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Man+tra = thought behind the speech or action

Please note, sacred syllables and verses from the Vedas are called Ruchas and not mantra.  

Mantra is a word, syllable or a verse that is considered to be sacred, spiritually illuminating or eternal truism that is worth absorbing into our conscious and subconscious self. 

Sacred word(s) in Hinduism, Jainism, Buddhism and Sikhism are often called Mantra (or a derivative of the word).  It is often used to invoke the divine presence, illuminate the mind or remind one’s self of fundamental truths from scriptures.  Mantra are often used in prayers and meditation to help concentrate and focus the mind on the divine.

Now-a-days, positive thoughts, affirmations, up-lifting ideas and even slogans that are regularly repeated for one’s benefit are also called mantra.  In the corporate world, truisms are also referred to as ‘mantra’.


Spiritual aspect of mantra :-

One of the main reason mantra are used is to get closer to a deity one worships.  By repeating the sacred name(s) of the deity, one hopes to imbibe the qualities that name possess and thus become closer to the deity of that name.  Eg – if one constantly repeats the name of God Rama, one hopes to become as strong, fair, obedient, truthful and regal in character as Raghukul-bhushan Rama, son of Dashrath, king of Ayodhya and husband of Sita.  Repeating the name of God Hanuman confers strength, Goddess Sarasvati increases intelligence. 

Puranic scriptures often note that repeating a mantra for a specific number of times will confer specific powers – spiritual and material.  Usually the repetition cycle is linked to the number of words in the mantra and is usually multiplied by multiples of 100,000 to confer the requisite benefits.  Powers conferred are related to the number of repetition and greater the repetition and concentration during repetition, greater the powers attained. 

There are detailed descriptions of mantras and what they can confer in Puranic scriptures, particularly from medieval times.  Tantric and non-Trantric rituals from this period often required repeating mantras for specified number of times to make the rituals successful.

These all hark back to the Vedic times when speaking or even thinking of specific ruchas was guaranteed to secure blessings of ancient Gods.


How is this possible? :-

So how was this suppose to happen?  How can repeating words or verses achieve such amazing benefits?  There are a number of aspects to this –


Physical :-

Just as a machine (yantra) can move clogs and wheels to transform small amount of efforts into big results (such as pulleys), words (mantra) can transform our intensions into results at a rapid pace.  As we all know, vibration is a form of energy.  Energy can transform from one form into another.  Vibration of the sacred word is suppose to transform the inner being and morph it into the greatness implicit in the sacred word (eg Rama or Shiva). 

As we know, a singer can pitch their voice at the right level to shatter glass.  Similarly, words or verses spoken in a specific tone, pitch and timbre with focused intension, can invoke desired results even in the physical plane.

Words have power because words have an ability to influence our mind with what they ‘say’.  For example, swear words cause instant anger in the heart and mind of both parties just as sweet words can win over entrenched opponents.  Hence hymns extolling virtues of the deity are sung to make the deity feel well disposed to our entreaties and grant our wishes.  Hymns are also sung to inspire us and shore up our resolve by repeating positive ideas and highlighting positive incidences from the past.     


Why repeat a Mantra :-

Repeating a mantra helps us focus on the ‘aspect’ of the sacred name or meaning of the prayer.  Focusing on the meaning, helps us appreciate the aspect of the divine that inspires us.  Just as focusing on a singer, actor or sports personality inspires us to be like our role models, focusing on the divine aspects eg compassion, intelligence, strength etc inspires us to be imbibe and emulate these divine characteristics.

Repeating mantras is supposed to earn religious merit.  This can eat away at bad karma and gain new good karma.  It is also said to increase the spiritual powers of the person repeating the mantra.  These powers depend on the mantra being repeated and the divine being that is appropriated through the mantra.  But most importantly, it all depends on the focus and correct pronunciations of the person repeating the mantra.  Focus is paramount as is the accuracy to obtain the desired results.


Repeating sacred names or syllables :-

Repeating sacred names of Gods, Goddesses and even the impersonal metaphysical form of the universal spirit is said to confer great spiritual benefits to the person.  This can be spoken aloud, mumbled inaudibly or repeated silently in the mind.  This is often termed as vikhari (spilled), para (casual) and pashyanti (unseen / divine). 

Some say it is best to speak the mantra loudly to multiply its power and enhance its effect.
Some say it is best to mumble it inaudibly and concentrate its power within one’s self.
Some say it is best to repeat the mantra silently to retain its energy within.

One of the main problems of repeating mantras aloud is our ability to ‘speak’ or ‘pronounce’ the words correctly.  Teachers, or gurus, of sacred mantras insist that only the most correct pronunciation can yield desired results.  Even a minor mis-pronunciation can render the mantra useless or in certain cases, make it malignant and harmful rather than helpful to the aspirant.  For this reason, gurus insist that aspirants MUST seek guidance of correct pronunciation from someone who has successfully used that mantra.  Ofcourse, each guru will insist they have the key to correct pronunciation and only they are authorized to impart the truth to their own followers.  Biggest problem with this is that ‘words’ and how they are ‘pronounced’ changes from one region to another.  Over time and over physical distances, variations of ‘correct pronunciations’ are surprisingly different.  Under such circumstances, how can one be sure that what they are being taught is the most correct and authentic pronunciation? 

For example – as one travels from west to east across India, certain words, consonant and vowels change.  So Vishnu in the western states is pronounced Bishnu beyond Bengal and Orrisa in the east.  Ram in the north is pronounced Rama or Ramha in the south.  Krushna is also pronounced Krushn and Krishna by different gurus.  Changing the words and syllables in this way can completely alter the meaning of the word.  So in the example of Krushna vs Krishna, one is a male and the other is a female version of the same name.  So in this case, which deity are we calling upon?  The 8th avatar of Vishnu (or is it Bishnu?) or some goddess of dark hue like Kali?

Certain communities of Brahmin priests insist they have preserved the exact pronunciation of words since Vedic times.  Their pronunciations are supposed to harken back to a time that is from beyond pre-classical Sanskrit period.  But without cross checking with other Brahmin communities who practice Vedic rituals, how can we be so sure?

Under these circumstances, what is the best thing to do?  Which pronunciation should one use?  Even if you just repeat it in your mind, what should you say - Vishnu or Bishnu?  Will the God come to help you or not? 

In my humble view, God is God.  Call him / her by any name and as long as your intensions are good and pure, God will harken to your call.


Modern view of Mantras :-

In the spirit of globalization, some modern gurus and New Age ‘teachers’ often insist that any sacred word from any religion can be a ‘mantra’.  While it is true that Hinduism accepts ALL religious idea as inherently spiritual, it is a bit of a stretch to call any sacred word as a ‘mantra’.  Sacred words and sacred names are sacred because people have associated positive, uplifting, spiritual ideals with those sacred names.  While it is true that if we loosely apply the definition of mantra as being a sacred thought, all sacred names can be mantra, but in my opinion, notwithstanding spiritual associations, not all sacred names from all religions – not even all Hindu sects – can be called ‘Mantras’.   


© Bhagwat Shah   
[email protected]

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