By Swami Harshananda
Mantra: (‘that which protects when reflected upon’)
Mantra means the "protecting word". It is defined as "mananāt trāyate iti", the word that protects the one who chants/contemplates on it.
In the general sense mantra refers to idea, motto, strategy. For example Chanakya in neeti Sutras say
- right idea is the beginning of every right action (1.22 - mantra mulāḥ sarvārambhāḥ)
- plans succeed when the secrecy of strategy is protected (1.23 - mantra rakśaṇe kārya siddhirbhavati)
In the context of spiritual practices mantra is the divine word that represents a god-form. Worship is done through chanting or meditating on the 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 (tra = to protect) when repeated and reflected upon (man = to think, to reflect).
This word has two meanings: the poetical part of the Vedas and, the names and syllables used to indicate or propitiate deities. The former is Vedic and the latter is tāntrik.
The Vedas are generally divided into two broad divisions: the Mantra and the Brāhmaṇa. The Mantra part of the first three Vedas is again classified as ṛk, yajus and sāman. The Brāhmaṇas are in prose, deal with the details of sacrificial rites and quote the appropriate mantras (sacred formulae) 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 Śrauta sṅtras (See 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
(mantra of five or six letters namaśśivāya and om namaśśivāya), aṣṭākṣari (of eight letters—om namo nārāyanāya) and
dvādaśākṣari (of twelve letters—om namo bhagavate vāsudevāya) mantras and a few others.
However it is the tantras or Sāktā-gamas that developed the art and science of the mantras, both extensively and intensively. Various types of mantras for the various deities of the Hindu pantheon along with different bījākṣaras (See BĪJAMANTRA.) and their usages have been dealt with in the well-known works like the Prapañcasāra, Sāradātilaka and Mahānirvānatantra.
For more details see under TANTRAS.
- The Concise Encyclopedia of Hinduism, Swami Harshananda, Ram Krishna Math, Bangalore