Sacred Sound: The Source and Significance of Mantra

December 23, 2015    BY Linda Johnsen

We meditators devote a part of each day to something many people would consider strange: listening to the sound of our mantra.

We sit quietly with our backs straight and our legs folded while a sacred sound reverberates in the field of our awareness. When I first started studying yoga, I wondered what made this mantra so special. How does it lead us to our Higher Self?

The yogis say that if you really want to understand what mantras are and how they work, you have to understand that sound is God—literally. But the word “sound” in Sanskrit means something radically different from what it means in English. It took me years of research, both talking to yogis from India and reading yogic texts and commentaries, to get a handle on this important teaching.

The yogis say that if you really want to understand what mantras are and how they work, you have to understand that sound is God—literally.

One of the first and most interesting things I learned is that another term for sound is vak, meaning simply “word.” If you had a strict Christian upbringing like I did, this should start ringing bells. You’ll probably recall that in one very famous passage the Bible says, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (John 1:1). I remember stumbling over this in catechism class in eighth grade. “The Word was God.” What on earth was that supposed to mean? To be completely honest, I don’t think my pastor knew either, though he clearly sensed it must mean something profound.

I discovered that if I really wanted to understand this I needed to turn to yoga, where the true inner significance of these ancient teachings has been carefully preserved. According to the Kathaka Samhita, “God was alone in the beginning; the Word was there also. She (the Word) united with Him (the Creator). She became pregnant and left him. She gave birth to all the beings in manifestation, and then she returned to God.”

The text is comparing the relationship between God and the Word to the sun and moon. In the beginning (on the day of the new moon) it appears as if God (the sun) is alone, but in reality the Word (the moon) is with the sun. As the moon moves away from the sun over the first half of the month, it grows larger, like a pregnant woman’s belly. On the day of the full moon, when the moon is furthest away from the sun, it begins to “give birth,” and gradually its crescent gets smaller and smaller until the moon “unites” with the sun again on the next new moon day.

The yogic text uses this beautiful image to suggest how God can be alone and with the Word at the same time, and (given that the moon’s light is really just reflected sunlight) how God and the Word are also in essence the same.

But what is “the Word”? The Greek word for “word” used in the Bible is logos. Logos means “meaning.” Shabdavak, and logos—none of these ancient terms refers to just any old noise you happen to hear in the street. They’re talking about sounds that are impregnated with intelligence, sounds with mystical power. These are sounds that not only carry information but create order and shape reality.

What does it mean to say that God speaks?

“And God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light” (Genesis 1:3). The Bible illustrates that God’s will manifests through the medium of sound vibrations that are infused with the creative potency of his limitless intelligence. This is a core principle of every mystical tradition I’ve ever studied. The ancient Egyptians too, for example, claimed that Thoth (the Divine Mind) created the cosmos simply by speaking it.

Words No One Else Hears

What does it mean to say that God speaks? India’s oldest mystical text, the Rig Veda, provides a clue. “The Word has four levels. Only the wise know these divisions. Three are hidden: you can’t hear them. Only the fourth is the word you recognize, the kind spoken by men” (Rig Veda 1.164.45).

So the first level (vaikari) represents the ordinary physical words you hear with your ears. The siddhi, or power associated with this level, is the ability to transmit your ideas to other people and to understand their ideas in turn, using the medium of spoken languages. That’s completely obvious, but what’s not so obvious are the three categories of hidden words the Rig Veda mentions.

Yogis explain that the second division (madhyama) is mental sound, the words you hear in your mind when you think. No one else hears them! You and I are communicating right now at this level. I translate my thoughts into black squiggles on a piece of paper and you read them. You haven’t heard me speak a word, yet you know exactly what I’m thinking. Centuries ago, when the alphabet first arrived in Scandinavia where my family is from, the Norse were amazed that people could communicate without speaking to each other. Literacy was considered a fantastic spiritual power. Today we take this siddhi for granted.

For yogis, though, there’s another siddhi that occurs when they master this level through deep meditation. It’s telepathy, the ability to mentally hear what other people are thinking. My teacher, Swami Rama, was adept at this. I remember I once seriously considered cutting one of his classes so I could watch one of my favorite Shakespearean dramas on TV. I didn’t do this, and needless to say, I didn’t mention it to anyone. But during his lecture that evening Swamiji kept interrupting himself to tease me about my love for Shakespeare.

The third level (pashyanti) is the visual imagery you see with your mind’s eye. You can communicate with yourself without using words at all when you sit and fantasize. Einstein was able to develop the theory of relativity because he used his imagination to visualize light speeding through the universe, rather than thinking about it with words. The other physicists of his time had been unable to make this mental leap because they thought only in words, and there weren’t any words for relativity yet! The siddhi associated with the mastery of this level is clairvoyance, the ability to psychically see events at a distance.

The fourth level (para) is intuitive understanding, grasping the very essence of a concept, pure meaning which isn’t cloaked in words or images. Sometimes you simply know. You have no evidence, no concrete thoughts, no clear images, but there’s a distinct feeling that something is true. Mastery of this level gives virtual omniscience. Great yoga masters can quote at length from scriptures they’ve never read, and offer detailed correct information about subjects they’ve never studied. They don’t have to do any research. They don’t even have to think about it. They just know.

Beyond these four levels is transcendent, undisturbed, living intelligence itself, called Vag Devi, “Goddess of the Word.”

The Chhandogya Upanishad (7.2.1) says, “Truly, if there were no Word, there would be no knowledge at all.” Without these four stages of sound, we couldn’t know anything, because we would know everything at once. The Word allows us to understand one object, image, or concept apart from another. The Word ismaya, the force that “measures the unmeasurable,” the entry gate for infinite consciousness into a finite world.

The Silent Sound

Beyond these four levels is transcendent, undisturbed, living intelligence itself, called Vag Devi, “Goddess of the Word.” She’s the source of all knowledge, which you experience as the silence of lucid, tranquil awareness in deep meditation. This Goddess (shakti or the energy of consciousness) has existed from the beginning, exists together with God (shiva or pure awareness), and is God, just like the Bible says. God and Goddess truly are one. The siddhi that Vag Devi grants is enlightenment.

Surprisingly, the Rig Veda (1.164.34–35) says you can find the Word at the summit of the sky. It’s talking about the north star. All heaven revolves around the pole star, yet the pole star itself never moves. It represents Vag Devi, the supreme still point of consciousness around which all existence revolves.

Vag Devi, the supreme wordless Word, is the source of all mantras. According to tradition, the first sound that emerged from her at the beginning of this world cycle was the gayatri mantra. This is the mother of all mantras, the purifying mantra many yoga students chant every day. (Translated into English it goes: “Om. With loving reverence we meditate on the divine inner Sun, the most splendid light in all the worlds. Please illuminate our minds!”) From this beautiful prayer all other mantras emanated.

The yogis say that when we pursue any vibration whatsoever in this universe back to its initial impulse, we find divine awareness. All mantras lead us back through the four levels of sound to their source in the living silence which contains all knowledge.

“He who doesn’t know the beginningless sound of wisdom, the highest point of heaven where the gods dwell, what does he know of wisdom? Only those who sit quietly with focused minds know this inner truth” (Rig Veda 1.164.39).

#mantra Photo credit: Andrea Killam

Linda Johnsen
Linda Johnsen, MS, is the author of numerous books including Lost Masters: Sages of Ancient Greece and Meditation Is Boring? Her most recent book is Kirtan! Chanting as a Spiritual Practice. Visit her at ThousandSuns.org.