Mantra-Yoga: A Necessity for this Age
by Stephen Knapp
Using mantras or prayers is a means of doing a number of things, depending on our purpose. First of all, it is a method to raise our consciousness and prepare ourselves for perceiving higher states of being. It can also help us enter into the spiritual dimension, or to invoke the blessings of the Divine. It is also a means to call on the positive energies to help us overcome obstacles, enemies, or to assist in healing our minds and bodies from disease or negativity.
There are two basic kinds of mantras, those for spiritual and inner progress, and those for outer or more material needs. Concentrating on a mantra is also called mantra-yoga, especially when it is for our spiritual upliftment, or to unite us with the Supreme. Mantra-yoga, or the art of focusing on the sound vibrations in mantras or prayers, is actually a mystical tradition found in almost every spiritual path in the world. It may involve the softly spoken repetition of a prayer or mantra for one’s own meditation, or it may be the congregational singing of spiritually uplifting songs, prayers, or sacred names of the Supreme Being. It all involves the same process, but in the Eastern tradition it is called mantra-yoga because it is the easy process of focusing our minds on the Supreme through His names, which helps spiritualize our consciousness. In the word mantra, man means the mind, tra means deliverance. Therefore, a spiritual mantra is the pure sound vibration for delivering the mind from material to spiritual consciousness. This is the goal of any spiritual path. Although all spiritual traditions have their own prayers or mantras, the Vedic Sanskrit mantras are especially powerful and effective in uniting us with the spiritual realm. However, a complete yoga process is generally a blend of a few yoga systems, such as ashtanga-yoga with bhakti-yoga, and bhakti-yoga with mantra-yoga. Therefore, some yoga systems also include mantra-yoga, or the process of concentrating on the sound vibration within a mantra. This is especially important in this age of Kali-yuga, the age of quarrel and confusion.
Many years ago the brahmana priests could accomplish many kinds of wondrous deeds simply by correctly chanting particular mantras. Many of these mantras still exist, but it is very difficult to find those who can chant them accurately. This is actually a safety measure because if the wish-fulfilling mantras were easily chanted, there would no doubt be many people who would misuse them. But other mantras that are available can easily help purify one’s consciousness, give spiritual enlightenment, and put one in touch with the Supreme.
In Bhagavad-gita (10.25) Sri Krishna explains that He is the transcendental om mantra and that the chanting of japa (chanting a mantra quietly for one’s own meditation) is the purest of His representations and sacrifices. It is understood that by chanting japa and hearing the holy sounds of the mantra, one can come to the platform of spiritual realization. This is the process of mantra-yoga. However, even though the mantra is powerful in itself, when the mantra is chanted by a great devotee, it becomes more powerful. This is also the effect when a disciple is fortunate enough to take initiation or diksha from a spiritually potent master who gives him a mantra for spiritual purposes. Then the disciple can make rapid progress by utilizing the mantra.
Sanskrit mantras often consist of eternal sound energies that have always existed, both within the universe as well as beyond it, and before its manifestation and after its annihilation. Such special mantras are part of the eternal sound vibration called shabda-brahma.
When it comes to mantras, the Vedas mention three types: vedic, tantric and puranic. These can be further divided into sattvic, rajasic and tamasic. The mantras that are sattvic or in the mode of goodness are chanted for light, wisdom, compassion, divine love, or God realization. They help bring peace, destroy karma, and bring one to perfection after death. The mantras that are rajasic or in the mode of passion are chanted for material benedictions, like blessings for a healthy child, prosperity, successful business, and so on. However, such mantras do not help one rise above karma, but force one to take rebirth in order to acquire the results of their karma. The mantras that are tamasic or in the mode of ignorance or darkness are also called "black magic." These are used for the deliberate manipulation of the material energy for one’s own purpose. Thus, they are what could be called sinful, and are often used to call spirits or to assist one to perform deeds that may bring harm to others for one’s own benefit.
Some mantras hold certain powers in their vibratory formulas that are directly related to particular deities, divine personalities, or forms of God. In fact, they may represent the deity in full. When they do, they are considered non-different from the deity and the sound vibrations are spiritual in nature. By the repetition of the mantra, the person who chants it invokes the energy and mercy of that deity. Thus, the deity reveals Himself or Herself to the sadhaka or practitioner, who then overcomes illusion and realizes the spiritual position of the deity and his or her relationship with the deity. The six kinds of mantras used in this connection are:
1. Dhyana Mantras–mantras for meditation to mentally invoke the deity’s form, abode or pastimes.
2. Bija Mantras–the seed mantras or seed words that are used for meditation and purification of the articles used in worship. Mantras often begin with these. They include such bijas or seed mantras as Aim and Shrim, which are often connected to the feminine or Devi. Or Klim which helps arouse the force of attraction to the object addressed in the mantra. Or Krim which is often connected to Kali or Devi, or Gum which is in association with Ganesh. The bija or seed mantras are derived from the 50 prime sounds which invoke various levels of energy and also the nature of the elements, such as water, air, earth, fire, etc., and are related to om.
3. Mula Mantras–root mantras are the essence of the deity, used when offering certain articles during the worship to address the Lord or deity.
4. Stutis and Stotras–mantras or prayers chanted before, during and after the worship to glorify the Lord’s name, form, qualities, and pastimes.
5. Pranama Mantras–prayers offering obeisances to great personalities or to the Lord, often used at the end of worship.
6. Gayatri Mantras–Vedic or Pancharatrika mantras used to worship or invoke the blessings of the Lord, or to focus the mind on God, and for invoking different moods, energies, or powers.
The Vedic mantras, such as those coming from the four samhitas of the Rig, Sama, Yajur, and Atharva Vedas, are eternal or spiritual sound vibrations. They are not composed by any man at some particular point in history. They are part of the shabda-brahma, the eternal sound vibration. These mantras are like seeds of vast amounts of power and knowledge that are held within them. Thus, many scriptures explain that such powers cannot be fully revealed to someone unless such mantras have been received through the process of diksha or initiation from a spiritual master.
Besides this, the results of chanting a mantra depend on the chanter’s conception or intent in the mind while chanting it. Thus, one must know the meaning or purpose of the mantra while reciting it. If one thinks the mantra is for attaining material goals, the person may get that. But if the inner purpose of the mantra is known to deliver one to the spiritual world, and a person chants it sincerely for that purpose, then that will be the reward rather than something minor or material, as long as the person does not prematurely give up chanting it.
Most Sanskrit mantras have several principles that you find in them. First, they are often handed down or revealed by sages or authorities who have attained self-realization by its use. They also generally use a particular meter or rhythm while chanting it. Plus, the mantra often represents a certain deity. It also has a bija or seed word that gives it additional power, and the sound formula it contains has a special shakti or energy. And finally, constant repetition of the mantra will open or activate the key of it which then can reveal pure consciousness in the one who has been initiated into its use. The practice of repeating or chanting it for one’s personal use is called japa. The japa or chanting it a required number of times is often what triggers its power within the consciousness of the chanter in which it reaches its siddha, or perfection and goal.
The mantra is thus a point of meditation for the mind, but also a formula or transcendental sound vibration, like the holy name of God, that releases its energy into one’s consciousness. Thus it prepares one for perceiving higher states of reality. With constant practice of the appropriate mantra, and with the proper pronunciation and devotional mood, the mantra can reveal the Absolute Truth to the practitioner as well as one’s own spiritual form and relationship that you may have with the Supreme Being.
This is why it is best that one should receive and be initiated into the chanting of the mantra by a qualified guru. Then the mantra will be especially effective and powerful, and carry special means of invoking realizations into the devotee who uses it.
Mantras can be divided into two additional categories, namely saguna and nirguna. Saguna mantras (those that describe personal traits) often are like prayers that invoke certain deities or characteristics of the deity or Absolute. Nirguna mantras (those that refer to the nature of the Absolute without qualities) describe the person’s identification with the Absolute.
Mantras can be used in different ways. They can be chanted in whispers, or out loud, or silently within the mind. Generally each mantra has a recommendation as to which way works best. Some mantras, like the Hare Krishna mantra, can be used in any of these ways, as well as sung as a song with a group or congregation. Generally, this is done with a lead singer who sings the mantra in a particular melody, and then everyone else sings in response.
Some mantras are meant to be chanted only within the mind because their vibration or wavelength is beyond ordinary sound. So the silent method helps invoke the energy within the consciousness. However, to first whisper it or softly speak the mantra correctly may help one be able to chant it silently and make a stronger connection with the mantra.
The repeated chanting of a mantra is called japa. It is explained in the Vedic texts that in this age of Kali-yuga the process of chanting japa or mantra meditation is much more effective than practicing other spiritual paths that include meditating on the void or Brahman effulgence, or trying to control the life air within the body as in raja-yoga. Plus, only a very few can become perfect at raising the kundalini force up through the various chakras, or moving the life air up to the top of the head for enlightenment, and then get it to leave the body at the right time to achieve full liberation. And meditating on the void becomes useless as soon as there is the slightest external distraction, which in this age of Kali-yuga is a continuous thing. Therefore, the most effective means of focusing the consciousness is to concentrate on the sound vibration of a mantra.
Using a mantra for japa meditation is a process to help rid ourselves of unwanted thoughts and to retain the one thought upon which we are concentrating. It helps us purify the mind of that which obstructs knowledge of our true self. As our concentration on the mantra frees our mind from random thoughts, and as the sound vibration of it raises the frequency level upon which we operate, our consciousness can become clear to observe our real nature. In the word japa, the letter "pa" stands for that which removes or destroys all impurities and obstructions. The letter "ja" stands for that which puts an end to the cycle of birth and death. Japa, therefore, is a means of liberation when the proper mantra is used for destroying the mental impurities and negative and materialistic desires and impressions that exist in the mind and consciousness.
There are two mantras that are especially recommended in the Vedic literature to accomplish this. One is omkara or the om mantra, and the other is Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare/Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare, which is known as the maha or great mantra. It is explained that these two mantras can deliver one to the realm beyond material existence. But there are ways to use these mantras. There are specific instructions for chanting om for it to be effective, but there are no hard and fast rules for the conditions in which one can engage in chanting Hare Krishna. So, the chanting of the Hare Krishna maha-mantra is especially recommended for this age as the easy process that anyone can do.