Mantra / Kirtan / Bhajan

Learning to chanting the Mantra, Kirtan or Bhajan

 

Mantra

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About Mantra

Mantra (Sanskrit; Devanāgarī: मन्त्र) or mantram, consists of the root man- "to think" (also in manas "mind") and the suffix -tra meaning, "tool or protection" — hence a literal translation would be "instrument of thought". They are primarily used as spiritual conduits, words or vibrations that instill one-pointed concentration in the devotee.

Overview

Mantras originated in the Vedic religion of India, later becoming an essential part of the Hindu tradition and a customary practice within Buddhism, Sikhism and Jainism. The use of mantras is now widespread throughout various spiritual movements which are based on, or off-shoots of, the practices in the earlier Eastern religions.

Mantras are interpreted to be effective as vibration, or more simply as sound, which may include verbal repetition, in the form of chanting, or internal mental incantation. For this reason great emphasis is put on correct pronunciation (resulting in an early development of a science of phonetics in India). Mantras are used in Eastern spiritual traditions to divert the mind from basic instinctual desires or material inclinations, by focusing the mind on a spiritual idea, such as "I am a manifestation of divine consciousness".

Simply stated, a mantra is a religious utterance composed in Sanskrit verse and taken from the some part of the Vedas. In other words, a mantra is a piece of Vedic poetry. The verses of the Vedas, including both the Shruti Vedas as well as the Smriti Vedas, are mostly written in verse and therefore are considered mantras. The reason the Vedas are primarily composed in verse as opposed to prose is because they were originally meant to be memorized, not written down, and verse is much easier to memorize than prose.

A mantra is also an utterance composed in a special way to effect a certain result. For example, there can be a specific mantra addressed to a certain Deity, which when chanted properly, is thought to evoke the presence and powers of that Deity. The Gayatri mantra is one such example. The Hare Krishna mantra is another example. In these cases the mantras are often chanted over and over again in a process called japa. The repetition of mantras is called mantra-japa and a devotee many take a vow to repeat a certain mantra many times a day. Often during initiation (diksha) a teacher (guru) will give a special mantra to a disciple and ask him to chant it a certain number of times a day on a set of beads called a japa-mala, similar to a rosary.

A mantra can also be used as part of a spell or charm. There are portions of the Vedas that contain such mantras meant to achieve various purposes. Mantras also have a use in meditation to help achieve a certain state of consciousness. One derivation for the word mantra is man+tra. Man means the mind (from manas) and tra means “to cross,” so a mantra is an utterance that ‘crosses the mind.” In meditation the mind is “crossed over” or silenced. Hence the meaning of the term mantra.

Application

In the context of the Vedas, the term mantra refers to the entire portion which contains the texts called Rig, Yajus or Saman, that is, the metrical part as opposed to the prose Brahmana commentary. With the transition from ritualistic Vedic religion to mystical and egalitarian Hindu schools of Yoga, Vedanta, Tantra and Bhakti, the orthodox attitude of the elite nature of mantra knowledge gave way to spiritual interpretations of mantras as a translation of the human will or desire into a form of action, with some features in common with spells in general. For the authors of the Hindu scriptures of the Upanishads, the syllable Aum, itself constituting a mantra, represents Brahman, the godhead, as well as the whole of creation. Kūkai suggests that all sounds are the voice of the Dharmakaya Buddha — i.e. as in Hindu Upanishadic and Yogic thought, these sounds are manifestations of ultimate reality, in the sense of sound symbolism postulating that the vocal sounds of the mantra have inherent meaning independent of the understanding of the person uttering them. Nevertheless, such understanding of what a mantra may symbolise or how it may function differs throughout the various traditions and also depends on the context in which it is written or sounded. In some instances there are multiple layers of symbolism associated with each sound, many of which are specific to particular schools of thought. For an example of such see the syllable: Aum which is central to both Hindu and Buddhist traditions.

The Pranava Mantra

The most basic mantra is Aum, which in Hinduism is known as the "pranava mantra," the source of all mantras. The Hindu philosophy behind this is the idea of nama-rupa (name-form), which supposes that all things, ideas or entities in existence, within the phenomenological cosmos, have name and form of some sort. The most basic name and form is the primordial vibration of Aum, as it is the first manifested nama-rupa of Brahman, the unmanifest reality/unreality. Essentially, before existence and beyond existence is only One reality, Brahman, and the first manifestation of Brahman in existence is Aum. For this reason, Aum is considered to be the most fundamental and powerful mantra, and thus is prefixed and suffixed to all Hindu prayers. While some mantras may invoke individual Gods or principles, the most fundamental mantras, like 'Aum,' the 'Shanti Mantra,' the 'Gayatri Mantra' and others all ultimately focus on the One reality.

In the Hindu tantra the universe is sound. The supreme (para) brings forth existence through the Word (Shabda). Creation consists of vibrations at various frequencies and amplitudes giving rise to the phenomena of the world. The purest vibrations are the var.na, the imperishable letters which are revealed to us, imperfectly as the audible sounds and visible forms.

Var.nas are the atoms of sound. A complex symbolic association was built up between letters and the elements, gods, signs of the zodiac, parts of the body — letters became rich in these associations. For example in the Aitrareya-aranya-Upanishad we find:

"The mute consonants represent the earth, the sibilants the sky, the vowels heaven. The mute consonants represent fire, the sibilants air, the vowels the sun? The mute consonants represent the eye, the sibilants the ear, the vowels the mind"

In effect each letter became a mantra and the language of the Vedas, Sanskrit, corresponds profoundly to the nature of things. Thus the Vedas come to represent reality itself. The seed syllable Aum represents the underlying unity of reality, which is Brahman.

aum, also om (Devanagari: ॐ) is the most sacred syllable in Hindu Dharma, first coming to light in the Vedic Tradition. The character is a composite of three different letters of the Sanskrit alphabet. The syllable is sometimes referred to as the udgitha or pranava mantra (primordial mantra); not only because it is considered to be the primal sound, but also because most mantras begin with it. In Devanagari it is written ॐ, and in Tibetan script ༀ.

"Aum" is the most sacred syllable often spoken during the practice of any Hindu rites. It is a holy character of the Sanskrit language, the language of God. The character is a composite of three different letters of the Sanskrit alphabet. Because of its significance this sacred syllable is spoken before any chants to show God we remember him. This sign in Hinduism also represents the whole universe.

The Significance of the Symbol ॐ

The symbol ॐ (aum, also called pranava), is the most sacred symbol in Hinduism. Volumes have been written in Sanskrit illustrating the significance of this mystic symbol. Although this symbol is mentioned in all the Upanishads and in all Hindu scriptures, it is especially elaborated upon in the Taittiriya Upanishad, Chandogya Upanishad and Mundaka Upanishad Upanishads.

The goal, which all Vedas declare, which all austerities aim at,
and which humans desire when they live a life of continence,
I will tell you briefly it is aum.
The syllable aum is indeed Brahman.
This syllable aum is the highest.
Whosoever knows this symbol obtains all that he desires.
This is the best support; this is the highest support.
Whosoever knows this support is adored in the world of Brahman.

—Katha Upanishad I, ii, 15-17

The symbol of ॐ (aum) contains of three curves, one semicircle and a dot. The large lower curve symbolizes the waking state; the upper curve denotes deep sleep (or the unconscious) state, and the lower curve (which lies between deep sleep and the waking state) signifies the dream state. These three states of an individual's consciousness, and therefore the entire physical phenomenon, are represented by the three curves. The dot signifies the Absolute (fourth or Turiya state of consciousness), which illuminates the other three states. The semicircle symbolizes maya and separates the dot from the other three curves. The semicircle is open on the top, which means that the absolute is infinite and is not affected by maya. Maya only affects the manifested phenomenon. In this way the form of aum symbolizes the infinite Brahman and the entire Universe.

Uttering the monosyllable ॐ, the eternal world of Brahman,
One who departs leaving the body (at death),
he attains the superior goal.

— Bhagavad Gita, 8.13

ॐ (AUM) — Origin

Found first in the Vedic scriptures of Hinduism, aum has been seen as the first manifestation of the unmanifest Brahman (the single Divine Ground of Hinduism) that resulted in the phenomenal universe. Essentially, all the cosmos stems from the vibration of the sound 'Aum' in Hindu cosmology. Indeed, so sacred is it that it is prefixed and suffixed to all Hindu mantras and incantations. It is undoubtedly the most representative symbol of Hinduism.

Although the ॐ symbol's left part, ऊ, which looks like a figure 3, looks like the uu vowel in the Devanagari script, specifically, when used as a syllable with no attached initial consonant, it is actually based on Brahmi version of ओ. The nasal sound is indicated by a chandrabindu.

Philosophy of AUM

Gods and Goddesses are sometimes referred to as Aumkar (or Omkar), which means form of Aum, thus implying that who are limitless, the vibrational whole of the cosmos. Ek Onkar, meaning 'one god' is a central tenet of Sikh religious philosophy. In Hindu metaphysics, it is proposed that the manifested cosmos (from Brahman) has name and form (nama-rupa), and that the closest approximation to the name and form of the universe is Aum, since all existence is fundamentally composed of vibration. (This concept of describing reality as vibrations, or rythmic waves, can also be found in quantum physics and super string theory, which describe the universe in terms of vibrating fields or strings.)

In advaita philosophy it is frequently used to represent three subsumed into one, a common theme in Hinduism. It implies that our current existence is mithya, or 'slightly lesser reality,' that in order to know the full truth we must comprehend beyond the body and intellect and intuit the true nature of infinity, of a Divine Ground that is imminent but also transcends all duality, being and non-being, that cannot be described in words. Within this metaphysical symbolism, the three are represented by the lower curve, upper curve and tail of the ॐ subsumed into the ultimate One, represented by the little crescent moon-shape and dot, known as chandrabindu. Essentially, upon moksha, mukti, samadhi, nirvana, liberation, etc. one is able not only to see or know existence for what it is, but to become it. In attaining truth one simply realizes fundamental unity; it is not the joining together of a prior manifold splitting. When one gains true knowledge, there is no split between knower and known: one becomes knowledge/consciousness itself. In essence, Aum is the signifier of the ultimate truth that all is one.

For the scriptural esoteric explanation of Aum see Mandukya Upanishad.

dvaita-advaita (Vaishnava) philosophies teach that 'Aum' is an impersonal sound representation of Vishnu/Krishna while Hari Nama is the personal sound representation. A represents Krishna, U Srimati Radharani and M jivas. According to Sridhara Svami the pranava has five parts: A, U, M, the nasal bindu and the reverberation (nada). Liberated souls meditate on the Lord at the end of that reverberation.

Examples of Three into One:

  • Creation (Brahma)- Preservation (Vishnu)- Destruction (Shiva) into Brahman
  • Waking- Dreaming- Dreamless Sleep into Turiya (transcendental fourth state of consciousness)
  • Rajas (activity, heat, fire)- Tamas (dullness, ignorance, darkness)- Sattva (purity, light, serenity/shanti) into Brahman
  • Body, Speech and Mind into Oneness

The Chandogya Upanishad (1.1.1-10) states,

"The udgitha is the best of all essences, the highest, deserving the highest place, the eighth."

"Aum" can be seen as Sri Ganesh, whose figure is often represented in the shape of Aum. He is thus known as Aumkar (Shape of Aum). Sri Nataraja, or the Hindu god 'Shiva' dancing his dance of destruction, is seen in that popular representation mirroring the image of Aum. It is said to be the most perfect 'approximation' of the cosmic existence within time and space, and therefore the sound closest to Truth.

"The First Word Om (Aum) It is also called Pranav because its sound emanates from the Prana (vital vibration), which feels the Universe. The scripture says "Aum Iti Ek Akşara Brahman" (Aum that one syllable is Brahman)."

The AUM Sound

"A - emerges from the throat, originating in the region of the navel U - rolls over the tongue M - ends on the lips A - waking, U - dreaming, M - sleeping It is the sum and substance of all the words that can emanate from the human throat. It is the primordial fundamental sound symbolic of the Universal Absolute."

In fact, when correctly pronounced, or rather, "rendered", the "A" can be felt as a vibration that manifests itself near the navel or abdomen; the "U" can be felt vibrating the chest, and the "M" vibrates the cranium or the head. The abdominal vibration symbolises Creation; It is interesting that the "creative" or reproductive organs are also located in the lower abdomen. The vibration of the chest represents Preservation, which is also where the lungs are situated (the lungs sustain or preserve the body through breath). The vibration of the head is associated with Destruction or sacrifice, since all that gives up or destroys is first destroyed mentally. Hence, the entire cycle of the universe and all it contains is said to be symbolised in AUM.

Today, in all Hindu art and all over India and Nepal, 'Aum' can be seen virtually everywhere, a standard sign for Hinduism and a vast but economical storehouse for the deep mythology inherent in the world's oldest religion.

Notes the Chandogya Upanishad, "That syllable, is a syllable of permission; for, whenever we permit anything, we say Aum." However, this is seen by others as a myopic perspective because the same Hindu scriptures, the Upanishads, that aver this function also attribute to it the divine property of the source of the universe. Aum is seen as the source of existence as we know it within the causal dimensions of time and space, and thus affirmatory meanings in languages are a natural progression. Aum is not only affirmation, but negation, and transcends both.

The AUM sound is sometimes called "the 3-syllable Veda". The third syllable arises because in Devanagari and similar alphabets, a consonant at the end of a word is sometimes written as a separate consonant letter with the virama "no vowel" sign, and this combination is treated as a syllable when talking about Devanagari writing rather than about phonetics.

The Sanskrit word omkāra (from which came Punjabi onkār, etc), literally "OM-maker", has two families of meanings:-
Brahma (god) in his role as creator, and thus a word for "creator". Writers' term for the OM sign.

The use of the universal AUM sound can be found on every nearly continent and in many different cultures. The sound is unique to every individual: hence it can only be described by how it feels. Below is a secular guide to making the sound:

An individual's "Aum" is the sound that can be held steady the longest per breath for the longest consecutive sequence of breaths. It is called "aum" in every culture that is aware of it because it sounds like that in all humans. The lower pitches are more suited because they require less muscular contraction of the abdomen, leading to lower rates of oxygen consumption, allowing for longer time between breaths. The Aum is the exact sound that is easiest for the individual to produce.

Once the minimization of oxygen consumption occurs (by minimization of muscular exertion), the outflow of air will be steady and quite sensitive to any forces that alter the amount of pressure in the chest cavity. One of the most notable consequences of this is that the rythmic contractions of the heart become audible within the Aum.

Thus, by the use of Aum:

  • one can easily hear their own heart.
  • a person can modify the pace of their heart.
  • a group of people can synchronize their heartbeats.

Mantra Japa

Mantra japa was a concept of the Vedic sages that incorporates mantras as one of the main forms of puja, or worship, whose ultimate end is seen as moksha/liberation. Essentially, Mantra Japa means repetition of mantra, and it has become an established practice of all Hindu streams, from the various Yoga to Tantra. It involves repetition of a mantra over and over again, usually in cycles of auspicious numbers (in multiples of three), the most popular being 108. For this reason, Hindu malas (bead necklaces) developed, containing 108 beads and a head bead (sometimes referred to as the 'meru', or 'guru' bead). The devotee performing japa using his/her fingers counts each bead as he/she repeats the chosen mantra. Having reached 108 repetitions, if he/she wishes to continue another cycle of mantras, the devotee must turn the mala around without crossing the head bead and repeat.

It is said that through japa the devotee attains one-pointedness, or extreme focus, on the chosen deity or principal idea of the mantra. The vibrations and sounds of the mantra are considered extremely important, and thus reverberations of the sound are supposed to awaken the Kundalini or spiritual life force and even stimulate chakras according to many Hindu schools of thought.

Any sloka from holy texts like the Vedas, Upanishads, Bhagavad Gita, Yoga Sutras, even the Mahabharata, Ramayana, Durga saptashati or Chandi are considered powerful enough to be repeated to great effect, and have therefore the status of a mantra.

Some very common mantras are formed by taking a deity's name, called Nama japa, and saluting it in such a manner: Aum Namah --or Aum Jai (Hail!) -- or several such permutations. Examples are:

  • Aum Namah Shivaya (Aum and salutations to Lord Shiva)
  • Aum Namo Narayanaya or Aum Namo Bhagavate Vasudevãya (Aum and salutations to the Universal God Vishnu)
  • Aum Shri Ganeshaya Namah (Aum and salutations to Shri Ganesha)
  • Aum Kalikayai Namah (Aum and salutations to Kali)
  • Aum Hrim Chandikãyai Namah (Aum and salutations to Chandika)
  • Aum Sri Maha Kalikayai Namah (the basic Kali mantra given above is strengthened with the words Sri [an expression of great respect] and Maha [great]. It has been said that this mantra is rarely given to anyone because it is so intense.)
  • Aum Radha Krishnaya Namaha (a mantra to Radha, said to promote love in a relationship)

Repeating an entire mantric text, such as the Durga Saptashati, in its entirety is called patha.

The use of Mantras is described in various texts which constitute Mantra Shastra (shastra, sastra: law-book, rule or treatise).