“His words - which were succinct, beyond all suspicion, pleasant, and delivered in a mild tone - flowed easily from his throat and chest.” (Lord Rama speaking to Lakshmana about Hanuman, Valmiki Ramayana, Kishkindha Kand, 3.31)
Many a phrase have been coined from the works of the famous playwright Williams Shakespeare. The proverb, “brevity is the soul of wit”, is one such phrase which is invoked quite often today in common parlance as a way to teach others how to communicate effectively. A statement is considered witty, or intelligent, if it is clever and conveys a deeper meaning than what it appears to. One of the key elements to wit is brevity. If we have to use many words to get our point across, the wit and charm of our central point will be lost. For example, when telling a joke, it’s usually a good idea to make the narrative short, with the punch line being reached fairly quickly. If one has to tell a lengthy story in order to make a joke, it is likely that the audience will lose interest by the end. Wit not only applies to the area of humor, but it also plays a central role in public speaking. There are several key ingredients to a good speech, and by studying these components, we can also gain a better understanding of what makes a good prayer to the Supreme Lord.
What is the purpose of a speech? Unlike the written word, public speeches involve the hearing process. The Vedas, the ancient scriptures of India, were originally known as the shrutis, or that which is heard. Vedic information was first passed down through an aural tradition, with the written word not being required since most people could remember what they heard. Not only could they remember everything, but they could take in and process information very quickly. While mankind’s mental abilities have diminished through the course of time, it is still undoubtedly true that the hearing process is the best way to take in information.
The practice of proofreading can help us better understand this fact. Writing is not an easy task; it requires great time and effort, with multiple people editing and rereading passages to make sure that they make sense. While reading, a person is essentially narrating written words to themselves in their mind. The narration takes place through visual contact; the eyes looking at certain words and then processing them. Yet the eyes aren’t perfect. Moreover, one might take to reading at a rapid pace and still miss many grammatical errors. This is actually the secret behind the technique known as speed-reading. Speed-reading allows a person to read pages and pages of literature in a very short amount of time. The secret to reading something very quickly is to purposefully only recognize certain words and patterns on a page versus actually narrating every single word inside the head.
In this way, we see that reading at a rapid pace requires a person to purposefully gloss over much of the written text. While speed-reading may be a good way to save time when taking in information, it doesn’t prove to be helpful when proofreading. Moreover, the human eye is so accustomed to seeing words formatted in a particular way that if one or two letters are transposed here and there, an editor may not even notice. A word can be spelled incorrectly, but since it looks close enough to the correct spelling, our eyes will take it to be the correct word. While this behavior may be beneficial when reading text that contains misspelled words, it can also bring some negative side effects. For example, we may read a word completely incorrectly and thus derive a totally different meaning from a sentence. One small word such as “not” or “is” can completely change the meaning and tone of a particular passage.
With the hearing process, these defects are absent. Even if we aren’t paying attention to someone’s speech, if they forget a word or say something incorrectly, we will notice right away. It is for this reason that public speakers try their best to maintain a continuous flow of speech, avoiding stuttering and stammering. Hearing is such a great way of picking up mistakes that many people, including our humble self, use text-to-speech technology to proofread their written words.
Since hearing is such an effective method of information transfer, public policy makers, advocates, and teachers often take to giving lectures and speeches in public. As learned from Shakespeare, brevity is the soul of wit. The least amount of words we can use to get our point across the better. Public speaking involves an audience that sits attentively and listens. If the speaker goes on and on about nothing, it is understandable that the audience would lose their attention. In lieu of listening to the speaker, the audience members may take to sending text messages or checking the latest sports scores on their mobile phones. Along with brevity, there are also tone and rhythm to consider. We may have the nicest sounding speech on paper, but if we deliver it using a hostile tone, people will take away the wrong message. The same principle applies to rhythm. If the words aren’t delivered with the proper timing, the receivers may not pay attention to the special points in the speech.
These facts relating to reading, speaking, and hearing can help us with the most difficult task in life. According to the Vedas, there is only one God. People from one part of the world may refer to Him by one name, while another group may call Him something else, but there is still only one God. In the Vedic tradition, God is given thousands of names, each of which applies to a specific feature exhibited by the Lord. These names also reference various pastimes and activities performed by the Lord during ages past. The Vedas tell us that God’s original name is Krishna, one who is all-attractive. Since God is the most attractive person, it would make sense that the words used to describe Him would also be considered the most attractive. Therefore, one of God’s innumerable names is Uttamashloka.
“Shrimati Kunti Devi has prayed to the Lord just to enunciate a fragment of His glories. All His devotees worship Him in that way, by chosen words, and therefore the Lord is known as Uttamashloka. No amount of chosen words is sufficient to enumerate the Lord's glory, and yet He is satisfied by such prayers as the father is satisfied even by the broken linguistic attempts of the growing child.” (Shrila Prabhupada, Shrimad Bhagavatam, 1.8.44 Purport)
A shloka is a verse or a hymn of praise. The word uttama is actually a compound word made up of “ut” and “tama”. “Ut” means above or transcending and “tama” refers to darkness. Thus uttama means above darkness or ignorance, i.e. the best. When we put the two terms together, we see that God is referred to as the best verse. This shows just how great Krishna is. The best words, put into the most beautiful verses, are non-different from the Lord. This is yet another feature of Krishna’s which points to Him being the Supreme Absolute Truth. Being Absolute, there is no difference between God and His names, forms, and pastimes. As such, there is also no difference between God and the beautiful words which are used to describe Him.
Who composes these wonderful verses, or uttama-shlokas? Only those who are of the highest class, exalted individuals who transcend the darkness of ignorance, can carefully assembly the proper set of words to praise the only entity truly deserving of it. One such exalted individual is Shri Hanuman, the eternal servant of Lord Rama, an incarnation of God. Though Hanuman is forever devoted to Lord Rama, the two did have a very famous initial meeting, the accounts of which are nicely described in the Ramayana written by Maharishi Valmiki. If we were to meet God, what would we say to Him? Would we be able to speak? How would we accurately convey our love for Him? Hanuman was blessed with this wonderful opportunity, and he was more than up to the challenge.
Lord Rama roamed this earth many thousands of years ago during the Treta Yuga. According to Vedic information, the universe constantly goes through cycles of creation and destruction, so Lord Rama appears and enacts pastimes on this earth whenever and wherever it is manifest. For this reason, the accounts of His life somewhat vary depending on which Vedic text you read. This doesn’t mean that the information is contradictory, but rather, the variety speaks to the fact that God’s appearances are always taking place, both in this universe and in others.
As part of His pastimes, the Lord roamed the forests of India for fourteen years. On one unfortunate day, Rama’s beautiful wife Sita Devi was taken away from Him by a demon named Ravana. Rama, being God Himself, could most certainly protect Sita, but the demon created a ruse which lured Rama and His younger brother Lakshmana away from Sita’s side. Finding Sita gone, the two brothers went looking for her, eventually making their way to the Kishkindha forest. At the time, the monkey-king Sugriva was living there along with his counselors and associates. Seeing Rama and Lakshmana approaching, Sugriva asked Hanuman, his chief warrior, to see what they wanted. Hanuman kindly obliged and appeared in front of Rama and Lakshmana in the guise of a mendicant.
Though Hanuman was tasked with finding out Rama’s intentions, he couldn’t help but praise the Lord. God is often referred to as maha-tejah, meaning one who has a wonderful effulgence. Simply by seeing this natural glow and beauty, devotees become enamored. Hanuman immediately took to praising both Rama and Lakshmana by reciting the most eloquent of Sanskrit verses. His shlokas were certainly the topmost, and Rama was very pleased with them. In the above referenced statement, Rama is reacting to Hanuman’s speech by describing its finer points to Lakshmana.
From Rama’s description, we see that Hanuman’s speech was flawless in tone, delivery, and use of words. Rama's description uses negations to convey the flawless nature of Hanuman’s words. The Lord tells Lakshmana that Hanuman's words had no verbosity, and no doubt or suspicion. The words were delivered without any delay, and they did not cause any pain to the listener. From these observations, we see that Hanuman didn’t throw in any unnecessary words. Usually those who aren’t confident about what they are speaking on, or those who are willfully trying to deceive their audience, will use extra words or talk in platitudes. Politicians are famous for this. They’ll come up with vacuous statements such as “We need change”, “I’m a uniter, not a divider”, and “We need to work together”. These statements are designed to essentially cheat the audience into feeling a false sense of optimism and to divert their attention away from the lack of intelligence possessed by the speaker.
Hanuman’s speech didn’t suffer from any of these defects. His words were heartfelt. Hanuman even lost himself in his words, going on and on with his praises until he finally had to reveal his intentions to Rama. Sugriva’s trusted minister was charged with finding out what Rama wanted, just in case the Lord had come to battle Sugriva. Yet Hanuman ended up being the first to blink, being overwhelmed by the Lord’s sweetness and luster. A devotee has nothing to hide from the Lord; they feel completely at ease. This was how Hanuman behaved towards Rama, and the Lord was delighted to see such sincerity. Rama essentially told Lakshmana that Hanuman was a friend and not someone they should be worried about. Hanuman’s words were genuine and delivered with the perfect rhythm. Sometimes if we are unsure of what we are saying or if we’re worried about offending others, we’ll take extra time to find just the right words to say. Hanuman didn’t require such hesitation since he was composing uttama-shlokas on the fly. Since he was praising God, he simply had to tap into the feelings that were already resting in his heart. In this way, there was no stuttering or delay for want of a cogent thought.
Following Hanuman’s example, we should also try to address the Lord with kind words which are free of duplicity and fault. While it’s impossible to reach the level of scholarship possessed by Hanuman, we can offer perfect praise to God by constantly reciting His favorite mantra, “Hare Krishna Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare, Hare Rama Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare”. The example set by Hanuman is that when one offers prayers to God, they should speak from the heart and not waste any words. Brevity is certainly the soul of wit, and when applied to spiritual discourses, what results are praiseworthy speeches that are free of verbosity.
Devotional service, or bhakti-yoga, is the highest religious discipline because it is free of any material defects. The path of devotional service is perfect because it has no hints of desire for fruitive rewards, removal of distresses, or yogic perfections. Just as desire for personal benefit is absent in the discipline of bhakti as a whole, the words we use to address God should also be free of contamination. We never know when the day will come when we’ll get to meet the Lord face to face. When that time comes, we’ll want to make sure that we can quickly come up with some nice words of praise which are heartfelt and to the point. By regular practice of the chanting of the maha-mantra, the most sacred of formulas, we’ll have the best set of prayers resting right on the tip of our tongue.