Silence may be golden, but there’s a sound that’s worth even more.
Most peopl e sp eak because they find speech more tolerable than silence” reads a cheeky T-shirt slogan. A generalization, no doubt, but doesn’t it contain a grain of truth? For many stressed and distressed people, even when their mouth is silent their mind is screaming and speech offers an easy distraction from the turmoil within. That’s why the Bhagavad-gita (17.16) declares mauna (silence) to be an austerity, not of the mouth, but of the mind. Mauna is not the dumb person’s inability to speak or the inarticulate person’s reluctance to speak or the talkative person’s decision not to speak; it is the calmness of the mind that enables us to hear the guiding voice of God within.
Of course speech and silence both have their utility. In daily life, speech is a powerful and essential means for communication. Throughout history, social reformers (and deformers) galvanized followers by their power of speech. On the other hand, seekers introspected in silence for enlightenment. Can we then conclude that speech is a vehicle for social transformation and silence for individual transformation?
The concluding aphorism of the Vedanta-sutra, anavrtti? sabdat, resolves this dialectic by introducing an intriguing higher dimension: sound beyond silence.
A Mathematical Model of Life Let’s visualize our quest for happiness as movement on the y-axis of a mathematical model of life. We are all eternal spiritual beings who, due to spiritual amnesia, are misidentifying ourselves with our temporary material bodies. Material activity, beginning with material speech, increases forgetfulness of our natural spiritual joy and incriminates us in unending anxiety and misery. Thus it falls on the negative y-axis.
The material inactivity associated with traditional yoga begins with material silence. It checks our preoccupation with the temporal and offers relief, but it alone does not revive our spiritual memory. Srila Prabhupada compares yogic inactivity and the liberation associated with it to convalescencenot sick, but not healthy either. So it falls at the origin (the zero point) on the y-axis. But spiritual activity, beginning with spiritual sound, cures our amnesia by linking our consciousness with the all-attractive reservoir of all pleasure, God, and enlightens and enlivens us with divine wisdom and bliss. Hence it falls on the positive y-axis.
A mathematics novice might mistakenly think that the positive and negative axes are identical. Similarly a spiritual neophyte might mistakenly think that spiritual and material sounds are identical. But we can understand the difference through intelligence, and experience it through practice. Just as a child unaware of paper currency sees no difference between waste paper and a $100 bill, a spiritually immature person unaware of spiritual values sees no difference between ordinary material sound and extraordinary spiritual sound. Material sound agitates our mind; spiritual sound pacifies it. Material sound aggravates and perpetuates our amnesia; spiritual sound alleviates and eradicates it. Material sound entangles us; spiritual sound liberates us.
Since all sound is voiced through the same mouth, what makes a sound spiritual? Its connection with the source and sustenance of all spirituality: the supreme spiritual being, God, who resides on the positive infinity of the y-axis.
Spiritual sound the revealed word of God is exalted in all the great wisdom traditions of the world. In the Judeo-Christian tradition, St. John (1.1) states, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” In the Vedic tradition, hymns, verses, songs, mantras, bhajanas, and kirtanas beckon adventurous spiritualists to higher realms of enlightenment and fulfillment.
The Sound of the Holy Name The greater the sound’s connection with God, the greater its spiritual potency. The sound most intimately connected with us is our own name. The same applies to God. Therefore the most powerful spiritual sound is the holy name of God. Indeed the holy name of God is identical to God, as asserted by the Padma Purana: abhinnatvan namanamino ?. Hence chanting the holy name purifies us by bringing us in immediate and direct contact with God. Mantra meditationmeditation on the mantra composed of the holy names of Godgradually tunes our consciousness to the spiritual level where we can receive the guidance of the Supersoul in the heart, who is identical to the holy name.
Thus chanting achieves in one swift step what takes mauna two slow, arduous steps: first silence the clamor of the mind, and then perceive the voice of the Supersoul within. The Kali Santarana Upanisad, a scripture containing practices tailored to our current age, unequivocally states, “In this age there is no means for purification other than the chanting of the maha-manta: Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare/ Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare.” Not only does the holy name purify most efficaciously, but also through group meditation on the sound of the holy name, or sankirtana, devotees can simultaneously relish divine bliss and also share it with others. Srila Prabhupada writes, “The topics of Lord Krishna are so auspicious that they purify the speaker, the hearer, and the inquirer.” (Srimad-Bhagavatam 2.1.1, Purport) Thus spiritual sound synthesizes the virtues of material sound and silence, for it offers us a unique vehicle for simultaneous individual and social transformation. Hence Vedic insights call for a revised rendition of a traditional saying: “Speech is silver, silence is goldenbut spiritual speech is diamond.”
Caitanya Carana Dasa is a disciple of His Holiness Radhanatha Swami. He holds a degree in electronics and telecommunication engineering and serves full-time at ISKCON Pune. To view his other writings and subscribe to his e-zine, The Spiritual Scientist, visit his website: thespiritualscientist.com.