The role of the Mantra

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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.