śruti and smṛti: intertextu-orality, phenomenology, and the so-ham behind the swan

(This post is a draft of a section from the introduction to a work-in-progress called Yoga Philosophy Digest: three core texts for students, in which I’ll be trying to present the most helpful reading and contemplative strategies for students who wish to navigate theBhagavad Gītā, the Yoga Sūtra-s, and the Haṭha Yoga Pradīpikā. Any and all feedback is appreciated.)

Yoga’s obsession with thinking, and thinking about thinking, and how thinking can lead to the blissful deconstruction of thought, is reinforced by the ways in which its layers of history and text mutually reflect each other. As its meditative techniques use the mind to explore itself, and as its physical culture explores the nature of physicality as its own goal, the philosophy of yoga is similarly self-reflexive. It meditates upon itself, across eras, styles and aspirations. It is holographic, with each shard carrying the echo of a greater part.

Or perhaps the better metaphor is genomic: each generation of yoga philosophy contains a fragment of an archaic DNA, which it gazes at in its meditation, like a microbiologist gazing at her own bloodwork through a lens. The stem cells of yoga philosophy are found in the primal sounds of early Indo-Aryan languages – Vedic Sanskrit (“refined” liturgical speech) and Prakrits (colloquial dialects) that influence each other throughout the earliest texts. These stem cells or seed sounds (bīja) flowered into mantras, shamanic spells, the naming of things, the division of things into categories, the measuring of speech into hymns, and the division of hymns into the Vedas, and the Sangams of the Dravidian south. Every innovation of yoga philosophy holds, often obviously, in its very language, the roots of its earliest coos and caws.

As a student of English literature many years ago, I felt that Homer and Sophocles and Plato and Catullus and the writer of Beowulf were lost for me over the impossible horizon of “Classics”. They were only influential in terms of fragmented etymologies and the anxiety of influence. I felt rootless in the blank slate of my reading and writing, thoroughly American in both my entitled creative license and my sense of inadequacy. But when I started hanging around Indians and Tibetans (and westerners who wanted to be Indians and Tibetans), I began to get the sense of what it must feel like to grow up in a literature of endless memory, in which the oldest books are as alive as the newest books, and everything dances together. The Gāyatrī Mantra, to take the most famous example, rings its bell with meanings remembered and refashioned by each generation descending from its Vedic root, gathering new overtones as it is sung by historically overlapping waves of Vedāntins, the Rāja Yogis, the Tantrikas, and the Nāthas.


om bhur bhuva svaha
tat savitur varenyam
bhargo devasya dhimahi
diyo yo na prachodayat

(RV 3.62.10)

o earth, o sky, o beyond:
towards you we focus the heart
to feel the warmth of the sun
who sets meditation in motion


Dear native English speaker: imagine that every song you heard began with a line from Chaucer, every novel you read was an elaboration on a Shakespearean theme, that every political essay presented Elizabethan-translated aphorisms of Plato’s Republic as evidence, or that every stock report referred to Smith’s Wealth of Nations to be sensible. This is what it would be like if your literature retained its root sounds and sentiments with a fraction of the reverence for its past as we find in the literature of yoga. To my knowledge, the closest that English literature comes to this level of transhistorical syncretism is Robert Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy (1621) – a seamless braiding of Greek, Roman, Old English and Middle English texts, all presented without citation, as if from memory alone, in single exhaustive rhapsody on the meanings of sadness. It is an explicit display of what Julia Kristeva calls “intertextuality” in Desire in Language (1980) – the idea that the meaning of a text is woven from its relationship with other texts, both past and present, creating an endless web of allusion and connection.

When I encounter the literature of yoga, every book I open and every teacher I talk to seems to be in open and fluid dialogue with the past. Yoga is deeply intertextual in this way, with each text endlessly referring to both its roots and its fellows. The writers of the Gītā refer to the Vedas for authority, and to Buddhist ideas for contrast. Patañjali draws heavily upon the earlier Jaina and Sāṃkhya vocabularies, and Svātmārāma refers to broad strokes of previous philosophical speculation, if only to ridicule them. The books are talking to each other and to us, through history and change. It is folly to search for an ultimate view amongst them, because, like the best conversations of our lives, the discourse never ends.

Beneath the disputation, it often seems that the innermost voice of each writer or teacher is the voice of ancient mantra itself. This is why, I think, yoga philosophy can hold a particular attraction for the contemporary mind, spinning with the displacements of migration, high-speed travel, technological change, and data overload. Today, knowledge is more about filtering and organizing data rather than proposing meanings for what those data say. The constant self-referentiality of yoga literature that reaches back to its earliest root – where meaning feels given, indisputable – feels like a balm to the scattered postmodern mind. It’s with this view of groundedness that Hindu culture – a primary custodian of yogic technique – refers to itself as the guardian of Sanātana Dharma (the “perennial philosophy”), for its garden is richly laced with the indomitable perennials of mantric sound and meaning, giving the impression that the foundations of things are always audible, unchanging, constantly supporting what flows from them. It’s as if every yoga philosopher, while writing, is hearing her father whisper the Gāyatrī in her right ear, and her mother whispering one of the Shanti Mantras in her left.

(We should note that the usage of “Sanātana Dharma” comes under fire by several critics in the present day when it is politicized — “saffronized” — to suggest that it holds a “universal” and extra-religious truth for humanity as a whole, a claim that can be made to advance the fundamentalist aspirations of modern Hindu nationalism.)

The crucial dance in yoga’s intertextual literature which allows it to continually enliven its past is between “śruti” – what has been heard or given, and “smṛti” – what has been remembered, or what is to be remembered, or the memory of how something was heard, or the thoughts and feelings evoked by that original hearing. Technically, the canon of śruti texts contains the four Vedas, and then later collections of verses called the Brāhmaṇas, the Aranyakas, and the Upaniṣads. Smṛti consists of everything else that practitioners have found important enough to write down. A good example of śruti, in fact, is the Gāyatrī Mantra, in its sounds alone (not in its textual form): a poem heard or dreamt by nameless forebears, and repeated ritually and verbatim to preserve the energy of something primal, original, having the rawness of a first memory. Dividing śruti from smṛti is not an academic exercise in how to categorize literature: there are palpable feelings at play in the difference between the given and the remembered. It calls to mind a personal experience.

My own first memory of being alive was of standing, a little wobbly, at a screen door looking out into a lush backyard during a summer downpour. I was no older than three. The rain clattered through the broad maple leaves into the loam, and splattered against the screen, splashing my cheeks and eyelashes, and as I peered out through the drops on the screen the world split into many glassy globes. When I remember this moment, two things happen. I can sense in my flesh right now the breeze and the rain and the smell of the metal screen and wetness and coolness and the surprise of the dozen worlds-within-worlds. This is the given part of the memory: it seems to have pre-existed me and it has imprinted me impeccably with its textures. I have remembered it a thousand times, and it has never changed. It was what it was, and needed no description or interpretation. This is the śruti of my experience: the given, the immediately known, the inexplicable, the magically-having-appeared.

But following on the memory of this sensory experience, my inner language begins to churn, embroidering meanings onto the feelings, making connections, plotting out how these feelings can be grouped into themes, creating the story of how the screen door is a perfect metaphor for the ways in which my nature is introspective and isolated, but also observant and devotional. The rich perception of the moment, so timeless and complete, has splintered into countless rivulets of story. This is the smṛti of my experience: how I remember it, what I make of it, how I strategize to recapture it. The śruti never changes. The smṛti grows runners and shoots in a spreading network that always refers back to the central, given, root.

Śruti has often been characterized in professional academic writing as “revelation”, and indeed the common story of the Vedas is that they were first “heard” (some commentators say “cognized”) directly by the Vedic sages. But the categorization of revelation can ghettoize this root of Indian thought to the museum of religious studies, as I described in the introduction. The Veda is not like Yahweh speaking through a cloud on Mount Horeb or like the Oracle at Delphi: it consists of sounds that seem to have spoken themselves, out of nothing. They are described by the Pūrva Mīmāṃsā philosophers as “self-authenticating and authorless, and therefore cannot be said to derive from a particular deity.” (King, 1999, 52)

So what on earth could these mantras be? Sounds that humans can understand, sounds that tell a richly confused story of where we are and what the world is like, but spoken by nobody, emerging from nothing, unchanging and unchangeable. I am not content that the glassy-eyed acceptance of spontaneous Veda-channeling is the best place to leave inquiry into this incredibly important root of yoga. I believe that the givenness, the completeness, the unalterability of Veda is a fantastic illustration of what contemporary phenomenology, beginning with Heidegger, describes as our condition of “thrownness”. Hearing the Vedas, feeling that they have no origin, is like being thrown, as we all are, into a fully-formed world that we must learn and adapt to with our tender and expanding neurology. The world, like the Veda, pre-exists us, and constitutes our ground and support before we are self-aware. To consider the a priori world as the Vedic hymns themselves is consistent with the story that yogic and ayurvedic literature generally tells about our development in utero: that sound is the first medium of sensual contact, awakening the fetus to the awareness of a world.

The first sound you heard was the beating of your mother’s heart. Amidst your own unfindable beginning, that heartbeat did not begin for you: it was always there. As today I watch my baby boy learn hallo and buh-bye while waving his chubby fingers I realize that as the Veda is to yoga literature, so is English to his ears: it has always been there. Looking at śruti in this manner lifts us out of the preciousness of history and speculations of magical lineage, and allows us to see that the constant presence of Vedic mantra within all subsequent yoga culture marinates us in the immediacy of the world as it presents itself to us now, and now, and now.

Digging deeper into phenomenology (the practice of returning philosophy to what is sensually available), we can also consider the a priori nature of śruti as the primacy of our perceptual relationship with the world. Before we are conscious, before thinking, before language and its grammars of separates life into things and actions – the world presents itself to us as a perceptual ground. Countless sensations orient us prior to our conscious thinking, as flesh moving and abiding within a world with which we are continuous. The pressure of the earth against my buttocks, the way the heals of my hands rest unconsciously on the handrests of the laptop as my fingers flutter over the keys in unconscious execution of conscious thought, the gentle scratch of my linen shirt at my collarbone, the lingering taste of warm lime-water on my lips: these sensations come before everything I think, and situate whoever I think myself to be in a place, in a position, as someone who can think only because he is somewhere first. Here, Descartes cogito ergo sum is reversed. I think… because I am. The sensations of being in a world, being of a world, precede every thought that we have about the world. Sensation is given, something we discover ourselves within, something we have been thrown-into: it is śruti. Thought follows, in language that extends through time backwards into memory, and forward into expectations built upon memory. Thought is smṛti.

It’s useful to keep time on a very human scale when considering the oral-literary relationship between śruti and smṛti. The immediate presence and availability of śruti within the literature seems to be like the memory you can recall instantly, or that you feel possessed by. It is not an artifact of history so much as an echo of the unconscious. Reflecting this, Indian literature is famously resistant to chronological organization: Euro-American scholars are constantly grumbling about the difficulty of dating texts and movements in the history of yoga, while Indian sampradāya teachers are far less interested, perhaps because they understand that the texts are provisional records of oral traditions, and because the notion of “authorship” is far more porous, far less valorized. In a tradition in which a writer from one era can be said to be the reincarnation of a writer from a previous era (or the avatar of a god), it tends to be more important to establish the continuity of the intelligence in question than it is to nail down which points were made by which incarnation. Of course the literature unfolds over time, and I’ll spend considerable effort in this book in building the historical framework of yoga’s evolution. But in a more intimate way, drilling down into the texts of yoga philosophy is very much like excavating the memories of one’s present life, with the raw mantras of childhood never far from the surface.

Neurologically, the dual faculties of raw perception and conscious thought resonate with śruti and smṛti respectively, perhaps giving each branch of the literature a hemispheric home in the brain. The given, immediate, sensual, nature of mantra suggests origination in the right hemisphere, generally held to be the seat of aurality, the first to develop through infancy, responsible for spatial awareness and constant pre-cognitive dialogue with the world. As the left brain uses perception as a stimulant to conscious thought, smṛti turns the sounds of śruti into language, complete with the grammar of time. The harmony of the two hemispheres, expressing a balance of perceptual (right) and conscious (left) modes in which how we are (right) is woven into what we shall do (left), is a good analogy for the functional relationship between śruti and smṛti. Virtually everything we do in yoga practice moves towards the integration of these faculties, such that the poetry of presence (right) is balanced by the prose of progress along a path (left); that the intuitive (right) is balanced with the analytical (left); that the fluidity of dance (right) is balanced with the precision of its choreography (left); that receptivity (right) is balanced with action (left). These dualities of nervous function become the explicit focus of the gendered metaphors within the Hatha yoga literature that we’ll scan in Chapter Four – literature that is also exuberant in its mingling of the śruti and smṛti modes, resulting in highly coded, intensely playful texts.

It’s also important to keep in mind that the Sanskrit of the original four Vedas (not so much that of the later śruti literature) is as different from Classical Sanskrit, which came into prominence in the mid-1st millennium BCE, as early Homeric Greek is different from late Homeric Greek. What this means is that to the users of Classical Sanskrit (and much more so for the speakers of modern Indian languages that trace their heritages back to the various iterations of Sanskrit), the oldest mantras of the Vedas themselves sound strange, and pose substantial translation problems. In other words, much of śruti has always been “other” to its listeners, in the same way that the world or another person is “other”, and that otherness is a priori, given. Its not just its age or unfindable origins that lends śruti its energy of surprise: it is also its strangeness, which recalls the way in which we were all baffled by this world we arrived in.

The oral-textual dance between śruti and smṛti is an ideal foundation for a practice that actively works with memory and its karmic import. Between the inalterable givenness of experience (śruti) and the stories we generate from it (smṛti), there is always room for another look, another perspective, another dissolution of an habituated pattern. What are the practices of yoga, if not the continual reorganizing of the relationship between our experience and the story we tell about it? The reorganization happens through pauses, realignments, the softening of muscular or emotional scar tissue, by continually detaching from a neurotic thought, by massaging trauma-bound energies towards release, by recognizing that breath is breathing you, by feeling one’s identity be stretched by contemplation upon its macrocosm, by doing anything it takes to change course from the banal exhaustion of repeated defensive actions and repressions (which might be a good translation for “saṃsāra”) to feel creatively responsive to life. The extent to which yoga is said to change karma is the extent to which it allows for and encourages present actions to reshape memory. The mechanism of śruti is in full play here if that yoga involves mantra recitation: the practitioner is trying to use given, living, timeless sounds to alter or “purify” the narratives of “what is remembered”. The paradox is that “beginningless” śruti is used to rewrite our internal language towards a heightened receptivity to the present. Yoga is always reaching outside of time to mediate the suffering of time.

Perhaps the best way of exploring the contemporary interplay between śruti and smṛti, not only as the two wings of yoga’s scriptural swan, but as a study of how we balance the innate and the constructed, how we process raw perception, how we encounter strangeness and absorb it only to become strangely new to ourselves, is to walk through some of the origins and practicalities of one of yoga’s most venerated mantras – so-ham – from its roots in śruti to its polyvalent implications.

So-ham translates – rather unpoetically – as “I am That”, and is taken to be resonant with Tat tvam asi, translated as “You are that”, or “That thou art”. Tat tvam asi is one of the Mahāvākyas (“great sayings) of the Upanishadic genre of śruti. It’s the refrain of the exquisite Chāndogya Upaniṣad (c. 800 BCE), in which the sage Uddalaka tutors his son Shvetaketu in the interconnectedness of life and the inseparability of subject and object, of “I” and “you.” Shvetaketu asks his father dozens of questions about the principle of innermost essence: the “Self”. The father replies with metaphor after metaphor conceived to break down the boy’s intellectual alienation: the Self is like salt in seawater, invisible but permeating. The Self contains all things, as honey contains the essences of all flowers through its blending of nectars. Uddalaka turns to his son after every metaphor and says “You are That”, meaning: your innermost essence is invisible, yet endlessly connective. (Easwaren, 1987, 182-188) Shvetaketu undergoes a revelation, and while he does not literally respond with the acknowledgement of “I am That”, it feels to me as though the tradition imagines he does. It’s the īśa upaniṣad, which many scholars chronologize as slightly more recent than the Chāndogya, that contains the first textual presentation of so-ham: “O nourishing sun, solitary traveler, controller, source of life for all creatures, spread your light and subdue your dazzling splendor so that I may see your blessed Self. Even that very Self am I!” (Easwaren, 1987, 220) So-ham rings through śruti as a terse and exuberant declaration of self-and-other interdependence.

But it’s not only its position within the Upanishads that endows so-ham with its status as śruti. It also carries within its very sound the thrownness of our autonomic life. There is a folklore tradition that says that the first trembling cries of an infant are ko-ham, ko-ham (who am I, who am I?) – before her breath settles into a pattern of so-ham, so-ham, (I am one with all, I am one with all). The mantra speaks itself, riding upon aspirations: so is audible through the nasal inhalation, and ham can be heard on the exhale. Whether the mantra evolves from the breath or the breath itself is a mimicry of the mantra, so-ham stands as the very definition of the immediate, perceptual, and given: ever present and authorless. As it moves into the cognition of smṛti, it is a sound that translates into the revelation of interdependence, riding upon the primary mechanism that obscures our habitually presumed difference between self and world: the breath. Śruti is said to have been cognized by the ancient seers. So-ham is said to have appeared out of nowhere, to the wise. But everyone who listens to their breath can attain its revelation for themselves: now, and now, and now.

How onomatopoeic is so-ham to the breath? It takes a little effort to hear it. It only works with a nasal inhalation. If you listen closely, there is sibilance in the sinuses as the diaphragm draws breath across the nasal hairs and through the turbinates. As the exhale begins, the back of the tongue gently depresses and releases a portion of breath with an h. The vowels o and a and the closing m are harder to hear. The o becomes apparent on the inhale as the back of the tongue is relaxed in preparation for the h. The a is audible if the exhale takes on the satisfaction of a sigh. The m is heard as the exhale comes to its end and the waning breath offers its resonance forward to the lips.

If such research seems like a stretch we should remember that the mantra is not in essence a written thing. The attempt to hear within the mantra what is written reverses the order of origination. The textual presentation of so-ham is an attempt to capture a sound: we should be aware of the irony of looking for the sound in its representation. Sound and text are like bird and cage. To see and hear the bird means seeing and hearing through the cage, or perhaps even opening it altogether. Really opening the cage of mantra would involve committing the sounds to memory (or realizing they are already there, if we take breath and so-ham as intrinsic), and then erasing any textual visualization that might arise while repeating them. In a way, the śruti of the sound of so-ham becomes smṛti as soon as it is written down and therefore committed to time and the endless interpretations spinning out from textuality.

As the sound (śruti) of so-ham elides into the text (smṛti) of so-ham, the syllables become separable, and present hardening memes that readers can begin to categorize in terms of Sanskritic roots, which are then reassembled into declarative meanings, and finally the sentence “I am That.” So becomes “suchness”, thatness”, “just-so-ness”. Ham is recognized as the contraction of aham – “I am” which appears in several key terms, including ahaṃkāra: “the maker of I-am-ness”.

As the mantra is repeated countless times, it begins to mesmerize cognition: the immediacy of śruti seems to disrupt the hardness of the smṛti meaning, even reversing the order of the syllables, as one might do when fatigued, or in pillow talk before bed. We can hear the breath endlessly oscillate between so and ham, but which is counted first – the inhale or the exhale? What constitutes a full round of breath? Inhale to exhale, or exhale through to the inhale? Meditation traditions disagree. Some suggest that a full round of breath should end in the downward release of the exhale, while others suggest that it should end with the upward thrust of the inhale. But beyond this disagreement, the playful ambivalence of the mind easily transforms so-ham into ham-so, or sa-ham to ham-sa. Hamsa, of course, does not mean “I am That”. It’s the Sanskrit word for “swan”. For centuries after the īśa upaniṣad emerges, the mythos of the swan develops: as the mount of Saraswatī (the goddess of language), as a symbol of detachment insofar as it seems to be able to swim without becoming wet, and as a paragon of discrimination, said to be able to sip the milk alone out of a mixture of milk and water, leaving the clear water behind. Through the slightly tipsy reversal of two syllables, the immediate śruti declaration elides into the elliptical smṛti metaphor.

When I was taught so-ham, it connected me to the sensation of my breath like nothing before. Its śruti technology seemed to plunge me into the presence of being alive and interdependent. But as I would recite it I would get bored, as one does, and my mind would wander to the teaching on hamsa I’d heard. And suddenly I’m with the swans, remembering swans on Grenadier Pond in High Park, the boats shaped like swans I rode in with my grandmother at the Center Island theme park, Yeats’ “Leda and the Swan” (A sudden blow: the great wings beating still…), and of course Leonard Cohen, who opens “Traitor” with Now the Swan floated on the English river, and goes on to sing Should rumour of a shabby ending reach you / It was half my fault and half the atmosphere. Every so often, as I sing along with the tangents of my language and memory, my smṛti, I catch the sound of my breath, the so-ham hidden behind the swan and the spinning mind, and a moment of radiant openness ensues.


  • Ahhh. So lovely. I save each section, go off and do this or that, and come back. Read some more. Save some more, read some more.

    Hear the chant like my teacher is chanting it, like my teacher’s teacher chanted it. On back and on -and on back and on -and back.

    Perhaps you are presently my teacher, sir. And thank you for all these words and what they evoke and recall, and evoke. And the peace of the pieces, laid out, and heard and felt, too.

    I recall my own little self. Maybe 3. Maybe 4. At the place outside, where the cement walkway and the dirt of the flower garden met.
    Me, wobbly.
    My mum, kneeling with me, holding my hand.
    — Ma’s other hand holding a blue globe of a flower and chanting to me: Blue Bell.

    My mind opened.

    This sphere was blue, dusky blue, and it was shaped like a bell. It rang in me, this knowledge, this connection of concepts and their objects, growing in the world, next to and adjacent with the ‘concrete’.

    This is when my dimple deepened. –When the bubbles of the champagne rushed to the top, releasing a strange yet familiar yeast-i-ness… to my sense/s of the oral-text-ural.

    Maaaa Ahhh Hummmmmm.

  • It’s a luminous essay, going to the heart of what I love about yoga. That is, the re-discovery of what feels like essential experience. Thoughts fall away and sound remains – the sound of the muscles, blood, and breath.

    These paragraphs resonate with sruti Matthew, and so does the lyrical comment above. Thanks to both of you.

  • Oh, feedback. I suggest you give more thought to coming up with titles that will draw browsers on the fence into the article instead of clever but obscure titles like this one that leave many, myself included, scratching their heads!

    Bob W.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.