The Nature of Mantra

Swami Niranjanananda Saraswati, satsang at Atma Darshan Yogashram, Bangalore, February 25, 2007

Mantras were discovered in higher states of meditation, when yogis started to explore the different layers of the mind to discover the source of existence. As they went deeper into their own nature, they started seeing themselves in a different way. We see ourselves as composed of matter, we identify with the body. But within this sthoola, gross body, there is also the sukshma, subtle body. The extensions of the subtle body are manas, buddhi, chitta and ahamkara through which we are able to experience the attributes of the mind and interact with the world of sense objects. Underneath the subtle body is karana sharira, the causal body, the dimension of the spirit.

Normally, it is hard to go beyond the sthoola, the sensorial or physical level in meditation. With some effort we can go up to sukshma, the chitta dimension, the ahamkara experience, the mental and intellectual level, and contain the agitation of the vrittis. A few are able to access the karana sharira, the dimension of spirit. Yogis who have gone to that level have experienced luminosity, the nature of existence, the eternal quality of the spirit. Therefore, they see their body as not composed of flesh, blood and marrow, but as a body of light. That light is identified with cosmic or divine luminosity, the godly nature. In Samkhya philosophy, this experience is called prakashsheelatwa, nature of luminosity.

In the state of luminosity, vibrations are heard that the physical body is incapable of hearing. Normally, we hear sounds only within a certain range of decibels; beyond or below that range the frequencies change and we can’t hear them. However, as we sensitize ourselves by experiencing and living in the causal body, we begin to hear and see many things. What we hear are mantras, what we see are yantras. We begin to see the circuits of life, how we are connected and are part of the unified field theory.

If we prick ourselves with a needle, where do we feel the prick? In the mind, brain, senses, in a particular part of the body? We feel the prick all over, because the mind experiences that prick, the brain, nerves, muscles, the annamaya sharira, the physical body, and the manomaya sharira, the mental body, respond to that sensation or stimulation. Every attribute of the gross and the subtle bodies respond to that one stimulation. When we transcend this level, then in the jyoti sharira, the astral, the causal level, we see the circuits. When we connect the dots of the circuits, we see the image of a yantra, because the image of the yantra is only a reflection of our mental strings, the jigsaw puzzle of the mind. Just as in a jigsaw puzzle there are different pieces that make a whole picture, the mind too has different parts that are separate yet fit in and interlock with each other to give the experience of the whole consciousness. One part may be memory, others arrogance, innocence, purity, tamas, rajas, sattwa. These are pratyayas, which make up the consciousness.

In the state where the yogis experience the whole consciousness, they also hear sounds. The sound is heard in different ranges of frequencies, and they become mantras and aksharas. In kundalini yoga, each petal on the image of a chakra has an akshara, a letter, which is the sound or vibratory frequency belonging to that particular chakra. These are the subtle sounds that yogis hear. Having heard these sounds or mantras, when they go back within, they hear the primordial sound – the pranava, Om.

The mantras that the yogis discovered are frequencies, amplitudes, ranges of energy that vibrate at each dimension of our personality. They started to combine the mantras. They identified each sound with a particular psychic centre. The bija mantra Om, for example, was identified as the sound of ajna chakra, the bija mantra ham as the sound of vishuddhi chakra, the bija mantra yam as the sound of anahata chakra, the bija mantra ram as the sound of manipura chakra. Another range of frequencies was identified; these were sounds such as a, aa, i, ee, u, oo, e, ai, o, ou, am, ah. They make up the entire range of the bija mantras of the chakra system.

The yogis also perceived in their state of observation that by chanting a particular sound you are able to stimulate the chakras. If, for example, a long rope is tied to a tree trunk and you shake it, you will see the effect, the wave travels from one end of the rope to the other. Similarly, if the sound of a frequency is audibly spoken, the ripples of the vibration reach the other end, activate and touch the psychic centre. So, in order to create a particular state of consciousness the yogis combined the sounds, and thus emerged mantras like Om namaha Shivaya, Om namaha bhagavate Vasudevaya, and others. Mantras became part of spiritual sadhana to awaken different areas of consciousness, to develop knowledge and creativity in a particular pratyaya or the puzzle piece of the consciousness.

Mantras and religion

When identification with a belief system emerged in the form of religion, and organized patterns of morality and practices were established to achieve one aim, then the mantras were identified by laypersons – not by yogis but by laypersons – to become part of their religious practice. Mantras were used to identify with the symbols of worship that they were using. That was how mantras became associated with symbols.

People started to think that Om Ramayah namah is a Rama mantra, Rama being the historical/mythological personality who lived at a certain time and place. Mantras started to be associated with people’s beliefs and understanding. Krishna mantras became associated with Krishna, Shiva mantras with Shiva, Devi mantras with Devi. However, mantras precede such identification with belief systems, and the classical and committed yogic traditions have remained true to the original purpose of the mantra, which is inner awakening. If you were to ask a classical yoga propagator the meaning of a mantra, the person would not be able to answer, as it is not possible to tell the meaning of a vibration.

Different uses of mantra

The yogis also noticed that mantras were beneficial for managing the obsessive quality of the mind, the quality of chinta, worry or brooding, which limits one’s potentials and creativity. The practice of mantra helps the mind come out of this state. In fact, even in the most stressful situation or environment it is possible to become relaxed with the use of the mantra.

It was also found that certain mantras activated certain centres of the brain, certain points of the mind and consciousness. These mantras were incorporated within social practices. For example, the Gayatri mantra is taught to young students in the Indian tradition so they may attain maturity of intelligence. Therefore, mantras had religious, spiritual and social roles. Mantras also created a link between two people – the guru and the disciple.

Guru mantra

In the development of spiritual awareness, mantra sadhana is the first initiation. The disciple accepts the guru as the master with an understanding that in the realm of spirituality he or she is a novice. They surrender themselves to the guru to acquire wisdom, understanding and experience through the guidance of the guru. The mantra given by the guru becomes the link to intensify this feeling. It connects one with one’s inner strength.

The mantra sadhana received from the guru is considered final because you are not using your ego, ahamkara, with the guru. You are using your sentiments, feelings, heart and emotions. When you go to school and learn from a teacher, you take his word as final and imbibe the teachings, and at the time of the exam use all your faculties to express what you have imbibed. The same principle applies with the guru, but not at the intellectual level, at the heart level. You place your trust in the guru just as the student places trust in the professor. The mantra becomes the link between the guru and the disciple; it is the final link and the only link. The mantra initiation is the main initiation, and the guru mantra is the first and last.

Nevertheless, when you receive the guru mantra you do not need to leave any practices that you have already been following, whether going to Sunday church, reading the Koran or Guru Grantha Sahib, or worshipping a number of gods and goddesses. At the end of whatever you do, practise the guru mantra. The guru mantra does not change your belief system; rather, it opens up a new avenue for you to express yourself in that belief. So, at the end of your rituals and routines, practise the guru mantra in the form of meditation. Practise it not as ritual, but as meditation.

Practising the mantra

Mantra practice is a sadhana. If we practise two malas with absolute concentration, it will give the result of a thousand malas practised without concentration. Don’t think that if we practise 10 malas today or 15 malas tomorrow, our spiritual growth will be faster. If taking one aspirin relieves us of a headache in ten minutes, will taking ten aspirins make it go away in a minute? Whether we practise two malas or 2000 malas a day, the time taken to achieve spiritual growth will be the same. Therefore, it is better that we do less with more intensity and concentration than more while fighting with the mind, not concentrating and not being able to experience the internalization of the meditative process. Ten minutes of mantra practice with the mala is enough – no more, no less.

Also, don’t identify with the experience of meditation. Don’t condition yourself to think about the effect of the meditation. Just as we enjoy a good meal, we should enjoy meditation too. If we don’t enjoy the meditation on a certain day, we can think that it is a day of fasting, but not discontinue the practice. Whether we see light, energy, demons or hell, we must remember that these are only projections of the mind. Observe and accept them, and after coming out of meditation forget what you experienced and go about your life normally. This will bring about a balance in your spiritual life.

Since we are not used to internalizing, ten minutes of internalization has to be balanced with at least 50 minutes of activity – externalization. This is the sutra, thread, that one has to follow in yoga. Those who meditate eight hours a day in their zeal acquire nothing but lower back pain! The sadhana has to be short and sweet, something that we can do quickly, and derive maximum benefit from. This is the meditative practice of mantra.

The other method of mantra practice is the simple way. Continue to repeat the mantra mentally when you are walking, sitting, eating, stressed, distressed, watching television, reading the newspaper. You can go on repeating the mantra mentally, for a minute or 24 hours, while continuing with normal activities. The only restriction is, don’t practise the mantra while driving.

Overcoming drowsiness

Often, when we begin to meditate on the mantra and the mind is internalized, sleep comes. We feel sleepy because the mind has nothing to hold on to. One remains awake because there are many things the mind and the senses can hold on to. The moment we begin to withdraw the senses in the state of introversion, sleep comes.

When you notice that you are beginning to feel sleepy or losing touch with the ground reality, switch from mental repetition to whispering the mantra. With the movement of the lips, the attention comes back to the mantra and we become alert for a little longer. When we have become alert, we can go back to mental repetition. If the sleepiness persists, say the mantra aloud. The mind will connect with the sound and come awake. When you are fully up, go back to mental repetition, manasic japa.

Using the mala

The mala used during mantra practice acts as an anchor for the mind. If a bird is flying over the ocean in search of land, it may use a piece of driftwood to rest upon until it finds land. The mala serves the same purpose for the mind as the piece of wood for the bird. It is an anchor. Just as whispered, vocalized and mental repetitions are used to stay with the practice, the mala too is used to stay focused. The movement of the mala keeps track of time and the numbers of repetition. The movement also holds your mind, and does not allow it to slip. So a mala should always be used during mantra sadhana.

There are five different kinds of malas accepted in the yogic tradition – tulsi, rudraksha, rakta-chandan (red sandalwood), shweta chandan (white sandalwood), and crystal. Traditionally, it is believed that Vaishnavas use tulsi, Shaivas use rudraksha and Shaktas use crystal. But this is a religious belief; a spiritual aspirant can use any kind of mala to attain different states.

The sadhana begins with the tulsi mala. Tulsi represents purity, shuddhata, pavitrata. It is a healing energy, the mother of physicians and medicine. If we are able to evoke the sentiment of purity while using the tulsi mala, then the vibration of tulsi will also help us attain that purity. During mantra initiation tulsi mala is given because attainment of purity is the first step of spiritual life. The white dhoti given during initiation should also be worn during mantra sadhana. It will remind you that you are enveloped in purity, simplicity, innocence, free from the crooked traits of the intellect, desires and expectations. Whenever we wear an external identity during sadhana, it will remind us of what we have to achieve and aspire for.

In jignasu initiation, a 27-bead rudraksha mala is given, which you can wear while practising the sadhana and not necessarily twenty-four hours of the day. When you wear rudraksha, think about bringing a balance in your life and developing intuitive abilities, the third eye. Think about awakening the auspicious energy so that your life can be touched by the grace of divinity. Each mala has a different sentiment associated with it, but guru mantra sadhana is to be done with a tulsi mala unless otherwise specified.

Breath and mantra

We can also combine the breath with mantra during japa. For example, with each inhalation we say the mantra once, and with each exhalation once more. Another method is to remain silent during the inhalation and say the mantra during exhalation. If the mantra is long, we can divide it up into two parts: half during inhalation, half during exhalation.

You can find your own pace and method to practise the mantra with the breath. Also, there are no restrictions on the time for mantra practice. Some women tend to think that they have become impure during their menstrual period and should not practise the mantra. This should not be the case. Practise the mantra as much as you like because it is an expression of your faith and devotion, and a commitment to yourself.

Mantra and ishta

It is possible that some people may receive a mantra which does not correspond to their ishta devata, titular deity. If the mantra is given to a child, it will not matter because he or she will not employ the intellect. But for a person whose intellect is awakened and who belongs to a belief system, this becomes a problem. They will associate the mantra with their belief system, knowing fully well that the real spirit is formless.

Therefore, the symbol given to every initiate on which to focus the concentration while practising the mantra is the same: jyoti, flame of light. Think of the jyoti and allow any image to appear in the jyoti. The image will change of its own accord, and that is the purpose of the symbol. Instead of the ishta devata or our association, we focus on the jyoti because it is both sakara (having a form) and nirakara (formless). Luminosity is the nature of the inner spirit. In our pooja, ritualistic practice, we can stick to our ishta. In mantra sadhana, focus on the jyoti and allow the pratika, image, to take the form of the ishta that it desires. Use the mantra as a tool to awaken this particular quality in yourself.