The Practice of Feeling Transformation

Hindus believe that one should seek for their “dharma,” or their life’s inner calling for service to others. The Hindu texts speak of different characters pursuing their dharma through different class distinctions such as  priests, warriors, merchants, land owners, etc. But how does one pursue their dharma? I went to the Nithyanandeshwara Vedic Temple of Oklahoma to explore the question of pursuing dharma in relation to sound. One of the many leaders, Kalpesh, had told me that the multiple gods represent different qualities of dharma. I found this archetypal story telling of a warrior god, a destroyer god, an all-in-one god, god of the ocean, god of remover-of-obstacles, and so on, so helpful for acting out phenomenological truth study within the religious practice of Hinduism. For example, if a Hindu makes a “puja,” a prayer/offering/sacrifice to the god of remover-of-obstacles, this Hindu is acting out a practice which can be applied to developing their greatest self in life (“Atman”), and if everybody applies such a practice toward their dharma, the greatest self contained within each person and the essence of the universe/multiverse is seen (“Brahman”).

One way of initializing a puja is to blow into a conch shell, which represents a renewal of energy and an affirmation for victory. However, Kalpesh told me that the meditation of pujas helps focus the inner voice on navigating the pursuit of dharma, despite resistance because of how the experience feels. I found this fascinating because I often try to excite myself before a performance as a singer. The noises I make aim to get me to focus on a victory of focus in performance. Although, this idea might not always be articulated in such a way, the tradition of making these sounds serves the metaphorical truth of developing focus in meditation (metaphorical truth), in order to apply focus in their life’s dharma (literal truth).

        What noises help with approaching dharma? Kalpesh had told me that the initial “om” used throughout any puja should be made with vocal production not resonating in the throat, but felt in the head. This was a very interesting perspective because as a singer, we are taught from an Italian tradition of beautiful singing, known as bel canto, to avoid any action of the throat in singing, but rather manage a resonance felt throughout the oral and nasal cavity. Singers hold unique timbres to their voice, in one aspect, because of how differently shaped skulls produce different levels of resonance for singing to amplify through. Singers need their sounds to reach an audience effectively, and their singing will not carry if stuck resonating in the throat. Kalpesh had told me that the om should vibrate in the head because the vibrations affect how one thinks. I found this practice a very interesting phenomenological truth. In other words, one should really “feel” the act of transforming themselves/transcending suffering. In any dharma, life gives resistance in pursuit of the dharma. Sometimes resistance comes from inward, and sometimes the individual experiences resistance from the outside world.

        Are there any noises that are forbidden in a Hindu service which would cause a member to be banished from the faith? Kalpesh insisted that there is always a place for a Hindu member within the community, no matter what they do. In India, the government finally did away with the caste system, which legally divided priests, warriors, merchants, etc. However, this dharma separation is still practiced in a spiritual sense.If not legally mandated, people tend to follow different life paths, at least partially influenced by their class born into. Going to a Hindu service, one notices right away that not just anybody from the community serves as the Puja leader, but usually a well-dressed male leader from the community. These leaders help their Hindu community by reaffirming spiritual tradition, while other members practice their dharma through other means, but still meet for Hindu service. Kalpesh assured me everybody has a place in Hinduism, for everybody has a place in life. This initial visit of mine was a one-on-one interview. However, Kalpesh invited me to the Diwali festival the next weekend, which serves as a celebration of the return of King Rama after a period of disappearance.

At Diwali, there was one speaker who led the chant in a steady meter, but not everybody always followed. Certainly, when the speaker invited the congregation to clap or chant, everybody clapped or chanted, but at other times, the event seemed very communal. Men and women were segregated, but there was always conversation being held between people.  

The religious speaker made sure to follow the traditions of Diwali in his role of speaker, but his role seemed most important, amongst the congregational noise, when the speaker made time for “jokes,” one of which, Kalpesh translated to me as something like “Diwali is a time to be celebrated, and we will see God walk through the doors tonight, so do away with any bad habits you have” and everybody laughed, reinforcing this communal gathering. In essence, the speaker was organizing the chaos of the gathering, but still allowed for other noise to occur in this grand celebration of Diwali.

By Collin Pollitt

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