If you attend any Hindu religious ritual, a Vedic prayer or a traditional Yoga class, you will find that the Shanti mantra (the peace chant) is usually chanted at the end of the ceremony or the class.
Following the tradition of Integral Yoga, the style of yoga that I practice and teach, I conclude each yoga class with this peace chant (Shanti Mantra):
ॐ असतो मा सद्गमय ।
तमसो मा ज्योतिर्गमय ।
मृत्योर्मा अमृतं गमय ।
ॐ शान्तिः शान्तिः शान्तिः ॥
Om asato mA sadgamaya,
Tamaso mA jyotirgamaya,
Mrityorma amritam gamaya,
Om shanti, shanti, shanti.
Om, lead me from unreal (transitory material existence) to the real (Eternal Self),
From darkness (of ignorance) to light (of wisdom, truth, spiritual knowledge),
From the fear of death to the knowledge of immortality.
Om Peace, peace, peace!
(from Brihadaranyaka Upanishad 1.3.28)
As you will notice, the concluding line is the chanting of the word Shanti (peace) three times. The question that sometimes gets asked is – why is shanti chanted three times? Is there a significance to it?
Here is a brief explanation as to why we chant shanti three times.
Our ancient scriptures tell us that one of the main objectives of life is to remove three kinds of obstacles or to eliminate three kinds of suffering.
In the Samkhya system of philosophy (Samkhya Pravachana Sutram), the very first sutra states:
"Permanent and complete elimination of the three-fold suffering is the supreme purpose of life".
"अथ त्रिविधदुःखात्यन्त निवृत्तिः अत्यन्त पुरुषार्थः" (1.1)
- Atha trividhadukhantyanta nivrittiH atyanta purusharthaH
Even though the three-fold suffering is not explicitly defined in the sutra, every commentator takes it to mean the following three forms of suffering:
- Adhidaivika (of divine origin)
- Adhibhautika (originated in the physical, material beings)
- Adhyatmika (created by ourselves)
The word "daivika" means "of divine origin". Adhidaivika refers to the suffering due to divine causes, causes that we have no control over. These include natural disasters like floods, tornados, tsunamis, earthquakes, plagues, fires and the like. A recent example is the massive destruction of life and property by the typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines.
The word ‘bhautika’ is derived from ‘bhuta’ which means all beings. It can also mean any entity, living or non-living. For example, even a stone can be termed a bhuta. So Adhibhautika refers to suffering caused by other beings. In the Samkhya system, these are classified as – other human, domestic animals, wild animals, reptiles etc., insects, mosquitoes, bugs, cockroaches etc. For example, suffering can be caused by someone physically hitting you or hurting you through verbal abuse. Similarly, suffering can be caused by a snake or a scorpion bite, you may have sleepless nights due to mosquito bites, you could be attacked by a domestic or a wild animal etc.
The word ‘atmika’ means ‘self-inflicted’. Adhyatmika suffering is the most damaging and long-lasting suffering as we inflict it on ourselves. This could be physical, mental, or emotional suffering. We cause physical suffering on ourselves by, for example, overeating, not taking care of our health etc. Most of the suffering is caused by mental reasons. We suffer when we carry negative emotions – anger, hatred, jealousy, greed etc.
Patanjali, in the Yoga Sutras, provides an excellent explanation of the suffering, its causes and the remedy. He describes five kinds of kleshas (sufferings) which are all caused by our ignorance of not knowing our true identity. We suffer because we allow our negative ego (ahamkara) to take over our intellectual capabilities.
Patanjali also tells us that suffering that has not yet come can and must be avoided – हेयं दुःखं अनागतम् - heyam duhkham anagatam (sutra 2.16). Patanjali, in subsequent sutras, goes on to explain that the suffering is caused by ignorance and it is up to us to eliminate this ignorance through the practice of the eight limbs of yoga.
So, the reason we recite the word ‘shanti’ three times at the end of the class or any ritualistic prayer is to pray for peace in the face of all the three sources of suffering described above.