A Sanskrit word meaning a sacred word or phrase having spiritual power or special significance. According to Šaktism (see HINDUISM), a Mantra liberates one who meditates on its significance. Mantras fall into two classes: kan˜ika which are those spoken aloud and ajāpa which are repeated soundlessly in the mind.
Mantras form a part of the ritual of the VEDAS (karmakānda) where they are classified according to their meters, gāyatrī having twenty-four syllables. Following the Vedic period in India, mantras assumed considerable importance in many religious movements such as the Tantric.
In Tibet, MAHĀYĀNA Buddhism features the mantra in its ritual and what is known as “The Great Mantra,” Om mani padme hum, or “The Jewel in the Lotus,” is in frequent use. A detailed exposition on the deeper significance of mantras may be found in Tantra in Tibet, by Tsong-ka-pa (1357-1419). The secrecy surrounding the teaching of certain mantras is justified by Tsong-ka-pa on the ground that use by those of impure motivation would harm themselves and others. This point of view raises questions, of course. In what way does harm occur? What kind of harm? How serious would such harm be? The purpose of mantra in Tantric practice is stated to be, “Pride in oneself as a deity and the vivid appearance of that deity.” If the deity can be invoked, it is reasonable to assume that other less benign entities or influences might be invoked by the inexpert use of a mantra — at least in the mind of believers. It is worth noting that Tsong-ka-pa offers a different definition of the word “mantra” from that commonly accepted and given at the beginning of this article. He defined mantra as “mind-protection” and states that the mantra protects the mind from ordinary appearances and conceptions. “Mind” is defined as all six consciousnesses: eye, ear, nose, tongue, body and mental consciousnesses — which are to be freed or protected from the ordinary world.
A discussion of mantra would not be complete without reference to the significance of vibration. The Esoteric Philosophy maintains that the various “levels” of being in nature are not self-contained or isolated from each other, but are to some extent interdependent. Thus the physical world is in close connection with the so-called “Astral” world and so on. What occurs in one world may have an effect on another. Thus vibration of an object at the physical level may cause sympathetic vibration or effects at other “Planes of Being.” Whether this is an actual energy transfer is not clear, but the medieval belief in spells and incantations was probably based on some such supposition. The emphasis on the correct method of sounding a mantra seems to indicate that it is the vibration sequence or variation that is of prime importance rather than the meaning of the words. Then again it is important to consider the effect on the individual sounding the mantra. There are many natural frequencies occurring in the human body; there is a standing wave pattern in the aorta for instance. Direct or harmonic reinforcement or diminishment of naturally occurring vibrations in the body may be caused by vocal effects. Giuseppe Tucci in his The Theory and Practice of Mandala (Rider & Co., 1969), puts the point of view that a mystical syllable may be the secret essence or “seed” of the Divinity and that these are so closely bound up in each other that concentration on the syllable can result in the Divinity being called into one’s mind; however, it is necessary to meditate on and visualize the syllable for a long time for the effect to occur. Tucci states that cosmic evolution and its reabsorption in the primordial matrix are reproduced according to a precise and subtle alphabetic scheme, which, in its combinations, reflects the weaving of the universal becoming, determining its various phases. Tucci explains further that these “seeds” which apparently have no meaning, represent in the symbol of sound the affinity or relationship between the various planes and thus image the play of cosmic forces.
Helena P. Blavatsky mentions mantras quite often in her writings. She defined a mantra as a collection of words which, when sounded in speech, induce certain vibrations not only in the air, but also in the finer ether, thereby producing certain effects. Blavatsky does, however, emphasize that ideas generated in the mind by association of ideas with the meaning of certain words can be significant (CW IX:118).
In Christian worship we find frequent use of the mantra; examples are “Amen” and “Hallelujah.”
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