Hinduism has a very ancient and continuing tradition in the form
of mantras. Mantras are the heart and soul of Hindu ritual tradition.
What is a mantra? A mantra is sacred sound in the form of a syllable,
word, prayer, phrase or hymn, usually in Sanskrit. Their use varies
according to the school and philosophy associated with the mantra.
They are primarily used as spiritual conduits, magical chants or
vibrations that produced a desired result either in the mind and
body or in the life of an individual.
Some mantras are used to invoke gods, seek protection against
enemies and evil powers or inflict harm upon others. They are used
extensively in Vedic rituals and Hindu religious ceremonies to appease
gods and secure their support to accumulate wealth, conceive children,
earn name and fame, invite peace, or achieve victory against enemies
and adversity. The tradition of using mantras is not unique to Hinduism.
Several prehistoric and historic traditions, including that of Egyptians,
Greeks. Mayans and Zoroastrians used magical chants to communicate
with gods and obtain boons and supernatural powers. Prayers and
chants were used by them to cure diseases, ward off evil influences
and invoke deities and ancestral spirits.
Therefore, we cannot say that the mantra tradition originated
in India or it was unique to Hinduism. However, we can say that
the word mantra and the concept of mantra as a sound power moved
by the mind power is unique to Hinduism. Also, no other religion
used mantras as extensively as Hinduism. For a very long time, the
Vedic education was centered around learing and remembering long
hymns from the Vedas which were then used in the performance of
the rituals. While many ancient religions that used magical chants
became extinct, Hinduism carried forward the tradition. Mantras
are also used traditionally in Jainism and Buddhism. We have reasons
to believe that the use of chants in rituals was a prehistoric tradition
which continues in many tribal communities even today.
The word mantra is a Sanskrit word consisting of the root man- "manas
or mind" and the suffix -tra meaning, tool, hence a literal
translation would be "mind tool". 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.
Mantras have some features in common with spells in general,
in that they are a translation of the human will or desire into
a form of action. Indeed, Dr. Edward Conze, a scholar of Buddhism,
frequently translated "mantra" as "spell". As
symbols, sounds are seen to effect what they symbolise. Vocal sounds
are frequently thought of as having magical powers, or even of representing
the words or speech of a deity. 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.
Merely pronouncing this syllable is to experience the divine in
a very direct way. Kukai 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. We
should not think that this is peculiar to Eastern culture, however.
Words do have a mysterious power to affect us. Accepted scholarly
etymology links the word with "manas" meaning "mind"
and 'trâna' for protection so that a mantra is something which protects
the mind -- however in practice we will see that mantra is considered
to do far more than simply protect the mind.
For many cultures it is the written letters that have power --
the Hebrew Kabbalah for instance, or the Anglo-Saxon Runes. Letters
can have an oracular function even. But in India special conditions
applied that meant that writing was very definitely inferior to
the spoken word. The Brahmins were the priestly caste of the Aryan
peoples. It was they that preserved the holy writings -- initially
the Vedas, but later also the Upanishads. For years, they were the
only ones who knew the mantras or sacred formulas that had to be
chanted at every important occasion. However, with the advent of
egalitarian Hindu schools of Yoga, Vedanta, Tantra and Bhakti, it
is now the case that intra-family and community mantras are passed
on freely as part of generally practiced Hindu religion. Such was
the influence of the more orthodox attitude of the elite nature
of mantra knowledge that even the Buddhists, who repudiated the
whole idea of caste, and of the efficacy of the old rituals, called
themselves the shravakas, that is, "the hearers". A wise
person in India was one who had "heard much". Mantras
then are sound symbols. What they symbolise and how they function
depends on the context, and the mind of the person repeating them.
Studies in sound symbolism suggest that vocal sounds have meaning
whether we are aware of it or not. And indeed that there can be
multiple layers of symbolism associated with each sound. So even
if we do not understand them, mantras are no simply meaningless
mumbo jumbo -- no vocal utterance is entirely without meaning. We
can look at mantra as a range of different contexts to see what
they can mean in those contexts: Om may mean something quite different
to a Hindu and a Tibetan Buddhist. The analysis of Kukai, a 9th
century Japanese Buddhist is revealing. See below.
While Hindu tantras eventually came to see the letters
as well as the sounds as representatives of the divine, it was when
Buddhism travelled to China that a major shift in emphasis towards
writing came about. China lacked a unifying, ecclesiastic language
like Sanskrit, and achieved its cultural unity by having a written
language that was flexible in pronunciation but more precise in
terms of the concepts that each character represented. In fact the
Indians had several scripts which were all equally serviceable for
writing Sanskrit. Hence the Chinese prized written language much
more highly than did the Indian Buddhist missionaries, and the writing
of mantras became a spiritual practice in its own right. So that
whereas Brahmins had been very strict on correct pronunciation,
the Chinese, and indeed other Far-Eastern Buddhists were less concerned
with this than correctly writing something down. The practice of
writing mantras, and copying texts as a spiritual practice, became
very refined in Japan, and the writing in the Siddham script in
which the Sanskrit of many Buddhist Sutras were written is only
really seen in Japan nowadays. However, written mantra-repetition
in Hindu practices, with Sanskrit in any number of scripts, is well-known
to many sects in India as well.
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.
Mantra in Hinduism
AumThe 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.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
Om 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 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 "meru" 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 "meru" bead and repeat.
It is said that through japa the devotee attains one-pointedness,
or extreme focus, on the chosen deity or principle 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
The Hindu Bija Mantra
In Hinduism the concept of mantra as mystical sounds was carried
to its logical conclusion in "seed" (Sanskrit bija) mantras
that have no precise meaning on their surface but instead are thought
to carry within their sounds connections to various spiritual principles
and currents. For example, worship of the Mother Goddess Kali, in
mantra form, is famously reduced to the powerful Bija mantras of
the Shakta tradition of Hinduism: Aum Krim Krim Krim Hoom Hum: Krim
Krim Krim Hum Hum Hrim Hrim Swaha Of course, the most revered of
all Bija mantras is Om/Aum. The Bija mantra is part of the Hindu
monistic understanding that while reality manifests itself as many/multiple,
it is ultimately one.
Suggested Further Reading
Source: Information for this article
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