Snatam Kaur (whose name means, “universal, nucleus and friend to all”) was introduced to music and spiritual practice at an early age through the 3HO lifestyle (Healthy, Happy Holy Organization) founded by Yogi Bhajan, and she was schooled in Sikh traditional kirtan studying with many teachers most notably Bhai Hari Singh, the accomplished master of Sikh-style kirtan in Amritsar, India. She also studied Gurmukhi, the Sanskrit-based language of Sikh scriptures, and she received Kundalini Yoga Teacher Training certification. In this interview, she introduces readers to the spiritual technology of Sikh sacred music.
Integral Yoga Magazine (IYM): How does chanting permeate the Sikh way of life?
Snatam Kaur (SK): The whole tradition is based around music because the spiritual technology for awakening to our inner divinity, according to Sikh Dharma, is to recite and sing from the Siri Guru Granth Sahib (1432 pages of sacred songs and experiences which we as Sikhs bow to as our Guru, or Divine Teacher). When a person sings these sacred songs, it begins a healing process on the physical, mental and spiritual levels. The way Yogi Bhajan explained it is that Gurmukhi, the language of these prayer songs, was developed to cause a transference of energy and, if we recite them in a state of pure consciousness and humility, we will be able to tap into that same ecstasy and consciousness of their enlightenment.
IYM: Who wrote the Siri Guru Granth Sahib?
SK: Our fifth guru, Guru Arjan, compiled it. Between the 14th and 17th centuries, we were blessed with ten living Gurus or masters. Each of them embodies an essential spiritual quality. Guru Arjan compiled the Siri Guru Granth Sahib by collecting the sacred writings of the four previous Gurus, as well as many of his own. He also added writings from enlightened Hindu, Muslim and Sufi saints of the time. Each enlightened Master had a particular experience, a feeling of which was communicated through sacred words. This vibration became known as Shabad Guru (the vibration or frequency of the consciousness of enlightenment). The Masters received these visions of sound and put them into words. The language of Gurmukhi was developed specifically with a beautiful rhythm and sound so that people could easily incorporate these songs into daily life. Guru Nanak, was the first Sikh Guru to unveil and manifest the technology of the Shabad Guru—the teacher who guides us by our own breath, creating the sounds of wisdom.
When Guru Gobind Singh, our tenth Guru, reigned, he fought to defend religious freedom in India. During a battle, the Siri Guru Granth Sahib was lost. Guru Gobind Singh sat down in a forest with one of his scribes and, in a meditative state of consciousness, he recovered the entire Siri Guru Granth Sahib. When I learned this, it became clear to me that the Siri Guru Granth Sahib is really the vibration of light that passed through all ten Gurus. When Guru Gobind Singh was on his death bed, all of the Sikhs gathered and asked who would be the next Guru. He performed the rites to the Siri Guru Granth Sahib and proclaimed, “This is your Guru.” Everything it contains is considered to be our Guru, the guide who takes us from the darkness of our own ego to the light of our inner divinity.
IYM: How do these songs help us achieve that?
SK: Yogi Bhajan taught that, when we chant, the energy spirals up through the chakras and energizes and heals them. Then, it reaches the tenth gate, at the top of the head, which is our umbilical cord to the Creator—it’s the seat of consciousness and awareness. Yogis from many different traditions say that, at the top of the head, sits the thousand- petal lotus (the energy center that collects the Nectar of God when we meditate). When the energy of the chants reaches the tenth gate, that lotus essentially turns upside down, and the nectar, the connection to God, rains down upon us. That’s why we Sikhs cover our heads with turbans made of natural fibers so that this energy can be protected and held sacredly.
Yogi Bhajan explained that the sound current of the Shabad Guru is a perfect permutation to make us divine. When the tongue chants these sacred songs, it stimulates the meridians of the upper palate in a very specific pattern. Physically, the tongue taps against the roof of the mouth; it stimulates the glandular system, which then balances the nervous system and the hypothalamus, which controls habitual patterns. Reciting these sacred songs enables us to reset our patterns and to re-organize our brains so we experience our inner truth. That is why we feel so good after we chant.
IYM: How important is it to understand what you are singing?
SK: Gurmukhi is a language of vibration, and the meaning is secondary. The idea is to get the words ingrained into our being and heart. It’s all about connecting and being one with God. Each poem in the Siri Guru Granth Sahib is composed in a particular raag, a particular set of notes. There are people who study the advanced musical forms and sing each composition in the correct raag, as it was originally assigned. There are also people who have their own tunes and sing whatever they feel. All variations have value because it’s about connecting our inner soul and consciousness to the greater Soul of God, which exists in all beings. The music is about shifting our consciousness.
At the same time, Yogi Bhajan encouraged the translation of the Siri Guru Granth Sahib into English and all languages in which the sacred teachings are taught. So it’s not just an esoteric practice; it’s something to which we can relate. He stressed the importance of a daily practice. We may say how incredible the chants are but, if they don’t shift our inner consciousness, it’s just all talk. The grindstone of daily practice—brings us to that place of humility and experience so we have something to share and teach based on our experience.
IYM: What is the Mul Mantra?
SK: The Sikh Mul Mantra is a root mantra. It comprises the beginning lines of the Siri Guru Granth Sahib. If you want to know the essence of the Siri Guru Granth Sahib, then understand the Mul Mantra. Guru Nanak grew up in northern India in the 15th Century, and everyone knew he was enlightened. As a young man he had a job in a government grain shop and, prior to going to work each day, he and a devotee would go to the river to bathe and meditate. One day he went into the river and never came out. One day passed, two days passed and no one could find him and so they prepared the funeral rites. On the third day, he miraculously emerged from the water and the first words he spoke were the Mul Mantra. While he was under the water he united with God consciousness and was told that he should go forward as Guru, travel and teach. The Mul Mantra is, essentially, Guru Nanak’s message to the planet: that the divine light of God is the creator of all, this divine light exists within all and it is our birthright as human beings to meditate, to practice and to be in touch with this divine light. In Guru Nanak’s own words, he says that, when we meditate on the Mul Mantra it gives us the elixir of peace and joy within.
IYM: How have you balanced your music between East and West, between the language of Gurmukhi and English?
SK: I have western musical training as well as eastern training, so I do combine both. I study the words in Gurmukhi and I still like to read the English, so I fluctuate back and forth. Sometimes I don’t want to be consciously engaged in the meaning, other times it touches something powerful that I want to understand mentally. I’ve grown up with these chants, so I feel a strong connection to them in their original language. When I was developing my first solo album (now titled Prem), I wanted to connect with a larger audience, so I tried composing songs for it in English. I enjoyed the process of the songwriting, but realized that I wasn’t really engaged with it, as a basis for the album. So, I made a conscious decision to allow the language of Gurmukhi to be the core of Prem and have the chants revolve around that energy. Those who had never heard of me—and didn’t know what the music was all about, why I was wearing a turban, or who I was—were getting the music, getting the chants, getting healed and having experiences. I continued to perform and record mainly in Gurmukhi because the language is so powerful and healing—for me personally and for others. I still incorporate English songs and English words to support and communicate our mission of peace.
IYM: So, it’s become a seva, a healing and peace ministry?
SK: Yes. I try to give people an experience of the chants and an empowerment so they will start chanting them in their daily lives. Giving concerts offers a great opportunity to teach a bit about the essence of chanting, which is, as it is in many traditions, an affirmation that God is in us and that we are connected to God. That’s the medicine, the remedy we all need for this age in which we live and for all time. This life is about remembering that we are God, we are all ambassadors of God’s light. The chants are about affirming and confirming that within us. Gurmukhi was developed so that the transformational power of enlightenment would be obtained by anyone who hears it or chants it. In each moment, we have the chance to be aware, to be enlightened.
Snatam Kaur has been enchanting sold-out audiences since 2002 with her signature vocals and uplifting presence, selling hundreds of thousands of albums each year. She reaches thousands of people on the Celebrate Peace Tour. She tours internationally, accompanied by Guru Ganesha Singh and other world-class musicians. For more information about her tour schedule and CDs, please visit: www.snatamkaur.com.