MANTRA is, most concisely, a sacred utterance, incantation, or invocation repeated aloud or in meditation in order to bring about a prescribed effect, such as the calming of the mind or a vision of a deity. The mantra may be with or without conventional meaning, but it contains esoteric or mystical potentialities.
The word mantra is derived from the Sanskrit verbal root man, "to think," and the suffix -tra, indicating instrumentality. Thus the word indicates, literally, a means or instrument of thought. More practically, a mantra is an efficacious sound or utterance. Its translation can be difficult, and is often inexact. In the earliest Indian text, the Ṛgveda, it often had the sense of "invocation," while in later literature it is closer to "incantation," "word(s) of power," "(magic) formula," "sacred hymn," "name of God," or sometimes simply "thought." Because by the twenty-first century the word has entered common English, it is best to leave it untranslated and allow context to determine its meaning.
Mantras were originally, and commonly, used in religions that originated in South Asia, particularly in Hinduism and its Vedic predecessors, as well as in Buddhism. Jainism and Sikhism, two other major South Asian religions, also employ mantras prolifically, but unlike Buddhism and Hinduism, Jainism and Sikhism did not contribute much to theorizing mantra.
Mantras can range from an entire verse with a conventional meaning to single syllables in which the meaning is esoteric, multileveled, and all but secret except to the initiated. A common element of mantras is that they are in Sanskrit (though arguments have been made that single-syllable mantras participate in a linguistic encoding beyond any conventional syntactically oriented language). As the word literally indicates, mantras are useful sounds or collocations of sounds. They are useful, powerful, or efficacious for several reasons: first, because the sounds themselves are said to bear their meaning; second, because they are used in ritual, in which the action lies within the sphere of liminality, which renders both words and actions unconventional and therefore (in a manner of thinking) more direct and effective; and third, because they are said to be transformative to the speaker in ways that ordinary language is not. Among the ritual settings in which they are used, mantras function as vehicles to meditation; as verbal accompaniments to offerings to a deity, which are thought to bring about the results of particular desires; and as linguistic or sonic embodiments of deities or other structures.
According to the orthodox Hindu theology of the Pūrvamīmāṃsā, the Vedas are uncreated, they are not the products of human endeavor (apauruṣeya ). This elevates the words of the Vedas to the status of mantra, as their meaning is no longer simply conventional, representative, or marked by syntactic context. They are thus eternal, the products of the extraordinary vision of Vedic seers (ṛṣi, kavi ), their phonetic embodiment equivalent with their meaning and materiality. Thus the Vedic hymns (sūkta, "well-spoken") are regarded as collections of mantras, expressing the true nature and structure of the cosmos. This ideology is the main reason why, in the later Vedic traditions, it became unimportant for those who studied the Vedas to know the meaning of the verses; it was sufficient to memorize the texts—precisely, with fastidious attention to pronunciation and accent. A by-product of this was the rise of the discipline of linguistics in India after about the sixth century bce, particularly in a series of texts called prātiśākhya s dedicated to analysis of the pronunciation of the words in each textual branch (śākhā ) of the Veda.
Several centuries earlier than these treatises on phonetics, however, in the late second millennium bce, the texts on ritual use of the Sāmaveda showed an array of meaningless sounds, or, more accurately, sounds whose meaning was nothing but their sound. These undecipherable sounds, such as bham and bhā, were called stobha s, and they were recited within and surrounding more conventional Samavedic verse mantras. Slightly later, in the middle Vedic period, the centuries around the turn of the first millennium bce, the theologians of the brāhmaṇa texts considered that the whispered utterance (upāṃśu ), particularly of Vedic verses in ritual contexts, was superior to the audible one, and that the best of all was the silent (tuṣṇīm ) or mental (mānasa ) utterance. One such text, the Śatapatha Brāhmaṇa (126.96.36.199), states that undefined or unmanifest (anirukta ) speech represents the innumerable, the unlimited. This notion of the inseparability of speech and thought was to have a great impact on future ideologies of mantra.
Mantra achieved its highest development in Hindu and Buddhist Tantras, beginning in about the sixth century ce, though many non-Tantric Hindu theologians realized its importance as well. Tantric teaching on mantra revolved around the concept of vāc, both the deity and concept of speech, as well as the female energy principle. It is regarded as the force that animates the male principle, Śiva. The dynamics of vāc embody the threefold process of creation, manifestation, and resorption, a topic that receives considerable attention in the Tantras. The doctrine of speech, then, is essentially the "science of mantra " (mantravidyā, mantra-śāstra ).
The following mantras deserve mention:
- The syllable oṃ is regarded as the supreme mantra, containing within its sounds a-u-m the entire articulatory apparatus, and thus the sum total of all sounds and mantras. This mantra is said to have flashed forth in the heart of Brahmā, the creator, while he was in deep meditation, and to have unfolded in the form of Gāyatrī, the mother of the Vedas.
- The Gāyatrī Mantra is widely hailed as the most characteristic Vedic mantra —(Oṃ bhūr bhuvaḥ svaḥ) Tatsavitur vareṇyaṃ bhargo devasya dhīmahi; Dhiyo yo naḥ pracodayā't: "(Om. Earth! Mid-region! Celestium!) Let us meditate on that excellent radiance of the god Savitṛ; may he impel our visions" (Ṛgveda 3.62.10). This is to be recited a certain number of times (usually 108) two or three times per day by all brahmans initiated into the rites of the "twice-born." It served as a model for a substantial number of other gāyatrīs dedicated to different deities. (Gāyatrī is the name of the metrical pattern consisting of three times eight syllables, with the major division after the first two strophes.)
- Agne vratapate vrataṃ cariṣyāmi (Vājasaneyī-Saṃhitā of the Śukla [White] Yajurveda 1.5): "O Agni Lord of Vows, I will observe my vow." This mantra has been prescribed for nearly three millennia for a person or married couple about to undertake a vow of abstinence or penance. Agni is both the sacred fire and the deity of that fire who transmits oblations to the other deities. Thus, this mantra is recited while invoking the deity Agni in the form of fire as witness to the vow.
- Oṃ namaḥ śivāya: "Om, obeisance to Śiva." This is the famous "five-syllable mantra " (the oṃ is an addition) to the great Hindu deity Śiva. Large numbers of religious mendicants and lay people alike mutter this mantra hundreds or even thousands of times daily. As with most mantras that mention the name of a deity directly or obliquely, it is believed that the number of times it is repeated is important in "attaining perfection" (siddhi ) in the mantra. This means that after extensive "practice" of a mantra, the aspirant gains the ability to invoke the deity at will or even identify him or herself with that deity. This could mean either merging with the deity or becoming the deity.
- The well-known Hare Krishna mantra —Hare kṛṣṇa hare kṛṣṇa kṛṣṇa kṛṣṇa hare hare; hare rāma hare rāma rāma rāma hare hare: "O Hare, O Kṛṣṇa, etc.; O Hara, O Rāma, etc." This example of a mantra that contains only divine names was memorialized by Bengali mystic Śrī Caitanya (1486–1533).
- Oṃ namo bhagavate vāsudevāya: "Om, obeisance to the illustrious Vāsudeva (Kṛṣṇa )." This mantra is one of the most commonly recited by Vaiṣṇavas, followers of the different sects dedicated to the worship of Viṣṇu or Kṛṣṇa.
- Oṃ aiṃ hrīm klīṃ chāmuṇḍāyai vicche: "Om Aiṃ Hrīm Klīṃ, to the goddess Chāmuṇḍā, Vicche." This string of monosyllabic or "seed" (bīja ) mantras, with one of the names of the goddess appended, followed by the peculiar bisyllabic seed mantra vicche, is one of the most commonly used mantras in offerings to various forms of the goddess. Bīja mantras are regarded as the phonic representations of different deities, though many of them, such as hrīm and klīṃ, are used for several different deities.
- Oṃ maṇi padme hūṃ: "Om (O heart of Avalokiteś-vara), in the lotus made of jewels." This is the most popular mantra in Tibetan Buddhism. Its recitation is said to lead to rebirth in worlds contained within the hair pores of Avalokiteśvara's body.
- Sauḥ. This bīja mantra has received a great deal of attention and analysis in esoteric Śaiva Tantras, where its phonic components are broken down and assigned extreme cosmic importance. Sauḥ is considered the "heart bīja," holding within it the entire cosmos. The great Śaiva philosopher Abhinavagupta (c. 975–1025), in his massive Tantrāloka (4.186–189), breaks this mantra into three parts, s-au-ḥ : s equals being (sat ); au is the three energies of precognitive impulse, cognition, and action; and ḥ (visarga ) is emission, that which is projected outward by the supreme consciousness.
These are by no means the only mantras that deserve discussion; dozens of others are accorded equal or greater status by different sectarian traditions in South Asia and beyond (e.g., the Heart Sūtra is treated as a mantra by millions of Buddhists across East Asia, who recite it constantly because of its supposed esoteric effects). Thus, mantras are, and always have been, an integral and integrative part of Indian and pan-Asian religions, as religion across Asia has been intimately influenced by the use and ideology of mantra in South Asia.
Buddhism, Schools of, article on Tantric Ritual Schools of Buddhism; Buddhist Books and Texts, article on Canon and Canonization; Hindu Tantric Literature; Oṃ; Tantrism.
Alper, Harvey, ed. Mantra. Albany, N.Y., 1989. This important book contains ten chapters and an excellent conclusion by leading scholars on the subject of mantra in different branches of Indic religion and philosophy.
Gonda, Jan. "The Indian Mantra." Oriens 16 (1963): 244–297. Reprinted in Gonda's Selected Studies, vol. 4, History of Ancient Indian Religion, pp. 248–301. Leiden, 1975. This article presents the clearest and most detailed picture of mantra in Vedic, and discusses the development of mantra in medieval India.
Padoux, André. Mantras et diagrammes rituels dans l'Hindouisme. Paris, 1986. This collection of articles by leading scholars explicates the relationship between mantras and cosmograms (maṇḍalas and yantras ) in Indian religion, architecture, and medicine.
Padoux, André. Vāc: The Concept of the Word in Selected Hindu Tantras. Translated by Jacques Gontier. Albany, N.Y., 1990. This is the definitive book on the theology and construction of mantras in Hindu Tantra, especially as it is found in the Śaiva texts of Kashmir.
Studholme, Alexander. The Origins of Om Manipadme Hum: A Study of the Karaṇḍavyūha Sūtra. Albany, N.Y., 2002. This is a deep study of the religious context of this Buddhist mantra and the little-known sūtra text in which it is first cele-brated.
Frederick M. Smith (2005)
Mantra (or Mantram)
Mantra (or Mantram)
In Hindu mysticism, a mantra is a form of psychoactive speech having a direct effect on the physical body and a claimed effect on the emotions, the mind, and even on physical processes in nature. The term is derived from the root man (to think), and tra from trai, (to protect or to free from bondage). Thus, a mantra is an instrument of thought.
According to Hindu tradition, the material universe is said to be formed from divine vibration, a concept echoed in the Judeo-Christian concepts of divine utterance preceding creation—"And God said, let there be light" (Gen. 1:3) and "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God" (John 1:1). The use of mantras can also be found in Buddhist tantrism, known as Vairayana.
The verses of the Hindu sacred scriptures, the Vedas (veda means knowledge), are regarded as mantras, because they have been transmitted from a divine source, rather like the Christian concept of the Bible as having power as the Word of God. Hindus, however, also believe that words and phrases have special powers as expressions of the hidden forces of nature. The vibrations of molecules which create the particular sounds of the mantras are thought to resonate with Shabda or Vach (primal essence of creation.)
Divine creation becomes manifest in form throughout nature, and the latent reality behind form may be affected by correctly uttering the sounds that represent the ideal reality. These mantras were discovered by ancient sages skilled in the knowledge of the Mantra Shastra scripture and taught to initiates.
The universe is called Jagat (that which moves), because everything exists by a combination of forces and movement, and every movement generates vibration and has its own sound. These subtle sounds have correspondences in the baser sounds of speech and music, and so everything in the universe has an exact relationship. Everything has its natural name, the sound produced by the action of the moving forces from which it is constructed. Thus, anyone who is able to utter the natural name of anything with creative force can bring into being the thing which has that name.
The most well-known mantra is the trisyllable A-U-M, which precedes and concludes reading from the Vedas and is chanted as an individual mantra or magical prayer. Hindu tradition says it is the origin of all sound, and initially came to those sages who reached the highest state of spiritual development. The three syllables are associated with the processes of creation, preservation, and dissolution and with the three states of consciousness (dreaming, deep sleep, and waking).
The scripture Mandukya Upanishad describes how AUM, or "OM," is the basis of all the other letters in the Sanskrit language and is associated with the universe and the human microcosm (analgous concepts exist in such kabalistic works as the Sepher Yesirah). A mantra may also be associated with a yantra, or mystical diagram.
Mantras are frequently uttered in rhythmic repetition known as japa, often with the aid of a mala, a set of beads resembling the Catholic rosary. In japa yoga, the power of a mantra is enhanced by the accumulation of repetitions. Although mantras have an automatic action, that action is enhanced by proper concentration and attitude of mind. The spoken mantra is also an aid to the mental mantra, which contains the inner meaning and power.
Special mantras called bija (seed) mantras are linked with the basic states of matter in connection with the chakras, or subtle energy centers, of the human body. These seeds are said to hold the potential to release the powers of the chakras.
Most yogic traditions use some form of mantra initiation, which transmits a particular mantra from guru to student. Spiritual mantras common in India include variants of the "Hari Rama, Hari Krishna" formula, made popular in the West by members of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness, and the Gayatri Mantra, normally recited by Brahmins during meditation on the sun. Transcendental meditators also reportedly use mantras in their practices. "Hari Om" is a common healing mantra performed regularly by the Sivananda Ashram in Rishikesh, India, which invokes Vishnu (Hindu God) to take away illnesses and offenses. Shiva Hara Shankara, as chanted by Indira Devi's Ashram in Poona, India, asks the Lord Shiva to free us from the bondage of life. The Shiva Mantra implores "Homage, homage, all homage and glory to you, O Lord Shiva." Similarly, the Lakshmi Mantra calls upon the Goddess Lakshmi, "We pray to you in benign solemnity to bestow your blessings and shower your wealth upon us."
The development of compact discs and digital recordings has made mantra recordings more available in music stores and New Age shops. As this technology has fueled western acceptance of yoga, mantras will gain popularity and perhaps take on a new meaning as more and more westerners practice them.
Das, Krishna. Pilgrim Heart. New York: Triloka Records, 1998
Easwaran, Eknath. The Mantram Handbook. London: Rout-ledge & Kegan Paul, 1978.
Godwin, Joscelyn. Music and the Occult. Rochester, N.Y.: University of Rochester Press, 1995.
Gopalacharlu, S. E. An Introduction to the Mantra Sastra. Adyar, Madras, India: Theosophical Publishing House, 1934.
Kalisch, Isidor, trans. Sepher Yezirah: A Book on Creation. New York, 1877.
Lakshmi Montra. "Mantra on Net." http//:www.mantraonnet.com/. February 26, 2000.
Narayana, Har, trans. The Vedic Philosophy; or, An Exposition of the Sacred and Mysterious Monosyllable AUM; The Mandukya Upanishad. Bombay, 1895.
Radha, Swami Sivananda. Mantras: Words of Power. Spokane, Wash.: Timeless Books, 1994.
Shiva Montra from Mantra on Net. http//:www.mantraonnet.com. February 26, 2000.
Woodroffe, Sir John. The Garland of Letters (Varnamala): Studies in the Mantra-Shastra. Madras, India: Ganesh, 1951.
Mantra, a Sanskrit word that means "mystic utterance," refers to a wide range of ritual incantations that characterize religious traditions of South Asia and their successors. The practice of mantra recitation, best known in Hinduism and Buddhism, stems from the Vedic heritage of India in which sound (in the Sanskrit language) had metaphysical power. Hymns of the Vedas (1500 b.c.e.), believed to be of divine origin, contained "seed syllables" in auspicious combinations of sounds, sequence, and intonation. When these sounds were uttered by ritual specialists, they held the power to create, sustain, and destroy the entire world. Knowledge of these syllables and their utterance was considered magical, joining the spiritual and temporal and opening access to ultimate wisdom.
Mantras (also called dhāranīs) vary in length from a single Sanskrit letter to hundreds of Sanskrit syllables. The most ancient mantras had no interpretable meaning, but eventually some mantras developed that could be translated into a semblance of conventional meaning. Recitation of mantras was associated in Hinduism and Indian Buddhism with initiations to particular rituals, the invocation of the power of a particular deity or deities, exorcism of obstacles and protection from future ones, and opening spiritually sensitive parts of the subtle Yogic body in meditation. Mantra practices were also assimilated by Sikh and Sufi traditions.
Mantras outside of India
The mantra tradition was disseminated to other parts of Asia with the spread of Buddhism. For example, the popular Sanskrit Heart Sutra (Prajnaparamitahrdaya-sutra) contains a famous mantra that is fervently intoned in Chinese, Korean, and Japanese versions of Sanskrit. Japanese Pure Land Buddhism sought a single mantra that would contain all others, elevating the recitation of the Nembutsu, the name of the celestial and compassionate Amitabha Buddha (Amida Butsu in Japanese), to to level of a supreme, universal meditation. Esoteric Buddhism (called Shingon in Japan) especially preserved mantra practices throughout Asia, The richest and most vital esoteric Buddhism of Tibet assimilated the Indian mantra traditions most enthusiastically, identifying them as foundational in tantric ritual life and meditation.
The United States was popularly introduced to mantras by the Hindu guru Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, who propagated a highly Americanized Transcendental Meditation movement in the late 1960s. TM, as it was called, centered on the cultivation of mental calm through concentrated recitation of a special Sanskrit mantra given by the guru. With the growing popularity of Hindu and Buddhist meditation in the last decades of the millennium, Americans have embraced mantra practices from a variety of Asian traditions. Students of the International Society of Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON), founded in India, sing "Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna" and Tibetan Buddhists chant "Om Mani Padme Hum"; students of the Japanese Soka Gakkai repeat the Gohonzon from the Buddhist Lotus Sūtra "Namu Myōhō Renge Kyō." Though these various traditions have different interpretations of the importance of mantras, each embraces their transformative power for focusing and purifying the mind, synchronizing the intention, and opening the heart in meditation practice.
Alper, Harvey, ed. Understanding Mantras. 1989.
Blofeld, John. Mantras: Sacred Words of Power. 1977.
Coward, Harold, and David Goa. Mantra: Hearing theDivine in India. 1991.
There are three kinds of mantra: linguistically meaningful, such as namaḥ śivāya, ‘homage to Śiva’; linguistically meaningless, the bīja or ‘seed’ mantras, such as oṃ aḥ huṃ; and combined, such as the Buddhist oṃ mani padme huṃ, ‘om jewel in the lotus huṃ’.
Mantras are only endowed with transformative power if given in initiation (dīkṣa) from the mouth of a guru. It is not so much correct pronunciation, but rather the power with which the mantra is endowed that gives it transforming capability.
Mantras, or incantations, magic formulas, or spells, were originally used in Vedic religion to invoke the gods during sacrificial rituals. They were used as spells and magic charms in mainstream Indian and East Asian Mahāyāna Buddhism, in which the word mantra was more less interchangeable with the word dhĀraṆĪ. Mantra was translated into Chinese as zhenyan ("true word"). Mantra became so fundamental an aspect of tantric Buddhism, or VajrayĀna, which rose in the seventh and eighth centuries, that it was initially called the "Mantrayāna."
Chanted in tantric ritual and practice, mantras are generally short combinations of syllables that have no direct or easily translatable meaning. The chanted sound of the formula, not the meaning, is the important factor. Mantras are powerful language understood to be the literal words or sounds of the Buddha. The word "mantra" is often combined or interchanged with the word hṛdaya ("heart"), so that it means something like "quintessence." A hṛdaya-mantra often begins with oṃ and ends with svāhā, hūṃ, or phat. This use of mantra is essentially the same as, and is often translated as "seed syllable," though that term is properly a translation of bīja. The best-known mantra among Tibetan and Mongolian Buddhists is oṂ maṆi padme hŪṂ, an invocation of the Bodhisattva Avalokiteśvara, who is depicted holding a jewel and a lotus—the exact meaning of which has long been a matter of popular and scholarly debate.
Strickmann, Michel. Mantras et Mandarins: le bouddhisme tantrique en Chine. Paris: Éditions Gallimard, 1996.
Richard D. McBride II
A sacred formula believed to have a magic power. The term was used originally of the verses of the vedas, the sacred books of the Hindus, chanted at the time of sacrifice. However, certain verses were believed to have a special power, of which the most famous is the Gāyatrī, the invocation of the Sun-God, used on all the most solemn occasions. The most sacred word of all is the syllable Om, which is held to contain in itself all sounds and to symbolize the universe, so that by its repetition it is possible to realize one's identity with the Absolute. The theory of the mantra, developed in later times, is that the sacred word or sound makes present what it signifies. Thus, by repetition of a mantra under proper conditions it is possible to obtain all power. A mantra can absolve from sin, avert danger, secure success, and confer sanctity. In certain mantras, it is believed, all wisdom is contained.
See Also: hinduism.