Even if there is no generally accepted definition of mantra, let’s shed a bit light on it with a simplified translation:
The Sanskrit word can be broken down into two parts: “man”, which means mind or to think and “tra”, which means instrument or vehicle, hence a literal translation could be “instrument of the mind”.
Let’s look at the more significant explanation: Mantra is the fifth yoga described in the Yoga Upanishads. The word mantra is generally translated as sound vibration and the literal meaning is “the force that liberates the mind from bondage.” In Sanskrit the word mantra is derived from several roots: “Mananaat” means bondage of mind, “trayate” means freed or liberated, “iti” means through or thus and “mantraha” means the force of vibration.
The earliest mantras were composed in Vedic Sanskrit by Hindus in India, and are at least 3000 years old. A mantra can be just one word or more and believed by practitioners to have psychological and spiritual powers.
The ultimate mantra is anahada nada, an unstock sound or the sound of the vibrating nucleus within an atom. That is the anahada nada which, of course means nothing also because it is the soundless sound. This is where yogic physics comes in. Wherever there is motion there is bound to be a vibration. This in turn creates a subtle sound. The atoms are constantly in motion and creating a set of vibrations.
Confused? Although finding the term “think” and “mind” in a simplified translation, mantras don’t work on that layer. Through repetition we create a certain rhythm and through this rhythm sound frequencies occur. We can feel the effects of this energy in our body and mind.
How to practice a mantra:
A mantra can be a sound, word or phrase and should be repeated often, used in meditation, as a prayer or it can simply express someone’s beliefs. You can just recite it in your mind or also write it down. It can also be used for counting e.g. in pranayama – I love to use the Gayatri mantra (see below) for my counts when practicing Nadi Sodhana (alternate nostril breathing).
A nice visualization is to think about a mantra of as a seed for energizing an intention. Much in the same way you plant a flower seed, you plant mantras in the fertile soil of practice. You nurture them through repetition and over time they bear the fruit of your intention.
Give It a try and use your favorite during your next meditation (repeat it silently), chant it as an opening for your asana practice, use it as an intention for your practice, close with one or use it to count.
Some examples of my favorites:
Mantras come in many forms, the simplest and most important is
Made of the three characters AUM, it presents the trinity of the universal principals, such as past, present, future or the three main gods in Hinduism, Vishnu, Shiva and Brahma. The sound of OM is supposed to be the primordial sound of the universe and has a harmonizing frequency, that can be felt through the body.
The shanti mantra– is a Hindu prayer for peace, found in the Upanishads. It is supposed to calm the mind of the reciter, as well as the environment around.
Saha viiryan karavaavahai
Om shaantih shaantih shaantih
May we be protected together. May we be nourished together. May we work together with great vigor. May our study be enlightening. May no obstacle arise between us. Om peace, peace, peace.
The Gayatri mantra– is considered one of the most universal of all Hindu mantras, invoking the universal Brahman as the principle of knowledge and the illumination of the primordial sun. The mantra is extracted from the Rig Veda:
Oṁ Bhūr Bhuva Swaha
Tat Savitur Varenyam
Bhargo Devasya Dhīmahi
Dhiyo Yo Naḥa Prachodayāt
There are lots of slightly different translations, here is what I’ve learned:
Let us meditate on the glory of Ishvara*, who has created this universe, who is fit to be worshipped, who is the embodiment of knowledge and light, who is the remover of all sins and ignorance. May he enlighten our intellect!
(*Ishvara is the personification of god – untouched by suffering and karma, the teacher of all teachers and his expression in OM)