What is a chalisa and what is its importance?
Chalisa is a collection of forty chaupaies in local language.They are primarily meant for common people who are devoted to God but are not able to recite or understand the meanings of the sanskrit hymns.
The first of these different chalishas was composed by Sri Tulsidasji.He compiled the now very famous 'Hanuman Chalisa'.According to the writer Sri Milan Kumar Gangopadhyay, the reason behind choosing the number of slokas as forty are
There is a Veda-mantra : 'iyam samvaram parvateshu kshiyantam chatvarikshAm sahatah/anvavindata aujamAnAn authim jaghAnam dhanushayam sajjanAh sa indrah', meaning that the monster named Samvar resided in a high cave surrounded by mountains. His torture on the sages was severe. Lord Indra killed him by throwing an arrow after a sruggle of FORTY days.So Tulsidasji took forty as a auspicious number.
Tulsidasji understood that the people in the age of kali will not have enough time to read lengthy hymns and so He limited it to forty lines.
The hymns are to purify our four aspects: manas, vuddhi, chitta and ahamkara.Each of these have ten aspects and so the total is forty.
Why do we read it, what does it symbolize and why so many chalisas?
Seeing the popularity of the Hanuman Chalisa, different chalishas were composed later by different devotees.We read it to praise the form of God we like. Tulsidasji has provided the 'falashruti' of reading the Hanuman Chalisha and later such falasrutis have been provided by all the writers of different chalishas.
As mentioned, different devotess like different forms and all are not able to recite or understand the meanings of the sanskrit hymns,So the Chalisas became popular. In the bhakti tradition, remembering and praising and praying to God is seen as extremely fruitful in gaining His or Her grace. As the Narada-Pancharatra reads
Murkho vadati vishnaya dhiro vadati vishnave/samam mulyam yubhoyotsu bhavagrAhi janardanah, meaning the illiterate says 'vishnaya' and the learned says 'vishnave'.To God both are the same as He accepts the Devotion.
The introduction to 'Stavananjali' published by Nagpur Ramakrishna Math mentions tye importance of chantings of praises/stotras with proper understanding :
stotras are part of vachik (vocal) puja (worship) called 'Bangmoyee puja' and should be chanted with correct chhanda and pronunciation and audible clear voice, understanding the meanings of the stotras and contemplating on the 'bhava' (page 4-5).
Reference: 1. The issue of Sri Hanuman Chalisa by Saptahik Bartaman, 8 December 2018.
- Vishad Byakhya saha Hanuman Chalia, Milan kumar Gangopadhyay, Girija library