Published: 29 March 2009 | Written by Swami Veda Bharati
From childhood we are trained to see, examine, and verify things in the external world, but initiation, or receiving a mantra, is a step for seeing and looking within. It is not a religious ceremony. Do not confuse a mantra or meditation with religion; they are entirely different.
A mantra is a sound, a syllable, or a set of sounds. It is known not by its meaning, but by its vibrations. It provides a focus for the mind and helps one become aware of his or her internal states. It is a way to understand one’s self and to coordinate one’s external and internal words.
The mantra is a friend that helps the mind become one pointed and slowly leads the student to a deep state of silence, to the Center of Consciousness within. It is a spiritual seed sown in the soil of the self. It is a therapeutic guide that leads one through various levels of being and finally to the unity between individual and Cosmic Consciousness.
The Mantra is an important means on the path of Self Enlightenment. You are encouraged to practice meditation regularly, to remember your mantra, and to make it part of your life.
When meditating, use the mantra silently and consciously. At other times, you can use it consciously or unconsciously. In time you will find your mantra guiding you in daily life.
~ Swami Rama of the Himalayas
Raja-Yoga, the royal path, is the complete Yoga as is taught in the Yoga-Sūtra of Patañjali, to which even the greatest authors on Hatha-Yoga, such as Svatamarama, pay homage. Interpreted, expanded in practice and handed down in experiential and initiatory guidance by the Himalayan Masters, it is referred to as the Himalayan Tradition. However without a live transmission, Patañjali cannot be understand. The first transmission to students, therefore, is of a mantra, a sonar unit to concentrate on.
The Word “Mantra”1
The word “mantra” is related to the English word “man”, and the English words “mind” and “mental”, which are derived from the Latin word “mens” (mind), which comes from the Greek word “menos” (mind). “Menos”, “mens”, “mental”, “mind”, and “man, and the word “mantra” all are derived from the Sanskrit verb root “man”, meaning “to meditate”. “Man” is the creature who can “meditate”. He has a mind with which he meditates. He focuses on a word, a “mantra” for “meditation”. In India and in other parts of Asia, a mantra is so central to the culture and so crucial to a person’s life that for a person to be without a mantra is like dahl (an Indian bean dish) without salt. There is something missing. A human being is incomplete without a mantra.
What is a Mantra2
Mantra is a word or a series of words; it is a thought; it is a prayer, but not in the sense in which the word “prayer” is used ordinarily, but rather a linkage of our lower consciousness with the higher consciousness, which we call the Divine Consciousness, or the Divine Life-Force. A mantra is a sound-unit, a thought-unit. It is a sound or a series of sounds given to a Yoga student or disciple to remember constantly for a specific spiritual purpose. In our interior map of the web of consciousness, the energy of consciousness takes two forms: sound and light. At a certain stage the sound and the light energy are entwined or unified. At the present stage of our development, they are experienced differently from each other, so we begin with the sound of a mantra. The initiation into light comes a little later.
Initially there are two aspects to mantra that need to be understood: One aspect is that it is a syllabic combination forming a sound that has a particular effect on the mind, especially if it is repeated mentally, and the second aspect is its meaning.
The Effect of a Repeated Sound
The theory of mantra is based on the principle that the sounds, the letters, the syllables of the alphabet carry within themselves the focus for certain psychic or mental vibrations. Each syllable has within it a particular ray of consciousness. When you think of particular letters of the alphabet or combinations of these letters, they produce certain thoughts, certain mental vibrations. There is a certain texture or flavor to the sound. The thought of a word is the vibration of the mind, but not all vibrations are alike. Different syllables carry the focus for the force of the different vibrations. This we can see in a crude way by the sound of certain words. For example, let’s say that I am in a foreign country where nobody speaks English. I am in a somewhat whimsical mood, and I walk out of my hotel room, walk down the street, and I see a person coming my way. He does not know English, and I approach him and I say to him harshly, “Thud!”
Okay? “Thud!” He does not know what it means, but the sound has some impact on his mind. The next day I feel bad about having scared the poor fellow with my sound, and I want to make up for it. And so I walk out on the street and the first person I see – and this person also does not know English – I approach and say softly, “Lull!” What is the difference between the two sounds? The sounds “thud” and “lull” are qualitatively different. Poets and skilled writers are well aware of this and use sounds to great effect in their compositions. So the sound has an impact in itself, irrespective of its translation. It creates an impression on the mind. Similarly each of the mantras has its own distinct sound vibration.
Mantra as an Energy Force
We can go a little further. This entire universe is run by conscious forces, some like to call them angels, deities, incarnations, manifestations of God and so forth. The sounds of the mantras are representative of these specific forms or aspects of consciousness. So in the Tradition we think of the mantras as though they were sonar forms of the forces of divinity. There are some traditions in the Christian religion also, among the Sufis, or in the Jewish Kabbalistic tradition where it is said that the name of God is God Himself.
To be more specific, each individuated mind has its own composition. In the mind are stored imprints of many lifetimes. We call these imprints samskaras. Whatever actions we perform, whatever desires we feel, whatever impulses arise in us, they are all activated from these imprints. The sum total of these imprints from the past constitutes our personalities. If we want to refine ourselves, we need to learn to change the pattern of these imprints. If there is a glass half filled with cold water and I pour hot water in it, the character of the water changes. If I have imprints that lead to bitter thoughts and I pour in one central thought of a mind-sweetening sound over and over and over again every day for so many hours a day, and I do this for ten, fifteen or twenty years, the mind receives its imprint and is bound to change. In this way the mantra changes our very nature, makes it more refined, gentler, quieter. If the totality of a person’s imprints leads them to disturbed thoughts he is given a quieting mantra. If they are too passive, he receives an activating mantra. And as the mantra is remembered over and over and over, the imprint of the same mantra brings certain desired changes in the personality.
Being a name and the sonar body of divinity, the mantra so imprints itself upon the mind’s deeper layers that the “human” in one surrenders, gives way, to the presence of the divine. Meditation with mantra is the experience of wordless prayer and of the subtlest in the sentiment and practice of devotion. It is the ultimate in saying ‘not mine’, ‘all Thine’, ‘only Thine’, so that the entire personality may thereby become the House of God, an instrument of the Deity, a form through which the Divinity alone may thenceforth act. Slowly. All in due time. The practice for this begins when one ceases to ‘do’ the mantra but only lets it arise from inner depths and listens to it internally.3
Mantras Specific to Personalities and Purposes
Someone might object and say, “Hey, I like myself as I am. I do not want to change my personality, and I don’t want anyone to interfere with it”. If you do not take the step to receive a mantra, even the simple meditation with the breath and “So-ham” will bring about changes in you. They are not quite as effective as a personal mantra though. When a personal mantra, called a diksha (initiatory) or gurumantra, is given, it is like taking a drop from the universal mind of the Tradition and planting that drop, that seed, into the initiate mind. It is called initiation because, however small it might be, some form of energy is passed on down the lineage from disciple to disciple to disciple to the recipient. In the Brhad-aranyaka Upanishad, dated circa 14th century B.C. we can read a list of teachers of the lineage: who taught whom, who taught whom, who taught whom, listing sixty-eight generations of teachers, one teacher after another, going back to the first one, Svyambhu Brahman, the Self-Existent Supreme Being. “Homage to that Self-Existent Supreme Being,” says the Upanishad. So mantras are sounds, thoughts, words, given as a revelation within the consciousness of the ancient rishis (sages) in the highest state of samadhi, the ultimate meditation. The mantras are awakened within the soul as a revelation; then they are passed down the line.
There are different mantras for different people. How does this work? Here we should talk a little about the history of the Yoga tradition. Sometimes people ask, “What about Transcendental Meditation. Where does TM fit into the Yoga tradition?” The word “transcendental” is a current modern expression. It certainly is not a Sanskrit word. It’s a translation for something else. Some people ask, “How about Zen meditation?” How does that compare with Yoga meditation?
About 3000 B.C. India was a country of pioneers, similar to America in the 1800’s. People migrating from many directions spread out, cut down some forests and settled down and established cities and religions. But some who were deeply philosophical withdrew from all that and went out and made their hermitages in the forests and the caves of the mountains. They undertook for themselves a process of self-conquest, self-exploration. When people got tired of the villages and the cities and they wanted some peace of mind, they went to visit these hermit teachers, these great masters, and stayed at their feet for awhile and received some peace of mind, some direction and some wisdom, and then they came back out into the towns and villages and resumed their normal worldly life. Some of these hermitages became great universities. For example, Alexander of Macedonia, who invaded India in the fourth century B.C., came very close to the area where there was the university of Taksha-shila, which had over twenty thousand students in residence at that time. But learning was not divorced from spirituality. It always involved training of character. During a student’s life (the brahmacharya stage), everyone was taught how to conduct themselves so as to benefit society and how to fulfill their purpose as a human being and grow spiritually.
The great masters of the Himalayas, who were the founders of the Yoga system, through whose intuitive knowledge and wisdom the teaching was and is still being passed on, in addition to their intuitive knowledge, made experiments on themselves. The kinds of thoughts we think, create our personalities. Usually we do not hold on to any single thought. We don’t think consistently. Our thoughts are helter-skelter, haphazard. The practice of mantra is the practice of taking one single thought and dwelling on that one thought consistently so that it will have a certain impact on the mind.
So the great masters of the Yoga tradition might say, “Son, you have not enough fire in you. We’ll give you a fire mantra. Sit by the flame, a candle flame, looking at it; and along with your breath mentally remember, or internally listen to, this particular fire mantra. In six months, some changes will take place in your personality which will be very positive ones.” Another student might be told, “All you lack is the coolness and the flow of water, and so we’ll give you the water mantra as you sit and meditate by the flowing waters.” Thus over a period of time, that visual impress as well as that one thought, which was remembered consistently with concentration, brought out very, very subtle changes in the student’s personality.
The Gradual Change of Personality
Changes in human personality do not take place overnight. Before you go to bed tonight take a look in the mirror. See your face. Wake up tomorrow morning, and has your face changed overnight? No, it has not. It is the same face. Look at it again tomorrow evening. From morning to evening it is the same face. Tomorrow morning, tomorrow evening, the same face. Again it is the same face. Five years or ten years from now, take out your photograph of today. Which night did you go to bed and wake up with a changed face? The changes in human personality are very subtle and imperceptible. People who begin a practice like meditation and receive a mantra become impatient because the mind changes slowly. Someone once called me over the phone and said, “I got my mantra three months ago. When do I get my enlightenment?” The process of progressing spiritually and undergoing a specific regular practice is called sadhana, and generally this is a slow, gentle, gradual process. It cannot be rushed because there is so much to assimilate. But people are impatient.
Different Ways of Using the Mantra
There are many different pathways to the core of your consciousness. That is what meditation is all about. There are many different pathways to the real Self, and there are many different methods and techniques of meditation prescribed and suited to various personalities. People may concentrate on a candle flame. Some may use one type of breathing exercise; others may use another type of breathing exercise. Some may listen to the sound of the mantra. Some may concentrate on the mantra with a particular note of music. Some may be taught to concentrate on a given center of consciousness along with the practice of the mantram, and so on.
Nowadays most people are taught to begin with simple ones and then are given more complex mantras to practice for a specific period of time. Once in awhile, for a period of time, a mantra may be practiced with an internal concentration, or with fire offerings which makes it ten times more intense,4 so as to obtain a certain spiritual result. It is a way of imprinting one particular thought in the mind. Through that imprint, somewhere a door will open, and wherever the seeker happens to be, his next step will come a little bit closer.
Raja Yoga and Its Divergent Paths
The great masters, the founders of the Himalayan tradition of Yoga, were masters of all of the different pathways to self-conquest, to self-exploration, to the core of our highest consciousness. However, not every one of the disciples whom they trained was capable of mastering all the different areas of meditation. Some went off to practice only physical Yoga for a long time. Others responded more to a concentration on sound. Others succeeded in a concentration on light. They became masters of specific systems within the larger system and established their own academies and ashrams. It is thus that today there are different branches of Yoga: Hatha Yoga, Nada Yoga, Laya Yoga, and so on and so forth, and students come to certain ashrams and settle down and try one particular path for awhile. Now, what happens is that some students say to themselves, “This is the best path.” Why do they do this? Because it is good for them. It helps them. “I derive great benefit from it,” they say. But another person says, “Oh, those people. I was there. I tried this, and nothing happened to me.” The disciples of the great masters, you see, were masters of specific systems, but very, very few were considered capable of mastering the entire Raja Yoga, the Royal Path, the main path which incorporates all of these systems into the larger scheme. In Raja Yoga there are a great diversity of methods, but they all are under the umbrella of the original system. All of these various systems fit within a great scheme where there are many systems and methods and mantras suitable for different individuals. So in our Tradition we start in Raja Yoga, the Royal Path of Yoga.
In many cities and countries people have asked me, “How does your system compare to the Zen system?” How can I answer that question? So I say with all humility that all that is known in Zen is also known in Yoga, but all that is known in Yoga is not necessarily known in Zen. Take TM for another example; to pick a certain mantra and use it in a certain way is one of the valid ways of using a mantra. When Maharishi Mahesh Yogi came to the United States and Europe and had so much to give, the public relations people must have said to him, “Listen here, yogi, all of this great inundation of wisdom and philosophy isn’t going to work here. You have to package it nicely. You know, take a little bit and package it well. Enclose it in an attractive wrapper, put on a nice price tag, attach some other neat little things, and tell people that in three years time or whatever you will be enlightened, or that it will be profitable to them in some other way.” But it is only a small fragment of the scheme of the Yoga system. As to Vipassana, most Vipassana students I have met get tied down to sensations, body sensations. I have seen them doing meditation for twenty-five years, and they have not gotten beyond body sensations. They could, but many of their teachers don’t know how to take them any further, beyond nama-rupa (name and form). Similarly with Zen, although there are schools of Zen that do allow a mantra, so many Zen students have difficulty going beyond thought. You see, all of these systems should be integrated into the Vedantic contemplation of the Mahavakyas and meditation with a mantra. There is a place where the two are integrated, and one has to experience that place. The beauty of the Himalayan Tradition is that it integrates all of the systems. It is not that they are separate and you integrate them artificially, but they have arisen from one system and have diverged, each in developing its own direction.
How Are Mantras Chosen in Initiation?
A mantra is a syllable or series of syllables appropriate for an individual person. Now, a person might say to an initiator, “You hardly know my name. How do you choose a mantra for me? There are two different processes of knowledge: There is a rational process, and there is an intuitive process.
First of all, who are you? Many people identify with their names and think that they are their names, but your name is not you. Where did your name come from? Supposing you are born in a very advanced civilization 3000 years from now where people have only numbers, or where everybody has to keep their name secret. There are all kinds of possibilities. And when you are born, you did not come out of your mother’s womb and say, “I am Mary.” Maybe when you were one-and-a-half or two-years old something in you said, “They say the word ‘Mary’ and they look at me. ‘Mary, come here. Mary, do this. Mary, do that.’ My name must be Mary.” “What is your name, little girl?” “Mary.” It is a conditioned reflex. Your name is not you, okay?
There are certain personality types. That fact in itself constitutes a science. Each person has some strengths and some weaknesses. Those who understand the science of Yoga are trained to look at the personality type because the mantra is matched to a specific personality type. The initiator is one who is learned in mantra science and also in aspects of human personality.
The process of initiation, however, goes far beyond this. The mantra is intuitively received by the initiator. The person who initiates you is one who has a very pure, unclouded, unblocked mind and, when in meditation, he can receive and then impart the mantra which will come matched to your personality type. Now this is the part where we are reluctantly entering an area which many people will not accept. Some may call it a mystery. You are free to accept it or reject it. Feel free to believe in it or not. Many people cannot accept that such an act of Grace is possible and so they do not ask for a personal mantra. They take what they have learned about meditation as far as they have gone. There are other helpful courses they can take, and they may continue their practice of Yoga with as much as they have learned. However, in our Tradition advanced practices of meditation are never given without first imparting the personal mantra.
The teacher, the initiator, will seldom say, “I want to give you a mantra.” It is something that should arise from within you. If you feel the urge, you ask. Then a time is set and a very simple form of initiation takes place. But the urge has to come from within the would-be initiates own consciousness. It has to be his own interior impulse. But, again, even if the impulse does not surge up within you, then at least set yourself a regular meditation time. Even setting the fixed time for meditation will keep you in touch with the Source of Grace.
The Process of Initiation
The ceremony of initiation in the Himalayan Tradition involves certain traditionally established procedures. Because it is a milestone, marking a turning point in a student’s life, the student is asked to purify him/herself for at least a day prior to initiation. This is done by keeping to a sattvic (pure) diet of vegetarian foods, avoiding emotionally disturbing activities, and cultivating serenity of mind. The student then comes to receive her/his mantra wearing clean clothes and having bathed.
At the time of initiation itself, the student is asked to bring a gift of fruit and flowers along with dakshina (a monetary offering to the guru lineage). These gifts are symbolic of the five senses of rupa (sight), rasa (taste), gandha (smell), sparsha (touch), shabda (sound), and they indicate a student’s sincere intention, not to renounce sensual enjoyments, but rather to subordinate them to the greater benefits of spiritual unfoldment.
At the place where the initiation ceremony takes place, the student is asked sit quietly and meditatively awhile. Then s/he is led to a room where the initiator is in meditation. The student and teacher meditate together briefly, and then the mantra is conferred. Generally the mantra is whispered into the student’s right ear, after which meditation is continued together for a few more minutes. The ceremony ends with a blessing to the student. This is a process of giving and sharing at the highest level. The student gives his/her trust and willingness to seek the Truth and to embark on the journey of Self-discovery (sadhana). The teacher, through the Grace coming from the lineage of gurus, gives the mantra and the commitment to help the student grow spiritually.
Mantra as a Stable Force in One’s Life
The idea of the mantra is to have a special word within you. Some schools say to use it only twenty minutes a day, but with the method being taught in the Raja-yoga Tradition as taught by Swami Rama, your mantra becomes your personal friend. You keep your mantra in your mind at all times: standing at a bus stop, waiting for an appointment, driving a car, whenever you are in need of centering. Your mantra is yours; it is with you. It’s one word, one phrase that should remain with you at all times. You see, at present you have many random thoughts and impressions in your mind, everything that you have gathered from outside. Something from outside may excite you, or aggravate you, or disturb you, or make you afraid. But the mantra is something that is internal to you. It’s something from within. So while the whole world is bombarding you with disturbing impressions, there is something within you that remains your permanent focus from which you should not move. It takes time to practice and master it that way. But it becomes a quiet friend where you can find some recourse to counter all the excitations and agitations being thrown at you. When you let the mantra be remembered often enough, it becomes part of your subconscious mind. The mantra can be your door to meditation because it is the focus, the focal point. The practice of mantra becomes the meditation.
As you learn to use your mantra, if you remain in touch, then the method may be changed to take you further: “Up until today you have done it this way. Now, you should move on to that.” Sometimes nothing will change for years. But do not compare yourself with others, and feel that if someone gets a different method, that you, too, should get a different method. The one method you have may be effective enough for you. It entirely depends on the individual and also upon the kind of relationship that s/he wants to maintain with the Tradition and the source of the teaching.
Keeping Your Mantra a Secret
After a mantra is received, it is kept secret. Keep your mantra a secret and practice, practice, practice. There are many progressively refined steps involved in the mental practice of mantra, and these are taught gradually. The secrecy you keep is a form of mauna, a practice of silence. The mantra is for inward absorption only. A word spoken is power lost. So the mantra is to be kept only in the mind. Hold it close to your bosom, close to your mind. Let it become your quiet friend, whether you are walking, planning to fall asleep, or waking up, or are in the bathroom, or even in the arms of your lover. That mantra becomes the very essence of your mind. Sometimes you are conscious of it; sometimes you are not conscious of it.
It is the duty of the initiator, the teacher, the preceptor, to lead you on, to give you the next steps when you are ready. If the teacher’s tradition is a genuine Himalayan one, initiation or guidance will be given into inner light, or the chakras and Centres of Consciousness, or the kundalini, when the student is ready.
The student is urged to maintain contact. The contact need not be maintained by letters, by fax or by e-mail, but by sitting in meditation at a fixed time daily. You will find that a very subtle intangible connection will be felt. Sometimes an initiator gives someone a mantra. The initiate continues to remain in contact for a few years and then becomes lost in life’s waves and currents. Fifteen or twenty years later they feel the urge to reconnect with the teacher and the lineage. They may send a letter or say, “You must have forgotten me, but my mantra has never left me.” The mantra becomes the seed from which the rest of the tree of your spirituality grows.
For a more detailed analysis of the word “mantra,” refer to Swami Veda Bharati’s “Sutra and Mantra.”
For an extensive explanation of mantra, refer to the works of Swami Rama and to Mantraand Meditation by Usharbudh Arya (Swami Veda Bharati), Himalayan Publishers, Honesdale, Pennsylvania (1981)
Two parallel books which show the spiritually transforming effects of japa (mantra remembrance) are –In Quest of God: The Saga of an Extraordinary Pilgrimage by Swami Ramdas, Blue Dove Press, San Diego, California (1994) and the Christian classic in which the Jesus Prayer is used, The Way of a Pilgrim (many translations are available).