The Secrets of Hindu Worship : The Role of Mantra, Tantra and Yantra In Hinduism

Mantra, Tantra and Yantra in Hinduism

by Jayaram V

Be it a complicated form of Vedic ritual such a yajna or some simple form of worship performed ordinarily in millions of Hindu households everyday, the process of worship in Hinduism invariably involves the use of three basic techniques, namely the mantra, the tantra and the yantra.

Fundamentally, the three represent the three approaches available to human beings to harness the power of God and use it to perform their duties upon earth as part of their obligatory duties. They are employed in all the three paths that are mentioned in the Bhagavadgita, namely  the path of action (karma marg), the path of knowledge (jnanamarg), and the path of renunciation (sanyasa marg). They can be used for both constructive and destructive purposes to achieve peace and prosperity and liberation, or to create chaos and torment others.

The method of mantra is used to invoke divine power for positive and negative purposes through the use of mind or thought power (man+tra), yantra through the use of the restraining power (yan + tra) of the will, and tantra through the use of the physical (sexual) power of the body (tan). In the practice of mantras, the mind and intelligence are active. In the practice of tantra, the organs of actions and the organs of perception are active, whereas in the practice of yantra, the ego is active. With regard to the triple Gunas, the mantra method is a predominantly sattvic approach, the yantra is rajasic, and the tantra is tamasic. In Hinduism, the three constitute the three fundamental modes of divine worship through which one may achieve liberation or perform obligatory duties. They are also the basic and universal approaches which worshippers use in Hinduism for both material and spiritual purposes.

However, as with many other aspects of Hinduism, their distinction is rather amorphous. Hence, in most Hindu forms of worship you see that elements of all the three are present, or deeply intermingled. They are also present in the Vedic sacrificial ceremonies. Mantras are used to invoke gods. Yantras are used to construct the sacrificial pit (yajna stala) in specific geometric formations to impart to them certain purifying and magical powers, and tantra is used to discipline the body before or during the ceremony, and to sacrifice (offer) the body and or its elements during the sacrifice.

The Use of Mantra

Each  mantra used in a Vedic ritual is an invocation, containing a sacred syllable or set of syllables. When the mantra is uttered with a specific rhythm, with the sincerity of devotion and the purity of thought and action, and with phonetic and grammatical accuracy, in a manner prescribed by the scriptural injunctions of the Vedas or some authoritative scripture, it is believed to invoke a particular deity and activate the deity to assist the worshipper to achieve a desired end. It is said that if a mantra is pronounced correctly, the deity to whom it is addressed automatically responds as if compelled by the force of the mantra and assists the worshipper. However, this belief is disputed by some who suggest that each mantra is a sound form of the deity with which it is associated and it is the deity not the mantra which does the magic.

The Vedas contain the power of Brahman in sound form. When they are chanted loudly, it is Brahman who carries them through the space to the designated deity and facilitates the communication between the worshipper and the worshipped. Hence, it is rightly stated that Brahman is the cause as well as the effect of the Vedic hymns. He is also the ultimate recipient of all sacrificial offerings.

When a complicated yajna such as a soma sacrifice, horse sacrifice, or some other yajna is performed, not one but many deities are invoked simultaneously by groups of priests chanting hymns from one or more Vedas. Each sacrifice has a beginning, a middle and an end part, during which the priests chant selected hymns meant to make the sacrifice effective. Their chanting creates powerful vibrations in the atmosphere, and as the sounds travel through the mid-region to the heaven, they awaken the deities and facilitate their descent to the place of worship.

The chanting and the sounds form but one part of the sacrificial rituals. There are other components of tantra and yantra present in them which compliment the manifesting process and make the rituals successful. We will discuss later their importance in Hindu ritual worship. The mechanics of the Vedic rituals and sacrifices are discussed in the Brahmana and the Aranyaka parts of the Vedas in considerable detail. A lot of this knowledge is lost or has become obsolete as we have lost their ritual, spiritual, and symbolic significance.

As stated before, it is believed that the mantras represent gods in sound or speech form. Hidden in each mantra is the energy of a particular deity which remains latent until the mantra is pronounced accurately with the right incantation and aspiration as prescribed in the scriptures. The deity of the mantra awakens only if the sounds create right frequencies, and if the rest of the sacrifice is performed correctly with right offerings and in the prescribed manner. The mechanics of each rituals are therefore important. Indeed, the Purva Mimansa school of Hinduism holds the Vedic rituals as the source of all existence and the highest manifesting power in itself.

The Use of Tantra

Tantra is the systematic use of the body and the lower (perceptual) mind for self-transformation and self-realization. The body and the perceptual mind constitute the lower self. They are considered an obstacle to liberation since they induce the beings to indulge in desire-ridden actions and worldly pleasures under the influence of the triple gunas, namely, sattva, rajas and tamas, and bind them to the cycle of births and deaths. As the instruments of Nature, they are responsible for the modifications of the mind and body which the beings experience variously as suffering, attractions and aversion, attachment, delusion, ignorance, birth and death, egoism, etc. As beings act and react under their influence, they remain bound to the mortal world and the law of karma.

In Tantra, the practitioners use the very obstacles and impurities that are usually shunned in other methods to achieve control over them and transcend them. Desires are not resisted but used to overcome them. Controlled sexual intercourse is allowed to transform impure sexual energy (retas) into pure spiritual energy (ojas). Through such revolutionary and transformative practices, Tantra aims to liberate and transform the mind and body from their natural impulses and binding impurities, and make them fit for self-absorption and self-realization. Different postures, breathing and meditation techniques, and self-purification practices are used for this purpose. Some schools of Tantra employ extreme methods of self-torture, graveyard rituals, and chemical substances to achieve quick results. Because of their extreme nature, the Tantra methods and practices are not liked by many. Hence many of its practices are kept secret and revealed only to qualified members, which has made Tantra even more controversial in he eyes of the people. Currently, a lot of myth and misinformation has become associated with Tantra. However, Tantra aims to achieve righteous ends only through ground up. Hence, since ancient times tantra has been an important and integral part of Hindu spiritualism, and it has successfully retained its place and importance in the ritual and spiritual practices of Hindu ascetic and renunciant traditions.

Tantra is not for Tantrics only

There is a misconception among many that tantra is used by Tantrics only through the medium of sex and other objectionable means. This is not true. Tantra is used in every aspect of Hindu worship. What we see in Tantrism is an extreme form of tantra where the body and the mind are allowed to express themselves freely under the supervision of an enlightened master to come to terms with them and achieve complete mastery over them. Nevertheless, tantra in its milder and normal forms can be seen in action in everyday life. For example, the Yoga of Patanjali, is a kind of tantra only, where yogis aim to achieve bodily control through certain physical postures, purification practices, and mind control techniques.

The simple use of tantra in an ordinary householder's regular worship include the use of certain bodily postures like prostrating before the deity, the lotus position, the folding of hands in front of the deity, purification of the body through fasting and bathing, concentration of the mind on the image, breathing practices, thought control through inner detachment, detachment of the body and the mind through devotion and so on. In pure devotional forms of worship, the body and the mind are offered to God as an act of supreme sacrifice and inner detachment, thereby allowing the divine forces to descend and do their work of inner purification and transformation.

In a complicated Vedic ritual also we can see the use of tantra more or less in a similar manner. A Vedic ritual bears no fruit if the body and mind of the performer are not adequately trained and prepared to participate in the ritual with the required degree of purity and sincerity. All the chanting of the mantras would be futile and the sacrifice would be ineffective if these two are not in harmony with the objective of the entire ritual. The host of the sacrifice (yajmana) and the priests have to maintain utmost purity and observe strict discipline before performing the rituals. Besides, as in Tantra, the Vedas also recognize sexual intercourse as a form of Vedic ritual only.

The Use of Yantra

Yantra means that which controls, dominates, regulates, restrains, protects or prevents. In general usage, yantras refer to names, forms, diagrams, patterns and sound forms that have the five powers of God, namely the power to create, uphold, conceal, manifest and destroy. In Hindu ritual practices, which date back to the Vedic times, yantras are created using certain objects, symbols, sounds, names and forms, and specific divisions of time to invoke the power of a deity for any of the five purposes which are mentioned before. The yantras are used to enhance one's own will power or weaken that of others, ward off evil, seek protection from enemies or destroy them. The more benign forms of yantras can be seen even in the right hand methods of Vedic worship.

For example, the act of folding of hands in front of a deity is but a kind of yantra only. It is meant to restrain the mind and the body and facilitate concentration so that the mind can communicate with the deity through the force of will. The manner in which a fireplace is built for the performance of some Vedic sacrifice, the method in which the place is prepared and the materials (sambhra) are assembled, the manner in which the oblations are poured into the fire, the way the priests sit around the altar, and in fact the very act of chanting of the mantras with mechanical precision serve the same purpose as the Yantras. They are meant to enhance the magical and manifesting powers of the rituals and to control and regulate the lives of the worshippers who participate in them, ensuring their welfare, peace and prosperity, or to protect them from possible harm. Yantras are also used in Tantric rituals to invoke mystic powers, and to design good luck charms, amulets, spells, etc. Because a lot of secrecy and superstition is associated with them, some charlatans use them to exploit people and make money.

The very design of the temple as a physical symbol of existence and creation in the material plane, the act of visiting a temple, circling around it to earn the grace of the deity, entering the temple, the lighting of the lamps in front of the divine, the decorations and the ornamentation that are so characteristic of Hindu temples and places of worship, the manner in which the images are built and installed, the lighting of the lamps, the offerings, the method of worship, the partaking of prasad, and in short any practice that is mechanical, symbolic and ritualistic to a degree, form part of the same Yantric approach. They are meant to invoke the power of God and use it for material or spiritual purposes.

The Practical Significance of Mantra, Tantra and Yantra in human life

Small minds always look at things negatively or suspiciously and ignore the larger picture hidden in them. There is a lot you can learn by introspection, without jumping to conclusions based on surface impressions. People are easily influenced by the negative criticism directed against ancient ritual practices of Hinduism. This is based on the assumption that only spirituality is good, and the rest of the religious practices are mere acts of superstition. However, are all spiritual practices equally effective? A lot of superstition is associated even with prayers and yoga practices. When someone says that yoga can cure cancer, it may be a belief or mere superstition. No one can say when a belief becomes superstition, because belief itself has no rational basis. The difference between belief (faith) and blind belief (superstition) is notional. Logically speaking, belief itself is blind. It has no rational validity. You either accept it or reject it. Otherwise, it cannot be termed belief. Therefore, anyone arguing that some aspects of religion is true and acceptable, the rest is superstition is merely echoing the logical fallacy to which the human mind  is subject.

In this regard, let us examine whether mantra, tantra and yantra have any significance to human life, beyond their outward ritual importance. Every religion has outward observances. You can look at them without much thought and consider them as mere acts of superstition, which many people do, or you can examine them closely to see whether they have any hidden significance. Anyone familiar with Hinduism knows that, its knowledge cannot always be taken on its face value because a lot of symbolism is associated with its beliefs and practice. You can take its knowledge literally and base your faith on it until your mind opens, or you can go deeper into its scriptures and look for the higher  and symbolic knowledge that is hidden in them.

The same holds true for mantra, tantra and yantra methods of religious worship. They are not mere acts of superstition as some people would like to argue (Aren't they making movies about it nowadays?). Deeply hidden in them is a valuable lesson of life. The Mantra, Tantra and Yantra methods of religious practice teach you that you are an aspect of God and you can enhance your powers and divinity through the triple means, namely your mind, your body, and your intention. Many people might have read the book the Secret or watched the video. It may be surprising to know that the book conveys the same method and approach to manifest your life and intentions.

Mantra, Tantra and Yantra are the three fundamental means by which you can manifest your intentions or your destiny. In Hinduism they are called the chief aims of human life, namely duty, wealth, pleasure, and liberation or ultimate freedom. To reach any goal in your life, you have to use the three powers that are at your disposal, the mind power, the body power and the power of your intention.  You must use your mind and speech (the mantra method) to know or let other know what you need, desire or want to manifest. Then, you have to use your determination, power and influence to create right conditions and circumstances (yantra) to manifest your desires or enhance your abilities and influence. Finally you must put in adequate physical effort (tantra) to give shape to your dreams and desires. Thus you can see that the three techniques are not mere mumbo-jumbo. They are valuable tools to bring out the best in you and manifest your dreams and desires according to your vision and willingness.

Hindu Worship, a Means to Evolution

Thus, we can see that the Hindu way of worship is not a mere superstitious ritual, but a complicated form of divine worship in which higher universal forces are invoked through human effort by worshippers to assist them in their spiritual and material progress. A science as well as an art, it aims to achieve not only specific worldly ends but also their very evolution into enlightened beings with the intelligence of God through the integration of their minds, bodies and souls.

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