The Roots of Chanting and Mantra
There’s a long tradition in India of saluting the teacher or evoking divine power through a mantra to open a practice. Such a preamble helps the student to steady her resolve and to remind her of the goal of the work, which is always self-liberation. It also serves to signal the student’s intent to humbly offer the upcoming practice as a sacrifice to the divine, which is the source of all true wisdom.
The recitation of mantra is known as japa, which literally means “muttering, whispering.” According to schools such as Hatha Yoga and Mantra Yoga, the universe is created through the medium of sound, and all sound, whether subtle or audible, issues from a transcendent, “soundless” source called the “supreme sound” or “supreme voice” (shabda-brahman or para-vac). While all sounds possess some degree of shabda-brahman’s creative force, the sounds of mantras are far more forceful than other sounds.
As a practice, japa is thousands of years old. In the beginning, mantras were drawn only from the thousands of verses in the Rig-Veda, Hinduism’s oldest and holiest scripture. After some time, mantras were taken from non-Vedic sources as well, such as the numerous texts associated with the schools of Hindu Tantra, or those revealed to seers (rishis) in meditation. Mantra Yoga as a formal school is a relatively recent development, though “recent” in yoga years means between twelve and fifteen centuries. Instructional manuals commonly list sixteen “limbs” (anga) of practice. Many of them–such as asana, conscious breathing, and meditation–are shared with other yoga schools.
The building blocks of all mantras are the 50 letters of the Sanskrit alphabet. Mantras can consist of a single letter, a syllable or string of syllables, a word, or a whole sentence. Etymologically, the word “mantra” is derived from the verb “man,’ which means “to think,” and the suffix “tra,” which denotes instrumentality. A mantra then is literally an “instrument of thought” that concentrates, intensifies, and spiritualizes our consciousness.
Tradition estimates that there are 70 million mantras. This number shouldn’t be taken too literally; it simply signifies that there are lots of mantras. Yogis assert that, to be most effective, a mantra should be received orally from a self-realized teacher (guru), not merely learned from a book, so that it’s infused with the teacher’s spiritual energy. And to preserve its reservoir of power, a mantra should be kept in strictest secrecy, and not revealed to anyone else.
Mantra traditionally has two purposes, which can be called worldly and spiritual. We usually think of mantra solely as an instrument of self-transformation. But in ancient times mantra was also used for mundane and not necessarily positive ends, such as communicating with and appeasing ghosts and ancestors, exorcism or warding off evil forces, remedies for illnesses, control of other people’s thoughts or actions, and the acquisition of powers (siddha) or magical skills. As for its spiritual purpose, mantra is said to quiet the habitual fluctuations of our consciousness and then steer consciousness toward its source in the Self.
We’re accustomed to the idea that mantras are recited aloud. But mantras can also be “not-spoken” or “not-muttered” (ajapa). One old text, the Yoga-Yajnavalkya (2.16), maintains that a whispered mantra is a thousand times more beneficial than a spoken one, a mental mantra is a thousand times more beneficial than a whispered one, and finally meditating on a mantra is a thousand times more beneficial than its silent recitation. Some teachers mention a third subcategory of ajapa-mantra, which is writing (likhita) out the mantra.
Yogis also categorize mantras as either “meaningful” or “meaningless.” Mantras in the “meaningful” category have an obvious surface meaning along with the esoteric one. Examples of meaningful mantras are the “great sayings” (maha-vakya) drawn from the texts known as the Upanishads, such as “I am the Absolute” (aham brahma asmi) and “You are That” (tat tvam asi). Meaningful mantras have two functions: to instill within the reciter a particular spiritual doctrine, and to serve as a vehicle for meditation.
It’s rather misleading to call the second category of mantras “meaningless.” Meaningless mantras are only apparently so to noninitiates, who don’t possess the key to their understanding. Those in the know, who have undergone proper initiation, understand the mantra perfectly well. Besides, the purpose of these mantras isn’t to impart a particular doctrine but to affect a certain state of consciousness in the reciter.
Nowadays it’s not always possible to find a guru to provide you with a mantra and teach you the proper way to recite it. But if you’re interested in learning about mantra, first check your local yoga school for a mantra class or workshop, or at least an asana class in which japa is a regular feature. The best way to learn mantra is still directly from a teacher, even though he or she may not be totally enlightened. Another acceptable way to learn about mantra is from audio productions; I’ve listed three (and there are many more) in the Resources section below. To get started, you can also listen to audio clips on YogaJournal.com.
There are a few important things to remember when practicing japa. Always pay careful attention to the speed and rhythm of your chanting, and the correct pronunciation, aim, and esoteric meaning of the mantra. It’s claimed hat a mantra that’s mispronounced and used inappropriately is “asleep” or totally ineffective. It’s also recommended that you practice japa at the same time every day and place every day, facing either north or east. The most propitious time is called the “hour of Brahma” (brahma-muhurta), which is set at different times by different teachers, commonly either at sunrise or an hour before. Of course, this might not always be possible, so any time and place will do, as long as you practice regularly.