I first sang this Shanti (Peace) mantra from the Upanishads during a workshop with Christina Sell in Brooklyn. We sang the mantra at the beginning of our practice, and as Christina explained it, the invocation was meant to remind us of our shared aim in practicing as a group. At the beginning of any group experiment—a yoga class, for example, a campground, or zooming out, a society—this is an especially apt reminder. By chanting the mantra, teacher and students alike, we are jointly asking for protection, blessings, sustenance, strength and purpose on our challenging journey of working together.
In light of what happened Wednesday in Paris, this Shanti mantra feels necessary. I have been looking at it, repeating it once a day. I cannot remember the melody for the chant, so I just say it to myself, out loud, probably butchering the accents and pronunciation, but that hardly matters. What matters is feeling it.
Upanishad means “to sit at the foot/feet of,” and it refers to the way students in 500 BC (and earlier!) would sit near their teachers to absorb as much as they could. As these lessons and stories were imparted orally, it was vital that students and teachers be close to each other so the knowledge could be passed down from one generation to the next without too many inaccuracies. When you think about it, there is something very beautiful about a collection of texts named after the idea of sharing space, and a mantra that acknowledges that sharing space can be at bit scary, scary enough that you might want a little phrase in your pocket, a small benediction, that can be invoked all together for the sake of remembering your collective aim without enmity.