Example of mantra
Bija of Kali कली


Mantras are esoteric syllables or poems. Their use varies according to the school and philosophy associated with the mantra. They are primarily used as spiritual conduits, words or vibrations that instill one-pointed concentration in the practitioner. Other purposes have included religious ceremonies to accumulate wealth, avoid danger, or eliminate enemies. Mantras originated in India with Vedic Hinduism and were later adopted by Buddhists, Sikhs and Jains. They are now popular in various modern forms of spiritual practice which are loosely based on practices of these Eastern religions.

The Sanskrit word mantra मन्त्र consists of the root man मन् "to think" (also in manas "mind") and the suffix tra त्र "to protect", hence a literal translation would be "protection of thought". Mantras are interpreted to be effective as sound (vibration), to the effect that great emphasis is put on correct pronunciation (resulting in an early development of a science of phonetics in India). They are intended to deliver the mind from illusion and material inclinations. Chanting is the process of repeating a mantra.


Mantras have some features in common with spells in general, in that they are a translation of the human will or desire into a form of action. Indeed, Edward Conze, a scholar of Buddhism, frequently translated "mantra" as "spell". As symbols, sounds are seen to effect what they symbolise. Vocal sounds are frequently thought of as having magical powers, or even of representing the words or speech of a deity. For the authors of the Hindu scriptures of the Upanishads, the syllable Aum, itself constituting a mantra, represents Brahman, the godhead, as well as the whole of creation. Merely pronouncing this syllable is to experience the divine in a very direct way. Kukai 空海 suggests that all sounds are the voice of the Dharmakaya Buddha -- i.e. as in Hindu Upanishadic and Yogic thought, these sounds are manifestations of ultimate reality. We should not think that this is peculiar to Eastern culture, however. Words do have a mysterious power to affect us. Accepted scholarly etymology links the word with "manas" meaning "mind" and 'trâna' for protection so that a mantra is something which protects the mind -- however in practice we will see that mantra is considered to do far more than simply protect the mind.

For many cultures it is the written letters that have power -- the Hebrew Kabbalah for instance, or the Anglo-Saxon Runes. Letters can have an oracular function even. But in India special conditions applied that meant that writing was very definitely inferior to the spoken word. The Brahmins were the priestly caste of the Aryan peoples. It was they that preserved the holy writings -- initially the Vedas, but later also the Upanishads. For years, they were the only ones who knew the mantras or sacred formulas that had to be chanted at every important occasion. However, with the advent of egalitarian Hindu schools of Yoga, Vedanta, Tantra and Bhakti, it is now the case that intra-family and community mantras are passed on freely as part of generally practiced Hindu religion. Such was the influence of the more orthodox attitude of the elite nature of mantra knowledge that even the Buddhists, who repudiated the whole idea of caste, and of the efficacy of the old rituals, called themselves the shravakas, that is, "the hearers". A wise person in India was one who had "heard much". Mantras then are sound symbols. What they symbolise and how they function depends on the context, and the mind of the person repeating them. Studies in sound symbolism suggest that vocal sounds have meaning whether we are aware of it or not. And indeed that there can be multiple layers of symbolism associated with each sound. So even if we do not understand them, mantras are no simply meaningless mumbo jumbo -- no vocal utterance is entirely without meaning. We can look at mantra as a range of different contexts to see what they can mean in those contexts: Om may mean something quite different to a Hindu and a Tibetan Buddhist.

While Hindu tantras eventually came to see the letters as well as the sounds as representatives of the divine, it was when Buddhism travelled to China that a major shift in emphasis towards writing came about. China lacked a unifying, ecclesiastic language like Sanskrit, and achieved its cultural unity by having a written language that was flexible in pronunciation but more precise in terms of the concepts that each character represented. In fact the Indians had several scripts which were all equally serviceable for writing Sanskrit. Hence the Chinese prized written language much more highly than did the Indian Buddhist missionaries, and the writing of mantras became a spiritual practice in its own right. So that whereas Brahmins had been very strict on correct pronunciation, the Chinese, and indeed other Far-Eastern Buddhists were less concerned with this than correctly writing something down. The practice of writing mantras, and copying texts as a spiritual practice, became very refined in Japan, and the writing in the Siddham script in which the Sanskrit of many Buddhist Sutras were written is only really seen in Japan nowadays. However, written mantra-repetition in Hindu practices, with Sanskrit in any number of scripts, is well-known to many sects in India as well.

Mantra in Hinduism

Mantras were originally conceived in the great Hindu scriptures known as the Vedas. Within practically all Hindu scriptures, the writing is formed in painstakingly crafted two line "shlokas" and most mantras follow this pattern, although mantras are often found in single line or even single word combinations.


Aum - ॐ
Aum - ॐ


The most basic mantra is Aum, which in Hinduism is known as the "pranava mantra," the source of all mantras. The philosophy behind this is the Hindu idea of nama-rupa (name-form), which supposes that all things, ideas or entities in existence, within the phenomenological cosmos, have name and form of some sort. The most basic name and form is the primordial vibration of Aum, as it is the first manifested nama-rupa of Brahman, the unmanifest reality/unreality. Essentially, before existence and beyond existence is only One reality, Brahman, and the first manifestation of Brahman in existence is Aum. For this reason, Aum is considered to be the most fundamental and powerful mantra, and thus is prefixed and suffixed to all Hindu prayers. While some mantras may invoke individual Gods or principles, the most fundamental mantras, like 'Aum,' the 'Shanti Mantra,' the 'Gayatri Mantra' and others all ultimately focus on the One reality.

In the Hindu tantras the universe is sound. The supreme (para) brings forth existence through the Word (Shabda). Creation consists of vibrations at various frequencies and amplitudes giving rise to the phenomena of the world. The purest vibrations are the letters or varna [varṇa वर्ण], the imperishable letters which are revealed to us, imperfectly as the audible sounds and visible forms.

Varnas are the atoms of sound. A complex symbolic association was built up between letters and categories (levels) of universal manifestation. See the detailed works of Gabriel Pradīpaka for further information (i.e., Relationship between Sanskrit letters and Trika tattva-s, The Six Courses of manifestation (Sadadhva)).

In effect each letter became a mantra and the language of the Vedas, Sanskrit, corresponds profoundly to the nature of things. Thus the Vedas come to represent reality itself. The seed syllable Om represents the underlying unity of reality, which is Brahman.

Mantra Japa

Mantra Japa was a concept of the Vedic sages that incorporates mantras as one of the main forms of puja, or worship, whose ultimate end is seen as moksha/liberation. Essentially, Mantra Japa means repetition of mantra, and has become an established practice of all Hindu streams, from the various Yoga to Tantra. It involves repetition of a mantra over and over again, usually in cycles of auspicious numbers (in multiples of three), the most popular being 108. For this reason, Hindu malas (bead necklaces) developed, containing 108 beads and a head "meru" bead. The devotee performing japa using his/her fingers counts each bead as he/she repeats the chosen mantra. Having reached 108 repetitions, if he/she wishes to continue another cycle of mantras, the devotee must turn the mala around without crossing the "meru" bead and repeat.

It is said that through japa the devotee attains one-pointedness, or extreme focus, on the chosen deity or principle idea of the mantra. The vibrations and sounds of the mantra are considered extremely important, and thus reverberations of the sound are supposed to awaken the prana or spiritual life force and even stimulate chakras according to many Hindu schools of thought.

Any shloka from holy Hindu texts like the Vedas, Upanishads, Bhagavad Gita, Yoga Sutra, even the Mahabharata , Ramayana, Durga saptashati or Chandi are considered powerful enough to be repeated to great effect, and have therefore the status of a mantra.

A very common mantra is formed by taking a deity's name. Called Nama japa and saluting it in such a manner: "Aum namah ------" or "Aum Jai (Hail!) ------" or several such permutations. Common examples are "Aum namah Shivaya" (Aum I bow to Lord Shiva), "Aum Namo Narayanaya"; or "Aum Namo Bhagavate Vasudevãya," (Salutations to the Universal God Vishnu), "Aum Shri Ganeshaya Namah" (Aum to Shri Ganesha) and "Aum Kalikayai Namah" and "Aum Hrim Chandikãyai Namah." (i.e., mantras to Devi.)


In Hinduism and Buddhism, the Sanskrit term bija (बीज bīja), literally seed, is used as a metaphor for the origin or cause of things.

The metaphor is considerably extended in the Consciousness-only teachings of the Yogacara school of Buddhism (Yogācāra). According to this theory, all experiences and actions produce bija as impressions, stored in the alaya (storehouse) consciousness. The external world is produced when the seeds "perfume" this consciousness. This view of bija has been equated to memes, with the theory itself positing an extreme form of memetics (ie. reality and existence consist purely of memes).

In Esoteric Buddhism and Hinduism, the term bija is used for mystical "seed syllables" contained with mantras. These seeds do not have precise meanings, but are thought to carry connections to spiritual principles. The best-known bija syllable is Om, which first is seen in the Hindu scriptures known as the Upanishads.

Bija Mantra

Bija mantras are sacred vowels [seed sounds] and have no exact meaning but act directly on energy centers. Fro example, each chakra has its own bija-mantra.




The word nyasa (nyāsa न्यास) means "putting down or in", "inserting", "applying", "painting", "placing", "fixing". More broadly it refers to the act of "consigning or entrusting anything to the mind," or to the "mental appropriation or assignment of various parts of the body to tutelary deities." In the spiritual context, it refers to the conscious act of touching or placing the fingers or hands on energy points of the body. In hindu tantric meditations and pujas, the practitioner lays his hands on himself in each of these places, in special sequences.

Nyasa Illustration (India, c.a. 19th c.) Nyasa Illustration (Western India, Circa 16h c.)



Note: In the early 1960s, Swami Satyananda Saraswati of the Bihar School of Yoga modified this practice and created the "yoga nidra" by combining traditional yogic technique with western hypnotic relaxation and the information he read in Herbert Benson's 1960's work "The Relaxation Response."

Before 1960, "yoga nidra" did not exist. There was only nyasa and the dream yoga techniques known as "nidra yoga."