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It is also called Panchakshara, the "five-syllable" mantra (viz., excluding the Aum). The Tamil Saivaite hymn Tiruvacakam begins with the five letters 'na' 'ma' 'ci' 'vaa' 'ya'.It is part of the Shri Rudram Chamakam, a Hindu prayer taken from the Yajurveda, and thus predates the use of Shiva as a proper name, in the original context being an address to Rudra (later Shiva), where śiva retains its original meaning as an adjective, meaning "auspicious, benign, friendly", a euphemistic epithet of Rudra. The Panchakshara should be recited by Shiva devotees during pooja, homa, Japa and while smearing Vibhuti.
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The meaning of the Namaḥ Śivāya mantra was explained by Satguru Sivaya Subramuniyaswami as follows:
Namaḥ Śivāya is the most holy name of God Śiva, recorded at the very centre of the Vedas and elaborated in the Śaiva Agamas.
Na is the Lord's concealing grace, Ma is the world, Śi stands for Śiva, Va is His revealing grace, Ya is the soul. The five elements, too, are embodied in this ancient formula for invocation. Na is earth, Ma is water, Śi is fire, Vā is air, and Ya is ether, or Ākāśa. Many are its meanings.
Namaḥ Śivaya has such power that the mere intonation of these syllables reaps its own reward in salvaging the soul from bondage of the treacherous instinctive mind and the steel bands of a perfected externalized intellect. Namaḥ Śivāya quells the instinct, cuts through the steel bands and turns this intellect within and on itself, to face itself and see its ignorance. Sages declare that mantra is life, that mantra is action, that mantra is love and that the repetition of mantra, japa, bursts forth wisdom from within.The holy Natchintanai proclaims, "Namaḥ Śivāya is in truth both Āgama and Veda. Namah Śivāya represents all mantras and tantras. Namaḥ Śivaya is our souls, our bodies and possessions. Namaḥ Śivāya has become our sure protection."—Satguru Sivaya Subramuniyaswami