mantra (Sanskrit; Devanāgarī: मन्त्र) or mantram, consists of the root man- "to think" (also in manas "mind") and the suffix -tra meaning, "tool or protection" — hence a literal translation would be "instrument of thought". They are primarily used as spiritual conduits, words or vibrations that instill one-pointed concentration in the devotee.
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 earlier Eastern religions.
Mantras are interpreted to be effective as vibration, or more simply as sound, which may include verbal repetition, in the form of chanting, or internal mental incantation. For this reason great emphasis is put on correct pronunciation (resulting in an early development of a science of phonetics in India). Mantras are used in Eastern spiritual traditions to divert the mind from basic instinctual desires or material inclinations, by focusing the mind on a spiritual idea, such as "I am a manifestation of divine consciousness".
Simply stated, a mantra is a religious utterance composed in Sanskrit verse and taken from the some part of the Vedas. In other words, a mantra is a piece of Vedic poetry. The verses of the Vedas, including both the Shruti Vedas as well as the Smriti Vedas, are mostly written in verse and therefore are considered mantras. The reason the Vedas are primarily composed in verse as opposed to prose is because they were originally meant to be memorized, not written down, and verse is much easier to memorize than prose.
A mantra is also an utterance composed in a special way to effect a certain result. For example, there can be a specific mantra addressed to a certain Deity, which when chanted properly, is thought to evoke the presence and powers of that Deity. The Gayatri mantra is one such example. The Hare Krishna mantra is another example. In these cases the mantras are often chanted over and over again in a process called japa. The repetition of mantras is called mantra-japa and a devotee many take a vow to repeat a certain mantra many times a day. Often during initiation (diksha) a teacher (guru) will give a special mantra to a disciple and ask him to chant it a certain number of times a day on a set of beads called a japa-mala, similar to a rosary.
A mantra can also be used as part of a spell or charm. There are portions of the Vedas that contain such mantras meant to achieve various purposes. Mantras also have a use in meditation to help achieve a certain state of consciousness. One derivation for the word mantra is man+tra. Man means the mind (from manas) and tra means “to cross,” so a mantra is an utterance that ‘crosses the mind.” In meditation the mind is “crossed over” or silenced. Hence the meaning of the term mantra.
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. Kūkai suggests that all sounds are the voice of the Dharmakaya Buddha — i.e. as in Hindu Upanishadic and Yogic thought, these sounds are manifestations of ultimate reality, in the sense of sound symbolism postulating that the vocal sounds of the mantra have inherent meaning independent of the understanding of the person uttering them. Nevertheless, such understanding of what a mantra may symbolise or how it may function differs throughout the various traditions and also depends on the context in which it is written or sounded. In some instances there are multiple layers of symbolism associated with each sound, many of which are specific to particular schools of thought. For an example of such see the syllable: Aum which is central to both Hindu and Buddhist traditions.
The Pranava Mantra
The most basic mantra is Aum, which in Hinduism is known as the "pranava mantra," the source of all mantras. The Hindu philosophy behind this is the 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 tantra 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.nas 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 it has become an established practice of all Hindu streams, from the various Yoga to Tantra. It involves repetition of a mantra over and over again, 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 Kundalini or spiritual life force and even stimulate chakras according to many Hindu schools of thought.
Any sloka from holy texts like the Vedas, Upanishads, Bhagavad Gita, Yoga Sutras, 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.
Some very common mantras are 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. Examples are:
- Aum Namah Shivaya (Aum and salutations to Lord Shiva)
- Aum Namo Narayanaya or Aum Namo Bhagavate Vasudevãya (Aum and salutations to the Universal God Vishnu)
- Aum Shri Ganeshaya Namah (Aum and salutations to Shri Ganesha)
- Aum Kalikayai Namah (Aum and salutations to Kali)
- Aum Hrim Chandikãyai Namah (Aum and salutations to Chandika)
- Aum Sri Maha Kalikayai Namah (the basic Kali mantra given above is strengthened with the words Sri [an expression of great respect] and Maha [great]. It has been said that this mantra is rarely given to anyone because it is so intense.)
- Aum Radha Krishnaya Namaha (a mantra to Radha, said to promote love in a relationship)
Repeating an entire mantric text, such as the Durga Saptashati, in its entirety is called patha.
The use of Mantras is described in various texts which constitute Mantra Shastra (shastra, sastra: law-book, rule or treatise).
Further reading on the Subject
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