The Taittīrīya Upaniṣat’s Sīkṣāvalli lists the responsibilities of students in their life long journey of discovering the Self. In the very beginning, students are encouraged to master the Vedic phonetics by adhering to strict rules of varṇa, svara, mātra, balam, sāma and santāna.

The commentaries to the Taittirīya Upaniṣat say that the meaning of the words is important in the teaching, let there be no indifference towards the effort in the recitation of the text. Therefore, the science of phonetics is started.

Here’s the recitation of this beautiful excerpt from the Taittirīya Upaniṣat.

With Veda mantras, we do not change the form of the mantras. What is pradhāna, important is uccāraṇam, the proper recitation of the mantras. We recite the mantras born from the ṛṣi (seer of the mantra), and in that form, it is a blessing. If we change the form, it is no longer the ṛṣi-born mantra, it becomes something else. (Swami Dayananda Saraswati)

The word Śīkṣā means, the discipline of knowledge through which the method of pronunciation of syllables is taught. In the recitation of the text, let the reluctance in effort, not take place. Therefore, Śīkṣā is sacred.

Śīkṣa has 6 elements (the very basic classification, there’s much more as we keep learning in the oral tradition!).

Varṇaḥ – This is the learning of the pronunciation of the Sanskrit syllables. Each syllable has a unique pronunciation made from differing contact points in the mouth, that are clearly defined. This makes Sanskrit a phonetic language.

Svara – is intonation. A syllable uttered in a high note is svarita, middle note udātta and low note anudātta. Some traditions label these notes quite different, but the basic principle of Veda chanting is that there are only 3 notes, with some variations within these notes. Unlike music, using 7 notes. Therefore, we also do not “sing” Veda mantras, but we chant or recite them! We maintain the ṛṣi born notes of chanting, not changing anything. Therefore, also making our concentration and listening sharp through the process of learning.

Mātra – is the measure, time taken to pronounce the syllables, which can be hrasva (short), dīrgha (long) or even plūta (prolated). We absolutely maintain mātra as well.

Balam – is prayatna-viśeṣaḥ, specific effort, using more life-force to pronounce them. This is the element of chanting that makes your practice powerful and like a beautiful Īśvara organised prānāyāma.

Sāma – is evenness, a steady continuity of your chanting, maintaining not only the mātra (measure) but also the speed of recitation as well as the pitch. We don’t rush through the mantras, nor utter them too slow. Can you imagine the concentration required to maintain this?

Santāna – is conjunction, when two words come together, they have to blend and be pleasing to the ear in certain situations. This has to be learnt over a period of time. While it may seem daunting to the beginner, in Veda recitation, we are using the same rules over and over! It will come!

Over and above these rules, we also have the nuances of dealing with vowel sounds. The breaks and pauses in sound depending on the placement of vowel sounds are an important aspect of Veda chanting. For all of these and more reasons, we like our position of being upfront about this practice not being relaxing, blissful or easy. This practice is hard work, requiring intense levels of concentration and learning a great deal of detail in order to do it correctly.

These mantras have come to us thanks to the intense sādhana of ṛṣi-s, the seers who “saw” these mantras. The least we can do is invest some effort in simply replicating them exactly in order to turn our life into a blessing. Along the way, as a bonus, we develop our concentration, focus, listening, memory, will-power, conviction in our practice, self-confidence, clarity… the list is long.

The recitation of Gaṇapati Upaniṣat (Gaṇapati Atharvaśīrṣa) following Śīkṣā