Sunday, January 10, 2010

Intention or Intonation

Commenting on texts of Veda dharma Chandrasekharendra Saraswathi Swamigal brings out the fact that you must not go wrong in the enunciation or intonation of a mantra. If you do, not only will you not reap the benefit but might draw upon yourself a result contrary to the intention. So the mantra must be chanted with utmost care. He sites the story told in the Taittiriya Samhita (2.4.12) to demonstrate this important facet of mantra recitation. The story goes as follows:


Tvasta wanted to take revenge on Indra for some reason and conducted a sacrifice to beget a son who would slay Indra. When he chanted his mantra, "Indrasatrur varddhasva. . ", he went wrong in the intonation. He should have voiced "Indra" without raising or lowering the syllables in it and he should have raised the syllables "tru" and "rddha"(that is the two syllables are "udata"). Had he done so the mantra would have meant, "May Tvasta's son grow to be the slayer of Indra". He raised the "dra" in Indra, intoned "satru" as a falling svara and lowered the "rddha" in "varddhasva". So the mantra meant now: "May Indra grow to be the killer of this son (of mine)". The words of the mantra were not changed but, because of the erratic intonation, the result produced was the opposite of what was desired. The father himself thus became the cause of his son's death at the hands of Indra.

The gist of this story is contained in this verse which cautions us against erroneous intonation.

If the mantra differs by intonation, letter or another way while chanting, that mantra will become VajrAyudham(thunderbolt) and torment the YajamAnan(performer of sacrifice) who chants the mantra, just as the wrong recital of the 'indrashatru' phrase did.

What was the weapon with which Tvasta 's son was killed? Not Indra's thunderbolt but the father's wrongly chanted mantra.


I am not an authority to go into an etymological or philosophical discussion on the above story or the terrifying end result when operating outside a specific scholarship under the tutelage of a renowned guru. But what I feel that needs to be addressed is that the intention of a mantra recital is totally excluded from the above position. I feel that the Samhita (collection of texts) was intended to communicate a greater dharma of 'intention'. When individual consciousness acts in its ego state which is in contradiction with the cosmic principle, which here is represented by Indra, the annihilation of the action of the self (ego consciousness) becomes inevitable.

This is strongly demonstrated in how the cosmic principle overrides through the same agency of the individual consciousness, the final outcome of reciting the mantra.

The word Dharma is derived from the root Dhr - to hold - and its etymological meaning is - that which holds - this world, or the people of the world, or the whole creation from the microcosm to the macrocosm. It is the eternal Divine Law of the cosmic order. The entire creation is held together and sustained by the All-powerful Law of God. Practice of Dharma, therefore, means recognition of this Law and abidance by it.

I am not repudiating the fact that the purpose of the mantras are primarily in the domain of the vibration in the energy levels both in the cosmic as well as in the chanter’s domain. But the intentions are primary if not even though you may succeed through energy alteration in establishing a desired result, there may result a negative karmic imprint in the individual consciousness.

As per the genealogy expressed in Shrimad Bhagavatam chapter 6.6.38-39 Tvasta was the son of Aditi of Suriya dynasty or the supreme Godhead from whom Lord Narayana descended and Tvasta was one of the twelve sons of Aditi representing the twelve astrological principles or the manifest aspect of cosmic consciousness. It is impossible for a manifestation to override its own substratum.

This I think is the primary dharma teaching in this story.

Love to you all


  1. In the debate between intention and intonation I would vote for the former as of today. But there had been a time where chanting was closely associated with my own spirituality.I feel as we understand god intimately we switch over to a different and higher mode of prayer.May be intention and intonation signify two stages. Yet it will be unfortunate if are not able to move ahead from the lower stage stage to the other.

  2. Subathra, thanks for sharing your view on the post.

  3. A man went to church every day with a paper in his hand and used to read from it. The parish priest became very curious and one day he went to man kneeling at the pew and asked him "My friend what's the special prayer you are offering to God every day. Can I have the joy of reading it?"The man replied that that he was an illiterate who cannot even sing a song to God and all he knew was the alphebets and every day he made it a point to recite to the Lord the only thing he knew. The priest was touched by his gesture and said to him " My friend your prayer will be more sweeter to the ears of the Lord than the psalms of David."
    The sincerity in the intention is what matters than the perfection in the intonations.

  4. SS! Beautiful story with a very deep meaning.
    Thanks for the sharing.