By Swami Shraddhananda
Coming to the United States from India in 1957, Swami Shraddhananda was head of the Vedanta Society in Sacramento from 1970 until his death in 1996. He was the author of Seeing God Everywhere and Story of an Epoch as well as many articles published in both English and Bengali journals. This article originally appeared in the Jan-Feb, 1963 issue of Vedanta and the West.
The expression “word-symbol” is a loose translation of the Sanskrit term “mantra,” a full understanding of which calls for the knowledge of quite a number of metaphysical and mystical concepts. In the present article I have preferred to treat the subject from a common-sense point of view, avoiding as far as possible philosophical subtleties.
A mantra so far as its outward form is concerned is a specially contrived word or group of words which is to be used as a tool to serve two purposes, namely, releasing extraordinary psychophysical energy in a person under particular conditions and directing this energy for experiencing supersensuous realities. Mantras have also been known for accomplishing secular objectives which are otherwise difficult to attain; that aspect of mantras is, however, beyond the scope of this essay.
The invention of the right sort of instruments for performing specific experiments is one of the major problems of science. In fact, the progress in science depends a great deal on the possibility of devising various kinds of ingenious, delicate, and precise mechanisms. The layperson from time to time comes across news reports of wonderful achievements in contemporary science by means of strange devices, such as “hydrogen plasma,” “magnetic bottle,” “bubble chamber,” and so on. We need not therefore be too skeptical to hear that “word symbols” can effect changes in our psychophysical system and lead our mind to the perception of spiritual truths. Different experiments must necessarily need difference types of instruments. Word-symbols are devices for the exploration of our inner life scientifically.
Let us for a moment examine the function of a word in general. A word, as we know, denotes an idea. An idea, again, stands for some tangible object of perception of feeling either in the external world or within our own personality. These objects come under various categories: substance, quality, action, and so on. Dog, stone, white, hard, running, falling, are examples of external substance, qualities and actions. Pleasure, anger, reflection are specimens of internal ones. There is, then, first the objective content of our world of experience. Secondly, each experience has its mental counterpart, the idea. Finally, a word is devised to indicate the idea.
In terms of intensity an idea can be said to be more “concentrated” than the experience it stands for. The word in its turn is “denser” than the corresponding idea. For example, one single word, when thought out, may require ten ideas to represent it; these ten ideas, when projected into objective experience, might be connected with one hundred units of substance, quality, and action.
For a patriotic American the name Lincoln evokes in the mind a number of ideas such as his physical features, his strength of character and political career, his magnanimity, his wit, his sacrifice. But what are these few ideas compared to the vast number of actual facts about Lincoln? Legions of incidents of that great life were stored into a comparatively small number of recollective mental forms. These mental forms or ideas again were condensed into a single vocal expression, Lincoln.
This is how the semicircle of human language, thought, and experience works. Experience is transformed into ideas, ideas are gathered in words. Conversely, words call forth ideas; ideas are directed toward experience.
Through the mediation of ideas a word then may be looked upon as a reservoir of potential experience. Within it is conserved a power which can be made manifest in various ways. Consider a mother who has lost her only beloved son John. The physical John with his multifarious traits and activities is totally extinct but the mother has been able to cherish in her mind a group of ideas representing the dear son. These ideas together constitute the “memory” of John.
It is, however, not necessary for the mother always to keep the memory explicit. It may be further extracted. The result is the essence of ideas, the word, the name John. For the disconsolate mother the child lives in that name, vividly, assuredly. The word John for her is the most precious treasure; through that name she can, in a way, feel the presence of the son. In an eager and calm disposition of the mind, the name evokes past memories of John. These memories open up the door to deep emotional experience, and in this experience John relives in the mother’s heart.
It is not always possible for an idea to store up all segments of a particular experience. Many segments may elude the grasp of the mental form. Again, there may be certain phases of experience which cannot be copied at all by any construction of the mind. Words, too, are sometimes subject to the same limitation. A particular word may not adequately express all the implications of a particular group of ideas. And there are certain ideas which can never be conveyed through the instrumentality of words. It is important to remember this limitation of ideas and words.
In the present article we shall not question the existence of a spiritual order of reality. We shall assume that, just as we face and experience a world of empirical phenomena and values, in the same way it is possible to contact a spiritual universe with its own happenings and values. Now in this spiritual (that is, the supersensuous) world the same correlation between word, idea, and experience holds good.
Spiritual experiences which come only when our senses and mind are purified produce spiritual ideas or subtle mental forms. These are quite unlike the ideas we are familiar with in our empirical life and can be comprehended when the mind is calm and raised to a subtler level. Corresponding to spiritual ideas, again, there are words which store up the essence and potentiality of these ideas. These are the word-symbols—the mantras.
A mantra is a word or a group of words so far as it utilizes in its composition letters of our known alphabet, but beyond that it has little in common with the words of our normal usage. Often the meaning of a mantra is not understandable by applying the rules of grammar. This is only natural because mantras stand for ideas which do not belong to empirical experience. They are really symbols of sound structure pointing to the realm of pure spiritual ideas.
In India, mantras are not believed to be created by human beings. They have been revealed to seers through the ages and have been handed down to deserving recipients. We can create new words, but not these word-symbols that stand for supersensuous ideas. No amount of willful permutation and combination of this letter and that can build up a mantra—an effective tool for spiritual illumination. All mantras are, so to say, “received” by seers. Great power is stored in them, and in the Indian spiritual tradition nobody would dare to change their structure.
One mantra may consist of only one word or two words or three or even more. A certain part of the whole mantra may have some understandable meaning, such as “Salutation to” or “I remember” or “I meditate,” and so on, but that is not the essential element of the word-symbol. The most significant part of the symbol is not grasped by our ignorant understanding; only when the mind is raised to a subtler plane by the practice of requisite disciplines does the mantra open up vistas of spiritual comprehension.
The idea of seeking spiritual enlightenment through the help of words or sentences is found more or less in many religions, but in Hinduism this subject forms a very distinctive feature. Hinduism, however, is a name for several types of religious beliefs and practices. The original source of most of these is, of course, the Vedas and so naturally even though in ideals and practices there are wide differences among the various sects, certain fundamental principles remain common to all. One of these is the technique of mantra.
That certain specific word-symbols applied to the worship and contemplation of God can afford remarkable help in our spiritual endeavor is a universal conviction. So in India meditation through word-symbols is not a matter of argument or reason. It is taken for granted. The spiritual aspirant who has received the necessary instructions from a competent teacher for the practice of a mantra is expected to have unshakeable faith in the mantra. Scriptures and teachers try to impress on the mind of seekers that the sacred word-symbols are not arbitrary compositions. They have been passed to generations from seers of God and have been tried and verified by many, many men and women through the ages. It is clear that for a person who has not got that background of faith, it is extremely difficult to take up the practice of mantra seriously.
The western student of Hinduism is acquainted with the word Om. It is one of the shortest yet most ancient and important word-symbols and is made up of three constituent letters: a, u, m, representing three primary sounds. The vowel “a” is the simplest of all sounds. It is produced from the throat merely by opening the mouth and may be rightly called the beginning of all sounds. The sound “m,” on the other hand, is pronounced by completely closing the lips. For no other letter is this necessary. So “m” may be called the “end” sound. In between the throat and the lips is the tongue, and one sound glides through this organ—that of the vowel “u.”
Briefly, then, these three letters (combined by a rule of Sanskrit grammar as “Om”) represent the entire technique of sound production. All possible sounds or words are indicated by the word Om. It is the essence of all words; as such, it is the symbol for all possible ideas. Pushed a step further, it is connected through these ideas with all possible segments of reality. The totality of existence is called Brahman in Hindu philosophy. Om, therefore, is called the symbol of Brahman. By the repetition and contemplation of Om the mind can be withdrawn from the distractions of the phenomenal universe and slowly ushered in to the realm of spiritual reality.
Hinduism advocates both the notions of God—personal and impersonal. The personal God, again, may be worshipped through various forms. Each form bears a name and emphasizes some particular aspect of God. Corresponding to these different names and forms of God there are different “mantras.” Usually the mantra consists of the name of the particular form of the Deity, either explicitly or cryptically, plus one or two or more sacred key words which are technically called “bija,” seed.
Sometimes a word expressing adoration is added. Very often Om occurs in the composition, preceding, as a rule, the name of the Deity. As an illustration, we can mention a simple mantra, “Om Namah Shivaya,” which can be translated as “Om Salutation to Shiva.” This mantra does not contain any key word or “seed.” Now this simple sentence of three words is not just a literary construction expressing the obeisance of a devotee to the God Shiva. As a mantra its power and efficacy can only be felt when it is put into action, in the same manner as you understand what exactly a tool can do, not when it is lying idle in the toolbox, but when you have actually used it in the required work.
An aspirant with faith, earnestness, patience and perseverance, after receiving this mantra from the guru, will go on repeating it according to the specified instructions at the regular times of prayer every day. He or she must not expect any spectacular result within a short time. Much depends upon that person’s own preparedness. Some cardinal moral virtues are essential.
Slowly but surely the mantra will begin to unfold its latent power in the same way as a seed in the ground under proper conditions of moisture and temperature gradually opens out, sprouts, and grows into a plant. The first transformation will be noticed in the harmonizing of breath, quietening of the limbs, and a soothing of the nerves. Dormant creative energy is then released in a very fine form which is automatically directed to the opening up of hidden chambers of mind. From those chambers emerge subtle spiritual ideas which could never have been known when the mind was under delusion and distractions. In this particular case the aspirant will experience ideas relating to the “Shiva” aspect of God. Ideas corresponding to “Om” and “Namah” parts of the mantra will also come forth.
These ideas are not intellectual constructions. They are spontaneously revealed forms of the higher mind. These ideas bring flashes of spiritual insight, great composure, and a feeling of deep and pure joy. They lift the personality to a different world. They have an abundant power of changing the very make-up of the ignorant mind. Old sense-bound attitudes give way to new spiritual attitudes and values.
Finally, the realm of spiritual ideas merges into tangible spiritual reality. The aspirant experiences vision of God as his Chosen Deity Shiva. “The fetters of the heart are broken, all doubts are resolved and all works cease to bear fruit when He is beheld” (Mundaka Upanishad 2:2:8).
What is true of the mantra of Shiva is also true of other mantras centered in other forms and aspects of God. For the Hindu, God is one but approaches to him may be without number. A devotee is sure to reach spiritual perfection whatever path he or she follows, provided the person fulfills the requisite conditions of spiritual practice.
A person who does not like to contemplate on God with form may also take help of word-symbols. For this individual the mantra should represent the impersonal aspect of God. Fortunately there are many such mantras known from the ancient times of the Upanishads. The teacher will prescribe which among them will best suit a particular aspirant. Even for a strictly Advaitic student who does not care for an objective God, the help of the word-symbol is available. That person’s mantra will pertain to the truth of our true Self, the Atman. The technique of meditation through word-symbols is more or less the same in every case.
The word-symbol is surely a very valuable treasure to the spiritual aspirant. To the aspirant it is not an inanimate structure of letters but a living companion, friend and guide, ever ready to help him or her to reap the blessings of spiritual experience. No wonder that the word-symbol is sometimes looked upon as identical with the Godhead it represents!