Silent Sounds

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On a visit to schools for the deaf, Hare Krishna devotees find more evidence that bhakti-yoga is for everyone.


It’s easy to imagine being blind. A simple close of the eyelids in a somewhat dark place or a walk through an unlit room at night, and we can empathize with those who cannot see. Making oneself temporarily deaf, however, is almost impossible. First of all, it's hard to completely seal the entrance to the ears. Putting our hands over our ears or using earplugs blocks only a portion of the sound. Secondly, much sound is transmitted through the bones of our skull, bypassing the ear. A hearing person’s empathy with the deaf is, therefore, limited.

My interest in the deaf world was perhaps different from that of most hearing people. The basis of bhakti-yoga as taught in the Hare Krishna movement is to hear and chant the Lord’s name and glories. How could the deaf and mute do either? One day I got to discover the answers and to explore that silent world. I visited four schools for the deaf in Indore, India, to teach the children about Lord Krishna.

“Is this the right train? Which car?”

The four of us walked through the train and finally reached a non-sleeper car and took out our breakfast. The city of Ujjain, which we were leaving, quickly zoomed past the windows.

The other residents of the car stared at us. We were the only ones wearing dhotis and saris and displaying clay tilaka marks on our forehead, indicating that we are devotees of Krishna. Three of us also had fair skin, which usually draws some stares in India. But it was not our outward appearance that was most unusual. It was the way we were communicating—in silence.

The gestures that normally complement speech had become the entire medium. One member of our group, Dayal Gauranga Dasa, has been profoundly deaf since his birth in an Indian family in the United Kingdom. Prema Pradipa Dasa, from Spain, was there as his interpreter. Keshava Bharati Dasa and I were accompanying them. We were traveling to the schools as guest “speakers.” What form would our teaching about bhakti take with the deaf children we were about to visit?

Dayal Gauranga and Prema Pradipa had recently become initiated disciples of Bhakti Caru Swami. They have been bringing spiritual life to deaf people in England for many years (see Back to Godhead 28/2, 1994, Project Profile). I tried, with a little success, to communicate directly with Dayal Gauranga, and I often had to enlist Prema Pradipa’s help.

The Plight of India's Deaf

After about two hours of travel, Gyanendra Puroit, the head of one school, picked us up at the train station. He explained that India has the second-largest deaf community in the world, but few receive training in sign language or are given a chance to earn a livelihood. In fact, only about ten percent of the Indian deaf receive any specialized education at all. His was one of a few schools that teach children and adolescents the skills they need for the world. Gyanendra Puroit wanted our help in giving them a rich spiritual life as well.

Mostly boys filled the room. Their attractive appearance, bright eyes, and intensely eager expressions caught my attention. Many of these students had to live at the school. I was the first to speak, with the principal translating my words into sign language.

As I often travel in countries where English is not the native language, I am accustomed to giving translated lectures and presentations. Some translations are simultaneous, which requires great skill on the translator’s part. Usually translators prefer to work with phrases or very short sentences, where the speaker says a little and then they translate. To teach in such circumstances one has to keep track of one’s thoughts while frequently pausing and breaking up ideas into little “bits.” When classes have to be translated, I try to arrange the room so that people can see the body language of both the translator and me, since body language makes up about seventy percent of communication. Naturally, these students couldn’t hear my tone of voice, which is about twenty-three percent of how we understand each another’s meaning. But at least, I thought, let them see my facial expressions and gestures. Thinking in this way, I sat very close to the translator.

Fixed on the Translator

I was in for a surprise. How little I had carefully thought about the world of the deaf! All their attention had to focus on the translator because they had to read his signs, which looked to me like a blur of motion. Not for a moment could they divert even the smallest percentage of their concentration to me.

I spoke about how we are not this body. Each of us is a soul who has our original spiritual body with spiritual senses. Our bodily covering restricts our natural ability to see, hear, and so forth. In the human body, however, the soul has the special facility of awakening the true spiritual nature, just as eagles have special abilities to see, and dogs extraordinary smell. Although the deaf’s practice of bhakti-yoga would be tailored to their bodily restrictions, I explained, Krishna is independent and can fully reveal Himself to anyone who approaches Him with love, regardless of their bodily situation. I kept thinking how exhilarating it must be for these young people even to theoretically understand that their real identity has nothing to do with their temporary body.

Next, I described how wonderful Lord Krishna is—His opulences, nature, and activities. And I explained how to link ourselves with Krishna through bhakti, the yoga of love and devotion. Thinking that chanting the Lord’s name would be too difficult for them, I concentrated my presentation on some of the other aspects of bhakti, especially remembering the Lord, worshiping Him, and serving Him.

The students practically jumped up to ask questions, signing so rapidly they seemed to explode with eagerness.

“Please tell us stories about Krishna!” they asked again and again.

I told story after story, and their joy brightened the room. Some asked detailed philosophical questions. I was impressed with their broad intelligence and their thirst for spiritual knowledge.

A Comrade "Speaks"

Finally Dayal Gauranga “spoke.” Although vastly different forms of sign language are used in different countries, he has mastered several of them and knows universal forms he can use in many places. Sometimes the principal had to assist him with the particulars of the Indian system, but mostly he could sign to the students directly.

How happy they were! Here was one of their own, someone who understood them and who has seriously and joyfully taken up a spiritual practice normally based mostly on sound. As Dayal Gauranga signed his presentation, Prema Pradipa translated the signs into spoken English for Keshava Bharati and me. We lived as much outside their visual exchange as they lived outside our verbal one.

Then another surprise: Dayal Gauranga had them rise at the end and chant the Hare Krishna mantra with him. Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare/ Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare. He did this by having a specific sign for each of the three words: Hare, Krishna, and Rama. Over and over again all “chanted” the mantra with their hands and eyes. Usually such group chanting, kirtana, is a loud yet sweet mixing of voices and instruments connecting with the Supreme Lord as He manifests through sound. But in this kirtana, there were no drums, no cymbals, and no melodious harmonium. In fact, there was no sound at all. Yet the Lord, present in His name, was palatably there in that assembly.

We next spent time at three other schools, two of which had children with more severe difficulties than the first. One school catered to the very poor, and another to a mix of deaf and blind children. Our guide told me how much the fourteen million deaf in India value picture books and how his students long to read such books, in English, about how wonderful Lord Krishna is.

Deaf Chanting

On the train back to Ujjain, I asked Dayal Gauranga to explain how he chants the Hare Krishna mantra for his vow as a disciple. When ISKCON members become disciples of a guru, they promise to abstain from illicit sex, intoxication, gambling, and meat-eating. They also vow chant the Hare Krishna mantra on each of 108 beads, going around the beads at least sixteen times a day.

Dayal Gauranga has four methods of chanting, and he alternates between them to keep his mind focused. The first is that he visualizes the hand gestures for each word of the mantra. The second is that he visualizes the printed words of the mantra. Third is visualizing the form of the Lord as the worshipable deity. “Hare” is Radharani, and “Krishna” and “Rama” are Krishna. His fourth method is to form the words with his mouth and focus on the feel of his mouth for each word.

When I tried his methods, I found myself automatically also verbalizing the sounds of the mantra, either out loud or in my mind. It was very difficult to only meditate on the visual or the feeling without the sound. It was also very slow.

“At first,” Dayal Gauranga signed, “it took me at least a half hour to finish one round of 108 beads.”

Hearing persons usually take between five and seven minutes to do the same.

“After many years, with increased practice and concentration, I was able to reduce the time to twenty minutes for a round. Several years later, I got it to fifteen minutes, which is how long it takes me now.” Because of his uncommon situation, his vow is for a minimum of four rounds a day, though he keeps trying to chant more.

Hearing people might feel that these methods of mantra meditation are, in a technical sense, not really chanting and hearing. But surely Krishna, who understands all languages and can hear with any of His senses, accepts service sincerely offered according to one’s capacity. In addition, Prabhupada tells us that the mantra depicted in letters is also Krishna. Finally, one can observe practically that deaf persons who take up such chanting are becoming purified and spiritually enlivened.

We might often feel that, while we want spiritual life, the practices are too arduous. Yet here was someone who had reason for excuses but made none. His face shone with the happiness of his dedication to his desire to help deaf people find deep spiritual satisfaction. He is fortunate to have the love of his brother, sister-in-law, and nephew, all gentle and dedicated devotees of Krishna. He also has support from the Hare Krishna temple outside London, Bhaktivedanta Manor.

Generally, though, few hearing people know of the profound desire many of the deaf have for answers to life’s problems on the spiritual level. As Krishna has shown me countless times in various ways, it is often the people who seem to have less than I who actually possess much more.
A computer program that can help the deaf or hearing impaired with chanting is available here: http://www.dasya.com/%7Embest/freeware/misc.html.

About the Author: 

Urmila Devi Dasi

Urmila Devi Dasi (Dr. Edith Best) joined ISKCON in 1973 in Chicago. She received first initiation in 1973 and second initiation in 1975 from His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada. In 1996, Urmila and her husband, Pratyatosa, entered the renounced order of vanaprastha. They have three grown married children and fourteen grandchildren.