Mantra Literature

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By Shankara Bharadwaj Khandavalli

There are two major bodies/schools of literature that contain mantra sastra, Vedic and Tantric. Both of them are in Sanskrit, and highly organized. Besides, there are various mantras and texts available in different regional languages, like sabara mantras, and are used for various small and practical purposes.

Vedic Mantra Marga

The entire Mantra canon is organized in different sections. Samhita, Brahmana and Aranyaka are the three parts of Veda. Samhita deals mostly with hymns to Devatas, expounding Devata Tatva through the Mantras. Brahmana is the ritual aspect. Aranyaka is more philosophical in nature. Upanishad is further condensation of the spiritual philosophy of the Veda. These four are said to be meant for a person in his four ashramas: recite samhita during brahmacarya, implement brahmana during grhastha ashrama, follow and contemplate on aranyaka in vanaprastha and meditate on upanishadic message in sanyasa.

Besides, there are four Vedas meant for four purposes. Rigveda deals primarily with Devata tatva. Yajurveda applies Riks for yajna. Sama Veda is about sama gana and Atharva veda is about prayoga of Riks and Atharva mantras for kamya and para. The very text is organized in chapters, dealing with mantras for different purposes like Satru nasana and Ista prapti.

Vedangas deal with understanding the Mantra Sastra of Veda. Kalpa deals with rituals, Vyakarana with grammar, Nirukta with etymology and semantics, Chandas with metre, Jyotisha with Astronomy and Siksha with phonetics. Swara, dhvani, varna and artha, the different aspects of mantra, are dealt with in these subjects.

While the Samhita portion deals with mantra portion for worship, their application for yajna is found in Brahmana portion. We find the explicit "Vidya" form of mantras in Aranyaka portion. For instance the famous Sandhya vidya is found in Taittiriya Aranyaka (Maha Narayana Upanishad). However Gayatri the mula mantra for this, is found in Samhita itself. The dhyana sloka, arghya, tarpana, avahana etc, which constitute the whole sandhya procedure, is found in Aranyaka. Similarly the Ganesha vidya is found in Ganapati Atharva Seersha Upanishad of Atharva Veda.

Tantric Mantra Marga

Tantric mantra is not organized in exclusive texts, but is found rather in combination with its applications. If we look at Vedic references in Tantra, they refer primarily to Atharva Veda, the one meant more for prayoga/application.

Many Devatas worshiped in Tantra. However, most of them are different forms of Pradhana devatas – Vishnu, Siva, Devi and Ganapati. The beejas/mantras in a Vidya determine the form and nature of Devata. The Devata of a Vidya having ananda/maya beejas is a pleasant form while Devata of a Vidya having asuddha/krura beejas is a terrible form.

For example, Lalita and Bhuvaneswari are a pleasant form because the primary beeja in the vidyas is Mahamaya/Bhuvaneswari/Akasa/Ananda. Kali, Tara, Chinnamasta etc are terrible forms because of the nature of primary beejas of those vidyas.

In Veda there is a distinction between devata tatva/mantra and application. That Tantra has more to do with practice, is evident from the fact that even the main mantra portion in Tantra contains beejas that are primarily meant for application - hum, phat, vashat, bhindi, chindi, vicce, svaha, vashat etc. In Veda, the "application" or "prayoga" beejas are found mostly in the non-samhita portion, while their presence in samhita is minimal.

Taittireeya Aranyaka 4.27.1 says

khat phat jahi chindhi bhindhi handhi kat iti vaacaH kruuraaNi

There are two aspects of these beejas. The first is that they are more prayoga oriented. Second is that these beejas are “krura” and for that reason, the presiding deities of Mantra vidyas containing these beejas are usually terrible forms. Both of these are in total agreement with what Tantric Mantra Sastra is – it is practice oriented in the first place, and secondly the vidyas containing these beejas are presided by Devatas of terrible forms.

Types of Mantras

Mantra vidyas are of three types – astra (ex. Agneyastra Pasupata), kamya (ex. Runa vimocana, aiswarya prapti, jnana, satru nasana etc), para (taraka, nishkala etc). Kamya vidyas are further classified based on their purpose and prayoga (stambhana, vasikarana etc).

All the three kinds of vidyas are present in both Vedic canon as well as Tantra. Para Vidyas are found in Vedic canon in abundance (esp. Aranyaka portion, partly in Samhita). They are present in every major Tantric text - Saiva (Nishkala, Ajapa, Mrutyunjaya Pasupata etc), Sakta (Tarakamba, Tara traya etc) and Vaishnava (Para is one of the five forms in which Vishnu is worshiped).

Kamya in Vedic context are found in two forms – istapurti and prayoga oriented. The former pervade the whole karma portion of Vedic text – Samhita, Brahmana, Kalpa Sutras. The second type is abundantly visible in Atharva Veda. Tantra classifies these as Shatkarma.

Astra vidyas are the specialization of Dhanurveda, an Upaveda. They use various compositions with Veda mantras as their base, but are not limited to those. Most of these are found in the Tantra, along with their application.

Mantra and Devata

The pradhana Devatas found in Puranic, Vedic and Tantric canon are common. Their nature is the same all across, though different Vidyas worship them in different forms.

For instance Ganapati represents Para Vak at muladhara, He is Vighna nayaka, and the also ruler of (akshara) Ganas. Though He is worshiped through different vidyas in different forms in different schools, His mula tatva in all those is the same.

Similarly Siva is Rudra in subtle world, Isvara in the causal world and Sada Siva in the eternal sense. This mula tatva is the same across all the schools.

Vishnu is the pervader (Vishnu), illuminator (Aditya), Sthiti karaka. This mula tatva is the same across all the schools.

Satvika, Ugra and Teevra Devatas

The more Satvik a devata is, the more difficult it is to please the devata. Also, the more kriya-natured the devata is, the easier it is to please and the more tatva-natured the devata is, the more difficult it is to please him.

It is easier to get the grace of Devatas with Animal forms – Hanuman, Ganapati, Hayagriva, Narasimha etc. The animal incarnations of Vishnu such as Matsya, Kurma, Varaha are worshiped for specific purposes and quick grace (in yantra form).

Teevra devatas are easy to please, and easy to displease. Therefore their upasana involves lot of niyamas. Even for the same Devata, the fierce forms/vidyas involve more niyama and quicker results while the softer forms/vidyas involve a slower and a safer process.

Kriya Sakti forms are worshiped for quick grace, therefore the vidyas with prayoga beejas. For instance, Candi Navarna, one of the most famous Vidyas, is usually classified under Varahi mandala/krama/digbandha. Varahi in Sri Vidya represents Kriya Sakti (Iccha-Jnana-Kriya are represented by Lalita-Syamala-Varahi respectively). Accordingly, the dhyana sloka of Candi Navarna does not describe the form of Devata but describes Her glorious deeds (Ya Devi Madhu Kaitabha Prasamani… … Maam paatu Visweswari). This does not mean Durga Herself is limited to kriya Sakti. That is the nature of this particular Vidya. There are a lot of Vidyas in Durga. She is the presiding deity of Tara traya, Jatavedasi Durga, Veera Durga, Astakshari Durga, Navakshari Durga, Sulini Durga, Durga Nama mantra and so on. In some of the vidyas, Her form is pleasant, in some fierce, some are kriya-natured, and so on.

A Comparison of Vedic and Tantric Mantra portions

  • Mantras encapsulated as Vidyas are found only in the Aranyaka portion of the Veda, the later stages of compilation. The Samhita portion is primarily in sukta form, and Vidyas are compilations over the individual mantras. Tantric mantra bhaga is found in Vidya form.
  • Vedic mantras are primarily semantic, meant for meditation, chanting and application in ritual. The mantras used in Agamic ritual portion (in contrast to those meant for purascarana) are similar. Some Tantrika mantras are semantic in nature, but many are short and beeja-form, more suited for upasana/quick repetition/japa mode and purascarana . They are more sound-centric than semantics-centric. The equivalent in Veda is found in the Vidya-form and samputikaranas found in various ancilliary texts.
  • Tantric mantra bhaga is beeja-centric. Special beejas in Vedic mantra portion are rare and their usage is largely limited to prayoga.
  • Mantras in classical metres like Gayatri and Anustubh are found less frequently in Tantric mantra bhaga while they form the bulk of Vedic mantra bhaga.
  • Nama Mantras and namavalis are post Vedic, and not found in Vedic mantra bhaga. Prototype for namavali is found in Rudra Namakam. However namavali and nama mantras are frequent in Puranas and Tantra.