Watering the Seeds of Consciousness through Sound : Logos, Shabd, and the Implications for Natural Law

Sunil Rao

Heraclitus, ‘the weeping philosopher’, by Johannes Moreelse (PD-US).

The human inclination to search for timeless and transcendent truths, and transform them into laws that promote justice, is deeply rooted in our collective consciousness. It also lies at the heart of classical natural law theory, which has its roots in ancient Greek philosophy and Christian theology.

Much of classical natural law can be traced back to the notion of Logos in ancient Greek philosophy. Logos refers to a universal and eternal rational principle that serves as both the creative force and the very essence of creation. Moreover, Logos is deeply embedded within human consciousness; humans, by virtue of their capacity to reason, can understand the structures underlying the cosmos. Thus, Logos is not only a cosmic principle but also an integral part of human cognition and understanding.

In ancient Indian thought, we encounter a concept akin to Logos — the Nada or the Shabd — that signifies both the underlying force behind creation and its integration with human consciousness. The Nada/Shabd1The scholar David Lane notes that Nada and Shabd, two Sanskrit terms referring to sound/speech, are for the most part interchangeable in the context of the mystical practices of Nada Yoga and Shabd Yoga. Nada Yoga as a term appears more prominently before the nineteenth century, while Shabd Yoga gains more prominence towards the end of the nineteenth century, beginning with the emergence of the mystic Shiv Dayal Singh., however, is a vibratory power that transcends reason and logic. It can be listened to and harmonized with. It is also equated with the force of love itself.

A number of scholars and mystics (e.g. David Lane, Ishwar Chandra Puri, and Kirpal Singh, among many others) have drawn parallels between Logos and Nada/Shabd. Nonetheless, while much has been said about the impact of Logos on law and justice, there has been little if any scholarship exploring the impact of Nada/Shabd on our systems of law. As noted above, both the Greek Logos and the Indian Nada/Shabd are universal and eternal principles, but the former is associated with reason, while the latter is associated with a transcendent love capable of bending human reason by its force. This essay will propose that Nada/Shabd — the inner sound of consciousness — presents a vital alternative and complementary understanding of Logos. Moreover, it is a potent and dynamic source for transforming human consciousness, and more indirectly, our systems of justice. As the Nada/Shabd Yoga adepts imply, if we can surrender to the pull of the sound of our own consciousness, we can become powerful instruments for a truly just and compassionate world.

A Brief History of Logos 

No discussion of the connection between Logos and natural law would be complete without mentioning Thomas Aquinas, the thirteenth-century philosopher and theologian. Aquinas played a pivotal role in establishing divine reason as the basis of the cosmos, and as a central component of natural law theory. He held that the world is created by a good and knowable God, and like the ancient Greeks, that the ordered, rational and intelligible nature of reality — Logos — is mirrored in human nature.

But Logos made its arrival in ancient Greece long before that, appearing on this historical scene with the Presocratics in the sixth and fifth centuries B.C.E, and is commonly associated with Heraclitus. “All human laws,” Heraclitus wrote, “are fed by one divine law.” Logos was the wellspring of that “divine law.” It represented not only the structure of creation, but also the human capacity to understand it.

In the ensuing centuries, Heraclitus’ link between Logos, reason and law was affirmed, expanded, and deepened by the Stoic philosophers. The Stoics emphasized the presence of Logos in all things; it was the source of all creativity, activity, and rationality in an ordered and coherent universe, and was intelligible to human beings. 

Logos as Sound in Ancient Greek Thought

While modern scholars primarily associate Logos with reason, it encompassed various meanings in ancient Greek and Christian thought. The philosopher Raymond Tallis highlights the fluidity of Logos, which shifts between interpretations such as “the universe,” God, the “divine thought,” and the power of creation itself.

Of particular note in the way Logos moves between meanings is Tallis’ observation that within numerous philosophical and sacred traditions, Logos, or concepts akin to it, have been associated with sound. Pythagoras, the sixth century B.C.E. Greek mathematician and philosopher, held that celestial bodies made music, which, when listened to, could induce harmony in the human spirit. The first century B.C.E. Jewish philosopher Philo of Alexandria held that Logos was a rational principle that governed the universe, and the means through which God engages with the world. But he also saw it as a transformative cosmic force that could be listened to:

 Heaven is ever making Music, producing in accordance with its celestial motions the 

             Perfect Harmony… To such strains, it is said, Moses was listening, when, having become       disembodied, for forty days and as many nights he touched neither bread nor water at all.

The opening sentence of the Gospel of John, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God,” holds profound significance in both Christian theology and the mystical traditions of ancient India. This Biblical passage introduces the Greek concept of Logos as the creative and revealing principle of God. Early Christian Theologians quickly embraced this concept and associated it with Jesus Christ as the divine Word made flesh. Christ was the living embodiment of the eternal Logos — the creative and ordering force of the universe — incarnating in human form to redeem and guide human beings.

Interestingly, in the Indian mystic tradition of Shabd Yoga (discussed below), the Living Master, who teaches the disciple to connect with the inner sound of their own consciousness, has also been described as the “Word made Flesh,” the living embodiment of the Shabd. In this essay, however, our focus lies in the understanding that certain ancient Indian mystics ascribed a distinct significance to John’s Logos/Word as the primordial sound and creative power behind all existence.

Nada and Shabd — The Creative Power as Sound in Ancient Indian Thought

In the Vedic tradition, including the Rig Veda and some of the principal Upanishads, sound (known as Vak in Sanskrit) is regarded as the fundamental creative force that “sings” the universe into existence. These ancient scriptures hold that the primordial power manifesting as sound within our everyday physical existence can be perceived within our own consciousness during deep meditation, leading eventually to self-realization. The meditative technique to access this sound has come to be known as Nada Yoga or Shabd Yoga.

The Mandukya Upanishad, for example, encourages the practitioner to meditate on Om, the sound of ultimate reality. The Nada Bindu Upanishad gives a detailed description of the practice of Nada Yoga, instructing the yogi to listen to progressively more and more subtle inner sounds with the “inner ears.”

Emphasis on the practice of the inner sound current can also be found in the Sufi traditions within Islam, in the Sant traditions of fifteenth to seventeenth century India, in the teachings of the Sikh gurus as recorded in the Sri Guru Granth Sahib, and, perhaps most explicitly, in the Indian metaphysical tradition known as Shabd Yoga.

Shabd Yoga gained prominence with the emergence of the nineteenth century mystic, Shiv Dayal Singh (1818-1878). Since the late nineteenth century, there have been numerous teachers and mystics in this tradition that have directed practitioners to discover the secrets of their own consciousness by listening attentively to the subtle inner sounds.

The late Ishwar Chandra Puri (1926-2020), who was based in Chicago, IL, was a prominent figure within the tradition of Shiv Dayal Singh and one of the notable contemporary exponents of Shabd Yoga. In his book Anatomy of Consciousness, and in his numerous discourses and other writings, Puri draws a direct parallel between Shabd and Logos/Word, recognizing Shabd as the very Logos which the Ancient Greeks described as the ultimate creative and organizing force behind creation. Moreover, says Puri, “Word” is the most appropriate term for this ineffable power; it cannot be fully elucidated, nor can it be accessed through reason or discursive thought. But, like the Nada or the Shabd of the Vedas, it can be listened to. 

Indeed, says Puri, listening is the most fundamental aspect of our inner experience, and Shabd/Logos is the very resonance of our conscious self:

This sound originating from the total self, the ultimate creator of our conscious experience, manifests itself as an individuated soul! This sound is the form of our own consciousness … If I were to tell you that it is because we can “listen” to the “sound” of our own consciousness that we are able to have any experience, you will be very surprised. But it is the truth! All our perceptions: seeing, tasting, touching, and so on, are possible because we “listen” to this sound of our own consciousness. All these perceptions give us an experience because we can “listen.”

Over time, listening to and harmonizing with the inner conscious sound enhances our capacity to access the intuitive dimension of our awareness. This allows us to place the rational mind in its rightful place — as a tool that works at the behest of our consciousness, and not as the driver.

Ultimately, the practice of tuning into the sound of consciousness answers the age-old question of philosophers — Who am I? But along the way, says Puri, this greater use of the intuitive faculty of our own consciousness leads to greater understanding, less conflict and less violence in society.

Puri points out that Shabd Yoga is not a religion, nor is its purpose to form new religions or institutions or to alter existing ones. The teachings of Shabd yoga mystics, he says, “pertain only to the soul or spirit … They touch social and moral spheres only in so far as they can help or retard our progress on the inner transcendent planes.”

Nada/Shabd and Natural Law

If the practice of contemplating the transcendent Logos has secondary influence on the “social and moral spheres,” as Puri says, the question arises: what significance does Nada/Shabd Yoga hold for Natural law?

In his essay that explores the relationship between justice and mysticism, the scholar Ian Baxter observes that classical natural law traditions — which hold that transcendent principles are discoverable and translatable into human laws — are inconsistent with mystic traditions: “[to] the mystic,” says Baxter, “natural law is inscrutable in that it cannot be defined or explained.” He also notes that contemplative practices from mystic traditions have no direct bearing on how we make laws or how we resolve disputes.

Yet it would be unwise to disregard the potential transformative effects on consciousness of such practices. “Communities are not machines,” Baxter notes. “The ‘fair’ and the ‘just’ [are] concerned with the right functioning of human beings.” Moreover, it is human beings that make and evaluate laws, and judges and lawmakers cannot help but reflect their emotional and psychological makeup, educational and cultural background, etc. 

And so, it is in the shaping of human consciousness, through the exploration of modes of knowledge that surpass rational understanding, that Baxter sees the nexus between mysticism the intricate dynamics of justice and law making: “Mysticism and justice approach each other in the sense that they are both associated with the fundamental structure of the human personality, and with the problem of what life is and how should it be lived.”

The consistent message of mystics across time has been that our partial and fragmentary perception of reality stems from an incomplete understanding of the vast potential of our own consciousness. To establish a truly just world grounded in a genuinely “natural” law, it may behoove us to embrace and cultivate the inner impulse that leads us to explore deeper layers of consciousness beyond rationality, emotions, and psychology.

The adepts of Nada and Shabd yoga tell us that, after finding a teacher or guide, one can learn to listen to the sound of one’s own consciousness, thereby becoming receptive to a transrational pull of love. What results is an awakening that does not eliminate reason but puts it at the service of a profound and ineffable conscious experience that permeates every aspect of life — inner and outer, spiritual and secular. One might then say that the human capacity for reason becomes better shaped to reflect truth.

There are, of course, numerous mystical and contemplative practices across various traditions that can potentially transform consciousness. This essay has focused on Nada/Shabd Yoga in particular because of its integral connection, as explored by mystics such as Ishwar Chandra Puri, with the concept of Logos. Modern scholarship on classical natural law theory primarily emphasizes the rational dimension of Logos. The Nada and Shabd Yoga traditions, however, offer the inner sound of our own consciousness an alternative or complimentary meaning to the traditional understanding of Logos. This has the potential to influence and enrich the development of natural law theory.

If the assertions of scholars and mystics such as Ishwar Puri and Ian Baxter hold true, and if enough of those entrusted with administering justice in our society engage in transformative practices such as listening to the sound of their own consciousness, a remarkable outcome is possible: the illumination of both the anatomy of our own consciousness and of the fundamental and natural laws that govern the universe. A wonderful potential consequence of this would be the evolution of world structures for the better.♦

Sunil Rao, J.D., M.F.A., M.L.S., is the Foreign and International Law Librarian at the UW-Madison Law Library. He has an abiding interest in research on the intersection of law, religion and mysticism.

Recommended Citation

Rao, Sunil. “Watering the Seeds of Consciousness through Sound: Logos, Shabd, and the Implications for Natural Law.” Canopy Forum, August 17, 2023. https://canopyforum.org/2023/08/17/watering-the-seeds-of-consciousness-through-sound-logos-shabd-and-the-implications-for-natural-law/.