The Meaning and Concept of Mantra in Hinduism


by Jayaram V

Mantras are an important aspect of Hinduism. They are used in ritual and spiritual practices to express devotion, establish communication or fulfill desires, and in many respects serve the same purpose as prayers and supplications. Chants and incantations have been used since the earliest times by various ancient cultures to invoke or appease gods, ancestors and spirits or to cast spells.

Mantras in Vedic tradition

In ancient India, mantras formed a vital part of Vedic religion. It is possible that the Indus people also might have used similar practices to invoke their gods. Vedic mantras are derived mainly from the Vedas, which are primarily books of mantras, which go by different names such as the Riks, Samans and Yajus. They were chanted or sung or used in formulae in elaborate Vedic, sacrificial ceremonies.

Mantras have traditionally been used in both ritual and spiritual practices and worldly activities for various ends. They still occupy an important place in Hinduism as the manifestations of divine speech and expression of gods and heavenly knowledge. In Hindu ritual practice and prayers, mantras are used to communicate with gods and invoke their power to achieve certain ends.

Mantras constitute the heart of Hindu sacrificial ceremonies, which cannot be performed without the intervention of experienced priests. On such occasions, the mantras are usually chanted aloud by one or more priests while others may join them in chorus or when required. One may also silently chant them to maintain secrecy or for convenience. The Vedas suggest that the efficacy of prayers and mantras increase manifold when they are silently chanted in mental worship rather than when they are uttered aloud.

Hindus also have the tradition of writing mantras (usually the name of a god) on paper as an offering to God or to express love and devotion to a particular deity. The practice usually consists of writing the name of a deity or a specific mantra for a certain number of times, which is usually ten million times. Once the goal is reached, devotees carry the papers or the notebooks in which they have written the name and leave them as an offering at the temples or sacred places of the deity.

The meaning of mantra

Literally speaking, in Sanskrit “mantra” means to consult, seek advice or help, think or deliberate. The source of the mantras is God. In the human body it is the breath in the speech which gives each mantra a verbal form, awakens its hidden power and sends it across the space as sound vibrations to its desired destination. Mantras are thus divine vehicles which carry the thoughts and prayers of devotees to the heaven and help them establish communication with gods.

Thus, in the religious parlance, mantras are primarily meant to communicate with gods, consult them or seek their advice and help. An associative or derivative word is mantri, which means a minister who gives counsel or advice to a ruler or a head priest (pradhan mantri). As the products of the mind, mantras are also associated with intelligence or mental brilliance. In a pure mind, mantras manifest themselves, as they did in the minds of the Vedic seers. Each divine mantra (man + tra) is an expression of the pure mind, or a mind suffused with the brilliance of the Self. The purer the mind is, the greater will be the effect of a mantra. Since mantras manifest on their own in the minds of pure devotes, they are also considered eternal, not man-made (apauruseya) and only heard (sruti) as in case of the mantras from the Vedas.

In traditional usage, a mantra is a sacred utterance, word, phrase, syllable, sentence or prayer containing one or more of the five divine powers of God namely creation, preservation, concealment, destruction and revelation. A mantra may have a specific meaning or not. However, most mantras and even single syllables (bijaksharas) which are used in Hinduism have either a literal meaning or a symbolic or hidden meaning or both.

Of all the mantras, Aum is considered the source (mula) mantra. It is the highest and the purest and Brahman himself in word form (Sabda Brahma). It is also known as mantra Purusha (God as mantra) Pranava (life supporting mantra) and Taraka (secret), having potency to divinize and purify all other verbal expressions and word forms. Hence, it is customarily used as a prefix to all other mantras to infuse them divine power and purity.

Beliefs associated with mantras

Mantras are used as sacred sounds or utterances. Since they are taken from the sacred texts, they are considered auspicious and God in word form. As stated before, they are endowed with one or more of the five divine powers of God. Hence, they been extensively used to in the pursuit of the four chief aims of human life namely dharma (religious duty), artha (wealth), kama (sexual desire) and moksha (liberation).

They have also been used in the study and recitation of scriptures and contemplation. Many mantras are still used as mental hooks to remember complex philosophical concepts or religious ideas. There is also a lot of secrecy associated with the mantra tradition. Because of their potency or specific effects, some mantras cannot be revealed to all or revealed to qualified people only. For example, traditionally the Upanishads are considered secret knowledge and taught only in person by a teacher to qualified students. A student or disciple is also expected to keep secret any initiation mantra given to him by his teacher or spiritual master.

Each mantra will have a seer (rishi) who composed it, a rhythm or meter (Chhanda) which determines its sound, and a deity (devata) who presides over it and manifests when the mantra is correctly pronounced. It also contains a seed syllable (bija) which imparts to it manifesting power (Shakti) and a support (kilakam) which makes it strong or stable until it delivers the intended result.

Because of these hidden components and their divine aspects, many rules are associated with the chanting of the mantras. The attitude and the personal purity of the person who utters them also matter. Pronunciation is of utmost importance in the use of mantras. Without right pronunciation and intonation, the deity in the mantra may not respond. Equally important is the intention for which a mantra is used, since the use of mantras for any purpose produces karmic consequences and influences the destiny of its user.

Why mantras are used

Mantras are used both for positive and destructive purposes. The following are some of the most important purposes, for which mantras are used in Hinduism.

  1. To communicate with gods and express devotion
  2. To invoke gods and seek their help or counsel
  3. To propitiate fierce gods who are displeased or angry and avoid their wrath.
  4. To seek divine protection against evil forces and enemies
  5. To cleanse the mind and body for liberation or self-transformation
  6. To stabilize the mind in the contemplation of God
  7. To consecrate a place of worship before starting a sacrificial ritual or ceremony
  8. To install the images of gods in a temple or during domestic worship.
  9. To fulfill worldly desires and achieve peace and prosperity in life
  10. To attract opposite sex and enchant them or repel rival lovers and discourage competition
  11. To overcome death, diseases adversity, bad karma, or unfavorable circumstances
  12. To help the departing souls who are on their way to liberation or rebirth
  13. To cast spells, charm, delude or destroy opponents
  14. To control or enchant animals, wild beasts, serpents, etc.
  15. To restrain the mind and enter deep sleep or higher states of consciousness
  16. To earn divine grace or the grace of a guru
  17. To gain siddhis or spiritual powers (siddhis)
  18. To express profound spiritual and philosophical truths
  19. To validate truths with verbal testimony (sabda pramana)
  20. To achieve success in sports, duels, debates and battles

Types of mantras

Depending upon their use and purpose, mantras can be classified into various categories, which are stated below.

General purpose mantras

They are popular mantras (such as Hare Rama Hare Krishna or Jayaram Sri Ram), which are known to general public and which are used by devotees for various purposes, without the need to follow austerities, rules and restraints. Devout Hindus use them in their daily lives to express devotion, overcome fear, ward off evil, instill confidence, or just to calm their minds. Some are also used as autosuggestions or affirmations to change their thinking or behavior or train their minds.

Specific purpose mantras

These mantras are chanted for specific purposes or on specific occasions, and only by people who have the permission to use them because of their birth, virtue, knowledge or allegiance to a particular sect or teacher tradition. A few examples are the mantras which are used in Vedic and Tantric rituals by priests to address specific gods and goddesses or to achieve specific ends. Mantras which are used in sacrificial formulas and mystic diagrams (yantras) also come under this category. Those who use them have to observe certain rules and restraints to obtain desired results. The rules pertain to how many times they should be chanted, when, where and under what circumstances.

Peace mantras

They are usually chanted at the beginning of sacrificial ceremonies, yoga, spiritual discourses or to begin new tasks. They are also used to ritually cleanse homes and places of worship, drive away evil forces or in meditation to stabilize the mind and the body. Most peace mantras are used to address Brahman or the triple gods, Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva. They usually end with the phrase “peace, peace, peace,” which means peace in the heaven, peace upon earth and peace within.

Purification mantras

They are used to cleanse ritual places and sacrificial pits where sacrificial ceremonies (yajnas) are performed. They are also used to purify sinners, those who are afflicted with impurities (doshas), the host of sacrifice (yajaman), the images used in worship, or the offerings and utensils that are used in ritual worship. Most purification mantras are chanted along with the sprinkling of ritual water. One may also chant them while taking a bath or a dip in a sacred river or on auspicious occasions to cleanse the house, the host of sacrifices or all the people who participate in them.

Expiation mantras

As their name suggests, these mantras are used to seek forgiveness for any mistakes one may have intentionally or unintentionally committed while performing the sacrificial ceremonies or domestic worship. Most Vedic rituals and methods of worship contain a provision for expiation, since they are elaborate rituals with a number of steps which require the participation of many people. The expiation is usually performed by the head priest or the Brahman priest, who chants the mantras on behalf of all to seek mercy and make the worship complete.

Ritual mantras

These mantras are used in elaborate Vedic ceremonies (yajnas), daily sacrifices (nitya karmas), domestic worship (puja) or sacraments (Samskaras) such as conception, the birth of a child, initiation, marriage or death. The mantras are taken mostly from either the Vedas or Tantras or vernacular literature. Depending upon their use they may be introductory mantras, invitation mantras, main mantras, conclusion mantras farewell mantras, etc., which may be uttered by one or more priests or individuals. The chanting may last for hours or days or even months.

Initiation mantras

It is customary during the initiation ceremony (upanayana), for a teacher or an elderly person in the family to utter certain sacred syllables or words in the ears of the young initiates to mark the beginning of his education in the Vedas or initiation into spiritual knowledge. These mantras are also used by spiritual teachers, or his appointed disciples, to initiate new members who join their tradition, or the monastic discipline either as a lay disciple or as advanced practitioners.

Destructive mantras

These mantras are meant to cause mental or physical harm or injury. There is a whole branch of demonic knowledge (kshudra vidya) which is meant for this purpose. The Vedas also contain many hymns which are used for negative purposes to destroy lives and property or cause psychic damage. The epics and the Puranas suggest how mantras were used in warfare to unleash destructive weapons and arrows upon enemies to kill them, shock them, delude them or weaken their resolve. The Atharvaveda contains many mantras which are ritually used to inflict harm or destruction upon enemies, and potential rivals in marital relationships, love affairs, etc. The Veda also contains hymns for use during animal sacrifices.

Negative aspects of mantras

On the negative side mantras contribute to ignorance and superstition. Because of their popularity they are used by unscrupulous charlatans and religious frauds to attract gullible people with the promise to cure diseases, remove adversity, enchant opposite sex, exorcise evil energies and attract abundance in exchange for money or personal favors. People end up paying large sums for charms, amulets, rings and bracelets inscribed with secret mantras to fulfill their desires or overcome some problem. Some also indulge in gory rituals and superstitious practices, using mantras, to gain evil powers for destructive purposes. Mantras are meant for the welfare of society and the order and regularity of the world. They have to be used as an offering to God by people who are pure and devoted, as part of their obligatory service to God. Any misuse of mantras with selfish intention produce sinful karma and leads to one’s spiritual downfall.

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