Because we more and more are committed to being multicultural in our respect for and participation in the sacred in every tradition, we are using more music, songs, dances, images, and references to traditions, some of which may be unfamiliar to some of us.
Especially in chants, it is meaningful to have even a small sense of the deep spiritual meaning of some of the mantras.
The syllables or sounds in sacred chant cannot be translated literally for several reasons. The simplest is the familiar one: much is always “lost in translation.” What is lost in translation of sacred chant is its most important aspect: mystical or spiritual understanding.
1) There are stories, legends, traditions, beliefs, history, etc. behind every word or sound; these automatically amplify the word’s meaning to a native speaker in that tradition (think of the word “cross,” for example, or the phrase “protestant” to a Christian; think of the magnitude of the “backstory” these words carry).
2) In addition, many spiritual traditions hold that sounds themselves, even without language attached, have “vibrational” power. Certain chants, for example, are not taught or sung in the presence of those who are uninitiated into years of disciplined study and practice, because it is believed they could be “dangerous” to the chanter or to the atmosphere itself. (Think of the emotion aroused in some of us when we hear the sound, even without words, of the cry “Seig Heil!” or of the music of “We Shall Overcome.”)
In general, when chanting a chant from a sacred tradition, a sense of devotion to the “highest good” in whatever form that might take, is what is recommended.
Having given that disclaimer, here are a few general interpretations that may prove useful. These are my own interpretations, and I claim no authority for them, but offer them reverently.
Om refers to the idea that before there was a universe, there was a vibrationless void of pure existence, and out of this void came the vibration which started the universe, which is known as Om.
Namah or Namaha means “to bow before that which is great.”
Namah is often followed by the name of some particular aspect of divinity or the absolute, as, for example, in Hindu tradition, the “god” Shiva, we get the respectful chant: Om Namah Shiva.
Shri means honored or respected, usually before a name.
Jay, or Jaya means victory or victorious.
Put those two together with a name, like Ram, and you get the simple invocation or honoring chant Shri Ram, Jay Ram.
Shanti means peace, or peace be upon you or us or all.
Gate means gone (usually meaning to another energetic or conscious or psychic dimension).
Para means the opposite shore, so Paragate means gone to the further shore.
Sam means completely, thoroughly, so ParaSamGate means completely, thoroughly, altogether gone, gone to the further shore.
Bodhi is the light inside, enlightenment, or awakening.
Swaha or Soha, a salutation, means “Hail to you,” or “May blessings be upon you.” It is also a cry of joy or excitement, like “Welcome, you!” or “Hallelujah for you!”
(Put those together and you get a familiar chant: “Shanti! Gate, Gate, ParaSamGate, Bodhi, Swaha!” Meaning, roughly, “I or we or all of us here chanting, have gone or desire to go into a very deep state of peace and enlightenment, for which we give joyful gratitude to all that make that possible, without and within…etc.)
Sat – The formless
Chit – Consciousness of the universe
Ananda– Pure love, bliss and joy
Put those together for an invocation or salutation or prayer beyond words to the ultimate mystery: Sat Chit Ananda
Ham means roughly “the ultimate in the universe.”
Sooooo or Saaaa is the sound of inhalation, and the Ultimate is remembered in the mind along with that inhalation.
Hummmm is the sound of exhalation, and our own Ultimate essence is remembered in the mind along with that exhalation.
Hence “SoHam,” or “HamSa or “Hum” means identifying oneself with the universe or ultimate reality.