Secret Knowledge of Mantras and Their Purpose


by Jayaram V

Summary: The Mantra tradition is the heart of Hinduism. Find out unknown facts and hidden secrets of the mantras and their true purpose in Hindu ritual and spiritual practices.

Hinduism has many powerful mantras which are used for various purposes in both ritual and spiritual practices. Their length may vary from monosyllables to short phrases and long verses or hymns. Hinduism is a mantric tradition where mantras are profusely used for both material and spiritual purposes. The Vedas are mainly mantra texts. They contain elaborate hymns which are composed in 15 in different meters to produce desired effects in those who chant them or listen to them. The tantras also heavily rely upon mantras in achieving desired levels of purity and metal states.

Every divinity of the Hindu pantheon is worshipped and adored by devotees with the help of mantras. Mantras are the means by which we unleash the energy which is hidden in the sounds. Even gods use them for creation, preservation and destruction. In the remote past, as we learn from the epics and the Puranas, they were profusely used in warfare. No wonder, the syllable Aum (OM), which is considered the primordial mantra or the first sound (adi mantra) to manifest in creation is frequently used as emblematic of Hinduism.

The mantras which are used in Hinduism can be grouped into various categories according to their source, purpose, utility or potency. Some mantras are extremely powerful which can cause great harm if they are improperly used. Hence, in Hinduism the knowledge of mantras is bound by certain customary rules and restraints, which have been in practice for a long time. Traditionally, they were taught by Vedic teachers to their students and children as a part of their education to serve the aims of Dharma. Traditional Vedic schools continue to follow the tradition even today. Spiritual teachers customarily initiate their disciples using specific mantras. It is said that mantras are not effective in spiritual transformation, unless they are imparted by a guru.

‘Man’ means mind (manas) or thought (mantha). ‘Tra’ (as in ‘trana) means protecting, preserving, sheltering, joining or augmenting. In the mantra tradition we augment the sound power with the mind or thought power to produce desired results. Mantra also means counsel or consultation. Mantri means the one who is an expert in the knowledge and use of mantras or an expert in counseling. In the ancient times, mantris (royal priests) used to act as chief advisors to the king. Because of their knowledge and intelligence, they used to enjoy the trust and respect of their patrons. Today, the name mantri is used to refer to a minister in the Indian polity. Mantras are also used in magical rituals, charmas and formulas.

Mantras and Sound Matrix

Through mantras we also invoke the hidden power of the gods who reside in them or awakened through them. Thus, a mantra is a sound form which is charged with the power of the mind and the power of the divinity who resides in it or presides over it. Through mantras we also connect to the vibrations or pulsations (spanda) which pervade the whole existence. The universe is a matrix of numerous vibrations and pulsations which is personified in the Vedas as Shabda Brahman (Brahman in Sound Form). He is considered to be the ultimate source of all vibrations. They manifest in the physical and perceptible world as sounds. Since they are readily available to us we can use them to enter the pure state of Supreme Brahman who is beyond all names and forms, sounds and vibrations.

The vibratory matrix of the whole universe is an aspect of Brahman’s dynamic energy (Shakti). Speech and sound are two of its physical or sonic manifestations. All the sounds and syllables which are associated with speech are endowed with different vibratory powers and presided over by numerous forms of Shakti. They are collectively identified in Shaivism as the Wheel of the Divine Mother (matraka-chakra). Combined with the power of the mind, they can produce astounding results. Since they can be used for both good and evil purposes and since many Shaktis belong to the domain of Maya, a lot of secrecy is associated with knowledge of the mantras, which is considered an esoteric discipline, and taught to a chosen few after they are thoroughly vetted.

The subtle states of mantras

A mantra does not exist by itself, except in the realm of Brahman. In the mortal world, it comes into existence through speech. It prevails in a mental form through the mind, and dissolves into nonexistence through silence. Between existence and nonexistence, each mantra passes through several states which only the adepts can identify. In each of these states it has varied potency and serves different purposes.

From its origin to its dissolution, it also passes through the four states of consciousness namely the wakeful, dream, sleep and transcendental states. In each of these states it depends upon a different support. In the wakeful state, breath and speech serve as its support; in the dream state, the mind and thought; in the deep sleep state, space and silence in which its form dissolves; in the transcendental state, it either self-exists or Brahman becomes it support.

As the objects of sound, each mantra has a beginning, a middle and an end. The physical sound which arises from the utterance of a mantra and which is audible represents its gross physical form. When we concentrate upon it, it becomes a part of our consciousness, and we can hear it even without the real sound. This is its subtle form which becomes audible only deep subtle states. It is more powerful than its physical counterpart and exists in the back of the mind as an idea or memory and keeps repeating itself whether we let it or not.

The secret of Nada

At some stage in the practice, the subtle sound of the mantra dissolves into its primordial sound called nada and releases its subtle energy into it, thereby purifying the prana and energizing the body or correcting its flow or flowing with the Kundalini. Nada is the sound of Prana (life force) which flows through the nadis (nerve channels) in the body. It can be heard only by adept yogis in the advanced stages of the yoga practice where the mind and body are under firm control (samyama) and one is on the edge of deep sleep, without being asleep. In the final stages, the yogi goes beyond nada and beyond all sounds and vibration and enters the transcendental and absolute state of Brahman which is free from all formations, vibrations, divisions and distinctions and in which everything resolves or dissolves into oneness.

The Hamsa Upanishad declares this state in the following words, “When Hamsa is absorbed in Nada (spiritual sound), the state beyond the fourth is reached. Nada (which is at the end of sound and beyond speech and mind) is like a pure crystal extending from (Mula) Adhara to Brahmarandhra. It is that which is spoken of as Brahma and Paramatma.”

The Upanishad also enumerates ten kinds of subtle sounds (Nada) which a yogi may progressively hear as he practices the recitation of the Hamsa mantra. “The first is chini (like the sound of that word); the second is chini-chini; the third is the sound of bell; the fourth is that of conch; the fifth is that of tantri (lute) ; the sixth is that sound of tala (cymbals) ; the seventh is that of flute; the eighth is that of bheri (drum) ; the ninth is that of mrdanga (double drum) ; and the tenth is that of clouds (thunder). He may experience the tenth without the first nine sounds (through the initiation of a guru).” When these ten kinds of Nada is heard, the mind (manas) is destroyed. With it sankalpa (intention) and vikalpa (imagination) disappear. When both are destroyed, virtues and sins are also destroyed, and the yogi shines as Sadashiva with his Shakti pervading everywhere as Aum. the primordial Nada.

The sacred syllable Aum is one of the well-known nadas. It is called pranava nada because it arises directly from the flow of prana in the body. A being is alive as long as prana flows in the body. Nada (the subtle sound) which flows subtly and secretly in the body becomes externalized whenever Aum is chanted. It is a great purifier too since it can open any nadis which may have been blocked for any reason. Hence, it has great significance in Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism as a sacred syllable and a great purifier, protector and stabilizer.

Mantras and their true purpose

Traditionally, mantras are used in Hinduism to invoke gods, purify a place, an object or oneself, achieve self-absorption (samadhi), or align the mind with a chosen deity to experience oneness or unitary consciousness. They are popularly used in sacrifices (yajnas), invocations (havanas), satiation (tarpanas), offerings (bali), penance (vrata), taking vows (diksha), greetings (abhivada), praise (stuti), devotional worship (puja), homage (archana), salutations (vandana), service (sevana), singing (bhajana), recitation (japa), remembrance (smarana), concentration (dharana), meditation (dhyana), postures (asanas), gestures (mudras), expiation (prayaschitta), healing (ropana), blessing (shama), self-control (dama), protection (raksha), purification (shuddhi), binding (bandha), control (vasa), and so on. They are also used in mystic diagrams (yantras) and esoteric worship (tantra sadhana) to invoke specific deities or attain spiritual powers. The following ones are a few important purposes for which they are commonly used.

  1. To invoke gods and ancestors and obtain their blessings.
  2. To make sacrificial offerings
  3. To fulfill one’s desires.
  4. To purify a place, an object or one’s mind and body.
  5. To overcome one’s sinful karma or acquire merit.
  6. To protect the mind from evil thoughts and stabilize it.
  7. To achieve good health, peace and prosperity.
  8. To overcome adversity, sickness or death.
  9. To defeat and destroy an enemy or hostile entity.
  10. To attract the opposite sex or make others amenable.

Mantras are the means by which we extend our reach to the higher worlds and communicate with the divinities of those realms. With their help we extend our reach into infinity and experience the supreme consciousness of effulgent Brahman. They are the vehicles by which the embodied souls escape from the limitations  of samsara and travel to the immortal world to be free forever. They are so important that mantra yoga is an integral part of every other yoga. It is difficult to think of spiritual disciplines where they are not used for one purpose or another. Through them we express and elevate our devotion and establish an inseparable connection with the gods of higher realms. They strengthen our faith, purify our minds and bodies, stabilize our thoughts and leads us towards truth, light and immortality. For the householders they are the means with which they pursue the four aims of human life (dharma, artha, kama and moksha) and uphold Dharma. Since they are endowed with divine energy and manifestations of Brahman in sound form, they are great purifiers. Devotees, ascetics and renunciants use them to purify themselves, cultivate discernment and overcome past sins, adversity and suffering.

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