Mantra Yoga - Significance of Mantras

By Dharmbir Sharma

The word yoga brings to mind, especially in the West, a system of exercises beneficial for physical and mental health. The exercises are only a small, albeit an important part of it. Yoga is actually a philosophy – one of the six main schools of philosophy propounded in India in the post-Vedic period. It deals with the mysteries of life and universe, so it has a mystic aura about it. At the same time it is based on the experiences of countless individuals over several millennia and deals with facts of life. Thus it is also a science but goes beyond the realm of rational knowledge of modern science. It deals with life at successively higher levels. Some of the facts come within the range of human experience, others (of higher life) lie outside and, as such, are beyond being proved are disproved on the basis of rational knowledge. However, every aspect of yoga is based on sound principles that are in accord with the ideas of modern science.

We also come across a number of qualifiers for the word yoga, such as raja-yoga, gyaan-yoga, bhakti-yoga, mantra-yoga etc. Yoga is, of course, the same, the goal being the liberation of the soul and its union with the Supreme Reality. One simple but far-reaching idea of the philosophy is the recognition that there can be many different paths to the goal. The prefixes in front of yoga denote just that – different paths to the same goal. An individual is free to choose a path depending on one’s nature and disposition. The basic premises underlying each of these paths agree astonishing well with the recent discoveries in science even though they were conceived thousands of years ago. In the present article we discuss mantra-yoga.

Mantra yoga may be simply defined as the science of unfolding of the consciousness with the help of mantras; it attempts to modify matter and consciousness through the agency of sound. A mantra represents a specific combination of sounds for producing some specific results. Here it is important to note that the basic structure of a mantra involves sounds and not words. Sound is the fundamental element of articulation and is eternal; words are part of a language and man-made using alphabets as symbols for sounds. The sound elements used in mantras are those of Sanskrit alphabet. Again the primary element is the sound, the letter is merely a symbol. Each letter, pronounced properly, becomes a vehicle for conveying a basic elemental power. It is for this reason that a letter in Sanskrit alphabet is called akshar meaning eternal. In the words comprising the mantras each letter contributes to the overall effect desired by the mantra. Since the effectiveness of a mantra is inherently tied to the sound, a proper pronunciation becomes extremely important. This is why in the Vedas so much emphasis has been laid on correct pronunciation.

It is not our intention to suggest that Sanskrit has a special place in the divine scheme of things. It just so happens that people of this particular culture developed the concept and philosophy of mantras. It is quite conceivable that similar systems might have been developed in some other parts of the world or the universe that we are not aware of.

Now sound is simply a vibration or set of vibrations representing a form of energy. It is a basic premise of Hindu philosophy that the entire universe is a manifestation of the primal energy emanating from one source – the Supreme Reality. It was only in the last century that science discovered the equivalence of matter and energy. The concept of energy is related to that of motion. There are only three basic categories of motion – rhythmic, non-rhythmic, and inertial. A deeper insight into the concept would reveal that the rhythmic motion is simply a balanced state of the other two types and is what we call vibrations or waves. Thus the phenomenal word that we view is nothing but vibrations picked up by our senses. Although the conversion of matter into energy is now well understood, the reverse process of matter coming out of energy is still a challenge to modern physics. In general the structure of anything material can be reduced to an aggregate of elementary particles ranging from electrons to quarks. But what are the elementary particles built of? Or are they particles at all? A recent viewpoint suggests that these particles are simply specific configurations of vibrations of virtual strings (the theory is known as Superstring Theory). Thus we get back to the old idea of energy transforming into matter. The whole phenomenal word is simply a vast aggregate of vibrations of various kinds and degrees. The interaction of these vibrations produces all the phenomena in the physical world existing at different planes. This is a startling concept but nothing compared to the next philosophical concept that all these infinitely complex vibrations of innumerable kinds are simply different components of a single vibration that is also the ultimate source of consciousness. This primary vibration from which all the vibrations in the manifested world are derived, is the primordial energy which is the universal consciousness. We thus see the relationship between matter and consciousness, which are dual expressions of the same Reality. Carrying it a step further every consciousness is a part of that Reality which leads us to one of the basic concepts of Vedanta – every individual (i.e. subjective) consciousness is an infinitesimal part of that universal consciousness. The science of yoga involves unfolding of the individual consciousness to become one with the universal.

It follows from the primary relationship between vibration and consciousness that a vibration is associated with every manifestation of consciousness whether or not we are able to perceive it. Associated with every aspect of consciousness there is a unique vibration. At the lowest level this association manifests itself in visual or aural perception. Each vibration of light of a given frequency produces a particular color perception in the consciousness; each vibration of a given frequency in the audio range produces the perception of a particular note. Similarly each sensation of taste, smell or touch can be traced to a corresponding vibration even though science has yet to reach that stage of advancement. There may be other yet unknown kinds of vibrations and interactions that are transmitted through space and are not subject to the limitations imposed by science. The so-called extra sensory perception is an example. Another aspect of vibration well known in physics is resonance. Using the same concept in the context of yoga it is not unreasonable to assume that a matched type of vibration can activate a particular state of consciousness. This forms the basis of mantra yoga. Also the relationship works both ways, i.e. a particular state of consciousness can activate the corresponding kind of vibration.

A mantra is a special combination of vibrations set up through the sound of the component words, which are meant to produce a desired state of consciousness. A mantra can be long or short; it can be addressed to a particular deity or may relate to the abstract concept of God. It can be chanted only once or repetitively. The shortest but the most often chanted and also the most potent mantra is Om. Om is an appellation of the Supreme Reality (called Brahman in Vedanta) and, hence, its potency. In fact, the chanting of every other mantra is preceded and followed by Om. In taking up the practice of yoga there are initial hurdles that must be cleared. Some are physical; others are mental at different planes. The physical ones are managed with exercises that most of us are familiar with; two different techniques are used for clearing the mental ones. One is the constant repetition of a mantra and the other is meditation which involves fixing attention on something without any thought. A mantra can be chanted aloud or repeated silently. The particular way of chanting depends on the stage at which the yoga practitioner is.

Yoga deals with the inner side of life. A person not familiar with it may think it absurd that a mere monosyllable, as Om can be such a potent instrument for the uplifting of a person. But a proper understanding of the relationship between vibration and consciousness will show that there is no inherent impossibility in a word having the power to unfold one’s consciousness to any desired degree.

Dharmbir Rai Sharma is a retired professor with electrical engineering and physics background. He obtained a Master's degree in physics in India and Ph.D. in electrical engineering at Cornell University. He maintains a website devoted mainly to the interaction of philosophy and science.