The topic of mantra is a multi-faceted concept and practice, needing to be addressed from a variety of perspectives and positions. To begin this exploration, it is appropriate to ask a number of fundamental questions. 

What is “Mantra”? Where does “Mantra” come from? What is its nature? Who conceived of and/or discovered it? What is its purpose? 

Of course, there are many other characteristics of mantra not addressed by these opening questions. However, from a basic point of view, these will provide an easy starting point for this inquiry.

The word “Mantra” is an ancient Sanskrit term dating back thousands of years, predating the Vedas by approximately 2,400 years. They are found and explained in the ancient scriptures, the Tantra Shastras. 

“Mantra” is comprised of two Sanskrit verbs: “MAN” which means “to think” and “TRA” which means “to protect” or “to free”. Thus, the literal translation of mantra means “to protect or free the mind”. As the common condition or “state of mind” is typically bound tightly to the gross level of the body, to material existence at the phenomenal level, through mantra, the mind is liberated. It is able to move systematically to higher levels of consciousness and attain states of realization. Mantras become the vehicle by which mind may begin its ascent towards Samadhi, towards union with Paramatman or Supreme Soul.

Although a literal translation of mantras has already been given, it cannot adequately convey a complete understanding of what mantra is. Using words to convey its meaning would be like describing the sensation of being burned from touching a hot stove, to a child who has no prior experience of “burn” or “hot stove”. In this way, understanding mantra is the same. It can only be realized through actual experience. One must engage in the process of “Mantra Japs” (mantra chanting/repetition). This is because mantra is sound and vibration. It is energy and not a concept or idea. The transformative power of mantra, its essence, is the mantra itself.

As sound and vibration, mantras were originally “realized” by or “revealed” to the Rishis (highly realized beings) in ancient times. In highly advanced states of meditation, these Rishis realized the vibrations or “Cosmic Sounds” of the Universe. These are the primal or original sounds of Paramatman. Although there were many mantras realized, the mantra “Om” is believed to be the “highest” of all. It is the “original mantra”. After and including “Om”, many other mantras were revealed to the Rishis. These are known as “Bija” or seed Mantras. They contain dormant potential energy and, when chanted in Mantra Japa, their essential nature and power is awakened, revealed and experienced. The inner power within the mantra causes the connection between the individual and his or her inner being, unleashing inner cosmic powers, forces and knowledge.

As stated by Swami Satyananda Saraswati, mantras are “purpose-specific”, that is, each mantra, whether Bija or a more elaborate construction of separate mantra, is used to realize specific results. Health, prosperity, spiritual realization and social stability are examples of such objectives. As a result, individuals choose to recite or chant different mantras according to their needs.

There are many mantras that are “open to use” by whoever chooses to do so. The MahaMrityunjaya Mantra (for increasing health of body and mind) and the Gayatri Mantra (for increasing creative energy and pranic energy) are examples of this. Anyone may choose to adopt and chant these. It is important to note however, that one must never alter the mantra. If done, it is no longer a mantra and its power is lost. It becomes just sounds. Also, Mantra Japs must be done mindfully and with respect. The practice should be regular and exist for the practitioner with the same observances as is given to other daily practices. For example, we typically follow a specific schedule concerning our diet. This is done to ensure proper and constant nutrition to our bodies. We should treat mantras the same way. It should be done regularly at prescribed times and for a specific length of time. In this way, we can expect to gain realization through the mantras transformative inner power.

As there exists ‘Universal Mantras’ for everyone to use, it is also the case that every individual has their own unique or personal mantras. The outer expression of the individual self is his or her personality. The inner expression of self is their mantra. Our personal mantras can be revealed or given to us in a number of ways. Typically, it is given to us by our Guru (spiritual guide). Also, it may be given by our mother, revealed in a dream, and sometimes (rarely) understood through a “compelling” experience we have upon “encountering” it (previously unknown). Regardless of how we come to know our personal mantra, it must be practiced regularly (as directed), with mindful respect and, because it is personal, it should be held in secret.

Although there are many more aspects of mantra that could be mentioned, given the time constraints before us, I have tried to touch upon some of the more salient points and also answer the questions I noted at the beginning of this essay. There is however one final “ingredient” I would like to mention in closing. In some respects, I think it may be one of the most important considerations or points needed in grasping the topic and practice of Mantra. It is, whether universal mantras in general and/or personal mantras in particular, that when chanted regularly, the practice must be done with unyielding faith and belief in the practice and its resulting transformative power. The essence of mantra is manta. It is known through the faith of the practitioner and his/her belief in it.

As stated by Geshe Kelsang Gyatso in his book “Understanding the Mind”, the special function of faith is to invoke virtuous aspirations. Without faith and belief in a particular practice, we shall have no wish to engage in it; and without such a wish we shall not put any effort into the practice and so we shall not accomplish any results. Faith and belief are the roots of all virtuous attainments. This was written in reference to mantra and its practice. It speaks clearly to the entire reason of its existence and inherent transformative power. Its power is revealed through practice under the auspices of faith and belief.

The views expressed are solely those of the author. may or may not agree with all statements.


“Yoga” Issue # 8 2007 – 3 articles on Mantra

  • The Realization of Mantra – Swami Sivananda Saraswati
  • The Science of Mantra – Swami Satyananda Saraswati
  • The Nature of Mantra – Swami Niranjananda Saraswati
  • Yoga Mantra and the Power of Prayer – Swami Satyaprakash Saraswati
  • Sri Vijnana Bhairaia Tantra – The Ascent P197-201 – Swami Satyasangananda
  • Sure ways to Self Realization P17-22 – Swami Satyananda Saraswati
  • Understanding the Mind P151 – Geshe Kelsang Gyatso
  • Various “unnamed” internet articles

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