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Magazine Web Edition > January/February/March 2012 > Educational Insight: Mantra Yoga

Educational Insight

Mantra Yoga

Spiritual Striving through Sacred Sound



The recitation of mantras, known as japa, lies at the very heart of Hindu practice. Focusing the mind on Divinity as part of one's daily sadhana, it unites bhakti with meditation, body with mind, worship with introspection, opening inner doors to realms beyond the senses.

A mantra is a syllable, word or phrase endowed with special power, usually drawn from scripture. Mantras are chanted loudly during puja to invoke the Gods and establish a spiritual force field. Certain mantras are repeated softly or mentally for japa, or mantra yoga, the subtle tones quieting the mind, harmonizing the inner bodies and stimulating latent spiritual qualities. Hinduism's universal mantra is Aum.

Japa refers to the repetition of a mantra, often while counting on a mala or strand of beads. It may be done silently or aloud. Japa is one of the ten niyamas (spiritual practices) of ashtanga yoga, often performed prior to meditation. It is a major sadhana in Hindu spiritual practice, from the simple utterance of one or more names of God to extraordinary feats of repeating sacred syllables millions of times for years on end. Japa is recommended as a cure for pride and arrogance, jealousy, fear and confusion. It harmonizes the doshas and quiets the vrittis. Filling the mind with divine sounds, awakening the divine essence of spiritual energies in the physical body, japa brings forth the amrita. Doshas are the three bodily humors, which, according to ayurveda, regulate the body: vata, pitta and kapha. Vrittis, in yoga psychology, are the fluctuations of consciousness, the waves of mental activities of thought and perception. Amrita is the nectar of divine bliss which flows down from the sahasrara chakra when one enters the deepest states of meditation.

For Saivite Hindus, Namah Sivaya in its various forms is the most treasured mantra used in japa. The mantra Hare Rama Hare Krishna is among the foremost Vaishnavite mantras. Aum is a universal mantra. Sage Patanjali extolls it in his Yoga Sutra: "The mantra AUM should be repeated while contemplating on its meaning. Thence follows the attainment of inward-mindedness and the disappearance of the obstacles. Sickness, apathy, doubt, carelessness, sloth, sensual indulgence, false perspective, lack of progress and lack of consistency are all distractions to the mind and are the obstacles. Pain, depression, trembling limbs and irregular inhalation and exhalation accompany these distractions" (I.23-31).

Patanjali speaks of 14 kinds of japa: daily (nitya), circumstantial (naimittika), the japa of desired results (kamya), forbidden (nishiddha), penitential (prayashchitta), unmoving (achala), moving (chala), voiced (vachika), whispered (upanshu), murmured (bhramara), mental (manasa), uninterrupted (akhanda), nonuttered (ajapa) and circumambulatory (pradakshina).

Here are four suggestions on how to perform japa.

  1. Perform japa aloud in the beginning stages, as it is easier to concentrate the thought. Once you can perfect performing japa aloud, move on to performing it silently.
  2. Pronounce the mantra slowly, properly, thoughtfully, with feeling.
  3. Do not intensify japa by reciting your mantra tens of thousands of times a day unless specifically instructed to do so by your guru. Intensifying japa without a guru's guidance could produce negative results.
  4. The best place and time to perform japa is in the temple or your home shrine after a puja. Thus practiced, japa will calm your mind, balance your inner and outer forces and strengthen your spiritual practice.

The Magic of Japa

Japa is very widespread in Hinduism, more so than meditation. japa yoga is easy to practice. The inexperienced can take it up immediately. It does produce certain results until they forget the mantra, which can happen! This may seem strange, but I have met devotees of gurus who had actually forgotten their mantra, even after paying a goodly sum to receive it. The innocent Americans and Europeans are the orphans and adopted children of Indian gurus. Some of these teachers, unaware of the critical differences of religion and culture of their newfound and eager devotees, respond by bringing them immediately into japa and raja yoga, avoiding the known initiations and the basic philosophical and cultural foundations necessary for ultimate success. In the case of Indian devotees, these cultural and philosophical foundations would have been acquired within the family home. This foundation is necessary, as it directs the subconscious mind, which is the inner motor of a person, preventing him from opposing, inhibiting and invalidating the realizations that naturally occur when one practices yoga. So, first we learn the philosophy, then through japa and more advanced yogas we realize it. Whereas in performing japa and raja yoga before you know the philosophy, what you previously learned may conflict with what you now realize. This can be very disconcerting.

When the philosophy is properly understood, we possess right thought, right speech and right action, which is proper behavior. This is culture. Humility and obedience before elders and those who are wiser is a very big part of Hindu culture, as is the regard for knowledge and wisdom and the deeper philosophies. Therefore, a good character expressed day by day within the individual who is freed from anger and from contentious mental arguments is a central foundation for the practice of yoga.

One without such purity should not practice japa yoga, lest he awaken the knowledge of his imperfections which are better to keep veiled. For knowing such could send him into states of remorse, early repentance--which means being penitent before one has the stability to take on the reaction of such a momentous discovery and undertaking. Karma yoga should be practiced by the devotee prior to this to smooth out all character flaws. Sivathondu--which is another word for karma yoga--service to Siva, is the platform for japa yoga.

Those who are victims to episodes of anger, to pangs of jealousy or to periods of fear should not meditate and should not perform japa. They should perform Sivathondu, attend group meditations and group pranayama sessions. This is because they must first be lifted up into the muladhara chakra and above. They are living below it and must raise their consciousness in order to proceed deeply into themselves. It is the group itself in this case that will lift the individual who cannot easily lift himself. This process should be guided by a strong-minded, compassionate moderator.

Japa Opens Inner Doors

One who performs japa properly will realize what he knows. You see, japa opens up the inner mind and focuses the energies of certain chakras, which are consciousness encased within the psychic nerve ganglia of the nadi network. Therefore, if he is a divine person, he will realize that Divinity. If he is an angry, selfish person, then he will realize that. We would want him to realize the former but not the latter. Through karma yoga, Sivathondu, the angry, hateful, contentious, competitive person will face himself through a series of small situations in which small realizations will occur. The instinctive nature and habits will be corrected until the individual is able to work smoothly over long periods of time. We would not want to open up his mind to the impurities, lest he become depressed or even morose and suicidal. Therefore, japa yoga obviously is an initiation that should come a little down the road, farther down the path.

Generally those who want to practice japa yoga and do have impurities working within them fall away from repetitive mantras very quickly, becoming a little afraid of what might happen if they are successful. Their own soul is watching after them in this early stage. Then there are those who are ardent, fanatical, you might say, who want to get results in a limited period of time and have no sense of the consequences. They work tirelessly to do this. The wise guru would discourage much practice of intense mantras or meditating alone, and would instead encourage karma yoga, giving to others, working for work's sake, serving for service's sake, not looking for rewards. Group meditations and group chanting are fine at this stage, as is temple worship, until the purification process has had time to work its magic.

The Power of Initiation

Oftentimes japa and chanting are the ardha-Hindu's or non-Hindu's first introduction to Sanatana Dharma. An ardha-Hindu is often one who has been given a Hindu first name. It is our experience over the last fifty years that their japa has little effect unless they make the full commitment to becoming stalwart members of the Hindu religion and join a mature community. Those who are inside a department store handling and purchasing the merchandise and those outside looking through the window at the same merchandise are two different groups. Ardha means half, and ardha-Hindus are those who have come half way to making a full commitment and are still making up their mind. They are still on the outside looking in. Their japa doesn't have much power until they bring other aspects of their life into line with the Hindu dharma.

For the non-Hindu who has not made a commitment, the universal mantra Aum is the most significant and precious of all mantras. This can be chanted by those of all religions, without restriction. The sounds of a city make "Aum." A child at birth says "Aum." A mother giving birth says "Aum." The last breath of a dying person is "Aum." Even the cows say "Aum." Aum is the mantra of Lord Ganesha. All are striving for His holy feet. Those who are struggling with the lower nature and those who have not made a commitment to the Sanatana Dharma (a commitment which for the newcomers to the fold could be verified by their Hindu name on their passport) should all chant Aum.

To demonstrate the authority vested in the mantra, let me tell you a story. A minister in a court was summoned before the maharaja. The minister also happened to be a brahmin priest, a kulaguru with the power to give initiation in the most sacred mantra, Aum Namah Sivaya. The king asked him, "We would like you to initiate me into the sacred Panchakshara Mantra." The guru said, "Yes, Majesty, I shall begin preparing you for your initiation." Then the king decreed: "No, we will take the initiation right now, and never mind the preparations." The kulaguru objected, "This is quite impossible. My guru restricts me from giving initiation without due preparation." The king retorted, "So, we will do the mantra without you. Or else explain to me how the mantra would work differently with the initiation than without." The kulaguru said, "Yes, Majesty, I shall give you an explanation."

In a loud voice, the guru called to the five guards standing amidst the gathered audience, "Guards, come forward instantly and arrest this man, the maharaja, he is into wrongdoings. He is demanding an initiation into the great Panchakshara Mantra without the willingness to undergo the necessary preparations required by our noble sampradaya." The guards stood silent, eyes wide, looking at the maharaja, wondering what to do.

The maharaja, losing his composure upon hearing his minister's preposterous command, was struck with awe and thought, "What madness has overcome this holy man?" He then shouted to the guards, "Here, promptly: arrest this minister of mine, this kulaguru who is behaving in such an insolent manner against the throne. Tie him securely and take him away." The guards rushed forward without delay, grabbed the guru and held him tight.

The guru laughed and said, "Hold on a minute! I was just answering your question, Majesty. I spoke the mantra 'Arrest this man.' However, since I am not initiated into the court, not ordained to have that power, the guards stood idle and did not respond. You then gave the same mantra, 'Arrest this man.' Because you were carefully prepared and initiated as king, the guards responded."

Upon hearing this, the maharaja threw himself at the kulaguru's feet. The guards who had been hearing the entire conversation then released their captive, and themselves touched the holy man's feet and returned to their posts. In the months ahead the maharaja meticulously prepared himself for and received his initiation.

Deity Mantras

The mantra is the name of the inner-plane being whom you are calling. If you say, "Aum Namah Sivaya," are you ready to see what Siva will show you, once He comes and lifts the veils? Maybe a little preparation--cleaning a few things, straightening up the house, the subconscious basement--is in order first. If you say, "Aum Sharavanabhava," is your mind really ready to become peaceful, or is it disturbed by fits of anger? But every soul is ready to say, "Aum," and come to the feet of the Lord of Categories, who will set everything in order from the many yesterdays.

If you are in the temple worshiping Lord Murugan, the mantra Aum Sharavanabhava obviously has a total, overall effect. If you say "Aum, Aum, Aum" in front of Ganesha, Ganesha becomes conscious of your presence. The Deities are present in the temple. They may not be present in a person's home or under a tree. The main effect the mantra would have there would be to focus the concentration and quiet the mind.

If someone is already meditating and is self-instructed, not under a guru, and working for an eventual initiation to receive a mantra upon which to do japa, then whatever japa is performed should neither be too much nor too intense. We suggest for the non-Hindu Aum, and for the unitiated Saivite Aum Sharavanabhava, 108 repetitions prior to meditation. This is totally on the safe side and will greatly enhance the meditation.

There is an idea that there is a special mantra for each person, and that a mantra should be secret. It has been my experience that gurus who are amassing wealth from unsuspecting Americans and Europeans will give all kinds of mantras. And they will be couched in a format that is sellable, like packaged merchandise. They will be made secret. But none of the traditional mantras that produce true realization and are lauded and acclaimed are secret. They are well known by every Hindu in the world. Each Hindu throughout the world knows whether he has purified himself or not, and prepared himself or not, sufficiently to pronounce them--though he may pronounce them at any time he wishes, and an impact and a beneficial effect will follow in his life. But the spiritual impact of pronouncing a mantra after earning an initiation (this does not mean paying for it, but earning it through study and practice, character building, improving, proving oneself to one's guru), that effect, is life-altering. It cleans the karmas of many past lives, perfects the lives of the future, and lays the foundation for moksha at the end of this or a future life. Let this not be misunderstood.

Many people want initiation because they want to get away from something. They want something to cure their ills. Others don't know what they want. They are disturbed, distraught with their prarabdha karmas, and they want relief. What they should be given is Saiva Siddhanta--a comprehensive path of accomplishment. They should not be given a high-powered mantra that will, when it opens the mind, cause more frustration and disturbance from what the seeker sees. But once given such initiation--having no tools, mentally, emotionally or physically, to conquer the past karmas that the experiential emotions are intensifying (which should have been conquered through karma yoga and bhakti yoga)--the seeker falls into despair. It is the conscientious guru's responsibility to provide an ongoing, progressive training prior to initiation and to continue it afterwards. Those who make their living by selling mantras would be considered fraudulent by traditional Hindu standards.

The Esoterics of Japa

Knowing the meaning of the mantra is very helpful when the devotee is visualizing it at the same time. Then he also knows when he reaches the goal which the mantra is supposed to produce within him. Since most mantras are in Sanskrit, it is easy enough to find the meaning in the Sanskrit dictionary. We must remember that the first mantras were given in the language spoken by the people. Sanskrit mantras were given to people who spoke Sanskrit. Yet, mantras could be phrased in other ancient sacred languages as well. It is just that the Sanskrit language relates to the unfoldment of the inner being, which most other languages don't do as much. However, even in the English language, or any language, rituals are performed that do invoke the spirit forces of the religion. It just so happens that in Hinduism, Sanskrit is the most accepted language of all, agreed upon by the Hindu hierarchy of all three worlds.

Japa is a sadhana, and all sadhana is repetitive. Japa is taking a few words as a mantra and repeating it over and over again for mind control and personal enlightenment. This would attract good beings on the astral plane and strengthen the protective aura of the individual doing japa. There is no reason to think that performing japa would affect the astral world in any way other than to bring forth goodness, compassion and admiration of the beings there toward the devotee performing this discipline.

Namah Sivaya Aum and Aum Sharavanabhava have been revealed for spiritual unfoldment. They are not for magical purposes. Nor is japa intended for healing or other aims in the physical realm. True, Japanese Buddhists chant Aum Namo Myoho Renge Kyo for success, jobs and wealth, but this is not japa in the Hindu understanding. This is more along the lines of affirmation. Japa is very close to raja yoga. Japa leads to spiritual renunciation; raja yoga to enlightenment, stimulating the chakras of the head. Japa is never used in the Hindu tradition to pray for material things. Hindus do pray for material blessings, health and abundance but not through the use of mantras, or japa. For these they turn to prayers, songs and ritual, which stimulate the chakras of willpower, reason and cognition, giving the worshiper physical, emotional and mental vigor to bring the worldly goods into his hands. Mantras for japa are usually short, but not always. The Gayatri Mantra, consisting of thirteen words, is an example of a rather long mantra. In summary, japa is religiously repeating just a few important, well-defined words, syllables or "seed sounds," called bija, to awaken the higher nature.

Where did mantras come from? Mystical shlokas came from the rishis of ancient times who held conversations with the great Mahadevas and devas of the inner worlds. Out of this developed certain rituals that could, when performed properly, create certain causes in the physical world.

Because every sound has a color and creates a form on the astral plane when pronounced, the mantra must be pronounced properly, slowly, thoughtfully, with feeling, mentally seeing the color, mentally hearing the sound. The ideal way to perform japa 108 times is by also listening to the nada-nadi shakti, the high "eee" sound one hears within the head when in a high state of consciousness. To perform japa quickly, as in a marathon, sometimes called "machine-gun japa," brings little benefit. If you don't have time to do japa, don't do it at all. It should not be a meaningless ritual. It should be a very meaningful experience.

When we perform japa aloud, it is easier to concentrate the thought. The mantra is heard and therefore our mind does not wander. We must remember that letting the mind wander into irrelevant thoughts mitigates the benefits of the japa. Therefore, we must remain concentrated. We perform japa, which is a sadhana, for pragmatic benefits. There is no other reason. Therefore, we should keep our mind on what we are doing.

Visualize the proper colors that the mantra produces from one stage to the next. In Sharavanabhava Aum we visualize light blue fading into white and fading back into light blue, back and forth--"Sharavanabhava Aum, Sharavanabhava Aum, Sharavanabhava Aum." Blue is the color of the akasha, ether, and Sharavanabhava takes you there. Once the japa is perfected aloud, it may be done silently, simply by moving the lips but not making a sound, and then later making the sound internally without moving the lips. The ultimate accomplishment in the performance of japa is the yoga of going to sleep while verbally and mentally pronouncing the mantra, which continues during the sleeping hours. Upon awakening, the same mantra is still being repeated, mentally and then verbally, without a break in continuity. This is quite an accomplishment, but it has been done.

Getting the Most from Japa

The repetition of a mantra, especially if given by a guru, is a journey to a distant place; consciousness is altered. And it must be performed at an auspicious time. Preparation must be made--bathing, cleaning oneself properly--then devotions are performed in a room prepared for this purpose. We are taking a journey; the room, the body and the exact time of starting are the conveyance.

If precaution is not taken, or the mantra is chanted at an inauspicious time in a place that is not sanctified, and the chanter's body has not been cleansed, the mantra will work as it should, no problem here. But the person who is performing the incantations will be easily seen, due to the power of the mantra, by asuric entities, who will come and attach themselves to him and disturb him. In a clean and perfect place, under sanctified conditions, the incantation will attract devonic forces who will, in turn, help him on the path to his eventual enlightenment.

For the ultimate benefit in performing the japa sadhana, look on the Hindu Vedic calendar, panchanga, and choose the amrita yoga days. These are the most auspicious. Next are the siddha yoga days. On any given day, the most auspicious time is during gulika kala. These are the times when the forces of the universe--this means the entire universe, and most especially our galaxy--promote spiritual unfoldment. Of course, the daily experience of 108 repetitions should persist. Any intensification of this--1,008 times, for instance--would be best performed at a specially auspicious day and time. Other auspicious times of day are before sunrise and at sunset. The very best place and time to perform japa is in the temple after the puja, when all is quiet. This is the most ideal surrounding to repeat japa 108 times to gain maximum benefit. When performing japa, just breathe normally. Japa may be preceded by the pranayama practice that you have been taught by your guru.

Japa is a very good preparation for meditation. And you meditate on the mantra as you do the mantra. You can't meditate on the mantra without repeating the mantra inwardly. When the mantra is linked with meditation, it should be pronounced slowly so that you can meditate on each syllable of the mantra that is being repeated. You must remember that japa is the repetition of a few words or a few syllables. That is the sadhana of japa. Everything else is something else.

My Satguru, Siva Yogaswami, placed great emphasis on japa, repeating the name of Siva with concentration and feeling. This great Natha jnani explained, "May we not forget that mantra is life, that mantra is action, that mantra is love, and that the repetition of mantra, japa, bursts forth wisdom from within. Japa yoga is the first yoga to be performed toward the goal of jnana. In the temple perform japa. Under the sacred tree, perform japa. I performed japa all of this life as a silent sadhana, and it is automatic now." Siva Yogaswami enjoined his devotees: "Wear rudraksha beads, repeat the Panchakshara, let your heart grow soft and melt. Chant the letters five, and in love you will discover Siva's will. Chant so that impurities, anxieties and doubts are destroyed. All hail Namah Sivaya."


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