About the definition of Mantra.
The word mantra comes from the sanskrit language. I’m not an expert in sanskrit language so, in order to understand the meaning of this word, I depend (as many others) on other people’s interpretation. The two main interpretations that I have found are as follow:
1 – the root man (to think) as in manas (mind) and the suffix tra (tool). Instrument of thought; instrument for the mind; instrument to think would then be plausible translations.
2 – the root man from manas (mind) and the suffix tra from trai (to protect or to free from). To free from the mind; to free the mind; to protect the mind are plausible translations.
It is clear enough that a mantra is “something” (a tool or an instrument) that affects the mind in some way.
At this point my approach is that the real definition of a mantra is given by the personal experience that each individual gains from repeating it.
In my understanding, a mantra can be considered a “sonic symbol”. From an alchemical perspective, a symbol is a single element capable of containing a certain amount of “compressed” information. What do I mean with “compressed”? An alchemical symbol is created to convey lots of information using archetypal language that is not necessarily evident to our conscious mind and it is not necessarily read with our logic ability. But it can reach our subconscious mind and the intuitive and analogical abilities of our brain.
We receive the information even though we are not completely aware of it, but at a subconscious level we start processing it and, in time, the result of this process slowly (or suddenly) reaches our awareness in the form of insights, dreams or revelations.
This information is, so to speak, decompressed and unfolded by the subconscious mind to allow it to slowly filter through into the conscious mind.
Honouring the Tradition.Since mantra is an ancient sanskrit word, it is worth to have an idea of how it is considered within the ancient traditions.
Mantras are archetypal formulae originating from the structure of Consciousness itself. The sounds that form a mantra come to us from times immemorial, from that level of collective consciousness that is able to remind the link between the form of a physically manifested object and the sonic essence behind it.
The majority of traditional mantras (Indian and Tibetan) are made of primary sounds (seed syllables or bija) which do not have a specific meaning, at least not the way we expect. They can’t be translated because they don’t express any concept or idea. In fact they don’t constitute a language in the sense we intend it, rather they are like a bridge between Nature in its physical form (Prakrti) and the underlying Cosmic Consciousness from which it originates (Brahman).
The repetition of these mantras is called japa. Japa is a way to open a gateway through the material world for our higher self to descend.
The omnipotent energy arising from the mantra is known as śabda, the movement of sound, the live, pulsating element. The manifestation of the power of a mantra resides in the perception of this śabda.
Mantra japa (the repetion of a mantra) creates vibratory structures which, by resonance, can stabilize mental functions and physical energies. A specific form corresponds to each sound (see also “Sound, the energy of Creation”). Therefore by a persistent repetition of a mantra it is possible to introduce and establish new forms and structures in our energetic field, in order to substitute the habitual ones that so deeply condition our behaviour and mood. This can be understood as a sort of de-hypnotising process, in which we are consciously making the most of our creative power.
The planet on which we live (as well as ourselves) has an energetic field. This is constantly resonating with signals coming from both outer space and its own surface. The sound activity that takes place on the Earth is constantly influencing the energetic field of this planet, and this is also true for mental activity. The constant repetition of a mantra, therefore, creates vibratory structures not only in the human field, but in the Earth’s one as well.
Chanting a mantra (loudly or mentally) makes possible to connect and virtually resonate with the structure created by all those that have chanted the same mantra before us. In some cases, like with the vedic mantras, this means to be connected with a vibratory entity established through thousands of years. An enormous power is enshrined in these subtle structures in the planet’s consciousness field, and the mantra provide the connection and access to them.
It has been said that reciting a mantra is causing the pineal gland (the “seat of the soul” situated in the centre of our brain) to produce a liquid essence, a “nectar” capable of altering consciousness. According to various schools and authorities the organisation of the syllables of a mantra is such as to allow the tongue to hit the palate in a specific rhythmic pattern, causing the ejection of the “nectar”.
In several traditional cultures it is a matter of fact that, in the time of leaving the body, it is possible to make sounds to help the consciousness to stay focused on which way to travel once the physical plane is left behind. For instance the sound OM or AUM (Omkara) of the Indian vedic tradition, being the manifestation of divine presence itself, can lead a soul straight to the highest planes of existence if chanted on the moment of passing away. The sacred syllable OM, in its written form, is constituted by the letters A, U and M, the holy trinity, the three aspects in which the physical manifestation is divided.
Countless interpretations can be found of the meaning of these three letters. The one that resonates the most with my own experience and understanding describes them as the three fundamental phases in the life of the universe.
A represents the moment of Creation, the instant when from motionless and silent Pure Existence, Prakriti (Nature) is created.
U represents the vibration that keeps the śakti (energy) in motion. As long as this vibration is present, the expanding evolution of Nature is maintained.
M represents the process of contraction, when the Creation is finally absorbed back into the source, the Creator.
I find particularly interesting and inspiring what Swami Sri Yukteswar (Paramahansa Yogananda’s Guru) says in his book “The Holy Science”. He says that the Om in the Indian tradition is the equivalent of the Holy Ghost in the Christian tradition, the living Presence of the Creator travelling through the Creation.
A modern extension of the meaning of mantra.
In the western culture the word “mantra” has become synonimous with “persistent repetition” of words or sentences.
Even though it is not necessary to comprehend the meaning of the word in a mantra (as the focus is on perceiving the śabda), it is also true that we can use the repetition of specific words and sentences in a more reasoned and targeted way.
In fact since our childhood we are taught different “mantras” firstly from our parents and secondly from teachers, school mates, family friends, etc. These “mantras” are made of formulaic expressions, stock phrases, opinions or even judgement expressed with shallowness. They usually tend to underline negative qualities or supposed behavioural shortcoming. Our subconscious mind takes them very seriously and starts a continuous repetition of these genuine “magic spells” which secretly determine the course of our lives.
This result is inevitable in a society where people so easily ignore the power of sound, and therefore of words. Such a relevant subject of education is left aside in favour of other ones reckoned more worthwhile and important. Hence the importance of willingly activating the repetition of other words or sentences, as a conscious choice. This way we can counteract the effect of these “negative mantras” and eventually neutralize them completely, establishing new mental habits and patterns, positive and life-affirming.
Through a state of deep relaxation it is possible to go back to the time when our mind has been negatively imprinted and then follow the course of our lives, to see how it has been conditioned by these external influences. At this point it is possible to identify the right words we can use to contrast and balance the “black magic” of down-putting recurrent thoughts. We can repeat mentally or, even better, loudly these new spells in our daily life in order to clear the way for us to be free.