Yoga, Mantra and the Power of Prayer

Swami Satyaprakash Saraswati, UK

Many of us started to practise yoga at a time in life when our overt connection with institutional religion had long since passed. Maybe we grew up in families where adherence to religious practices was a ‘must’, perhaps we attended convent schools as part of the family pattern. Or maybe as teenagers we had a private quest and a passionate relationship with God, before launching into higher education and its fashionable agnosticism and attendant social life. Typically, our religious observances lapsed, to be resumed only on the occasion of births, marriages and deaths, and major festivals in our religious calendar.

A few of us were undoubtedly more stalwart in adhering to the faith of our childhood, which, in its turn, maybe gave rise to conflict as we encountered the more esoteric aspects of yoga. It is fitting here to remember the etymology of the word ‘religion’. Re- is defined as return to a previous condition, or restoration, and ligare, from the Latin, means to bind, or to yoke firmly. Thus it is apparent that the true meaning of religion is very similar to the acknowledged definitions of yoga. Many yoga practitioners will recognize (re-cognize) this, from those precious glimpses of stillness and unity that occasionally arise during practice.

Believing nothing, and letting the experience come

Perhaps you remember the first time you chanted the mantra Aum in a yoga class – what was your reaction? “What is this?” “Do I want to do this?” “This belongs to some foreign religion – it is not for me.” “Superstitious nonsense!” “Nice sound, but so what?” Then gradually, over the months and years you were introduced to other mantras: So Ham, the Gayatri and Mahamrityunjaya mantras, and maybe similar responses arose within. Then you heard or read about particular mantras for snake bites, etc. and thought, “Wow! Now we’re really approaching witchcraft!”

Does the power of mantra depend on the naivete or the beliefs of the practitioner? Do you have to believe in the mantra for it to have an effect? Most of us have found that mantra affects the person who chants. We feel calmer or more energized (according to the mantra chanted), and more centred and whole after we chant. It is perhaps best to believe nothing, just do the practice and decide on the basis of your own experience. It is also important to be open to the possibility that your experience will change. Sometimes people ask about the chanting of the Mahamrityunjaya mantra for healing, “Do you believe that this works?” To this, my spontaneous response is, “I know it works”, because that’s my experience.

Being open to possibility

Larry Dossey, an American doctor practising in mainstream hospitals and clinics and author of Healing Words: the power of prayer and the practice of medicine, speaks of alighting on a “single Western scientific study that strongly supported the power of prayer in getting well.” The author explores ancient and modern paradigms of medicine, the nature and effects of prayer, the relationships between prayer and healing, doctor and patient, and much more. He concludes, “Over time I decided that not to employ prayer with my patients was the equivalent of deliberately withholding a potent drug or surgical procedure.”

So whatever our faith, inclination or life philosophy, whatever our understanding of God, the absolute or universal spirit, let us review it. Long-held beliefs hold us captive in mind-sets that can become obstacles to our spiritual evolution. The spirit of yoga is to be open to new and different information and ideas, to weigh these intelligently with that which we already know, and to be willing to loosen our attachment to the old patterns of mind.

Mahamrityunjaya mantra: for destruction of attachment

There are three principles at work in the universe – creation, maintenance or continuation, and destruction. In order for harmony to prevail, all work equally together and each is necessary. Without destruction, there is no space for creation, without creation there is no need for maintenance. We only need to look at the garden through the seasons to observe the verity of this. The Mahamrityunjaya mantra is an invocation to the principle of destruction in the universe, in which we ask that our attachments in this life be broken or destroyed so that, at the point of death, we may move over ‘as easily as the cucumber separates from the vine’.

We may reasonably ask, “Do I want to break my attachments in this life? Why would I want to? What are these attachments anyway?” So we start to explore the question of attachments. What are these attachments? To my home? To my family? To my work and the status it affords me? Yes, all of these and probably more! We gradually realize that it is okay to have these things and relationships, and to enjoy them in the present moment; this is the very fabric of mundane life. The problem started when we became attached to them, because then we began to fear their loss, either consciously or unconsciously. “Will this person leave me? Will that item I own be ruined or stolen?” Most of us are strongly attached to the continuation of our life in this body, of the personality, of this person as we know ourselves – that is, we fear death. When we look a little more deeply, we begin to recognize that it is our attachments that cause us to suffer. The suffering arises from our mental patterns surrounding the things we own and the relationships we enjoy, not from the having of them per se.

Do we need to break these attachments now? Yes, for two reasons. First because, as Swami Satyananda says, “Joy is your heritage, not suffering.” We can learn to live without suffering. Secondly, because we know that life is fragile, as delicate as a drop of water on a leaf, and therefore we need to be prepared to die at any time ‘as easily as the cucumber separates from the vine’. So when we chant the Mahamrityunjaya mantra, we are invoking assistance for ourselves in overcoming or breaking our own attachments.

For healing and relief of suffering

In Satyananda Yoga ashrams and centres all over the world, the tradition of chanting the Mahamrityunjaya mantra for the relief of suffering is maintained on a weekly or monthly basis. Each session begins with the remembrance of particular individuals who are known to be sick or suffering.

Here, it is important to understand the difference between relief of suffering, healing and cure. When we chant for another person, it is not possible to change the destiny of that person – if they are destined to have an illness or to die soon, then so they will. Some people would call this the divine order. We cannot expect that they will always be cured of the illness. However, when we chant or pray for such a person, we are asking that their attachments be broken, their fear be lessened, so that their suffering is relieved. And if this comes about, then the person truly experiences healing, whether in this body or not.

Chanting the Mahamrityunjaya mantra for other people is a great tool for us too. It can relieve the feelings of impotence we experience, typically when a friend is seriously ill, or when a marriage breaks down and children are involved. Our power to help in this type of situation varies enormously – sometimes we can be a pillar of support to the family, but often we don’t have the time or the skills, so we send cards, give comfort and worry about them – all perfectly normal and very human responses. However, frequently we feel that we are not doing enough. One of the most powerful ways in which we can serve the person and their family is to chant for them daily. How? Sit quietly, centre yourself, focus on the person or situation with all the aligned energy you can bring to the moment, then chant, maybe 9 rounds, or 27 – it takes only five to ten minutes. We emerge from the practice feeling more positive, less burdened and more able to bring light to those around us.

Similarly, when through the media we learn of wars, famine and natural disasters, we can all too easily succumb to despondency about the state of the world and man’s inhumanity to man. Sometimes we channel that energy into social action or fiscal support. But more often, we just ruminate on it and feel gloomy. Once again, chanting the Mahamrityunjaya mantra for the situation and for the people involved can transform that negative energy into something positive and uplifting.

For protection

The Mahamrityunjaya mantra is used for protection too. In any situation where you feel vulnerable, nervous or at risk, chanting the mantra aloud or repeating it silently will change your vibration. How does it work? Probably because the fear evaporates, we walk taller and we are not perceived as easy prey when we change our vibration to a strong, positive one.

To expand our experience, we can all try to believe nothing, and simply do the practices, chant the mantras, watch the results and decide on the basis of our own experience. Now is the time to go and harvest some ripe cucumbers or courgettes!