Vedic Vak: four levels of sound

This is a simplified explanation of the Vedic theory of Sound (Vak, whose root is Vach which means “to speak” and corresponds in Latin to the word is Vox) using some examples as well as the words of the Mother of the Aurobindo Ashram.

A variety of ancient scriptures speak of the Universe created by sound or cosmic vibrations.

  • The Rig Veda 1.164.45  says  “catvari vak parimita padani tani vidur brahmana ye minishinah, guha trini nihita neengayanti turiyam vaco manushya vadanti” (i.e. The cognoscenti know of the Vak that exists in four forms .  Three are hidden and the fourth is what men speak) .
  • The Sanskrit grammarian, Bhartrhari, states in his Vakyapadiya 1.112: “vageva viswa bhuvanani jajne” (i.e. It is Vak which has created all the worlds).
  • Similarly, in Tantra, it is said that the Universe was set in motion by the primordial throb (adya-spanda) and that all objects of the Universe are created by sound – “artha-srsteh puram sabda-srstih” (sound precedes the formation of objects).
  • Lastly, we find in the Bible the verse, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” [John 1:1]

The rhythms of cosmic vibrations issue forth from four levels which correspond to the various levels in manifestation:

  1. Para-Vak is the highest form of sound. It issues forth from the Supernal Ether (paramam vyomam) where all the sound vibrations that build the various worlds pre-exist in an undifferentiated state.
  2. Pashyanti is the sound vibration heard in the Causal worlds. Pashyanti in Sanskrit means “seeing speech”. A sage whose consciousness is concentrated in the causal body is able to “glimpse” a Truth in a vision or a revelation. Knowledge is acquired in the inner mind by sight without the use of the reasoning faculty or sensory data.
  3. Madhyama (Middle)is the sound as perceived in the subtle or the Pranic world. A good example of this would be the thought-forms held in our mind.
  4. Vaikhari is the lowest form of sound and it signifies outward expression. This is the spoken word emerging from the our throat.
Type of Vak Phenomenological equivalent Corresponding world and body sheath
Para Eternal Cosmic Vibrations Maha Karana/Supreme Causal
Pashyanti(i.e.seeing speech) Sight or Vision seen at highest level of the mind as a result of spiritual illumination Karana/Causal
Madhyama(i.e. middle) Thought forms in the human mind Sukshma/Subtle
Vaikhari Spoken word Sthula/Gross

Illustration of Madhyama, Pashyanti, Para

Mother: Ideas have a higher origin than the mind. There is a region of the mind, higher than the ordinary mind, in which there are ideas, typal ideas (this is Pashyanti Vak), really prototypes; and these ideas descend and are clothed in mental substance (this is Madhyama Vak). So, in accordance with — how to put it?… the quality of the receiver, they either keep all their own qualities and original nature or become distorted, coloured, transformed in the individual consciousness. But the idea goes far beyond the mind; the idea has an origin much higher than the mind. So, the functioning is the same from both the universal and the individual point of view; the individual movement is only representative of the universal one. The scale is different, but the phenomenon is the same. Of course, these are no longer “thoughts” as we conceive thoughts; they are universal principles (this is Para Vak) — but it’s the same thing — universal principles on which the universes are built.

The universe, after all, is only one person, only one individuality in the midst of the eternal Creation. Each universe is a person who takes form, lives, dissolves, and another takes shape — it is the same thing. For us, the person is the human individual; and from the universal point of view the person is the universal individual; it is one universe in the midst of all the universes.

The Mother, Questions and Answers (1956): 7 November 1956

Applying Vedic Vak to demonstrate three ways of thinking

In the following dialogue, the Mother Mirra Alfassa gave a practical demonstration of Vedic Vak when she asked teachers in the Ashram school to begin thinking with ideas instead of words. She gave the illustration of a tower (i.e. human being) where the visitors (i.e. ideas or Madhyama) which came in at the top are then translated into words (i.e. Vaikhari) at the storeroom at the base of the tower.

In the Mother’s example,

  • Thinking with words is Vaikhari.
  • Thinking with ideas is Madhyama.
  • Thinking with (spiritual) experiences is Pashyanti.

Question: Sweet Mother, You have asked the teachers “to think with ideas instead of with words”. You have also said that later on you will ask them to think with experiences. Will you throw some light on these three ways of thinking?

Answer: Our house has a very high tower; at the very top of this tower there is a bright and bare room, the last before we emerge into the open air, into the full light.

Sometimes, when we are free to do so, we climb up to this bright room, and there, if we remain very quiet, one or more visitors come to call on us; some are tall, others small, some single, others in groups; all are bright and graceful.

Usually, in our joy at their arrival and our haste to welcome them, we lose our tranquillity and come galloping down to rush into the great hall that forms the base of the tower and is the storeroom of words. Here, more or less excited, we select, reject, assemble, combine, disarrange, rearrange all the words in our reach, in an attempt to portray this or that visitor who has come to us. But most often, the picture we succeed in making of our visitor is more like a caricature than a portrait.

And yet if we were wiser, we would remain up above, at the summit of the tower, quite calm, in joyful contemplation. Then, after a certain length of time, we would see the visitors themselves slowly, gracefully, calmly descend, without losing anything of their elegance or beauty and, as they cross the storeroom of words, clothe themselves effortlessly, automatically, with the words needed to make themselves perceptible even in the material house.

This is what I call thinking with ideas. When this process is no longer mysterious to you, I shall explain what is meant by thinking with experiences.

When you think with words, you can express what you think with those words only. To think with ideas is to be able to put the same idea in many kinds of words. The words can also be of different languages, if you happen to know more than one language. This is the first, the most elementary thing about thinking with ideas.

When you think with experience, you go much deeper and you can express the same experience with many kinds of ideas. Then thought can take this form or that form in any language and through all of them the essential realisation will remain unchanged.

To be convincing when you speak, think not in ideas but in experiences.

The Mother, On Education: Teaching

See Also

  1. The early part of this essay is derived from Kapali Sastry’s book “Sidelights on Tantra” which has an essay “Vak of the Veda and Throb of the Tantra” in which he compares the Vedic and Tantric theory of Creative Word.
  2. Andre Padoux. Vac, The Concept of the Word in Selected Hindu Tantras. (amazon) (Google books)
  3. Janhava Nitai Das. The Vedic Conception of Sound in Four Features
  4. Vladimir Iatsenko.  Vedic Linguistics pdf

18 thoughts on “Vedic Vak: four levels of sound

  1. Pingback: Vedic Vak: illustration of Para Vak « Integral Yoga of Sri Aurobindo & The Mother

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  3. Sandeep Post author

    As we read above, the ancients distinguished between Madhyama Vak (thought-forms held in our mind.) and Vaikhari Vak (speech which is uttered). Modern technology is revealing these differences as the following passage from an NPR article shows:

    An old technology is providing new insights into the human brain.

    The technology is called electrocorticography, or ECoG, and it uses electrodes placed on the surface of the brain to detect electrical signals coming from the brain itself.

    Eavesdropping On Your Inner Monologue?

    ECoG is also revealing things about how the brain creates speech.

    Schalk and other researchers are using the technology to watch the brains of people as they speak out loud and also as they say the words silently to themselves.

    “One of the surprising initial findings coming out of that research was that actual (this is vaikhari) and imagined speech ( this is madhyama)[are] very, very different,” Schalk says.

    When your brain wants you to say a word out loud, it produces two sets of signals. One has to do with moving the muscles controlling the mouth and vocal tract. The second set involves signals in the brain’s auditory system.

    But when a person simply thinks of a word instead of saying it, there are no muscle signals — just the activity in the parts of the brain involved in listening.

    “That seems to suggest that what imagined speech actually really is, it’s more like internally listening to your own voice,” Schalk says.

    Read the full article @ http://www.npr.org/2011/05/12/135598390/mind-reading-technology-turns-thought-into-action

    Reply
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  10. Venkatesh Palla

    Can you please explain why para vak is said to be located in muladahara when the term ‘para’ indicates ‘above’? Do you have any idea of where the other kinds of vak is located?

    Reply
      1. Venkatesh Palla

        I read about it in the book’ Sanskrit and the evolution of human speech’ by Dr. Sampadanada Mishra, page 82. While referring it now, I found that the other kinds of vak were given locations in this book, but I feel that sharing your experience in this matter is also useful.

      2. Sandeep Post author

        I redirected your question to Dr Sampadananda Mishra and he replied as follows.

        “almost all Tantric scriptures agree on this that the supreme and subtle most power in the form of Kundalini lies in the Muladhara…this indeed is the seat of the subtle most sound it is from here that it rises to become the gross speech. The supreme shakti lies in Muladhara in the form of Kundalini and it is there above also as Divine force. Below it is coiled up, involved and asleep, above it is awake, scient, potent, extended and wide. To quote Sri Aurobindo:

        “It can awake in all these forms, bursting outwards and upwards, extending itself into wideness from below; or it can descend and become there a definite power for things; it can pour downwards into the body, working, establishing its reign, extending into wideness from above, link the lowest in us with the highest above us, release the individual into a cosmic universality or into absoluteness and transcendence.”

        Sri Aurobindo, Letters on Yoga – III: The Triple Transformation: Psychic – Spiritual – Supramental – II

        The book Serpent Power throws much light on this…”

      3. Venkatesh Palla

        This explanation by Sampad is really helpful. My intention in bringing forth the paradox of para vak residing in muladahara is different. As The Mother was using expressions like ‘ summit of the tower’ to explain para vak ( thinking with spiritual experiences as you said), I too thought that para vak must be residing somewhere above. I was surprised to read something paradoxical in Sampad’s book. I admit the authority of these statements and agree with Sampad’s explanation but I believe that an explanation of this paradox of the primal sounds originating above and at the same time residing below is possible with the help of material sciences like physics. This will be more convincing for a novice and then he can work out further with the help of spiritual sciences like kundalini. I will definitely look for some such thing in ‘The Serpent Power’ and you too can help me if you get a lead. Thank you very much.

      4. Sandeep Post author

        an explanation of this paradox of the primal sounds originating above and at the same time residing below is possible with the help of material sciences like physics

        Above and below (Chakras) are relative to the human being in this case. It is the subtle body which grows and expands at those Chakras and brings about contact with other non-material planes.

        Not sure how material sciences will help here.

      5. Venkatesh Palla

        Even material sciences are the artefacts of mind, built to explain a vital process that takes place in the material world. The seers of these material sciences always took care that some symmetry in thought is always preserved which will reflect the intuition that lies underneath the reasoned explanation. The efforts to geometrise and arhythmise all scientific findings have never been so strong as it is now in the recent decades. Thus if several of the yogic experiences which defy reason and are primarily at the level of Para and Pasyanti vak are rationally explained with the help of material sciences which work on the level of madhyama and vaikhari vak, a link between these so-called opposing realms can be established.

        As you wrote, it is correct that the above and below are represented by the chakras of the subtle body. But this subtle body links the physical body with the subtle worlds ranging from the highest to lowest. This growing from the physical to subtle body is called universalization or spiritualization in Integral Yoga and here the chakras can be felt in the physical body and respond so much to all universal forces that one can be more comfortable in calling the body as not his own but of the whole Universe, even for the sake of explanation. Thus the nether and the uppermost worlds can be felt in one`s own body and one can “feel” the Creation in oneself even while reading various explanations for the act of Creation – material and spiritual and legitimize their plane of authenticity. I am trying for it in my own way as many others have already done. I am aware that while explaining spiritual experiences in material terms, one may miss the “feel” of the experience and get lost in words of Vaikhari, but when the medium is rightly chosen, even the “feel” can be communicated. This is how the ancient seers of India built their sciences and preserved them.
        I believe you know all these truths but somewhere we are missing each other – perhaps in the words of Vaikhari. I deeply appreciate your efforts to build a meaningful dialogue and your spiritual zeal in spreading Knowledge and thank you for allowing me to share my insights.

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