Photo: iStockphoto
Photo: iStockphoto

The Universe of the Mantra

The mantra is the constant thread that winds its way through the warp and weft of Hindu spiritual life

Ask any Indian if they know what a mantra is. They may well think this is a silly question.

Ask them to explain what a mantra is, and things get a little more complicated.

Are mantras instances of language (consisting of words), or are they alinguistic—consisting of bīja, stobha and utterances like Oṃ and svāhā which have no meaning in ordinary language?

Is a mantra a speech act to be said out loud or murmured? Or something to be contemplated upon silently in the mind? Is it to be uttered once or repeated a particular number of times? Is it for quotidian purposes or soteriological? Is it to be written or spoken? Is it a single word or a phrase, or a verse?

Where does its power come from? From being received from the divine or from the guru? From being pronounced correctly? Are mantras religious instruments or do they have non-religious applications?

The answer in every case is “yes". It is what it is, its variant and its diametrical opposite as well. This is because we are engaging with a concept which has a history of at least four millennia, perhaps twice that long.

It’s a concept that has incessantly re-invented itself to remain not just relevant, but central to Hindu culture. It’s a continuity that survives real and imagined discontinuities in Hinduism.

So much so, that the history of religious life in India might be read plausibly as the history of mantras. India is not merely or even principally the land of Vedānta, nor is it merely, though indeed it is, the land of Viṣṇu and Śiva … [India] is the land of mantra.

Like the term dharma, mantra is a plurivalent word, making it hard to translate as one word into another language. Created from the Sanskrit root √man (to think, contemplate and meditate) and the suffix “tra" which supplies instrumentality, etymologically mantra can be defined as that which facilitates thinking and meditation.

In later traditions, “tra" is interpreted as arising from the root √trai (to protect) and mantra as that which protects.

Jan Gonda’s iconic 1963 essay The Indian Mantra offers a variety of definitions. Respected scholars like Benoytosh Bhattacharyya, Lama Anagarika Govinda, Mircea Eliade, Majumdar, Herbert V. Günther and others have tried their hand. Agehananda Bharati offers this: “A mantra is a…series of quasi morphemes…arranged in conventional patterns, based on esoteric traditions and passed from one preceptor to one disciple in…initiation. Frits Staal says, “Mantras are bits and pieces of the Veda put to ritual use."

When we examine the application of mantra, we find that all such definitions are inadequate.

The earliest known instances of mantra occur in the Ṛg Veda. Here, they are compositions of poet-priests (ṛṣis, seers) who were inspired to compose, having received a vision from the divine. Indeed, the power of mantra came from the ṛṣi’s accessibility and eloquent insight into divine mysteries.

These mantras were used to propitiate divinities like Agni, Indra, and Soma for the successful continuance of Vedic life. To ensure material goods, cattle, wives, sons, a long life and most importantly victory in battle. Far from being ahiṃsā-vādī, these ṛṣis marched into battle with their rājan (chief). Warlike-poets on both sides implored the gods for victory and the destruction of the enemy by performing yajña and composing hymns.

It was believed that the side with the more skilled composer won, because the gods would be more pleased with his hymns. It was a period of peak creativity, when excellent form and content of the mantra arose from a privileged vision of the divine.

As the pastoral phase of the Vedic people came to a close, so did composition. Existing mantras began to be used as ritual utterances during this “brāhmaṇa" period. The Vedic ritual became supreme and highly complex. The more complicated sacrifices could require up to 16 priests, and last for a year.

During this period the power of mantra came from the correct recitation, the most perfect pronunciation. Rather than being received from the gods, they superseded the gods. Correctly pronounced, a mantra compelled a god to attend the sacrifice and fulfil the request of the yajamāna (patron of the sacrifice).

Needless to say, priests and officiants who specialized in pronouncing mantras correctly became the most important members of the clan or tribe, even more important than the chief.

With the passage of centuries, the ritual gave way to mystical and philosophical speculation, a trend which began in the araṇkayas and blossomed in the Upaniṣads. The physical ritual with its complex paraphernalia was internalized and mantra became an act of contemplation.

The mantra “Oṃ" was recast into an abstract metaphysical concept and identified with the substratum of the universe (brahman). In the Vedic ritual, one of its roles was pra-ṇava—the fore-shout. It was also used as an utterance of consent.

For instance, when Ṛg Veda 9.11.1 is used in the soma sacrifice, the insertion of “Oṃ" by the three priests (prastotṛ, udgātṛ and pratihartṛ), facilitates the progress of the ritual. The transformation of “Oṃ" from the ritual to the abstract requires a whole study of its own.

Protean in nature, the variety of contexts mantras are used in is astonishing. In the gṛhya sutras, from the act of conception right up to the cremation fire, every significant milestone is accompanied by mantra. Marriage, setting up a home, embarking on a journey, beginning studies, returning home—the application of mantra is endless.

In the dharma sutras, Vedic mantras are used for purification, prāyaścitta (atonement), vrata (religious undertaking) and every imaginable situation in life.

Mantra finds its way into theistic yogic practices as well. Interestingly the word itself is used only once in Patañjali’s Yoga sutras (sutra 4.1) where mantra is listed as one of the ways to attain siddhīs (special yogic powers). However, in practice, mantra became inextricably linked with yoga and in fact, a whole system is devoted to it (mantrayoga). In this system, constant repetition (japa) of a mantra fixes the wandering mind and suffuses the practitioner with the power of the presiding deity of the mantra.

Mantras find full expression in theistic Hinduism. They are omnipresent in the Śiva Purāṇa which is described as containing a stream of mantra (Siva Purana 1.2.66 – mantraugha…yukta). One of the most interesting applications is the change in varṇa status brought about by Śiva mantra recitation, and its implication for liberation.

If a brahman woman receives the pañcākṣaramantra mantra from a guru and recites it 1,000,000 times, she becomes a man and eventually attains liberation (whether in this life or the next, the text does not specify).

A kṣatriya (man) who recites it 1,000,000 times becomes a brahman, and so on down the line…a śūdra attains mantraviprata (rank of brahman) and becomes a śuddho dvija by reciting the mantra 2,500,000 times. (Śiva Purana 1.17.122-128 )

So far, we have seen the use of mantra in the religious sphere. As time passes, mantras are re-applied in every aspect of human life. They are an intrinsic part of Ayurveda. Healing mantras of the Atharva and the Ṛg Veda were blended with the more empirical and rational approach of medical texts, like Bhela, Suśruta and Caraka saṃhitā.

Mantras came to be used to treat poison, tumours, wounds and sores, mental disorders, fever and the collection and preparation of certain medicines. In the case of sores, etc., bandages, plasters, hot and cold compresses were used, but the treatment began with an appropriate mantra. Similarly, having classified various types of poisons on the basis of its vectors, the appropriate mantra was used along with the use of a tourniquet, extraction and antidotes. Hydrophobia caused by the bite of a mad dog was treated with mantra.

The uprooting and collection of herbs (oṣadhi) was accompanied by mantra, which appeased the plant (suggesting an attitude of non-violence toward vegetal matter). Mantras, especially in the gāyatrī meter, were recited while preparing an elixir that promotes potency while in an advanced age (āyuṣkāmarasāyana). As with the gṛhya and dharma sutras, appropriate mantras are used. Ṛg Veda 10.97 and Atharva Veda 8.7 are devoted to the collection, consecration and use of plants.

The range of application seems endless, with mantras being used to locate lost cattle, escape from the endless cycle of rebirth and death, (saṃsāra), the diminution of bad karma and transportation to the realm of the iṣṭa-deva (Vaikuṇṭha, Śiva-loka).

Mantras have been and are used to attract women, kill enemies, promote hair growth. They even had an application in agriculture. In his Arthaśāstra, Kauṭilya instructed that there should not be any sowing without appropriate mantras: “Always, while sowing seeds, a handful of seed bathed in water with a piece of gold shall be sown first and the following mantra recited: ‘Adoration to god Prajapati Kasyapa; (the goddess) Sita (who presides over the furrow and agriculture) must always prosper in respect to seeds and wealth.’" (Arthasastra 2, 24, 41).

From other texts, for example in the Rājataraṅgini, it appears that the crops on the fields were watched by māntrikas, or guards, who exercised their function by means of mantras (Rajatarangini I, 234).

As yet one of the most significant use of mantras has not been touched upon—their use in tantric practices. That, as with the transition from ritual to abstract use, is an entire study on its own. For now, we must satisfy ourselves by ruminating over the astounding range of the use of mantras in Indian life.

And dare we offer a definition of our own? Are they invocations? Are they prayers? Supplications? Magical formulas? Sacred sentences? Meaningless utterances?

To my mind, mantra defies definition, much as Hinduism does. For every belief held, the diametric opposite is just as true. Yet practitioners of the faith system “just know" that they are Hindu. They “just know" what a mantra is when they use one.

Mantras inhabit the intersections and interstices of every imaginable polarity in Hindu life. Omnipresent, tradition is in no doubt about their potency. Their transcendence of ordinary binaries like sound and silence, as well as their causal role in overcoming obstacles and conquering evil can be seen on a cosmic scale in their placement in the destruction of Tripura by Śiva.

In the war chariot designed for this iconic battle, pṛthivī was the chariot, pañcabhūta (five elements) its power; the sun and moon its wheels; Meru the bow, Vāsukī the bow string; Viṣṇu the arrow, with Agni as its tip and Vāyu in its feathers.

The tinkling bells of the chariot were mantras. The four Vedas were the horses, Brahmā the charioteer. And the whip he wielded to drive the chariot into battle was the praṇava (the fore-shout) Oṃ.


Swami Satyananda, Radha, Mantras: Words of Power, Timeless Books, Canada, 1980

Alper, H, ed., Mantra, University of New York Press, 1989

Gonda, J, The Indian Mantra, Brill, 1963

O’Brien-Kop, K, Om in the Upanishads, M.A. dissertation, unpublished

Padoux, Tantric mantras, Routledge, 2011