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What is a Mantra in Hinduism?

A Mantra is a sacred utterance, a numinous sound, a syllable, word or phonemes or group of words in Sanskrit believed by practitioners to have psychological and spiritual powers. A mantra may or may not have syntactic structure or literal meaning and yet be musically uplifting and spiritually meaningful.

What does Mantra mean in Sanskrit?

The word “Mantra” has been derived from Sanskrit. Mantra contains two words – “man” which means “to think” (also in manas “mind”) and suffix “tra” which means “tool”, hence a literal translation would be “instrument of thought”.

They are typically melodic, mathematically structured meters, believed to be resonant with numinous qualities.

  • At its simplest, the word ॐ (Aum, Om) serves as a mantra.
  • In more sophisticated forms, mantras are melodic phrases with spiritual interpretations such as a human longing for truth, reality, light, immortality, peace, love, knowledge, and action.
  • The earliest mantras were composed in Vedic Sanskrit by Hindus in India, and are at least 3000 years old.

The use, structure, function, importance, and types of mantras vary according to the philosophy and need of Hinduism.

Mantras come in many forms, including ṛc (verses from the Rigveda for example) and sāman (musical chants from the Samaveda for example). Hindu mantras are, therefore, the name for the verses, formulas or sequence of words in prose which contain praise, are believed to have religious, magical or spiritual efficiency and are meditated upon, recited, muttered or sung in a ritual, and are collected in the methodically arranged ancient texts of Hinduism.

Vedic Mantra – Origin

  • During the early Vedic period, claims Staal, Vedic poets became fascinated by the inspirational power of poems, metered verses and music. They referred to them with the root dhi-, which evolved into dhyana(meditation) of Hinduism, and the language used to start and assist this process manifested as mantra. By the middle vedic period (1000 BC to 500 BC), mantras were derived from all vedic compositions. They included ṛc (verses from Rigveda for example), sāman (musical chants from the Sāmaveda for example), yajus (a muttered formula from the yajurveda for example), andnigada (a loudly spoken yajus).
  • During the Hindu Epics period and after, mantras multiplied in many ways and diversified to meet the needs and passions of various schools of Hinduism. Mantras took a center stage in the Tantric school, which posited that each mantra (bijas) is a deity; it is this distinct school of Hinduism and ‘each mantra is a deity’ reasoning that led to the perception that some Hindus have tens of millions of Gods.

Function and Structure of Hindu Mantras

  • One function of mantras is to solemnize and ratify rituals.
  • Each mantra, in Vedic rituals, is coupled with an act. According to Apastamba Srauta Sutra, each ritual act is accompanied by one mantra, unless the Sutraexplicitly marks that one act corresponds to several mantras. According to Gonda and others there is a connection and rationale between a Vedic mantra and each Vedic ritual act that accompanies it. In these cases, the function of mantras was to be an instrument of ritual efficacy for the priest, and an instrument of instruction for ritual act for others.
  • Over time, as the Puranas and Epics were composed, the concepts of worship, virtues and spirituality evolved in Hinduism. In Hinduism, the function of mantras shifted from quotidian to redemptive. In other words, in Vedic times, mantras were recited with a practical quotidian goal as intention, such as requesting a deity’s help in discovery of lost cattle, cure from illness, succeeding in competitive sport or journey away from home.
  • Literal translation of Vedic mantras suggests that the function of mantra, in these cases, was to cope with the uncertainties and dilemmas of daily life. In a later period of Hinduism, mantras were recited with a transcendental redemptive goal as intention, such as escape from the cycle of life and rebirth, forgiveness for bad karma, and experiencing spiritual connection with the god. The function of mantras, in these cases, was to cope with the human condition as a whole.

Thus, redemptive spiritual mantras opened the door for mantras where every part need not have literal meaning, but together their resonance and musical quality assisted the transcendental spiritual process.

Overall, we see that Hindu Mantras have philosophical themes and are metaphorical with social dimension and meaning; in other words, they are a spiritual language and instrument of thought.

Hindu mantras may be spoken aloud, anirukta (not enunciated), upamsu (inaudible), or manasa (not spoken, but recited in the mind). In ritual use, mantras are often silent instruments of meditation.

Example : The most basic mantra is Om, which in Hinduism is known as the “pranava mantra,” the source of all mantras. The Hindu philosophy behind this is the premise that before existence and beyond existence is only One reality, Brahma, and the first manifestation of Brahma expressed as Om. For this reason, Om is considered as a foundational idea and reminder, and thus is prefixed and suffixed to all Hindu prayers. While some mantras may invoke individual gods or principles, fundamental mantras, like the ‘Shanti Mantra, the ‘Gayatri Mantra’ and others all ultimately focus on the One reality

Mantra Japa

Mantra japa is a practice of repetitively uttering the same mantra for an auspicious number of times, the most popular being 108, and sometimes just 5, 10, 28 or 1008. Japa is found in personal prayer or meditative efforts of some Hindus, as well during formal puja (group prayers). Japa is assisted by malas (bead necklaces) containing 108 beads and a head bead (sometimes referred to as the ‘meru’, or ‘guru’ bead); the devotee using his/her fingers to count 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 turns the mala around without crossing the head bead and repeats the cycle. Japa-yajna is claimed to be most effective if the mantra is repeated silently in the mind (manasah).

In Hinduism, any shloka from holy Hindu texts like the Vedas, Upanishads, Bhagavad Gita, Yoga Sutra, even the Mahabharata, Ramayana, Durga saptashati or Chandi is a mantra, thus can be part of the japa, repeated to achieve numinous effect. The Dharmasastra claims Gayatri mantra derived from Rig Veda verse 3.62.10, and the Purusasukta mantra from Rig Veda verse 10.90 are most auspicious mantras for japa at sunrise and sunset. It is claimed to purify the mind and spirit.