By Swami Harshananda
Mantra literally means ‘that which protects when reflected upon’.
Origin of Mantras
However it is the tantras or Śāktāgamas that developed the art and science of the mantras, both extensively and intensively. Various types of mantras for the various deities of the pantheon along with different bījākṣaras and their usages have been dealt with in the well-known works like the Prapañcasāra, Śāradātilaka and Mahānirvāṇatantra.
Meaning of Word Mantra
One of the most widely used words in Sanskrit religious literature is the word ‘mantra.’ It is, etymologically speaking, defined as that which protects when repeated and reflected upon. This word has two meanings:
- The poetical part of the Vedas. It is Vedic.
- The names and syllables used to indicate or propitiate deities. It is tāntrik.
Classification of Vedas
The Vedas are generally divided into two broad divisions:
- The Mantra - The Mantra part of the first three Vedas is again classified as ṛk, yajus and sāman.
- The Brāhmaṇa - The Brāhmaṇas are in prose, deal with the details of sacrificial rites and quote the appropriate mantras to be used in the rites.
In the Mantra section, a fourth category, the nigada, is sometimes added. Nigadas are, strictly speaking, not mantras but instructions uttered loudly by one priest to another, during a sacrificial rite. There are several rules in the Śrautasutras about the recitation of the Vedic mantras. The most famous of all the Vedic mantras which is popular and very much in vogue even today is the Gāyatrī-mantra. The latter kind of mantras appear in the earlier purāṇas. They extol the greatness of the pañcākṣarī or ṣaḍākṣarī aṣṭākṣari and dvādaśākṣari mantras and a few others.
- Tra means to protect.
- Man means to think, to reflect.
- They are the sacred formula.
- Saḍākṣarī means the mantra of five or six letters; namaśśivāya and om namaśśivāya.
- Aṣṭākṣari means of eight letters; om namo nārāyanāya.
- Dvādaśākṣari means of twelve letters; om namo bhagavate vāsudevāya.
- The Concise Encyclopedia of Hinduism, Swami Harshananda, Ram Krishna Math, Bangalore