Speaking Truth: The Art of Sacred Speech

According to the Tantras there are four degrees of human speech. As the information age gathers momentum, the most primitive level – the spoken and written word – is progressively drowning out the higher, more subtle tongues. The result? Confusion, cynicism, and a flat, homogenized view of the world.

Many of us who love Ganesha, the roly-poly remover of obstacles, daily recite the Ganapati Atharva Shirsha Upanishad, invoking his blessings as we seek unwavering awareness (atharva shirsha can be interpreted to mean “unwavering head”). Early in this text appears the vow ritam vachmi, satyam vachmi, which expresses our determination to speak words that will strengthen both ritam (cosmic order) and satyam (truth). Shortly after we make these promises there follows a clarifying declaration: Tvam chatvari vak padani (Thou art the very syllables of the four varieties of speech).

Unpacked from its upanishadic terseness, the message is clear: “In my pursuit of steadfast consciousness, O Lord, I shall endeavor always to speak words that are true and that resonate with Reality, using as many of the four categories of speech as I am fluent in. Aid me in this my resolve!”

The prayer’s author was a rishi, a wise, God-intoxicated seer who served as a vessel for reality, a conduit through whom truth could flow. Each rishi “saw” reality from a unique perspective; each spoke an inimitable truth. Ekam sat, vipra bahudha vadanti, a Vedic proverb tells us: Truth is One; the wise express it in many ways. Each rishi ushered universal truths into particularity by spontaneously condensing ritam (cosmic truth) and satyam (worldly truth) into hymns. Quivering with ecstasy, shaking with exaltation and realization, vibrating to the tune of the music of the spheres, these vipras (“those who are inspired”) expressed truth in the four “tongues” that are the four degrees of human speech: vaikhari, madhyama, pashyanti, and para.

Each degree of speech embodies a different kind of perception; each transmits a different reality. Vaikhari, which is ordinary verbal speech, the kind we all hear and use daily, is an expression of kriya shakti, the power of action. You speak in vaikhari when you focus on deeds past, present activities, exploits to come.

Madhyama is mental speech, verbalized but unspoken, the internal monologue and dialogue; it expresses jñana shakti, the power of knowledge and wisdom (or lack thereof). Madhyama measures, evaluates, questions, harnessing your rational and emotional minds to formulate the intentions that precipitate into words. Pashyanti, single-minded speech, is perceptible but not particularized. It is the vehicle for iccha shakti, the power of desire. When you speak at the pashyanti level you are sure of your message; your intentions (selfish or altruistic) are always clear.

Para is pure intention – pure because it is a direct expression of the will of reality, unadulterated by any personal preference. Para is the power of ambika shakti, the supreme Mother Goddess, speech that flows directly from the cosmic creatrix. Abhinavagupta, the great genius of a thousand years back, eulogizes para as the form of speech that displays absolutely no thought of this, thus, here, or now.

Para, which literally means “beyond”, is beyond all objects of any sort, motionless, in eternally equipoise, so subtle that it is commonly perceptible only to those who are highly evolved. Pashyanti does not distinguish between subject and object. Perceptible but not yet particularized, it covers the middle ground between para’s pure intention and madhyama’s verbalized but as yet unspoken mental speech. Madhyama is particularized into phonemes, directed to mental objects, the objects of the inner senses. It straddles the gulf between the noiseless conviction that is pashyanti and the spoken word that is vaikhari. Vaikhari, the speech of maya, is physical speech, the outward, audible manifestation of phonemes that refer to and are directed toward physical, external sense objects.

Vaikhari lies within the purview of the conscious mind and jagrat (waking-time consciousness). The subconscious mind uses madhyama in svapna (dreaming consciousness). Pashyanti represents sushupti (the dreamless sleep that occurs when the unconscious mind takes over). Succeed at uniting the conscious mind with the unconscious and subconscious minds and you create the superconscious mind, whereupon you can go beyond the three common states of consciousness to reach turiya (the fourth state). Join vaikhari seamlessly with madhyama and pashyanti and you may gain access to para, which expresses turiya, and other higher states of consciousness.

The Vaikhari Error

Vaikhari’s advantage lies in how easily you can run on at the mouth with it. Madhyama at least requires you to think; heart and head must work together for it to flow. With pashyanti, you must also focus your prana – head, heart, and hara (solar plexus, more or less) all aligned. But in vaikhari mode, the head can freely filibuster along, ignoring inconvenient actualities.

Vaikhari can of course be a useful tool; you are using vaikhari to read this article, for example. Our modern rapid transportation and communication would never have developed without well-developed vaikhari. Civilization itself is a product of vaikhari; what is a tribe, after all, but a group of people who unite under the aegis of a particular worldview, almost always with the help of a particular (vaikhari) language?

A viable tribe, though, will number among their members at least a few who can, via madhyama, pashyanti, or even para, guide the helm of the clan-ship through the rough waters of the vaikhari sea. Confusion may swamp even the most confident captain, though, when unmodified vaikhari is the only tongue in operation. We might as well spell “doubt” v-a-i-k-h-a-r-i, because doubt is all you will ever truly know if you communicate in vaikhari idioms alone. Even knowers of pashyanti who immerse themselves in la vida vaikhari will find their previously clear perception clouding as the mediating influence of heart and hara is overshadowed by the tyranny of head.

Overusing, misusing, or abusing any sense organ, your voice in particular, will rob you of the energy you need to speak deeply; try observing silence for an entire day, and you will gain a better understanding of the old maxim “speech is energy”. Weakened people can often speak only with their mouths, in vaikhari; speaking shallowly, they fall easily into patterns of shallow breathing, eating, thinking, feeling. Subsisting on life’s surfaces they hustle through existence, hurrying past the silk purse in their pursuit of the sow’s ear.

Knowing this, the rishis in their unbounded compassion created mantras like the Ganapati Atharva Shirsha to bring our irresolute heads back into alignment with our hearts and haras. Ganapati means “lord of the ganas”, and one salient meaning of gana is “sense organ”. Ganesha steadies your head by bringing your sense organs into line, withdrawing them (pratyahara) from their unwholesome attachments to external objects, attuning them to the point at which they value perception of truth more highly than more conventional gratifications.

One way the Ganapati Atharva Shirsha does this is by helping you to recall how sacred words can be. The act of speaking was once taken far more seriously than we take it today. Misuse of speech was regarded as unfavorably as misuse of body or mind; loose lips, after all, sink ships. The energy inherent in words of truth is verily creative; speak your intention clearly and sincerely, in pashyanti or para, and the power in your words will lead that goal into manifestation. To declare that you will speak truth can become a self-fulfilling prophecy if you will but speak it deeply, with attention – which you can best do by speaking it silently, with intention.

Dangerous Consensuses

All life instinctively craves the clarity of the unalloyed ritam (cosmic order) and satyam (truth) that the Absolute Reality enjoys. Lose access to the higher levels of speech and you distance yourself from satyam and ritam, which will invite doubt, confusion, and cynicism into your life. Lose the ability to speak deeply, and either you will lose your ability to speak your truth as your words leak from you, or you will petrify your truth by rigidly regulating your vocabulary.

However much we modern humans try to live our lives insulated from the natural world, Nature works perpetually to remind us who’s boss. As our heads tell us one thing and our bodies another, our collective inability to reconcile the discord between our natural eyes and our artificial notions drive us further into the dark jungle of shared delusion.

Human nature itself encourages this folly to spread widely; let a critical mass of people begin to believe something, however fictitious, and soon the contagion of popular hallucination has everyone knowing it for a fact. Multiply these ‘facts’ and soon there’s no seeing the satyam forest or the ritam countryside for all the tall, fractal misperceptions.

Humans crave to belong, to identify a shared semblance of truth, a consensus reality to which we can flock like sheep yearning for a shepherd. Tribes crystallize around consensus realities between villagers and their environs, and tribal chiefs build authority by crafting painstaking consensus among their constituents. Modern leaders, who trust instead the winner-take-all system of defining reality, herd us with the soothing monotone of cultural Muzak, or sound the strident single note of the trumpet that calls us to battle against the ‘enemy’.

The complexity of our confused vaikhari-only lives terrorizes us into a willingness to trade the spice of variety for the security of uniformity. And having lost multiplicity in our speech, we proceed toward a homogenized, conformist worldview that does not venture far from home. Having lost the richness of the more exalted varieties of our own speech, we retreat from the rich eloquence of nature into less threatening environs, recklessly endangering diversity on all fronts: biological, cultural, and spiritual.

Endangered Biodiversity

One mainstream madness is the pervasive, persistent lunacy that our species deserves automatic precedence over all others. As a result we are right now in the middle of one of the greatest sudden losses of biodiversity in Earth’s history, a man-made bio-crisis that has species going extinct at a rate unseen since the last major cataclysm that threatened the very existence of terrestrial life.

Arrogating to ourselves dominion over all the Earth, we take a nature that we see as disorderly and strain to mold her into domestication. Vaikhari science, which limits itself to the external, material world, seeks guaranteed truth, the certainty of hard physical evidence. Trusting in analytical logic alone, materialistic science purifies, separates, isolates, and concentrates, reducing the chaos of the natural world into unambiguous ‘thises’ and ‘thats’, defining land by exploiting it, defining species by shuffling their genetics. And all the while the narrowed perspective of the vaikhari world’s consensus reality makes it hard for us to imagine how caribou, chimpanzees, wild herbs, and tropical forests might have any rights of their own.

Conventional science reassures us that we need not weep for what we have lost, and what we will lose, as we thus ‘progress’; our technological gains, we are told, are worth any environmental price that we might pay as we proceed on our path to the stars. The voices of the rishis, though, continue to remind us that Truth is One; the wise express it in many ways. Listen carefully to the natural world and you cannot but hear each living species, every inimitable plant and animal, expressing a unique formulation of truth, a one-of-its-kind proclamation addressed by wise nature to her beloved reality, echoing him in his infinite intricacy.

Each life-form is an aria of spirit, life trilling the glory of God in bulb and root, tooth and claw — a song that, though hard to transcribe into vaikhari, can be heard by anyone who has an open ear. The truly wise love to respond by inviting nature to speak through them, on behalf of all the asphodels and zinnias, aardvarks and zebras who each voice their own truths, as well as those of nature, in their every breath.

Endangered Cultural Diversity

Today’s modern consensus reality is enforced into pure vaikhari by the volume of information we are forced to process, for where is that printing press or VCR, CD, DVD player, or Web browser that can reproduce pashyanti or para? Our insatiable appetite for input breeds an ever-growing throng of vaikhari word-wraiths, phrase phantoms that sow discontent in their wake.

To ensure clarity for new speakers, language ropes down grammar with firm, linear laws. Vaikhari clarity emerges from similar linear laws: the lineaments of the letters themselves, the procession of letters that have been transformed into words and phrases, the linearity of books that proceed in a unidirectional parade from a patent start to an unambiguous finish. Apply this inflexibility to a culture and you get the grammar of cultural imperialism, practiced sometimes with harsh violence, as by a majority community on a minority, spreading sometimes more insidiously, through contagion by mind-viruses.

One supremely effective tool of the cultural imperialist is to separate a people from its language. Deny a nation the right to its own dialect, however imperfect and vaikhari-ized it may have become, and you erase the experience of generations of “breathing from ancient times”; you erase the direct connections with the inspirations of those past wise men and women who somehow found ways to couch portions of reality in vaikhari words. Take away a people’s tongue and you pass a sentence of death upon that civilization; honor that vernacular, and you honor that community.

Endangered Spiritual Diversity

If Truth though One must perforce be expressed by the wise in many ways, then the more ways in which Truth is expressed, the better our perspective on Truth should be. Until recently India’s spiritual environment embraced, or at least tolerated, every expression of reality that identified itself as being an offshoot of the original Vedic revelation. This made it difficult to define the Sanatana Dharma (Eternal Faith), the vast family of traditions now termed “Hinduism”. The Sanatana Dharma is eternal not in its creed but in its ability to give birth to new philosophies, attitudes, and conceptions of supreme beingness, era by era, each occupying its own eco-spiritual niche. Many of these dispensations have in common little more than their acknowledgment of reality’s ultimate oneness.

Confusion in the vaikhari mind about cryptic Vedic utterances would have begun early on, but for many centuries the rishis were able to minimize distortion by guarding their wisdom carefully, communicating it mouth to mouth, nose to nose, eye to eye, and mind to mind, sharing it only among those who could ‘see’.

But as the Vedic mystique deteriorated into general incomprehensibility, new interpretations of the Vedas proliferated, shoots as dissimilar as Purva Mimamsa, the five major schools of Advaita Vedanta, the Puranas, and the Tantras. Vigorous new dispensations have continued to appear ever since, and tired old ones to disappear, until today, when monoculturalism is killing off still viable spiritual traditions simply because they have been weighed in vaikhari balances and found wanting.

Mystical Monocultures

The drive is on instead to capture multidimensional, deep-level realities in simple, one-dimensional vaikhari formulations, a trend that appears in the yoga community in the West as an urge to “define” yoga. Yoga has, since its Western debut a scant century back, spread far and wide without thus far submitting to confinement within a single dogma. Many would now like to see it ‘graduate’ into shackled uniformity, curbed into compliance with some tidy image of how it ought to appear (e.g., yoga as ancient workout system, updated for the modern world).

Acclimatizing ancient tradition to the changing times we live in is certainly essential if yoga is to flourish in contemporary non-Indian climes; but for yoga to surrender entirely its cultural context would be catastrophe, not adjustment. Healthy change is change to some degree, balancing continuity in the tradition with alert adaptation of specific practices.

If this debate were being conducted in well-informed madhyama, with overtones of disciplined pashyanti, it might yield some beneficial outcome. That the disputants are disagreeing solely in vaikhari, though, ensures that it will but promote unwholesome divergence of belief. Vaikhari is all about particularization, about dissecting out differences. Synthesis requires the ability to breathe with the yogis of former times, to see into yoga’s past, perceive its present, envisage its future. To try to define yoga by casting its principles in concrete vaikhari is to enslave it in concepts, when yoga’s very aim is to strip from the mind the straitjacket that vaikhari fashions for it.

The threat that hangs over yoga is but a specific instance of the more general hazard that jeopardizes all the sacred progeny of the Vedas. As with biodiversity and yoga diversity, vaikhari monoculture also endangers India’s spiritual diversity. Reasons vary; one is growing nostalgia for India’s previous cultural ecology, the ancient network of tales and tale-swappers, festivals and observances that have long swaddled and nursed its living traditions, a network that is slowly succumbing to the assault of modernity.

Another reason is the unfavorable comparison that some make between the gloriously fluid Sanatana Dharma and other, more doctrinaire, religions that enjoy inflexible rules contained within a single book whose vaikhari words are not in doubt. A third is the perceived political potential of a united Hindu electorate. And there are others; but none of these pretexts are any more legitimate than the excuses expounded to defend any other variety of enforced uniformity.

Traditions reconstituted in vaikhari will be no more able, in the long term, to replace lost spiritual diversity than will the monocultures of agribusiness succeed at replacing the biodiversity of the wildernesses they supplant. When the Vedas and their progeny are given life via the rich textures of madhyama, pashyanti, and para, how can they be squashed into a uniformly flat vaikhari version and be expected to continue to breathe?

Fossilizing the ever-changing Vedic revelation into a “religion of the book” would guarantee continued risk for it, not salvation. Attempts to define “Hindu” in terms of public policy rather than private belief are particularly pernicious, for politics and spirituality should never mix. Even the best among politicians must occasionally speak vaikhari with a forked tongue, to generate consensus. Politics requires that truth be ‘polished’ to make it attractive to the largest number of people; spirituality requires that people be polished, to become fit receptacles for truth.

Like our environment and our societies, our spiritual diversity will have to be nursed slowly back to health: traditions rehabilitated or regenerated, orthodoxy refined and curbed, wild practitioners of “crazy wisdom” enticed into distinctive spiritual niches where they may safely flourish.

Above all, people habituated to perceive, think, and express their truth in vaikhari will have to learn eloquence in other levels of speech. Vaikhari spirituality, however beguiling at the outset, leads ultimately to dead ends, for only those words that are spoken in madhyama and pashyanti (and para) as well can illuminate both satyam and ritam. Only such creative words are worthy of being said; only they can give life.

May Lord Ganesha bless us ever with such words of truth!

Copyright © 2002

Robert Edwin Svoboda