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A mantra chant set to Indian classical music (6 minutes 19 seconds)
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Mantra (Sanskrit मंत्र) means a sacred utterance, numinous sound, or a syllable, word, phonemes, or group of words believed by some to have psychological and spiritual power. Mantra may or may not be syntactic or have literal meaning; the spiritual value of mantra comes when it is audible, visible, or present in thought.
Earliest mantras were composed in Vedic times by Hindus in India, and those are at least 3000 years old. Mantras are now found in various schools of Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism. Similar hymns, chants, compositions and concepts are found in Zoroastrianism, Taoism, Christianity and elsewhere.
The use, structure, function, importance and types of mantras vary according to the school and philosophy of Hinduism and of Buddhism. Mantras serve a central role in the tantric school of Hinduism. In this school, mantras are considered equivalent to deities, a sacred formula and deeply personal ritual, and considered to be effective only after initiation. However, in other schools of Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism or Sikhism, this is not so.
Mantras come in many forms, including ṛc (verses from Rigveda for example) and sāman (musical chants from the Sāmaveda for example). They are typically melodic, mathematically structured meters, resonant with numinous qualities. At its simplest, the word ॐ (Aum, Om) serves as a mantra. In more sophisticated forms, they are melodic phrases with spiritual interpretations such as human longing for truth, reality, light, immortality, peace, love, knowledge and action. In other forms, they are literally meaningless, yet musically uplifting and spiritually meaningful.
The Sanskrit word mantra- (m.; also n. mantram) consists of the root man- "to think" (also in manas "mind") and the suffix -tra, designating tools or instruments, hence a literal translation would be "instrument of thought".
Scholars consider mantras to be older than 1000 BC. By the middle Vedic period - 1000 BC to 500 BC - claims Frits Staal, mantras in Hinduism had developed into a blend of art and science to include verses, saman, yajus, and nigada.
The Chinese translation is zhenyan 眞言, 真言, literally "true words", the Japanese on'yomi reading of the Chinese being shingon (which is also used as the proper name for the prominent esoteric Shingon sect).
According to Schlerath, the concept of sātyas mantras is found in Indo-Iranian Yasna 31.6 and Rigveda, where it means more than 'true Word', it is considered formulated thought which is in conformity with the reality or poetic (religious) formula with inherent fulfillment.
Mantras are neither unique to Hinduism, nor to other Indian religions such as Buddhism; similar creative constructs developed in Asian and Western traditions as well. Mantras, suggests Staal, may be older than language.
There is no generally accepted definition of mantra.
Renou has defined mantra as thought. Mantras are structured formulae of thoughts, claims Silburn. Farquhar concludes that mantras are a religious thought, prayer, sacred utterance, but also believed to be a spell or weapon of supernatural power. Zimmer defines mantra as a verbal instrument to produce something in one’s mind. Bharati defines mantra, in the context of tantric school of Hinduism, to be a combination of mixed genuine and quasi morphemes arranged in conventional patterns, based on codified esoteric traditions, passed on from a guru to a disciple through prescribed initiation.
Jan Gonda, a widely cited scholar on Indian mantras, defines mantra as general name for the verses, formulas or sequence of words in prose which contain praise, are believed to have religious, magical or spiritual efficiency, which are meditated upon, recited, muttered or sung in a ritual, and which are collected in the methodically arranged ancient texts of Hinduism. There is no universally applicable uniform definition of mantra because mantras are used in different religions, and within each religion in different schools of philosophy. In some schools of Hinduism for example, suggests Gonda, mantra is sakti (power) to the devotee in the form of formulated and expressed thought. Staal clarifies that mantras are not rituals, they are what is recited or chanted during a ritual.
Hindu's mantra for universe as source of knowledge, sun as source of primordial energy (19 seconds)
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There has been a long, scholarly disagreement on the meaning of mantras and whether they are really instruments of mind as implied by the etymological origin of the word mantra. One school suggests mantras are mostly meaningless sound constructs, the other school suggests mantras are mostly meaningful linguistic instruments of mind. Both schools agree that mantras have melody, a well designed mathematical precision in their construction, and their influence on the reciter and listener is similar to one observed on people around the world listening to their beloved music that is devoid of words.
Staal presents a non-linguistic view of mantras. He suggests that verse mantras are metered and harmonized to mathematical precision (for example, in the viharanam technique), which resonate, but a lot of them are hodge podge meaningless constructs that is found in folk music around the world. Staal cautions that there are many mantras that can be translated and do have spiritual meaning and philosophical themes central to Hinduism, but that does not mean all mantras have literal meaning. He further notes that even when mantras do not have literal meaning, they do set a tone and ambience in the ritual they are recited, and thus have a straightforward and uncontroversial ritual meaning. The sounds may lack literal meaning, but they can have an effect. He compares mantras to bird songs, that have the power to communicate, yet do not have a literal meaning. On saman category of Hindu mantras, which Staal calls as resembling the arias of Bach's oratorios and other European classics, he notes that these mantras have musical structure, but they almost always are completely different from anything in the syntax of natural languages known to man. Mantras are literally meaningless, yet musically meaningful to Staal. The saman chant mantras were transmitted, from one Hindu generation to next, verbally for over 1000 years, but never written, a feat suggests Staal that was made possible by the strict mathematical principles used in constructing the mantras. These saman chant mantras are also mostly meaningless, cannot be literally translated as Sanskrit or any Indian language, but nevertheless are beautiful in their resonant themes, variations, inversions and distribution. They draw the devotee in. Staal is not the first person to view Hindu mantras in this manner. The ancient Hindu Vedic ritualist Kautsa was one the earliest scholars to note that mantras are meaningless; its function is phonetic and syntactic, not semantic.
Harvey Alper, along with others, present the linguistic view of mantras. They admit Staal's observation that many mantras do contain bits and pieces of meaningless jargon, but they question what language or text doesn't. Presence of superfluous abracadabra bits, does not necessarily imply the entire work is meaningless. Alper lists numerous mantras that have philosophical themes, moral principles, a call to virtuous life, and even mundane petitions. He suggests that from a set of millions of mantras, the devotee chooses some mantras voluntarily, thus this expresses the intention of that speaker, and the audience for that mantra is that speaker's chosen spiritual entity. Mantra deploy the language of spiritual expression, they are religious instruments, and that is what matters to the devotee. Mantras create a feeling in the practicing person, it has an emotive numinous effect, it mesmerizes, it defies expression, it creates sensations that are by definition private, and at the heart of all religions and spiritual phenomena.
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During early vedic period, claims Staal, Vedic poets became fascinated by the inspirational power of poems, metered verses and music. They referred to them with the root dhi-, which evolved into dhyana (meditation) of Hinduism, and the language used to start and assist this process manifested as mantra. By middle vedic period (1000 BC to 500 BC), mantras were derived from all vedic compositions. They included ṛc (verses from Rigveda for example), sāman (musical chants from the Sāmaveda for example), yajus (a muttered formula from the yajurveda for example), and nigada (a loudly spoken yajus). During the Hindu Epics period and after, mantras multiplied in many ways and diversifed to meet the needs and passions of various schools of Hinduism. Mantras took a center stage in Tantric school. The tantric school posited that each mantra (bijas) is a deity; it is this distinct school of Hinduism and 'each mantra is a deity' reasoning that led to the perception that some Hindus have tens of millions of gods.
One function of mantras is to solemnize and ratify rituals. Each mantra, in Vedic rituals, coupled to acts. According to Apastamna Srauta Sutra, each ritual act is accompanied by one mantra, unless the Sutra explicitly marks that one act corresponds to several mantras. According to Gonda, and others there is a connection and rationale between a Vedic mantra and each Vedic ritual act that accompanies it. In these cases, the function of mantras was to be an instrument of ritual efficacy for the priest, and an instrument of instruction for ritual act for others.
Over time, as the Puranas and Epics were composed, the concepts of worship, virtues and spirituality evolved in Hinduism. Religions such as Jainism and Buddhism branched off, new schools were founded. Each of these continued developing and refining their own mantras. In Hinduism, suggests Alper, the function of mantras shifted from quotidian to redemptive. In other words, in Vedic times, mantras were recited with a practical quotidian goal as intention, goal such as requesting a deity's help in discovery of lost cattle, cure from illness, succeeding in competitive sport or journey away from home. Literal translation of Vedic mantras suggest that the function of mantra, in these cases, was to cope with the uncertainties and dilemmas of daily life. In later period of Hinduism, mantras were recited with a transcendental redemptive goal as intention, goal such as escape from cycle of life and rebirth, forgiveness for bad karma, experiencing spiritual connection with the god. The function of mantra, in these cases, was to cope with the human condition as a whole. According to Alper, redemptive spiritual mantras opened the door for sounds and structure of mantras where every part need not have literal meaning, but together their resonance and musical quality assisted the transcendental spiritual process. Overall, explains Alper with Śivasūtra mantras example, Hindu mantras have philosophical themes, are metaphoric with social dimension and meaning; in other words, they are a spiritual language and instrument of thought.
According to Staal, Hindu mantras may be spoken aloud, anirukta (not enunciated), upamsu (inaudible), or recited manasa (not spoken, but recited in mind). In ritual use, mantras are often silent, they are instruments of meditation.
The most basic mantra is Om, which in Hinduism is known as the "pranava mantra," the source of all mantras. The Hindu philosophy behind this is the premise that before existence and beyond existence is only One reality, Brahma, and the first manifestation of Brahma expressed as Om. For this reason, Om is considered as a foundational idea and reminder, and thus is prefixed and suffixed to all Hindu prayers. While some mantras may invoke individual Gods or principles, fundamental mantras, like the 'Shanti Mantra,' the 'Gayatri Mantra' and others all ultimately focus on the One reality.
In the tantric school the universe is sound. The supreme (para) brings forth existence through the Word (Shabda). Creation consists of vibrations at various frequencies and amplitudes giving rise to the phenomena of the world.
Buhnemann notes deity mantras are an essential part of Tantric compendia. The tantric mantras vary in their structure and length. Malamantras are those mantras which have very large number of syllables. In contrast, are bija mantras, which are one-syllabled typically ending in anusvara (a simple nasal sound). These are derived from the name of deity; for example, deity Durga yields dum and deity Ganesha yields gam. Bija mantras are prefixed and appended to other mantras thereby creating complex mantras. In tantric school, these mantras are believed to have supernatural powers, and they are transmitted by a preceptor to a disciple in an initiation ritual. Tantric mantras found a significant audience and adaptations in medieval India, Hindu southeast Asia and numerous Asian countries with Buddhism.
Majumdar, and other scholars suggest mantras are central to tantric school, with numerous functions: from initiating and emancipating a tantric devotee to worshiping manifested forms of the divine, from enabling heightened sexual energy in the male and the female to acquiring supranormal psychological and spiritual power, from preventing evil influences to exorcizing demons, and many others. These claimed functions and other aspects of tantric mantra are a subject of controversy among scholars. Tantra school is not unique to Hinduism, it is also found in Buddhism in India and outside India.
Mantra japa is a practice of repetitive muttering the same mantra for an auspicious number of times, the most popular being 108, and sometimes just 5, 10, 28 or 1008. Japa is found in personal prayer or meditative efforts of some Hindus, as well during formal puja (group prayers). These japas are assisted by malas (bead necklaces) containing 108 beads and a head bead (sometimes referred to as the 'meru', or 'guru' bead). The devotee performing japa using his/her fingers counts each bead as he/she repeats the chosen mantra. Having reached 108 repetitions, if he/she wishes to continue another cycle of mantras, the devotee turns the mala around without crossing the head bead and repeats the cycle. Japa-yajna is claimed to be most effective if the mantra is repeated silently in mind (manasah).
According to this school, any shloka from holy Hindu texts like the Vedas, Upanishads, Bhagavad Gita, Yoga Sutra, even the Mahabharata, Ramayana, Durga saptashati or Chandi is a mantra, thus can be part of the japa, repeated to achieve numinous effect. The Dharmasāstra claims Gāyatri mantra derived from Rig Veda verse 3.62.10, and the Purușasūkta mantra from Rig Veda verse 10.90 are most auspicious mantras for japa at sunrise and sunset; it is claimed to purify the mind and spirit.
Notable Hindu mantras
There are numerous other important mantras.
The Transcendental Meditation technique, also known as 'TM', uses mantras that are assigned to the practitioner to be used as thought sound only, not chanted, without connection to any meaning or idea.
The spiritual exercises of Surat Shabda Yoga include simran (repetition, particularly silent repetition of a mantra given at initiation), dhyan (concentration, viewing, or contemplation, particularly on the Inner Master), and bhajan (listening to the inner sounds of the Shabda or the Shabda Master).
Repetition of a "mantram" (e.g., mantra) or holy mane is Point 2 in the eight-point Passage Meditation program taught by Eknath Easwaran, who recommended using a mantram drawn from a faith tradition, east or west. The mantram is to be used frequently throughout the day, at opportune moments. This method of mantram repetition, and the larger program, was developed for use in any major faith tradition, or outside all traditions. Easwaran's method of mantram repetition has been the subject of scientific research at the San Diego Veterans Administration, which has suggested health benefits that include managing stress and reducing symptoms of PTSD.
There are many mantras in Jainism and the most supreme amongst all is the Navkar Mantra. The others being Bhaktamar Strotra, Uvasaggharam Stotra, etc. However, mantras, couplets, are either chanted or sung, either aloud or in silence.
Namo Arihantânam I bow to the Arihantâs (Prophets). Namo Siddhânam I bow to the Siddhâs (Liberated Souls). Namo Âyariyânam I bow to the Âchâryas (Preceptors or Spiritual Leaders). Namo Uvajjhâyanam I bow to the Upadhyâya (Teachers). Namo Loe Savva Sahûnam I bow to all the Sadhûs (Saints). Eso Panch Namokkaro,
Mangalanam Cha Savvesim,
Padhamam Havai Mangalam.
This fivefold bow (mantra) destroys all sins and obstacles
and of all auspicious mantras, is the first and foremost one.
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In Buddhism in China and Vietnam, ten small mantras were finalized by the monk Yulin (玉琳國師), a teacher of the Shunzhi Emperor for monks, nuns, and laity to chant in the morning.
The Shurangama Mantra may be the longest mantra.
Kūkai (774-835), a noted Buddhist monk, advanced a general theory of language based on his analysis of two forms of Buddhist ritual language: dharani (dhāra.nī) and mantra. Mantra is restricted to esoteric Buddhist practice whereas dharani is found in both esoteric and exoteric ritual. Dharanis for instance are found in the Heart Sutra. The term "shingon" (lit. true word) is the Japanese pronunciation of the Chinese term for mantra, chen yen.
The word dharani derives from a Sanskrit root dh.r which means to hold or maintain. Ryuichi Abe suggests that it is generally understood as a mnemonic device which encapsulates the meaning of a section or chapter of a sutra. Dharanis are also considered to protect the one who chants them from malign influences and calamities.
The term mantra is traditionally said to be derived from two roots: man, to think; and the action-oriented suffix -tra. Thus a mantra can be considered to be a linguistic device for deepening ones thought, or in the Buddhist context for developing the enlightened mind. They have also been used as magic spells for purposes such as attaining wealth and long life, and eliminating enemies. In daily living, many thought the pronunciation of the mantra was not important to take its effect and the expected effect may not happen because of fixed karma (定業), or because there appears a better way to solve the situation.
The distinction between dharani and mantra is difficult to make. We can say that all mantras are dharanis but that not all dharanis are mantras. Mantras do tend to be shorter. Both tend to contain a number of unintelligible phonic fragments such as Om, or Hu.m, which is perhaps why some people consider them to be essentially meaningless. Kūkai made mantra a special class of dharani which showed that every syllable of a dharani was a manifestation of the true nature of reality – in Buddhist terms that all sound is a manifestation of shunyata or emptiness of self-nature. Thus rather than being devoid of meaning, Kūkai suggests that dharanis are in fact saturated with meaning – every syllable is symbolic on multiple levels.
One of Kūkai's distinctive contributions was to take this symbolic association even further by saying that there is no essential difference between the syllables of mantras and sacred texts, and those of ordinary language. If one understood the workings of mantra, then any sounds could be a representative of ultimate reality. This emphasis on sounds was one of the drivers for Kūkai's championing of the phonetic writing system, the kana, which was adopted in Japan around the time of Kūkai. He is generally credited with the invention of the kana, but there is apparently some doubt about this story amongst scholars.
This mantra-based theory of language had a powerful effect on Japanese thought and society which up until Kūkai's time had been dominated by imported Chinese culture of thought, particularly in the form of the Classical Chinese language which was used in the court and amongst the literati, and Confucianism which was the dominant political ideology. In particular Kūkai was able to use this new theory of language to create links between indigenous Japanese culture and Buddhism. For instance, he made a link between the Buddha Mahavairocana and the Shinto sun Goddess Amaterasu. Since the emperors were thought to be descended form Amaterasu, Kūkai had found a powerful connection here that linked the emperors with the Buddha, and also in finding a way to integrate Shinto with Buddhism, something that had not happened with Confucianism. Buddhism then became essentially an indigenous religion in a way that Confucianism had not. And it was through language, and mantra that this connection was made. Kūkai helped to elucidate what mantra is in a way that had not been done before: he addresses the fundamental questions of what a text is, how signs function, and above all, what language is. In this he covers some of the same ground as modern day Structuralists and others scholars of language, although he comes to very different conclusions.
In this system of thought all sounds are said to originate from "a" – which is the short a sound in father. For esoteric Buddhism "a" has a special function because it is associated with Shunyata or the idea that no thing exists in its own right, but is contingent upon causes and conditions. (See Dependent origination) In Sanskrit "a" is a prefix which changes the meaning of a word into its opposite, so "vidya" is understanding, and "avidya" is ignorance (the same arrangement is also found in many Greek words, like e.g. "atheism" vs. "theism" and "apathy" vs. "pathos"). The letter a is both visualised in the Siddham script, and pronounced in rituals and meditation practices. In the Mahavairocana Sutra which is central to Shingon Buddhism it says: Thanks to the original vows of the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas, a miraculous force resides in the mantras, so that by pronouncing them one acquires merit without limits". [in Conze, p. 183]
The practice of writing mantras, and copying texts as a spiritual practice, became very refined in Japan, and the writing in the Siddham script in which the Sanskrit of many Buddhist Sutras were written is only really seen in Japan nowadays.
Mantrayana (Sanskrit), that may be rendered as "way of mantra", was the original self-identifying name of those that have come to be determined 'Nyingmapa'. The Nyingmapa which may be rendered as "those of the ancient way", a name constructed due to the genesis of the Sarma "fresh", "new" traditions. Mantrayana has developed into a synonym of Vajrayana.
Noted translator of Buddhist texts Edward Conze (1904–1979) distinguishes three periods in the Buddhist use of mantra.
Initially, according to Conze, like their fellow Indians, Buddhists used mantra as protective spells to ward off malign influences. Despite a Vinaya rule which forbids monks engaging in the Brahminical practice of chanting mantras for material gain, there are a number of protective for a group of ascetic monks. However, even at this early stage, there is perhaps something more than animistic magic at work. Particularly in the case of the Ratana Sutta the efficacy of the verses seems to be related to the concept of "truth". Each verse of the sutta ends with "by the virtue of this truth may there be happiness".
Conze notes that later mantras were used more to guard the spiritual life of the chanter, and sections on mantras began to be included in some Mahayana sutras such as the White Lotus Sutra, and the Lankavatara Sutra. The scope of protection also changed in this time. In the Sutra of Golden Light the Four Great Kings promise to exercise sovereignty over the different classes of demigods, to protect the whole of Jambudvipa (the India sub continent), to protect monks who proclaim the sutra, and to protect kings who patronise the monks who proclaim the sutra. The apotheosis of this type of approach is the Nichiren school of Buddhism that was founded in 13th century Japan, and which distilled many previously complex Buddhist practices down to the veneration of the Lotus Sutra through recitation of the daimoku: "Nam myoho renge kyo" which translates as "Homage to the Lotus Sutra".
The third period began, according to Conze, in about the 7th century, to take centre stage and become a vehicle for salvation in their own right. Tantra started to gain momentum in the 6th and 7th century, with specifically Buddhist forms appearing as early as 300CE. Mantrayana was an early name for the what is now more commonly known as Vajrayana, which gives us a hint as to the place of mantra in Indo-Tibetan Buddhism. The aim of Vajrayana practice is to give the practitioner a direct experience of reality, of things as they really are. Mantras function as symbols of that reality, and different mantras are different aspects of that reality – for example wisdom or compassion. Mantras are often associated with a particular deity, one famous exception being the Prajnaparamita mantra associated with the Heart Sutra. One of the key Vajrayana strategies for bringing about a direct experience of reality is to engage the entire psycho-physical organism in the practices. In one Buddhist analysis the person consists of 'body, speech and mind' (refer: Three Vajra). So a typical sadhana or meditation practice might include mudras, or symbolic hand gestures; the recitations of mantras; as well as the visualisation of celestial beings and visualising the letters of the mantra which is being recited. Clearly here mantra is associated with speech. The meditator may visualise the letters in front of themselves, or within their body. They may be pronounced out loud, or internally in the mind only.
Probably the most famous mantra of Buddhism is Om mani padme hum, the six syllable mantra of the Bodhisattva of compassion Avalokiteśvara (Tibetan: Chenrezig, Chinese: Guanyin). This mantra is particularly associated with the four-armed Shadakshari form of Avalokiteśvara. The Dalai Lama is said to be an incarnation of Avalokiteshvara, and so the mantra is especially revered by his devotees.
The book Foundations of Tibetan Mysticism by Lama Anagarika Govinda, gives a classic example of how such a mantra can contain many levels of symbolic meaning.
Donald Lopez gives a good discussion of this mantra and its various interpretations in his book Prisoners of Shangri-LA: Tibetan Buddhism and the West. Lopez is an authoritative writer and challenges the stereotypical analysis of the mantra as meaning "The Jewel in the Lotus", an interpretation that is not supported by either a linguistic analysis, nor by Tibetan tradition, and is symptomatic of the Western Orientalist approach to the 'exotic' East. He suggests that Manipadma is actually the name of a bodhisattva, a form of Avalokiteshvara who has many other names in any case including Padmapani or lotus flower in hand. The Brahminical insistence on absolutely correct pronunciation of Sanskrit broke down as Buddhism was exported to other countries where the inhabitants found it impossible to reproduce the sounds. So in Tibet, for instance, where this mantra is on the lips of many Tibetans all their waking hours, the mantra is pronounced Om mani peme hum.
The following list of mantras is from Kailash - Journal of Himalayan Studies, Volume 1, Number 2, 1973. (pp. 168–169) (augmented by other contributors). It also includes renderings of Om mani padme hum.
Please note that the word swaha is sometimes shown as svaha, and is usually pronounced as 'so-ha' by Tibetans. Spellings tend to vary in the transliterations to English, for example, hum and hung are generally the same word. The mantras used in Tibetan Buddhist practice are in Sanskrit, to preserve the original mantras. Visualizations and other practices are usually done in the Tibetan language.
According to Tibetan Buddhism, this mantra (Om tare tutare ture soha) can not only eliminate disease, troubles, disasters, and karma, but will also bring believers blessings, longer life, and even the wisdom to transcend one's circle of reincarnation. Tara representing long life and health.
Mantras in Sikhism are fundamentally different from the secret mantras used in other religions. Unlike in other religions, Sikh mantras are open for anyone to use. They are used openly and are not taught in secret sessions but are used in front of assemblies of Sikhs.
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When Buddhism arrived in China, the concept of mantras came with it. The emphasis in China was not as much on sound, but towards writing with characters that were flexible in pronunciation but precise in meaning. The Chinese prized written language much more highly than did the Indian Buddhist missionaries, and the writing of mantras became a spiritual practice in its own right.
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In the Zoroastrian scriptures is a section called the Gathas or hymns. These hymns are believed to be the original words of Zarathushtra, faithfully preserved as an oral tradition through the generations. Zarathushtra, and later tradition, refer to the Gathas as mathra (later called a manthra).
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