Mantra is a syllable or string of syllables, from the Sanskrit language, first found in Hinduism. Mantras may or may not conform to grammatical rules. Their use varies with the school and philosophy associated with the mantra. They are primarily used as spiritual conduits, words and vibrations that instill one-pointedness in the devotee. Other purposes have included religious ceremonies to accumulating wealth, avoiding danger, or eliminating 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 based on practices of these Indian religions.
To list most of the main Hindu mantras would take reams of paper. Indeed, simple two-lined shlokas from holy Hindu texts like the Vedas, Upanishads, Bhagavad Gita, Yoga Sutra, even the Mahabharata and Ramayana, are considered powerful and finely honed enough to be repeated to great effect.
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 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 Shakti tradition of Hinduism:
“Aum Kreeng Kreeng Kreeng Hoong Hoong Hreeng Hreeng
Dakshina Kalike Kreeng Kreeng Kreeng Hoong Hoong Hreeng Hreeng Swaha ||”
Of course, the most revered of all Bija mantras is Om/Aum.
The Bija mantra is part of the Hindu monist theory that while reality manifests itself as many/multiple, it is ultimately one.
Mantra in Buddhism
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 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 considered to protect the one who chants them from malign influences and calamities.
Mantra is 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 mundane purposes such as attaining wealth.
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 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. 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 visualized 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”.
Mantra in Indo-Tibetan Buddhism
Conze distinguishes three periods in the Buddhist use of mantra. Initially Buddhists used mantra as protective spells to ward of malign influences. Despite a Vinaya rule which forbids monks engaging in the practice of chanting mantras for material gain, there are a number of such 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 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 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, 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”.
Thirdly mantra began, in the 7th century, to take centre stage and become a vehicle for salvation in their own right. Tantra started to gain momentum in 6th and 7th century, with specifically Buddhist forms appearing as early as 300CE. Mantrayana was an early name for what is now 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 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 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 visualization of celestial beings and visualizing the letters of the mantra which is being recited. Clearly here mantra is associated with speech. The meditator may visualize 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
The most famous mantra of Buddhism 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. Dalai Lama is said to be an incarnation of Avalokiteshvara, and so the mantra is 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 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 Manipadme 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 hum.
Some other mantras used by Tibetan Buddhists
Mantra in other traditions or contexts
Transcendental Meditation, known simply as 'TM', uses simple two syllable mantras as a meditative focus. TM was founded by Mahesh Yogi. According to TM, the practice can result in a number of material benefits such as relaxation, reduced stress, better health; but it can also benefit the world by reducing violence and generally improve quality of life. While the founder was a well versed Hindu, the TM tries to separate itself from that tradition these days.
Mantra practice has also been taken up by various New Age groups, although this is typically out of context, and from the point of view of a 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.
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