The Ashtanga Opening Chant

So what is this mysterious chanting we do before Practice?
Does this affect my faith?
What does the opening chant really mean?
Should I chant it if I don’t know what it means?

Hopefully the following translation will try to answer these questions. The translation is taken from a talk by Arvind Pare (https://www.facebook.com/GangaInGokulam) which I was fortunate to attend on my last trip to Mysore 2014. Arvind had many insightful stories and commentaries which help to give the chant a greater meaning. So I’ve included some of them here. The original text is written in Sanskrit but I’ve used the English transliteration below.

For me the chant is a simple way to help direct the intention of the practice. It doesn’t require any leap of faith to chant this. It simply brings certain aspects to the forefront of your mind before you begin, which help out as the practice unfolds. In essence the chant recognises the people who’ve gone before. The practitioners who have passed down the knowledge from generation to generation, and one can even see the chant as a recognition of the knowledge itself.

So here it is.

Vande Gurunam Caranaravinde – ‘I salute to the lotus feet of my teachers.’
Sandarsita Svatma Sukhava Bodhe – ‘He made me see my own self for easy understanding’
Nih Sreyase Jangalikayamane – ‘My salutations to the best doctor / herablist’
Samsara Halahala Mohasantyai – ‘Relief from delusion, the poison of Samsara’
Abahu Purusakaram – ‘Taking the form of half man, half snake’
Sankhacakrasi Dharinam – ‘Armed with vibrations, knowledge, and a sword of discrimination’
Sahasra Sirasam Svetam – ‘With countless pure white heads’
Pranamami Patanjalim – ‘To Patanjali I salute’

The chant comes from 2 seperate sources, The first part comes from a longer poem called the Yoga Taravalli written by Adi Sankara. This part is basically recognising the tradition of Gurus. The second part is section of the Patanjali Invocation (Chanted in Pune at the Ramamani Iyengar Memorial) and recognises the Sage Patanjali, the author of the Yoga Sutras.

Part 1 – To the tradition of gurus

Vande Gurunam Caranaravinde

‘I salute to the lotus feet of my teachers’

Vande – I salute
Gurunam – Teachers (Guru – known as the one who removes the darkness (not knowing))
Charana – Feet
Aravinde – Lotus

The lotus feet is a cultural reference. Often people would say I heard it from the lotus mouth of my teachers, or he gave it to me with his lotus hands. It is the tradition to not only recognise the teacher from whom we are learning but also the lineage of teachers (guru parampara)

Sandarsita Svatma Sukhava Bodhe

‘He made me see my own self for easy understanding’

Sandarsita – Showed, he made me see
Svatma – Own (Atma = self)
AvaBodhe – understanding
Sukha – Comfortably/Easily

The job of the Guru is to teach something for my easy understanding

Nih Sreyase Jangalikayamane

‘My salutations to the best doctor or the herablist’

Nihsre – Moksha / liberation / absoulte freedom
Nihsreyase – Absolute good, nothing is better than that, cannot be bettered.
Jungal – Jungle
Kayamane – Doctor
Jangalikayamane – Herbalist

(In those days doctors were mostly herbalists)

Samsara Halahala Mohasantyai

‘Relief from delusion, the poison of Samsara’

Shanti – To bring to peace / relief from disease = Moksha
Samsara – seen as the disease, snakebite, an ocean which we are drowning.
Cyle of birth and death, proverbial darkness of ignorance. (guru, the remover of darkness)
Halahala – poison, venomouse poison which came out during the churning of the ocean.
Moha – go around and around (like being drunk). Delusion.

Story – This guy he got really drunk, he asked his friend, please come can you take me home, but the problem was he was already home, he was sat in his own living room. But the friend had a little compasion and said he would take him home. So he took him around the block, came back and said ok, now you’re home. This is Moha.

Part 2 – To the Sage Patanjali

Abahu Purusakaram

‘Taking the form of half man, half snake’

Bahu – means limbs. Krishna calls Arjuna ‘Mahaabaaho’ – the long-limbed or the great-armed one
Abahu – of the upper limbs.
Purusa – man/human.
Purusha is a complex word that, at a literal level can mean human/of male form but at its deepest level refers to the stuff of stuff – the masculine principle/construct upon which Prakriti (feminine) plays/manifests.

Patanjali is often portrayed as a half snake, half man.
Patanjali is thought to be an incarnation of the serpent upon which Lord vishnu is reclining.
The serpent is known as Ananta, which means Infinite.
So the translation Taking the form of half man, half snake is derived from the literal translation ‘Of the upper limbs a man/human’ which implies that only the upper limbs are of man (which to me would mean that his lower half was imagined to be serpent… because that is how ‘Nagas’ are painted/carved – like mermen).

Sankhacakrasi Dharinam

‘Holding the Conch to command all vibrations, the discus of knowledge, and the sword of discrimination’

Sankha – Conch, the bell will take care of all other vibrations, like a bell drowns out all other vibrations.
Cakra – Disc, knowledge as a weapon
Asi – Sword, symbol of discrimiation.
Abaya – Blessing hand, I grant you freedom from fear, Just come to me.

We as humans need security and The lord is taking care of us with many many weapons.
With one cut you make too. Sword of discrimination (Viveka) (Viragia – discression).
When i take myslef to be this body or this mind, the non-existent gets mixed with the exitent.
So seeing here discriminately the distinct nature of the self from the house in which it resides requires a lot of discrimination. Mind is me, but i am not the mind, this requires discrimination

Sahasra Sirasam Svetam

‘With countless pure white heads’

Sahasra – 1000 (Infinite, Countless)
Sirasam – heads
Svetam – white (satva, color of milk, purity), Knoweledge takes place in a pure mind.

The countless white heads (the thousand hoods of the serpent, Ananta).

Pranamami Patanjalim

‘To patanjali I salute’