The Power Of Vedic Mantras
A “Mantra” is a sacred utterance, a numinous sound, a syllable, word or phonemes, or group of words in Sanskrit believed by practitioners to have psychological and spiritual powers. A mantra may or may not have syntactic structure or literal meaning.
The earliest mantras were composed in Vedic Sanskrit by Hindus in India, and are at least 3000 years old. Mantras now exist in various schools of Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism. In Japanese Shingon tradition, the word Shingon means mantra. Similar hymns, chants, compositions and concepts are found in Zoroastrianism, Taoism, Christianity and elsewhere.
The use, structure, function, importance, and types of mantras vary according to the school and philosophy of Hinduism and of 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.
Mantras come in many forms, including verses from the Rigveda and musical chants from the Sāmaveda. They are typically melodic, mathematically structured meters, believed to be resonant with numinous qualities. At its simplest, the word ॐ (Aum, Om) serves as a mantra. 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 have no literal meaning, yet are musically uplifting and spiritually meaningful.
There is a long history of scholarly disagreement on the meaning of mantras and whether they are really instruments of mind, as implied by the etymological origin of the word mantra. One school suggests mantras are mostly meaningless sound constructs, while the other holds them to be mostly meaningful linguistic instruments of mind. Both schools agree that mantras have melody and a well designed mathematical precision in their construction, and that their influence on the reciting person and listener is similar to that observed on people around the world listening to their beloved music that is devoid of words.
Staal presents a non-linguistic view of mantras. He suggests that verse mantras are metered and harmonized to mathematical precision (for example, in the viharanam technique), which resonate, but a lot of them are a hodgepodge of meaningless constructs such as are found in folk music around the world. Staal cautions that there are many mantras that can be translated and do have spiritual meaning and philosophical themes central to Hinduism, but that does not mean all mantras have literal meaning. He further notes that even when mantras do not have literal meaning, they do set a tone and ambience in the ritual as they are recited and thus have a straightforward and uncontroversial ritualistic meaning. The sounds may lack literal meaning, but they can have an effect. He compares mantras to bird songs, that have the power to communicate, yet do not have a literal meaning. On that saman category of Hindu mantras, which Staal described as resembling the arias of Bach’s oratorios and other European classics, he notes that these mantras have musical structure, but they almost always are completely different from anything in the syntax of natural languages. Mantras are literally meaningless, yet musically meaningful to Staal. The saman chant mantras were transmitted, from one Hindu generation to next, verbally for over 1000 years, but never written, a feat suggests Staal that was made possible by the strict mathematical principles used in constructing the mantras. These saman chant mantras are also mostly meaningless, cannot be literally translated as Sanskrit or any Indian language, but nevertheless are beautiful in their resonant themes, variations, inversions and distribution. They draw the devotee in. Staal is not the first person to view Hindu mantras in this manner. The ancient Hindu Vedic ritualist Kautsa was one of the earliest scholars to note that mantras are meaningless, their function is phonetic and syntactic not semantic.