Understanding The Science of Mantra

May 21, 2014    BY Jon Janaka

Mantra has finally reached the yoga mainstream. Everyone who is into yoga these days seems to have at least one piece of clothing with om written on it. Prayers or chants create a sense of sacred space at the beginning of asana classes. Kirtan and CDs featuring mantras in different Asian languages are an established part of the yoga scene. But the science behind mantra meditation remains largely unknown.

This is not surprising. The science of mantra (mantra shastra) is complicated, and trying to learn about it outside its original cultural and philosophical context doesn’t make it any easier. If we can get an insider perspective on this tradition, however, we can see how key concepts in mantra meditation relate to a broader framework of consciousness and language. And this broader perspective leads us to the firm conviction (shraddha) that we need if we want our meditation to reach its most profound depths. 

The trick is finding the way into this vast and bewildering science. One approach can be found in the Sharada Tilaka Tantra, composed sometime around 1000 CE in a spirit of compassion for those sincere students who could not work through the numberless texts on mantra and master their carefully hidden meanings. The Sharada Tilaka is one of the yoga tradition’s most useful resources for understanding mantra. It gives us a general overview of the principles underlying mantra shastra and also presents specific yogic meditative practices in detail. This makes it a perfect reference work for modern students, and after looking at what the Sharada Tilaka tells us about the mantra shastra worldview, we can see how understanding some traditional technical terms will enrich our own practice of mantra meditation.

An Ocean of Consciousness

All meditative practices that involve mantra are based on the radical premise that one unitary consciousness pervades every experience in the world. In our ordinary experience there is an enormous diversity of conscious individuals. My consciousness seems to be different—and separate—from yours; both seem different from any other person’s consciousness.

All meditative practices that involve mantra are based on the radical premise that one unitary consciousness pervades every experience in the world.

But mantra shastra is concerned primarily with the irreducible substance of consciousness that exists beneath the diversity of its individual manifestations. If the universal consciousness is an ocean, then every one of us is a wave in that ocean. The substance of consciousness is found in each of our individual experiences—just as the substance of water is found in every wave. From one perspective we are separate individuals; from another we are seamlessly integrated.

According to mantra shastra, the differences between our individual consciousnesses are the result of habitual conceptual constructs that localize and limit our consciousness to specific objects of awareness. The three that constrict awareness most are a narrow definition of the self, a narrow concept of time, and emotional states that capture our attention. Knowledge of the world that is filtered through these constructs is called “ignorance” because it relies on unstable and temporary objects. But an ocean of consciousness lies below the surface of our everyday awareness, one that can be explored through the practices of yoga.

This ocean of consciousness is called by different names in different traditions. It is also called by different names depending on which aspect of experience is being emphasized. One name the Sharada Tilaka gives it is kundalini, or that aspect of universal consciousness that resides in each sentient being as awareness. Ordinarily, this awareness is restricted to the body, mind, and emotions that we call our “self,” but it is also limited by the concept of time. Properly aware of only the present, restricted awareness has uncertain recall of the past and no certain knowledge about events in the future.

Kundalini is also known in mantra shastra as Shabda Brahman, the universal consciousness (Brahman) that is embodied in language (shabda). Just as the universal consciousness lies hidden in each person in the form of kundalini, it also lies concealed within all language in the form of Shabda Brahman. Language consists of two main components: sound and meaning. Sound belongs to the domain of physical reality and, like our human awareness, it is limited by time and space. But meaning has its source in consciousness, which in its purest form is unrestricted.

According to this understanding, the true “meaning” of any word is an experience of the unrestricted universal consciousness, called in this context Shabda Brahman. But this ultimate reference is obscured by the meanings we attach to specific sounds in order to communicate ideas and emotions to one another. This normal communicative function of language is important, but language also has a far greater potential to expand our conscious awareness. There are certain strings of sound that are not burdened by the communicative function of language. Purified and “awakened,” they refer back to extraordinary states of consciousness. These strings of sound are known as mantras.

Understanding that one universal consciousness pervades both human awareness and language gives us the big picture for understanding mantra shastra, but it does not explain how mantra meditation expands our limited individual consciousness. To answer this question, we need to look at the relationship between our conscious awareness and the objects of that awareness.

Our consciousness takes on the qualities of whatever we hold in our awareness. For example, if we dwell on negative emotions, it becomes increasingly restricted. If we turn our attention to unrestricted consciousness, our individual consciousness will expand. Unfortunately, however, it is practically impossible for us to focus on pure, limitless consciousness.

Our consciousness takes on the qualities of whatever we hold in our awareness.

To address this problem, our spiritual ancestors sought out manifestations of the universal consciousness that could be grasped by our limited awareness. And because language and consciousness interpenetrate, they found that mantras were the most effective tools for expanding our awareness beyond its habitual limitations. These concepts remain abstract apart from a personal meditation practice. But keeping this matrix of consciousness and language in mind, we can begin to explore mantra shastra from the inside. 

Waves in the Ocean

Each mantra expands a meditator’s consciousness in its own unique way, and each has its own personality, traditions, and characteristics. For this reason, mantra shastra includes a detailed technical vocabulary in which to talk about individual mantras. Texts like the Sharada Tilaka discuss them in terms of three key concepts: rishi, chandas, and devata. Each of these expands our understanding of mantra shastra and places the practice of mantra meditation in a larger context.

Rishi

Rishi, literally, means a “see-er,” and rishis are semi-mythical figures who have been instrumental in the process of revelation that produced the mantras we use today. Having performed intense yogic practices, they were free from all impurities and their conscious awareness had no limitations.

In the language of mantra shastra, the rishis are said to have had an internal “vision” of the universal consciousness that lay hidden within their own hearts. Most important, they were masters of language who gave voice to that vision. Mantra is the sonic form of a rishi’s vision of the universal consciousness.

Remembering that each mantra has a primordial seer underscores the importance of tradition. It is not always important to know the rishi of a particular mantra, but it is important to remember that we practice mantra meditation within a continuous tradition of teachers and students stretching back beyond recorded history.

In other words, mantras were “seen” by the rishis and given to their students as a tool for expanding their consciousness. The mantras we use today have been passed on as a safe channel across the vast ocean of consciousness. They have been guarded and kept open by the continuous practice of our spiritual ancestors, becoming more highly charged and efficient in the process. Without their efforts, the chain of transmission from the original rishi would have been lost.

Mantras received through an unbroken line of teachers are considered “awakened” and capable of leading a meditator to higher states of consciousness. Those taken from books or teachers who are not themselves part of this long chain are considered to be dormant and are of no practical use for mantra meditation.

Chandas

A mantra can be understood as an expansive consciousness carefully wrapped in a tight little bundle of language. Chandas is the word used to describe the precise linguistic structure that covers and protects the transformative consciousness that is hidden there. To use a mantra properly, we need to know precisely how to open that bundle. That is why pronunciation is not taken lightly by students of mantra shastra. In fact, the tradition has developed a sophisticated understanding of pronunciation based on the physical characteristics of the human vocal tract as well as the subtle effects of different sounds on our consciousness.

To use a mantra properly, we need to know precisely how to open that bundle. That is why pronunciation is not taken lightly by students of mantra shastra.

Chandas originally meant the poetic meters in which the Vedic hymns were composed. But as mantra shastra expanded, chandas came to mean the metrical structure of any mantra. It both reveals and conceals. The following verses from the Chandogya Upandishad illustrate this dual function:

Fearing Death, the Bright Beings
entered the three Vedas.

They covered themselves with the
meters (chandas).

That is why we call the meter a
covering.

But Death looked closely and saw
the Bright Ones hiding there,
In the verses of the Rig Veda
In the chants of the Sama Veda
In the formulas of the Yajur Veda
Like a school of fish in shallow
water.

Chandas does not reveal the consciousness hidden within a mantra by exposing it directly, however. Experiential knowledge is the only way to see what lies within, and this comes about through repetition of the mantra. As the linguistic structure of the mantra is held in the awareness of a meditator, it engrains itself within the brain’s neural network, becoming increasingly integrated with the meditator’s consciousness.

So, keeping with the metaphor of consciousness as an ocean, we can understand chandas as the particular shape the mantric wave of consciousness takes as it rises out of Shabda Brahman.

Devata

From a linguistic perspective, devata is the essential nature of a deva. Deva is often translated as “god,” but it is more correctly understood as a free and shining being—as well as a being in whose presence you become shining and free. Devata and deva are both derived from the verbal root div, which connotes brightly shining and expansive light as well as a certain mood of playfulness.

Deva is often translated as “god,” but it is more correctly understood as a free and shining being—as well as a being in whose presence you become shining and free.

In practical terms, devata is the goal of mantra meditation. When the structure (chandas) of the mantra is fully assimilated into the consciousness of the meditator, the devata of the mantra is revealed and pervades awareness. At this moment, the meditator’s consciousness merges with that of the mantra, and for the duration of this union, the wave is aware that it has been the ocean all along.

When understood within the broader conceptual scheme of mantra shastra, the technical terms rishi, chandas, and devata can give us a road map for our personal meditative journey. It can tell us where a mantra has come from, how it is structured, and how its practice will affect our consciousness. But functional knowledge of mantra science does not come through intellectual understanding alone. It rests primarily on the persistent practice of mantra meditation.

Jon Janaka
Jon Janaka is a sanskrit scholar who worked in the Himalayan Institute kitchen for over five years.