The sages tell us that our essential nature is truth, consciousness, and bliss, and that the source of our misery is estrangement from our essential nature.
Although the mind searches unceasingly for ways to end its suffering, they say, it usually confines its search to the external world and thus finds only more misery. And even when we gain enough wisdom to look within, at first we encounter only scattered or uncontrollable thoughts, feelings, and daydreams. The sages agree that meditation is the path that leads to absolute reality, but that a scattered mind is sure to cause delays. Mantra, they tell us, is the vehicle by which the mind becomes one-pointed and inward and thus reaches the eternal silence that is the source of bliss.
The Power of Mantra
A mantra is a revealed word, a divine sound that has been received or experienced by an adept in the state of deep samadhi (spiritual absorption). It is a condensed form of spiritual energy, the sound body of the Divine Being. It can also be thought of as a compact prayer. The yogic scriptures often compare mantra to a boat or a bridge that an aspirant can take to cross the mire of delusion created by the external world and reach the center of consciousness within. Mystics and yogis say that mantra is an eternal friend who accompanies the meditator even after death, lighting the way in the realm where the light of the sun and the moon cannot penetrate. According to the more esoteric literature of the yoga tradition, mantra is the essence of guru shakti, the power of the spiritual master. In other words, the mantra is itself the guru. Mantra, God, guru, and one’s highest self are identical.
The branch of metaphysics known as spanda, the science of eternal vibration, holds that all creation evolves from the Word. Here “Word” does not refer to speech uttered by a human voice or the audible sound produced when two objects strike each other. The Word is anahata nada, the unstruck sound, which vibrates eternally in the realm of pure consciousness. It is the Word that existed before the beginning of creation.
The power of mantra is not limited by time, space, or causation, for mantra is a self-existent, self-luminous reality that can be heard by all who have ears to hear. But mantra transcends 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 rishi (seer).
To have that vision, one needs purity of heart and a perfectly one-pointed mind. Only this will prepare the seeker for the brilliance of the transcendental light in which the sense of duality vanishes. In the glory of this revelation 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 that time on it shines forth, and seekers are naturally drawn to the one who embodies it. That is how the science of mantra comes down to us today. The seers who received the Word were blessed with its power, and this power manifested spontaneously in their actions and speech. Thus, the seers drew aspirants to them and they, in turn, prepared for and received the Word themselves. Thousands of years later this revelation still illuminates the path of true seekers.
Our normal speech has no capacity to transmit the infinite knowledge and bliss which dawns from within. The world’s mundane languages are like the early morning fog; the rays of mantra are the light in which this fog evaporates, illuminating the horizon of our inner world. The seer, bathed in this illumination, communicates in a language which the yogis call sandhyabhasa, 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.
The world's languages are like the early morning fog; the rays of mantra are the light in which this fog evaporates, illuminating the horizon of our inner world.
The sages did not take part in building the Tower of Babel, and their communication with the Divine was not interrupted. But as we have built our own tower of ego, attachment, desire, anger, hatred, jealousy, and greed, we have lost touch with the universal language, and this severely limited the sages’ ability to share their knowledge with us. To a select few, however, often on a high peak or in some other secluded place, they did manage to communicate in a mystical language that was neither wholly worldly nor completely spiritual. But in order to be understood at all, they 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. Those who heard it understood only part of it, and as they attempted to share their experience, misunderstandings inevitably resulted. Disciples often asked, “Master, why do you speak in parables?”
This is the paradox of initiation: in spite of a master’s deep longing to share his knowledge, the disciple’s inability to receive it limits the intensity of the transmission. Those who have not properly equipped themselves cannot receive direct knowledge of the ultimate truth. That is why, in the end, Moses laid his hand only on Joshua; Krishna laid his only on Uddhava; and Christ gave the key of the Word only to Peter. And that is why, even though the wisdom that is mantra has its source in supreme truth, this truth 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. These identifications are only partially true. The transforming power of mantras, even in their articulate form, is beyond ordinary perception.
The transforming power of mantras is beyond ordinary perception.
Mantra and Meaning
As the eternal truth, the Word is indivisible and indestructible. But there are an infinite number of mantric revelations of this truth. In the yoga tradition, for example, there are meditative mantras that promote spiritual unfoldment and mantras for siddhis (supernatural powers).
Meditative mantras, which are found mainly in the Upanishads, are used as tools for contemplation, for ordinarily, when aspirants know the meaning of the mantra they are practicing, a feeling for it develops during the course of meditation. The meanings of mantras are so condensed and compact that aspirants may need to ponder them repeatedly over a long period of time. As they do so, the meaning manifests in a continuous wave, illuminating the interior chambers of the mind and heart, and thus transforming the meditator.
On the other hand, most of the highly secret, mysterious, and potent mantras (called mahavidyas) consist of one or more syllables that do not form a word. Their transformative power lies in the sound of the mantra itself. According to the mantravedins (the knowers of mantra science), if such mantras are received in the course of an authentic initiation, they will keep on manifesting spiritual fervor in the heart of the practitioner, helping to unfold the psychological conditions as well as the determination an aspirant needs to follow the path.
Whatever form they take, the purpose of all meditative mantras is to enable seekers to go beyond the confines of the mind and have a direct experience of their own essential nature. In the last analysis, however, it is not the meaning of the mantra but its subtle vibrations that lead (or carry) the meditator to the center of silence within. This process cannot be understood intellectually. It must be experienced personally.
It is not the meaning of the mantra, but its subtle vibrations that lead the meditator to the center of silence within.
The Universal Mantra
The most easily recognizable inner sound is the sound of the breath. If you sit in a quiet place and attend to its flow, you can easily hear the sound so as you inhale and the sound hum as you exhale. The sound so-hum reverberates effortlessly as we inhale and exhale. But the sound is subtler than the breath. It is a universal mantra. We are all born with it. Our life depends on it. Our breathing follows the rhythm of life contained in it, and paying attention to that sound as we inhale and exhale is attending to the rhythm of life itself. These are not symbolic statements. They are facts you can verify by your own experience. Stress, fear, and anxiety vanish the moment the mind is allowed to rest in so-hum.
This mantra comes from the Upanishads, ancient scriptures written in Sanskrit, but so-hum is not a Sanskrit word in itself. It is a compound of the Sanskrit words sa (that) and aham (I am). Thus, the literal translation is “That I am.” When rendered according to English syntax, it becomes “I am That.”
A more profound meaning of so-hum comes when you understand that Sanskrit is patterned on the rhythm of the life force. Sanskrit was developed and perfected by seers who had the ability to hear those subtle rhythms. If you inhale without exhaling, you will hear sah, but if you begin to exhale without pausing at the end of the inhalation, you will hear so, for sah automatically turns into so as it merges with the oncoming ah in aham. The sages created the grammatical rules of Sanskrit on the basis of the natural way those sounds merge.
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.
Learning to Meditate with a Mantra
To approach meditation systematically, begin by quieting and balancing the physical body, cultivating a comfortable, stable sitting posture, and learning how to make the breath serene. 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. In the beginning, observe how the breath flows from the tip of the nostrils to the heart center, and back again. At first, you will find that this simple practice creates a feeling of tranquility because it is in marked contrast to the 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.
The science of mantra is not an Eastern idea. It is a universal truth that has been revealed to all who have the capacity to receive it, irrespective of time or place. 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.
The Karadjeri of Australia, for example, believe that objects came into manifestation only after the first two humans pronounced their names. According to the Kabbalah, the medieval tradition of Jewish mysticism, God himself is transcendent, but a series of 10 emanations of light (sefirot) that are his “manifest and noble aspects” issue from him. Divine names and letters, the 22 consonants of the Hebrew alphabet, emerged parallel to these 10 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 when he says, “Let there be light,” and there was light. In the New Testament, the Gospel of John elaborates on this concept with the famous proclamation, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”
At this stage, meditation on the mantra so-hum is introduced. And 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. It is also 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 meditation, which you enter during the course of initiation, you must have some degree of insight into mantra science and faith in its validity.
Why? Because, through mantra initiation, you are working systematically to bring successively deeper levels of your inner experience into conscious awareness. This process not only refines and purifies the existing impressions in the mind, it also cultivates and deepens the experience of the mantra and creates a positive groove in both the conscious and unconscious mind. But in the beginning, before you are aware of the deeper levels within, it is almost impossible to observe and appreciate the deep changes that are taking place. Students who do not understand the science of mantra often become disheartened, feeling that their mantra is not the “right” mantra. At that point they may seek other practices or simply abandon the path of meditation altogether. Either way, the fruit of this discouragement is skepticism, and this is one of the chief obstacles to spiritual attainment.
For this reason, before you seek mantra initiation, it is important to carefully consider the following questions: 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 and has attained direct experience of mantra? How do I know this person 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 initiation requires both purity of heart and sharpness of intellect. Are you seeking mantra initiation just 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 or not it is the time to seek initiation.
Don’t seek initiation simply 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 waiting any longer is painful. This intense yearning is the fruit of your good karma, and along with it, the natural process of unfoldment begins. The power of your yearning draws the master toward you, and when that happens 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 any particular denomination, creed, nationality, or lineage. If a mantric tradition has a sectarian or cultish feel, that is a sure sign 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. If that is the case, don’t get involved.
Because mantras are one with universal truth, they cannot be claimed by any particular denomination, creed, nationality, or lineage."
Another pitfall is dependence. The mind has formed the habit of becoming dependent on others, hiding its weaknesses, and blaming others for its mistakes. Many students, after reading inspiring books on mantra initiation, yoga, and the student-teacher relationship, 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. The scriptures discourage such thinking, but unfortunately, many teachers do not. Instead, they encourage their students to build high expectations and become dependent on them. Avoid involving yourself in such a situation. Expectation is a source of misery, and dependency is bondage.
Mantra shastra, the literature of mantra science and practice, is specific about the rules and laws of initiation. It describes who to initiate, when, and how. It makes clear that it is the responsibility of the teacher to acquire a profound understanding of these points before coming forward to guide a student. Even more important, mantra shastra insists that teachers be trained by a competent master who has the power to bless them, to guide them from within, and to set them straight if they begin to misguide others.
A Personal Note
When I approached masters in the course of my own search, none of them gave me any verbal promises, although each one guided me lovingly, helped me to expand my vision, and revealed just enough for me to overcome any remaining skepticism. They all stressed the importance of not seeking or accepting knowledge blindly. They were all 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, but 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. Instead they gave me what I needed. Many of them planted a seed both subtle and glorious, but they 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.
Longing, curiosity, confusion, skepticism, and occasional struggle are all part of the mystery of mantra.
Such is the mystery of mantra. The longing, curiosity, confusion, skepticism, and occasional struggle with obstacles are all part of that mystery. The more we know, the more we want to know, for the more we know, the more we feel how little we know. Fortunate are those who have a burning 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.