(Interactive session on 31.10.2015)
Address by Asish K. Raha
Mantra is a sanskrit word as old as the Vedas of the Hindus, comprising the root word ‘man’ or mind and the suffix ‘tra’ meaning an instrument or wave or projection. According to Vedic tradition, the meaning of mantra goes well beyond its etymological meaning, i.e. projection of mind or wave of thought. It is believed to have originated from the cosmic perception of the Vedic sages, and is meant to evoke supernatural power by repeatedly chanting a combination of words thereby creating the right vibration to achieve a specific objective. However, it comes with a caveat, viz. mantra must be pronounced correctly with proper intonation, failing which it will have no effect. In Buddhism, the word mantra has been used more in the sense of protecting mind rather than achieving supernatural feats.
Our rational mind, however, needs to address the following pertinent posers in regard to mantra.
- Granted that every word chanted or spoken causes vibration, does the vibration so caused by repeated chanting or muttering of a mantra achieve the result that may be called supernatural? Or, the so-called sound vibration generated by a mantra is merely incidental, not capable of creating any magical power or effects?
- Is there any scientific explanation for the power attributed to mantra?
- Is the meaning of a mantra relevant?
- Is the mantra chanted in silence as effective as the one pronounced with proper intonation?
- Is mantra divine or God-neutral?
Before we address those questions, let us dwell upon the traditional concept of mantra and its purported power as has been recorded or recounted since time immemorial.
‘WORD’ AS GOD & THE ULTIMATE CAUSE
It looks prima facie, more than just a co-incidence that both the Vedas and the New Testament describe the ‘Word’ (root of Mantra) as Brahman or God, ascibing the origin of the universe to it. It is stated in the Vedas as follows:
“Prajapatir vai idam asit; Tasya vak dvitya asit; Vag vai paramam Brahma” (ref. Krishna Yajurveda, Kathaka Samhita, 12.5, 27.1; Jaiminiya Brahmana II, Samaveda, 2244)
[In the beginning was Prajapati (Brahma), with Whom was the Vak (Word), and the Vak is Brahman.]
In New Testatmant vide John 1.1 it is stated that “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God, and the Word was God Himself.”
The striking similarity between the Vedas and the New Testament in regard to identity of the ‘Word’ with God cannot be missed except for a subtle difference. While the Vedas use Prajapati and ‘Paramam Brahma’ in two different contexts, Prajapati for the existence in the beginning and the ‘Word’ as Supreme God (the Ultimate Cause of creation), New Testament uses the expression ‘God’ in both the contexts. The distinction between Prajapati or Brahma (one of the Trinity, responsible for creation of the universe) and Brahman or Supreme God has been brought out in the Vedas, the Upanishadas and Bhagavad Gita extensively. While the former was a living existence, the latter was non-existence in phenomenal sense or beyond all phenomenal existence, and symbolically described as the word ‘OM’, the ultimate cause of the creation. It is said that Prajapati used ‘Word’ as the instrument for creation of the universe.
The sanskrit word nada meaning sound is derived from the root nad meaning flow. Read together, nada literally means flow of sound. Since nada vibrates in inner consciousness, it implies flow of consciousness. Nada yogis have identified four stages of manifestation of nada, viz. i) para or transcendental, ii) pashayanti or visible sound, iii) madhyama or in-between subtle and gross sound and iv) vaikhari or gross audible sound.
Para nada happens to be the subtlest nada, which is not audible nor perceptible by sense organs. The sound generated by para nada has a very high frequency of vibration which our ears cannot capture. It acquires stillness having gone to the maximum pitch. In the upanishadas para nada has been identified as the sound of ‘Om’.
Pashyanti nada is grosser than para nada, having less frequency, and yet it cannot be heard. It can, however, be visualized. When we hear a piece of music in our dream or even in awaken stage, losing sense of the outer world or sound, it is called pashyanti nada.
Madhyama nada has lower frequency than the preceding two nadas, but not yet audible. It is akin to whispering sound, producing very minute vibrations. It is called madhyama or middle sound as it is in-between gross audible sound and subtle inaudible sound.
Vaikhari nada is both audible and producible by friction of two objects.
According to nada yogis para nada or transcendental sound Om is the seed of the creativity, from which the universe has evolved as a projection of sound vibrations. The Sufis in India call it surat yoga while the Sikhs call it shabda yoga. According to nada yogis, five elements, ten indriyas, manas (mind), buddhi (intelelct), ahamkara (ego) and the three gunas have evolved out of the eternal sound Om or para nada. Nada yoga has been extensively dealt with in Nada Bindu Upanishada (contained in Rig Veda) and Hamsa Upanishada. Mantra and music are materialized form of nada. It is on record in the annals of contemporary authors that Tansen, the famous court-musician of Emperor Akbar, could make the rain happen even in drought by singing the Raga MEGH MALHAAR, and could lit the lamps by singing RAGA DEEPAK, thus suggesting a strong and intimate link between music and the nature.
Nada yogis, according to Swami Satyananda Saraswati, a well-known Kriya Yogi, classify human into following five categories: physical, pranic, mental, supra-mental, and finally the ananda or atmik. The first to the fifth category is a journey from the grossest to the subtlest nada. The yogis have broadly divided human consciousness into three parts, viz. annamaya and pranamaya kosha (bodies made up of food and life force), manomaya and vigyanamaya kosha (consciousness resting with mind, astral matter or cosmos), and finally anandamaya kosha (blissful state).
According to Nada Vindu Upanishada (part of Rig Veda) and also Hamsa Upanishada, nada sound is of ten types, depending on the spiritual level of the yogi. Those sounds are as follows: 1) Chini, 2) Cninchini, 3) bell-like sound, 4) conch-like sound, 5) lute-like sound, 6) cymbal-like sound, 7) flute-like sound, 8) drum-like sound, 9) Mridanga-like sound, and 10) thunder-like sound.
A yogi can access knowledge of hidden things when he hears sound of flute at the seventh level. At this level, he tends to lose his individual identity. The Yogic explanation of the irresistible attraction of the Gopis toward Krishna when he played his flute, as depicted in Bhagavat Mahapurana is as follows:
First the story from Bhagavat which reads as follows: “”Lord Krishna left his place at midnight and went into the jungle. It was the full moon night of the first month of winter. He began to play the flute. The echo of the flute spread in the calm and undisturbed atmosphere. Music rose from the jungle and was heard by the gopis (the village cowherd girls). When they heard the sound of the flute, they immediately left their houses and their husbands, forgetful of all that was taking place. They ran, without consideration, to the place from where the nada from the flute was emanating. They started dancing about the flute player. After some time, it so happened that each one found herself dancing individually with Krishna.”
The interpretation of the above story by nada yogis is that Krishna represents higher consciousness at seventh level wherefrom nada emanates as flute music. The senses and the indriyas renounce their respective acitivities and rush to the place from where the flute sound or the nada is emanating. There the senses dance around the nada, withdrawing completely from all outer objects. Thus in yogic parlance, a dharana (conception) has taken place as a precursor to dhyana (meditation). Significantly, each gopi felt that she danced with Krishna exclusively, which in real life could not have happened.
A more realistic interpretation of the above story would also suggest that the nada of flute music of Krishna struck the receptive inner chord of the gopis at the seventh level which drove them almost crazy and completely lost. To be more precise, the gopis heard the flute nada internally and not through their ears. Their state of withdrawal from the outer world is known in nada yoga as pratyahara (withdrawal).
When a nada yogi reaches the ninth level, the yogi’s Third Eye awakens, and at the tenth level, he attains para Brahman. At this level, the thunder-like nada comes from the sphere beyond anandamaya kosha, and individual consciousness merges with the cosmic consciousness. The yogi sees the whole universe in form of sound only.
NADA IN BUDDHISM
In a Mahayana sutra, known as the Śūraṅgama Sūtra, which is well known in the Chán (a Chinese word derived from sanskrit dhyana or meditation) school of Buddhism, Avalokitesvara is cited as saying that he attained enlightenment by concentrating on the subtle inner sound. The Buddha then praised his method as the supreme way. He called the transcendental sound of Avalokiteswara as the ‘pure Brahman sound’, describing it as the ‘subtle murmur of the sea tide setting inward’. Buddha pronounced that this mysterious sound would bring nirvana (liberation) and peace to all sentient but distressed beings who sought nirvana. He directed all his disciples and Ananda in particular to reverse their outward perception of hearing and to listen inwardly for the sublimely unified and intrinsic sound of mind in order to attain enlightenment.
OM – THE WORD THAT SYMBOLIZES BRAHMAN
Like in the human micro-cosm there cannot be a single wave in the mind stuff (chitta-vritti) unconditioned by name and form, cosmic macro-cosm cannot also be without name and form, as is explained by Swami Vivekananda (vide The Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda, vol 3, pp 56-57). There may, however, be serious challenge from physicists to the above proposition at the very threshold as to how macrocosm can conceive name and form, which smacks of cosmic mind or consciousness, which is highly improbable, if not impossible. The above objection is countered with simple logic as also yogic perception that lies beyond mundane logic. As for the logic, it is posited that since nothing comes out of nothing, our mind stuff or consciousness must necessarily have a source in macrocosm, as it cannot simply crop up from nothing. Therefore, it would stand to logic that there is cosmic mind or super-consciousness. As regards yogic perception, we will deal with it later.
Now reverting to the philosophical proposition of the Vedanta, as has been explained by Swami Vivekananda, In the evolved state of Brahman, Brahma (distinct from Brahman) or Hiranyagarbha (golden womb) or the Mahat (cosmic mind) is the name and the universe is the form. But the cause of both the name and the form in the macro-cosmic universe is the eternal, inexpressible Sphota (sound that bursts forth). And that Sphota is OM.
Swami Vivekananda is, therefore, inclined to call the word ‘OM’, ‘the mother of all names and forms’. One may argue that there may be various word-symbols for the same thought, and it is not necessary that the single word ‘OM’ is representative of the thought that is responsible for the manifestation of the world. The Swami’s reply to that objection is that “this ‘OM’ is the only possible symbol which covers the whole ground, and there is none other like it.” To substantiate his contention, Vivekananda explains that if all the distinctive features that distinguish one word from the others are removed, then what remains is OM. The three letters ‘A’, ‘U’ and ‘M’ at the root of OM is the generalized symbol of all possible sounds. The letter ‘A’ being the throat sound is the least differentiated sound. ‘M’ is the lip sound, and ‘U’ rolls forward the impulse which begins at the root of the tongue till it ends in the lips. Pronounced together properly, the OM covers ‘the whole phenomenon of sound production and no other word can do this’. Therefore, according to the Swami, OM was the fittest symbol of the Sphota (or Brahman).
Viewed from another angle, when a person pronounces ‘A’ (as in ‘bar’), he opens his mouth and brings forth the throat sound from the root of his tongue. This may be called macro-cosmic sound of creation. When he pronounces ‘U’ (as in coup), there is a funnelling effect taking his consiousness into subtler region of Gunas or attributes. ‘U’, therefore, represents micro-cosmic sound of creation. The last component ‘M’ ending with lips produces sounds like the drone of a bee with prolonged vibration.
OM & SUPER-STRING THEORY
We have briefly mentioned the Vedic propositon that the repeated sound-vibration of OM is the primordial mantra of creation of the macrocosm and the microcosm, which include the physical and the mental world. The super-string theory, even though it does not refer to OM as the cause of creation, appears to have a striking similarity with the above Vedic proposition. Here is a brief background and the essence of super-string theory.
Physicists in general were struggling to reconcile Albert einstein’s Theory of Relativity that deals with the macro-cosmic universe with the theory of Quantum Thermodynamics that deals with the micro-cosmic one. Einstein himself focussed during the later part of his life on the discovery of the Grand Unified Theory or the Theory of Everything, that would unify macrocosm with microcosm, but died without completing his mission. The super-string theory now appears to offer the much elusive unification. It suggests that at sub-atomic level incredibly small strings like those of a violin have been constantly vibrating and thereby creating sub-atomic particles, ever since Big Bang. This theory appears to provide a framework that may encompass all forces and all matters. According to this theory, the constantly vibrating loops of the strings have their varying patterns of vibration for different particles, just as strings on a violin or piano vibrate at resonant frequencies to create various musical notes. Though strings vibrate in different ways for different particles their patterns of vibration are not chaotic, but systematic. So far super-string theorists have conceptualized eleven dimensions of matter.
OM or AUM also, like strings, are believed to send sound waves through the medium of ether, which are transformed into energy. Now the question is whether the primordial sound OM, as perceived by Indian Yogis, can be called the cause or the effect of the Big Bang, as envisaged by physicists. Based on yogic experiences, OM has been held as synonymous with Brahman in the Vedas, the Upanishadas (refer first chapter of Chhandogya Upanishada, believed to be the oldest one) and in the Bhagavad Gita (refer verses 8.13 and 9.17). It is pertinent to refer to the personal experience of Swami Yogananda as recounted in his Autobiography of Yogi (refer chapter captioned ‘An Experience in Cosmic consciousness’). By a gentle touch on his chest by Sri Yukteswar, his spiritual master, writes Yogananda (then known as Mukunda), he experienced ‘the vibration of the Cosmic Motor in form of resounding AUM’. Since that vibrant sound of AUM has been experienced by yogis from time immemorial even to present time, it cannot be termed as either cause or effect of the Big Bang in mundane sense.
GAYATRI MANTRA – ITS REAL IMPLICATION
“Among poetic metres, I am Gayatri”, so said Krishna in verse 10.35 in Gita. Among all mantras in Vedic time, Gayatri undoubtedly was held in the highest esteem. The Atharva Veda states that Gayatri endows chanter with longevity, power, energy, fame, wealth and divine radiance. It is said that according to Yajnavalkya, when Gayatri was weighed in a balance with all the Vedas, the balance tilted in favour of Gayatri mantra. Was it because of its purported or deeper meaning or for the effect of the mantra on the body and mind of the chanter or on the environment as such? There has been considerable research on the real meaning and effect of Gayatri mantra. But before we dwell upon the meaning of Gayatri, let us first understand the essence and characteristics of a mantra in general in yogic parlance.
According to yogic interpretation, a mantra is a means of activating cosmic energy of the words (shabda) contained in it. It may have meaning, like in the case of Gayatri, or no meaning at all like in the case of some tantric mantras. By repeated chanting of the mantras, specific result-oriented vibrations are created, not chaotic or random, but pre-determined by the yogi who had explored it. The symbiotic relationship of a mantra with subliminal energy centre that is supposed to be awakened by it, is implicit or explicit, as the case may be, in the viniyoga (structural classification) of that mantra. All Vedic and Tantric mantras have distinct viniyogas, usually described in the scriptures of Agama and Niyama. Each mantra has following five components: 1) Rishi, 2) Chhanda, 3) Devata, 4) Bija and 5) Tatva. The first component names the Rishi who had discovered the mantra, while the second contains the rhythmic composition – a combination of swaras (musical accents), gati (amplitude) etc. Sonic wave forms of a mantra depend largely upon its syllables and the type of chhanda. The third component viz. Devata represents the deity or the targeted cosmic field that is aimed at by the yoga practitioner. This is known as sakara upasana (worship of God in form of deity) primarily with a view to concentrate mind on a form. Bija (the root) constitutes the fifth component of a mantra. It is the essence of the mantra as it contains the gist of it in coded form. It helps in activation of the latent power of the mantra. Finally tatva is the gist of the mantra.
We are given to understand that when some mantras were tested with the ultrasonometer developed by Dr. Fristlov, it triggered chemical reactions in varying degrees, some so fast that it made steady water churn violently. This corresponds to yogic conception of acquiring super natural power by using vital power of the fire, air or akasha element. It is believed that a mantra correctly pronounced has effect on five elements of the nature as also on the minds of individuals, targeted or otherwise within its periphery. The mantras like radar devices are capable of sending sound signals in the space and receiving the echoed sound back in a few micro seconds. It is thus believed that mantras properly and repeatedly chanted to invoke deities create vibrations that travel like waves of light to that particular deity and return to the chanter with the blessings sought for.
As for gayatri mantra, it is believed that when it is repeatedly chanted, it creates ring shaped sound waves which move up with the speed of light through ether toward the Sun and after touching its surface bounce back with the subtle power of the Sun to enter the subtle body of the chanter. It is important to note that our body being made up of 70 per cent water becomes an excellent conductor of sound vibrations, with its cells acting as sound resonators.
The shorter form of Gayatri mantra is as follows:
“OM Bhur, Bhuva, Swaha
OM Tat Savitur Varenyam
Bhargo Devasya Dheemahi
Dhiyo Yonaha Prachodayat”
[“We meditate on the glory of that Being who has produced this universe; may He enlighten our minds.” – Swami Vivekananda
“We meditate on the adorable glory of the radiant sun; may he inspire our intelligence.” – Dr. S. radhakrishnan]
We notice a difference in the interpretation of the gayatri mantra by Swami Vivekananda and Dr. S. Radhakrishnan in that while the former refers to the creator of the universe for the word Savitur, the latter accepts the literal meaning for savitur to denote Sun only. However, the strength of the Gayatri mantra is not in its meaning, but in the 24 syllables that being repeatedly and properly chanted are believed to produce strong vibrations that eventually rejuvenate extra sensory 24 energy centres (or Chakras) in the subtle body of the chanter.
The longer version of Gayatri mantra invokes the seven lokas (spheres), viz. “OM BHUR, OM BHUVAHA, OM SWAHA, OM MAHAHA, OM JANAHA, OM TAPAHA, OM SATYAM”, each spiritualy more advanced than the previous one.
It is pertinent to mention here that our emphasis on proper pronunciation of mantra for having the desired effect should not be misunderstood as suggesting that mantra chanted or muttered in silence has no effect. As a matter of fact Japa (muttering of mantra) is performed in silence only and the state of Ajapa (non-stop muttering of mantra) is considered as one of the highest states of pratyahara (withdrawal from the material world). As we have already explained, nada is inaudible vibration in our energy centers resulting from mantras, whether muttered in silence or chanted loudly. Likewise, mantra inscribed in a talisman or locket is also believed to be effective depending upon the occult power of the dispenser.
ABUSE OF MANTRA POWER
The link between mantra and occult power is widely believed not only in India but almost in every country. When such power is misused for selfish end, primarily to harm others for self-interest, it is called black magic or witchcraft.
From the epics, viz. Ramayana and Mahabharata, it can be seen that mostly the Asuras and demons with asuric vritti (destructive tendencies) were engaged in using their occult power acquired through mantra to fight the devas known for their sagacity and righteousness. To fight the asuras in self defence, the devas also used their occult power. Various non-conventional weapons described in the epics were invariably triggered by some specific mantra, for want of which those weapons were ineffective. For a medium for the purpose of activation of occult power, bow, arrow, trident, axe, and even blade of grass may have been used by devas, asuras and sages. Sage Nara, for instance, had used a blade of grass to activate his occult power to destroy the whole army of king Dambhodbhava who challenged him to a battle (refer speech of Parasurama in the court of Dhritarashtra, Udyoga Parva, Mahabharata). Likewise, Ashvathwama had used a blade of grass for activating Brahmashira weapon to kill the Pandavas (refer Souptika Parva, Mahabharata). Both Ramayana and Mahabharata mention several such unconventional weapons activated by mantra, with devastating effect. Karna was cursed by Parasurama for deception that he would not remember the mantras for activating his unconventional weapons while engaged in a life-threatening battle.
Same Parasurama described 8 unconventional weapons (with their properties), obtained by Arjuna from Indra, the king of the Devas, stating that if Arjuna used those weapons in the battle, Kauravas would not be able to counter the same (Incidentally Arjuna did not use any of those weapons as he was under oath not to use the same on humans except under serious threat to his life). Those weaons were named by Parasurama as follows:
Kakudika, Shuka, Naka, Akshisamtarjana, Santana, Nartana, Ghora and Ajyamodaka. The attributes of those mantra-triggered and mantra-protected weapons were described as follows: ‘Those who are hit by those weapons would confront inevitable death, or move around insane, or would become unconscious, or would be put into sleep, or jump around, or vomit, or urinate, or incessantly cry or laugh’ (refer Mahabharata, p.413, vol.4, translated by Bibek Debroy).
What is patently clear is that those weapons named above were not conventional man-made arrows or weapns. In the above given fact, there are following three possibilities. First, above said weapons were not real but fictitious. This would cast serious doubt on the integrity of Vedavyasa who wrote Mahabharata as history and not fiction. The second possibility is that those wepons were code-protected scientific invention by devas who were scientifically much more advanced than contemporary humans. And thirdly, those weapons were nothing but occult power which needed a medium such as a bow and arrow, and even the blade of a glass for application on material objects and subjects. Undoubtedly, there is scope for research into the real character of various unconventional mantra-protected weapons mentioned in Ramayana and Mahabharata.
We may mention here two more instances from Mahabharata, in one of which mantra power was used and in the other it was intended to be acquired. The first instance refers to the Yajna by king Drupada to facilitate killing of Drona in order to avenge his defeat against Drona’s young disciples and consequent loss of half of his kingdom to Drona. The yajna was conducted by sage Yaja who, according to his own brother sage Upayaja, was unscrupulous and prepared to do any unethical thing for material gain. The mantra chanted by sage Yaja with assistance from his brother sage led to the emergence of a young warrior from yajna fire, named Dhristadyumna, who was adopted by king Drupada as his son. Eventually said Dhristadyumna killed Drona.
The second instance where mantra or occult power was intended to be acquired was the anecdote of Jarasandha, king of Magadha, who imprisoned a number of kings with the intent to sacrifice them as soon as the number reached 100, in order to acquire occult power which would make him invincible. Jarasandha could not accomplish his mission as he was killed by Bhima in an one on one wrestling, contrived by Krishna.
It may be reiterated that those unconventional mantra-linked weapons were not man-made and were invariably linked to devas or mantra power of sages.
In course of time, mantra-generated occult power became accessible to commoners during post- Vedic period. Consequently, the mantra power was being widely misused by contemporary men to achieve their selfish ends. Cultivation and pursuit of Tantra cult became widespread. The blatant misuse of mantra power led to regimentation of caste system with a view to restrict the access to mantras to qualified Brahmins only who were expected to practice self-effacement and mendicancy and to refrain from misusing the occult power for material gains. Unfortuantely, once the fruit of super-natural occult power was tested by Brahmins, some of whom were highly materialistic, degeneration of the society could not be prevented. The caste system became strictly hereditary, and exploitation of weaker sections of the society became the order of the day. It was Buddha who revolted against such Brahminical exploitation and domination but in course of time, even a large number of Buddhists fell for the lure of occult or esoteric power and deviated from the spiritual goal of Nirvana. The above historic background is deemed as essential to drive home the point that mantra power has often detracted seekers of Truth from spiritual path. Therefore, it would not be correct to assume that mantra invariably has a divine goal to achieve, per se.
Let us now address the posers made in the Introduction. Our first poser is: Granted that every word chanted or spoken causes vibration, does the vibration so caused by repeated chanting or muttering of a mantra achieve the result that may be called supernatural? Or, the so-called sound vibration generated by a mantra is merely incidental, not capable of creating any magical power or effects? Secondly, is there any scientific explanation for the power attributed to mantra?
Even though considerable researches are in progress to determine the effects of mantra, we are yet to reach any conclusive finding as to the causal connection of a mantra with its purported effects. Empirical evidence, however, strongly suggests that mantras have effects on human body and mind, and also help one in acquiring occult power as tantriks and kriya yogis have often demonstrated. However, scientific researches in the realm of consciousness are quite scant. Of late, consciousness has been receving some attention in neuro-biological and psychological fields. In view of the above, it would not be logical and fair to be dismissive about the empirical evidence on hand about the existence of occult power and its causal connection with mantras.
Our next poser is: is the meaning of a mantra relevant?
It is a fact that in Tantrik mantras, meaning is not relevant as the words known as Bija mantras appear to be meaningless. Some such Bija mantras meant to be repeatedly chanted are shrim, hrim, krim, hum, aim, krom, phat, klim, drim etc. But there are mantras with deep meaning. It is important that those meaningful mantras are chanted with clear understanding of its deeper meaning so that the mind gets absorbed in cosmic consciousness. As for symbolic sounds like tantrik mantras it is important to visualize the deity concerned with every Bija mantra.
As to the question whether the mantra chanted in silence is as effective as the one pronounced with proper intonation, the whole of nada yoga is about mantra in silence. Its efficacy has never been in doubt.
We now come to our last poser, viz. is mantra divine or God-neutral? It has been extensively covered in our discussion above under the sub-title ‘Abuse of Mantra Power’ to substantiate that all mantras are not necessarily divine. Some mantras are destructive in intent, content and effect, meant to harm targeted person(s) or people, while some others are beneficial to individuals and mankind in general. It is thus safe to conclude that mantras are God-neutral.