Mantra vidya occupies a central place in spiritual practice systems. In short, mantra vidya can be translated as the study and practice of worship through mantra. Mantra vidyas are taught and practiced within guru-sishya paramparas, and are not usually for open discussion. For this reason the article will only discuss the salient features of them, instead of the vidya as such. Also, some of the information is to be found within guru-sishya paramparas only, and textual references are given wherever otherwise possible.
In the context of spiritual practices, a vidya can be defined as the worship of a God/Goddess. Literally vidya means learning; it is from the word-root “vid” - to know. Knowledge is called Veda, and learning is called vidya. This includes the knowledge to be gained, different stages in the process of gaining such knowledge, the purpose of such knowledge, the procedure and practices for learning, pitfalls and corrective measures and so on. Worship of a God is the gradual process of elevating the level of consciousness of the worshipper into that of the God, realizing the God and His nature. Therefore the knowledge and worship of each God is called a Vidya.
Vidyas are usually centered around a main mantra for the devata and are also called Mantra vidyas. However by Mantra vidya one means more than a mantra - it includes the process of worship, the philosophy and so on.
Mantra Vidyas and Mantra sastra
Mantra vidyas are not the same as mantra sastra, though they overlap. While the latter is the science of sound and mantras, former is the usage of mantra sastra combined with various modes of worship. One does not have to be an expert in mantra sastra to practice a mantra vidya, but certainly needs to follow the stipulations of it. And over time with sadhana of vidya one understands the sastra.
Aspects of Mantra Vidya
Each vidya has samputikaranas. Samputikarana is a sequence of mantras laid down along with the steps of worship. Each samputikarana has a dhyana sloka, the form of devata to be meditated on, and a mula mantra, along with other mantras for different steps of the worship. The articles required for worship, methods and timings of worship, nivedana, austerities to be practiced during the days of worship are mentioned along with these. Each vidya has different methods of worhip like arcana, japa, homa. All these are not however mentioned as rules, they are told as the likes and dislikes of devata – because the entire school is about developing bhakti or love and devotion for devata and pleasing the devata.
Mantras in any vidya are primarily of three kinds: astra, kamya and para. Astra vidya is weaponry, where weapons/contrivances are inspired by the power of mantras. The power of mantra is primary and the contrivance is nominal. It could be a shaft or just a grass leaf. Kamya mantras are for fulfilling specific desires. Para vidya is for salvation. While astra vidya is specific, it is said that kamya mantras while fulfilling desires, when practiced sincerely, cause elevation and eventually salvation. Alternately, when para vidya is practiced one’s desires are fulfilled too, though that is not the primary purpose.
Usually every vidya worships a main deity, along with associate deities. The associate deities themselves are also worshiped separately through different vidyas, but are subordinate to the main deity in the vidya. Each vidya has primary and secondary beejas, represented by the main and associate deities respectively.
In the Veda, Indra is the Lord of all devatas. Agni is the central deity while Indra the head-deity. Hence Agni vidya and Isvara (lordship of the main deity) concept are found intertwined in all the vidyas. The three main deities visible in Purana, Brahma, Vishnu and Siva are found in the Veda as subordinated to Indra. Agni, Aditya and Vayu of Veda are said to transform into the primary qualities (Rajas, Satwa and Tamas) of these three godheads respectively. In fact the major Puranic deities are combinations of the qualities of multiple Vedic deities.
All the religions in Sanatana Dharma acknowledge the Devatas of swarga and the transcendental Trinity of Brahma-Vishnu-Siva along with their Saktis. However the Isvara that is adviteeya or the one without the second, which is beyond these, is seen differently in different religions. Saktas call That as Sakti, Vaishnavas as Maha Vishnu and Saivas as Sadasiva. Veda calls That Indra. Usually, the different colors in which devatas are worshiped represent different tatvas (of the devatas and also the worldviews of those religions). Apart from this, Devatas are praised as either dark or crystal-hued, the former representing infinity and the latter pure consciousness. The weapons and form represent various yogic secrets and powers that the devotee eventually gets to realize.
Secrecy of Mantra
There are many reasons why mantra and mantra vidya are said to be private and secret, a few to mention:
Mantra is the sound-form of the Devata one worships. Devata is the most private associate of a worshiper, and thus mantra, which is a form of the devata, is most private and hence secret too.
Mantra vidya is experiential and not discussion oriented. Hence it is for the practitioner and not for the debater or curious reader.
What is taught is usually very subjective and depends on the audience. Just as every person has things private that he prefers to disclose to the select few that he confides in or believes that understand him, the guru teaches mantra vidya to those disciples that he feels are fit. And each one is taught according to his needs and evolution.
Mantra vidya is like any science in that it has its methods and laws. Just as nuclear fission is for the scientist, and not for a common man to fiddle with, mantra sastra is for a sastravetta – e.g. though the energy equations for fission are published in journals they still remain the scientist’s domain. Yes, their uses are for everyone – the packaged form that is given is for the user to use in the way mentioned. Popular methods of worship are like this.
Slokas, stotras, nama mantras, bhajans are various versions that contain the seeds/names of the vidyas, and are used for popular worship. These are for the common man. That does not mean they are any less effective – they are the most effective ways, and safe. The greatest of sadhakas have always enjoyed those with great bliss. The difference is that while a mantra vidya requires specific austerities and knowledge of the science of chanting, these do not require that. While mantra vidya is dhvani pradhana, these are bhava pradhana, meaning that devotion is all-important in them. It is good to read them without errors, but errors in pronunciation or intonation are not harmful as they are in mantra vidya.
Since mantra vidya is experiential, speculative methods do not work and practicing a mantra needs upadesa from a guru, who is already well versed in the vidya. While practices vary from tradition to tradition, following the guru’s instruction is said to guarantee results. Along with practice, it is the devotion and faith that is primary, and irrespective of the accuracy of instruction, devoted practice will ensure good results.
However, not all mantras need such upadesa – it depends on the nature of mantra and the nature of sadhana. There are mantras like “Sivaya Gurave Namah” that do not need any upadesa and can be done basically to receive initiation from the Lord Dakshinamurthy Himself. Then nama can be chanted without specific initiation, though it is also done with due initiation. Mantras with beejas usually need upadesa, and are to be practiced along with austerities.
The primary vidya of the Veda is Agni Vidya, and all vidyas are derived from Vedic devatas. The most commonly practiced by dwijas is Gayatri Vidya, whose devata is Savita. In Sakta religion the most famous vidya is called Sri Vidya. The devata of this vidya is Tripura Sundari. There are ten primary vidyas in Sakta called Dasa Maha Vidyas. Likewise there are different mantra vidyas in Saiva, Vaishnava and Ganapatya.
While Veda samhita has mantras and suktas in praise of devatas, the practice of these is to be found in Brahmana and Aranyaka. However the prototype of mantra vidya is to be found in Maha Narayana Upanishad, which has Gayatri Prakarana.
Most popular forms of worship apart from the srauta forms are found in Tantra texts.
While there are mantra vidyas for many devatas, there are three major schools of Mantra Vidyas – Siva, Vishnu and Sakta Vidyas. Some of these are present directly in the Veda, some of them in seed-form and found in more detail in subsequent literature like Purana.
However it is in the Agamas/Tantra texts that we find the description of these Vidyas in the most detailed way. There are three major schools of Agamas, Vaishnava, Saiva and Sakta. Though all of them are actually Agamas, because of the nature of content Saiva and Vaishnava texts are usually called Agamas and Sakta texts as Tantras. Vaishnava texts are of two schools – Vaikhanasa and Pancaratra.
It should be understood that the forms and practices of Mantra Vidyas are highly symbolic and are hence usually kept within guru-sishya paramparas. The detail given is to give a survey of the vidyas and not really to explain those.
Gayatri Vidya is the primary vidya of a dwija. As the name mentions gaam-tri, Gayatri the mother protects as her devotees sing her (mantra). The devata of this vidya is Savita. Gayatri is the chandas (meter) of the mula mantra. In fact in every vidya the Gayatri for the specific devata is prescribed along with the mantra. Savita Gayatri is the most famous Gayatri mantra. In Gayatri vidya the Savita Gayatri itself is the mula.
Gayatri is Para vidya, which aims primarily at salvation. However any kamya can be fulfilled through this. There are many versions of Gayatri, for different devatas.
There are prayogas in Gayatri vidya. Some of them can be found in Atharva veda. Atharva gayatri is called Pratyangira. Besides the Veda, Gayatri vidya can be found in tantras like Rudra Yamala. This includes astra and other prayogas.
In any vidya the dhyana sloka meditates on the devata of the mantra. But uniquely to Gayatri the dhyana sloka meditates on Gayatri Devi the mother Goddess/Sakti, while the devata of the mantra is Savita, that is the Sun God.
Initiation into Gayatri vidya is a prerequisite for Vedic learning. It is said that Gayatri is the essence of the three Vedas Rig, Yajus and Sama. Atharva Veda has a different Gayatri and it requires a separate initiation/upanayana for learning Atharva veda.
The seer of Gayatri is Viswamitra. The description and the verse for meditation throw sufficient light on the nature of the vidya.
The mantra description mentions “Gayatri chandas (Gayatri is the metre), Viswamitra rishi (seer of the mantra), Savita Devata (deity), Sankhyayana sa gotra (actually the lineage of the rishi, but also indicative of the school), Caturvimsati akshara (24 syllables in the metre), tri pada (3 feet), panca seersha (having 5 heads)”.
The vidya acknowledges Sankhya, one of the oldest schools. There are 24 syllables in Gayatri chandas, arranged in three padas or feet. These 24 syllables are said to be representative of the 24 cosmic principles enumerated by Sankhya philosophy. Dhyana sloka further explains her form – as having five faces colored mukta (pearl-white), vidruma (red), hema (golden), neela (blue-black) and dhavala (white). The five faces are indicative of five primal tatvas and their colors the essence of those (tatva-artha varnatmikam). Three feet are said to be symbolic of the essence of three Vedas.
The meaning of Gayatri is explained in the sloka:
“Yo deva savita asmakam dhiyo dharmadi gocaraah Prerayet tasya yad bhargah tad varenyam upasmahe”
Meaning the sadhaka meditates on the Devata Savita for enlightenment.
Upadesa and Alternative Gayatri needs initiation for practice. The alternative to Gayatri is Aditya Hridaya found in Ramayana, given by Agasthya maharshi. It is said that Aditya Hridaya is equally effective as Gayatri. In fact it is said to be equivalent of entire Sandhya Vandana.
There is catushpada Gayatri, with four feet. The initiation into this is given only for a sanyasi.
Gayatri is the crown of all vidyas. All vidyas claim to be like Gayatri -- thus implicitly indicating that Gayatri is the reference for comparison.