What is a mantra?
The word ‘mantra’ comes from two root words. ‘man’ literally means ‘mind’, ‘tra’ is ‘instrument’. Hence ‘mantra’ is an instrument of the mind that takes us beyond our mind to awareness. Once we enter the field of awareness we can experience the higher consciousness. Our essential nature is the light of awareness, without awareness we can not have any experience.
Why do we chant mantras?
Chanting forms an essential part of many religious studies. Similar hymns, chants, compositions and concepts are found in Hinduism, Buddhism, Christianity, Islamism etc. In one form or another, it is the key component of religious practice of humanity. Chanting is the gesture of devotion, the attitude of surrender to the supreme power.
Among all the yogic paths, Bhakti(devotion), Jnana(knowledge), Hatha(physical), and Raja yoga(meditation), mantra
chanting is the most common practice. While asanas give health and flexibility to the body, mantra brings well-being and adaptability to the mind. Mantra is a tool that we use to train our mind to be able to concentrate and focus on one point, guiding our journey along the eight limbs of yoga, from the more external and physical limb of asana, to the more internal aspect of dharana(concentration) and dhyana(meditation), and ultimately leading us to samadhi.
How to chant mantras?
The most often question that I heard from fellow practitioners is, ‘What is the meaning of this mantra?’
When I for the first time learned a mantra, I asked the same question. My back then teacher told me not to bother, just close my eyes, keep repeating, focus on the vibration of the vocal cord, and the vibration in the air. This is how traditionally mantras are taught in India. The first lesson is just to repeat like a parrot. Rather than the meaning of the words, it is more important to learn the precise pronunciation, because the sacred power of a mantra is embedded in its syllabus. After having repeated for enough many times, the words are carved into the mind, only then we are able to start experiencing the power of a mantra, and only then understanding the meaning of the words gives an added value.
The western mindset urges us to be ‘smart’, to always actively use our brain. Understand-analyze-conclude-judge-decide-criticize-understand. The brain keeps working in an unfinishing loop. Eastern philosophy on the other hand encourages us to be ‘foolish’, to blindly surrender, to simplify things, to empty the mind. Mantra works on emptying our mind. Before we manage to learn how to be foolish, we can not be smart.
The mantras that we chant in yoga classes are in vedic sanskrit language, one of the oldest languages in the world, and are mostly documented in the Vedas and Vedantas.
Examples of some powerful mantras:
|| Oṁ Sahanā vavatu sahanau bhunaktu Sahavīryam karavāvahai Tejasvi nāvadhītamastu Mā vidviṣāvahai Oṁ Shāntiḥ, Shāntiḥ, Shāntiḥ ||
"Om! Let the Studies that we together undertake be effulgent;
"Let there be no Animosity amongst us;
"Om! Peace, Peace, Peace.
- Taittiriya Upanishad 2.2.2
||Oṁ Bhūr bhuva swaha tat savitur varenyam bhargo devasya dhīmahi dhiyo yo naḥa prachodayāt ||
"Let us meditate on that excellent glory of the divine Light (Vivifier, Sun). May he stimulate our understandings (knowledge, intellectual illumination).
- Rig Veda (RV 3.62.10)
|| Om Tryambakaṃ yajāmahe sugandhiṃ puṣṭivardhanam urvārukamiva bandhanānmṛtyormukṣīya mā'mṛtāt ||
We Meditate on the Three-eyed reality, Which permeates and nourishes all like a fragrance.
May we be liberated from death for the sake of immortality, Even as the cucumber is severed from bondage to the creeper.
- Rig Veda (RV 7.59.12)