There is a new school of women chanters who are carrying forward the heritage of reciting Vedic mantras. Shantala Sriramaiah, born and raised in Bangalore, India is now teaching chanting to students from all over the world from her home in Brussels, Belgium through her institution www.VedaStudies.com. The sounds of these sacred mantras were her companions in her childhood and much of her inspiration comes from her mother Saroja, who taught chanting for over 30 years in their home.
Many will attest to the difficulty of getting the svaras just right. In a blog, Shantala asks – why do we have to chant these texts? “Can’t we just read them like any other book, read good translations and understand them and learn in that way?”
It would not be the same. “It would be like studying marine biology without ever observing an actual aquatic animal or reading amazing books on cutting hair without actually practicing. Like studying a book about swimming or cooking, but never ever getting in the water or preparing a dish, you don’t actually gain assimilated knowledge,” she writes.
Shantala says the Knowledge in the Vedas, “cannot be separated from the form of their mantras – rhythmic sounds in clever metrical poetry. The process of learning to chant these mantras is crucial in starting to understand and integrate its deep wisdom. When we chant the Vedas, we are forced to develop concentration, focus, excellent listening skills and will power. Without this practice-based approach, the Vedas will forever remain some esoteric mystical text of the ancients, meant for unknown Vedic rituals with little relevance to our everyday lives.”
In this interview, Shantala speaks to CSP about her illustrious guru Sreenivasan Challakere and about the interest in chanting among non-Indians. Many are learning to chant now, some better than others, “partially due to our own Sādhana, but mostly because of what we come gifted with,” she says.
Your first initiation to Chanting, Sanskrit and Vedic Studies was at your home. How important is this samskara to appreciate and respect Vedic culture? Sri Sreenivasan ji always talks about this concept of Samskara. How do you inculcate samskara in non-Indians?
Personally, this has been very important to me, as I value the immersion I’ve had in this tradition growing up and feel a deep connection to my mother and family through my work. My work is my tribute to my mother. Equally, I admire the numerous students who have taken to this practice so beautifully and respectfully, even though from another culture. Guruji Sreenivasan ji is talking about Saṃskāras also from previous lifetimes. I see this in practice in our community of students who represent over 30 countries! Before Covid – it was easier to inculcate saṃskāra-s through various events, pūja-s in my home etc. It is more challenging on Zoom. Yet, I believe students, both Indian and non-Indian are able to see and experience the reverence with which to approach this practice. I express gratitude to my teachers and family for this strength.
Her late mother Saroja teaching a class in our living room in Bangalore.
It has been three decades of dedicated learning, chanting, and listening for you. Nowadays in a fast-paced culture, we expect to learn and master this knowledge through short certified courses. Do you think this has actually increased the number of people interested in Indian culture, or is it diluting it?
It is definitely a different time and certainly a very busy time for most of us. The idea of spending 30+ years on learning aspects of Indian culture without defined learning outcomes is unthinkable! I believe the short courses give valuable structured introductions to students, but true mastery will always require a consistent daily practice, under the guidance of a teacher, over a long period of time. There can never be a short cut to mastery. We need both – the short courses for accessible and structured studies along with opportunities for long term study. Intense effort on the part of both teacher and student will help not dilute this learning!
What is it about the Challakere Brother's style which makes it so authentic. They after all have an ancestral connect to Krishnamacharya parampara.
The Challakere Brothers are proficient in their understanding of the Prātiśākhyā-s – the texts which illustrate through its sūtras, how to recite the Veda. They are able to explain with great precision every syllable, every syllable or sound combination which can be very different from classical Sanskrit. They apply these rules consistently and masterfully in their chanting. Therefore, when you listen to their chanting, there is no doubt you are listening to something very divine. They are also generously passing on this knowledge to their students. You can say they follow and teach the yoga of the Ṛṣi-s!
What is the main reason that non_Indians wish to learn chanting? Is it usually at the beginning, middle or end of their Yoga or Ayurveda practice?
I have had students join me at different points in their yoga or Āyurveda journey. There are many reasons non-Indians wish to learn chanting:
- A serious interest in developing a spiritual, devotional practice.
- Having heard the chanting in āśrams or temples in India, an intense desire to learn to chant themselves.
- To offer more than a postural practice as yoga teachers to their communities.
- Many students want to learn for the sense of immediate well-being experienced through chanting.
I can list so many more reasons, but for the sake of brevity, those might be the ones that stand out! Some videos of my students chanting.
What are the areas where they find the most difficulty? How do you tide over this?
Over the years of offering teachings to both Indians and non-Indians, I have found that the one big challenge for everyone, including Indians is with maintaining “svara” – the notes of Veda recitation. We work on this the most in our classes. It takes time and perseverance and a keen sense of hearing to develop this skill. There is no tiding over this one, we keep working! It is an on-going challenge!
The other challenge is with learning all the Vedic phonetic rules – the visarjanīya, anusvara changing sounds, the aspirated sounds etc. I have devised a system to help visually represent all these rules over the text provided so students can chant accurately without spending a lifetime learning these rules. An illustration for example:
Do you teach chanting to children abroad? Why are their parents interested in their learning chanting?
I’m currently not teaching children although I receive many requests mainly from Indian parents, with the intention of not only exposing children to our culture and tradition but also because Vedic chanting makes one sharp!
Which are your favourite stotrams. What aspect of Indian culture is epitomised in them?
If you ask my students, they will tell you that I claim every Sūktam is my favorite. This is true. I am yet to encounter a Veda mantra that I like less than others. Each mantra and Sūktam energises, inspires and impels me towards more learning, more practice, more sharing and more creating. But for the sake of choosing, I love chanting the Rudram and Devī Sūktam. If Vedānta speaks gently about there being only One, Rudram shows us in the most confrontational and powerful way what it means to assimilate that “oneness”. Devī Sūktam is just so beautiful to chant, the nuances in the “svara”, the “kampa”- the tremulous quality to the chanting, I can go on…
Are your students interested in learning more about the meaning and significance of the chants? Do they have preferences?
Everyone wants to learn the meaning and significance and it has been a blessing as my students push me to study harder myself. It is very important to my students to understand the purport of Veda mantras and the potential transformation possible through such an understanding. We know also that sādhana is needed, to develop that inner vision to allow the mantras to reveal their meaning to us in meaningful ways. So, we keep at it! I am a student myself in this journey.