The term dhāraṇī refers to spells, incantations, or mnemonic codes, and literally means "to hold," "to support," or "to maintain." Originating in Vedic religion, dhāraṇī often consist of incomprehensible combinations of syllables in Sanskrit. Buddhist dhāraṇī may be long or short and are usually untranslatable. Dhāraṇī comprise a large portion of the Buddhist canon of scripture and most of the important Māhāyana sūtras conclude with or include sections on āraṇī, for example the Heart Sūatra and the LotusSŪtra (SaddharmapuṆḌarika-sŪtra). Various types of dhāraṇī are mentioned in Buddhist literature, for example, mantra-dhāraṇī, by which a bodhisattva acquires charms to allay plagues, and mnemonic dhāraṇī, by which a bodhisattva's memory and perception are enhanced to remember sūtras or salient points of doctrine. In some texts the word dhāraṇī also appears in compounds with the word mantra.
During the twentieth century Western scholars tried to assert a precise distinction between dhāraṇī and mantra by following the strict denotations of the terms.
Strictly speaking, dhāraṇī should refer to memory aids to hold, support, or protect something in the mind, while mantra refer to syllabic formula, spells, and incantations. However, in Buddhist hagiography monk-thaumaturges do not make these distinctions, and in Buddhist commentarial literature, monk-scholars classify dhāraṇī into various types but always make provision for spell-type dhāraṇī. Also, dhāraṇī collections contain many spells and procedures for their intended use by laypersons.
The sounds of dhāraṇī are powerful of themselves and generate merit by merely reciting them. They also function by means of the doctrine of the "transference of merit." By chanting dhāraṇī one obtains merit for oneself by drawing upon the inexhaustible stores of merit possessed by buddhas, bodhisattvas, and gods for use in this world, usually for protection and to counteract problems understood to be the fruits of one's own karma, but this power may also be used to work other kinds of miracles. Since dhāraṇī were later popular among tantric masters, dhāraṇī texts are often, perhaps misleadingly, classified as proto-tantric.
Chou Yi-liang. "Tantrisim in China." Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies 8 (March 1945): 241–332.
Lamotte, Étienne. "Obtenir les portes de Souvenance et de Concentration." In Le traité de la grande vertu de sagesse de Nāgārjuna (Mahāprajñāpāramitāśāstra), Vol. 4, pp. 1854–1869. Louvain, Belgium: Institut orientaliste, Université de Louvain, 1966–1976.
Richard D. McBride II