The sages tell us that our essential nature is truth, consciousness, and bliss. The source of our misery is estrangement from our essential nature. Although the mind searches unceasingly for ways to end its suffering, it usually confines its search to the external world and thus finds only more misery. Even when we gain enough wisdom to look within, at first we encounter only scattered or uncontrollable thoughts, feelings, and daydreams. While meditation is the path that leads to absolute reality, a scattered mind is sure to cause delays. Mantra, the eternal sound or word, is the vehicle by which the mind becomes one-pointed and inward and thus reaches the eternal silence that is the source of bliss.
What Is a Mantra?
A mantra is a word, phrase, or set of sounds that, according to the yogic tradition, was revealed to the sages and transmitted in a precise manner to seekers through the process of initiation. Because these related concepts—mantra and initiation—are complex and subtle, they have frequently been misunderstood and misrepresented as the practice of meditation has spread from traditional spiritual communities into the larger society.
A mantra is a revealed word or divine sound received or experienced by an adept in the state of deep samadhi (spiritual absorption). It is a sound body for the divine being; a condensed form of spiritual energy. It can also be thought of as a compact prayer—a means of communicating with the absolute reality. The yogic scriptures often compare mantra to a boat or a bridge that an aspirant can use to cross the mire of delusion created by the external world and to reach the center of consciousness within. According to mystics and yogis, mantra is an eternal friend who accompanies the meditator even after death, lighting the path in the realm where the light of the sun and the moon cannot penetrate. According to the more esoteric literature of the yogic tradition, mantra is the essence of guru shakti, the power of the spiritual master. In other words, mantra is itself the guru: mantra, God, guru, and one’s Self are identical.
According to mystics and yogis, mantra is an eternal friend who accompanies the meditator even after death, lighting the path in the realm where the light of the sun and the moon cannot penetrate.
This last concept is difficult to grasp for those who are not familiar with the branch of metaphysics known as spanda, the science of eternal vibration. To explain briefly, spanda holds that all creation evolves from the Word. The Word referred to is not speech uttered by a human voice or the audible sound produced when two objects strike each other, but anahata nada, the unstruck sound which vibrates eternally in the realm of pure consciousness. This unstruck sound, the Word that existed before the beginning of creation, is called akshara, shabda Brahman, vak shakti, or spanda.
Although a full-fledged doctrine of the Word developed only in the East, this concept is found in all of the world’s great spiritual traditions, including Buddhism, Sufism, Islam, Judaism, and Christianity, as well as in the spiritual practices of many tribal societies. For example, the Karadjeri of Australia believe that objects came into manifestation only after the first two humans pronounced their names. According to Kabbala, the medieval tradition of Jewish mysticism, God himself is transcendent, but a series of ten emanations of light (sefirot) that are his “manifest and noble aspects” issue from him. Divine names and letters, the twenty-two consonants of the Hebrew alphabet, emerged parallel to these ten emanations. The texts of ancient Sumeria also speak of the creative power of the divine Word, stating that the universe begins to evolve as thought arises in the mind of the divine being. Objects spring into being as the divinity utters their names. This is similar to the Old Testament account of creation, in which God speaks the manifest world into existence: “And God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light.” In the New Testament, the Gospel of John elaborates on this concept, saying: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”
Thus, the science of mantra is not an Eastern idea, but a universal truth revealed to all who have the capacity to receive it, irrespective of time or place. Neither is the power of mantra limited by time, space, or causation. Mantra is a self-existent, self-luminous reality, heard by all who “have ears to hear.” The true form of mantra transcends what we hear in the form of sound, for as the scriptures say, mantras are seen by the eyes of the soul rather than heard by the ears. One blessed with the vision of mantra is a seer (rishi), a sage.
To have the vision of a mantra requires purity of heart and a perfectly one-pointed mind, which prepare the seeker to face the brilliance of the transcendental light in which the sense of duality vanishes. The glory of this revelation is such that the seer and the seen become one. In that moment, that which was unmanifest becomes manifest in the form of mantra and radiates in the inner chamber of the seer’s heart. From then on it shines forth, and the seekers of that truth are naturally drawn to the seer who embodies it. That is how it comes down to us today. The seers received the word and were blessed with its power, which manifested spontaneously in their actions and speech. They drew aspirants to them who, in turn, prepared themselves and received it. Thousands of years later, this revelation still illumines the path of true seekers.
Revelation and Initiation
Our normal speech and the language to which we give voice with our confused tongues and hear with our confused ears have no capacity to transmit the infinite knowledge and bliss that dawns from within. The world’s mundane languages are like the early morning fog that clouds our vision; the rays of mantra are the light in which this fog evaporates, illuminating the horizon of our inner world. Bathed in this illumination, the seer communicates in a language which the yogis call sandhya bhasa, the twilight language. This is the original, universal language that existed before the confusion of tongues described in the Old Testament account of the Tower of Babel.
As we build the tower of ego, attachment, desire, anger, hatred, jealousy, and greed, we lose touch with the universal language and our ability to communicate with the Lord of life, with ourselves, and with our fellow beings. In its place, we substitute a variety of manmade languages. These mundane languages are invented to fill a need, and like other worldly products are subject to constant revision and eventually become obsolete and are replaced.
The sages did not take part in building the Tower of Babel and thus retained the purity of their tongue. Although their communication with the divine was not interrupted, their ability to share their knowledge with the world’s seekers was severely limited. As they attempted to share the revelation down through the centuries, misunderstandings would inevitably result. Disciples would ask, “Master, why do you speak in parables?” The sages had to dilute the content of their message at the cost of blocking the full force of the revelation. Even then, it was hard for most people to get a glimpse of it.
To a select few, often on a high peak or in some other secluded place, the sages spoke in a mystical language. This language was neither wholly worldly nor completely spiritual, and those who heard it understood only part of it. The rest remained obscure. This is the paradox of initiation: no matter how deeply the masters long to share their knowledge with disciples, their ability to receive it will still limit the intensity of the transmission. Just as the tube radios of the thirties and forties could not receive microwave transmissions, those who have not properly equipped themselves cannot receive direct knowledge of the ultimate truth.
In the spiritual realm, the ultimate revelation, which is also the ultimate initiation, comes in the form of a silent communication in the universal language and is communicable to very few. That is why, in the end, Moses laid his hand only on Joshua and Krishna only on Uddhava. Christ gave the key of the Word to Peter. The wisdom that is mantra has its source in supreme truth. However, it flows down to seekers in various grades and degrees. It clothes itself in the garb of different languages, and seekers identify it as a Sanskrit mantra, a Tibetan mantra, or a Buddhist mantra. Such identifications are only partially true. The transforming power of mantras, even in their articulate form, are beyond ordinary perception because they still are connected with the source.
In the spiritual realm, the ultimate revelation, which is also the ultimate initiation, comes in the form of a silent communication in the universal language and is communicable to very few.
The Meaning of Mantras
As the eternal truth, the Word is one, indivisible, and indestructible. But because it is received by seers in various degrees of spiritual absorption, an infinite number of mantric revelations can occur. In the yoga tradition, mantras can fall into two different categories: mantras for spiritual unfoldment and mantras for siddhis (supernatural powers).
Meditative mantras are also of many kinds: some of the mantras consist of a syllable or a number of syllables. The phonemes of such mantras are arranged so that the words formed by them cannot be found in any familiar language. Therefore, it is not possible to draw a meaning from those mantras. Such mantras do not have any contemplative meaning.
According to tradition, the transformative power lies in the sound of the mantra itself. Sometimes, scriptures may suggest a meaning of such mantras which quite often does not match with the meaning provided by the teachers of a living tradition. In other instances, a mantra may consist of words that are found in, let us say, the Sanskrit language, but the meaning of that mantra and its constituent words may not have any correspondence to its meanings in the Sanskrit literature.
A unique group of mantras, called sabar mantras, are extremely puzzling to the rational mind. These mantras seem to be expressed in Sanskrit, Pali, Prakrit, Hindi, Urdu, and a number of Asian vernaculars and dialects. No interpretive rules can be drawn for this particular group of mantras. These sabar mantras can be in one language or a mixture of languages, and they may or may not have a specific meaning. They are rarely written in books, and it’s even more rare to find instruction in how to use them. As the books themselves as well as practitioners report, sabar mantras never show the intended result unless one receives them directly from a master. Their efficacy does not depend on purification and concentration—the usual prerequisites for any spiritual practice. The only prerequisite is the direct verbal utterance and exact instructions from the master. However, mostly these mantras are for siddhis and have no or very little spiritual value.
Meditative mantras, which are found mainly in the Upanishads, are used as tools for contemplation. Their meanings are so condensed and compact that the aspirant may need to ponder them repeatedly over a long period of time. As he or she does so, the meaning manifests in a continuous wave, illuminating the interior chambers of the mind and heart and thus bringing about transformation. Such mantras are said to be particularly suited for intellectuals and those who are drawn to philosophy.
Ordinarily, when a practitioner knows the meaning of the mantra he or she is practicing, a feeling for it develops during the course of meditation, without which the practice becomes dry or mechanical. However, most of the highly secret, mysterious, and potent mantras—called maha vidyas—consist of one or more syllables without forming a word. According to the mantravedins, the knowers of mantra science, if such mantras are received in the course of an authentic initiation, they will keep manifesting spiritual fervor in the heart of the practitioner, helping to unfold the psychological conditions and determination that an aspirant needs to follow the path.
Whatever form they take, the purpose of all meditative mantras is to enable the practitioner to go beyond the mind and have a direct experience of his or her essential nature. It is not the meaning of the mantra but its subtle vibrations that lead or carry the meditator to the center of silence within. However, this process cannot really be understood until it is experienced personally.
The Universal Mantra
The best way to begin the practice of mantra is by working with the breath, because the most easily recognizable inner sound is the sound of the breath. If you sit in a quiet place and attend to the flow of your breath, you can easily hear the sound “so . . .” as you inhale and the sound “hum . . .” as you exhale. The sound so-hum is a universal mantra that reverberates without any effort on our part as we inhale and exhale. A human being is born with this mantra and life depends on it completely. Breathing follows the rhythm of life contained in the sound so-hum. Paying attention to that sound during inhalation and exhalation is attending to the rhythm of life itself. So-hum is subtler than the breath. These are not symbolic statements, but facts verifiable by your own experience. Stress, fear, and anxiety vanish the moment the mind is allowed to rest in so-hum.
The best way to begin the practice of mantra is by working with the breath, because the most easily recognizable inner sound is the sound of the breath.
This mantra comes from the Upanishads. Because these ancient scriptures are written in Sanskrit, you may think that so-hum is a Sanskrit word. As stated earlier, this identification is only partially correct, but this partial truth can be used as a departure point for the purposes of discussion. So-hum can be thought of as a compound of the Sanskrit words sa (that) and aham (I am). Thus, the literal translation is “That I am.” When rendered in English syntax, it becomes “I am That.”
A more profound analysis of this mantra requires a basic understanding of the etymology of Sanskrit. Sanskrit is patterned on the rhythm of the life force, and was developed and perfected by seers who had the ability to hear those subtle rhythms. That is how the sound sah acquired the meaning “That,” and the sound aham acquired the meaning “I.” If you inhale without exhaling, you will hear sah, but if you begin exhaling without pausing at the end of the inhalation, you will hear aham. Sah automatically turns into so as it merges with the oncoming ah in aham. On the basis of the natural way those sounds merge, the sages created the grammatical rules of Sanskrit. Life continues as long as so and hum keep flowing in a circle. “That” (the cosmic being) and “I” (the individual being) remain united until their bond is broken by the pause we call death.
The Progressive Use of Mantra
In the initial states of a meditation practice, students are taught to use this natural mantra while practicing breath awareness. At this stage, formal initiation by a teacher is not necessary. So-hum belongs to the language of the life force and sends out its revelation—That I am—in continuous waves. Even if you consider so-hum to be a Sanskrit mantra, it retains its universality because the meaning, “That I am,” does not contradict any faith or creed. For contemplative purposes, it can be interpreted as “I am that ever-existent truth”; “I am part of the Divine Being”; “I am that devotee of the Supreme One”; and so on.
In a systematic approach to meditation, the practitioner begins by quieting and balancing the physical body, learning how to make the breath serene, and cultivating a comfortable, stable sitting posture. That is the purpose of the physical postures and the breathing practices of hatha yoga. The next step is to withdraw the mind from external affairs and begin the practice of breath awareness. You observe how the breath flows from the tip of the nostrils to the heart center and back again. In the beginning, this simple practice creates a feeling of tranquility because it is in marked contrast to your usual habit of letting the mind wander at will. But as the superficial mental clutter begins to recede, more subtle habits surface, and breath awareness no longer bestows such a deep feeling of peace.
At this stage, meditation on the mantra so-hum is introduced. Because this sound has the intrinsic ability to draw the mind inward, it induces a deeper state of tranquility than does the practice of breath awareness alone. But again, after a period of months or years, as the mind becomes calmer and you gain access to a deeper level of your being, even more subtle and problematic habit patterns become visible. This is the point at which initiation enters the picture, as well as the point at which mantra science becomes esoteric. There is a noticeable effect when you use so-hum as an object of meditation. You will see a result whether you understand mantra science and have faith in it or not. But for the next level of mantra, which you receive at a personal level during the course of initiation, you must have some degree of insight into mantra science and a strong conviction of its validity.
The reason for this is that mantra meditation is a process through which you work systematically to bring successively deeper levels of your inner experience into conscious awareness. This process has two aspects: refining and purifying the existing impressions of the mind, and cultivating and deepening the experience of the mantra in order to create a positive groove in both conscious and unconscious levels of the mind. In the beginning, before you have acquired an awareness of the deeper levels within, it is almost impossible to observe and appreciate the deep changes that are taking place during the course of mantra meditation. Still these changes are occurring. Students who have little or no understanding of mantra science and lack patience often feel discouraged, since they cannot see any dramatic or immediate changes as a result of their practice. Many become disheartened and conclude that their mantra is not the “right” mantra. Then they may seek other practices or simply discontinue their practice and abandon the path of meditation altogether. Either way, the fruit of this discouragement is skepticism, which is one of the chief obstacles to spiritual attainment.
Mantra meditation is a process through which you work systematically to bring successively deeper levels of your inner experience into conscious awareness.
For this reason, it is important to spend some time considering the following questions before seeking mantra initiation: What compels me to look for further guidance? How do I know that I am ready for initiation? How can I be certain that the person who initiates me is part of an authentic spiritual lineage, has attained direct experience of mantra, and is not just someone who has read a lot of books and is a persuasive speaker? Is initiation necessary for my further growth and development? What commitment on my part is implied by accepting initiation, and what can I expect from the teacher?
The Meaning of Initiation
The scriptures tell us that seekers must avoid the two extremes of blind faith and skepticism. Understanding your true motives for seeking further guidance in the form of initiation requires both purity of heart and sharpness of intellect. Have you become enthusiastic about getting initiated because you read an inspiring article or attended a riveting lecture? Listen to the cry of the soul for liberation—that will help you decide whether it is the time to seek initiation. Don’t seek initiation because you have tried a number of other options and it seems that you might as well try this one too. The right time is when your longing becomes so intense that it is painful to continue waiting. This intense yearning is the fruit of your good karma, and along with it a natural process of unfoldment begins. The power of your yearning draws the master toward you, and you will experience the fulfillment of the scriptural promise, “Seek and ye shall find; knock and the door will be opened.”
As for the qualifications of the initiator, it has been said that a good student cannot end up with a bad teacher. To determine if you’ve found the right path, the right tradition, and the right teacher, ask yourself how spontaneously and effortlessly you are drawn in that direction. Observe carefully what is reflecting in your mind and listen attentively to what is echoing in your heart. Because mantras are one with universal truth, they cannot be claimed by a particular denomination, creed, nationality, or lineage. If a mantric tradition has a sectarian or cultish feel, that is a sure sign that it is not connected with the source that transcends all superficial faiths, religions, and creeds. Thus it cannot serve as a channel for transmitting universal and unconditional truth. My frank advice is don’t get involved.
Another pitfall is dependence. The mind has formed a habit of becoming dependent on others, hiding its weaknesses, and blaming others for its mistakes. After reading inspiring books on mantra initiation, yoga, and the student-teacher relationship, many students start building castles in the air. They think that once they get a mantra or are initiated by a powerful teacher, their problems will be over and they will be happy. The scriptures discourage such thinking, but unfortunately many teachers encourage their students to build such expectations and become dependent on them. Avoid involving yourself in such a situation. Expectation is a source of misery, and dependency is certainly a bondage.
Mantra shastra, the literature of mantra science and practice, is quite specific in its delineation of the rules and laws of initiation, including whom to initiate, when, and how. It is the responsibility of teachers to acquire a profound understanding of these pertinent points before coming forward to guide students. Even more important, they themselves must be trained by a competent master who has the power to bless them and guide them from within and to set them straight if they begin to misguide others.
A Personal Note About Initiation
With the hope that it will be of some use to other seekers, I will share my own experience of mantra initiation. When I humbly approached the learned ones in the course of my search, I noticed that, without exception, none of them gave me any verbal promises. But each one lovingly guided me, helped me to expand my vision, and revealed just enough so that I overcame any skepticism I may have had. They all stressed the importance of not seeking or accepting knowledge blindly. All were totally selfless and willing to give me any worldly possessions they had. They offered guidance and inspired me to study and learn.
But when it came to initiation, I found them miserly. Eventually, they instructed me in mantra practice; however, never in the exact mantra that I wanted to learn. They loved me deeply, but in the realm of spirituality, they did not care what I wanted—they gave me what I needed instead. Many of them planted a seed both subtle and glorious, but did so in such a mysterious way that I came to know what they had done only much later, when the seed sprouted and began to blossom. By then, I was so far away from them in the realms of space and time that I could not express my gratitude. I realized with amazement that those great ones were like the helping hands of God, systematically guiding me to the master who would finally initiate me.
Such is the mystery of mantra. The longing, curiosity, confusion, skepticism, and occasional struggle with obstacles all are part of that mystery too. The more we know, the more we want to know, for we feel how little we know. How fortunate are those who have the desire to know and the resources to experience the Word. Like the seers of the divine Word, may we also hear, receive, and keep the Word and be purified by it. May the divine light one day descend in our lives and proclaim the name of the absolute truth.