. To untangle hair, we need a comb. What tool do we have to repair a spiritual body? Obviously, a spiritual tool is needed.

But why antiphonal chanting and singing? That is because two major disciplines are involved: listening and following. By listening deeply with complete self-abandon, we cut out our own ego static and acquire the grace to simply follow, to absorb into our being the rhythm, tune, words, and total feeling of the music so deeply that we can reproduce them exactly. Bhajan singing requires much discipline; the world is blocked out and concentration is at its peak. Healing can now begin.

We all know that when we eat food, it is somehow, without our being aware of it, transformed into energy, intelligence, emotion, and a healthy body. The vibratory body called a potato becomes a part of the vibratory body called a blood cell, but we don't really know the details of how this happens, nor are we aware of it. In the same way, the vibrations of the Name get transformed into love, fortitude, courage, sacrifice, service. We don't really know how this happens, nor are we aware that it is happening. When our body gets fat, we begin to make some association between the food we eat and the girth we have reached. The Name is considered food for the spiritual body. When we notice in some testing situation that we have a degree of patience heretofore unknown to us, we may make some association between our spiritual practice and this new strength within us. As for me, I first experienced bhajan singing as if it were a washing machine. I felt myself clean, free of nagging, negative thoughts. When I returned to the United States after so many years in the ashram, I discovered I had an indestructible contentment and a more intuitive ability to nurture and care for another. Beyond this, as to how singing the Name effected these changes, as to the science of bhajan, I had and still have only the words of the masters of the mystical sciences.

This journey of discovery, of unveiling some of the mystery of this highly developed, poetic musical art form and spiritual practice, has come in bits and pieces. With new discoveries, things that have happened over the years have taken on deeper meaning. For example, when I first began to sing bhajans, my teacher had been very concerned that I identify my sruti, the key or keys that defined my voice range. She said that I must always use this sruti and practice each song until, when I was tapped to lead a bhajan, I could easily find this sruti, even while another person was singing in an entirely different one. I now understand this to mean that I must always sing in a sruti that keeps my feet on the ground. I must not sing too high and thereby abandon, so to speak, the vibratory nature of my physical and most gross body, for it is with and within this body that I must attempt to bring to maturity a much more subtle body and a body that, unlike my gross physical body, is in an embryonic state, a body that vibrates at a much higher frequency, a body of virtue, a love body. I now understand that it is this subtle body that is nurtured by chanting the Name.

One word from my teacher has led me to look in an entirely new way at bhajan as a spiritual practice."How's your bhajana?" he asked. I heard my mouth say,"It's good," but simultaneously my brain registered,"You don't understand what he is asking." We just looked at each other and nothing more was said. Why had he used the word bhajana? Then one day I read,"Life is a song . . . pass your days in song. Let your whole life be a bhajana." How could my whole life be a bhajana? I like to sing, but to think of doing nothing but singing– that would be too much, even ridiculous. Might the role of bhajan in my life be, more complicated than I had understood?

If bhajan described a way of life that I must come to understand and practice, then I needed more clues, more guidance. Curiosity captured me. What would be the elements of bhajana as a way of life? Sometime later, I found an answer. One short sentence in a book told me that success in bhajana as a way of life would require seven elements. Each of these elements was indicated by a little Sanskrit word, but when I consulted the dictionary I found that the concepts involved in each word were not little at all.

Sound was one concept, of course. I began to think about myself in terms of sound and soon realized that I had a lot of work to do to make my life a bhajana. I express myself as sound in obvious audible ways, such as in the manner and force in which I speak, laugh, and move around. However, I know that I can make a lot of"noise" silently by emanating vibrations of moodiness, irritation, or pleasure. Although my thoughts are not spoken, nevertheless, the message is loud and clear. It occurred to me that I especially needed to look at myself as sound from the perspective of how well I blend. Do I have any integrity at all as a human being? For example, unless a violin sounds like a violin, it is not a violin, however much it may look like one. If it does not sound like a violin, it cannot harmonize with other instruments as a violin. In the world of the symphony orchestra, an unrefined violin, an instrument whose wood and frets and strings are crudely formed, would sound dreadful, just a noise maker, a bothersome, disruptive presence. In a world guided by human values, what crude sounds do I make? Am I a fully human being in the choir of humanity?

Of course, sound was only one of the seven elements. Some of the other components to explore were: one's individual sound; one's hearing and listening skills; one's tempo and absorption in the song; one's mastery of the song; one's rhythm and beat; one's melody and harmony; the loveliness of one's voice; one's ways of thinking and feeling; one's emotions and attitudes; the nature of one's love and intentions; and finally, the variety included in one's life, the continuity of its song, and the artistry of its overall composition. One word from my teacher precipitated a whole chain of events of learning and exploration, enough to continue for a lifetime.

From the chanting and dancing of our Native Americans, from the drummers of Africa, from the whirling of the ecstatic Sufis, from the glorious hymns of the Christian church to the droning voice art of Tibet, wherever songs are sung to God wholeheartedly with pure intent, some miracle occurs."In the beginning was the Word," and from that original sound, galaxies and universes were organized. Vibration is the creative principle of ourselves and our world. We ourselves are the"Word" made flesh, and by bhajan singing we stabilize and harmonize that Word, echoing it back to the source in a healing and creative song.


Elizabeth Elwell, Ph.D. is a retired teacher and school principal. She lived in India from 1960-1989. During that time she spent ten years in the ashram of Prashanti Nilayam here she was given the work, at the request of Sathya Sai Baba, to teach bhajans.


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