- A mantra is a specially empowered spoken or chanted utterance, usually in SANSKRIT, although there are utterances called mantras in every Indian language. Mantras vary in size from one short syllable to a long chant, such as found in the “mantras” of the RIG VEDA. Etymologically mantra comes from the man, “think,” and tra, “instru-ment,” making a mantra literally an “instrument of thought,” or more truly an “instrument of con-sciousness.”In the VEDAS the mantras were understood to be of superhuman origin, eternal and uncreated, and were received and recited by seers and reciters in order to call to divine powers. They were used for the removal of sins, diseases, and misfortune; the conquest of enemies; and innumerable other purposes.In post-Vedic Hinduism the word mantra acquired a philosophical meaning. It was said to be derived from man (think) and tra (protect); a mantra then is that which conditions or pro-tects consciousness and helps lead to liberation. All the old Vedic usages remained throughout Indian tradition, but the use of mantras to purify consciousness, identify with the divinity, and lead one toward liberation was always highly valued.Mantras are used in India for building tem-ples, for installing icons, and for worshipping them. Those who enter various orders are often given initiation mantras. Any Indian tradition has its mula, or basic mantra. Recitation of this mantra in japa or repetitive utterance is efficacious for all purposes. The Shaivite traditions use the mantra om namah shivaya for this purpose. The Jains have what is called the mantra of five salutations, which is used for giving blessings and for asking for good fortune. Since Buddhism grew up on Indian soil, mantras are part of every sect of Bud-dhism, although their usage and interpretation may vary from those of the various Hindu sects.The bija mantra, or seed mantra, is used most often in rituals. It is a one-syllable mantra, almost always ending with an m sound, which embodies the full power of a divinity. For instance, gam is the bija mantra for GANESHA and is always used in chanting to him.All Hindu sects have slightly different philoso-phies of mantra, and all sects have long litanies of names of their divinities that can be recited for any purpose, including liberation. There is the famous VISHNU sahasranama, for instance, the Thousand Names of Vishnu, that VAISHNAVITES faithfully recited for all purposes.In Hindu TANTRA it is common to understand the mula mantra, the basic mantra, as being the ultimate form of the divinity, more powerful and efficacious than either the yantra (the esoteric graphic form) or the image of the divinity itself. When one does a tantric mantra, one literally becomes the divinity, as the mantra is the divin-ity. Finally, according to tantra belief, by chant-ing the mula mantra or the litany of mantras to the divinity one can realize the ajapa mantra, or mantra that constantly recites itself. That is, the mantra begins to repeat itself in one’s conscious-ness without further external utterance, thus totally transforming the adept. In the SHAKTA forms of tantra the Goddess mantras are called VIDYAS (wisdom), and the term mantra is reserved for utterances that relate to the male divinities only.Behind the power and significance of mantra in India is the understanding that the universe itself is constituted of nothing but sound. The world is from nada BRAHMAN or ultimate sound. A mantra then is not a mere utterance, but must be understood to be intimately connected to the substance of the universe itself, and hence yields power when recited.See also Gayatri Mantra.Further reading: Harvey P. Alper, Mantra (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1989); Guy Beck, Sonic Theology: Hinduism and Sacred Sound (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1993); Sharon Brown, Om Namah Shivaya: A Mantra Experience (Ganeshpuri: Shree Gurudev Ashram, 1977); Harold G. Coware and David J. Goa, Mantra: Hearing the Divine in India and America (New York: Columbia Uni-versity Press, 2004); Jan Gonda, “The Indian Mantra,” in Selected Studies: History of Ancient Indian Religion (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1975), 4:248; Andre Padoux, Vâc: The Concept of the Word in Selected Hindu Tantras. Translated by Jacques Gontier (Albany: State Univer-sity of New York Press, 1990); A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, Chant and Be Happy—the Story of the Hare Krishna Mantra (Los Angeles: Bhaktivedanta Book Trust, 1982); Ravi Shankar, Chants of India (sound recording) (New York: Angel Records, 1997); Swami Sivananda, Japa Yoga: A Comprehensive Treatise on Mantra-Shastra (Sivanandanagar: Divine Life Soci-ety, 1967).
Encyclopedia of Hinduism. A. Jones and James D. Ryan. 2007.