(The following article was posted in the "Meditations" column of the Hindustan Times, one of India's largest English language daily newspapers, on 13 January 2003.)
Imagine thousands crossing the ice. Braving the frozen Rhine in 1407 to conquer Rome? Nevsky's forces stopping Germanic armies in 1242 on the frozen channel between Chad and Pskov? Guess again.
The year is 1925; the time 1:00 am. The place: Ontario, Canada. Half the local population runs toward one of the continent's greatest spectacles.
Niagara Falls has frozen over. The silence is so deafening that thousands have to see what's up. The roar has ceased, and the people must discover what's gone wrong, no clatter, no crackle. Zounds! No sound!
Sound. Love or hate it, it's all around.
In the Himalayas sounds have caused avalanches. High notes can break glass, vex pets, clean teeth and scrub jewelry. Ultrasound enables us to see. Technology exposes the potency of sound. Karna was cursed (by sound) that when he faced his greatest danger he would forget the only mantra to activate his celestial weapon and save him. At the crucial time he was silent. So says the Mahabharata.
Brahminical sound destroyed the wicked King Vena. Words emitted by Joseph Stalin caused tens of millions to perish in purges. A mother's voice soothes her child. Gandhi's words transformed dreams to reality in the fight for politicaljustice.
Students of 'classical culture' say the ancients didn't see their thoughts as belonging to them - it was always a god or goddess giving an order. Apollo 'told' them to be brave; Athena 'dictated' that they fall in love. They 'heard' their favourites. Today people hear commercials for movies or candy bars and rush out to spend. As they scurried to icy spaces, they now sizzle with hot products.
Sounds and mantras destroy or liberate. Repetition is not essential, but due to a loss of spiritual energy, it helps. What matters is the purity, source and accessibility. The mahamantra - Hare Krishna Hare Krishna Krishna Krishna Hare Hare, Hare Rama Hare Rama Rama Rama Hare Hare - still summons serene times in the midst of the 'age of quarrel' (kali-yuga). It's a blast of summer in winter, blossoms when there should be snow.
It's wise to be spiritually equipped in this age, as we live in a treacherous time. Silence is the most secret of sounds, but the mahamantra sung as a form of samadhi brings happiness. Even in the face of death, even if the oceans freeze, this sound sings us into life.