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“Peace” is not a Mantra: A Deeper History of Mantras

Updated: Apr 14, 2022

We often hear pop culture teachers or coaches say “find your mantra and use it!” Is an ancient spiritual technique best used in this way? Mantra is a Sanskrit word - it’s etymology comes from “manas” - mind and “trai” - device or support. Mantra is support for the mind.

In the practice of yoga, we use many tools to prepare our bodies to sit in meditation in order to achieve body, mind, and spirit connection that lead to liberation. Energy or life force (kundalini, prana, qi) is lifted and channeled from the base of the spine, through the channels of the body, brings greater movement of energy and also uplifts to the crown of the head. Yoga is filled with many methods to achieve transformation of energy including asana, pranayama, mantra and mudra. Simply saying a word, such as “peace” does not capture the depth of a practice like mantra. Let's explore some of this depth together.

Do You Know Mantras' History?

Since the earliest known stages of spiritual thought on the Indian subcontinent, a wide range of sources posit sound, when properly manipulated, can profoundly affect the universe. Sound can bring practitioners, everything from material wealth to the ultimate spiritual goal of union. Mantras are also regarded as cosmic, original sound in many other early Indian sources, called tantras, which are today systematized as tantrism. Where Brahminical patriarchy and other orthodox systems took over the earth-based practices of early yoga, and codified who could and couldn’t use mantra, there are restrictions for who may practice Tantric mantras and rituals. Both Vedic and tantric rituals include mantras and other offerings, but the mantras are different in Vedic and tantric rituals.

Differing Uses of Mantra Historically and Currently

Even with the freedom of sound, not just any kind of sound holds the power of transformation, however. According to Sanskrit grammarians and Brahmanical philosophers, especially the Mmamsakas, only Sanskrit is the root of all languages (mulabhasya) that constitutes the eternal essence of the cosmos, and has the power to effect change in the universe. By the medieval period, a massive corpus of texts had grown from Sanskrit's link with the essence of the world, focusing on the "science of sound" (mantrasastra) that outlines the proper ritual pronunciation of Sanskrit mantras to procure different results.

Assertions and speculations about the origin of mantras, debates about their meaningfulness, and commentaries and discussions (and rhetorical dialogues) about applications and interpretations have been ongoing for over two millennia. Assertions on mantras in early Sanskrit sources are ontological— mantras are considered natural, pre-existing sounds and hymns revealed to “rishis” (seers). Not all mantras were composed in Sanskrit, however, and philosophers who opposed, or wished to modify, the Mmamsaka stance to language developed a variety of justifications for the efficacy of these mantras. The Buddhist Dharmaklrti (ca. Seventh century) maintained that it was not the contents or language of a mantra that made it powerful, but the character of the author or the reciter of these mantras. Bhaktas, or devotional yogic practitioners, from the 12th century forward, also sought to free access for who could chant mantra and focused on the experience of liberation for the practitioner and listener.

Benefits of Mantra Practice

Through the last two thousand years and likely more, mantra has been practiced in many forms. What is common is they use vibration to cleanse these channels so energy can flow freely to all parts of the body. While chanting, one may choose corresponding mudras (hand and body gestures), which help concentrate the mind and guide the organization to stillness while keeping that energy contained and circulating in the body. Mantras are sound, syllable, or utterance repeated to help the practitioner point focus while meditating. A mantra is a phrase with specific intention and power, such as Om Shanti Om, which represents all-encompassing peace. Mantra elevates or modifies consciousness through its sound, rhythm, tone, and reflexology of the tongue against the palate of the mouth.

Mantra works on our physical body (annamaya kosha) by the placement of the tongue, movement of the lips, and vibration of sound in the body. Mantra works on the energetic body (Pranamaya Kosha) by moving prana, vibrating energy centers of the body, burning up Karma, both positive and negative, and energizing Prana (our vital energy or life force, similar to Qi in Chinese Medicine). The repetition of the mantra helps to quiet the anxious chatter of the mind (Chitta Vritti). All these things combined make mantra a powerful healing tool.

Another ritual key to most discussions of "tantric" practices is a specific type of meditation on mandalas that involves the placement (Nyasa) of mantras on the body, the formation of hand gestures (mudra), and visualization rites of purification (dehasuddhi).

What Is The Outcome Of Mantra?

Practiced over time, mantras purify the astral body (aura) – leading to the upliftment of mind and emotions. Mantra is shown to align and connect the subtle vibrations and cosmic frequencies within the human form, bringing a sense of harmony with all beings, and the experience of total bliss within the self. Mantras also assist in the attainment of altered states of consciousness where the small mind is in unity with the Big Mind - or yoga, as unity. In our Embody Yoga’s Roots Teacher trainings we practice and explore mantra as a foundational element of yoga. Mantra is not a quick fix but a deep practice to be developed over one’s lifetime.

As you can see there is a huge amount of depth to a mantra practice and it can greatly deepen and benefit one’s sadhana, yoga practice, when explored within a supportive environment, knowledgeable teacher, and community of practice.

For more information on going deeper with yoga, equity and leadership within the yoga sphere, follow Susanna Barkataki on Instagram for daily tips @susannabarkataki.

If you’d like to learn more about how you can use yoga as a tool for personal and social change, check out my upcoming masterclass on Must-Know Yoga Philosophy for Personal Growth and Social Change. Click here to register for complimentary access.

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