Stuti is a musical composition in praise of a particular form of the divine. Sometime it includes the prayer element, sometimes not. The nearest word for it is hymn. Of course for the compositions of the post vedic periods, the word hymn is rarely is used since hymn has an ancient connotation to it being associated with the composition of the ancient Greeks addressed to their pagan gods. The hymns in the vedas are addressed to the presiding deities of various elements of nature – Indra (rain), Varuna (water), Surya, Prithvi, Vayu, Agni etc. So were perhaps the Greek hymns.
Songs in praise of the divine are there in all religions whether the divinity is conceived with form or formless. The sanatana tradition, with its thirty three crore gods, obviously has to outdo others when it comes to the number of stutis. If we collect all the stutis in Sanskrit, the size may be bigger than Ramayana. And I am not including the vedic hymns in this.
This concept of so many gods often confuses those who come from a monotheistic background. In fact at the core, all these gods are said to be not different from one another. They are all said to be manifestations of one supreme power. As Lord Krishna says in Bhagavad Gita, whomsoever you worship, ultimately it comes to me. Each god is said to be a manifestation of the the supreme Brahman.
In the sanatana tradition God is the creator as well as the creation. The dance of Nataraja is often quoted by the mystics to indicate this phenomenon. The dancer is not separate from the dance. Same way God is not different from his creation. The whole creation is a play and display of consciousness and at the core God is formless.
There are sects where belief in a concept of god is not primary. In the path of yoga of Patanjali, god is a method to realize samadhi. The system of gods in the sanatana tradition is a very complex system. Since that may require a book length post to explain the intricacies I will set down a few salient feature which I hope anyone will be able to connect with and then realize the compassion of the ancients who conceived such gods with various qualities.
Just do this experiment. For ten minutes think about bad people or the bad qualities of people you know. Then observe what happens to you. Are you feeling light? Are you feeling better? Then think about a person who you think is good and think of his good qualities or talk to a friend about his good qualities. Then observe what is happening inside you.
Stutis basically highlight the good qualities of the divine. When you chant the stuti or listen to the chant of a stuti whether the divine is pleased or not, something positive happens inside you. Many of the stutis are basically auto suggestions and when you listen even with partial understanding it gives you a positive vibe. I am sure most of you must have experienced this. The ancient Rishis had insights into human psychology and incorporated certain practices into religious rituals so that a common man could also benefit from it without going to expensive therapists or reading tons of self help literature.
Sometimes even if you do not understand anything you get a positive feeling after listening to a stuti. The reason is that there are two layers of some stuti compositions. One is its meaning and the other is its sound. Some stutis have an underlying esoteric theme. I am not going into the details of this topic except mentioning that ‘Soundarya Lahari‘ falls in this category. In case you are interested you may explore further. Experts have written books exploring all aspects of Saundarya Lahari which is said to have been composed by Adi Shankaracharya. For our simple understanding it would suffice to know that if an instrumental music composition can trigger specific moods in us so can vocal compositions that we do not understand.
A stanza in Sanskrit is known as a sloka. The number of slokas in a Stuti may range from four to one hundred plus. Popular shorter versions are ‘panchakam‘ consisting of five slokas and ‘ashtakam‘ consisting of eight slokas. Stutis are also named after the number of names of the deity it enumerates, each name usually connoting a special quality of the divine. A dwadashanamavali has tweleve names while a sahasranamavalli has thousand names. Lalita Sahasranamavalli is very popular in South India and sometimes devotees gather in a group and sing in chorus. Vishnu Sahasranama is another popular sahasranamavalli. Almost every principal deity has a sahasranambvalli.
While some strotras have been composed independently, many are taken form the puranas. Since puranas themselves are about the glory of their associated divinity it is obvious that stutis would form part of puranas. Sometimes particular stutis are attributed to different characters of the epics even though these may not be part of those epics. Shiva Tandava Strotra is said to have been composed by Ravana. It is a beautiful composition and the metric system is simple but it arouses very powerful feelings. Anyone with a little practice can also chant it. It is very popular among Indian classical dancers. In fact Indian classical singers and dancers from all traditions use stutis extensively.
When it comes to singing or performing stutis, the religious barriers usually are non existent. Artists belonging to other religions do it without any hesitation. There are occasional backlashes though. But that has not deterred the artists.
Most of the stotras consist of simple metric arrangement. But some like the Shiva Mahimna Strotra have complex metric structures and is not easy to for every one chant. However, when sung by an expert, it gives such delight to the listener. It is a favourite stutis and I am giving a link to a favourite you tube video at the end.
You may remember sometimes waking up to a chant in a female voice assailing your ears from the loudspeakers of nearby temple, the refrain of the chant being – ‘utistha pundarikaksha trailokyam mangalam kuru‘. That is Carnatic Maestro MS Subbulakshmi singing Venkateswara Suprabhatam for you. Here the devotee gently prods the lord to wake up for the welfare of the whole universe. This can be taken as an auto suggestion to wake up the divinity with in us and to engage ourselves for the welfare of the society. According to sanatana tradition there is divinity in each of us. But it is dormant. All it needs is a little awakening.
This is the alphabet S post of Blogchatter AtoZ Challenge 2021. My theme this year is ‘The beauty of Sanskrit and Sanskrit texts’, where in I explore selected compositions in Sanskrit and also some unique aspects of Sanskrit language and texts. Join with me in my journey to understand India’s spiritual and intellectual heritage. All the posts of AtoZ Challenge 2021 can be accessed here.