Mantra and the power of sound

Mantras (ritual utterances) are identified with Shabda (‘Sound’ or ‘Word’), consisting in speech acts – syllables, words, phrases, sentences – believed to be imbued with power and to derive from the divine. Mantras feature in different forms of Yoga and in many other types of Hinduism from the most ancient to the most recent. There are Vedic mantras among which the Gayatri Mantra from the Rig-Veda, invoking the sun god Savitar as the source of enlightenment, has been hailed as the most important. It is still recited regularly today by many Hindus, and sometimes seen as the basic Hindu recitation (ability to recite it was used by a violent mob as a way of telling Hindu from Muslim in the recent BBC adaptation of A Suitable Boy). Although the literal translation of the Gayatri Mantra makes specific reference to a particular Vedic sun god (in Dermot Killingley’s translation ‘Let us meditate upon the excellent splendour of [the sun god] Savitar, may he stir our thoughts’; and in Marr and Taylor’s ‘Let us meditate upon that longed for splendour of the god Savitar who when pondered upon will urge us onwards’), contemporary translations tend to refer to the divine more generally as in ‘Om. Let us meditate on the radiance of the divine, may it inspire and illuminate our intellects’ or ‘May the eternal light of the universe enlighten our minds and hearts’. It might be worth comparing translations in different textbooks and ‘pondering’ upon the implications of different phrasing – perhaps to support a monotheistic interpretation or wording that would be acceptable to a wide range of people from different religious/spiritual backgrounds. The Gayatri Mantra usually takes the place of the ancient requirement of learning the Vedic texts in the upanayana (initiation) ceremony, as a suitable start to the ‘student’ stage of life. The Gayatri Mantra is sometimes personified as a minor goddess, Gayatri, whose image may be seen in some UK temples.

There are also mantras in modern and contemporary movements, notably ISKCON’s ‘Mahamantra’ (Great Mantra): Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna, Krishna, Hare, Hare, Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama, Rama, Hare, Hare. The chanting of the Mahamantra is prescribed as the main spiritual practice, described by the Society’s founder, A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, as producing a ‘transcendental vibration’ that revives devotees’ Krishna consciousness.

Probably the best known mantra is the sacred syllable ‘OM’ or ‘A U M’ 🕉 which is deemed to be the seed (bija) of all mantras. It is often an integral part of other mantras such as ‘Om nama Shivaya’ ‘homage to Shiva’ or ‘Om Shakti’, ‘homage to the Goddess’ and is pronounced at the commencement and conclusion of both worship and meditation. As original or primordial sound, it is attuned to ultimate reality (or the divine or the whole universe in the form of sound) and its constituents ‘a’, ‘u’ and ‘m’ can be related, for example, to the members of the trimurti (three forms), the gods Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva, and, with the addition of the diacritic mark under the ‘m’, to four states of awareness, waking, dreaming, dreamless sleep and the experience of moksha (release, liberation) (see also section on Symbols).

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Hindu Worldview Traditions

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