Q&A About Mantra
Your questions about mantra, answered by a meditation teacher.
Q. It is common these days to find mantras listed on the Web along with rough translations and explanations of how to use them. Are these teachings valid?
A. All teachings are valid as long as they are correct, regardless of whether they are on the Web or written in books. It’s not the form but the content that matters. Just as books did not replace teachers in the past, the Web has not replaced teachers in the present. Books and the Web are both tools for collecting information, which may be either complete or incomplete. To further our knowledge we have to verify what we have learned from books or the Web. We have to consult more sources until we are fully confident of the validity of the information we have collected.
Before the advent of the Internet people paid greater attention to what they put into print. Now the Internet is reshaping our minds. In the past ten years we have been developing a taste for ever-shrinking, quick, bite-sized forms of information, and in response to this taste, people post any tidbit that they know—or imagine they know—on the Web. While the Web offers instant access to a vast pool of information, much of it is shallow, fragmented, and often just plain wrong. In my opinion, as more information becomes available, we have to cultivate our skill in distinguishing the valid information from the invalid and the useful from the useless.
In the case of mantra, its translation, and its application, we have to be extra cautious, for mantra science is ancient and the manuals on this science are written in ancient languages. What is more, this science employs a unique terminology, codes, and symbolism. A general meaning derived from its rough translation could be totally different from the specific meaning which the mantra actually embodies. Think of it this way: books on nuclear physics or nano-technology are written in English, and anyone fluent in English can read those books, yet it requires specialized knowledge to actually comprehend the content. The same is true of the science of mantra.
Q. One author who advertises on the Web has stated that the words namah and swaha are interchangeable and, further, that swaha may be preferable for certain people. Is this true?
A. This is not true at all. In fact, mantras are not something that you construct. According to mantra shastra, a mantra is the living body of a divinity. It consists of akshara (indestructible, undisturbable, non-mutant) syllables. Any amendment to a mantra is a distortion. And once distorted, it is no longer a mantra but a dead, meaningless sound. Even a minor distortion cripples a mantra, and thus in the place of spiritual protection and guidance, all it can do is pass on its crippled energy to the practitioner. This phenomenon is well documented in the scriptures.
It is not true that namah and swaha are interchangeable. For example, there is a mantra om namah shivaya but there is no mantra om swaha shivaya or om namaha swaha shivaya or om swaha namaha shivaya, although for grammatical purposes, they may have the same meaning. It is also not true that swaha is preferable for certain people. The truth is that certain mantras contain swaha and others contain namah. When you notice that the same phrase is sometimes accompanied with namah and other times by swaha, please understand that these are two different mantras. For example, om ramaya swaha would be a totally different mantra from om ramaya namah. When the same phrase (om ramaya in this example) is accompanied by both namah and swaha, it is again a totally different mantra, and all three mantras have different effects. Saying that one is more beneficial than the other is just like saying the hand is more beneficial than the knee, so let’s replace one with the other.
Q. I have read that it is best to receive a personal mantra from a teacher rather than choosing one for oneself. Is this true?
Receiving a personal mantra from a teacher simply means receiving direct guidance from that teacher.
A. Receiving a personal mantra from a teacher simply means receiving direct guidance from that teacher. It saves you time and it keeps you free from doubts regarding the validity of the mantra. But if you have some doubt about the teacher, then receiving a mantra from that teacher is worse than choosing one from a book.
Most seekers have very little knowledge of mantras. All they know is that a mantra is a potent sacred sound and that it has the power to guide the mind inward. With this much knowledge, people decide to find a mantra. In my interactions with students, I have learned that a large number of such seekers are not very sure about what they believe about mantra. They come to me for a mantra. I give them the one I think best, then they verify that mantra by reading books, surfing the Web, or talking to other teachers. Then they come back to me to share their discoveries: “I’m confused,” they say. “I met a teacher from India who told me I should practice some other mantra and I don’t know who I should listen to,” or “The meaning you told me for my mantra is not the same as the meaning I found in a dictionary,” or “I came across a mantra that I really like. Can I practice with that one instead of with the one you gave me?” In such situations, I hear quite clearly what that person is really asking—he’s asking, “Can I trust you?”
What that student doesn’t understand is that he doesn’t have trust in his own knowledge. His discovery regarding mantras and the teacher is still demanding verification. The vacuum can be filled only by gaining a deeper understanding of the dynamics of mantra, the illuminating energy it contains, its source, the process of transmission, the prerequisites for receiving and retaining a mantra, and the proper method of imbibing it. For every science there is a definite course curriculum and methodology for studying it. And the study of every science demands perseverance, patience, and discipline. But in relation to mantra science and its practice, we don’t feel that sustained perseverance or discipline is really necessary.
A true teacher will ensure that you cultivate perseverance and discipline, for without it the mere practice of mantra will not bear the desired fruit.
So it is necessary that you receive a mantra from a competent, honest, and disciplined teacher. A true teacher will ensure that you cultivate perseverance and discipline, for without it the mere practice of mantra will not bear the desired fruit. If you don’t believe in the value of perseverance and self-discipline, then choose a mantra from a book or simply log on to the Internet.
Q. But what if an authentic teacher is not available?
Practice is the key to your personal growth. Prepare yourself, and you will always find what you need.
A. Don’t worry about finding an authentic teacher. Start with anybody who seems to be honest and sensitive. Your own desire to learn more about yourself, and the mantra’s role in this exploration, will help you discover the next level of teacher. Practice is the key to your personal growth. Prepare yourself, and you will always find what you need. Without that preparation, even if you happen to meet an advanced master, the two of you will not be able to communicate. Despite your best efforts you could not convince a university professor to come and teach you graduate-level courses when your mind is ready only to learn through the poems of Dr. Seuss. And even if you did, either he would have to come down to your level and teach only that which you can comprehend, or he would have to wait until you grow much nearer to his level so you can study with him the subject he is so well qualified to teach. Your own growth will guide you to the right kind of institutions, traditions, teachers, and adepts.