Growing up in India, surrounded by family and friends steeped in traditional rituals and festivals, familiarity with the sounds of Sanskrit mantras and shlokas came way before actual Sanskrit studies in school. We had memorized many mantras, shlokas and kirtans before we learnt any Sanskrit.
Waking up to my mother’s hero MS Subbulakshmi chant the Suprabhātam is my earliest memory of Sanskrit chanting. The sounds of this chanting is home for me. I can close my eyes and I’m transported to my childhood. These are verses very popularly recited early mornings in homes and temples in South India. Suprabhātam literally means ‘auspicious dawn’.
MS Subbulakshmi chanting the morning mantra:
The school day started with chanting Asatoma Sadgamaya and ended with this shloka:
om saha nāvavatu
saha nau bhunaktu
saha vīryaṃ karavāvahai
tejasvināvadhītamastu mā vidviṣāvahai
oṃ śāntiḥ śāntiḥ śāntiḥ
Meaning: Let us together be protected, nourished, let us bring our strengths together for the benefit of humanity, let our efforts at learning be luminous, filled with joy and endowed with the force of purpose. Let us never be poisoned with the seeds of hatred for anyone.
Here is a video of the Asatoma Sadgamaya:
Actual Sanskrit study as a subject started when I was about 9 years old, by which time we had already learnt the Devanagiri script by studying Hindi. This official Indian language shares its script with Sanskrit.
Visiting my grandmother’s village was only more exposure to chanting, with my brother also training there for his initiation into the Brahmin fold (Upanayana). This involved him learning several rituals and mantras, including the popular Gayatri Mantra which I learnt simply by listening in on his classes.
See here a video of the Gayatri Mantra:
My grandmother’s daily pooja ritual:
The many poojas (prayer service), yagnas (fire ceremonies), festivals celebrated at home during all my years growing up were my introduction to the austere Vedic chanting with its strict rules of pronunciation and intonation.
So, my journey to Sanskrit has been a colourful, enjoyable medley of various inputs. My mission with Sanskrit Belgium is to somewhat recreate this learning journey. I believe that chanting is a great way to start learning Sanskrit – through a mindful, meditative recitation of important Sanskrit texts and enjoying its special sounds. Learning the alphabet and grammar can wait.