I start every day by chanting hymns from the Vedas at dawn. I often chant the Rudram, which consists of hundreds of names of the Hindu god Shiva, and I enjoy chanting because it keeps my mind calm and focused. While at Stanford, I would make the daily trek from my dorm room to the Hindu prayer room on the third floor of the Old Union building to chant. Campus would be peaceful and quiet so early in the morning, with rarely anyone around. One day, after I finished chanting, I saw my friend Jonathan at the Old Union, slowly but passionately playing on the piano. “What brings you here so early in the morning?” I asked him. He smiled and said, “the same reason why you come here for chanting.” He told me he was playing a musical rendition of Psalm 3, “Thou Art a Shield For Me” by Byron Cage.

I also began taking Sanskrit classes while at Stanford, and as I picked up more vocabulary, I saw the words of the Vedic hymns begin to come alive. My previous experience of singing words in a liturgical language I had not understood slowly transformed into a subtle awareness of the meaning of these words. “Asau yas tamro aruna uta babruh sumangalah” indicated the golden dawn I would see from the window as I chanted. “Meghyaaya cha vidyutyaaya cha” indicated the thunder and lightning I would see when it was raining outside. “Shravaaya cha pratishravaaya cha” indicated the very sound and echoes of my voice as I sang. I began to realize that these words did not merely praise an external God: They bestowed divinity in everyday aspects of the world, granting transcendence to the immanent around me.

Curiously, the Rudram, through its roots in mysticism, also described seeming contradictions in its depictions of God. “Kapardine cha vyupta-keshaaya” – the one with braided hair and who is bald. “Mahadbhyah kshulla-kebhyah” – the one who is great and who is small. “Tishthadbhyo dhaavadbhyah” – the one who is still and is running. I then wondered: what really was it that brought me so much peace and joy in chanting? It couldn’t be the literal, conflicting word meanings that did not always point to any clear concept. Rather, I realized, it was my very focus and awareness of the act of chanting itself that gave me such calmness within. The cognitive dissonance induced by the mystic words was thus not accidental, but rather meaningful and significant, as it helped me to train my focus inward. Perhaps I had discovered the true purpose of Vedic chanting: to find the equanimity that lies within, a state that goes beyond mere words, hymns, or a particular external God – which my friend Jonathan could experience, just as I did.