If we observe ourselves we can see that all day long there is background chatter in the mind. It may be the repetition of some song we have heard on the radio, it may be a rehashing of some experience we have just had, an insult or argument for example, or a consideration of what we are about to do, but all the time this background activity is going on. It forms the field of our thoughts and serves to drain away our energy of attention.
It is usually not possible for us to directly silence the mind into a meditative state. Our mind is too divided and we have too many unresolved conflicts. It is, however, always within our power to chant a mantra.
Mantra is one of the most simple and effective tools in Hindu spirituality. Its simplicity makes mantra well suited to our modern-day lifestyles. But few people understand it for what it is, and hence miss out on its benefits. We normally associate it rather superficially with some meaningless sound we repeat mechanically until we are put in some kind of trance. Actually mantra is quite different than this.
Mantras are perhaps the most important tools for clearing and cleansing the mind. Mantra helps break up our unconscious and subconscious thought and desire patterns, which keep us in bondage to past conditioning.
If we do this regularly and with focus, the mantra gradually replaces the background noise of the mind. Instead of hearing a by gone song or childhood experience reverberating behind our surface mind we hear the mantra; Om, Rama, Hari, or whatever it may be. Our subconscious is restructured by the energy of the mantra and ceases to resist the intentions of our conscious mind to meditate. This is the use of the mantra.
Rightly employed mantras can be used to clear negative emotions from the mind. The mantra Hum, for example, has the effect of eliminating excessive fear. The mantra Rama gives peace. Hence mantra is also an important part of Yoga psychology. It is the main Yogic tool for reconditioning the mind. It does not require any elaborate psychoanalysis but only an ongoing practice. Through it we can change the structure of the mind that allows psychological problems to exist in the first place. In this way we change the nature of the mind rather than merely analyse it. As long as the backgrounds of our minds are not balanced and poised we are bound to have our creativity and peace drained away. The practice of mantra can change this. It is the personal or egoistic energisation of the mind that causes mental suffering. The spiritual energisation of the mind through mantra is the antidote.
Mantra leads us to a state of mind that allows true meditation and silence. It is not an end in itself to repeat a sound. Hence we should remain open after our repetition of the mantra to that stillness of mind and learn to dwell in it. That is where the Om vibration leads us. The sound of the waves merges us back into the silent depths of the ocean where we can experience unity with the Divine.
Mantras are of two types; longer chants and shorter seed-syllables (known as ‘bija-mantras’). The most well known are the latter type, of which Aum is an example. They consist of various root sounds like Aum, Hum or Shrim. It is from these root sounds that the entire Sanskrit language is evolved and into which it can be reduced.
Each of the short bija-mantras carries a vibration corresponding to a specific cosmic energy and through their vibration they exert different effects. The following are the some of the main bija-mantras together with an indication about their nature:
Om is said to be the essence of all mantras, the highest of all mantras, the Divine Word or Shabda Brahman itself. Om is said to be the essence of the Vedas. Om is the sound of the infinite. It gives power to all mantras. Hence most mantras begin and end with Om. Om consists of three sounds; the vowel ‘a’, the vowel ‘u’ and the nasalized ‘m’ sound. Hence it is also written as Aum. The three portions of Aum relate to the states of waking, dream and deep sleep and to the three gunas (primeval qualities) of rajas (action), sattva (purity) and tamas (inertia). They are ruled by the Gods Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva, the Divine in its threefold role as the creator, sustainer and destroyer of the universe. In the Vedas Om is the sound of the Sun, the sound of light. It is the sound of assent (affirmation) and ascent (it has an upwards movement and uplifts the soul, as the sound of the Divine eagle or falcon).
Hum (pronounced as in our word ‘whom’) is the sound of Divine wrath. It destroys all negativity. It is a Shiva sound and a sound of Agni, the Divine Fire. As Om is the sound of the individual merging into the infinite, Hum is the sound of the infinite manifesting itself in the individual. It is important in Tibetan Buddhism and among the Sufis as Hu.
Ram (with a long ‘a’ sound as in ‘father’) is the sound of Divine light, grace and protection. It gives strength, peace and compassion. It relates to the avatar Rama.
Shrim (pronounced ‘shreem’) is the mantra of beauty, grace, prosperity and abundance and relates to the Goddess. It brings about the fulfillment of all wishes, higher or lower.
Aim (pronounced ‘aym’) is the sound of wisdom and relates to Sarasvati, the Goddess of knowledge. It increases our powers of attention, concentration, reason and contemplation. It is also the sound of the guru, the spiritual teacher, and brings into play the learning power of the higher mind.
Ma is the first of all sounds, the name of the Mother. Through this sound we connect with the power and grace of the Divine Mother and her love, nourishment and contentment giving energy.
Soham is the natural sound of the breath. “So” is inhalation and “Ham” is exhalation. If we breathe deeply and listen to the sound of our breath we hear these sounds. In Sanskrit the root ‘sa’ from which ‘so’ develops means to hold, to have power, to be. It gives inspiration and power. ‘Ham’ means to leave, abandon, cast out, hence to expel or exhale. If we eliminate the consonants from Soham, we get Om. So is Shakti and Ham is Shiva. Through them we balance these energies within ourselves. So’ham pranayama is natural deep breathing with attention to the sound of these mantras.
Information for this article was derived from the book “From the River of Heaven: Hindu and Vedic Knowledge for the Modern Age” by David Frawley (Vamadeva Shastri). David Frawley is currently the director for the American Institute of Vedic Studies (www.vedanet.com).