A mantra is a religious 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 and vibrations that instill one-pointed concentration in the devotee. Other purposes have included religious ceremonies to accumulating wealth, avoiding danger, or eliminating enemies. Mantras originated in India with Vedic Hinduism and were later adopted by Buddhists and Jains, now popular in various modern forms of spiritual practice which are loosely based on practices of these Eastern religions.
The word Mantra is a Sanskrit word combining the two syllables: man, meaning "mind", and tra, translated as "deliverance". A mantra is a pure sound-vibration intended to deliver the mind from illusion and material inclinations. Chanting is the process of repeating a mantra.
Mantras have some features in common with spells in general, in that they are a translation of the human will or desire into a form of action. Indeed, Dr. Edward Conze, a scholar of Buddhism, frequently translated "mantra" as "spell". As symbols, sounds are seen to effect what they symbolise. Vocal sounds are frequently thought of as having magical powers, or even of representing the words or speech of a deity. 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. Merely pronouncing this syllable is to experience the divine in a very direct way. Kukai 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. We should not think that this is peculiar to Eastern culture, however. Words do have a mysterious power to affect us. Accepted scholarly etymology links the word with "manas" meaning "mind" and 'tr‚na' for protection so that a mantra is something which protects the mind -- however in practice we will see that mantra is considered to do far more than simply protect the mind.
For many cultures it is the written letters that have power -- the Hebrew Kabbalah for instance, or the Anglo-Saxon Runes. Letters can have an oracular function even. But in India special conditions applied that meant that writing was very definitely inferior to the spoken word. The Brahmins were the priestly caste of the Aryan peoples. It was they that preserved the holy writings -- initially the Vedas, but later also the Upanishads. For years, they were the only ones who knew the mantras or sacred formulas that had to be chanted at every important occasion. However, with the advent of egalitarian Hindu schools of Yoga, Vedanta, Tantra and Bhakti, it is now the case that intra-family and community mantras are passed on freely as part of generally practiced Hindu religion. Such was the influence of the more orthodox attitude of the elite nature of mantra knowledge that even the Buddhists, who repudiated the whole idea of caste, and of the efficacy of the old rituals, called themselves the shravakas, that is "the hearers". A wise person in India was one who had "heard much".Mantras then are sound symbols. What they symbolise, and how they function depends on the context, and the mind of the person repeating them. Studies in sound symbolism suggest that vocal sounds have meaning whether we are aware of it or not. And indeed that there can be multiple layers of symbolism associated with each sound. So even if we do not understand them, mantras are no simply meaningless mumbo jumbo -- no vocal utterance is entirely without meaning. We can look at mantra is a range of different contexts to see what they can mean in those contexts: Om may mean something quite different to a Hindu and a Tibetan Buddhist. The analysis of Kukai, a 9th century Japanese Buddhist is revealing. See below.
While Hindu tantras 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. In fact the Indians had several scripts which were all equally serviceable for writing Sanskrit. Hence 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 where 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.
Mantra in Hinduism
Mantras was originally conceived in the great Hindu scriptures known as the Vedas. Within practically all Hindu scriptures, the writing is formed in painstakingly crafted two line "shlokas" and most mantras follow this pattern, although mantras are often found in single line or even single word combinations.
The most basic mantra is Aum, which in Hinduism is known as the "pranava mantra," the source of all mantras. The philosophy behind this is the Hindu 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 'Censored page Mantra' and others all ultimately focus on the One reality.
In the Hindu tantras 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:
- "The mute consonants represent the earth, the sibilants the sky, the vowels heaven. The mute consonants represent fire, the sibilants air, the vowels the sun? The mute consonants represent the eye, the sibilants the ear, the vowels the mind"
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 Om represents the underlying unity of reality, which is Brahman.
Japa was a concept of the Vedic sages that incorporates mantras as one of the main forms of puja, or worship, whose ultimate end is seen as moksha/liberation. Essentially, japa means repetition, and has become an established practice of all Hindu streams, from the various Yoga to Tantra. It involves repetition of a mantra over and over again, usually in cycles of auspicious numbers (in multiples of three), the most popular being 108. For this reason, Hindu malas (bead necklaces) developed, containing 108 beads and a head "meru" bead. The devotee performing japa using his/her fingers counts each bead as he/she repeats the chosen mantra. Having reached 108 repetitions, if he/she wishes to continue another cycle of mantras, the devotee must turn the mala around without crossing the "meru" bead and repeat.
It is said that through japa the devotee attains one-pointedness, or extreme focus, on the chosen deity or principle 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 prana 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 and Ramayana, are considered powerful enough to be repeated to great effect, and have therefore the status of a mantra.
A very common mantra is formed by taking a deity's name and saluting it in such a manner: "Aum namah ------" or "Aum Jai (Hail!) ------" or several such permutations. Common examples are "Aum namah Shivaya" (Aum to Lord Shiva), "Aum namah Narayana"; or "Om Namo Bhagavate Vasudev„ya," (Salutations to the Universal God Vishnu), "Aum Shri Ganeshaya Namah" (Aum to Shree Ganesh) and "Jai Ma Kali" and "Aum Hrim Chandik„yai Namah." (i.e., mantras to Devi.)
Some Hindu mantras
The most representative mantra of all the Hindu mantras is the famed Censored page:
- ॐ भूर्भुवस्व: |
- तत् सवितूर्वरेण्यम् |
- भर्गो देवस्य धीमहि |
- धियो यो न: प्रचोदयात्
- Om Bhūr Buvaḥ Svaḥ
- Tat Savitur Vareṇyaṃ
- Bhargo Devasya Dhīmahi
- Dhiyo Yo Naḥ Pracodayāt
It 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.
Lead me from Ignorance to Truth
āsato ṃā sat gamayā / tamaso ṃā jyothir-Gamayā / ṃrityor-ṃā āmritham Gamayā / Om śānti śānti śāntiḥ
"Lead me from non-being to being, from darkness to light, from death to immortality."
Hare Krishna Mantra
A very famous mantra is that created by Shri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, a great Vaishnava bhakta (loving devotee) of the Hindu Lord Vishnu in the 15th century. It is beloved by most Hindus as very powerful, Vaishnavs and Shaivaites alike:
- Hare Krishna Hare Krishna Krishna Krishna Hare Hare
- Hare Rama Hare Rama Rama Rama Hare Hare
When A.C. Bhaktivedanta brought his ISKCON (International Society for Krishna Consciousness) brand of Hindu Vaishnavism to the West, he framed the "Hare Krishna" mantra as the sole mantra for moksha/liberation and his sect is now commonly known in the West by the name "Hare Krishnas."
The shanti mantras
- ॐ सह नाववतु |
- सह नौ भुनक्तु |
- सह वीर्यं करवावहै |
- तेजस्विनावधीतमस्तु |
- मा विद्विषावहै ||
- Om saha naavavatu
- Saha nau bhunaktu
- Saha viiryan karavaavahai
- Tejasvi naavadhiitamastu
- Maa vidvishhaavahai
- May we be protected together.
- May we be nourished together.
- May we work together with great vigor.
- May our study be enlightening
- May no obstacle arise between us.
- ॐ शान्तिः शान्तिः शान्तिः
- Om shaantih shaantih shaantih
- Om peace, peace, peace.
- Sarveśāam Svastir Bhavatu
- Sarveśām Sāntir Bhavatu
- Sarveśām Pūrṇam Bhavatu
- Sarveśām ṃangalam Bhavatu
(May good befall all, May there be peace for all, May all be fit for perfection, and May all experience that which is auspicious.)
- Sarve Bhavantu Sukhinaha
- Sarve Santu ṇirāmayaha
- Sarve Badrāṇi Pasyantu
- ṃā Kascidh-dhuhkha Bhāga-Bhavet
(Om, May all be happy. May all be healthy. May we all experience what is good and let no one suffer. Om, Peace, Peace, Peace!)
The Hindu Bija Mantra
In Hinduism the concept of mantra as mystical sounds was carried to its logical conclusion in "seed" (Skt. bija) mantras that have no precise meaning but instead are thought to carry within their sounds connections to various spiritual principles and currents. For example, worship of the Mother Goddess Kali, in mantra form, is famously reduced to the powerful Bija mantras of the Shakta tradition of Hinduism:
- Aum Kreeng Kreeng Kreeng Hoong Hoong Hreeng Hreeng
- Dakshina Kalike
- Kreeng Kreeng Kreeng Hoong Hoong Hreeng Hreeng Swaha
Of course, the most revered of all Bija mantras is Om/Aum.
The Bija mantra is part of the Hindu monist understanding that while reality manifests itself as many/multiple, it is ultimately one.
Mantra in Buddhism
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Buddhism, naturally following from Vedic society, also developed its own system and understanding of mantra, which while similar to that of Hinduism's, also took on its own particularities, especially according to region.
Mantra in Shingon Buddhism
Kūkai advanced a general theory of language based on his analysis of two forms of Buddhist ritual language: dharani (dhāra.nī) and mantra. Mantra is restricted to esoteric Buddhist practice whereas dharani is found in both esoteric and exoteric ritual. Dharanis for instance are found in the Pali Canon see below. Kūkai coined the word "shingon" (lit true word) as a Japanese translation of mantra.
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. This is perhaps related to the use of verse summaries at the end of texts as in the Udana which is generally acknowledged as being in the oldest strata of the Pali Canon. Dharanis are also considered to protect the one who chants them from malign influences and calamities.
Mantra is traditionally said to be derived from two roots: "man", to think; and the action oriented (k.rt) 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.
The distinction between dharani and mantra is a difficult one 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. Kukai 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, Kukai 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]
Mantra in Indo-Tibetan Buddhism
Conze distinguishes three periods in the Buddhist use of mantra. Initially, like their fellow Indians, Buddhists used mantra as protective spells to ward of 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 verses or "parittas" in the early Buddhist scriptures. The Atanatiya Sutta (aa.taanaa.tiya ) in of the Pali Canon (Digha Nikaya Sutta 32) is a collection of these parittas. The verses in this sutta are the means by which people may "dwell guarded, unharmed and at ease", being particularly effective against the malign influence of non-human beings. Other examples include the Ratana Sutta (Sn 222ff) and Khandha Parrita (AN 4.67). According to the Pali commentary, the very well known Metta Sutta was originally taught as a protection against some disruptive tree spirits that were making life very uncomfortable 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".
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 demi-gods, 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 all Buddhist practice 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".
Then thirdly mantra began, 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 almost always associated with a particular deity, with one 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, or even full body prostrations; 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 pronounced out loud, or internally in the mind only.
Om mani padme hum
Probably the most famous mantra of Buddhism is Om mani padme hum, the six syllable mantra of the Bodhisattva of compassion Avalokiteshvara (Sanskrit: Chenrezig, Tibetan). This mantra is particularly associated with the four-armed Shadakshari form of Avalokiteshvara. The Dalai Lama is said to be an incarnation of Avalokiteshvara, and so the mantra is especially revered by his devotees.
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 Manipadme 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 hum.
Some other mantras used by Tibetan Buddhists
The following list of mantras is from Kailash - Journal of Himalayan Studies, Volume 1, Number 2, 1973. (pp. 168-169) (augmented by other contributors). It also includes renderings of Om mani padme hum.
- Om wangishwari hum This is the mantra of the Mahabodhisattva Manjusri (Jambeyang)... The Buddha in his wisdom aspect.
- Om mani padme hum The mantra of Chenrezig, Mahabodhisattva, the Buddha in his compassion aspect.
- Om vajrapani hum The mantra of the Buddha as Protector of the Secret Teachings. ie: as the Mahabodhisattva Channa Dorje (Vajrapani).
- Om ah hum vajra guru pema siddhi hum The mantra of the Vajraguru Guru Padma Sambhava who established Mahayana Buddhism and Tantra in Tibet.
- Om tare tuttare ture swaha The mantra of Jetsun Dolma or Tara, the Mother of the Buddhas.
- Om amarani jiwantiye swaha The mantra of the Buddha of limitless life: the Buddha Amitayus (Tibetan Tsťpagmed) in celestial form.
- Om dhrum swaha The purificatory mantra of the mother Namgyalma .
- Om ami dhewa hri The mantra of the Buddha Amitabha (Hopagmed) of the Western Buddhafield, his skin the colour of the setting sun.
- Om ah ra pa tsa na dhih The mantra of the "sweet-voiced one" Jambeyang or Manjusri, the Buddha in his wisdom aspect.
- Hung vajra phat The mantra of the Mahabodhisattva Vajrapani in his angry (Dragpo) form.
- Om muni muni maha muniye swaha The mantra of Buddha Sakyamuni, the historical Buddha
- "Om gate gate paragate parasamgate bodhi swaha" The mantra of the Heart of the Perfection of Wisdom Sutra
Mantra in other traditions or contexts
Transcendental Meditation also known simply as 'TM' uses simple mantras as a meditative focus. TM was founded by the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. According to the TM website (see below) the practice can result in a number of material benefits such as relaxation, reduced stress, better health, better self image; but it can also benefit the world by reducing violence, crime and generally improve quality of life. The founder was well versed in Hindu tradition, but TM attempts to separate itself from that tradition these days. Simple two syllable mantras are used.
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 ones consciousness when approached in traditional way.
- Mantras in Buddhism site includes real audio clips of mantras
- The benefits of reciting Chenrezig's mantra - a teaching by Lama Zopa
- Mantra on line - includes real audio of mantras
- Sanskrit Spiritual Scriptures - Listen to chanting of many Sanskrit mantras and scriptures
- The theory of mantra and japa (repetition of a mantra)
- Transcendental Meditation Official Website
- Cleansing of Chakras. Opening Up of Spiritual Heart Mantras for clear sensation of our chakras.
- Abe, R. The weaving of mantra : Kukai and the construction of esoteric Buddhist discourse. (New York : Columbia University Press, 1999.)
- Beyer, S. Magic and ritual in Tibet : the cult of Tara. (Delhi: Motilal Banarsisdass, 1996).
- Conze, E. Buddhism : its essence and development. (London : Faber, c1951).
- Gelongma Karma Khechong Palmo. Mantras On The Prayer Flag. Kailash - Journal of Himalayan Studies, Volume 1, Number 2, 1973. (pp. 168-169).
- Gombrich, R. F. Theravaada Buddhism : a social history from ancient Benares to modern Colombo. (London, Routledge, 1988)
- Govinda (Lama Anagarika). Foundations of Tibetan Mysticism. (London : Rider, 1959).
- Lopez, D. Prisoners of Shangri-La: Tibetan Buddhism and the West. (Chicago : University of Chicago Press, 1998)
- The Rider Encyclopedia of Eastern Philosophy and religion. (London : Rider, 1986).
- Skilton, A. A concise history of Buddhism. (Birmingham : Windhorse Publications, 1994).
- Sangharakshita. Transforming Self and World : themes from the Sutra of Golden Light. (Birmingham : Windhorse Publications, 1994).
- Walsh, M. The Long discourses of the Buddha : a translation of the Digha Nikaya. (Boston : Wisdom Publications, 1987)
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