The role of the Mantra

Article Index

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.