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Fundamentals of Mantra Sadhana or Practice

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By Shankara Bharadwaj Khandavalli

There are different types of mantras. Some of the mantras, especially nama mantras (names of gods), are chanted repeatedly. In some cases, mantras are arranged and chanted in a particular sequence. Their chanting involves elaborate procedure and austerity.

Contents

Approaches

Mantra is not just the word, but the set of word, its intonation and meaning. Any of these independently does not qualify to be called mantra. It is said that the word along with its intonation is mantra (sa swaro mantraah), while the same word when not accompanied by its intonation is for contemplation of the meaning alone.

Thus usually it is not the text/word used but the approach that differentiates the nature of worship. Broadly, there are three approaches – bhava, tatva cintana and mantra.

  • In Bhakti marga Nama mantras, slokas and stotras (a collection of slokas in praise of the Devata) are used for worship. The object of worship is usually the devata, and object of meditation is usually the form, qualities and glories of devata. The stuti or nama is used as the symbol of devata. While mantra vidya is dhvani pradhana, these are bhava pradhana, meaning devotion is all important in them. It is good to chant them without errors, but errors in pronunciation or intonation are not harmful as they are in mantra vidya.
  • In Mantra marga Mantras, slokas, suktas are used for worship. This involves practice of chanting, uniting one’s consciousness with the sound. The mantras can be beejas, nama mantras, portions of or complete suktas. While mantras and suktas are used primarily in mantra marga, slokas also get the status of mantras. For instance each verse of the Candi Saptasati of Markandeya Purana is used as a mantra in Candi Yaga. The slokas of Saundaryalahari are also used as mantras. Besides, the individual names in stotras are arranged as a sequence of nama mantras (called namavali) for worship. Namavali is one of the popularly practiced norms. Thus while reading the same stotra is bhakti marga, doing it in the form of namavali is part of mantra marga.
  • In Jnana marga, the meaning of mantra is contemplated on, through which the nature (tatva) of the mantra/devata, and eventually the object of spiritual philosophy is realized. The mantras used in jnana marga are usually the nishkala or mahavakyas (four mantras taken from each of the four Vedas that are said to contain their essence).

Rules of Chanting

There are specific rules for chanting a mantra. These are found in Siksha, the text on science of chanting. The various factors involved in chanting, such as pronunciation, intonation, stress are explained in it. The chanting of a mantra, though it involves intonation and rhythm, is different from singing. Some of the rules of chanting are:

  • The duration of each tone is fixed and one should chant the manra according to the swara with each syllable stressed to the required extent, and each tone (for the corresponding syllable) chanted for that duration.
  • Chanting should not be done like singing, or like reading. It should not be muttered fast, each syllable should be properly uttered with the required stress and pronounced with clarity.
  • While chanting one should sit with his back upright, and not shake or move while chanting. Chanting should be done with a fixed posture to allow the complete effect of the sound energy. While this rule in general applies to singing also (say for instance classical music), it applies even more rigidly in case of chanting a mantra.
  • Whether the mantra is chanted aloud or internally, it should be done along with the swara.

Chanting mantra like a song, chanting like reading a text quickly, muttering, chanting louder than required, makeing unnecessary movements of hands or head, are incorrect ways of chanting.

Taittiriya Upanishad specifies six elements of chanting (Siksha Valli, chapter 2):

  1. Varna or alphabet (or in general syllable)
  2. Swara or intonation of each syllable
  3. Matra or duration of uttering each syllable
  4. Balam or stress on each syllable
  5. Saama or the balance of chanting (the tune of entire mantra)
  6. Santana or the spacing of words

Modes of Japa

Mantra marga or worship through mantra primarily involves mantra japa or chanting of mantra. This is done in different methods, modes and stages. The repeated chanting of a mantra is called japa. There are three modes in which japa is done:

  1. Chanting the mantra loudly in a rhythm. This is called Bahya or external mode. This is best suited for suktas. In case of short mantras that are to be repeated many times, it is seen as a preliminary/beginner’s stage of japa.
  2. Not chanting aloud but it in a low voice or simply recalling the mantra with lip movement. This is called Upamsu japa.
  3. Recalling the mantra within, without making any voice, lip movement or movement of tongue. This is called Antarjapa. This is the state best recommended.

Mantra-Anusthana

Mantra-Anusthana is the encapsulation of mantra japa into the astanga yoga. The steps like yama, niyama, pratyahara are general rules. A few of them are: Each devata is said to have specific timings in the day when the devata wakes/sleeps. Japa is prescribed in the time the mantra adhidevata (deity of the mantra) wakes. One should do japa facing different directions when seeking different results. Asana is the posture in which japa is done. Pranayama is the breath regulation done before japa. Dharana is done through karanyasa and anganyasa, this is invoking devata in the body. Dhyana sloka is chanted after that, this is concentrating on the form of the devata. And then japa is started. Japa is the means to get one to the Samadhi state.

Mantra Upasana and Purascarana

Mantra upasana is the systematic worship through Mantra. It is done for a specific duration of time or for life, in two modes - deeksha (specified) and nitya (regular). There are stipulations for deekha, such as timings, food and clothes (of the devotee), offerings (made to the devata) and so on. There is a purascarana for every Mantra. There is a specific minimal count for every Mantra for the sadhaka to “see” its effect, which is called purascarana sankhya. The count varies from Mantra to Mantra. There are five parts in purascarana.

  1. Japa - the mantra should be chanted for the count specified in purascarana for that mantra.
  2. Homa – oblations to be offered to the devata through fire, along with the mantra. This is a tenth of japa count. If japa is done 100,000 times then 10,000 oblations are offered in fire with the mantra.
  3. Tarpana – satisfying the devata by offering water, milk or any other specified substance. It is generally a sweet fluid. The offering is made by chanting the mantra. This is done with a hundredth of japa count. If japa is done 100,000 times then tarpana is done 1000 times.
  4. Abhisheka – the idol of devata is bathed with water, milk or any other specified substance, while chanting the mantra. This is a 1000th of japa count. If japa is done 100,000 times then abhisheka is done 100 times.
  5. Samaradhana – this is the conclusion of purascarana where Dvijas are invited and fed every 10,000th count of japa. If japa is done 100,000 times then ten dvijas are to be invited for samaradhana. There are alternatives for all these, and if nothing is possible japa itself multiplied five times should be done. If one has to do just the japa, and the purascarana is 100,000, then the mantra should be done 500,000 times to substitute for the entire process. However, homa is the most effective way to get Devata’s grace.

Mantra Siddhi

The state where the energy represented by a god-form can be invoked is called mantra siddhi. Every devata is said to be mantra-baddha, that is, the devata is obliged to fulfill the purpose for which the mantra/devata is invoked.

Some axioms of mantra marga

  1. Beejas represent natural phenomena. The beejas used in a mantra define the nature of Devata.
  2. Sound and meaning are inseparable. Meaning is known through sound and sound is realized through meditation on the meaning.
  3. Mantra is sound-specific or dhvani pradhana. Therefore its effect is specific to the language in which it is composed. Mantra cannot be translated, and it remains merely text and no more a mantra once translated to another language.
  4. Mantra and Devata are inseparable. Mantra is the sound-form or subtle body of Devata. Chanting mantra is the same as worshiping Devata, it is not merely a means but the yoga itself.
  5. Mantra yoga is about using the upadhi of external sound to realizing the one beyond upadhi. Mantra yoga at the four different levels of vak is basically the path of realization.
  6. In case of kamya, mantra serves istapurti. Mantra Japa is Karma, Yajna. Its fruit is two-fold. One is the immediate result of karma. Another is its impression on the doer. Thus along with istapurti, mantra upasana results in the elevation of the upasaka. Karma is called isti in the pravritti marga, because it results in ista purti. However when performed according to Dharma, it will also ensure the doer’s elevation, develop antarmukhatva – from gross to subtle to causal. The seeker’s attention slowly shifts from the result of action to the one who grants the results, namely the Devata. And the object of worship too, gradually becomes more Devata centric and less desire centric. Thus the sadhana phases into nivritti from pravritti, and karma becomes more of nishkama karma and causes karma nivritti because of non-attachment to the immediate result. The sole objective of karma/mantra yoga will be the fulfilment of Devata’s wish, and the being starts realizing himself as an instrument of divine.