Shanti Patha: A Practice to Invoke Peace

December 16, 2015    BY Rolf Sovik

When I was a child our family gathered at the home of a great aunt every year at Christmas time. 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.

Calling for Peace

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.

Calling for peace at a family gathering is one thing; calling for peace in larger groups of excited children is another. For example, the owner of the movie house in our small town sponsored a Saturday morning cartoon extravaganza that jammed his theater with screaming kids. To minimize the hubbub before the show started he delegated an employee to walk through the aisles, but this substitute authority was never very effective. Not until we saw the owner himself striding to the front of the theater did the noise die away. His presence invoked peace—when we saw him we knew the show would finally begin if we could manage just a few minutes of self-restraint.

With the right aim, a little musical help, and a more mature audience, calls for peace become more graceful. When I graduated from high school the orchestra began the ceremony by playing Elgar’s “Pomp and Circumstance”—music that opens with enough volume to interrupt virtually any conversation. This was followed by a much more formal invocation than the ones that preceded our annual fishing expeditions or the Saturday morning cartoons, an invocation that solemnized the proceedings, called for divine presence, conveyed a sense of mindfulness, and set what followed apart from everyday activities. In that hot auditorium, among hundreds of noisy relatives, this invocation brought order and a sense of purpose.

Shanti Patha

I mention these experiences because they are familiar examples of our need for peace invocations—not only to calm a noisy gathering, but also, on a more subtle level, to calm ourselves when we are distracted. To be meaningful, however, a call for peace must be done mindfully. Unless we recognize how it feels when peace slips away—and then is gathered again—invoking peace becomes an empty ritual.But 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.

Unless we recognize how it feels when peace slips away—and then is gathered again—invoking peace becomes an empty ritual.

In the yoga tradition peace is invoked by reciting a mantra known as a shanti patha. The word 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 (especially of a sacred text). The phrase “OM shantih, shantih, shantih” is the simplest and most familiar shanti patha. In this chorus—which ends many Sanskrit verses—the repetition of the word “peace” elicits its various 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. This teaching was summarized in the opening of the Sankhyakarika of Ishvarakrishna, 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 theYoga Sutras of Patanjali: “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 first steps along the path leading to peace. The beginning or end of yoga sessions are opportune moments for such recitations. At the beginning of a practice session reciting a shanti patha 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 ‘from the presence of’; daivika "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 "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 coworkers 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 "related to the self").

Every aspect of life, in fact, is a simultaneous interweaving of adhidaivika, adhibhautika, and adhyatmika realities.

The great Indian epic, the Mahabharata, is often used to illustrate the coexistence of these three levels of reality. The Mahabharata 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 adhidai-vika level), as an historical event (conflict at the adhi-bhautika 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.”

Invocations in the Upanishads

Each of the Upanishads, the teachings that form the final section of the ancient Vedas, begins with a more elaborate invocation of peace. One of the most familiar of these invocations, found in the Katha Upanishad, has been called the “Teacher-Student Prayer.” It is often recited at the beginning of yoga studies to invoke harmony between teacher and student and to help both teacher and student rise to the purpose of their work together. The following translation captures much of its spirit:

May we be protected together.

May we be nourished together.

May we create strength among one another.

May our study be filled with brilliance and light.

May there be no enmity between us.

OM Peace, Peace, Peace

Teacher-Student Prayer

OM saha navavatu

saha nau bhunaktu

saha viryam karavavahai

tejasvi navadhitamastu

ma vidvishavahai

OM shantih shantih shantih

This is a highly refined invocation. In ancient times it was observed that yoga is most easily practiced in a nation whose government is just and whose people live happy and well-ordered lives. Under those conditions individuals are most likely to be protected from the pains of war and famine—and even the disharmonies of nature. But while the language of the Teacher-Student Prayer recognizes the importance of such general conditions, it focuses more sharply on the needs of the teacher and student in their intimate study together. That is,

May we be protected together.

(May nothing distract our attention.)

May we be nourished together.

(May the teachings be our nourishment.)

May we create strength among one another.

(May we work with full spiritual determination.)

May our study be filled with brilliance and light.

(May the energy of spiritual illumination shine in our study.)

May there be no enmity between us.

(May no falseness arise in our relationship to create hatred.)

It is satisfying to recite this in Sanskrit as well as in English. Although the Sanskrit transliteration is given here, you will need to find a teacher who has learned the correct pronunciation and can chant the verse using one of the traditional melodic patterns. Until then, take time to learn the English version because it can be chanted even when you are alone—calling to mind the lineage of yoga teachers who are in some way present with you in your practice.

Traditionally, Upanishadic teachings were imparted only after invoking peace. Frequently the teacher and student might sit together every day, each lesson or period of study beginning with the same invocation. This rekindled the fire of preceding lessons, prepared both teacher and student for the teaching yet to come, and infused the teaching with divine energy. A longer shanti patha, used in this way, is found at the opening of the Mundaka Upanishad:

OM O bright beings! May we hear that which is auspicious with our ears. O you who are worthy of adoration! May we behold that which is auspicious with our eyes. With the limbs and organs of our body full of health and vigor, and constantly offering our praises, may we obtain the full measure of years allotted to us by providence. The Lord of Beings, glorified from ancient times; He who nourishes the world; The Swift One who protects us from harm; The Lord of Wisdom—may all these forms of the Divine confer on us clarity of understanding and dedication to practice. OM Peace, Peace, Peace.

This inspiring invocation combines many themes. Among the five senses, hearing and sight traditionally have the highest place. This shanti patha asks that the ears and eyes, and thus symbolically all the senses, be nourished with health-giving experiences so that the mind itself is nourished. The invocation asks for physical well-being and a long life, but only in the context of service to the Divine. Finally it invokes four particular divine images whose presence may confer success in the lessons to come. Success in this case means that the student understands the teachings, and undertakes a dedicated practice of them. The shanti patha concludes with the familiar threefold recitation of shanti.

The invocation asks for physical well-being and a long life, but only in the context of service to the Divine.

As Above, So Below

Among the many peace invocations I have heard recited, 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 cosmos and individual beings were seen as inherently 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:

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

It might be helpful to reread this shanti patha before continuing because there is an extraordinarily rich symbolism contained in it. As we have already seen, the key to discovering this richness lies in recognizing allusions to the interplay between individual and 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. It contains nourishment when it is extracted from fruits and plants. It is cooling, cleansing, and refreshing. 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 the sustaining force of the universe. 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.

May There Be Peace in Heaven

...from the Yajur Veda

OM dyau shantir

antariksham shantih

prithivi shantir

apah shantir

oshadhaya shantir

vanaspathaya shantir

vishve deva shantih

brahma shantih

sarvam shantih

shantir eva shantih

sa ma shantir edhi

OM shantih shantih shantih

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 actual body of the sustaining force, the Indweller (Antaryamin), or the Pervader (Vishnu).

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 above the vault of the sky. Peace to the skies, the light and darkness, and everything contained there. 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 patha, account for the source of peace. They do this by naming a Reality that cannot be described. “The Immense” is one epithet for it. (Brahman is the term they actually use.) 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.

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.

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, we will inevitably need to 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. A practice as powerful as this will work wonders.

Rolf Sovik
President and Spiritual Director of the Himalayan Institute and a clinical psychologist in private practice, Rolf Sovik has studied yoga in the United States, India, and Nepal. He holds degrees in philosophy, music, Eastern studies, and clinical psychology. Former Co-Director of the Himalayan Institute of Buffalo, NY he began his practice of yoga in 1972, and was initiated as a pandit in the Himalayan tradition in 1987. He is the author of Moving Inward, co-author of the award-winning Yoga:... Read more>>