Sacred Recitation

Posted: 28/06/2013 in Routine

By austerity, goodness is obtained. From goodness, understanding is reached. From understanding, the Self is obtained, and he who obtains the Self is freed from the cycle of birth and death.

Sacred Vows

Vrata, taking of sacred vows, is the eighth niyama and something every Hindu must do at one time or another during his lifetime. The brahmacharya vrata is the first, pledging to maintain virginity until marriage. The vivaha vrata, marriage vows, would generally be the next. Taking a vow is a sacred trust between yourself, your outer self, your inner self, your loved ones and closest friends. Even though they may not know of the vow you may have taken, it would be difficult to look them straight in the eye if you yourself know you have let yourself down. A vow is a sacred trust between you and your guardian devas, the devas that surround the temple you most frequent and the Mahadevas, who live within the Third World — which you live in, too, in your deep, innermost mind, in the radiant, self-luminous body of your soul.

Many people make little promises and break them. This is not a vrata, a sacred trust. A vrata is a sacred trust with God, Gods and guru made at a most auspicious time in one’s life. Vrata is a binding force, binding the external mind to the soul and the soul to the Divine, though vrata is sometimes defined generally as following religious virtues or observances, following the principles of the Vedas, of the Hindu Dharma. There are vratas of many kinds, on many different levels, from the simple promise we make to ourself and our religious community and guru to perform the basic spiritual obligations, to the most specific religious vows.

Vratas give the strength to withstand the temptations of the instinctive forces that naturally come up as one goes on through life — not to suppress them but to rechannel them into a lifestyle fully in accord with the yamas and niyamas. The yamas should be at least two-thirds perfected and the niyamas two-thirds in effect before vratas are taken.

We must remember that the yamas are restraints, ten clues as to what forces to restrain and how to restrain them. Some people are better than others at accomplishing this, depending on their prarabdha karmas, but the effort in trying is the important thing. The practices, niyamas, on the other hand, are progressive, according to the perfection of the restraints. Commitment to the first yama, noninjury, ahimsa, for example, makes the first niyama, remorse, or hri, a possibility in one’s life. And satya, truthfulness, brings santosha — contentment, joy and serenity in life. The first five practices, niyamas, are tools to keep working with yourself, to keep trying within the five major areas they outline.

If one wants to progress further, he does not have to take on a guru — to study scriptures or develop a spiritual will or intellect — that would come naturally, nor to take simple vratas, to chant Aum as japa and to perform certain sadhanas and penance. These are all available. But a guru naturally comes into one’s life when the last five yamas — steadfastness, compassion, honesty, a moderate appetite, and purity — give rise to the last five niyamas — siddhanta shravana (choice of lineage), mati (cognition and developing a spiritual will with the guru’s guidance), vrata (sacred vows before a guru), japa (recitation after initiation from guru) and tapas (austerities performed under the careful guidance of a guru). We can see that the last five practices are taken on two levels: guru involvement, and community and personal involvement.

Types Of Vows

Many people get together with modern-day gurus and want to rush ahead, and with feigned humility seek to “get on with it” and “be their own person,” but feel they need an initiation to do so. The gurus and swamis from India following a traditional path put initiation before them. Most gurus and swamis are dumbfounded by the devotion they see in these souls, perhaps not realizing they are stimulated by drugs and the desire to get something without earning it. The gurus presume they are already performing the yamas and niyamas and have dropped out of some higher inner world into Earth bodies. So, the initiations are given and vows are taken, but then when the reaction to the action comes within the mind of the devotee, and the swami begins to teach on a different level to this chosen group, because after initiation a new form of teaching and dissemination of inner knowledge occurs, and since it was only the initiation that was sought for (and he or she does not believe in God and the Gods and is not even part of the Hindu religion), once the devotee feels the pressure of responsibility, he or she responds by leaving, and even defaming the guru.

Many people think that initiation is like a graduation, the end of study. This is not true. Initiation is the beginning of study, the beginning of sadhana, the beginning of learning. Therefore, think well before you become initiated, because your loyalty is expected, and you are expected to adhere to the teachings of the sampradaya, of the lineage, into which you are initiated. This does not mean you can’t attend temples or other religious activities of other sampradayas occasionally, such as festivals, or listen to music or chants of other traditions occasionally, but this should be minimized so that your focus and concentration is upon what you were initiated into, because you are expected to advance on the path of that particular lineage.

There are certain simple vows in Hinduism which are easy to take and often are taken, such as, “If I’m successful in this business dealing, I will give twenty percent of the profits to my temple.” Or, “If my spouse comes back to me, I shall always obey the stri dharma principles (or purusha dharma), be dedicated and devoted always.” “If my dear mother, who is so devoted to my children, lives through her cancer operation (and Lord Ganesha, the doctors have said the chances are not good), you will see me at the temple every Friday without fail. This is my vrata, Lord Ganesha, and I say no more.” We take vows to change our ways, vows to meditate daily, vows to desist from lying, vows to not eat meat, vows to remain celibate, vows to obey the guru and his tradition, vows to follow these yamas and niyamas.

Perhaps the most obvious and important vow, which can be taken most readily and renewed once a year on a day which you consider your most sacred day — such as Sivaratri, Ganesha Chaturthi, Skanda Shashthi or Dipavali — is the yama and niyama vrata. These twenty restraints and practices are easy to memorize. Commit them to memory. The vrata should go like this: “O Lord Ganesha, open the portals of my wisdom that I might take this vrata with open heart and clear mind. O Lord Murugan, give me the will, fortitude and renewed strength every step of the way to fulfill the vrata that I am taking. O Lord Siva, forgive me if I fail, for these twenty restraints and practices are truly beyond my ability to perfectly uphold. So, this first year, Lord Siva, I vow to fulfill these lofty ideals, to the best of my ability, at least fifty percent. I know I am weak. You know I am weak. I know you will make me strong. I know that you are drawing me ever patiently toward your holy feet. But, Lord Siva, next year I will faithfully renew this vrata, this sacred vow, to these rules, these observances. And if I have succeeded in fulfilling my meager fifty percent according to my conscience, that shall increase my dedication and devotion to you, Lord Siva, and I shall determine to fulfill the yamas and niyamas in my life and soul seventy-five percent or more.”

Success And Failure

Many people feel that when they don’t fulfill their vrata they have failed. One practical example to the contrary is Mahatma Gandhi, who took a vow to be celibate but broke it many times, yet continued the effort and ultimately conquered his instinctive nature. In taking a vrata, at the moment it is heard by priests, elders and all community members, when one hears oneself taking it, and all three worlds rejoice, a balanced scale has been created. Success is on one side, failure on the other. One or the other will win out. This is where the unreserved worship of Lord Murugan will help overbalance the scale on the success side. But if the scale teeters and wavers, the blessings and knowledge of the elders of the community should be sought: the mothers and fathers, the old aunties and uncles, the priests, the pandits and sages, the rishis and gurus. This and this alone will steady the balance. But if actual failure occurs, Lord Ganesha Himself will catch the fall in His four arms and trunk. He will hold the devotee from going into the abyss of remorse of the darkness of the lower worlds. He will speak softly into the right ear and encourage that the vrata be immediately renewed, lest time elapse and the asura of depression take over mind, body and emotion. Yes, the only failure is that experienced by the one who quits, gives up, turns his back on the path and walks the other way, into the realms of darkness, beyond even the reach of the Gods. As Tiruvalluvar said, it is better to strive to fulfill great aspirations, even if you fail, than to achieve minor goals in life. Yes, this is very true.

On the everyday level there are vratas or contracts made with people of the outside world whom you don’t even know. Buy a piece of property, and once you sign the contract you are bound to fulfill it. But a religious vrata is a contract between yourself, the religious community, the devas and the Gods and your guru, if you have one, all of whom know that human failure is a part of life; but striving is the fulfillment of life, and practice is the strengthening effect that the exercise of the human and spiritual will have over the baser elements.

Vows before the community, such as those of marriage and celibacy and other vows where community support is needed, are very important. Other, more personal vows are taken before the community, a temple priest, pandit, elder, swami, guru, or satguru if help is needed to strengthen the individual’s ability to fulfill them. For a certain type of person, a vow before Lord Ganesha, Lord Murugan, Lord Siva or all three is enough for him to gain strength and fulfill it. A vow is never only to oneself. This is important to remember. A vow is always to God, Gods and guru, community and respected elders.

One cannot make one’s vow privately, to one’s own individual anava, external personal ego, thinking that no one is listening. This would be more of a promise to oneself, like a New Year’s resolution, a change in attitude based on a new belief, all of which has nothing to do with the yamas and niyamas or religion.

In speaking about the yama and niyama vrata, there is no difference in how the family person upholds it and the celibate monastic upholds it. The families are in their home, the monks are in their matha, monastery. In regards to the vrata of sexual purity, for example, the family man vows to be faithful to his wife and to treat all other women as either a mother or sister and to have no sexual thoughts, feelings or fantasies toward them. Sadhakas, yogis and swamis vow to look at all women as their mothers or sisters, and God Siva and their guru as their mother and father. There is no difference.


Now we shall focus on japa, recitation of holy mantras, the ninth niyama. Here again, a guru is essential, unless only the simplest of mantras are recited. The simplest of mantras is Aum, pronounced “AA, OO, MMM.” The AA balances the physical forces when pronounced separately from the OO and the MMM, as the OO balances the astral and mental bodies. The MMM brings the spiritual body into the foreground. And when pronounced all together, AA-OO-MMM, all three bodies are harmonized. Aum is a safe mantra which may be performed without a guru’s guidance by anyone of any religious background living on this planet, as it is the primal sound of the universe itself. All sounds blended together make the sound “Aum.” The overtone of the sounds of an entire city would be “Aum.” In short, it harmonizes, purifies and uplifts the devotee.

One might ask why a guru is important to perform such a simple task as japa. It is the shakti of the guru, of the Gods and the devas that give power to the mantra. Two people, a civilian and a policeman, could say to a third person, “Stop in the name of the law.” The third person would only obey one of them. The one who had no authority would not be listened to. In this example, the policeman had been initiated and had full authority. Therefore, his mantra, “Stop in the name of the law,” seven words, had the desired effect. The person who had not been initiated said the same words, but nobody paid any attention to him. Now, this does not mean one can choose a guru, study with the guru, become accepted by the guru, feign humility, do all the right things and say all the right words, become initiated, receive the mantra and then be off into some kind of other activities or opt for a more liberal path. The guru’s disdain would diminish if not cancel the benefits of the initiation, which obviously had been deceptively achieved. This is why siddhanta shravana (choosing your path carefully) and mati (choosing your guru carefully, being loyal to the sampradaya, to your guru and his successor or successors and training your children to be loyal to the sampradaya) are the foundation of character that the first fifteen restraints and practices are supposed to produce.

Mantra initiation is guru diksha. Traditionally, the family guru would give mantra diksha to the mother and the father and then to the young people, making the guru part of the family itself. There is no way that mantras can be sold and be effective. There is no way that the diksha of mantra initiation, which permits japa, could be effective for someone who was not striving to fulfill the first seventeen of the yamas and niyamas. Any wise guru would test the devotee on these before granting initiation. There is no way a mantra can be learned from a book and be effective. Therefore, approach the guru cautiously and with a full heart. When asked if you are restraining yourself according to the ten yamas, know that perfection is not expected, but effort is. And if you are practicing the first seven niyamas, know that perfection is not expected here either, but regular attentiveness to them is. You, the guru, your family and your friends will all know when you are on the threshold of mantra diksha, which when performed by an established guru is called guru diksha.


The tenth and final niyama is austerity, performing sadhana, penance, tapas and sacrifice. All religions of the world have their forms of austerity, conditions which one has to live up to — or which individuals are unable to live up to who are too lazy or too dull-minded to understand; and Hinduism is no exception. Our austerities start within the home in the form of daily sadhana. This is obligatory and includes puja, scriptural reading and chanting of holy mantras. This personal vigil takes about half an hour or more. Other sadhanas include pilgrimage to a far-off sacred place once a year, visiting a temple once a week, preferably on Friday or Monday, attending festivals and fulfilling samskaras, rites of passage, for the children especially, but all the family members as well. To atone for misdeeds, penance is obligatory. We must quickly mitigate future effects of the causes we have set into action. This is done through such acts as performing 108 prostrations before the God in the temple.

Tapas is even more austere. It may come early in a lifetime or later in life, unbidden or provoked by raja yoga practices. It is the fire that straightens the twisted life and mind of an individual, bringing him into pure being, giving a new start in life, awakening higher consciousness and a cosmic relationship with God and the Gods, friends, relatives and casual acquaintances. Tapas in Hinduism is sought for, feared, suffered through and loved. Its pain is greater than the pains of parturition, but in the aftermath is quickly forgotten, as the soul, in childlike purity, shines forth in the joys of rebirth that follow in the new life.

Tapas is walking through fire, being scorched, burnt to a crisp, crawling out the other side unburnt, without scars, with no pain. Tapas is walking through the rain, completely drenched, and when the storm stops, not being wet. Tapas is living in a hurricane, tossed about on a churning ocean in a small boat, and when the storm subsides, being landed on a peaceful beach unharmed but purified. Tapas is a mind in turmoil, insane unto its very self. A psychic surgery is being performed by the Gods themselves. When the operation is over, the patient has been cut loose of the dross of all past lives. Tapas is a landslide of mud, a psychic earthquake, coming upon the head and consuming the body of its victim, smothering him in the dross of his misdeeds, beneath which he is unable to breathe, see, speak or hear. He awakens from this hideous dream resting on a mat in a garden hut, smelling sweet jasmine, seeing pictures of Gods and devas adorning the mud walls and hearing the sound of a flute coming from a distant source.

Truly, tapas in its fullest form is sought for only by the renunciate under the guidance of a satguru, but this madness often comes unbidden to anyone on this planet whose dross of misdeeds spills over. The only difference for the Hindu is that he knows what is happening and how it is to be handled; or at least the gurus know, the swamis know, the elders know, the astrologers know. This knowledge is built into the Hindu mind flow as grout is built into a stone wall.

A Lesson In Sacrifice

Sacrifice may be the least-practiced austerity, and the most important. It is the act of giving up to a greater power a cherished possession (be it money, time, intelligence or a physical object) to manifest a greater good. There are many ways to teach sacrifice. My satguru taught sacrifice by cooking a great feast for several hundred people, which took all day to prepare. Their mouths were watering. They had not eaten all day, so as to prepare their bodies to receive this prasada from the satguru. The meal was scheduled to be served at high noon. But Satguru Yogaswami kept delaying, saying, “We have not yet reached the auspicious moment. Let us sing some more bhajanas and Natchintanai. Be patient.” At about 3PM, he said, “Before we can partake of our prasada, I shall ask eleven strong men here to dig a deep, square hole in the ground.” They stepped forward and he indicated the spot where they should dig. Shovels were obtained from homes nearby, and the digging commenced. All waited patiently for his will to be fulfilled, the stomachs growling, the mouths watering at the luscious fragrances of the hot curries, the rasam and the freshly-boiled rice, five sweet-smelling curries, mango chutneys, dal, yogurt and delicious sweet payasam. It was a real feast.

Finally, just before dusk, the pit was completed, and the great saint indicated that it was time to serve the food. “Come, children, surround this pit,” he said. Two or three hundred people stepped forward and surrounded the ten- by ten-foot hole. Women and children were sitting in the front and the men standing in the back, all wondering what he was going to say and hoping he would not delay any longer with the feast. He said, “Now we shall serve our prasada.” He called forward two of the huskiest of the eleven men, the strongest and biggest, and commanded, “Serve the rice. Bring the entire pot.” It was a huge brass pot containing nearly 400 pounds of rice. By this time, many had left, as they had been cooking all morning and singing all afternoon. Only the most devout had remained to see the outcome. When the day began, 1,000 had come. The preparations were for a very big crowd.

Now he said, “Pour the rice in the middle of the pit.” Banana leaves had been laid carefully at the bottom of the pit to form a giant serving plate. The crowd was aghast. “Pour it into the pit?” “Don’t hesitate,” he commanded. Though stunned, the men obeyed Yogaswami without question, dropping the huge mass of steaming rice onto the middle of the banana leaves. He told one man, “Bring the eggplant curry!” To another he said, “Go get the potato curry! We must make this is a full and auspicious offering.”

As all the curries were neatly placed around the rice, everyone was wondering, “Are we to all eat together out of the pit? Is this what the guru has in mind?” Then the kulambu sauce was poured over the middle of the rice. Five pounds of salt was added on the side. Sweet mango and ginger chutneys were placed in the proper way. One by one, each of the luscious preparations was placed in the pit, much to the dismay of those gathered.

Giving Back to Mother Earth

After all the food had been served, the satguru stood up and declared, “People, all of you, participate. Come forward.” They immediately thought, finishing his sentence in their minds, “to eat together this luscious meal you have been waiting for all day as a family of shishyas.” But he had something else in mind, and directed, “Pick up the eleven shovels, shovel some dirt over this delicious meal and then pass your shovel on to the next person. We have fed our Mother Earth, who has given so generously of her abundance all these many years to this large Saivite community. Now we are sacrifi cing our prasada as a precious, heartfelt gift. Mother Earth is hungry. She gets little back; we take all. Let this be a symbol to the world and to each of us that we must sacrifice what we want most.”

In this way, our satguru, Siva Yogaswami, began the first Earth worship ceremony in northern Sri Lanka. He taught a lesson of tapas and sacrifice, of fasting and giving, and giving and fasting. By now the hour was late, very late. After touching his feet and receiving the mark of Siva from him in the form of vibhuti, holy ash, on their forehead, the devotees returned to their homes. It was too late to cook a hot meal, lest the neighbors smell the smoke and know that mischief was afoot. We are sure that a few, if not many, satisfied themselves with a few ripe bananas, while pondering the singular lesson the satguru had taught.

Let’s worship the Earth. It is a being — intelligent and always giving. Our physical bodies are sustained by her abundance. When her abundance is withdrawn, our physical bodies are no more. The ecology of this planet is an intricate intelligence. Through sacrifice, which results in tapas and sadhana, we nurture Mother Earth’s goodwill, friendliness and sustenance. Instill in yourself appreciation, recognition. We should not take advantage of all of this generosity, as a predator does of those he preys upon.

Yes, austerities are a vital part of all sects of Hinduism. They are a call of the soul to bring the outer person into the perfection that the soul is now, has always been and will always be. Austerities should be assigned by a guru, a swami or a qualified elder of the community. One should submit to wise guidance, because these sadhanas, penances, tapas and sacrifices lift our consciousness so that we can deal with, learn to live with, the perfection of the self-luminous, radiant, eternal being of the soul within. Austerity is the powerful bath of fire and bright rays of showering light that washes the soul clean of the dross of its many past lives, and of the current life, which have held it in the bondage of ignorance, misgiving, unforgivingness and the self-perpetuating ignorance of the truths of the Sanatana Dharma. “As the intense fire of the furnace refines gold to brilliance, so does the burning suffering of austerity purify the soul to resplendence” (Weaver’s Wisdom/Tirukural, 267).

  1. daphney says:

    can’t understand certain languages perhaps its the sanskrit … overall its entertaining

    • kshal says:

      yup its sanskrit, maybe you can advice me, which paragraph you dont understand and i can explain in lay man term 🙂 and thanks for reading them

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