Sound and Meaning
(HinduDharma: Part 14, Puranas (20 chapters))

An interesting thought occurs to me here. In Sanskrit the suffix "taram" is used for the comparative degree. "Viryavat" means "strong", "Viryavat taram" means "stronger". It is said in the Chandogya Upanishad (1. 1. 10) that he who meditates on the truth of Omkara (Aumkara) with a knowledge of its meaning, will gain benefits that are "viryavat taram". The implication here is that those who practice such meditation without knowing the meaning will obtain benefits that are " viryavat". In his commentary on this Upanishad, Sankaracharya remarks that those who meditate on Omkara, even without grasping the principle behind it, will gain much benefit though it may not be the same measure as that gained by those who meditate on it knowing its meaning.

We may or may not know the meaning or significance of a religious rite, but we will be duly rewarded if we perform it in deference to great men who have urged us to do it or because we follow the example of our forefathers who have done it. What matters is the faith inspiring our action. This applies particularly to mantra upasana (worship through chanting mantras) more than to anything else. The reason is that in such worship the proper voicing of the syllables of the mantra and the vibrations created are what matter in bringing beneficial results. The meaning of the mantras comes later.

In this context it seems to me that performing a rite without knowing its meaning yields results that are "viryavat taram", that is more potent than performing it with a knowledge of its meaning (the benefits in the latter case are "viryavat"). The chanting of mantra, or the muttering of it, without knowing it's meaning, is also more rewarding than chanting or muttering it knowing the meaning. How?

A man sends a petition to the collector through his lawyer. Another man, an unlettered peasant, has his petition written by somebody else but he personally hands it to the collector. He requests the official to treat his case sympathetically. The latter is moved by the man's simple faith and decides to help him. If we approach the collector through a lawyer and if he takes it amiss, he might turn against us. Also, if he finds that we have knowingly committed a wrong, he will have greater reason too be displeased with us. But if he realises that we have committed a mistake unknowingly, he may be inclined to forgive us.

We must not refuse to perform a rite because we do not know it's meaning, nor must we ask why we should perform what is prescribed in the sastras. Conducting a ritual without knowing its significance, it occurs to me, is "viryavat taram".

You may take it that this observation of mine has not been made in any seriousness. But, when I see that intellectual arrogance and deceit are on the increase and that the ignorant are being deprived of their one asset, humility, it seems to me that doing things in mere faith is to be lauded.

You must, in fact, be intellectually convinced about the need to perform a religious duty and, at the same time, you must be humble. The mantras are the laws of the dharmasastras. If we knew their meaning we would be better able to live according to them.

The term "alpakantha" in the verse quoted above [in the previous chapter] means one who has a thin voice (one who chants the Vedas in a thin voice). The Vedic mantras must be intoned full-throatedly, sonorously and their sound must pervade space to the maximum extent possible.

The sound of the mantras does good to the man chanting them as well as to the listener by producing vibrations in the nadis of both. As it fills the air it will be beneficent both in this world and in the next. This is the reason why the Vedas must be chanted with vigour, so that their sound reaches the utmost limits possible.

"Hindu Dharma" is a book which contains English translation of certain invaluable and engrossing speeches of Sri Sri Sri Chandrasekharendra Saraswathi MahaSwamiji (at various times during the years 1907 to 1994).
For a general background, please see here