Mantras are perhaps the most potent tool in yoga for self-transformation that does not directly confront the mind. Mantras work quietly at a deeper layer of the being at the level of vibration, at the level beyond the atomic structure. For the average practitioner mantra is a pleasant experience as it bypasses the gross mind. However, one sees big differences in the experiences of people doing mantra sadhana. Some take to it easily, but for others it is a bit of struggle. It is not a practice which can be measured and done accordingly.
The guide for practising mantra is the vibration. One should be in a position to tune oneself and connect to the vibratory nature. Tuning is an art and most people fail in it. The art of tuning into the mantra vibration is subtle and it comes with practice. It is an ability to recognize the awakening of nada, the source of all sound. It is akin to the buzzing sound of bhramari pranayama. If one can feel the buzz underlying the mantra chanting, then the chanting becomes a very uplifting experience. Every mantra has a life of its own, and once that life is awakened and if one can recognize and tune in to it, it becomes a joyful experience. It is like floating effortlessly on the waves on the seashore. One can struggle with the wave or let go and be carried by it. That is exactly the situation with mantra. When one is tuned, then the flow is there, the breath becomes rhythmical and you wish it would never end!
Awakening of the mantra happens when there is continuous repetition. It is said that the pin, or kilaka, which holds the power of the mantra is released when repeatedly struck with sound vibration. That is why it is necessary to do japa, unbroken repetition of the mantra. The shakti or power of the mantra awakens only with japa. The tradition also tells us the number of times the mantra is to be chanted. Purascharana, literally meaning complete repetition, is japa of each letter 100,000 times. Every mantra has the same object, awakening the vibratory body, and in the process transcending the gross mind of thought and counter thought. So one does not have to do hundreds of different mantras to achieve a higher state. One can have mantra siddhi or perfection with one mantra only.
In the ashram we are very fortunate to have the guidance of a master, who has gone through the mass of mantras in the Indian tradition and given us a selection which can be done safely and easily without adverse side effects. We have been given Mahamrityunjaya mantra, Gayatri mantra and the 32 names of Durga as the basic mantras which are beneficial and suitable for everybody. We have also been given four different texts to chant: Saundarya Lahari, Ramacharitamanas, Bhagavad Gita and Durga Saptashati. It is said that the name liberates one during Kali Yuga, the current age. Ramacharitamanas is that chanting of the name for Kali Yuga, as it is not in Sanskrit but in the vernacular. It is chanted to a metre and it is amazing how the letters with long U, short U, long I and short I are placed so immaculately that only when you pronounce them correctly is the metre chanted properly. This becomes easy to understand when we realize that the source of the text is the mantra body or the sound body, and the external form is only the output of an inner setting of the vibration.
The higher stage of mantra japa is mental, because the source of the sound is from the subtle level. The subtle is always the source, although the gross mind refuses to accept this due to the pull of the senses. So after doing loud chanting for some time, when the mind automatically introverts, the chanting should continue without audible sound, upanshu, and then mental japa when the mind focuses further. One has to make this effort to switch to mental japa regularly and not become dependent on and attached to external japa.
Mantras have different qualities and slowly one becomes sensitive to these qualities. The shakti mantras, like the 32 names of Durga, awaken the kundalini shakti, and movements of shakti can be felt in the spinal passage. Vedic chanting with its specific style consisting of udaat (high), anudaat (low) and svarit (middle) notes requires more effort and control over the vocal chords. This style of chanting awakens the quality of the controller the self seated inside. One can feel oneself becoming established in the state of witnessing and the mantras go on spontaneously. Gayatri mantra gives the experience of luminosity. Mahamrityunjaya gives the experience of healing, and a feeling of deep relaxation pervades the entire physical and mental bodies.
The most comprehensive of all mantras is, of course, the mantra Om. In the search for the more esoteric, people forget this most basic and complete mantra. All other mantras are normally prefaced by it, because it has the quality of immediately introverting the mind. This is stated in the Yoga Sutras, where the Om mantra is given as the only expression of Ishwara, the non-decaying reality or God. The three parts of the Om mantra: A, U and M, cover the entire possibility of sound manifestation. Thus there is not one ideal way of chanting Om, and there can be different combinations depending on the relative duration of the three parts. It depends on ones evolution. But the simple rule is to see which combination gives the maximum vibration without stressing the breath.
Soham, the sound of the breath, is the other basic mantra. Aspirants have reached the state of samadhi with just the practice of ajapa japa, spontaneous repetition of the mantra. Kabir Das says that Soham spontaneously awakens anahata nada, the source of all sound. It is perhaps the simplest practice, which starts with breath awareness, then becomes pratyahara, then dharana and leads to dhyana and samadhi.
It is said that in this age of Kali, the only means of transcendence is by chanting Gods name. The modern mind is distracted, pulled in many different directions, and needs a simple tool on which to focus. Mantras serve this purpose most effectively and quietly. But the mantras have to be accepted purely as sound vibrations, not as Indian language chants! Only then does the magic happen.