A mantra (Devanāgarī मन्त्र) (or mantram) is a religious or mystical syllable or poem, typically from the Sanskrit language. Their use varies according to the school and philosophy associated with the mantra. They are primarily used as spiritual conduits, words or vibrations that instill one-pointed concentration in the devotee. Other purposes have included religious ceremonies to accumulate wealth, avoid danger, or eliminate enemies. Mantras originated in the Vedic religion of India, later becoming an essential part of the Hindu tradition and a customary practice within Buddhism, Sikhism and Jainism. The use of mantras is now widespread throughout various spiritual movements which are based on, or off-shoots of, the practices in the earlier Eastern religions.
Mantras are interpreted to be effective as vibration, or more simply as sound, which may include verbal repetition, in the form of chanting, or internal mental incantation. For this reason great emphasis is put on correct pronunciation (resulting in an early development of a science of phonetics in India). Mantras are used in Eastern spiritual traditions to divert the mind from basic instinctual desires or material inclinations, by focusing the mind on a spiritual idea, such as "I am a manifestation of divine consciousness".
In the context of the Vedas, the term mantra refers to the entire portion which contains the texts called Rig, Yajus or Saman, that is, the metrical part as opposed to the prose Brahmana commentary. With the transition from ritualistic Vedic religion to mystical and egalitarian Hindu schools of Yoga, Vedanta, Tantra and Bhakti, the orthodox attitude of the elite nature of mantra knowledge gave way to spiritual interpretations of mantras as a translation of the human will or desire into a form of action, with some features in common with spells in general. 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. Kūkai 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, in the sense of sound symbolism postulating that the vocal sounds of the mantra have inherent meaning independent of the understanding of the person uttering them. Nevertheless, such understanding of what a mantra may symbolise or how it may function differs throughout the various traditions and also depends on the context in which it is written or sounded. In some instances there are multiple layers of symbolism associated with each sound, many of which are specific to particular schools of thought. For an example of such see the syllable: Aum which is central to both Hindu and Buddhist traditions.
While Hindu tantra 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. 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, the Sanskrit syllables inscribed on yantras, are essentially 'thought forms' representing divinities or cosmic powers, which exert their influence by means of sound-vibrations.
Another explanation is that the suffix -tra means "protection".
The most basic mantra is Aum, which in Hinduism is known as the "pranava mantra," the source of all mantras. The Hindu philosophy behind this is the 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 tantra 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:
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 Aum represents the underlying unity of reality, which is Brahman.
It is said that through japa the devotee attains one-pointedness, or extreme focus, on the chosen deity or principal 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 Kundalini 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 mantra.
Some very common mantras, called Nama japa, are formed by taking a deity's name and saluting it thus: "Aum Namah (name of deity)" (meaning "I honor/salute...") or "Aum Jai (name of deity)" (meaning "Hail..."). There are several other such permutations, including:
The use of Mantras is described in various texts which constitute Mantra Shastra (shastra, sastra: law-book, rule or treatise).
The Navkar Mantra is the supreme Jain mantra and the fundamental prayer in Jainism which can be recited at any time of the day. While praying by reciting this mantra, the devotee bows with respect to Arihantas, Siddhas, spiritual leaders (Acharyas), teachers (Upadyayas) and all the monks. This worship the virtues of all the supreme spiritual people instead of just worshipping one particular person. It is important to note that the Navkar Mantra does not mention the names of even Tirthankaras and Siddhas. At the time of recitation, a Jain devotee remembers their virtues and try to emulate them. In this mantra Jains bow down to these supreme spiritual personalities, and therefore, it is also called Namokar Mantra.
Namo Arihantânam Namo Siddhânam Namo Âyariyânam Namo Uvajjhâyanam Namo Loe Savva Sahûnam Eso Panch Namokkaro, Savva Pâvappanâsano, Mangalanam Cha Savvesim, Padhamam Havai Mangalam.
|Namo Arihantânam||I bow to the Arihantâs (Prophets).|
|Namo Siddhânam||I bow to the Siddhâs (Liberated Souls).|
|Namo Âyariyânam||I bow to the Âchâryas (Preceptors or Spiritual Leaders).|
|Namo Uvajjhâyanam||I bow to the Upadhyâya (Teachers).|
|Namo Loe Savva Sahûnam||I bow to all the Sadhûs (Saints).|
|Eso Panch Namokkaro, Savva Pâvappanâsano|
Mangalanam Cha Savvesim, Padhamam Havai Mangalam
|This fivefold bow (mantra) destroys all sins and obstacles|
and of all auspicious mantras, is the first and foremost one.
The Gayatri mantra is considered one of the most universal of all Hindu mantras, invoking the universal Brahman as the principle of knowledge and the illumination of the primordial Sun.
Some famous Vaishnava mantras are:
A mantra directed at Goddess Kali for the purpose of spiritual progress. Kali is known as one of the fiercest aspects of Divinity; she destroys all negativity to make way for the positive. This mantra is said to be extremely powerful and is known as the Great Fifteen-Syllable Mantra.
This mantra is said to bring relief or escape from difficult situations, but sometimes in drastic fashion.
Durga is sometimes regarded as the great Mother-goddess, representing the maternal and protective elements of the female principal. This mantra is said to bring protection in generally difficult situations.
This mantra is used when protection is required in exceptionally difficult or negative circumstances. It is said that it can also bestow good fortune and creativity.
Indo-Iranian *sātyas mantras (Yasna 31.6: haiθīm mathrem) thus "does not simply mean 'true Word' but formulated thought which is in conformity with the reality' or 'poetic (religious) formula with inherent fulfillment (realization).'
The word dharani derives from a Sanskrit root dh.r which means to hold or maintain. Ryuichi Abe suggests that it is generally understood as a mnemonic device which encapsulates the meaning of a section or chapter of a sutra. Dharanis are also considered to protect the one who chants them from malign influences and calamities.
The term mantra is traditionally said to be derived from two roots: man, to think; and the action-oriented suffix -tra. Thus a mantra can be considered to be a linguistic device for deepening ones thought, or in the Buddhist context for developing the enlightened mind. However, it is also true that mantras have been used as magic spells for very mundane purposes such as attaining wealth and long life, and eliminating enemies. In daily living, many thought the pronunciation of the mantra was not important to take its effect and the expected effect may not happen because of fixed karma (定業), or because there appears a better way to solve the situation.
The distinction between dharani and mantra is difficult to make. We can say that all mantras are dharanis but that not all dharanis are mantras. Mantras do tend to be shorter. Both tend to contain a number of unintelligible phonic fragments such as Om, or Hu.m, which is perhaps why some people consider them to be essentially meaningless. Kūkai made mantra a special class of dharani which showed that every syllable of a dharani was a manifestation of the true nature of reality -- in Buddhist terms that all sound is a manifestation of shunyata or emptiness of self-nature. Thus rather than being devoid of meaning, Kūkai suggests that dharanis are in fact saturated with meaning -- every syllable is symbolic on multiple levels.
One of Kūkai's distinctive contributions was to take this symbolic association even further by saying that there is no essential difference between the syllables of mantras and sacred texts, and those of ordinary language. If one understood the workings of mantra, then any sounds could be a representative of ultimate reality. This emphasis on sounds was one of the drivers for Kūkai's championing of the phonetic writing system, the kana, which was adopted in Japan around the time of Kūkai. He is generally credited with the invention of the kana, but there is apparently some doubt about this story amongst scholars.
This mantra-based theory of language had a powerful effect on Japanese thought and society which up until Kūkai's time had been dominated by imported Chinese culture of thought, particularly in the form of the Classical Chinese language which was used in the court and amongst the literati, and Confucianism which was the dominant political ideology. In particular Kūkai was able to use this new theory of language to create links between indigenous Japanese culture and Buddhism. For instance, he made a link between the Buddha Mahavairocana and the Shinto sun Goddess Amaterasu. Since the emperors were thought to be descended form Amaterasu, Kūkai had found a powerful connection here that linked the emperors with the Buddha, and also in finding a way to integrate Shinto with Buddhism, something that had not happened with Confucianism. Buddhism then became essentially an indigenous religion in a way that Confucianism had not. And it was through language, and mantra that this connection was made. Kūkai helped to elucidate what mantra is in a way that had not been done before: he addresses the fundamental questions of what a text is, how signs function, and above all, what language is. In this he covers some of the same ground as modern day Structuralists and others scholars of language, although he comes to very different conclusions.
In this system of thought all sounds are said to originate from "a" -- which is the short a sound in father. For esoteric Buddhism "a" has a special function because it is associated with Shunyata or the idea that no thing exists in its own right, but is contingent upon causes and conditions. (See Dependent origination) In Sanskrit "a" is a prefix which changes the meaning of a word into its opposite, so "vidya" is understanding, and "avidya" is ignorance (the same arrangement is also found in many Greek words, like e.g. "atheism" vs. "theism" and "apathy" vs. "pathos"). The letter a is both visualised in the Siddham script, and pronounced in rituals and meditation practices. In the Mahavairocana Sutra which is central to Shingon Buddhism it says: Thanks to the original vows of the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas, a miraculous force resides in the mantras, so that by pronouncing them one acquires merit without limits". [in Conze, p.183]
Noted translator of Buddhist texts Edward Conze (1904 - 1979) distinguishes three periods in the Buddhist use of mantra.
Initially, according to Conze, like their fellow Indians, Buddhists used mantra as protective spells to ward off malign influences. Despite a Vinaya rule which forbids monks engaging in the Brahminical practice of chanting mantras for material gain, there are a number of protective for a group of ascetic monks. However, even at this early stage, there is perhaps something more than animistic magic at work. Particularly in the case of the Ratana Sutta the efficacy of the verses seems to be related to the concept of "truth". Each verse of the sutta ends with "by the virtue of this truth may there be happiness".
Conze notes that later mantras were used more to guard the spiritual life of the chanter, and sections on mantras began to be included in some Mahayana sutras such as the White Lotus Sutra, and the Lankavatara Sutra. The scope of protection also changed in this time. In the Sutra of Golden Light the Four Great Kings promise to exercise sovereignty over the different classes of demigods, to protect the whole of Jambudvipa (the India sub continent), to protect monks who proclaim the sutra, and to protect kings who patronise the monks who proclaim the sutra. The apotheosis of this type of approach is the Nichiren school of Buddhism that was founded in 13th century Japan, and which distilled many previously complex Buddhist practices down to the veneration of the Lotus Sutra through recitation of the daimoku: "Nam myoho renge kyo" which translates as "Homage to the Lotus Sutra".
The third period began, according to Conze, in about the 7th century, to take centre stage and become a vehicle for salvation in their own right. Tantra started to gain momentum in the 6th and 7th century, with specifically Buddhist forms appearing as early as 300CE. Mantrayana was an early name for the what is now more commonly known as Vajrayana, which gives us a hint as to the place of mantra in Indo-Tibetan Buddhism. The aim of Vajrayana practice is to give the practitioner a direct experience of reality, of things as they really are. Mantras function as symbols of that reality, and different mantras are different aspects of that reality -- for example wisdom or compassion. Mantras are often associated with a particular deity, one famous exception being the Prajnaparamita mantra associated with the Heart Sutra. One of the key Vajrayana strategies for bringing about a direct experience of reality is to engage the entire psycho-physical organism in the practices. In one Buddhist analysis the person consists of body, speech and mind. So a typical sadhana or meditation practice might include mudras, or symbolic hand gestures; the recitations of mantras; as well as the visualisation of celestial beings and visualising the letters of the mantra which is being recited. Clearly here mantra is associated with speech. The meditator may visualise the letters in front of themselves, or within their body. They may be pronounced out loud, or internally in the mind only.
The book Foundations of Tibetan Mysticism by Lama Anagarika Govinda, is a classic example of how a mantra like om mani padme hum can contain many levels of symbolic meaning.
Donald Lopez gives a good discussion of this mantra and its various interpretations in his book Prisoners of Shangri-LA: Tibetan Buddhism and the West. Lopez is an authoritative writer and challenges the stereotypical analysis of the mantra as meaning "The Jewel in the Lotus", an interpretation that is not supported by either a linguistic analysis, nor by Tibetan tradition, and is symptomatic of the Western Orientalist approach to the 'exotic' East. He suggests that Manipadma is actually the name of a bodhisattva, a form of Avalokiteshvara who has many other names in any case including Padmapani or lotus flower in hand. The Brahminical insistence on absolutely correct pronunciation of Sanskrit broke down as Buddhism was exported to other countries where the inhabitants found it impossible to reproduce the sounds. So in Tibet, for instance, where this mantra is on the lips of many Tibetans all their waking hours, the mantra is pronounced Om mani peme hung.
Please note that the word swaha is sometimes shown as svaha, and is usually pronounced as 'so-ha' by Tibetans. Spellings tend to vary in the transliterations to English, for example, hum and hung are generally the same word. The mantras used in Tibetan Buddhist practice are in Sanskrit, to preserve the original mantras. Visualizations and other practices are usually done in the Tibetan language.
Mantras have two components of primary importance - Meaning and Sound. First is the actual meaning of the word or words and the second is the effective sound (vibration). For the mantra to be effective, great emphasis is put on correct pronunciation and the level of concentration of the mind on the meaning of the word or words that are recited.
Due to this emphasis, some care has to be taken regarding the place and surrounding in which the mantras are recited; the way in which these are delivered - ie, a loud; quietly; in a group; with music; without music; etc. The purpose of mantras is to deliver the mind from illusion and material inclinations and to bring concentration and focus to the mind.
The main mantras of Sikhism are:
Mantra practice has also been enthusiastically taken up by various New Age groups and individuals, although this is typically out of context, and from the point of view of a genuine Hindu or Buddhist practitioner lacks depth. The mere repetition of syllables can have a calming effect on the mind, but the traditionalist would argue that mantra can be an effective way of changing the level of one's consciousness when approached in traditional way.
The spiritual exercises of Surat Shabda Yoga include simran (repetition, particularly silent repetition of a mantra given at initiation), dhyan (concentration, viewing, or contemplation, particularly on the Inner Master), and bhajan (listening to the inner sounds of the Shabda or the Shabda Master).
In the Islamic Sufi tradition, chants of the 99 Names of Allah are popular invocations of attributes as are the names of the Prophet, see Dhikr.
In Neo-Pagan ritual, deities may be invoked by a recitation of their many names or aspects.
A form of Christian meditation was taught by Dom John Main that involves the silent repetition of a mantra.