Key Elements of Phonetics and Spiritual Practice

Sri Aurobindo translates Taittiriya Upanishad, Shikshavalli, Chapter two:  “OM We will expound Shiksha, the elements.  Syllable and Accent, Pitch and Effort, Even Tone and Continuity: in these six we have declared the chapter of the elements.”

There is both an outer and an inner significance to this chapter.  Outwardly, it is something of a “grammar” lesson.  The teacher starts the deeper teaching by first inculcating the importance of proper pronunciation, meter, and form.  The Taittiriya Upanishad uses the power of Mantra to communicate much of its sense.  The recitation must be precise.  The concept of Mantra is that the word is the “sound-body” of the thing itself, and thus, to the extent that the sound-body has been properly created, the power or form which was being invoked can manifest.  Any inaccuracy or imprecision in the expression can lead to either a lack of result, or a different result than intended.

The scriptures have stories of just one intonation error creating the opposite of what was intended.  It is thus important that the student pay close attention to the proper form for the mantric effect to have its intended result.

But there is another message here as well, an inner message.  Achieving any form of spiritual realisation takes serious effort and focus, a “concentration of conscious force” as Sri Aurobindo elsewhere translates the term tapasya.  A right concentration is required or it will wind up fruitless, or even wind up with negative results   Knowledge can lead to harm if it is inaccurately or incompletely understood or applied wrongly in a way not intended.  We see that everywhere around us in today’s world.  We gain knowledge of the atom and live in constant fear of world-destruction.  We gain the power of fire through control of hydrocarbons, and result in massive climate change that threatens not just individual species, but the entire range of life on earth.  Unintended consequences follow when we fail to fully understand the knowledge we are acquiring and put it into the right place of harmony and application within the larger framework of the world we are living in.

In today’s world we see many people who undertake efforts carelessly or without full knowledge.  They “get by” but wonder why they struggle in their lives.   We breed a culture of indifference and then wonder at the disharmony in our society.  There is a need to find a proper balance of expression, what is being expressed, how it is being expressed, and in what circumstances and for what time it is being expressed.  The same holds true in the application of the spiritual principles.  Narrow-mindedness, fanaticism, imbalance in expression lead to eventual failure.  All of this is implied in the six elements of Syllable and Accent, Pitch and Effort, Even Tone and Continuity!

There must be a detailed and focused effort, and it must be consistent, persistent and done without any carelessness or loss of concentration.  Thus, the “grammar lesson” turns into a teaching that provides the basis for the effort and study that follows.

Sri Aurobindo, The Upanishads,  Taittiriya Upanishad, Shikshavalli, pp.255-264, M. P. Pandit, Upanishads: Gateways of Knowledge, pp. 109-182