All of us are aware of the effect music can have on us.  A mother humming or singing lullabies to get a baby to sleep, background music at work, in lifts, or the supermarket; rock music energizing huge crowds at stadium concerts; dance, hip hop, and rap music at rave parties and night-clubs; all show us the hidden power of music and vibration to move us.

Holy prayers, sounds, chanting the name of divinity, or stories of God(s) are a feature of religious practice all over the world.  From the rhythmic drumming of a Siberian shaman through to the harmonies of the Kings Choir in a London church, we all know that music has a power to spiritually move us and help us find a stillness within the Buddhists call ‘Mindfulness’ amidst the stresses of life in the modern world.

In India such holy chanting is called ‘Mantras’ derived from the Sanskrit words ‘Manas’ meaning ‘to think’ and ‘Tra’ meaning ‘instrumentality’, therefore Mantra originally meant ‘the instrument of thought’. This gives the clue that mantras can affect the mind and mood in dramatic ways if performed accurately.

Mantras: Sacred Sounds: The earliest mantras were composed in Vedic Sanskrit in India, and are at least 3500 years old. Mantras now exist in various schools of Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, and Sikhism. In the Japanese Shingon tradition, the word Shingon means mantra. Similar hymns, chants, compositions, and concepts are found in Zoroastrianism, Taoism, Christianity, and elsewhere. The Scandinavian Runes in certain respects correspond to the Hindu mantras.

Mantras considered esoterically were originally as magical as they were religious in character. In the composing of the mantras, the wise men/women of old (Rishis) knew that every letter had its occult significance, and that the vowels, especially, contain occult and even formidable potencies when properly chanted.

The words of the mantra were made to convey a certain hid meaning by certain secret rules involving:

  • the secret potency of their sound,
  • the numerical value of the letters;

The language of incantations or mantras is the element-language composed of sounds, numbers, and figures.  The ancients who composed the mantras, knew how to blend these three to call forth the response from the Regent-God of the specific element needed.

Communication with Other Dimensions: For, in order to communicate with the Gods/Goddesses, it was said that men must learn to address each one of them in the language of His/Her element.:

Sound is “the most potent and effectual magic agent, and the first of the keys which opens the door of communication between Mortals and the Immortals” (from HP Blavatsky: The Secret Doctrine Vol.1: page 464).

The hidden voice or active manifestation of the latent occult potency of the mantras is called ‘Vach’ meaning in Sanskrit, ‘Voice’.  In exercising the power of Vach, G de Purucker says:

“…The would-be magician attempting to evoke the “spirits of the vasty deep” by uninstructed chanting or singing of any ancient mantras will never succeed in using the mantras effectively in a magical way, until he himself has become so cleansed of all human impurities as to be able at will and with inner vision to enter into communion if not direct confabulation with the inner realms…”

Psychological Effects: Mantras are based on specific repetitive sounds. Mantra’s use these repetitive sounds to reach the subconscious mind.  The sounds are soothing, they calm the mind, even if we do not understand fully understand the phrases – which is most often the case for us Westerners when listening to Indian Mantras! Of course, translating a mantra into your own language, gives a much greater depth to the experience of repeating the mantra in its original language – you have an affirmation where the words have the additional benefit of imparting a sense of confidence with time when repeated.

While mantras are often thought of in reference to eastern religions, by no means is this the only place you have mantras. Often repeated Catholic and Christian prayers are also mantras.

All repeated and spoken phrases in the English (or any) language can be thought of as mantras. Commonly known as “affirmations” these mantras are repeated for the purpose of building confidence, quieting anxiety or trying to take advantage of the brain’s capacity to adapt itself to new habits of thought (neuroplasticity). Daily mantras can help quiet anxiety and counter depression. They can help to boost happiness, help to inspire self-confidence, but constant practice and therefore repetition is required. According to the Annual Review of Nursing Research, mental health mantras can be used effectively to treat Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome  (PTSD), reduce stress, and even decrease blood pressure.

Here are some of the traditional types of Sanskrit mantra’s:

Shanti – Peace; Dharma – Righteous Path; Ananda – Bliss; Prasada – Radiance or Happiness; Prajna – Wisdom; Bhakti – Devotion, Faith, and Love.

AUM (OM): The Sacred Sound: Mantras come in many forms, including verses from the ancient Vedic book, the Rigveda, and Sāman, musical chants from the Sāmaveda for example.They are typically melodic, mathematically structured meters, believed to be resonant with numinous (religiously awe-inspiring) qualities.

At its simplest, the word ॐ (Aum, Om) serves as a mantra, it is believed to be the first sound which was originated on Earth. The Aum sound when produced creates a reverberation in the body which helps the body and mind to be calm.  The Aum sound is most often repeated at the beginning and end of chanting to create and sustain peace in the audience.

There is a whole mystical science attached to the meaning and use of the sacred word Aum (Om).

Japa: Silent Repetition: In more sophisticated forms, mantras are melodic phrases with spiritual interpretations such as a human longing for truth, reality, light, immortality, peace, love, knowledge, and action. Some mantras without literal meaning are musically uplifting and spiritually meaningful.

Repeating Mantras quietly to yourself is called Japa. It is most auspicious to repeat them at least 108 times and for this purpose private repetition of mantras is assisted by 108 beads on a string, Malas, which are handled as you repeat the mantra.

Any verse of the sacred scriptures such as the Rig Veda, Upanishads, Bhagavad Gita, can be repeated.  The most auspicious mantras for Japa are said to be the Gayatri Mantram and the Purusasukta mantras both verses from the Rig Veda. They are best repeated at sunrise and sunset.

The Gayatri Mantra: the most universally chanted of all Hindu mantras. Dedicated to Savitur, the Vedic Sun God, Gayatri is also the name of the Goddess of the Vedantic Mantra in which the verse is composed. Hindus are supposed to chant it at least 108 times per day to help purify their inner constitutions from low vibrations which well up from within and are imposed by society from without. Invoking the universal Brahman as the principle of knowledge and the illumination of the primordial Sun, the mantra is extracted from the 10th verse of Hymn 62 in Book III of the Rig Veda:

Aum
Bhuh Bhuvah Svah
Tat Savitur Varenyam
Bhargo Devasya Dheemahi
Dhiyo Yo nah Prachodayat

~ The Rig Veda (10:16:3)

Translation: “Unveil, O Thou who givest sustenance to the Universe, from whom all proceed, to whom all must return, that face of the True Sun now hidden by a vase of divine light, that we may see the truth and do our whole duty on our journey to thy sacred seat.” – WQ Judge translation.

Buddhist Mantra: Om Mani Padme Hum: Probably the most famous mantra of Buddhism is:

‘Om Mani Padme Hum’ meaning ‘Om the Jewel in the Lotus, Hum’

The six-syllable mantra of the Bodhisattva of Compassion, Avalokitesvara, (Tibetan, Chenrezig, Chinese: Guanyin). The Dalai Lama is said to be an incarnation of Avalokiteshvara, and so the mantra is especially revered by his devotees. In esoteric philosophy Avaloki, the “on-looker”, is the Higher Self, while Padmapani is the Higher Ego or Manas. The mystic formula “Om mani padme hum” is especially used to invoke their joint help.

One of the most sacred Buddhist mantras or verbal formulas; used very frequently in Tibet and in surrounding countries of the Far East. Not only is every syllable said to have a secret power of producing a definite result, but the whole invocation has a number of meanings. When properly pronounced or changed, it produces different results, differing from the others according to the intonation and will give to the formula and its syllables.

This mystic sentence above all refers to the indissoluble union between man and the universe, and thus conveys “I am in thee and thou art in me.” Each of us has within himself the ‘Jewel in the Lotus’ or the ‘Divine Self’ within. When understood in a Kosmic sense, it signifies the Divine Kosmic Self within, inspiring all beings within the range of that Kosmic Divinity.

Tantra and Jainism: Similar mantras, hymns, chants, compositions, and concepts are found in Zoroastrianism, Taoism, Judaism, Christianity and elsewhere.

The use, structure, function, importance, and types of mantras vary according to the school and philosophy of Hinduism and Buddhism. Mantras serve a central role in Tantra.  In this school, mantras are considered to be a sacred formula and a deeply personal ritual, effective only after initiation. In other schools of Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism or Sikhism, initiation is not a requirement and an earnest student will be given a mantra suitable for them individually from their Guru.

In Jainism for example, the concept of mantras is not focused on material aspects, rather mainly deals with seeking forgiveness, praising their Saints (Tirtankharas), or Deities like Nakoda, Padmavati, Manibhadra, Goddesses like Saraswati and Lakhsmi, and others. Some mantras are claimed to enhance intellect, prosperity, wealth or fame. There are many mantras in Jainism; most of them are in Sanskrit or Prakriti, but in the last few centuries, some have been composed in Hindi or Gujarati languages. Mantras, couplets, are either chanted or sung, either aloud or by merely moving lips or in silence by thought. The most popular mantra in Jainism is the Navkar Mantra (literally, “Nine Line Mantra”). The initial five lines consist of salutations to various sanctified souls, and the latter four lines are explanatory in nature, highlighting the benefits and greatness of this mantra.

Sikhism: In the Sikh religion, the term mantar or mantra refers to Shabad, this may be a word, a sentence or a hymn from the, Guru Granth Sahib – the holy book of Sikhs (also known as Adi Granth). All shabads describe God’s attributes, grace and virtues. Through repetition and reflecting upon the qualities of the Divine, the mind rises above materialism and conquers the vices (Lust, Anger, Greed, Attachments and Ego). By continually repeating and contemplating upon Guru’s teachings, the mind is stimulated to create positive thoughts practicing Truth, Contentment, Empathy, Divine Wisdom and Forgiveness. It encourages one to live a practical life with high morale.

Mantras in Sikhism are fundamentally different from the secret mantras used in other religions.Unlike in other religions, Sikh mantras are open for anyone to study, use and embed. They are not used in secret sessions. Instead, they are preached and discussed in front of assemblies or a congregation of Sikhs and non-Sikhs.

The Mool Mantar (Fundamental Belief), the first composition of Guru Granth Sahib, was written by the founder of the Sikh religion, Guru Nanak. It is the most widely known Sikh mantra.

In Sikh faith, the word Wahe Guru (the Wonderful Lord) is used repeatedly to thank the Lord for giving us the virtues and guiding us on the righteous path. According to Sikh poet, Bhai Gurdas, the word “Wahe Guru” is the Gurmantra mantra given by the Guru, which eliminates negativity and ego from the mind.

Islam and Christianity: The Islamic mystical sect, the Sufis, use the ‘Names of God’ or particular phrases found in the Holy Book of Islam, The Quran, or, sayings/actions of the Prophet Mohammed, The Hadith, in a mantric way, which they call ‘Dhikr’. Of particular importance is the phrase ilahaīlla-Llāh (لا إله إلا الله) and numerous variations. These words or phrases are often counted on a string of beads called a Tasbiḥ or Misbaḥa or in Iraq Sibha, similar to a Mala but generally consisting of thirty-three or ninety-nine beads. The recitation of these formulas can be done individually, or in unison in large assemblies with musicians and directed by an elder (Shaikh). Each Sufi Order has its particular formulas and group ceremonials.

We tend to think that Mantras are just an Eastern concept and practice but they have a long tradition in the West for all the same reasons we see in the East. Repeating a prayer which is familiar to us from our own predominantly Christian culture can also have the same uplifting influence on us. This has been long recognized in the tradition of church music, monastic chanting such as Gregorian chants, and in Jewish synagogues where the ‘cantor’ leads worshippers in song.

Mantras: The Importance of Repeating the Name of Divinity: According to American Bhakti (Devotional) Yoga practitioner and teacher, Krishna Das, the repetition of the Name of Divinity strikes a deep resonance with the godlike source of strength within oneself so we should practice this constantly no matter how we feel.

The power of the name is not exclusively in us, but is the vibrationary form of the Divine which connects us all. We are effectively calling out to the Higher Self by calling the Name of Divinity, which may vary according to the society to which we belong.  Chanting the Name can extricate ourselves from the trivialities of life, emotions, false beliefs, and so the ‘mirror of our hearts’ is polished.

In this way, even though we may be depressed and anxious, we see what is reflected in that mirror differently and we start to see changes in ourselves. We start to act differently. The constant nagging self-critical inner voice starts to fade in the harmony of repeating the Name.

Bhakti Yoga: Bhakti (ie Devotional) Yoga, also called Bhakti Marga (literally the Path of Bhakti/Devotion), is a spiritual path or spiritual practice within Hinduism focused on loving devotion towards a personal god/guru. It is one of the paths in the spiritual practices of Hindus, others being Jnana Yoga (the Path of spiritual Knowledge) and Karma Yoga (the Path of Good Works). Bhakti Yoga, based on chanting or repeating the Name of Divinity is said to be the most suitable form of spiritual practice for the majority of people during the present Kali Yuga age with its many stresses and diversions from the pursuit of spiritual knowledge which requires much study, time, and inner effort not freely available to most people.

Chanting the divine names is a simple path suitable for the present-day context. It has no ‘binding’ rules and regulations. Nama Kirtan (chanting the Divine names) can be done by anybody, anytime, and anywhere.

Kirtan Chanting: Kirtan, is a Sanskrit word meaning ‘narrating or telling a story’ but is most commonly applied to the practice of singing/chanting sacred mantras with the audience joining in the chanting and emotion of the occasion. Such chanting is primarily an emotional experience providing the audience with the opportunity to express themselves through movement, dance, praising Divinity, but primarily singing along with the song leader or ‘Kirtankara’. Kirtan is an essential feature of ‘Bhakti’ or ‘Devotional’ Yoga and it is becoming very popular in the West due to the efforts of a range of Western performers putting a new twist on an ancient Indian religious practice.

Kirtan, or musical mantra-chanting, was first popularized in America by Krishna Das (Jeffrey Kagel) in the 1990s following his travels in India in the 1970s and his devotion to his Hindu Guru, Neem Karoli Baba (Maharaj-ji). He was referred to as the “Rockstar of Yoga” by the Grammys when he was nominated for a 2013 Grammy Award. His powerful baritone voice and skilful playing of the traditional Indian harmonium, accompanied by a band playing a combination of Indian and Western instruments have become enormously popular in America, Europe and Australia.

Krishna Das has attracted the participation of such rock luminaries as ‘Sting’ (of the famous English rock band, ‘Police’), and Walter Becker (of American iconic rock band, ‘Steely Dan’). Krishna Das gives concerts all over the world and is a foundation performer at New Age and especially Bhakti Yoga festivals in the USA. He has released 17 albums since 1996, but his live performances capture the true spirit of Kirtan. I would recommend his live performances on You Tube, particularly his performance at the Church of St Paul and St Andrew in 2013 in New York.

This concert is a truly heartening experience of universal brotherhood in action with Krishna Das, an American Jew from Long Island, singing sacred Hindu mantras in Sanskrit language, accompanied by a mixture of traditional Indian and Western instruments, in a Christian church, with an audience of Western Hindu converts, New Agers, and curious onlookers!

Krishna Das says of his own music that he does not put on shows or set out to entertain: “A kirtan is a spiritual, meditative practice. And that is completely different from a concert. [Chanting] is something I share with people. When I sing, I am sharing my practice, and they are doing the practice themselves while we chant together.”

This is where Krishna Das found the purpose of his music, and the same could be said for all practice of chanting mantras. He believes it was meant to take him somewhere—not to fame or fortune, but to enlightenment. Music and Bhakti Yoga are the vehicles of his transcendence.

“It’s a repetition of mantras, the names of your own inner being. The practice is to repeat those names and to pay attention and have an experience of quieting down and opening up.”

Krishna Das thinks the problem with our culture is that we’re always looking for happiness from external sources. He believes that kind of happiness is fleeting:

“Everything is changing all the time and one has to find peace of mind within.”

Modern Forms of Mantra: Other modern performers of Kirtan and the chanting of mantras in Sanskrit language with modern melodies include:

German singer, Deva Premal, her English partner on guitar, Mitten, with the traditional flute of Indian performer, Manose.

 Julia Elena, with her own style utilizing synthesizers and guitars.

Why not also check out on You Tube the beautiful singing of American Sikh Kirtan and New Age singer, Snatam Kaur, especially when she is working with German-born American pianist/composer Peter Kater.

Australian devotees of Kirtan will know and love the music of Gold Coast band, Sacred Earth, which combines flutes, recorders, electric and acoustic guitars, and synthesizers with their own beautiful versions of Hindu mantras.

For the really adventurous try the band, Shanti People, which features a combination of Rap/Hip Hop and traditional Hindu mantras.

If you wish to contact the author please email andrewrooke@hotmail.com