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A mantra is a syllable or string of syllables, typically from the Sanskrit language. Mantras may or may not conform to grammatical rules, and are used in a ritual context which may include religious ceremonies, or be aimed at mundane goals such as accumulating wealth, avoding danger, or eliminating enemies. Mantras originated in India with Vedic Hinduism, but were adopted by Buddhists, and are popular in various modern forms of spiritual practice which are loosely based on Eastern religions.

Table of contents
1 Mantra Generally
2 Mantra in Shingon Buddhism
3 Mantra in Indo-Tibetan Buddhism
4 Mantra in Brahmanism and Hinduism
5 Mantra in other traditions or contexts
6 see also
7 Works Consulted
8 External Links

Mantra Generally

Mantras (Sanskrit) 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 that great scholar of Buddhism Dr Edward Conze, 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 God. Kukai for instance suggests that all sounds are the voice of the Dharmakaya Buddha – i.e. are manifestations of ultimate reality. For the authors of the Upanishads, the syllable Om, 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. We should not think that this is peculiar to Eastern culture. In Genesis 1:3 we find: “And God said, “let there be light”, and there was light.” Words do have a mysterious power to affect us. Conze suggests that the word mantra is connected with the Greek word “meimao” which expresses desire, yearning, and intensity of purpose, and with the Old High German word “minn-ia” meaning ‘making love to’. More traditional etymology links the word with ‘manas’ meaning ‘mind’ and 'trâna' 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. However even when writing became available to them, it was probably brought by Dravidian traders from the Middle East, they shunned it. They did so because they had established a hegemony that they continue to wield even in modern day India – they were the only ones who knew the mantras or scared formulas that had to be chanted at every important occasion. Such was the influence of this attitude 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, a Tibetan Buddhist, an Western Christian. The analysis of Kukai, a 9th century Japanese Buddhist is perhaps the most in-depth and revealing. See below.

Although the 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 it’s 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 mantra’s, 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 where written, is only really practised in Japan these days.

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 it’s opposite, so “vidya” is understanding, and “avidya” is ignorance. 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 Bodhisattavas, 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 verses or ‘parittas’ in the early Buddhist scriptures. The Atanatiya Sutta (aa.taanaa.tiya ) in of the Pali Canon (Digha Nikaya Sutta 32) is a collection of these parittas. The verses in this sutta are the means by which people may “dwell guarded, unharmed and at ease", being particularly effective against the malign influence of non-human beings. Other examples include the Ratana Sutta (Sn 222ff) and Khandha Parrita (AN 4.67). According to the Pali commentary, the very well known Metta Sutta was originally taught as a protection against some disruptive tree spirits that were making life very uncomfortable 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 worship of the White Lotus Sutra through recitation of the daimoku: “Nam myo ho renge kyo” which translates as “Homage to the White 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 all time is Om mani padme hum, the six syllable mantra of the Bodhisattva of compassion Avalokiteshvara (Sanskrit: Chenrezig, Tibetan). 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 it's various interpretations in his book Prisoners of Shangri-LA: Tibetan Buddhism and the West. Lopez is an authorative 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 Manipadme is actually the name of a bodhisattva, a form of Avalokiteshvara who has many other names in anycase 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.

Mantra in Brahmanism and Hinduism

A mantra is associated with a particular god and held to be one with them. By reciting the mantra one clarifies one’s thoughts, and this will eventually lead to the realisation of god.

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, 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 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 relaxtion, 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 seems to be largely divorced from that tradition these days. Simple two syllable mantras are used, and these do not seem to be linked to divinity as they are in the Hindu tradition.

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 Buddhist or Hindu practioner 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

Works Consulted

External Links

Hindu Mantra

Buddhist Mantra