Updated: Sep 22, 2021
I still remember my first experience with mantra chanting: It was in Amsterdam, in the yoga studio, where I started my yoga journey. The event was led by a special guest who allowed the space for all participants to feel joy, stand up and start dancing. The hours went amazingly fast and afterwards I felt like a new person filled with joy, connection, freedom, and love for the world and all beautiful beings in it. In a year time, I found myself in Central America, on the lake Atitlan in Guatemala, where I was overwhelmed by the embodied experience of this living tradition-chanting Sanskrit mantras in gatherings, in which I lived kirtan as a union, oneness, and love; unity with myself, the others and the divine. Kirtan is the second of the nine limbs of Bhakti Yoga – the path of devotion to the divine, and it sets in motion the power of mantra within us: as a mental pattern and as a current of deeper energy and feeling.
WHAT IS MANTRA?
The word mantra comes from the Sanskrit word for mind or to think ‘man’ and the suffix ‘tra,’ which denotes instrumentality. A mantra could translate as ‘an instrument of thought’, an instrument to train the mind, so that it can bring greater concentration to the present moment. Mantra is a formula, a vibration of cosmic prana (energy) molding and shaping our inner space which help us go beyond the different layers of the mind and ego.
Mantras can consist of a single letter, a syllable or string of syllables, a word, or a whole sentence, and it is repeated during different practices – such as meditation, ritual performance, and asana practices. Mantras are different types and can be performed in different ways: they can be spoken, chanted, whispered, or repeated in the mind. Bija mantras are short-syllable ‘seed’ mantras, which are the letters of the Sanskrit alphabet, the basis of all mantras, and hold the key to cosmic sound. Sanskrit is a vibrational language—the words both describe the world and create a feeling we can associate with it. It is believed that the letters of the Sanskrit alphabet reflect the primordial powers of creation through which everything in the universe is structured to the physical body itself. Shakti mantras, such as Om and Hreem, reflect the primary forces of the universe and can be used to direct higher energies in specific ways including awakening the kundalini Shakti in Tantric practices, the inner power of higher consciousness.
The mantra recitation or chanting is not only sung in kirtan but also repeated in japa meditation, which literally translates to “whispering.” According to different schools, the universe is created through the medium of sound, and all sound, whether subtle or audible, issues from a transcendent, soundless source called the ‘supreme sound’. While all sounds possess some degree of the cosmic creative force, the sounds of mantras are far more powerful than other sounds. In japa meditations, the mantra is repeated 108 times, and each chant symbolises our journey from the physical self towards our highest spiritual self.
WHAT IS MANTRA CHANTING?
So why are we chanting mantras? And why should we? According to ancient traditions, mantra is a tool for connecting us with the spiritual wisdom and the energy of consciousness which is within us, and chanting mantras allows us to set in motion the energy of the sound in our life. Mantra relates to the primordial energies, principles or archetypes of the cosmic intelligence that directs the forces of nature and the movements of our own minds and hearts. It is part of a universal language rooted in sound, and reflecting a cosmic ‘order’ beyond the biases of human thought. To chant a mantra is to align yourself with the entire universe and to access the wisdom and experience of all beings.
Physiologically, mantra chanting is really helpful for calming down the nervous system, as singing activates the vagus nerve, which runs from the brain, through the face and thorax, and into the abdomen. Connecting with our vibrations through breath and vocalization, the nerve allows the brain to process emotions in a novel way. There are mantric sounds that can change the flow of energy in the nervous system. Each one of us has a unique sound pattern that sustains all that we do, and allows our energies to move and grow or stagnate and decline. Mantra is an important tool for aligning our bodies and minds to their proper resonance, not with the outer world, but with the cosmic presence that is within our own true self. The universe itself is ultimately an expression of a single mantra or vibratory sound energy: the famous sound of Om, the preeminent mantra and ubiquitous sacred syllable of Indian religions.
In his book ‘The whole world is Om’ Finnian Gerety traces the origin of the sacred sound of Om: at the beginning it is just one of many syllables chanted in the prayers of gods in the context of Vedic ritual. Then, over the time, during a period of formation of the Vedic canon, groups of Brahmins with specialty in Samaveda became particularly attracted and interested in the sound of Om, and in the idea of a transcendent sacred syllable that can lead to immortality, that could encompass Brahman – the absolute, the cosmic reality. Not only did they developed the canon upon the idea of a sacred syllable but they attached to it a particular sound: a sound that transcends language, as it is not a word, but just a pure sound–Om. Finnian Gerety proposes a vision of the sacred syllable not as a fixed symbolic term but as an outcome of recitation, outcome of ritual performance, a process of cultural construction, bringing together of different insights to a mutual agreement around the sound Om.
As Vedic tradition develops and Vedic thinkers began to travel inwards, they began interiorising sacrifice and ritual. They also applied that idea to mantra and sacred sound. In later Vedic texts an idea emerged that the most powerful sounds, those that are used to achieve the aims of ritual, for instance–immortality, are sounds that are quieter, or maybe even silent, and meditated upon. In some meditations nowadays mantras are repeated silently over and over during the meditation practice to assist the practitioner in transcending the activity of the mind and access higher level of awareness.
Mantras are also used in different styles of classical yoga we practice today. The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali does not make mantra specifically into one of Yoga’s eight limbs, but it does regard mantra as a key practice relative to all aspects of yoga. Mantra is incorporated in our yogic practices: asana performed while repeating the appropriate mantras bring a greater energy and awareness into the body; pranayama practiced along with special mantras can connect us to the cosmic prana and draw it into deeper mind and heart for greater vitality and awareness; mantra by its ability to internalise the mind is a primary tool of pratyahara–the yogic internalisation of the senses necessary to bring awareness to our deeper mind and heart; concentration on a mantra is an important method for developing the power of attention that is the basis for dharana or concentration practices; meditating on the sound or meaning of a mantra is one of the simplest meditations to perform and one of the main approaches of dhyana.
The use of sacred sound and music is one of the best ways to bring the mind into the state of samadhi or oneness, absorption and bliss. When we come together in a prayer, in gratitude and sing mantras with devotion it lights us up, it takes us beyond our personal I and we re-connect with the divinity that is already within us, we realise the oneness we already are.