When I was a child our family gathered at the home of a great-aunt every year at Christmastime. A woman with a warm heart, Tanta Anna loved to share the fruits of her kitchen during the Christmas holidays, but for us kids, the highlight of the evening was the indoor fishing expedition. After dessert had been served and enough coffee distributed to satisfy Norwegian cravings, each child took a turn poking a bamboo fishing pole over a blanket hung in a doorway. A string was attached to the pole, and at the end of the string, a safety pin. One by one each child held the pole while the pin was hooked to a specially selected gift—a prize that emerged only after some playful heaving and hauling on the line.
A heartfelt call for peace is a powerful means of restoring order and purpose. It calms agitation, strengthens our inner resolve, and nurtures the sense of ease that allows us to perform our actions skillfully.
When it came time to assemble for the fishing, emotions often got out of hand. All the kids ran to get a spot close to the doorway; little ones cried as they were bumped out of the way; older boys playfully tried to sneak a peek around the edge of the curtain—loudly announcing their discoveries to the excited group. That was when the adults stepped in to invoke peace and soothe wounded feelings: an uncle with a resonant voice called the room back to order; small children were given a place in the front, and taller children circled to the back. We were all reminded to behave calmly so as not to scare the fish—expert advice that invariably quelled the commotion. Finally, with a conspicuously loud announcement of the first angler’s name (owing to poor hearing, the pond had occasionally produced the wrong gift, prompting some delicate negotiations), the fishing began.
Efforts to invoke peace are a necessity in life—not only to calm a noisy gathering but also, on a more subtle level, to calm ourselves. A heartfelt call for peace is a powerful means of restoring order and purpose. It calms agitation, strengthens our inner resolve, and nurtures the sense of ease that allows us to perform our actions skillfully. To be meaningful, however, a call for peace requires a measure of inner strength and authority. Unless we recognize how it feels when peace slips away—and then is gathered again—invoking peace becomes an empty ritual.
Reciting a shanti patha at the beginning of practice sets a calming tone by invoking the universal forces of peace. At the end it provides a contemplative closing in harmony with the states of mind that evolve during our work with ourselves.
In the yoga tradition, peace is invoked by reciting a mantra known as a shanti patha. Shanti means “peace”—but it also means tranquility, welfare, calmness of mind, happiness, prosperity, absence of passion, and the averting of pain. A patha is a “calling out”—a recital or recitation. The phrase “Om shantih, shantih, shantih” is the simplest and most familiar shanti patha. In this chorus—which ends many Sanskrit prayers—the repetition of the word “peace” emphasizes its meanings.
Underlying every shanti patha (and there are many) is the recognition that all living beings seek to avoid pain, conflict, suffering, and disorder. This was pointed out in an ancient Indian teaching adapted by the Buddha, as well as by yogic philosophers of other schools, and summarized in the opening of Ishvarakrishna’s Sankhya Karika, which reads: “Because of the torment of the threefold suffering, there arises the desire to know the means of counteracting it.” The sage Vyasa referred to this same idea in his comments on sutra 1.31 of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra: “Pain is that, affected by which, beings endeavor to ward it off.” And the Buddha embedded the point in the Four Noble Truths, stating as the first truth, the word “suffering,” and as the last truth, that there is a “means of removing” it.
In the spirit of these teachings, shanti pathas are expressions of intent as well as the first steps along the path leading to peace. The beginning or end of yoga sessions are opportune moments for such recitations. Reciting a shanti patha at the beginning of practice sets a calming tone by invoking the universal forces of peace. At the end it provides a contemplative closing in harmony with the states of mind that evolve during our work with ourselves.
A Simple Invocation
Suffering is extinguished by taking refuge in transcendental consciousness—this conviction is fundamental to yoga. In the chorus “Om shantih, shantih, shantih,” this principle is embodied by the recitation of the sound Om. But as the Sankhya teachers pointed out, suffering in this world is threefold and woven together into a seamless whole. Therefore the word “shantih” is recited three times. The first recitation refers to the pain arising from conflicts among forces that are normally beyond the knowledge and influence of beings on this planet, a pain termed in Sanskrit adhidaivika (adhi means “from the presence of”; daivika means “divine or supernatural agencies”). Examples that early teachers gave of adhidaivika pains included such natural disasters as droughts, storms, earthquakes, and volcanic eruptions. But such examples also represent a deeper reality than the one we normally perceive with our senses—a reality in which the forces of nature themselves are struggling for balance and harmony.
The second source of pain is called adhibhautika (bhautika means “manifested beings of all kinds”). Suffering at this level is the result of painful interactions with others. In addition to interpersonal conflicts, adhibhautika pain includes interactions with animals. War is perhaps the most devastating example of this kind of pain, but unpleasant interactions with family, friends, and co-workers are much more common experiences of it.
Suffering arising from within one’s self is the third type of pain. Physical illness is the most common example. Mental distress brought about by conflicting desires or by lapses in judgment also arises from this plane of experience. The source of suffering here is the most familiar of all, termed adhyatmika pain (atmika means “related to the self”).
The great Indian epic, the Mahabharata, is often used to illustrate the coexistence of these three levels of reality. The Mahabharata (the source of the Bhagavad Gita) is a tale of civil war, but it may be viewed as a struggle between the forces of good and evil in the universe (conflict at the adhidaivika level), as a historical event (conflict at the adhibhautika level), or as an allegory illustrating the struggles between attachment and non-attachment within each individual (conflict at the adhyatmika level). Every aspect of life, in fact, is a simultaneous interweaving of adhidaivika, adhibhautika, and adhyatmika realities. And it is this that is acknowledged by the three recitations “shantih, shantih, shantih.”
As Above, So Below
Among many peace invocations, one stands out for its cosmic scope, rich imagery, and sonorous Sanskrit cadence. It is from the Yajur Veda and thus comes to us from a time in which the cosmos and the lives of individual beings were seen as inherently parallel and interwoven (“As above, so below”). Thus, invocations of peace in the cosmos were also invocations of peace within the individual soul.
In this shanti patha the area in the human body from the crown of the head to the throat center is considered the heavenly region. The area from the throat to the navel is the sky (the middle region). And from the navel to the toes is the earth. The chant, which is usually recited as a concluding benediction, resounds:
Om dyau shantir
vishve deva shantih
shantir eva shantih
sa ma shantir edhi
Om shantih shantih shantih
May there be peace in heaven,
Peace in the skies,
And peace on earth.
May all the waters know peace,
May all the herbs and plants know peace,
May the great trees of the forest know peace.
May all the forces of the universe know peace.
The immense, transcendent Reality is peace.
May all know peace,
Peace and only peace,
And may that peace come unto me.
Om peace, peace, peace.
There is an extraordinarily rich symbolism contained in this shanti patha. The key to discovering this richness lies in recognizing its allusions to the interplay between the individual and the cosmos. Water, for example, is both an element and a symbol. Taken as an element it reminds us of rain, of flowing rivers, of ponds, lakes, and seas. It is close at hand—in the blood of our veins, the fluids bathing our cells. And it is distant—in clouds and mountain snows. Water pervades every aspect of existence, and it is spoken of as primeval—coexistent with the origins of life and time.
As a natural symbol, water is the manifestation of an unmanifest reality. When we see water, we sense at some deep level of ourselves that we are seeing a nurturing nectar. The cooling touch of water revitalizes our spirit, not just our body. The taste of water is nourishing to our soul. Water is life-giving, balancing, and transparent—and without it, existence itself becomes arid and evaporates.
To invoke peace among “all the waters” is to recognize water both as an element and as a symbol. In fact, the two are not different. Water is the physical form of the nurturing forces of life.
When peace truly dawns, it does not come from the intellect, but from beyond the intellect. And no words quite capture that which comes from an experience beyond words.
But set this symbolism aside. Simply rehearse in your mind the various blessings of peace that are offered in this shanti patha: Peace to everything that lies in the vault of the sky. Peace to the atmosphere, a space filled with light and darkness, and alive with the movement of the winds. Peace to the earth and everything rising from the earth. Peace to the all-pervasive waters. Peace to the plants and herbs that provide food and healing medicines. Peace to the great trees, towering upright, giving fruit, and shading the earth. Peace to the forces of nature—the powerful, the subtle, and the petty.
May All Know Peace
Next turn your attention to how the rishis, the reciters of the shanti pathas, account for the source of peace. They do this by naming a Reality that cannot be described—Brahman. We can sense their intention by recalling the familiar phrase, “a peace that passes all understanding.” When peace truly dawns, it does not come from the intellect, but from beyond the intellect. And no words quite capture that which comes from an experience beyond words.
In one version of ancient mythology, Peace (Shanti) is an attendant to Consciousness (Shiva). Her presence is conducive to enlightenment. When she arrives she brings freedom from pain—the peace we wish for all beings (“May all know peace”). We can easily recognize her even in mundane situations—when a noisy meeting is brought to order, an unfocused group suddenly finds the energy to work together, or an anxious mother is flooded with relief when she hears that her child is safe and well.
By reciting a shanti patha we are not simply hoping that everything will be peaceful yet remain the same. We invoke peace so that we might truly find it (“And may that peace come unto me”). When it does, it will inevitably reframe our reality. The experience of peace has a way of inserting itself—of helping us reorder our lives. In the end, our goal in reciting a shanti patha is to actually create harmony with our environment, with other beings, and with the forces of our own nature. Words of peace, spoken with understanding, bring order to our world.