As the Vedic rishis sat in the serene foothills of the Himalayas, thousands of years ago, they meditated upon the mysteries of the Universe – the Unknown, the Brahman. Their silent minds were in complete synchronicity with the world around them – a unique unison of mind and matter. In this heightened state of Cosmic consciousness answers floated into their enlightened senses as shrutis or latent sound bytes. This was the origin of the Vedas. The mind was the laboratory and the Universal truth the subject. This is how the Unknown, Brahman revealed itself as the first shabd or word.
■■ The Maitri Upanishad  VI.22 explains this shabd as arising from a-shabd or non-sound. It says :-
And it has been said, there are verily, two Brahmans to be meditated upon – sound and non-sound. By sound alone is the non-sound revealed….
Shabd not only means the ‘spoken word’ but it also carries with it the eternal quality of the non-sound. This can be understood as ‘memes’, a concept put forth by Richard Dawkins . He says words, besides pronunciation, carry abstract ideas and together he calls them ‘memes’. These ‘memes’ are “cultural transmission units” that go from memory to memory down the generations – just like the passing on of the genes.
Guru Nanak Dev in his teachings calls this the shabad . He has taken the ‘a’ sound of the negative prefix and incorporated it in the word itself , for he explains :-
shabad is the first sound, the first utterance
that created the universe, that was created with the universe
it is the discourse of the Guru
it explains and discerns, it articulates and animates
the eternal Truth of forms and concepts…
The larger concept of sound is referred to as the vaani . It includes not only words but also rhythm (or meter) and tune. Speech is referred to as vaak in the Rig Veda ; at I.164.41 in this Veda vaak is likened to Gauri the benign Cow Goddess. As the cow walks about its many gaits so does speech take on various meters and forms, helping in the fashioning of words and in the spreading of the milk of happiness out into the conscious world.
These various meters of the Vedas are called the chhands. The Sanskrit shlokas unfold the sound energies as we view outwards from the Earth and talk to each other. This view is termed bhugolik or earth-centric and our speech is called vaak. If we look from the heavens downwards, filtering the cacophony, we hear the natural sounds or what is called dhvani or music. And this view is termed Khagolik. Thus vaani is the ‘words that are sung’ and it is both vaak and dhvani put together. It is the Divine song.
● Speech and music again come together as Goddess Saraswati. She is the consort of Lord Brahma and the word Saraswati is the combination of sara , which means ‘essence’ and swa, which means self. She, therefore, is the path to pure self-knowledge which in terms of Vedic tradition is also the knowledge of the Universe. Clad in white, she sits on an eightfold, white lotus symbolizing the realm of the Unknown. In her foremost two hands, she holds the veena, a musical instrument of dhvani for the accompaniment of the vaani . In one of the rear hands, she holds the Vedas signifying the spoken word or vaak. In her fourth hand, she holds a rosary indicating the returning inner path of meditation and the white swans or hamsa, by her side give us the mantra for this inward involution.
● The simple Sanskrit prose is the shlokas. The vowels are the first set of letters in the Sanskrit alphabet. They are called svars which literally means ‘pure sounds’. Svar is derived from svarnah the word for pure gold or from su + varnah meaning ‘a pure phoneme’. The svars contribute the measure of time, called maatraa, to speech. A maatraa is ‘a prosodical unit of one instant’. These vowels, svars , are of three types viz. short vowels, hrasva, – single meter ; long vowels, dīrgha – dual meter and prolongated vowels, pluta of three stops. There are seven short vowels and if we add all the short and longer versions of the vowels the count goes up to 23.
The consonants combined with these metered vowels give a rhythmic, chanting pattern called the mantrās and these rhythms have seven basic structures called chhands. Now, interestingly the basic count for the number of syllables in these chhands varies from 24 to 48 increasing in steps of 4. These are gayatri (24), ushṇik (28), anushtup (32), brihati (36), pankti (40), trishtup (44) and jagati (48). Pt. Motilal Shastri, a Vedic scholar of rare insight, has explained these in terms of how the Earth revolves around the Sun. The Earth has a 24o ( 23.5o to be precise) tilt in its orbit. To us, therefore, the Sun appears to move from above the tropic of Capricorn to above the tropic of Cancer by an angle of 48o approx. in its annual swing. It is this degree of change that the Vedic chhands are attuned to and this is further underlined by the fact that the middle chhanda is called brihati (36), meaning ‘the largest’ even though it is in the centre. This is because the Sun is the brightest at the Equator, in-between the two tropics.
The chanting of the mantras uses three accents. When a syllable is stressed it is called udaatta , literally meaning acute or high. Then there is anudaatta, which is neither high nor low, it is grave or middle. The latter is indicated in old Vedic texts by a line below the syllable. The last is svarita , which is low. This is marked by a vertical line over the syllable in ancient Vedas and Brahmanas. These accents lead us to the musical notes.
Spaced between these seven notes are four semi-tones or komal-svars viz. for re , ga , dha and ni ; and only one acute-tone or tivra-svar viz. for ma. The latter, like the chhand called brihati is in the center of the scale. Added to the pure seven notes the count now becomes 12 and this reflects the symmetry of the sun-signs.