Have you heard yourself often say things such as "I'm feeling terrible" or "I'm on the top of the world today"? And noticed that you ended up actually feeling the same? Often, simply repeating phrases seem to have a subconscious effect on your mind. Hindus believe that words have power; not only for their meaning but also because of the sound they produce. It is only in India that the use of sound to achieve a desired end reached its peak, in the form of mantras.
The use of mantras originated in the Vedic period of India, and spread to countries such as China and Japan. A few other religions, including Buddhism, Sikhism, and Jainism also make use of mantras.
What is a Mantra?
Mantra refers to a simple word, phrase or sound that is chanted repeatedly to achieve desired material and spiritual goals. The word "mantra" originates from the Sanskrit "man" or mind and "tra" or instrument. Hence, the word mantra refers to "instrument of thought" though another interpretation is that it means "free of the mind".
Mantras are typically taken from sacred texts such as the Vedas, Upanishads, Bhagwad Gita, etc. Another common form of mantra uses a deity name after the phrase "Om Namah", as in Om Namah Shivaya.
Why are Mantras Used?
Mantras are believed to produce subtle vibrations that, with sufficient repetition and concentration, grow in strength. These powerful vibrations can help to influence the mind and aid the process of self-realisation.
The purposes of mantras may include:
- Achieving a single-minded focus
- Developing devotion to God
- Protecting oneself from misfortune
- Obtaining material gains
What do they mean?
Not all mantras have a literal meaning, and some are simply basic sounds that produce a resonant effect when repeated. For example, certain sounds such as "shreem" and "hreem" are said to have great potential. Purportedly, energy can literally be "grown" from such sounds, and hence they are known as seed mantras (bija).
How do they work?
What is sound, but vibration in a medium such as air and water? In fact, modern physicists state that all matter in the entire universe may be observed as vibrations of energy. This theory is in congruence with the ancient Hindu assertion that the universe is vibratory in nature with sound being the very basis of all creation. Hence, it can be inferred that one form of vibration (sound) can affect another form (matter).
- A seeker typically starts using mantras by chanting them aloud or in the mind, at a more mundane level.
- Over time, the mantra moves inward, and brings about a feeling of tranquillity (shanti) in the seeker's mind.
- Advanced seekers do not chant mantras, but simply "remember" it and feel a constant awareness.
- Ultimately, the seeker seeks to move beyond the word and sound, and enter the eternal silence of God.
How can I use mantras?
Mantras form an essential aspect of puja, or a form of ritual worship in Hinduism. They can also be used in meditation, yantras, homas and other practices seen in Hinduism.
Some important aspects of using mantras include:
Several esoteric cults in India guarded their mantras from the uninformed aspirant, and hence reciting them mentally was preferred. However, many mantras can be read aloud, and their soothing effect may be enhanced when they are chanted in groups.
- Repetition: A mantra can be repeated hundreds, thousands, or millions of times, depending on the individual's spiritual practice. Typically, aspirants repeat mantras in multiples of three with 108 being the most common multiple used (for numerological reasons). Repetition of a mantra is known as japa or mantra japa.
- Counting: It is important to focus on the meaning of the mantra rather than just count the number of times it is repeated. Hence, a bead necklace known as mala consisting of 108 beads is used as an external aid. The number 108 has significance on account of several reasons. For example, 108 is an integer divisible by the sum of its digits. The number of Upanishads is 108. The number of delusions that one has to conquer to attain enlightenment are said to add up to 108.
Usually held in the right hand, the mala is placed over the middle finger and flicked by the thumb. The index finger that we use to point is not used, as it represents the ego, which must be transcended to achieve self-realisation. The mala is believed to retain some of the energy of the mantra, and hence the same mala is used for a mantra.
- Pronunciation: Each mantra contains specific syllables that are associated with a particular deity. For example, the sound "ra" is associated with the Sun. Adherents stress upon correct pronunciation, as a single incorrect syllable may produce an effect other than what is intended.
- Restrictions: Some Gurus insist on restrictions such as abstaining from sex and avoiding alcohol and meat at least for the period of recitation or for a lifetime. Truthfulness, piety, and avoiding negative thoughts are some of the qualities that seekers are encouraged to cultivate.
- Initiation: A mantra is believed to be more potent when given by an advanced seeker or a Guru. The process of initiation or "diksha" usually involves the Guru whispering the mantra in the disciple's ears. It is believed that the Guru, who has perfected the chanting of the mantra over several years, passes his energy to the disciple.
On the other hand, the scriptures warn against reading a mantra found in an unverified source. Books, websites or uninformed people, no matter how well-intentioned, do not always provide correct information.
- Visualisation: Mantras are addressed to a particular deity. They include certain sounds associated with that deity. Many spiritual practices combine visualising the exact form of the deity with repetition. In addition, the aspirant can also visualise the letters of the mantras. Visualisation is necessary to bring about concentration or "one-pointedness".
- Mudras: Many spiritual practices in India and Tibet revolve around the use of mudras or symbolic hand gestures, which also have practical benefits. The simplest of these mudras is the one in which the index finger is made to touch the thumb to form a loop while the other three fingers are stretched outwards.
Mudras aim to enhance the flow of blood through specific areas, and thus the flow of energy, enhancing the power of the mantra.
- Posture: A yogic posture such as the simple Vajrasana or Padmasana is said to enhance the power of a mantra vastly. Other than obvious benefits such as enhanced blood flow and improved concentration, correct posture improves the energy flow of the body.
- Recitation: All mantras can be recited either aloud or in the mind. Many sages advise against reciting a mantra aloud to avoid errors of pronunciation from causing any harm. Reciting a mantra in the mind is said to be not only safer but also more potent.
Some Famous Mantras
- Om: "In the beginning was the word and the word was with God and the word was God" (John 1:1). This extract from the Bible applies very much to the position of the sacred word Om or Aum in Hindu thought.
Om is one of the most sacred Hindu syllables and is considered the first primordial sound of the universe, the music of the universe, or the "hum" of the spheres and atoms. Om represents formless God. Om also represents the great trinity of Hinduism: Brahma (creator), Vishnu (preserver), and Shiva (destroyer). Chanting this single syllable and meditating on its symbolism is said to bring about an understanding of Brahman or the Supreme Being.
- Gayatri Mantra: One of the most famous mantras in Hinduism, the Gayatri mantra is personified as a goddess, and is revered for its immense power. Second only to the Om, the Gayatri mantra also symbolises formless God.
- Hare Rama Hare Krishna: Repeating this simple mantra provides the path to liberation, as claimed by adherents of the Bhakti (devotion) movement, popularised by Chaitanya Mahaprabhu. This mantra became a part of popular culture during the 60s and 70s when ISKCON founder Prabhupada introduced it to the West.
- Asotama sad gamaya. Tamaso ma jyotir gamaya. Mrityor ma amritam gamaya: Often used as a prayer, this mantra from the Upanishads simply means, "lead me from untruth to truth; lead me from darkness to the light; lead me from mortality to immortality".
- Om Mani Padme Hum: This most powerful of the Tibetan Buddhist mantras is associated with Avalokitshwara, or the deity who embodies the compassion of all Buddhas.
Do you believe in the power of mantras? If so, what is your favourite mantra? Do you recite it everyday at the same time or whenever you feel the need to? Do you pray often? To share your experiences, views and tips with us, click here.
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