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Mantra

From Academic Kids

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In Tibet, many Buddhists carve mantras into rocks as a form of devotion.

A mantra is a religious syllable or poem, typically from the Sanskrit language. Their use varies according to the school and philosophy associated with the mantra. They are primarily used as spiritual conduits, words and vibrations that instill one-pointed concentration in the devotee. Other purposes have included religious ceremonies to accumulate wealth, avoid danger, or eliminate enemies. Mantras originated in India with Vedic Hinduism and were later adopted by Buddhists and Jains, now popular in various modern forms of spiritual practice which are loosely based on practices of these Eastern religions.

The word Mantra is a Sanskrit word consisting of the root man- "manas or mind" and the suffix -tra meaning, tool, hence a literal translation would be "mind tool". Mantras are interpreted to be effective as sound (vibration), to the effect that great emphasis is put on correct pronunciation (resulting in an early development of a science of phonetics in India). They are intended to deliver the mind from illusion and material inclinations. Chanting is the process of repeating a mantra.

Contents

Introduction

Mantras have some features in common with spells in general, in that they are a translation of the human will or desire into a form of action. Indeed, Dr. Edward Conze, a scholar of Buddhism, frequently translated "mantra" as "spell". As symbols, sounds are seen to effect what they symbolise. Vocal sounds are frequently thought of as having magical powers, or even of representing the words or speech of a deity. For the authors of the Hindu scriptures of the Upanishads, the syllable Aum, itself constituting a mantra, represents Brahman, the godhead, as well as the whole of creation. Merely pronouncing this syllable is to experience the divine in a very direct way. Kukai suggests that all sounds are the voice of the Dharmakaya Buddha -- i.e. as in Hindu Upanishadic and Yogic thought, these sounds are manifestations of ultimate reality. We should not think that this is peculiar to Eastern culture, however. Words do have a mysterious power to affect us. Accepted scholarly etymology links the word with "manas" meaning "mind" and 'tr‚na' for protection so that a mantra is something which protects the mind -- however in practice we will see that mantra is considered to do far more than simply protect the mind.

For many cultures it is the written letters that have power -- the Hebrew Kabbalah for instance, or the Anglo-Saxon Runes. Letters can have an oracular function even. But in India special conditions applied that meant that writing was very definitely inferior to the spoken word. The Brahmins were the priestly caste of the Aryan peoples. It was they that preserved the holy writings -- initially the Vedas, but later also the Upanishads. For years, they were the only ones who knew the mantras or sacred formulas that had to be chanted at every important occasion. However, with the advent of egalitarian Hindu schools of Yoga, Vedanta, Tantra and Bhakti, it is now the case that intra-family and community mantras are passed on freely as part of generally practiced Hindu religion. Such was the influence of the more orthodox attitude of the elite nature of mantra knowledge that even the Buddhists, who repudiated the whole idea of caste, and of the efficacy of the old rituals, called themselves the shravakas, that is "the hearers". A wise person in India was one who had "heard much". Mantras then are sound symbols. What they symbolise, and how they function depends on the context, and the mind of the person repeating them. Studies in sound symbolism suggest that vocal sounds have meaning whether we are aware of it or not. And indeed that there can be multiple layers of symbolism associated with each sound. So even if we do not understand them, mantras are no simply meaningless mumbo jumbo -- no vocal utterance is entirely without meaning. We can look at mantra is a range of different contexts to see what they can mean in those contexts: Om may mean something quite different to a Hindu and a Tibetan Buddhist. The analysis of Kukai, a 9th century Japanese Buddhist is revealing. See below.

While Hindu tantras eventually came to see the letters as well as the sounds as representatives of the divine, it was when Buddhism travelled to China that a major shift in emphasis towards writing came about. China lacked a unifying, ecclesiastic language like Sanskrit, and achieved its cultural unity by having a written language that was flexible in pronunciation but more precise in terms of the concepts that each character represented. In fact the Indians had several scripts which were all equally serviceable for writing Sanskrit. Hence 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. So that whereas Brahmins had been very strict on correct pronunciation, the Chinese, and indeed other Far-Eastern Buddhists were less concerned with this than correctly writing something down. 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. However, written mantra-repetition in Hindu practices, with Sanskrit in any number of scripts, is well-known to many sects in India as well.

Mantra in Hinduism

Mantras was originally conceived in the great Hindu scriptures known as the Vedas. Within practically all Hindu scriptures, the writing is formed in painstakingly crafted two line "shlokas" and most mantras follow this pattern, although mantras are often found in single line or even single word combinations.

Aum
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Aum

The most basic mantra is Aum, which in Hinduism is known as the "pranava mantra," the source of all mantras. The philosophy behind this is the Hindu idea of nama-rupa (name-form), which supposes that all things, ideas or entities in existence, within the phenomenological cosmos, have name and form of some sort. The most basic name and form is the primordial vibration of Aum, as it is the first manifested nama-rupa of Brahman, the unmanifest reality/unreality. Essentially, before existence and beyond existence is only One reality, Brahman, and the first manifestation of Brahman in existence is Aum. For this reason, Aum is considered to be the most fundamental and powerful mantra, and thus is prefixed and suffixed to all Hindu prayers. While some mantras may invoke individual Gods or principles, the most fundamental mantras, like 'Aum,' the 'Shanti Mantra,' the 'Gayatri Mantra' and others all ultimately focus on the One reality.

In the Hindu tantras 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. The purest vibrations are the var.na, the imperishable letters which are revealed to us, imperfectly as the audible sounds and visible forms.

Var.nas are the atoms of sound. A complex symbolic association was built up between letters and the elements, gods, signs of the zodiac, parts of the body -- letters became rich in these associations. For example in the Aitrareya-aranya-Upanishad we find:

"The mute consonants represent the earth, the sibilants the sky, the vowels heaven. The mute consonants represent fire, the sibilants air, the vowels the sun? The mute consonants represent the eye, the sibilants the ear, the vowels the mind"

In effect each letter became a mantra and the language of the Vedas, Sanskrit, corresponds profoundly to the nature of things. Thus the Vedas come to represent reality itself. The seed syllable Om represents the underlying unity of reality, which is Brahman.

Mantra Japa

Mantra Japa was a concept of the Vedic sages that incorporates mantras as one of the main forms of puja, or worship, whose ultimate end is seen as moksha/liberation. Essentially, Mantra Japa means repetition of mantra, and has become an established practice of all Hindu streams, from the various Yoga to Tantra. It involves repetition of a mantra over and over again, usually in cycles of auspicious numbers (in multiples of three), the most popular being 108. For this reason, Hindu malas (bead necklaces) developed, containing 108 beads and a head "meru" 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 must turn the mala around without crossing the "meru" bead and repeat.

It is said that through japa the devotee attains one-pointedness, or extreme focus, on the chosen deity or principle idea of the mantra. The vibrations and sounds of the mantra are considered extremely important, and thus reverberations of the sound are supposed to awaken the prana or spiritual life force and even stimulate chakras according to many Hindu schools of thought.

Any shloka from holy Hindu texts like the Vedas, Upanishads, Bhagavad Gita, Yoga Sutra, even the Mahabharata and Ramayana, are considered powerful enough to be repeated to great effect, and have therefore the status of a mantra.

A very common mantra is formed by taking a deity's name. Called Namajapa and saluting it in such a manner: "Aum namah ------" or "Aum Jai (Hail!) ------" or several such permutations. Common examples are "Aum namah Shivaya" (Aum I bow to Lord Shiva), "Aum Namah Narayanaya]"; or "Om Namo Bhagavate Vasudev„ya," (Salutations to the Universal God Vishnu), "Aum Shri Ganeshaya Namah" (Aum to Shree [[Ganesha]) and "Om Kalikayai Namah" and "Aum Hrim Chandik„yai Namah." (i.e., mantras to Devi.)

Vedic Conception of Sound

Template:Wikify In the Vedantic traditions sound is considered one of the most important principles of existence, as it is both the source of matter and the key to become free from it. One who can thoroughly understand the four stages of sound as explained in the Vedic texts can utilize this science to become free from the bondage of matter.

When trying to understand the four levels of sound, we must first understand what is "sound" as defined in the scriptures. In the Srimad Bhagavatam (3.26.33) we find an interesting definition for sound (shabda) as follows:

arthashrayatvam shabdasya
drashtur lingatvam eva ca
tan-matratvam ca nabhaso
lakshanam kavayo viduh

"Persons who are learned and who have true knowledge define sound as that which conveys the idea of an object, indicates the presence of a speaker and constitutes the subtle form of ether."

This may not be an absolute definition of sound, as there are various levels of sound to define, but it provides us with a solid foundation to begin our study of this topic. This definition, as given in Srimad Bhagavatam, is very interesting in that it differs completely from western and modern views of defining sound.

First, those who are learned and who have true knowledge define sound as that which conveys the idea of an object. Sound is not just the vibration created by the meeting of two objects. Sound is that which conveys the idea of an object. The exact word used in this connection is "artha-ashraya" or "the shelter of the meaning". In the Vedic conception the aksharas (letters) are bijas, or seeds of existence. The audible sound is categorized into 50 alphabets of Sanskrit starting from "a" and ending with "ksha". Hence the alphabet is called "akshara", which literally means "infallible" or "supreme". Akshara is also a synonym for pranava (Om), the sum of all syllables and source of all vedic hymns. The Bhagavad Gita confirms this as follows:

karma brahmodbhavam viddhi brahmakshara-samudbhavam tasmat sarva-gatam brahma nityam yajne pratisthitam

"Regulated activities are prescribed in the Vedas, and the Vedas are directly manifested from akshara, the sacred syllable Om. Consequently the all-pervading Transcendence (pranava or the syllable 'Om') is eternally situated in acts of sacrifice."

Karma, or duty, is manifested from the Vedas. This manifestation is not exactly direct, for one is spiritual and the other is material. This is indicated by the word udbhavam. On the other hand, the manifestation of the Vedas from the pranava (Om) is direct, and thus the word used to describe it is sam-udbhavam, and not just udbhavam.

In the Tantras the aksharas are traced back to their material source level which is a particular deity of Shakti. Each of her stages of manifestation are phases in the evolution of the universe. Thus the aksharas are potent sound, constitutionally connected to objects as sound (shabda) and its meaning (artha).

This is interesting in that it draws a distinction between sound and noise. Noise, as distinct from sound, is not the artha-ashraya, or the shelter of meaning.

Sri Baladeva Vidyabhushana in his commentary to Vedanta Sutra 1.3.28 says that the creation of all living entities proceeds from the remembrance of their form and characteristics by Lord Brahma reciting the corresponding words. From this we can begin to understand to potency of sound and its meaning.

The second aspect of Srimad Bhagavatam's definition of sound that is unique from modern thought is that sound is defined as "that which indicates the presence of a speaker". Thus sound must be a product of consciousness. In this senses, sound is sometimes referred to as vak, or speech, throughout the Vedic texts.

In the tantra system the purva mimamsaka's theory of the eternality of shabda (sound) and artha (meaning) is accepted. They go a little further to assert that shabda and artha are the embodiment of Shiva and Shakti as the universe itself. They name their original source as shabdartha-brahman instead of a mere shabda-brahman. For, that is the source of both the objects and their descriptions. Words and their meanings - what they denote in the objective world - are the variety of manifestations of shakti.

As sound is of the nature of the varnas (syllables) composing it, the tantra affirms that the creative force of the universe resides in all the letters of the alphabet. The different letters symbolize the different functions of that creative force, and their totality is designated as matrika or the "mother in essence".

Thus Tantra sees the mantras as not just a mere combination of whimsical sounds but as the subtle form of the presiding deity; and the real purpose of oneís meditation through the mantra is to communicate with the deity of that particular mantra.

Just as a sankalpa - a pure thought - has to pass through several stages before it actually manifests as concrete creative force, the sound of a particular mantra also has to pass through several stages before it is fully experienced by the listener in perfection. These stages are termed as para, pashyanti, madhyama and vaikhari.

Each level of sound corresponds to a level of existence, and one's experience of sound depends upon the refinement of one's consciousness.

It takes a realized consciousness to experience the full range of sound, the full range of existence. The seers who can comprehend the four stages of sound are known as Manishis.

The higher three forms of shabda are described in the Rig Veda as hidden in "guha", or within the self, whereas the forth is the external manifested speech, known as laukika bhasha.

These four levels of sound correspond to four states of consciousness. Para represents the transcendental consciousness. Pashyanti represents the intellectual consciousness. Madhyama represents the mental consciousness. And Vaikhari represents the physical consciousness. These states of consciousness correspond with the four states known technically as jagrat, svapna, susupti, and turiya - or the wakeful state, the dreaming state, the dreamless state, and the transcendental state.

Shabda-brahman in its absolute nature is called para. In manifestation the subtle is always the source of the gross, and thus from para-vak manifests the other three forms of sound.

Though the manifestation of sound takes place from para-vak down to vaikhari-vak (or fine to gross), in explaining these stages we will begin from the external vaikhari-vak, as that is the sound we all have most experience of.

Vaikhari-vak is the grossest level of speech, and it is heard through the external senses. When sound comes out through the mouth as spoken syllables it is called as vaikhari.

Madhyama-vak is the intermediate unexpressed state of sound, whose seat is in the heart. The word Madhyama means "in between" or "the middle". The middle sound is that sound which exists between the states of susupti and jagrat. Madhyama-vak refers to mental speech, as opposed to external audible speech. It is on this level that we normally experience thought. Some hold that wakeful thought is still on the level of vaikhari.

In the manifestation process, after sound has attained the form of pashyanti-vak, it goes further up to the heart and becomes coupled with the assertive intelligence, being charged with the syllables a, ka, cha, tha, ta, etc. At this point it manifests itself in the form of vibratory nada rupa madhyama-vak. Only those who are endowed with discriminative intelligence can feel this.

On the levels of madhyama and vaikhari, there is a distinction between the sound and the object. The object is perceived as something different from the sound, and sound is connected to an object mostly by convention.

Pashyanti-vak is the second level of sound, and is less subtle than para-vak. Pashyanti in Sanskrit means "that which can be seen or visualized".

In the pashyanti stage sound possesses qualities such as color and form. Yogis who have inner vision can perceive these qualities in sound. On this stage the differences between language do not exist, as this sound is intuitive and situated beyond rigidly defined concepts. On the stage of pashyanti-vak, speech is intuitively connected to the object. There is near oneness between the word and the experience described.

Pashyanti-vak is the finest impulse of speech. The seat of pashyanti is in the navel or the Manipura Chakra. When sound goes up to the naval with the bodily air in vibratory form without any particular syllable (varna), yet connected with the mind, it is known as pashyanti-vak.

Para-vak is the transcendent sound. Para means highest or farthest, and in this connection it indicates that sound which is beyond the perception of the senses.

Para-vak is also known as "rava-shabda" - an unvibratory condition of sound beyond the reach of mind and intelligence (avyakta), only to be realized by great souls, parama-jnanis.

On the stage of para-vak there is no distinction between the object and the sound. The sound contains within it all the qualities of the object.

In terms of the universal cosmology, vaikhari, madhyama and pashyanti correspond respectively to bhuh, bhuvah, and svah. The para-shabda ultimately corresponds to the Lord's tri-pada-vibhuti.

Within the pashyanti-vak exists the nature's iccha-shakti, or the power of will. Within the madhyama-vak exists the nature's jnana-shakti, or the power of knowledge. And within the vaikhari-vak exists the nature's kriya-shakti, or power of action.

The pranava, or the syllable "om", is the complete representation of the four stages of sound and their existential counterparts. The existential realities are the physical (sthula) which is connected to the vaikhari-shabda, the subtle (sukshma) which is connected to the madhyama-shabda, the causal (karana) which is connected with the pashyanti-shabda, and the transcendental (para) which is related to the para-shabda. These four existential realities further correspond to the four states of consciousness.

The sthula sarira, or physical body, operates in the state of jagrat (wakeful state). It is in this realm of consciousness, and through this body, that the vaikhari-vak is manifested.

The sukshma-sarira, subtle or psychic body, operates in the state of svapna. It is in this realm of consciousness, and through this body, that the madhyama-vak is manifested.

The karana-sarira, or causal body, operates in the state of susupti, or deep sleep. It is in this realm of consciousness, and through this body, that the pashyanti-vak is manifested.

The para-vak is manifested through the fourth state of consciousness, known as turiya.

The sacred syllable "om" is composed of three matras, namely "a", "u", and "m". These three matras correspond respectively to bhuh, bhuvah and svah; jagrat, svapna and susupti; sukshma, sthula and karana; and vaikhari, madhyama and pashyanti. Besides these three matras, the pranava ("a-u-m") is also composed of a forth constituent, namely the a-matra or anahata-dhvani - the non-syllable or unstruck sound. For our practical understanding, this a-matra corresponds to the humming sound after one recites the "om" syllable. The a-matra represents the transcendence, the turiya, the para-vak.

Thus the syllable om contains all elements of existence. It is the reservoir of all energies of the Supreme Lord, and for this reason Lord Krishna states in the Gita:

om ity ekaksharam brahma

"The single syllable Om is the supreme combination of letters."

Elsewhere the Lord states:

yad aksharam veda-vido vadanti

"Those knowers of the Vedas recite Om (akshara)."

Why do they do this? Because the syllable om is the Supreme Lord and the potency of all Vedic mantras:

pranava sarva vedeshu

"Within all the Vedas, I am the symbol Om."

Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu established the pranava as the maha-vakya of the Vedas, for within it exist all Vedic hymns (and shabda). The world itself is a manifestation of this syllable. It is the sound representation of the Absolute Truth.

The vak is not a manifestation of the material nature, for the Vedanta sutra 2.4.4 states as follows:

tat-purvakatvad vacah

This indicates that the vak existed before the pradhana. Pradhana is the root of the material manifestation - the three qualities non-differentiated in absolute equilibrium. Yet prior to this is the vak. Thus the vak is non-material.

For this reason we find in the Vedanta Sutras the following statement:

anavriti shabdat

"Liberation by sound."

Since sound is the non-material source of the material manifestation, it is the key by which we can become free from bondage. It is the thread-like link between the material and spiritual realms.

In describing the four phases of sound, sometimes the descriptions of one will overlap another, or sometimes an aspect of one will seem to be attributed to another. For example sometimes pashyanti is described as "mental sound", whereas madhyama will be described as "intellectual sound". This will require a deeper explanation of the intricacies of these stages of sound and their relationships. Such an explanation is not possible here at this time.

To study these concepts in greater depth one may refer to the Nada-bindu Upanishad, Bhartrihari's Vakyapadadiya, Prashna Upanishad, Mundaka Upanishad, Mandukya Upanishad, Maitri Upanishad and Katha Upanishad, as well as the concepts of shabda, vak, matrikas, hiranyagarbha, four states of consciousness, etc., as found in the tantras and throughout the upanishads. One should remember that in Vedic study one will not generally find a book on a particular topic (such as "vaikhari", etc.) One must study from numerous sources and assimilate a number of apparently diverse concepts. These concepts must then be harmonized internally. This constitutes the meditation and sacrifice of svadhyaya yajna.

For those who have assimilated these topics, they will find all this information contained in detail within nine technical verses of Srimad Bhagavatam beginning from 11.2.35 and ending at 11.2.43. For example, if one sees verses 38 through 40 one will find a complete explanation of sound in four levels and the process of manifestation. One must be trained to see the inner meaning of words, for these topics are discussed in esoteric and confidential manners:

paroksha-vada rishayah paroksham mama ca priyam

"The Vedic seers speak about these topics indirectly in esoteric terms, and I am pleased by such confidential descriptions."

When we see such words as pranah, manasa, sparsha-rupinah and chandah-mayah as occurring in verses 38 and 39, we should immediately understand the indirect and esoteric nature of the discussion, and thereby conclude the direct meaning being inferred by these words. We must learn the transcendental code of the Vedas. In reality everything is explained in the Srimad Bhagavatam in full, but because we generally lack the proper vision to understand the indirect and esoteric discussions, we therefore need to study and refer to other more direct scriptures. Thus the commentaries of the Acharyas will help us to understand these topics.

The science of sound, shabda-vijnana, as explained in the above mentioned verses of Srimad Bhagavatam, is also summarily explained in the Pancharatrik text known as Lakshmi-tantra as follows:

mulam adharam arabhya dvistkantam upeyusi udita aneka sahasra surya vahnindu sannibha cakravat punar adharat santa pasyatha madhyama vaikhari sthanam asadhya tatrasta sthanavartini varnanam jananim bhutva bhogya prasnoumi gouriva

"Seated in the area starting from the muladhara to the position of dvistkanta with effulgence equal to the rising of millions of suns, fires and moons. Like a wheel from the adhara becoming the sounds known as santa, pashyati, madhyama. Reaching the position of vaikhari, there situated in eight places, viz., the throat etc. Being the mother of all sounds I bestow enjoyments like a cow."

Some Hindu mantras

The most representative mantra of all the Hindu mantras is the famed Gayatri Mantra:

ॐ भूर्भुवस्व: |
तत् सवितूर्वरेण्यम् |
भर्गो देवस्य धीमहि |
धियो यो न: प्रचोदयात्
Om Bhūr Buvaḥ Svaḥ
Tat Savitur Vareṇyaṃ
Bhargo Devasya Dhīmahi
Dhiyo Yo Naḥ Pracodayāt

It is considered one of the most universal of all Hindu mantras, invoking the universal Brahman as the principle of knowledge and the illumination of the primordial Sun.

Lead me from Ignorance to Truth

āsato ṃā sat gamayā / tamaso ṃā jyotir gamayā / ṃrityor-ṃā āmritam gamayā / Om śānti śānti śāntiḥ

"from non-being to being lead me, from darkness to light lead me, from death to immortality lead me."

Hare Krishna Maha Mantra

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Hare Krishna Maha Mantra

It appears originally in the Kali-saņţāraņa Upanişad (Kali Santarana Upanisad):

Hare Kŗşņa Hare Kŗşņa
Kŗşņa Kŗşņa Hare Hare
Hare Rāma Hare Rāma
Rāma Rāma Hare Hare
Hare Krishna Hare Krishna
Krishna Krishna Hare Hare
Hare Rama Hare Rama
Rama Rama Hare Hare

Some may argue that "Rama" should be said first but there is a story behind this: When Caitanya Mahaprabhu (an incarnation of Krishna) brought the chanting of Hare Krishna to the Kali Yuga age, he put Krishna first as a way to divert the critics from contemporaries who didn't like his openness when revealing great powerful mantras. Lord Caitanya said afterwards that when repeating the mantra continuously the effect was the same so it is not incorrect to say Krishna first.

When A.C. Bhaktivedanta established ISKCON (International Society for Krishna Consciousness) a branch of the Brahma Madhva Gaudiya Vaisnava sampradaya to the West, he popularised the "Hare Krishna" mantra to the entire world given an easy way of liberation in this age of Kali.

The shanti mantras

ॐ सह नाववतु |
सह नौ भुनक्तु |
सह वीर्यं करवावहै |
तेजस्विनावधीतमस्तु |
मा विद्विषावहै ||
Om saha naavavatu
Saha nau bhunaktu
Saha viiryan karavaavahai
Tejasvi naavadhiitamastu
Maa vidvishhaavahai
May we be protected together.
May we be nourished together.
May we work together with great vigor.
May our study be enlightening
May no obstacle arise between us.


ॐ शान्तिः शान्तिः शान्तिः
Om shaantih shaantih shaantih
Om peace, peace, peace.
-- Black Yajurveda Taittiriya Upanishad 2.2.2

Universal prayer

Sarveśāam Svastir Bhavatu
Sarveśām Sāntir Bhavatu
Sarveśām Pūṛṇam Bhavatu
Sarveśām ṃangalam Bhavatu

(May good befall all, May there be peace for all, May all be fit for perfection, and May all experience that which is auspicious.)

Sarve Bhavantu Sukhinaha
Sarve Santu ṇirāmayaha
Sarve Badrāṇi Pasyantu
ṃā Kascidh-dhuhkha Bhāga-Bhavet

(Om, May all be happy. May all be healthy. May we all experience what is good and let no one suffer. Om, Peace, Peace, Peace!)

Other examples


The Hindu Bija Mantra

In Hinduism the concept of mantra as mystical sounds was carried to its logical conclusion in "seed" (Sanskrit bija) mantras that have no precise meaning on there surface but instead are thought to carry within their sounds connections to various spiritual principles and currents. For example, worship of the Mother Goddess Kali, in mantra form, is famously reduced to the powerful Bija mantras of the Shakta tradition of Hinduism:

Aum Krim Krim Krim Hoom Hum:

Krim Krim Krim Hum Hum Hrim Hrim Swaha

Of course, the most revered of all Bija mantras is Om/Aum.

The Bija mantra is part of the Hindu monistic understanding that while reality manifests itself as many/multiple, it is ultimately one.

Mantra in Buddhism

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Dharma wheel


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Buddhism, naturally following from Vedic society, also developed its own system and understanding of mantra, which while similar to that of Hinduism's, also took on its own particularities, especially according to region.

Mantra in Shingon Buddhism

Kūkai 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 Pali Canon see below. Kūkai coined the word "shingon" (lit true word) as a Japanese translation of mantra.

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. This is perhaps related to the use of verse summaries at the end of texts as in the Udana which is generally acknowledged as being in the oldest strata of the Pali Canon. Dharanis are also considered to protect the one who chants them from malign influences and calamities.

Mantra is traditionally said to be derived from two roots: "man", to think; and the action oriented (k.rt) 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. However it is also true that mantras have been used as magic spells for very mundane purposes such as attaining wealth and long life, and eliminating enemies.

The distinction between dharani and mantra is a difficult one 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. Kukai 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, Kukai 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]

Mantra in Indo-Tibetan Buddhism

Conze distinguishes three periods in the Buddhist use of mantra. Initially, like their fellow Indians, Buddhists used mantra as protective spells to ward of 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".

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 demi-gods, 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 all Buddhist practice 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".

Then thirdly mantra began, 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 almost always associated with a particular deity, with one 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. So a typical sadhana or meditation practice might include mudras, or symbolic hand gestures, or even full body prostrations; 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 pronounced out loud, or internally in the mind only.

Om mani padme hum

Probably the most famous mantra of Buddhism is Om mani padme hum (Chn. 唵嘛呢叭咪吽, pronounced the same way), the six syllable mantra of the Bodhisattva of compassion Avalokiteshvara (Tibetan: Chenrezig, Chinese: Guanyin). This mantra is particularly associated with the four-armed Shadakshari form of Avalokiteshvara. The Dalai Lama is said to be an incarnation of Avalokiteshvara, and so the mantra is especially revered by his devotees.

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 hung.

Some other mantras used by Tibetan Buddhists

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.

  • Om wangishwari hum This is the mantra of the Mahabodhisattva Manjusri, Tibetan: Jampelyang (Wylie "'jam dpal dbyangs")... The Buddha in his wisdom aspect.
  • Om mani padme hum The mantra of Chenrezig, Mahabodhisattva, the Buddha in his compassion aspect.
  • Om vajrapani hum The mantra of the Buddha as Protector of the Secret Teachings. ie: as the Mahabodhisattva Channa Dorje (Vajrapani).
  • om vajrasattva hum The short mantra for Vajrasattva, there is also a full 100-syllable mantra for Vajrasattva.
  • Om ah hum vajra guru pema siddhi hum The mantra of the Vajraguru Guru Padma Sambhava who established Mahayana Buddhism and Tantra in Tibet.
  • Om tare tuttare ture swaha The mantra of Jetsun Dolma or Tara, the Mother of the Buddhas.
  • Om tare tuttare ture mama ayurjnana punye pushting svaha The mantra of Dölkar or White Tara, the emanation of Tara representing long life and health.
  • Om amarani jiwantiye swaha The mantra of the Buddha of limitless life: the Buddha Amitayus (Tibetan Tsťpagmed) in celestial form.
  • Om dhrum swaha The purificatory mantra of the mother Namgyalma.
  • Om ami dhewa hri The mantra of the Buddha Amitabha (Hopagmed) of the Western Buddhafield, his skin the colour of the setting sun.
  • Om ah ra pa tsa na dhih The mantra of the "sweet-voiced one", Jampelyang (Wylie "'jam dpal dbyangs") or Manjusri, the Buddha in his wisdom aspect.
  • Hung vajra phat The mantra of the Mahabodhisattva Vajrapani in his angry (Dragpo) form.
  • Om muni muni maha muniye sakyamuni swaha The mantra of Buddha Sakyamuni, the historical Buddha
  • "Om gate gate paragate parasamgate bodhi swaha" The mantra of the Heart of the Perfection of Wisdom Sutra

Mantra in other traditions or contexts

Transcendental Meditation also known simply as 'TM' uses simple mantras as a meditative focus. TM was founded by the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. According to the TM website (see below) the practice can result in a number of material benefits such as relaxation, reduced stress, better health, better self image; but it can also benefit the world by reducing violence, crime and generally improve quality of life. The founder was well versed in Hindu tradition, but TM attempts to separate itself from that tradition these days. Simple two syllable mantras are used.

Mantra practice has also been enthusiastically taken up by various New Age groups and individuals, although this is typically out of context, and from the point of view of a genuine Hindu or Buddhist practitioner lacks depth. The mere repetition of syllables can have a calming effect on the mind, but the traditionalist would argue that mantra can be an effective way of changing the level of ones consciousness when approached in traditional way.

See also

External links

Buddhist mantra

Hindu mantra

Other

References

  • Abe, R. The weaving of mantra : Kukai and the construction of esoteric Buddhist discourse. (New York : Columbia University Press, 1999.)
  • Beyer, S. Magic and ritual in Tibet : the cult of Tara. (Delhi: Motilal Banarsisdass, 1996).
  • Conze, E. Buddhism : its essence and development. (London : Faber, c1951).
  • Gelongma Karma Khechong Palmo. Mantras On The Prayer Flag. Kailash - Journal of Himalayan Studies, Volume 1, Number 2, 1973. (pp. 168-169).
  • Gombrich, R. F. Theravaada Buddhism : a social history from ancient Benares to modern Colombo. (London, Routledge, 1988)
  • Govinda (Lama Anagarika). Foundations of Tibetan Mysticism. (London : Rider, 1959).
  • Lopez, D. Prisoners of Shangri-La: Tibetan Buddhism and the West. (Chicago : University of Chicago Press, 1998)
  • The Rider Encyclopedia of Eastern Philosophy and religion. (London : Rider, 1986).
  • Skilton, A. A concise history of Buddhism. (Birmingham : Windhorse Publications, 1994).
  • Sangharakshita. Transforming Self and World : themes from the Sutra of Golden Light. (Birmingham : Windhorse Publications, 1994).
  • Walsh, M. The Long discourses of the Buddha : a translation of the Digha Nikaya. (Boston : Wisdom Publications, 1987)
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