The role of the Mantra

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According to the Vedanta, and in line with Hindu thought, meditation is the repetition of a sacred phrase. This phrase is usually short and includes the salutation of a chosen Ideal, for example: Hail Shiva. Hail Krishna. Hail Shiva. Hail Supreme Brahman. The goal of a mantra is to enable the practitioner to focus on his/her ideal; the meaning of the words and the sound being emitted are both secondary. For this reason, mantras are meant to be used in repetition, rather for meditating on the meaning of each word within.

The practitioner is meant to put all of their love, all of their thoughts, and all of their will into this repetition. Little by little, the practitioner becomes so focussed that they are no longer aware of the outside world. This focused state will, after some time, resemble Jesus’ first commandment: “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind.

In this way, the japa—the repetition of the name of the Lord—is not a mechanical activity, but rather an intense effort accompanied by deep concentration. This is of course quite difficult in the beginning, but by practicing it becomes progressively easier and more natural. The preparation one undertakes before the japa also makes a difference. If the practitioner is able to establish a relation of love with their chosen ideal, the japa will subsequently become easier. When starting out, this relation can appear imaginary, but over time it will feel deeper and more real. One must repeat a mantra slowly, while focussing. Then, in between repetitions, one must allow an interval, in order to draw the mind beyond all that lies within the realm of thought. This is the manner in which the practitioner accedes to the spiritual domain, where even thoughts are blocked off. The mind must be perfectly calm, as if it no longer existed.

If the japa is performed well, it can be compared to oil being poured from one vase to another, which flows regularly and homogenously. In the same way, a strong relation between God and oneself is formed. Our concentration must be fixed at one point in our body. This can be the heart, but not the physical heart in this case. The heart in question is located at the centre of the chest, at the height of the sternum (three centimetres above the stomach), and between the spinal cord and the sternum. One can also concentrate at the point in between our eyebrows. In this location, there can be physical or psychic reactions, like pain. If that happens, one can switch one’s focus to a point located outside of the body, which will remove the pain. Starting the japa on a spiritual form is always easier and, after some time, the practitioner will be able to meditate on the attributes of that form. But the ultimate goal is to transcend all names, all forms, and all attributes. 

This is the way one must perform the japa. It is good to dedicate twenty or thirty minutes to this practice.

One can also focus on the form of an divine Incarnation, or on a major spiritual leader. One can even meditate on the presence of the Lord in all beings. It is also possible to meditate on the Lord beyond all forms and all description, on the divine spirit that resides in all hearts. This is difficult to practice. Nevertheless, these different forms of meditation are all good, as they help us to leave behind the awareness of the self.

The Mantra:

Om kâram bindu samyuktam nityam dhyâyanti yoginah Kâma-dam moksha-dam chaiva. Om kârâya namo namah.

Can be translated as follows: Yogis constantly meditate on the syllable “Om”, which is composed of the sounds “O” and “M’.This, Om, fulfils all our desires and leads to liberation. Hail again and again to this symbol Om.

India has contributed some valuable teachings. You know the image of the dancing Shiva. But there is no such image of a dancing Shiva in the West—this is a unique contribution from India. One of the beautiful fruits that are brought to you by India is its spiritual teachings, including the mantra.

We cannot say since when the power of mantras has been discovered. It has always been there, and recognized as the most effective method of the various disciplines within Hinduism. We speak of the Vedas, of which there are four and which are a fundamental part of the sacred Hindu Scriptures. The Vedas have been translated, in order to make them easier to understand, but Hindus themselves do not try to understand their translations. Instead, they go to great lengths to sing them with the right sound, the correct intonation, and the traditional rhythm and modulations. This is a law that cannot be violated. It is thought that reciting the Vedas without due respect for the established rules will bring a curse. 

There are schools throughout India where students learn to sing and very precisely modulate the sacred texts, in Sanskrit, just as it has always been. Singing the Vedas is auspicious, it brings blessings. It is from here that the tradition of the mantra and its repetition originates.

Several years ago, I met a priest who sang Vedic texts, and I asked him what they meant. He did not know. “We were taught to sing very precisely”, he answered, “and I do not know what these phrases mean.” At the time, I was astonished and thought that he sang like a parrot, but now I understand better what he meant—the singing itself is what is most important.

All ceremonies in India include Vedic chants. It is a tradition that is so old, so widespread, and so alluring that even among Buddhists a priest will always sing a sacred text. It is believed that reciting a Vedic chant is enough to bestow good things on the entire household. Sri Krishna says, in the Bhagavad Gita: “I am the great Sama.” The Sama is a Veda that is always sung with specific modulations. 

Hindus believe that one can purify oneself of sins by meditating on the mantra, by being freed, and attaining bliss. This is salvation. Therefore, one who can learn a mantra will obtain everything.

The word “Mantra” is composed of two syllables: “Man”—the activity of the mind during meditation—and “tra”—that which saves, which brings salvation, liberation. Thus, the word in itself implies that whoever meditates on a mantra is sure to obtain salvation. It is necessary to receive a mantra from a master, who teaches its traditional sound to their disciple. The full value of a mantra lies in its sound, and thus reading or writing a mantra is insufficient to experience its complete benefits. And Swami Ramakrishnananda made very clear that the sound of a mantra is not heard from afar, but instead from nearby, from word of mouth. It must be heard and well understood. During the initiation ceremony that used to be celebrated in India, the mantra was whispered in the ear of the disciple, who was completely rolled up in a bedsheet. 

Words that are used in conversation consist of letters, each of which is the symbol for a sound. When we pronounce these letters, we hear sounds, we remember a word, and we understand that word. A mantra is different however. Even mantras that have simple forms produce different effects, because a mantra is composed of specific letters that have been chosen by the teacher and intentionally placed in an order that produces a specific combination of sounds. Sometimes, the terms in a mantra can have meaning, but this is not the case when only the sound is important. Letters only represent symbols, whereas the mantra does not have an effect in the realm of logic and reason. Therefore, reading a mantra on a piece of paper will not have much of an effect. One must hear the mantra pronounced by a teacher who has repeated it for a long time him/herself. The knowledge gained from repeating a mantra extends well beyond the domain of reason. This knowledge is found, it is said in India, in the deep consciousness. 

One can ask why so much value should be attributed to sound. The Vedanta teaches that the only reality, Brahman, exists behind the entire world. Brahman had the idea of creating the world—this is what we tell ourselves to explain it. Everything that we want to do is first thought before becoming an action. A thought is connected to words, and words to sounds. It is therefore said that, before the creation of the world, there was shabda-brahman, which is described as like sound. This idea strongly supports the notion of the world being created by sound. Shabda is sound. Nataraja, the dancing Shiva, holds a small drum in his hand. The drum produces a sound that is much louder than the sound of a piano or other musical instrument. The drum in the hand of Nataraja signifies the sound of creation. This image represents the Creator, the Protector, and the Destroyer. It is the Lord. 

The sound Aum is very important for Hindus. Sri Aurobindo wrote an interesting explanation of this sound, saying that the divine Pastor—God—himself became the mantra Aum.

When a thought, oriented towards God, becomes effective, the light of the being is expressed. It is That which reveals the splendor inside the word, the secret of the thought, and which conserves the rhythm. Man repeats the rhythm of the Eternal! It is God himself which illuminates. The Scriptures say: “This is what is known by the Vedas. The mantra of divine consciousness brings the light of revelation.”

The mantra of divine power brings the will to carry out. 

The mantra of bliss, ananda, brings the fulfilment of the spiritual joy of existence. 

All words and thoughts emanate from the flow of vibrations contained in the sound Aum, which is Brahman, the Eternal.

Behind the manifestations of forms and perceivable objects, behind the continual game played out in our self, where forms of objects are figures, behind the manifestation of supra-consciousness and of infinite power, there is Aum…the ultimate source of seeds and matrices, of things and ideas, of names and forms. Aum is itself none other than the supreme Unity, intangible and original, existing by itself, beyond all manifestations. The Vedas were considered as mantras, and even several parts of the Veda are called mantras. This means that they must be repeated, insofar as the mantra does not depend so much on its meaning, but rather from the sound produced by repeating it.

The idea that the sound Aum expresses the supreme Brahman is also found in the Mandukya Upanishad, whose rather short text received an important karika(commentary) written by the philosopher Gaudapada, and on which Sri Sahnkacharya composed some well-known commentaries.

This Upanishad explains how Aum represents Everything, in other words how the repetition of Aum is the most important mantra.

The Katha Upanishad, the Mundaka Upanishad, and other texts recommend to concentrate on Aum. Sri Aurobindo explained that Aum represents all of the Vedas, all of creation, and God himself. Having this awareness, knowing that Aum represents God, and meditating on Aum, enables one to attain a state of supra-consciousness, of direct relation and communion with the Lord.

Swami Vivekananda spoke at length of mediation on Aum during bhakti-yoga, and of an even more extended meditation during raja-yoga. He explained that the pravana(mystic syllable) Aum represents all of the words and all that exists in the universe. We therefore move from the creation to the Creator, which is the path followed by devotees. 

Mantras became more and more prevalent, most likely during the time of the Atharva-Veda, when they served as incantations aimed at obtaining success in worldly pursuits, victory, the destruction of enemies, possession, or the success of some magical acts. But during this period the science behind the mantra did not progress as much as in the tantras, where the mantra is an integral part of the homage paid to various deities. The tantric school is important in Hinduism, because it provided a form to the homage which is more or less similar throughout India. In addition, tantric philosophy is satisfying; tantric yoga is commonly practiced and, furthermore, all of the rites that are currently carried out are tantric. 

If God is One and alone—Brahman, according to the Upanishads—then what do the different deities represent?

God is one, but he is worshipped in various forms, each of which represent different aspects of the divine. When thinking of the loving God, we meditate on Sri Krishan—this idea is deeply established in Hindu tradition. When we think of wisdom, we meditate on Sarasvati. For strength, we meditate on shakti. For success, on Ganesha. For prosperity, on Lakshmi. And for goodness, on Shiva. 

Meditating on God-without-forms, whose nature is so diverse, eternal, and infinite, is not easy for everyone. Those who are not ascetics conserve a form of attraction that keeps them attached to this world. The mantra provides a lot of help for these people to meditate. During religious ceremonies, special drawings called yantras and images are used. The worship of images is said to be primitive, while the worship of yantras is perceived as being slightly more refined. However, what is preferable is meditation on the mantra, which is more effective.

For a fervent worshipper, and for a rishi, a mantra is divinity itself. On meditating on divinity, one arrives at illumination. Previously, the word rishiwas not used as often in India as it is now. Rishi is not a title, it is instead a very rare state of knowledge. For example, Ramana Maharshi is venerated throughout India as the only rishi of our time. A man cannot declare that he himself is a rishi. People recognize him as a sage who has realized the Supreme. A rishi has had a vision of the Supreme. He has seen the mantra.

The Vedas were not composed by a few people. They were directly revealed to rishis. It is a revelation. It is therefore said that those who transmitted the Vedas were rishis. They received the illumination while meditating on the divine. It is as a result of this that they understood the vast power of focused thought. This is the power of the mantra. 

We cannot consider a mantra as a word or a syllable, because it comes from a revelation that is attained under specific mental states and is obtained following spiritual practice. Anyone can follow these same practices. By accomplishing them, he or she can attain the same spiritual level as that of the rishis or of a fervent worshipper. That person will then have the same revelation. I hope that you will understand this clearly.

We accept the mantra of a rishiwho received the illumination, who saw the mantra et who transmitted it to us. By accepting the mantra, we wish to follow the practice that our teacher transmits to us. Thus, little by little, our mind is elevated. When it arrives at the same spiritual level as the mind of the rishi who had the illumination, we will also have that same illumination. We will be in the presence of divinity. At that moment, it is said, the mantra becomes illuminating, which means that it is capable of transmitting illumination. 

We can ask ourselves many questions when hearing about such a little-known subject. Above all, one must have the will to follow these practices and to experience them. The vibration of the sounds in a mantra appear to only be physical vibrations, in our ordinary language, which thus seems to have little importance. However, for the faithful and the convinced, the sounds of the mantra are the mantra itself, identified to the deity, and capable of giving the illumination. To reach this state, one must constantly practice the japa, whose goal is to transform the ordinary sounds of a mantra into a source of illumination.

The source of illumination in the mantra is full of conscious energy; this source possesses extraordinary powers. It is the same for the mantra Aum, which harks back to the most ancient times. In the Vedas, there is the Gayatri, which is still repeated today, but was previously said to be reserved for a few and could not be transmitted to all. Only Brahmin children would receive it from their father, who had received it from his father. As a result, the Gayatri was transmitted from father to son throughout the centuries, as the first mantra accepted by Hindus. When I was young, I received a book in Sanskrit which said that the Gayatri was a mantra without equal. 

If it is true that the Gayatri is unique, and if it is reserved only for a few, then what is there for everyone else? Thankfully, the tantric school substantially broadened this perspective, by spreading several mantras and indicating which ones corresponded to various worshipped deities. All of these mantras were transmitted by the rishis, who saw them in their own spiritual experiences and illuminations. One must know that mantras are not always only composed of the syllable Aum. Each aspect of God has a specific sound or mantra.

The tantras provide many instructions on this aspect, which precise details indicating how each sound is used to reflect a specific aspect of the divine, which effect is produced by that sound, and also the philosophy and rhythm associated with that sound. We need an example to better understand all of this.

A mantra will always begin with the sound Aum, which is the first mantra of the Vedas and the Upanishads. No other word possesses so much meaning. Aum is the pravana, which is at the beginning of every chant. Next comes another sound that is associated with the deity being worshipped. Each of these deities has a specific sound, which enables the mantra to be short. Sometimes there is only one sound, or a few assembled letters. This is the case for the mantra of the Divine Mother, which is composed of sixteen letters on which one meditates during the full moon. In another example, there are two sounds: haimand hrim, which are repeated to awaken within ourselves the image of the deity on which we are meditating. It is said that merely repeating these sounds is enough.

Meditation requires extensive preparation. The act of meditation involves, first of all, evoking within ourselves the form of the deity. This seems difficult for many people in the West; they tell me “Oh! I’m unable to visualize!”

In India, each aspect of the various deities has a form, which is described in a highly detailed manner. The same holds true in the West with respect to Jesus. Each artist has represented Christ in his or her own way. All of these images are not the same, but some details must surely evoke the Lord Jesus. Indeed, we do not need the subject of the painting to be identified in order to recognize Him. It is the same in India for the various deities. The details provided enable the worshipper to visualize before him/herself the deity being worshipped. These details can be found in the lyrics of chants. In this way, the worshipper begins to recite the japawhile visualizing the deity within him or her, and he goes on to repeat the mantra. Over time the mantra causes a change to take place inside of the worshipper. It is said that the mantra becomes living and powerful. It is the power of the mantra which produces this change. 

In the end, if the worshipper has already visualized inside him or herself the deity on which they have been meditating, they can be led to have a vision of the deity. This is the second aspect of the activity of the mantra. There is also a third aspect, which is more universal, and is also well-known in India: the names of the deity: Shiva, Rama, Krishna, Durga, Ganesha, and others. For devotees, the names of the deity are identical with the deity itself. It is not thought that the deity is one thing and its names another. The same can be said for the mantra shabda-brahman and of the eternal Brahman. The tantric Scriptures say that sound is eternal. Aum is associated with Brahman. 

We have now begun to better understand the importance of the mantra within Hinduism. It is thanks to the vibration of the sounds in the mantra that is formed, within the disciple, the right vibration that leads to that of the Supreme himself. This is the explanation. We have said that everything that, behind everything that is exists, there is Brahman, the ultimate reality. Brahman is within us and around us, alone and unique. There is nothing else.

Before creation there was the sound, shabda-brahman. Creation is preceded by thought. But thoughts cannot exist without words. And words cannot exist without sounds. Therefore, the sound shabda-brahmanis absolutely necessary. When you meditate on the aspect of Brahman that is sound, you follow through sound the path that leads you to Brahman himself.

There are other explanations of mantras. You can seek others and choose the one that seems most appropriate for you. It is indeed good to hear several explanations. They are not so different from each other in the end, and always arrive at the same conclusion.

In tantric literature, the repetition of a mantra carries much importance. Let us try to understand the explanations provided by tantrism on this subject. 

Whereas the Brahman in the Vedanta represents the Unique and Ultimate Reality—also called the Absolute—he is divided into two different aspects in tantrism. One of these is called chit, which is static, infinitely subtle and illuminated. The other, coarser, aspect is calledshakti, which is dynamic and the source of all creation, being the form of primeval vibration. Everything that we see around us: beings, objects, and material things, are all external manifestations of vibrations. Thus, shakti is the less refined aspect, and chitis the subtle aspect of the original energy. 

Shaktiis also known under the names of nadashabda, or prana

Nada, the sound, can be thought of as the soul of the universe. It is said that creation began by a sound, which is shabda-brahman, the Supreme manifested in sound. 

Prana represents the breath that animates all living beings. But we need to keep in mind that nadashabda, and prana are not separated from chitChitand shakti are not different. They are two aspects of the same Reality and, within shakti manifested in coarser elements, there is also chit, hidden and located in a more subtle plane. Sri Ramakrishna had the habit of saying that Brahman and shakti are as inseparable and intrinsic as are fire and its capacity to burn. It is the same for chit and shakti in tantrism.

Chit thus exists in all that is manifested in the world, whether in subtle or less refined forms. We can only say that chitis predominant in subtle forms, and less so in coarser forms, where shakti plays a more important role as nadaprana, or shabda. We must understand, therefore, that chit is present in the subtle plane of all manifestations of nadaprana, or shabda.Chit exists in all that is created.

Nada, the sound, is considered to be one of the least coarse manifestations of shakti. For this reason, one can grasp chitmore easily be utilising nada, and it is with this in mind that tantrism utilises sound, which is a subtle vibration. This is an easier means of elucidating chit than by the use of material and coarser objects.

Let us remember that chitis the illumination and that, during the course ofsadhana, it is necessary to attain chitin order to arrive at the Realisation. Tantrism thus makes use of sound and the subtle vibration in words within a mantra to awaken chit. Utilising the least coarse form (nada) of the dynamic aspect (shakti), the tantric practitioner will reach chit, which represents his goal, illumination.

The mantra, thanks to the vibration of sound, is therefore the least coarse material expression that exists and therefore the closest to chitpossible. Repeating the mantra will make this approach progressively easier.

In fact, it is the tantric description of the mantra that explains why one must perform the japa and how one must meditate on the meaning of the mantra. Scholars agree that this discovery of the importance of repeating a mantra is an extremely important contribution from the school of tantrism. This perspective illustrates the close link between nadaand chit, in other words between “sound” and “illumination”, and it demonstrates both are not different from the cosmic energy shakti

This subject is indeed complicated, and in this context the guru plays a critical role. The guru must understand the devotee and choose the appropriate mantra for that person. But it is nevertheless good to know some of the teachings of tantrism.