What is a mantra and how does it work?
Mantras are powerful sounds. Mantras are the sounds that when chanted produce great effects. These are chanted repeatedly and that is called japa. Japa is a key part of Hindu prayer.
Mantras are very rich in their meaning. While doing japa one can meditate on the mantra and its meaning. As the mind dwells more and more into that meaning, the mantra conditions the mind and takes it up to higher states and forms the path to the great liberation – eternal bliss.
What makes mantras so special as compared to the normal words? Mantras are not composed by humans. One may wonder how can that be possible. Especially given that there are sages associated with the mantras. The point to be noted is that these sages are not composers of these mantras, as we would normally compose sentences. They are not the inventors, but they are the discoverers of the mantra. They get to know the mantras in a state in which these words do not emanate from their thoughts, but they are just passive audience to it. Those who go deep in meditation and realize God may be able to get a feel of this situation.
To be such a discoverer, even though they are just passive hearers, needs great amount of qualification. Only the perfect one can unchangedly reproduce the mantra he has heard. The only one that is absolutely perfect is God. All other discoverers reproduce that mantra only as pure as their closeness to perfection.
Veda samhitas are full of mantras and hence have been preserved for ages in their pure form by utilizing the various techniques like patha, krama, jaTa, gaNa pATas, that ensure that the chanter clearly gets the correct letters and even the correct level of sound for each letter (svara). The chanters are advised to chant the mantras only after getting the right pronunciation of it, so that the mantras are preserved against deterioration over time. There would be gurus who initiate the disciple in a mantra. The guru ensures that the disciple got the mantra right, so that the person can chant independently as well as initiate others in that mantra. Ensuring this preservation, the vedas were passed on only through the tradition of guru and disciples and was never written down till the very recent past. (It is really amazing to note that without being written down the vedas have been preserved in pure form across the land by these techniques. Though the texts are freely available now for anybody to read, it would be important to ensure that these mantras are properly learnt and then chanted. This way the treasure that has been preserved so carefully over multiple millenniums does not deteriorate due to indifference.)
It is to be noted that many of the hymns of thirumuRai are known to have the great powers of mantras that are practiced even today.
While there are plenty of mantras available, there are a few that are chanted with high esteem by the shaivas. Definitely those are highly powerful ones that can lead the chanter on the great path to mukti (liberation). pranava, paNJchAkashra, gAyatri to name a few. For shaivites the Holy Five Syllables (paNJchAkshara) with or without combination of the praNava is the ultimate mantra.
Definition #1: Mantras are energy-based sounds.
Saying any word produces an actual physical vibration. Over time, if we know what the effect of that vibration is, then the word may come to have meaning associated with the effect of saying that vibration or word. This is one level of energy basis for words.
Another level is intent. If the actual physical vibration is coupled with a mental intention, the vibration then contains an additional mental component which influences the result of saying it. The sound is the carrier wave and the intent is overlaid upon the wave form, just as a colored gel influences the appearance and effect of a white light.
In either instance, the word is based upon energy. Nowhere is this idea more true than for Sanskrit mantra. For although there is a general meaning which comes to be associated with mantras, the only lasting definition is the result or effect of saying the mantra.
Definition #2: Mantras create thought-energy waves.
The human consciousness is really a collection of states of consciousness which distributively exist throughout the physical and subtle bodies. Each organ has a primitive consciousness of its own. That primitive consciousness allows it to perform functions specific to it. Then come the various systems. The cardio-vascular system, the reproductive system and other systems have various organs or body parts working at slightly different stages of a single process. Like the organs, there is a primitive consciousness also associated with each system. And these are just within the physical body. Similar functions and states of consciousness exist within the subtle body as well. So individual organ consciousness is overlaid by system consciousness, overlaid again by subtle body counterparts and consciousness, and so ad infinitum.
The ego with its self-defined “I” ness assumes a pre-eminent state among the subtle din of random, semi-conscious thoughts which pulse through our organism. And of course, our organism can “pick up” the vibration of other organisms nearby. The result is that there are myriad vibrations riding in and through the subconscious mind at any given time.
Mantras start a powerful vibration which corresponds to both a specific spiritual energy frequency and a state of consciousness in seed form. Over time, the mantra process begins to override all of the other smaller vibrations, which eventually become absorbed by the mantra. After a length of time which varies from individual to individual, the great wave of the mantra stills all other vibrations. Ultimately, the mantra produces a state where the organism vibrates at the rate completely in tune with the energy and spiritual state represented by and contained within the mantra.
At this point, a change of state occurs in the organism. The organism becomes subtly different. Just as a laser is light which is coherent in a new way, the person who becomes one with the state produced by the mantra is also coherent in a way which did not exist prior to the conscious undertaking of repetition of the mantra.
Definition #3: Mantras are tools of power and tools for power.
They are formidable. They are ancient. They work. The word “mantra” is derived from two Sanskrit words. The first is “manas” or “mind,” which provides the “man” syllable. The second syllable is drawn from the Sanskrit word “trai” meaning to “protect” or to “free from.” Therefore, the word mantra in its most literal sense means “to free from the mind.” Mantra is, at its core, a tool used by the mind which eventually frees one from the vagaries of the mind.
But the journey from mantra to freedom is a wondrous one. The mind expands, deepens and widens and eventually dips into the essence of cosmic existence. On its journey, the mind comes to understand much about the essence of the vibration of things. And knowledge, as we all know, is power. In the case of mantra, this power is tangible and wieldable.
Statements About Mantra:
Mantras have close, approximate one-to-one direct language-based translation.
If we warn a young child that it should not touch a hot stove, we try to explain that it will burn the child. However, language is insufficient to convey the experience. Only the act of touching the stove and being burned will adequately define the words “hot” and “burn” in the context of “stove.” Essentially, there is no real direct translation of the experience of being burned.
Similarly, there is no word which is the exact equivalent of the experience of sticking one’s finger into an electrical socket. When we stick our hand into the socket, only then do we have a context for the word “shock.” But shock is really a definition of the result of the action of sticking our hand into the socket.
It is the same with mantras. The only true definition is the experience which it ultimately creates in the sayer. Over thousands of years, many sayers have had common experiences and passed them on to the next generation. Through this tradition, a context of experiential definition has been created.
Definitions of mantras are oriented toward either the results of repeating the mantra or of the intentions of the original framers and testers of the mantra.
In Sanskrit, sounds which have no direct translation but which contain great power which can be “grown” from it are called “seed mantras.” Seed in Sanskrit is called “Bijam” in the singular and “Bija” in the plural form.
Let’s take an example. The mantra “Shrim” or Shreem is the seed sound for the principle of abundance (Lakshmi, in the Hindu Pantheon.) If one says “shrim” a hundred times, a certain increase in the potentiality of the sayer to accumulate abundance is achieved. If one says “shrim” a thousand times or a million, the result is correspondingly greater.
But abundance can take many forms. There is prosperity, to be sure, but there is also peace as abundance, health as wealth, friends as wealth, enough food to eat as wealth, and a host of other kinds and types of abundance which may vary from individual to individual and culture to culture. It is at this point that the intention of the sayer begins to influence the degree of the kind of capacity for accumulating wealth which may accrue.
Mantras have been tested and/or verified by their original framers or users.
Each mantra is associated with an actual sage or historical person who once lived. Although the oral tradition predates written speech by centuries, those earliest oral records annotated on palm leaves discussed earlier clearly designate a specific sage as the “seer” of the mantra. This means that the mantra was probably arrived at through some form of meditation or intuition and subsequently tested by the person who first encountered it.
Sanskrit mantras are composed of letters which correspond to certain petals or spokes of chakras in the subtle body.
As discussed earlier, there is a direct relationship between the mantra sound, either vocalized or subvocalized, and the chakras located throughout the body.
Mantras are energy which can be likened to fire.
You can use fire either to cook your lunch or to burn down the forest. It is the same fire. Similarly, mantra can bring a positive and beneficial result, or it can produce an energy meltdown when misused or practiced without some guidance. There are certain mantra formulas which are so exact, so specific and so powerful that they must be learned and practiced under careful supervision by a qualified guru.
Fortunately, most of the mantras widely used in our portal and certainly those contained in this chapter are perfectly safe to use on a daily basis, even with some intensity.
Mantra energizes prana.
“Prana” is a Sanskrit term for a form of life energy which can be transferred from individual to individual. Prana may or may not produce an instant dramatic effect upon transfer. There can be heat or coolness as a result of the transfer.
Some healers operate through transfer of prana. A massage therapist can transfer prana with beneficial effect. Even self-healing can be accomplished by concentrating prana in certain organs, the result of which can be a clearing of the difficulty or condition. For instance, by saying a certain mantra while visualizing an internal organ bathed in light, the specific power of the mantra can become concentrated there with great beneficial effect.
Mantras eventually quiet the mind.
At a deep level, subconscious mind is a collective consciousness of all the forms of primitive consciousnesses which exist throughout the physical and subtle bodies. The dedicated use of mantra can dig into subconscious crystallized thoughts stored in the organs and glands and transform these bodily parts into repositories of peace.
Some of you may be interested or even fascinated by the discipline of mantra, but feel somewhat overwhelmed by the array of mantras and disciplines, astotaras and pujas you find in here. If so, then this chapter will be of use to you. It contains some simple mantras and their common application. They have been compiled from vedas and upanishads, drawn from the various headings of the deities or principles involved. These mantras address various life issues which we all face from time to time.