By Shankara Bharadwaj Khandavalli
Mantra is a central concept that forms the basis of almost all Hindu Spiritual Traditions. Mantra is defined as “Mananaat trayate iti mantram”, meaning 'the word that protects when chanted repeatedly or remembered'. The approach of worship through mantra, or the path of mantra, is called Mantra marga.
Mantra marga involves the understanding and application of multiple subjects. It also connects various schools and subjects that deal with spiritual knowledge and practice, such as yoga, Consciousness Studies, science of chanting, mantra sastra, theology and spiritual philosophy. Some of the subjects like siksha (the science of chanting) have developed exclusively for the pursuit of mantra marga to perfection.
It is not an exaggeration to say that there is no other concept that is more pervasive or important in Spiritual Traditions than mantra. This is because mantra marga is not only one of the major approaches to worship, but it is also the underlying principle of almost all the schools/traditions (such as Smarta, Srauta, Puranic, Vedantic, Tantric, Buddhist and Jain). In fact, there is hardly any spiritual tradition that is not based on mantra.
Mantra is said to be the sound-form of a god-form. Each god has a mula-mantra consisting of or equivalent to the energy generated/represented by the beejas of that god-form. There can be multiple mantras for a Devata. While the term 'god' is used in general to refer to a devata, a specific form of devata worshiped though a mantra is referred to as god-form.
The entire universe is the play of Primal Rhythmic Energy, and in its essential form, matter is also energy. Thus vibrations comprise the entire universe. Vibrations produce sound, and the kind of energy generated and its effects depend on the nature of vibrations.
By the repeated chanting of a mantra, the energy represented by it can be invoked and directed towards specific purposes. For this reason, the scriptures prescribe that the eligibility of a person should be adjudged before inducting (upadesa) into such practice (Anusthana). A mantra should be learned from a preceptor (guru) and practiced the way it is taught, for improper practice can be harmful to the individual as well as his surroundings.
While there are various aspects of mantra marga, a few major subjects involved are:
- Mantra sastra, the study of the nature of sound, energy, mantra and devata
- Theology associated with mantra sastra
- The philosophy and worship through mantra
- Consciousness studies
- Procedures and methods involved in sadhana
All these subjects overlap with each other. For instance, the methods of sadhana are based on mantra sastra and consciousness studies. The subject is experiential, and all the involved subjects are understood through practice.
The Synthesis of Mantra
The synthesis of mantra begins with the arrangement of beejas in a mantra. Mantras are arranged in different compositions like suktas, vidyas, prayogas, digbandhanas, parayana kramas and so on. The compositions of mantras in diverse sequences depend on the purpose sought to be served through their practice and the mode of worship involved.
Beeja is the basic building block of mantra. Beeja is a sound-seed that represents energy. Each god-form is identified with a particular energy form, represented by a beeja. Mantra is a composition of beejas.
Mantra is a divine word, a sequence of beejas. Its meaning is of two kinds, etymological and resonant/inspirational. Etymological meaning of mantra is specific to the language in which it is composed. Mantras with explicit etymological meanings are used in jnana marga (the path of philosophical inquiry/knowledge), and to some extent in bhakti marga (the path of devotion). For example the maha vakyas fall under such a category. The resonant/inspirational meaning is the effect of sound on the being. Such mantras are used in upasana or yoga centric schools.
Each mantra has a rishi, chandas and devata.
- Rishi is the seer that revealed the mantra.
- Chandas is the meter of the mantra.
- Devata is the presiding deity of the mantra, or deity being prayed to in the mantra.
A samputikarana is a sequence of mantras used for specific purposes combined with specific procedures.
Sukta (hymn) is a collection of mantras on a specific deity (god-form).
A Mantra Vidya is a samputikarana, a composition of a mula mantra for a Devata. There are three kinds of Mantra Vidyas – astra, kamya and para. Astra is weaponry, kamya is a Vidya intended to serve a specific purpose, and para Vidya is for salvation.
Classification of Mantras
Mantras are usually associated with gender. They could be stri (female), purusha (male) or napumsaka (neuter). The gender is dependent on different factors like the nadi represented by the mantra, the beejas involved in the mantra, the gender of mantradhi devata.
Another classification of mantras is made based on their length. A monosyllable mantra is called beeja. A mantra with more than 20 syllables is called mala mantra. Pingala’s text on Chandas enumerates various meters for the mantras based on their length, like Gayatri, Anustup, Tristup and Jagati and so on.
A mantra consisting of the beejas of a devata is usually used for worship, in mantra marga. The primary or central mantra for a devata containing those beejas is called mula mantra. If the mantra has name of the devata and no monosyllable beejas of the devata, it is called a nama mantra.
Exposition of Mantra Marga and Mantra Sastra