Chapter 1: The Roots of Healing in a Song

Every morning at four o’clock from the comfort of my cot, I can pick out the voice of Jagu from among the other young boys. His song is deep, rich, even hoarse, and has soul. Jagu is only eight and entered the academy for Vedic pandits in southern India the same week I moved in. Some mornings I force myself up and sit in a corner of the courtyard listening to the syncopated rhythms of the boys’ daily morning practice of their Vedic recitation. I spot Jagu, his big brown eyes near shut, standing propped between the two biggest boys in his group, who keep him from falling over when he falls asleep, which is every two or three minutes. His eyes close and his voice fades for a spell. The morning recitation is performed standing so there will be less chance of falling asleep. The ten boys are so tightly packed together they could fit in a shower stall. They even sleep packed together under a fan that keeps off the mosquitoes, and they study together in the afternoon with their knees touching. There is no place in this academy for a loner.

Despite being the youngest, in his short time at the Vedic academy, everyone, including a Westerner like me, recognizes Jagu’s special gift. His vibrant voice is like a prod in the back that makes the spine tingle. It also helps that his Sanskrit pronunciation is natural even if it is not his mother tongue, and that he effortlessly recites the Veda without hesitation. His mentor tells me he will enter Jagu into a competition for young pandits to display their voice and pronunciation.

Jagu represents a unique phenomenon of nature: his DNA has been cultured for thousands of years to code for a reciting machine. He and his brothers are able to track their family lineage not just for a few hundred, but for three to four thousand years. Jagu knows the name of the grandsire of his family, Bharadvaja, a man who lived at the dawn of modern history, perhaps 3800-4000 years ago, as well as details about his life. In India, what is old is termed ancient, and what is ancient is deemed eternal, so putting even a vague date on these events is considered heretical.1 Jagu has the same Y chromosome as his ancient grandsire Bharadvaja, and the rest of his DNA is from purebred Brahmins. The need for this restriction of genetic material from his pedigree has a biological reason: to propagate the sound of the Veda. Jagu loves to recite as a thoroughbred loves to run, even at 4 a.m., eyes half shut in a semi-stupor.

After recitation, Jagu collapses in a heap for a few minutes before his friends wake him to perform personal morning rites. Facing the rising sun, he recites a verse as he glances at its red reflection in water drops he throws backward over his head, and then goes to meditate before breakfast, usually falling asleep again. Unlike other boys their age, Jagu and his friends have no toys. Jagu opens a metal cookie box for me, proud that I am interested, and shows me his entire worldly possessions, beside the white lungi around his waist and the string over his shoulder. A spare lungi to wear while the other is being washed, a cotton shirt he wears only when he goes home, a picture of his family, a pen, a pencil, a paring knife, a set of tulsi beads, a few pieces of paper written in Tamil in a child’s hand and a small picture of Maharishi.

In the streets nearby, boys Jagu’s age play games, variations on cricket, soccer and kick-the-can, and create tomfoolery like eight-year-olds anywhere. The boys at the academy could care less; they just want to recite. They amuse themselves by climbing on the shoulders of the older boys to collect hibiscus blossoms to offer in their morning yajñas.

Compared to the boys in the nearby streets and even to the Brahmin boys I have observed in academies in north India, Jagu and his friends are models of decorum. A traditional Brahmin’s life revolves around sound and speech, so Jagu’s main vices involve singing, speaking, reciting, cajoling, laughing or doing something mischievous with his larynx. Discipline is delivered by making the boys do one- legged deep knee bends until they begin to wince, and from what I’ve witnessed, traditional Brahmins don’t suffer physical stresses well, including exercise and sports. Jagu is saved from the knee bends, despite his natural penchant for mischief, because he is the youngest and too endearing to punish.

Twice Born

Jagu was born as a Brahmin a few weeks before he came to the academy, when he ceremoniously received a woven string that he will now wear for life across his shoulder and down to the opposite hip. He is now dwija, twice-born. From the moment of that ceremony onward, he would be married to the Veda, obligated to protect and preserve it. This means he needs to accomplish two things in his life: learn the Veda and pass it on to his sons. Jagu proudly tells me he is from the Bharadvaja clan,2 meaning he is responsible for the part of the Rg Veda that was cognized by his grandsire, Bharadvaja. Jagu cannot marry a girl from the Bharadvaja clan, because, after all, she is considered family. In this profession, the younger Jagu is when he marries, the sooner he will be able to teach his own son Bharadvaja’s cognitions of Rg Veda. So it may well be that, barely a man, he will marry a Brahmin girl who is barely a woman.

Jagu is at Maharishi’s academy because Jagu’s father and grandfather have taken government jobs and no longer are involved in the traditional practices. At the very minimum, Jagu is obligated to learn the cognitions of his grandsire, Bharadvaja, an especially gifted seer, who cognized the 765 suktas (collections of verses) that comprise the entire sixth Mandala of the Rg Veda. Fulfilling one’s obligation ordained by the Vedic tradition is nearly incompatible with having another job, since it means sitting with your son for hours every day for fifteen to twenty years. Some preceptors hold their charges’ head in one palm as they sit knee-to-knee, lowering or raising the head as the tones rise and fall, thus instilling a kinesthetic memory. It is an ancient professional tradition, needing no books, pencils or pens, nor even the ability to read or write.

Sanskrit: The Language of Name and Form

The sound of any Sanskrit word is held to be sufficient to evoke in a listener the understanding of its meaning, even if the listener has no knowledge of Sanskrit. This applies, of course, only to a listener like Jagu’s ancient great-grandsire Bharadvaja, whose nervous system was free of noise, allowing his brain to fully register the sound with all its implications. This phenomenon is due to the principle of name and form (nàmarupa), a quality of Sanskrit whereby the sound of any word contains its meaning.

An English word like hiss has a sound expressing its meaning, and someone learning English may understand its meaning in a conversation without an explanation. In Sanskrit, every word is onomatopoeic, because every prefix, root and suffix has its basis in a sound of nature. The Sanskrit prefix pra, meaning beginning or opening (and the ancient precursor for our Latin prefix, pre-), is the sound made by a nut cracking open. For people whose nervous systems crackle with static, thus rendering the meaning opaque, an ancient encyclopedic code of aphorisms3 illuminates the surface and hidden values of any Sanskrit sound.

A rishi is a person whose nervous system is so pure that she or he can infer the deepest meaning of a Sanskrit expression and also receive or cognize unmanifest expressions of Veda to transmit them to posterity. The expressions of Veda that are available today, perhaps only a fraction of the total Veda, are all cognitions of such rishis. Even if your noisy mind cannot register a meaning when exposed to a Sanskrit expression, your physiology is affected. I lie half awake before dawn bathing in Jagu’s alto libretto, even if it is unintelligible to my unrefined nervous system.

DNA, the Parchment of the Vedas

Had the Vedas been trusted to a written record, there would be none available today, because nothing survives long in the heat and humidity of the Indian sub- continent. To preserve truly old documents you need to hide them in places like the Gobi desert, Egypt or the Dead Sea.

Instead, the Veda was inscribed on the most fragile, yet permanent, of all possible materials: human DNA. These boys have an uncanny ability to memorize anything and everything in a language that means absolutely nothing to them. It is as if the sound is already in their physiology; they open their mouths and it flows out. Jagu is a scampering tape recorder; if he hears something two to three times he can recite it and, once chanted, it is indelibly inscribed. With over 600,000 syllables to memorize, comprising tens of thousands of verses, he has to be good. Some Brahmins learn all four Vedas, Upanishads, and more.

In addition to learning the cognitions of his grandsire, Bharadvaja, that are important in the Vedic rite, Jagu and his friends learn to recite some verses whose meaning is transparent and that Maharishi has deemed important for all the clans to chant. Now and then, I can pick out the word Purusha and know they are singing the verses describing the nature of the unmanifest. With beautiful poetic imagery that describes the indescribable by anthropomorphizing it into a living being, the verses describe a Purusha who has a thousand heads, a thousand eyes.

Purusha is verily all this visible world, all that is and all that is to be; all existence is one-fourth of him; his other three-fourths, being immortal, abide in heaven. Three-fourths of Purusha ascended; the other fourth that remained in this world proceeds repeatedly, and, diversified in various forms, went to all animate and inanimate creation.
Rg Veda X.7.6.2-4

Four Levels of Expression of Intelligence

As a field of virtual fluctuations, pure intelligence has many manifestations, from expressed to transcendental. On its most expressed level, Veda is the song, with its gaps of silence between syllables, coming out of the mouth of a deer-eyed boy. On this gross material level (called vaikharã in Sanskrit), Veda, the sound, cannot be divorced from the traditional lineage and the DNA that has conveyed it intact through time and space. The boy and the sound are the same. While the expressed sound of the Veda is its least subtle form, it is still important. The boys’ recitation is outward and appears to create a physical stir throughout the community that is appreciated by the neighbors. Jagu circles his finger in all directions to tell me he is enlivening the universe.

What Jagu sings also has a meaning of sorts, invariably bickered about by Sanskrit scholars as well as greater and lesser masters. This meaning of the verses, although subtler than the manifest sound, ultimately does not mean much to a Brahmin, but is somehow important to western scholars, perhaps because we attach importance to the meaning of our own sacred texts. This literal level of Veda’s song of life is called madhyamà.4 Translations of the Veda are banal for a reader of modern literature. The pastoral verses describe cows and horses; pressing out and filtering the juice of the Soma plant; venerations of the impulses of intelligence as celestial beings; and formulas, rites and incantations. The meaning rarely appears to have a plot or an obvious direction. Moreover, the boys have little clue what they are singing and, like generations of mentors before them, they don’t care. In this environment even a visitor understands that Veda’s essence is not to be found in its meaning, but in its sound. The boys’ resonant singing has a different purpose than their meditation, which is inward and silent, punctuated by the playfulness of normal boys.

Subtler than meaning is a third level, the notion of the verse, called pashyanti, the essence of the verse on the level of one’s feeling. For a person with a nervous system unencumbered with noise and static, the sound of the verse should provide a clear notion of the quality of pure intelligence that the boys are singing about. For an individual with clatter in the nervous system, the impression would be vague. This is what Henry David Thoreau meant when he said, “Speech is for the hard of hearing.”

Transcendent to the notion of a verse is the subtlest level of all. Called parà, it is uninvolved in the material level, yet is its basis and prime mover. The transcendental level is the level you feel in the moments of silent clarity of the mind as you fall asleep or awaken, in the space between breaths in meditation or in the transfixing of the mind by a sunrise. On the parà level, the Veda is as irrelevant as drinking water to a fish. While you may have some interest in Veda on its three grosser levels, this book is about learning to make pure intelligence –  the transcendental value of all holy scriptures –  practical in daily life.

Self-Interaction, the Essence of Self-Repair

In Jagu’s world of abstraction, if you wanted to describe a relationship within the field of pure intelligence, perhaps in an age when writing was not available, you might give the relationship a personality, portraying that impulse or quality of intelligence holding the tools of her profession –  a mace, a musical instrument, a begging bowl. If the personality is complicated, you may run out of hands to put the tools in. So, you add more arms and hands. Modern mathematicians use creation and annihilation operators to describe the change in numbers of particles in quantum mechanics. Similarly, Jagu and his friends sing of Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva to describe their physical world arising from or dissolving into the absolute. Every song they sing describes a relationship, and the Veda, or at least what is available of it, describes all possible relationships. For these little budding Brahmins, pure intelligence is a superposition of all truth and all falsehood. You are also a superposition of relationships, wearing simultaneously the hats of mother, daughter, wife, sister, friend, enemy, subordinate and boss. The reverberation flowing from the group of huddling boys with their dark brown eyes and young voices vibrating with the power of infinity is an echo of a field of all possibilities in a point.

A story goes that somehow a rope had been wrapped around a mountain in the middle of an ocean of milk and the forces of darkness and light were fighting for control of the mountain in a tug of war, making the mountain churn within the ocean. What churned out was a being, the primordial physician, Dhanvantari. Like butter out of milk, Dhanvantari is the precipitation of a specific value of wholeness, the aspect of the pure intelligence that is self-interacting and self-perpetuating. For a Vedic physician, if all possibilities arise from an unmanifest field that is everywhere yet nowhere to be found, that field must be perfectly orderly, perfectly integrated and perfectly balanced. When you churn the pot, breaking its symmetry, the qualities of the field emerge. Dhanvantari represents self-interaction, whereby the field of pure intelligence reflects back on itself to recreate itself. The maintenance of your health, and its restoration when it is lost, are functions of self-interaction. Most importantly, you can access this field to change your health.

A modern physician counts on self-interaction to heal her patient. While she might order fluid, potassium, glucose, magnesium and other solutes for a patient in shock from pneumonia, the physician must count on the patient’s self-interacting feedback mechanisms to keep the countless other biochemical values in balance. She also counts on the wily infecting bacterium to try to use self-interaction to outwit her prescribed antibiotic. Self-interaction is the basis of self-repair.

Dhanvantari has but four arms. He holds an urn of healing herbs, a conch symbolizing purity, a leech used in surgery,5 and a medical text inscribed on palm leaves.

He is fully expressed in you because your human body contains the rules of self- repair in every cell.

1 This date is preferred by most Vedic scholars based on the antiquity of the civilization in the Indus River valley where the Veda was thought to have been first cognized.
2 Shakha, a lineage or familial clan
3 The aphorisms of Panini
4 Searching for meaning in the verses of the Veda itself is frustrating, elaborate, and rife with pitfalls. The easiest means to grasp the essence of Veda is from a learned teacher or by feeling it on its parà or transcendental level. Veda’s elaboration as the rest of the Vedic literature is considered its means of revealing its essence to people with coarser nervous systems.
5 Leeches were used by Ayurvedic surgeons to evacuate hematomas and are still employed by modern plastic surgeons for the same purpose.