What is Mantra?

A mantra is an embodiment in sound of a particular Devata. It is not a mere formula. Nor is it a magic spell. It is the Devata Himself or Herself. And so, when a mantra is repeated with concentration of mind and the worshipper makes an effort to identify him with the worshipped, the power of the Devata comes to his help. Human power is thus. Supplemented by the divine power. A prayer is different from the re petition of a mantra. It is a purely human effort. Prayers may be offered in any language and in any form.

But a mantra, being an embodiment of a Devata in sound, has to be repeated in that form alone in which it first revealed itself to the mind of a Rishi. It is not to be learnt from books, but from the living voice of a Guru who gives the Upadesa or initiation. And it has for its aim the gradual trans- formation of the worshipper into the like ness of the worshipped. Therefore the more worshipper advances in his/her japa the less is he himself/ she herself and more does she/he partake of the nature and wield the powers of the Devata.

Mantra means a sacred utterance, numinous sound, or a syllable, word, phonemes, or group of words believed by some to have psychological and spiritual power in Sanskrit. A mantra may or may not have syntactic structure or literal meaning; the spiritual value of a mantra comes when it is audible, visible, or present in thought.

The earliest mantras were composed in Vedic times by Hindus in India, and those are at least 3000 years old. Mantras are now found in various schools of Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism. Similar hymns, chants, compositions and concepts are found in Zoroastrianism, Taoism, Christianity and elsewhere.

The use, structure, function, importance and types of mantras vary according to the school and philosophy of Hinduism and of Buddhism. Mantras serve a central role in the tantric school of Hinduism. In this school, mantras are considered equivalent to deities, a sacred formula and deeply personal ritual, and considered to be effective only after initiation. However, in other schools of Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism or Sikhism, this is not so.

Mantras come in many forms, including ṛc (verses from Rigveda for example) and saman (musical chants from the Samaveda for example). They are typically melodic, mathematically structured meters, thought to be resonant with numinous qualities. At its simplest, the word ॐ (Aum, Om) serves as a mantra. In more sophisticated forms, they are melodic phrases with spiritual interpretations such as human longing for truth, reality, light, immortality, peace, love, knowledge and action. Yet other mantras are literally meaningless, yet musically uplifting and spiritually meaningful.

Renou has defined mantra as thought. Mantras are structured formulae of thoughts, claims Silburn. Farquhar concludes that mantras are a religious thought, prayer, sacred utterance, but also believed to be a spell or weapon of supernatural power. Zimmer defines mantra as a verbal instrument to produce something in one’s mind. Bharati defines mantra, in the context of tantric school of Hinduism, to be a combination of mixed genuine and quasi morphemes arranged in conventional patterns, based on codified esoteric traditions, passed on from a guru to a disciple through prescribed initiation.

Jan Gonda, a widely cited scholar on Indian mantras, defines mantra as general name for the verses, formulas or sequence of words in prose which contain praise, are believed to have religious, magical or spiritual efficiency, which are meditated upon, recited, muttered or sung in a ritual, and which are collected in the methodically arranged ancient texts of Hinduism. There is no universally applicable uniform definition of mantra because mantras are used in different religions, and within each religion in different schools of philosophy. In some schools of Hinduism for example, suggests Gonda, mantra is sakti (power) to the devotee in the form of formulated and expressed thought. Staal clarifies that mantras are not rituals, they are what is recited or chanted during a ritual.

During the early Vedic period, claims Staal, Vedic poets became fascinated by the inspirational power of poems, metered verses and music. They referred to them with the root dhi-, which evolved into dhyana (meditation) of Hinduism, and the language used to start and assist this process manifested as mantra. By middle Vedic period (1000 BC to 500 BC), mantras were derived from all Vedic compositions. They included ṛc (verses from Rigveda for example), saman (musical chants from the Samaveda for example), yajus (a muttered formula from the yajurveda for example), and nigada (a loudly spoken yajus). During the Hindu Epics period and after, mantras multiplied in many ways and diversified to meet the needs and passions of various schools of Hinduism. Mantras took a centre stage in the Tantric school, which posited that each mantra (bijas) is a deity; it is this distinct school of Hinduism and ‘each mantra is a deity’ reasoning that led to the perception that some Hindus have tens of millions of gods.