Why we chant Śāntimantra (Sa ha nāvavatu…)

Notes taken by Alex Eagle (Edited by Ram)

Here are some comments about why we chant Śāntimantra at the beginning of each discussion group meeting, and the meaning of the mantra.

The Śāntimantra we chant forms the invocation verse in the second chapter ānandavalli, of Tattirīya-upaniṣad in Kṛṣṇa-yajurveda. This mantra is chanted at the beginning of any śāstra teaching or, in our situation, a discussion. We are not blessed with a teacher but still we chant it because of what this peace invocation means to us. The mantra follows:

Om! Sa ha nāvavatu
Sa ha nau bhunaktu
Saha vīryaṅkaravāvahai
Tejasvināvadhītamastu
Mā vidviṣāvahai
Om śāntiśśāntiśśāntiḥ

Om! May (īśvara*) protect us both (referring to the teacher and the student)
May (īśvara) nourish us both
May we both be efficacious (in our study)
May our study be brilliant.
May we both not hate each other
Om! Peace, peace, peace

* The word OM signifies īśvara, (Sūtra 1.27)

A few interesting points to note about this chant.

  • First is the tradition of offering a prayer before one starts any endeavor, secular or sacred.

  • Second is the expression vidviṣāvahai, ‘may we not hate each other’. This finite verb is derived from the verb dviṣ with the prefix vi meaning intense dislike /hate. Though hate may be a strong word to use, it springs and sprouts from a simple misunderstanding due to one’s own unique set of likes and dislikes – a look, a frown, a strong word whether real or imagined, either by the teacher or the student – can stand in the way of knowledge. Later on we will see (sūtra 2.3) that likes and dislikes are components of the five kleśa-s, afflictions. To overcome this helplessness on the part of the human being to override these afflictions, we invoke Grace by this statement.

  • Lastly is the repetition of the word peace three times. There can be three causes that disturb our peace – they are ādhidaivika-tāpa, disturbance caused by phenomenal forces (earthquake, snowstorm, fire, flooding), ādhibhautika-tāpa , disturbance caused by people around us (noise, loud music, car alarm, sirens, cell phone ring tones) and ādhātmika-tāpa, disturbances in our mind (urgent things that we forgot, wandering mind, sleepiness). Since a disturbed mind cannot grasp the teaching and we appreciate our helplessness in controlling these factors, we repeat the word peace to free us from these types of disturbances

After the peace invocation, we chant the salutation verses to Patanjali, who is our first teacher, by this chant we invoke his blessing for a fruitful study of his yoga-sūtra-s.

There is a verse describing how much one learns and from whom. Assuming that the total learning is 100%, this is how the percentage divides. This rings true to me after decades of study of both Sanskrit language and scriptural texts written in Sanskrit. The verse follows:

ācāryāt pādamādatte pādam śiṣyassvamedhayā
Pādam sabrahmacāribhiḥ pādaṅkālakrameṇa vai

One learns 25% from the teacher, 25% by one’s own intelligence,
25% by discussion among students and 25% only with passage of time.

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