A Mantra is a religious or mystical syllable or poem, typically from the Sanskrit language. Their use varies according to the school and philosophy associated with the mantra. They are primarily used as spiritual conduits, words or vibrations that instil one-pointed concentration in the devotee. Other purposes have included religious ceremonies to accumulate wealth, avoid danger, or eliminate enemies. Mantras originated in the Vedic religion of India, later becoming an essential part of the Hindu tradition and a customary practice within Buddhism, Sikhism and Jainism. The use of mantras is now widespread throughout various spiritual movements, which are based on, or off-shoots of, the practices in the Hinduism.
Mantras are interpreted to be effective as sound (vibration), to the effect that great emphasis is put on correct pronunciation (resulting in an early development of a science of phonetics in India). They are intended to deliver the mind from illusion and material inclinations. Chanting is the process of repeating a mantra.
The Sanskrit word mantra- consists of the root ‘man-’, “to think” (also in manas “mind”) and the suffix ‘-tra’ meaning, tool, hence a literal translation would be “instrument of thought”.
In the context of the Vedas, the term “mantra” refers to the entire portion which contains the texts called Rig, Yajus or Saman, that is, the metrical part as opposed to the prose Brahmana commentary. With the transition from ritualistic Vedic religion to mystical and egalitarian Hindu schools of Yoga, Vedanta, Tantra and Bhakti, the orthodox attitude of the elite nature of mantra knowledge gave way to spiritual interpretations of mantras as a translation of the human will or desire into a form of action, with some features in common with spells in general. For the authors of the Hindu scriptures of the Upanishads, the syllable Aum, itself constituting a mantra, represents Brahman, the godhead, as well as the whole of creation.
Mantra in Hinduism
Mantras were originally conceived in the great Hindu scriptures known as the Vedas. Within practically all Hindu scriptures, the writing is formed in painstakingly crafted two line “Shlokas” and most mantras follow this pattern, although mantras are often found in single line or even single word combinations.
The most basic mantra is Aum, which in Hinduism is known as the “pranava mantra,” the source of all mantras. The philosophy behind this is the Hindu idea of nama-rupa (name-form), which supposes that all things, ideas or entities in existence, within the phenomenological cosmos, have name and form of some sort. The most basic name and form is the primordial vibration of Aum, as it is the first manifested nama-rupa of Brahman, the unmanifest reality/unreality. Essentially, before existence and beyond existence is only One reality, Brahman, and the first manifestation of Brahman in existence is Aum. For this reason, Aum is considered to be the most fundamental and powerful mantra, and thus is prefixed and suffixed to all Hindu prayers. While some mantras may invoke individual Gods or principles, the most fundamental mantras, like ‘Aum,’ the ‘Shanti Mantra,’ the ‘Gayatri Mantra’ and others all ultimately focus on the One reality.
In the Hindu tantras the universe is sound. The supreme (para) brings forth existence through the Word (Shabda). Creation consists of vibrations at various frequencies and amplitudes giving rise to the phenomena of the world. The purest vibrations are the var.na, the imperishable letters which are revealed to us, imperfectly as the audible sounds and visible forms.
Var.na’s are the atoms of sound. A complex symbolic association was built up between letters and the elements, gods, signs of the zodiac, parts of the body — letters became rich in these associations. For example in the Aitrareya-aranya-Upanishad we find:
“The mute consonants represent the earth, the sibilants the sky, the vowels heaven. The mute consonants represent fire, the sibilants air, the vowels the sun. The mute consonants represent the eye, the sibilants the ear, the vowels the mind”
In effect each letter became a mantra and the language of the Vedas, Sanskrit, corresponds profoundly to the nature of things. Thus, the Vedas come to represent reality itself. The seed syllable Aum represents the underlying unity of reality, which is Brahman.
Mantra japa was a concept of the Vedic sages that incorporates mantras as one of the main forms of puja, or worship, whose ultimate end is seen as moksha/liberation. Essentially, Mantra Japa means repetition of mantra, and has become an established practice of all Hindu streams, from the various Yogas to Tantras. It involves repetition of a mantra repeatedly, usually in cycles of auspicious numbers (in multiples of three), the most popular being 108. For this reason, Hindu malas (bead necklaces) developed, containing 108 beads and a head bead (sometimes referred to as the ‘meru’, or ‘guru’ bead). The devotee performing japa using his/her fingers counts each bead as he/she repeats the chosen mantra. Having reached 108 repetitions, if he/she wishes to continue another cycle of mantras, the devotee must turn the mala around without crossing the head bead and repeat.
It is said that through japa the devotee attains one-pointedness, or extreme focus, on the chosen deity or principal idea of the mantra. The vibrations and sounds of the mantra are considered extremely important, and thus reverberations of the sound are supposed to awaken the prana or spiritual life force and even stimulate chakras according to many Hindu schools of thought.
Any shloka from holy Hindu texts like the Vedas, Upanishads, Bhagavad Gita, Yoga Sutra, even the Mahabharata , Ramayana, Durga saptashati or Chandi are considered powerful enough to be repeated to great effect, and have therefore the status of a mantra.
A very common mantra is formed by taking a deity’s name. Called Nama japa and saluting it in such a manner: “Aum namah ——” or “Aum Jai (Hail!) ——” or several such permutations. Common examples are “Aum namah Shivaya” (Aum I bow to Lord Shiva), “Aum Namo Narayanaya”; or “Aum Namo Bhagavate Vasudevãya,” (Salutations to the Universal God Vishnu), “Aum Shri Ganeshaya Namah” (Aum to Shri Ganesha) and “Aum Kalikayai Namah” and “Aum Hrim Chandikãyai Namah.” (i.e., mantras to Devi.)
Repeating an entire mantric text, such as the Durga Saptashati, in its entirety is called patha.
Mahamrityunjaya Mantra (maha-mrityun-jaya), also called the Tryambakam Mantra, is a verse of the Yajurveda addressed to Tryambakam “the three-eyed”, identified with the Hindu deity Shiva.
Om Tryambakam Yajamahe Sugandhim Pushtivardhanam
Urvarukamiva Bandhanan Mrityor Mukshiya Maamrtat