The Sound beyond Silence

by February 3, 2012

“Most people speak because they find speech more tolerable than silence,” reads a cheeky T­shirt slogan. A blanket generalization, no doubt, but doesn’t it contain a grain of truth? For many stressed and distressed people, even when their mouth is silent, their mind is screaming and speech offers an easy distraction from the turmoil within. That’s why the Bhagavad­ gita (17.16) declares mauna to be an austerity, not of the mouth, but of the mind. Mauna is not merely the inability to speak of the dumb or the reluctance to speak of the inarticulate or the restriction of speech of the talkative; it is the silence of the mind that enables us to hear the guiding voice of God within.

Of course speech and silence both have their utility. In daily life, speech is a powerful and essential means for communication. Throughout history, social reformers (and de­formers) galvanized followers by their power of speech. Also, seekers introspected for enlightenment through silence. Can we then conclude that speech is a vehicle for social transformation and silence for individual trans­formation?

The concluding aphorism of the Vedanta­sutra, anavrttih shabdat, resolves this dialectic by introducing an in­triguing higher dimension ­sound beyond silence. Spritual Sound Let’s visualize our quest for happiness as move­ment on the ordinate (y­axis) of a mathematical model of life. We are all eternal spiritual beings,


who due to spiritual amnesia are misidentifying ourselves with our temporary material bodies. Material activitybeginning with material speech increases our forgetfulness of our natural spiritual Material Sound joyfulness and incriminates us in unending anxiety

and misery. Thus it falls on the negative y­axis. Material inactivity — beginning with material silence—checks our preoccupation with the temporal and offers relief, but it alone does not revive our spiritual memory. So it falls on the origin (the zero point) on the y­axis. But spiritual activity—beginning with spiritual sound—cures our amne­sia by linking our consciousness with the all­attractive reservoir of all pleasure, God and enlightens and enlivens us with divine wisdom and bliss. Hence it falls on the positive y­axis.

A mathematics novice may mistake the positive and negative axes to be identical. Similarly a spiritual neophyte may mistake spiritual and material sounds to be identical. But the difference can be un­derstood through intelligence and experienced through practice. Just as a child realizes the superiority of a 500/­rupee note over a waste paper when he enjoys chocolates with the former, similarly a spiritually immature person realizes the superiority of extraordinary spiritual sound over ordinary material sound when he experiences peace and bliss with the former.

Material sound agitates our mind, spiritual sound pacifies it. Ma­terial sound aggravates and perpetuates our amnesia; spiritual sound alleviates and eradicates it. Material sound entangles us, spir­itual sound liberates us.

What makes a sound spiritual? Its connection with the source and sustenance of all spirituality ­the supreme spiritual being, God, who resides on the positive infinity of the y­axis. Spiritual sound is glori­fied in all the great wisdom traditions of the world. St. John (1.1) states, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” In the Vedic traditions, hymns, verses, songs, mantras, bhajans and kirtans beckon adventurous spiritualists to higher realms of enlightenment and fulfillment. The greater the con­nection of the sound with God, the greater its spiritual potency. There­fore the most powerful spiritual sound is the Holy Name of God. Through group meditation on the sound of the holy name or sankirtan, seekers can relish divine bliss and also share it

with others. Thus spiritual sound synthesizes the virtues of material sound and silence, for it offers us a unique vehicle for simultaneous individual and social transformation.Hence Vedic insights call for a revised rendition of the traditional saying, “Speech is silver, silence is golden—but spiritual speech is diamond.”

“If our endeavor (prayäsa) is not to inquire about the Absolute Truth, we will simply increase our endeavor to satisfy our artificial needs”.

— Çrila Prabhupäda

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