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Mantras are at the center of religious experience Tantric
in India: they are found in all modes of ritual and • “The mantra is so-called because it is in the
practices, and they accompany all life events from nature of thought and deliverance. It is indeed
birth to death. While mantras ground meditative all-knowing thought and release from transmi-
practice and the many paths to liberation, they gration” (RaTr. 266; Padoux, 1990, 374).
are also applied for magical power, alchemical • “a thought which is omniscience, a liberation
transformation and medicinal purposes, and for which is grace bestowed upon the transmigratory
prosperity in various phases of life. Found in the soul . . .” (TĀVi. 3.225; Padoux, 1990, 374).
earliest Vedic literature, mantras transcend Hindu • “All mantras consist of phonemes and their
culture and are also found in Buddhist, Jain, and nature is that of energy, O dear One. Know, how-
Sikh traditions. Even within Hindu culture, man- ever, that this energy is the mātṛkā, whose nature
tras defy a single interpretation. The understand- is that of Śiva” (Tantrasadbhāva; Padoux, 1990,
ing of mantra found in the → Vedas, → Tantras, and 374).
folk traditions often overlap and shift. Subsequent • “[M]antra is the awareness [of reality]”
traditions utilize some of the earlier mantras, (ŚiS. 2.1).
shifting their meaning, ritual, and visualization. • “Mantras are the Venerable [energy] of the
In the classical sense, the term mantra is derived phonemes. They are in the nature of the world as
from two different verbal roots: the first is the well as of the supreme Lord, and so forth. They
root matri + ac or ghañ, which means “speaking are thought and liberation. They consist of dis-
secretly” (Sāyaṇa), and the second is the root cursive thought as much as of pure conscious-
man- + tran, meaning “to contemplate” (Yāska). ness” (→ Abhinavagupta’s PaTrV., 243; Padoux,
Tantras often derive this term from two other 1990, 376).
verbal roots, root man (to contemplate) plus root • “The mantra is so-called because it is of the
trai- (to protect; KuT. 17.54). Stemming from dif- nature of the contemplation of the divine of
ferent verbal roots and referring to distinct con- unbound light [and] because it protects from all
cepts, different uses of mantra can be considered fears” (KuT. 17.54).
as wholly discrete terms. Among the prominent • “The meaning of the term mantra is some
meanings of the Vedic or tantric mantras, includ- awareness that encapsulates [lit. gulps] the entire
ing secret counseling and the elevated self-aware- mental constructions which is of the character of
ness (pramātṛ) identified in the Trika system thinking in its expansion and of the character of
(→ Kashmir Śaivism) as “mantra,” this essay protecting from fear in its retraction” (MaMañ. 49).
focuses the first meaning of the term. • “[M]antra is not comprised of letters. Nei-
ther is it of the body having ten arms or five faces.
Mantra should be [understood] as the rise of
Classical Definitions sound in the early point of determination” (cited
in Parimala, MaMañ. 49).
• Mantra is something “pronounced by seers”
(kaviśastá; ṚV. 1.152.2; 6.50.14; 10.14.4; Findly, Contemporary Definitions
1991, 15–47).
• Mantras serve to bring to light the subsidiary Jan Gonda
parts of the sacrifice as it is being performed • Vedic: “[A] general name for the formulas,
(MSBh. 1.2.32; Taber, 1991, 149). verses or sequences of words in prose which con-
• Mantra is what activates an indication of ritual tain praise . . . are believed to have magical, reli-
element (abhidhānasya codaka; MSBh. 2.1.32). gious, or spiritual efficiency, are recited, muttered
or sung in the Vedic ritual and which are collected
in the methodically arranged corpora of Vedic
texts” (Gonda, vol. IV, 1975, 251).
Mantras 403
• Tantric: “a power (śakti) in the form of for- specific rituals, their very nature shifts according
mulated and expressed thought” (Gonda, vol. IV, to the ritual application. Mantras, then, are often
1975, 271). flexible; they can be used for different and some-
times contrasting purposes, and the treatment of
Agehananda Bharati mantras follows the ritual paradigm. This appli-
“A mantra is a quasi-morpheme or a series of cation of mantras often relates to the construction
quasi-morphemes, or a series of mixed genuine or visualization of various geometric designs
and quasi-morphemes arranged in conventional (→ maṇḍalas). Although the incorporation of geo-
patterns, based on codified esoteric traditions, metric designs for rituals that require chanting
and passed on from one preceptor to one disciple mantras is found in both Vedic and tantric ritu-
in the course of a prescribed initiation” (Bharati, als, the interrelationship between mantra and
1965, 111). maṇḍala becomes prominent in the latter. In the
tantric depiction, just as peripheral deities are
André Padoux considered to be emanations of the central deity,
• Tantric: “A mantra is a formula or a sound the mantras of the deities in the circle are consid-
with a fixed and prescribed form, to be used ered to be limbs of the core mantra. Tantras often
according to certain rules and in prescribed cir- reverse the Vedic ritual paradigm by placing a
cumstances, and empowered with a general or a mantra at the center of the ritual, and in many
specific efficacy acknowledged by the tradition cases, the recitation of mantra replaces the ritual
wherein it is used” (Padoux, 1990, 379). itself. In this changed paradigm, the mantra is
• Second (philosophical) definition: “A mantra regarded as the foundation for reflection, and the
is an aspect of the cosmic energy, and thereby it mental resonance of mantra is considered to be
lies at a certain level of consciousness” (Padoux, more powerful than its vocalic articulation.
1990, 379).

The Vedic Mantras
General Characteristics
The composers of the Vedic mantras are called
The above definitions make explicit that the con- “seers” (ṛsị s). The Vedic citations identified as ṛc
cept of mantra cannot be reduced to a single are metrical and are loudly pronounced, whereas
interpretation. It is nonetheless possible to high- the yajus sections contain prose to be uttered slowly
light some characteristics in order to identify in various ritual contexts. Vedic tradition stresses
mantras. In general, specific lineages assume tra- exact articulation, and variation in chanting gives
ditional authority in transmitting specific man- rise to different branches of the Vedas (Carpenter,
tras with a focus on the oral instruction. Receiving 1994, 19–34). As ṛcs are associated with deities,
a mantra, thus, becomes identical to receiving mantras identified as yajus are linked with rituals.
ritual initiation (dīkṣā). Mantras are considered to The sāman is metrical and chanted with musical
be divine revelation, and the authorities – the effect. The mantras in the Atharvaveda are often
→ ṛsị s in the Vedic tradition and siddhas in the linked to magical effects (see also → Vedas).
folk pantheons – are considered capable of “hear- Due to the stature of the Vedas in Indian soci-
ing” the cosmic resonance. The power of mantra ety, vernacular traditions occasionally link them-
is believed to transcend its linguistic ability to sig- selves to the Vedas. The authority in the Vedic
nify something and they often defy the rules of paradigm concerns the power of speech, limited
spoken language – and thus their efficacy relies to that embodied by the ṛsị s through their pen-
less on grammatical correctness than on its pre- ance. Myths often highlight the seer’s power to
cise articulation. Distanced from common lan- transform reality through speech. As this is not
guage, a mantra can be an acronym of the names simply linguistic signification, authoritativeness
of deities or of various mantras. is crucial to mantric identity.
Mantras are often identified with distinct dei- The concept of speech (vāc) as divine is at the
ties and just as the images of the deities receive center of mantra. In the Vedic world, speech is
rituals of life-installation and worship, so also do considered to be the teacher of gods (ṚV. 8.100.10;
mantras. In this depiction, mantras assume their 10.125.3), immortal (ṚV. 1.139.8), and of the
own personalities. When mantras are applied in nature of light (ṚV. 9.73.5). They are the mothers
404 Mantras
(mātṛs; ṚV. 8.6.20), and are indestructible (akṣarā; one to another context. Gāyatrītantra, a medieval
ṚV. 1.80.1). This divination of speech manifests in tantric text, delineates the detailed ritual, visual-
Indian philosophical traditions on the one hand ization, and application of this mantra. While the
in the concept that the signifying power (→ śakti) name gāyatrī comes from the verbal root gā- or
of language is divine, and on the other, in the gai-, meaning “to sing,” the mantra is no longer
magical power of speech with its ability to trans- sung, but is quietly articulated or repeated men-
form reality. Vedic tradition relates correct under- tally. The deity of the mantra is no longer Savitṛ
standing and articulation of mantras to magical (the sun), but Sāvitrī, a goddess with benign
results. A narrative suggests that the demons lost anthropomorphic form. The mantra is no longer
the war by failing to pronounce the mantras cor- read once in the ritual context, but is repeated
rectly (MaBh. 1.1.). In the Hindu paradigm, all many times. The associated deity, Gāyatrī, is med-
rituals require mantra. It is arguable that rituals itated upon in different forms: in the form of
and mantras exist independently and are super- Gāyatrī in red garb for the early morning, as
imposed upon each other for magical effect. In Sāvitrī in white garb during the day, and as
the later traditions, the efficacy of mantras super- → Sarasvatī in smoky garb at sunset. She is visual-
sedes the ritual paradigm. ized as having five faces and ten arms during
The repetition of mantras comes to prominence late-night meditation. The full mantra practice
in the later Vedic period, with soft recitation in requires the installation of the mantra in the body
the morning and louder articulation later in the (nyāsa), the demonstration of various gestures
day. This stylistic shift in chanting evolves in the (→ mudrā), and visualization of both the corpo-
form of three recitations: low (mandra), inaudible real form of the deity and each and every letter of
(upāṃ su), and mental (mānasa; Patton, 2005, 29). the mantra. Furthermore, each letter is focused
This structure of chanting unfolds with the divine upon as having a specific color, and is associated
vāc being not merely speech having power, but with a specific ṛsị and meter (GāT. ch. 1). Each
Vāc as the goddess of wisdom and the procreative letter of the mantra links with distinct principles
force associated with Prajāpati, the god of cre- found in → Sāṃ khya cosmology, and certain per-
ation (Holdrege, 1996, 89–93, 105–112). fections are associated with certain letters of the
mantra. The practice includes maṇḍala construc-
Importing Mantras: Vedic Mantras in the tion and worship, wherein various deities are
Tantric Context invoked as emanation of the goddess Gāyatrī
The vast gap between the Vedas and the Tantras is (PST. ch. 30).
bridged through the concept of mantra. The dei- Duplicating the Vedic gāyatrīmantra, Tantras
ties invoked in the Vedas, the mantras associated produce multiple versions, with each of the dei-
with the deities, and the rituals differ greatly ties having its own gāyatrīmantra. In the changed
when compared to tantric deities, mantras, and context, this mantra transforms to a “class” refer-
ritual application of those mantras. Vedic man- ring to a particular type of mantra associated with
tras are poetic in nature, a characteristic that various deities. Adopting this structure, some-
diminishes in the subsequent mantra literature. times even peripheral deities in the maṇḍala have
Vedic mantras are replete with simile and meta- their own gāyatrīmantra.
phor, and record history through poetic vision, Another example of this process of adaptation
which is not the case for tantric mantras. Despite and transformation can be found in the Śaiva
differences, the mantra that embodies the concept → Āgamas, which often utilize five Vedic mantras
of the power of speech, is at the core of both Vedic in ritual visualization of the five faces of → Śiva.
and tantric traditions. Most Tantras attribute These mantras are at the center of the → Pāśupata
mantras to one or the other Vedic seers, suggest- vows and practices. The Svacchandatantra describes
ing that their authority in Indian society had the aghoramantra (→ Aghoris and Kāpālikas),
remained undiminished despite the changed associating it with Svacchanda → Bhairava. Paral-
ritual context. lel to the tantric practice of gāyatrī, these Śaiva
Tantras frequently draw upon the Vedic man- mantras move to a new ritual paradigm with a
tras. An exploration of the gāyatrīmantra, which shift, not only in visualization and preparatory
is both the most popular Vedic mantra recited rituals, but also in the meaning of the mantra.
today as well as a tantric mantra, demonstrates They now correspond to various Śiva or Bhairava
the nuances added in transporting mantras from forms, and the practice includes the installation
Mantras 405
of mantras in the body, construction and visual- cal sense with the categories emerging from
ization of a maṇḍala, demonstration of various the letters, and the cognitive sense with self-
gestures, and a high number of mantra repeti- awareness being the foundation of concepts,
tions. Various perfections and magical powers are and that in turn of the perceived world. These
associated with repetition of these mantras. These two letters also depict the seminal drop (bindu)
examples demonstrate the fluidity of the Hindu and sound (nāda), suggesting the capacity of
traditions and illustrate the shift of the ritual par- mantras to be “seen” and “heard.” The cosmic
adigm with the mantras remaining unchanged. resonance encapsulated in letters and found
in deeper levels of pronunciation establishes the
parallel between the individual body where
Mantra in Tantric Literature the serpentine force called kuṇḍalinī resides in
the subtle and physical forms of sound, and the
Tantric mantras dominate the popular Hindu cosmos that is the manifestation of sound in
perception of the power of speech. These mantras material form (LakṣT. chs. 18–23).
may be in Sanskrit, in a hybrid language, or in the
vernacular. Although mantras in the tantric world Mantra as Person
vastly differ from their Vedic counterparts, Tan- According to Tantras, mantras not only distill the
tras often assign the Vedic seer and the meter for cosmic forces and empower its holder, they are
their mantras. In the shifted paradigm, Tantras often treated as living persons. As each mantra
stress the powers of the letters (mātṛkā) that col- presents its own order of letters, it depicts a
lectively constitute the power of mantras. Letters, unique macrocosm, with mantra being the con-
the substance of mantras, are considered here to scious subject, the axis upon which all energies
be the blueprint of creation. revolve. The divine nature of speech, found in
anthropomorphic form in the Tantras, parallels
Mantra and Mātṛkā the concept that the proper order of letters
Each of the Sanskrit letters, generally counted as unfolds the hidden forces of the cosmos in the
50 is considered mātṛkā, giving rise to words and form of mantras. Select instances to describe the
in turn to the world. Following Śivasūtra, mātṛkās subjective domain of mantras include:
constitute the very foundation of cognition
(ŚiS. 1.4). Tantric texts arrange letters in various • Mantras embody awareness (KuT. 15.61).
orders, attributing special significance to each • Mantras are considered engendered by
variation. The śabdarāśi order, wherein the letters mātṛkās, the mothers (ŚTT. 2.57).
are read in the sequence of a to kṣ, highlights the • Most of the monosyllabic mantras are con-
prominence of Bhairava. In the mālinī sequence, sidered to be “seminal” (bīja), from which longer
the letters are arranged from n to ph. Tantras give mantras emerge.
a unique visualization for each of the letters and • Mantras are masculine, feminine, or neuter.
also assign a specific number of rays (raśmi). The mantras that end with vaṣaṭ or phaṭ are con-
These rays, referring to the powers of the five sidered to be masculine, while those ending with
elements (→ mahābhūtas) from earth to sky, are vauṣaṭ or svāhā are feminine, and those ending
organized differently in different letters corre- with huṃ or namaḥ are neuter (MMU. 24.92–94).
sponding to the transmissions (āmnāyas), the dif- Other Tantras consider the mantras ending with
ferent sources of the emanation of the deities huṃ as masculine, and the mantras ending with
(VAT. ch. 20). Furthermore, the letters a to kṣ are ṭhaṭha as feminine (ŚTT. 2.58).
segmented into seven or eight groups and are • Mantras can have impurities (sūtaka) related
related to their corresponding deities, invoked as to birth or death (KuT. 15.57).
mātṛkās. In other words, the powers of Bhairava • Mantras receive the rituals of birth and are
and mātṛkā manifest through the articulation of awakened (KuT. 15.71–72; ŚTT. 2.112–123).
vowels and consonants that collectively constitute • Mantras can be perplexed or angry; they can
the mantra. As the word aham is an acronym of be young, adolescent, or old; they can be proud,
both vowels and consonants, this is considered to insensible, intoxicated, deceitful, or slow; they can
be the seminal form of Bhairava and mātṛkā. turn their face away; they can be deaf, blind, inani-
The term means I-sense. The world is considered mate, servile, hungry, immobilized, tormented,
the manifestation of aham in both the cosmologi- without affection, lifeless, asleep, cruel, dull, hostile,
406 Mantras
indifferent, ashamed, or deluded (KuT. 15.65–70; mantras, and the ability of shape-shifting through
ŚTT. 2.64–110; Bühnemann, 1992, 79). tapas (VyāBh. 4.1). This categorization is not
• A mantra can be a friend or an enemy (KuT. applicable to both Vedic and tantric understand-
15.84; ŚTT. 2.126). ings, as they unequivocally proclaim the unparal-
leled powers of mantras.
These attributes of mantra are possible only when In tantric practice, the power of mantras is dis-
mantras are treated as persons and not merely as covered through acquisition of a specific state of
words or instruments for acquiring magical results. mind. The gesture called khecarī, for instance,
depicts the state of mind beyond thoughts, iden-
tifying it as the supreme state and origin (yoni) of
The Power of Mantras all deities and mantras (NeT. 7.35–41). Mantras
are considered more powerful in their seminal
The Vedic understanding, that rituals constitute (bīja) form. Aham is one of these seed mantras
and transform reality, embodies the notion of the that stands as acronym for all the letters and also
power of mantras, as there are no rituals without for selfawareness (Padoux, 1991, 386–389). Man-
mantras. The later Vedic concept that praṇava tras, along these lines, are the specific arrangements
(→ oṃ ) is the source of the three planes of the cos- of the powers found in letters (mātṛkā), which are
mos typifies tantric exegesis, and the early Indian the “unrecognized mothers” for bound individuals
notion of penance (→ tapas) is reversed in later and are divine forces for the realized ones (ŚiS. 1.4).
Indian culture, with mantras replacing rituals and The rise of the powers that underlie these letters
penances. In the Vedic paradigm, one aspires determines perfections, and when all the forces
to “see” mantras and be a ṛsị , whereas in the of these letters are concealed, one is bound and
tantric context, mantras are divine revelations compared to a beast (SpK. 45). The realization of
and one aspires to achieve siddhis through the the divine aspect of the I-sense through the com-
mantra practice. plete recognition of aham is therefore considered
Mantras are often compared to weapons. to be the essence of all the mantras.
Mantras that grant protection – identified as The vigor (vīrya) of mantra is considered to be
sudarśanamantra (the disc mantra related to Viṣṇu), experienced through the immersion in pure
aghoramantra (Śiva’s weapon), pāśupatamantra consciousness (ŚiS. & ŚiSV. 1.22). Tantras are in
(Śiva’s weapon), nṛsiṃ hamantra (the mantra to agreement that the letters pronounced are not
invoke the man-lion incarnation of Viṣṇu), and mantras if they are repeated without awareness.
so on – and mantras given the mythological An aspirant merges his self-awareness with a
names for weapons, both highlight the paradigm mantra through ritual installation of mantras and
of warfare. If practiced differently, mantras gener- through visualization, wherein the focus lies on
ate the opposite effect: the mantra for granting the integration and dissemination of mantra and
long life, when recited in reverse order, is applied letters. The vigor of mantras is felt through the
as a mantra for killing. Read from back to front, expansion of the self-awareness that embodies
the Devīmāhātmya grants supernormal powers, the cosmos (ŚiS. 2.3).
and the gāyatrīmantra carries out magical effects. Essentially, the power of mantras is “felt,”
Although the etymological and syntactic mean- explained as follows:
ing of a mantra does not apply in these reversals,
[O]nce entered that state which (the yogi) takes
the concept of mātṛkā generating power in the
as his support and firmly resolves that: “I will
mantra is not challenged even in the changed
surely do whatever he says,” both the sun and
sequence. moon set, following the ascending way, into the
Patañjali (→ Pātañjala Yoga) identifies certain channel of suṣumnā, once abandoned the sphere
perfections that are achieved through mantras of the universe. Then in that great sky, when the
(YS. 4.1). These supernormal powers are clearly sun and moon dissolve away, the dull minded
distinguished from those attained through tapas (yogi is cast down) into a state like that of deep
and absorption. In his commentary, Vyāsa identi- sleep. The awakened however remains lucid.
fies perfections such as having multiple bodies Seizing that strength (bala), mantras, endowed
through birth, agelessness and deathlessness with the power of omniscience, perform their
through the application of elixir, the powers such functions, as do the senses of the embodied.
as manipulating the size of the body through (SpK. 23–26; Dyczkowski, 1994, 102–104)
Mantras 407
The power of mantras parallels the power of mantra recitations, is taught as the means for the
kuṇḍalinī. As mantra stands as both its phonetic rise of mantras.
resonance and the awareness embedded in it, so Some seed mantras such as hrīṃ are also iden-
does kuṇḍalinī with its relationship to life force tified as kullukā. Visualization of the specific deity
(prāṇa) and awareness. Tantric texts such as along with her kullukā, prior to counting the
Śāktavijñāna discuss the physical effects of the mantra, is considered a necessary step in mantra
rise of kuṇḍalinī. The manifestation of mantric recitation. These syllables are also identified as
powers coincides with the waking of kuṇḍalinī. the bridge (setu) between the practitioner and the
There are physical symptoms associated with the mantra, and are supposed to be recited before
rise of this serpentine power, some of which are chanting the mantra. Each of the mantras is sup-
wearisome (ŚāV. 19–22). This depiction tallies posed to have emanated from a seed mantra and
with the folk belief that mantras can be “danger- the recitation of that seed mantra, such as śrīṃ for
ous” and are not to be practiced without a proper Lakṣmī (→ Śrī Lakṣmī), is supposed to purify
guide. speech and empower the mantra recitation.
Tantras highlight the schema that audible man- The mantras received can have various faults.
tra recitation (śābda) is less powerful in compari- A practitioner revealing his practice, for example,
son to inner vocalization (upāṃ śu), which in turn is considered to be a fault. The power of mantras
is subordinate to mental reflection (mānasa). The is believed to manifest when these faults are
inner recitation of a mantra is considered to be a removed. Tantras describe the following rituals as
hundred times more powerful than vocalic reci- necessary in order to purify mantras:
tation, and the mental counting is considered a
thousand times more efficient. Some Tantras • Birth (janana). In this ritual, a geometric design
relate vocalic recitation to inferior accomplish-
associated with birth ( jananayantra; → maṇḍalas
ments such as killing or hypnotizing, inner utter-
and yantras) is made, in which the letters are writ-
ance (upāṃ śu) to achieving perfections such as
ten and a specific mantra is revealed.
distance sight or hearing, and mental recitation • Illumination (dīpana). This ritual recitation
as the means to liberation (LakṣT. 39.35). Tantras
of the mantra begins with haṃ sa and ends with
apply their own set of rules and regulations to the
course of recitation for discovering the power of • Awakening (bodhana). This refers to the rec-
itation of the mantra with hrūṃ at both of its ends.
Following Tantras, the course of mantra prac- • Beating (tāḍana). To recite the mantra with
tice starts with finding a proper mantra that fits
phaṭ at both ends is considered “beating.”
the nature of the aspirant and culminates with the • Consecration (abhiṣeka). In this ritual, the
“waking” of mantras. As mantras are considered
main mantra is consecrated with the mantra aiṃ
to have their own personalities, particular man-
haṃ saḥ oṃ .
tras are appropriate for particular persons. This • Purification (vimalīkaraṇa). In this ritual,
selection of mantras and initiation is accompa-
the main mantra is recited with oṃ troṃ vaṣaṭ at
nied by contemplation upon the meaning of the
both ends.
mantras given, followed by the enlivenment of • Enlivenment ( jīvana). To recite the mantra
the mantras (mantracaitanya). Both the cognitive
with svadhā vaṣaṭ in both ends is considered
and resonant aspects of the word are actively
engaged in this phase of making the mantras • Libation (tarpaṇa). This is the ritual offering
alive. Through the perception that mantras are of milk, honey, or water one hundred times while
powerful, and are the divine vehicles for achiev- reciting the main mantra.
ing perfection and liberation, one builds faith in • Concealing (gopana). This is the ritual of
mantras. This conviction in the power of mantras reciting the main mantra with hrīṃ at both ends.
is an important stage in mantra practice. In this • Satiation (āpyāyana). Recitation of the man-
course, the aspirant visualizes all the letters of the tra with hsauḥ in both ends is the ritual “satiation”
mantra in the heart, connects it to the kuṇḍalinī, (MMU. 24.98–108).
and visualizes them united in the thousand pet-
alled → lotus. The repetition of the mantra with
saṃ puṭa, or the insertion of the seed syllables
such as hrīṃ at the beginning and ending of the
408 Mantras

The Meaning of Mantras The Mīmāṃ sā Exegetical Tradition
The nature, role, and meaning of mantras are cru-
The cognitive and phonic aspects are inseparable cial to Mīmāṃ sā texts. Thinkers of this Vedic tra-
from each other in mantras. Just as the sound of dition such as Śabara, Kumārila, and Prabhākara
the mantra, its correct articulation, and the num- have an unmistakable imprint on other exegetical
ber of repetitions are equally important, both the traditions. Central to the Mīmāṃ sā tradition are
Vedic and the tantric literature likewise stress that the concepts that mantras are not of human ori-
understanding the meaning of mantras is an inte- gin (apauruṣeya), and that mantra recitation cre-
gral part of mantra practice. Later → Mīmāṃ sā ates power that did not exist before (apūrva).
treatises state that “mantras call to memory things Mīmāṃ sakas first perceived mantras as eternal
associated with some performance,” suggesting and in saying so, they primarily meant the per-
that mantras used in rituals are meaningful in the manence of phonemes (varṇa).
ritual context, whereas others have “unseen” Śabara contends that “word” (śabda) embodies
(adṛsṭ ạ ) meaning. Mantras are deciphered in dif- properties that are both seen (dṛsṭ ạ ) and unseen
ferent ways, accepting different perspectives to be (adṛsṭ ạ ). The comprehension of word-meaning
valid. Exploration of several prominent exegetes can be considered the visible aspect, whereas the
and the traditions that endeavor to discuss the “power” believed integral to the articulated word
meaning of mantras follows. can be identified as the second. The next concept
of Śabara’s, that the meaning of word is image
Yāska (ākṛti), allows later linguists to conceive of “mean-
Yāska, the earliest known commentator upon the ing” as mental. For Śabara, “word” is not confined
Vedic literature, strongly propounds meaning in within time nor is it comprised of parts (Gächter,
mantras. He criticizes Kautsa who considers man- 1983, 38–69). This concept parallels the Sanskrit
tras to be devoid of meaning (Nir. 1.15) and pro- grammarians’ view of the śabdabrahman (see
poses that Vedic words are identical to the spoken below).
language (Nir. 1.16). In rejection of the position Kumārila posits that mantras have “intrinsic
that mantras are obscure, Yāska says that it is not validity” (svataḥ prāmāṇya). While defending that
the fault of the post if a blind person does not see the Vedas are not of human or divine origin,
it: it is the fault of the man himself (Nir. 1.16). He Kumārila argues that the content of the Vedas,
cites passages describing the person as a block- dharma in general, is not found by any external
head who, having read the mantras, does not means of knowledge. This concept is at the foun-
understand their meaning (Nir. 1.18). dation of later epistemologists, who argue that the
His exegetical approach is to first extract the means of knowledge does not depend on further
meaning of ritual language from its common means for its validity (Taber 1992, 204–221).
usage, and then to explore the etymological basis Adopting this position, the magical effect of ritu-
for multiple meanings. Yāska’s exegesis culmi- als, some of which come to fruition in subsequent
nates in the section called Daivata, where he cat- lives, cannot be confirmed through any other
egorizes mantras as (a) indirectly addressed, (b) means of knowledge.
directly addressed, and (c) self-invocations with a The meaning of a sentence emerges here in the
first-person subject. He understands the deity of context of analyzing mantras. The theory that the
the mantra as the one whom the seer invokes with meaning of a word is understood in relation to
a particular request (Nir. 7.1). This understanding the meaning of other words in a sentence, or
of mantra limits its scope to invocations, and does “related designation” (anvitābhidhāna), is attrib-
not take into account the uktha, bīja, and kūṭa uted to Prabhākara. Following this argument,
type of mantras. Utilizing a sophisticated process, linguistic understanding relies on unitary com-
Yāska deciphers the meaning of mantras on two prehension of meaning. As the movement of a
different planes, one corresponding to the deity wagon cannot be reduced to specific functions of
(adhidaiva), and the other to the self (adhyātma). its parts, the singular awareness derived from a
This tendency to derive multiple meanings of man- sentence, following this understanding, cannot
tras becomes prominent in the later traditions. be attributed to separate words (Siderits, 1985,
253–297). Following the theory of designated
Mantras 409
relation (abhihitānvaya) of Kumārila, the mean- Tantras give sophisticated structure to nāda and
ing of a sentence is gleaned from the meaning of derive the meaning of mantras, not only by seg-
its words, and knowing the meaning of one word menting it according to its letters, but also by
does not depend upon comprehension of other analyzing subtle resonances found in the course
words in a sentence. Exegetes have utilized both of reciting the mantra (Padoux, 1990, 86–165).
of these methods for explaining mantras. The tantric understanding of mantra substan-
tially depends upon the concept that there are
Bhartṛhari various levels of speech. Following this principle,
Although the scope of Bhartṛhari’s → philosophy audible speech is merely the external form of the
of language is not only directed to mantras, it word principle that manifests first in its self-
nonetheless provides deep insight into the classi- revealing stage identified as paśyantī and is expe-
cal understanding of the nature of “word” (śabda) rienced in the mediating ground (madhyamā)
identified with brahman. His concept of “word” as before it becomes articulated. Addressed briefly
the absolute, the concept of sphoṭa in which by Bhartṛhari, the concept of the levels of speech
meaning is a unitary whole, and the analysis dominates the exegesis of mantra in Trika Śaiva
of speech at the esoteric levels of paśyantī, and other tantric traditions. Tantras add the cate-
madhyamā, and vaikharī, are foundational to gory of the “supreme” (parā) form of speech,
mantra exegesis in tantric literature (Iyer, 1992, describing it as consciousness itself, pulsating
98–180). The concept of pratibhā, or the intuitive eternally, giving rise to both linguistic and mate-
linguistic power, becomes the cosmic procreative rial manifestation. This word principle is recog-
force in the Trika Śaiva doctrine, allowing the nized as the non-dual awareness being aware of
interpretation of speech at four levels, placing itself. In this self-awareness of speech, all that is
pratibhā (or parā) at the heart of the evolution of to be cognized is cognized, and this is the founda-
speech. tion for the rise and collapse of names and forms
In Bhartṛhari’s paradigm, there is no distinc- (Padoux, 1990, 172–204).
tion between word and its powers that material- The self-seeing (paśyan) word principle, the
ize reality. Because of this intimate relationship śabdabrahman, appears as the first pulsation and
between the absolute and the word principle, one orientation toward creation. Tantras identify it as
who is aware of the reality of the word principle is subsequent to supreme speech, awareness itself.
said to realize the absolute (Sastri, 1991, 1–33). In Mantras manifest on this foundation that makes
the absence of this concept that bridges the abso- up the forces of the word principle, where subject
lute and the word, the realization of the self and and object are not distinguished. The dialogue of
attaining liberation through mantra would not be the primordial couple Śiva and Śakti (→ Mahādevī;
possible. → Pārvatī) is related to this level of speech in Tan-
Sphoṭa encapsulates both word and meaning: tras. This self-seeing (payantī) speech is correlated
its sonic aspect is found in pronouncing the word, with the power of will (icchā), which is found in
and its cognitive aspect is revealed through know- consolidated form in the manifestation of the
ing its meaning. Both sound and awareness man- power of knowledge (jñāna) in madhyamā speech,
ifest, or “burst forth” (sphuṭ), out of this “word and in the power of action (kriyā) in vaikharī
principle.” This concept fits with the later Vedic speech. The duality found in terms of both sub-
notion that the threefold world is the manifesta- ject and object, and word and meaning, appear
tion of the three letters of oṃ . Bhartṛhari analyzes (ā + root bhās) in the madhyamā level of speech.
this relationship in terms of sphoṭa and dhvani The letters found in the form of aham are mani-
(sound), in which the internal aspect is identified fest in this intermediate stage of speech, giving
as the cause of the real meaning, while the rise to vowels and consonants. Although not
external form is revealed through articulation. articulated audibly, this is the ground where word
Dhvanis are and meaning assume difference, and language
manifests in the mind. The last stage, vaikharī, is
all-pervasive and imperceptible particles which,
the external and audible form of language
when amassed by the movement of the articu-
latory organs, becomes gross and perceptible
(Padoux, 1990, 204–216). The first throb of man-
sounds and are then called nāda. (Coward, tra found in paśyantī is of the character of vision,
1980, 74) and can be compared to the visionary power of
the seers in their ability to see the mantras. In
410 Mantras
other words, “knowing” mantra is a singular that transcends both the letters and triadic mani-
audio-visual perception. This hierarchy of speech festation, is identified as the true nature of the self.
allows Tantras to develop their esoteric interpre- The Yoga system of Patañjali considers oṃ as
tation of mantras, where the subtle sound is more the signifier of → Īśvara, the particular → puruṣa
powerful, and sound and cognition become one who is never stained by the limiting factors such
in self-awareness. as kleśa (affliction), karmavipāka (the fruition of
Mantra is the ground of speculation for both actions), or āśaya (the deposit of karman). Īśvara
Mīmāṃ sā exegesis and Bhartṛhari’s philosophy of is never bound by ignorance, the conditioned
language. These ideas predate most of tantric I-sense, passion, aversion, or death, and is eter-
literature and are the bedrock in the development nally omniscient. Patañjali maintains that the
of the tantric interpretation of mantras. Further- repetition of oṃ is the contemplation of its mean-
more, both Bhartṛhari and Trika Śaivas similarly ing, which is Īśvara. To contemplate the meaning
embrace the doctrine of ābhāsa, adopting the of Īśvara is to contemplate his attributes.
concept that the absolute appears in manifoldness Tantras describe nine subtler layers in addition
without really being polluted or without falsely to the three letters of oṃ . Identified as bindu, ard-
projecting non-existing entities. In other words, hacandra, nirodhikā, nāda, nādānta, śakti, vyāpinī,
utilizing both Mīmāṃ sā and the philosophy of samanā, and unmanā, these stages refer to very
Sanskrit grammar for speculation on mantra is subtle moments of time, all of which are to be
crucial to understanding classical mantra exegesis. visualized while pronouncing the mantra. Their
location within the body, their visualization and
correlation with specific deities are all considered
Deciphering Mantras part of the meaning of oṃ . Tantras also specify
the seer, the meter, and the deity of oṃ for medi-
The tantric exposition of mantras can be clearly tation (PST. 19.3).
presented with case studies of select mantras. With Following another description, the deity of oṃ
an example of oṃ , it is easy to identify both the is Lord → Viṣnụ , visualized sitting atop a lotus and
inclusive layering of meanings and the exclusive having four arms, one carrying a lotus, mace,
and singular meaning of the same mantra found disc, and conch shell (PST. 19.4). Confirming
in different traditions. With sauṃ , the tantric Vaiṣnạ va cosmogony, four aspects of oṃ are asso-
treatment of a seed mantra can be described. The ciated with Vāsudeva, Saṅkarṣaṇa, Pradyumna,
tripurāmantra in the Śākta tradition exemplifies and Aniruddha (PST. 19.8; → Pāñcarātra).
the sophisticated meanings of mantras. In light of these descriptions, the meaning of
oṃ appears to be the prescribed visualization that
Praṇava varies with each tradition. In other words, what-
The letter oṃ , identified as praṇava, is the most ever is supposed to be brought forth in the mind
widely circulated mantra. By analyzing this single when oṃ is recited is the meaning of oṃ . Patañjali
syllable, the later Vedic, Smārta, and tantric refers to positive attributes such as omniscience
approaches to interpret mantras can be demon- as the subject matter for contemplation, whereas
strated. In order to describe the plasticity of man- Tantras build a hierarchy of subtle grounds and
tras and their meanings, it is important to know describe this as the meaning. Deities to be visual-
how the same mantras are understood or visual- ized in each of the Śaiva, Vaiṣnạ va, or Śākta tradi-
ized differently in different traditions. Praṇava tions differ, and this visualization is identified as
makes a strong case for that as well. the meaning. Explicitly, the meaning of oṃ can-
In the later Vedic tradition, oṃ is visualized as not be separated from the context of recitation.
the seed mantra that gives rise to bhū (earth),
bhuva (the middle ground), and sva (heaven). Parāmantra
This is also identified with the three sections The syllable sauḥ , identified as the mantra of the
of the gāyatrīmantra, with each section consid- goddess Parā (“The Supreme”), demonstrates how
ered to be the manifest form of a+u+m. Tantras build up visualization and consider that
Māṇḍukyopaniṣad outlines that these three letters to be the meaning of the mantra. Following
successively refer to the waking, dreaming, and Parātrīśikā, the seed mantrasauḥ is the heart of
deep sleep states of the self at both cosmic and the godhead, Bhairava (PaTr. 9). Just as a seed
individual levels. The fourth state, awareness itself contains the tree in its seminal form, following
Mantras 411
the text, so does the seed mantra, as it is the heart one, kāla refers to the visualization of sound tran-
of all the mantras (PaTr. 24). Of the three letters scending time. In the final tattvaviṣuva, one visu-
of the mantra, s + au + ḥ , the first is described as alizes the essential nature of the self (Timalsina,
referring to sat, or being, and to the god of ema- 2005, 221–224).
nation, → Brahmā. The second letter identifies the Following Yoginīhṛdaya, the mantra possesses
trident and that in turn, the triadic powers of the six layers of meaning. The first, identified as “essen-
godhead. The last letter, identified as visarga tial meaning” (bhāvārtha), refers to the constella-
(emission), describes the successive rise of aware- tion of deities corresponding to the limbs of the
ness emerging from the procreative aspect with mantra. As the mantra in totality refers to the god-
the powers of impulse, cognition, and action, the dess Tripurasundarī, its limbs are correlated with
three energies springing from the consciousness specific divinities, and the “essential meaning”
of Bhairava (Padoux, 1990, 416–422). In two dif- refers to the awareness of this relationship. The
ferent processes of visualization, the world is con- integral step of visualizing the five gross elements
sidered to be emanating from and returning to such as earth, and the five subtle elements such as
this seed mantra that describes the process of cos- smell, constitutes a part of mantra’s meaning. The
mic pulsation. Self-awareness is at the core of embodiment of 15 deities that correspond to the
both emission and retraction, as it is the heart or lunar cycle layers further meaning upon the man-
the foundation of both the cognitive process and tra. Finally, the I-sense (aham) is the essence of the
physical world. The meaning of the mantra mantra, with “a” referring to light (prakāśa), and
includes the visualization of both kuṇḍalinī and a “ha” referring to awareness (vimarśa).
trident inside the channels of the flow of prāṇa. The second, the “lineage meaning” (sampra-
Essentially, recognizing self-awareness as the dāya), is shared within the community and
foundation of cosmic pulsation giving rise to the imparted by teacher to disciple. To visualize this,
world is the meaning of the mantra. Yoginīhṛdaya describes the successive correspon-
dence of the letters h, k, r, s, and l to sky, air, fire,
Tripurāmantra water, and earth, respectively. From these letters
Tripurā is one of the most widely worshipped dei- manifest the subtle elements such as smell or
ties among Tantric practitioners. There are two touch, numbering 15 in total, each with a different
main mantras in this practice, also identified as arrangement of the proportions of the five ele-
→ Śrī Vidyā: ments. The powers dormant in these elements are
the manifestations of Śakti and are signified by the
Kādi (the mantra with the initial ka): ka-e-ī-la-
letter h, and the entities themselves are identified
hrīṃ -ha-sa-ka-ha-la-hrīṃ -sa-ka-la-hrīṃ
as Śiva and signified by the letter a. Once again, a
Hādi (the mantra with the initial ha): ha-sa-ka-
+ h, referring to I-awareness, is the essence of all
la-hrīṃ -ha-sa-ka-ha-la-hrīṃ -sa-ka-la-hrīṃ
that exists, and is also the essence of the meaning
Yoginīhṛdaya gives preliminary visualizations imparted within the lineage. This awareness is felt
for reciting the mantra, including the visualiza- by establishing correspondence between the let-
tion of cakras or various centers within the body, ters of the mantra with the 36 categories accepted
and the equinoxes (viṣuva) that indicate the vital- in Śaiva traditions. Besides referring to all the
ity of the prāṇa (life force), the mind, and the principles, the letters of the mantra also indicate
mantra itself. The first viṣuva, identified as prāṇa, the evolving states of self-awareness. Self-experi-
refers to the visualization of the flow of prāṇa. ence endowed with limited will, knowledge, and
The second, identified as mantra, refers to the action is identified as the sakala stage. Above this
middle ground in which mind dissolves into are the vijñānākala and pralayākala stages, where
the sound rising from the base cakra. The practi- the aspects of action and knowledge are sequen-
tioner focuses on one sound that envelops all let- tially unbound. The stages, mantra, mantreśvara,
ters of the mantra, visualizing all the letters and mantramaheśvara refer to the higher stages of
merging into and emanating from the single awareness where, through realization of oneself as
sound. The third, identified as nāḍi, is the identifi- the mantra and the deity of the mantra, one recog-
cation of the channels within the body that mani- nizes the self as the supreme divinity. Adopting
fest the sound. In visualizing the viṣuva called this interpretation, mantra is no longer words or
praśānta, the mind rests in the śakti state that sentences but the very self-awareness of the prac-
is beyond sound and its foundation. The next titioner. The rising awareness that transcends
412 Mantras
sound and mind is also considered to be an inte- Knowing the meaning here is not simply know-
gral part of the meaning of the mantra. ing the way things are, but changing their previ-
The third meaning, nigarbha (embryonic), ously cognized condition. As mantra is envisioned,
refers to the awareness that the deity of the man- so is its meaning. Understanding a mantra, fol-
tra, instructor, and aspirant are all essentially lowing this, is a purely cognitive process that does
identical. Explicitly, all of the above meanings not depend upon external reality for identifying
stress the identity of the mantra and the deity, the the relationship between signifier and signified.
aspirant and the mantra, and the mentor and the
deity. In both first and second meanings, mantra
is equated to selfawareness identical to the cosmic Contemporary Approaches
awareness, and the divine union of Śiva and Śakti.
The third meaning further highlights the same Mantras Are Meaningless
oneness, confirming that the meaning of mantra F. Staal analyzes the Vedic rituals in great detail
is not isolated from the self-awareness of the prac- and makes the observation concerning ritual and
titioner. Essentially, elevation of self-experience mantra that these are essentially meaningless. The
to the higher planes that allows the aspirant to core of his arguments is that the Vedic ritual con-
feel his presence in all that exists is the meaning text provides mantric identity. As mantras can be
of the mantra. broken into pieces and applied in various ritual
The fourth meaning, kaulika, is shared among contexts, they do not have inherent meaning. He
the initiates. Added to the sequence of above further argues that mantras are like music or
visualizations, this meaning confirms the identity the chirrups of birds. He cites the stobha (cluster
of the self with the maṇḍala, its deity, the mantra, of letters used in samān chants) and bījamantras,
and the master. Here, the body is visualized as the wherein a plain linguistic meaning is hard to
constellation of all 36 categories. The identity of imagine. In the context of mantras with visible
the mantra and maṇḍala is found through visual- meaning, he argues that it is not the content that
ization of the select letters of the mantra as dis- constitutes it as mantra, because the translation of
tinct parts of the maṇḍala. For instance, the letter h mantras are, after all, not applied in rituals.
refers to two sets of ten triangles and the outer This understanding of meaning is a part of his
layer of 14 triangles of the śrīcakra (→ maṇḍalas). theory that
The deities associated with the letters, and the
planets and lunar mansions installed in the body ritual is pure activity, without meaning or goal . . .
are considered integral parts of kaulika meaning. To say that ritual is for its own sake is to say that
it is meaningless, without function, aim, or goal,
The “esoteric” (rahasya) meaning, in the same
or also that it constitutes its own aim or goal. It
sequence reveals the awareness that mantra and
does not follow that it has no value: but what-
kuṇḍalinī are identical. The visualization of the
ever value it has is intrinsic value. (Staal, 1996,
cosmic force dormant within the practitioner’s 131–132)
body thus becomes an integral part of the mean-
ing of the mantra. He considers ritual as “a mere activity performed
Finally, the “supreme meaning” (mahārtha), is by animals in accordance with rules” (Staal, 1996,
the recognition that the aspirant and the cosmic 137), and argues that finding the meaning of rit-
force that permeates all that exists are one and the ual is human rationalization. As mantras are con-
same. With this realization, the aspirant, while sidered to be rules within the context of rituals,
living in the body, finds his or her self-awareness he comes to the conclusion that mantras are devoid
identical to the divinity, and his bodily experience of meaning. He contrasts the nature of mantra with
permeating all that exists (Timalsina, 2005, that of language that is in flux, as mantras are sup-
224–232). posed to be handed down without any change.
Some observations can be made based on the Scholars have criticized this position primarily
above discussion of meaning. As highlighted by demonstrating the presence of meaning in
already, “meaning” here is mental rather than its many mantras. Traditionally, all mantras have
correspondence to external objects, and knowing meaning, whether visible or invisible. It is explicit
meaning is transformative rather than informa- that there are two tendencies, first, to read man-
tive. It is the self, not objects, that is visualized tras linguistically, and second, that highlights the
and confirmed as the meaning of the mantra. alinguistic aspect of mantras. There is a flaw in
Mantras 413
Staal’s assumption that mantras in their earliest process of mantras: first, mantras are derived by
stage are bījamantras, and in their intermediate segmenting letters from words, and then their
stage are two dimensional arrangements such as meaning is conceived of as hidden within the let-
hā bu hā bu, and in the final stage are the mantras ters. This dual process of deciphering mantras
that are subject to semantic, further syntactic and and arriving at their meaning depends upon con-
different syntactic constraints (Staal, 1996, 266). templation itself as an integral part of the mean-
The mantras classified as “final” appear first in ing of mantras.
the Vedic texts, and the bījamantras appear his- Moreover, the concept that ritual context gives
torically in the last phase in tantric literature. mantra its identity contradicts the Vedic under-
Even among mantras found in the → Āgamas, standing that “mantra is pronounced by seers.”
the bījamantras are relatively earlier than the The Vedic verses have apparently obtained their
kūṭamantras. identity as mantras even prior to their application
What is missing in this discussion is that mean- in rituals. This also contradicts the context
ing is always internally constructed. To determine wherein mantra itself is the ritual and when there
whether something has meaning or not, it is nec- is no other ceremony or ritual except for repeat-
essary to know whether its user meant something ing the mantra.
by it or not. The mantra tradition overwhelmingly
indicates that mantras have meaning. Mantras Are Speech Acts
It is true that mantras are used in fragments W.T. Wheelock and H.P. Alper propose that man-
and are often removed from their original con- tras are “speech acts,” taking for granted that
text. But it is also true that the whole body of the mantra is a form of language (Wheelock, 1991,
mantra text is considered to be an unbroken man- 96–122; Alper, 1991, 249–294). Following the
tra. For example, Devīmāhātmya is used in seg- theory of J.L. Austin and J.R. Searle that linguistic
ments in the ritual context. However, the entire expression not only reveals thought but necessar-
story of the Goddess (→ Durgā) found in Devīmā- ily involves accomplishing some purposeful act,
hātmya is also considered as a single mantra. In religious language transforms the objects involved
this case, the myth of the victory of the goddess in the ritual. The meaning of mantra here rests on
becomes the essential meaning of the mantra. ritual function. Accepting that mantras are
Furthermore, mantras are found in flux in ver- applied in order to generate thought instead of
nacular and indigenous traditions with dhāmīs, common language, where language is used to
jhākrīs, and other shamans often arbitrarily express thought, the meaning of mantra is found
manipulating the mantras. → Healers are also in its ability to transform the cognitive paradigm
found telling stories that do not require exact rep- of the agents involved in performing rituals.
etition of words. Arguably, even the Vedic mantra In plain words, speech act is a theory of the
tradition may not necessarily be a rigid system in communicative aspect of language that requires
its fluid stage of origination. linguistic utterance. The underlying principle is
Tantric texts often elaborate upon mantras. that the minimal unit of human communication
One example in this context is how the kūṭa- is a performance of certain acts and not a sen-
mantras are treated. Assigned successively for the tence or other expression. It is through commu-
five elements, earth, water, fire, air, and sky, the nication that statements are made, questions
kūṭamantra “la-va-ra-ya-haṃ ” collectively refers asked, orders given, or things described. We apol-
to the five principal elements. Although there is ogize, explain, thank, or congratulate in commu-
no syntactic meaning to the kūṭa, it functions as nication, and these are the acts carried out
an indicator of something else, the five elements. through utterance. In essence, we do something
In the same way, the kūṭamantra “ḍa-ra-la-ka- by saying something. Speech act is always dialogi-
saha” refers to six → yoginīs visualized in the six cal and intersubjective, and it avoids the solipsis-
cakras. Again, this kūṭa functions as an acronym tic character of speculative or psychological
and by repeating the mantra, one is collectively analysis.
invoking all the yoginīs. W.T. Wheelock argues that mantric utterance
Mantras are frequently encoded in the Āgama involves accomplishing some purposeful act. He
texts, and to read them, it is always necessary that distinguishes ritual language from common lan-
they be “extracted” (uddhāra). This process of guage by pointing out that language used in the
decipherment identifies the two-way, reciprocal former can hardly be the communication of
414 Mantras
information (Wheelock, 1991, 99). He then says ent from the Mīmāṃ sā or tantric understanding
that “mantra is a good case of this general point of śakti.
about liturgical utterances” (Wheelock, 1991, 100). There are additional problems in reading
He highlights the transformative aspect of ritual mantras as speech acts within the paradigm of
performance and demonstrates that invocation, Advaita → Vedānta. “Speech act does not describe
praise, and petition are the acts carried out by or report anything at all” (Findly, 1991, 27).
mantric utterance (Wheelock, 1991, 101–117). Upanishadic mantras, such as “Brahman [brah-
The essence of the acts carried out in uttering man] is of the character of truth, knowledge, and
mantras, in his opinion, is “to pay homage to the endlessness,” on the other hand, describe attri-
gods” (Wheelock, 1991, 121). butes of the brahman that are to be contemplated
for self-realization. Furthermore, within the para-
Problems with Speech Act Theory digm of speech act, “uttering of a sentence is a
Although the application of speech act theory part of action” (Findly, 1991, 27). Following the
addresses the cognitive dimension of mantras, it Advaita doctrine, realization of the meaning of
does not incorporate the aspect of sound high- the upanishadic sentences that explain the nature
lighted by F. Staal. Neither does it address the of the self is not an “act”: the self knowing itself is
inherent meaning of mantras built within the tra- not an action, as the distinction between subject
ditions. The act of summoning or invocation can and object is a requirement in actions, whereas
be conducted without comprehending intrinsic when the self knows itself, there are not two enti-
meaning. For instance, summoning a pet dog ties, one knowing the other.
named “Tiger” does not depend upon knowing
the conventional meaning of the term. Mantras as Signs
The concept of speech act depends on the dual- Another theory to analyze mantras is that these
istic model of reality and a dialogical nature of are the signs through which the divine is compre-
mantric utterance. Most tantric doctrines are hended. D.R. Brooks considers mantras as an
monistic, highlighting identity between the agent indication of the dispositional powers of the
articulating mantra, the deity, and the mantra divine, and argues that the indexical function of
itself. Although Tantras present the revelation of particular signs follows the assertion of the real
mantras in the dialogical sphere of paśyantī, dem- presence of divinity (Brooks, 1992, 84–85). Fol-
onstrating the intersubjective aspect of mantric lowing C.S. Peirce thesis that the sign stands for
utterance, dialogue in paśyantī is internal, subjec- something, D.R. Brooks interprets that the body
tive, and not between two human agents. of the goddess and the mantra correspond to the
Furthermore, mantras are not always “uttered.” corporeal and subtle bodies of the divine (Brooks,
Although following classical Indian linguistic 1992, 82). This argument can be further advanced
philosophy, the parā, paśyantī, or madhyamā are following J. Derrida’s understanding of signs that
considered to be the subtle layers of linguistic
the sign and divinity have the same place and
expression, this is not what J.L. Austin and
time of birth. The age of the sign is essentially
J.R. Searle have in mind when they propose
theological. Perhaps it will never end. (Derrida,
the theory of speech act. The communicative
1994, 14)
domain is either silent or subjective in the context
of mantric utterance. Mantras are said to be more In defense of this argument, one can add that Tan-
and more powerful as they are internalized. This tras often utilize terminology such as “indication”
cannot be the case of communicative language. (saṅketa) while discussing mantras, address sym-
The concept of “mantra” presupposes the con- bolism of iconic forms, and describe mantras as
cept of “śakti,” that certain speech has certain representing divinity.
power. Tantras, while describing this power, do Although applicable when analyzing the man-
not highlight the meaning embodied in the words tra literature from a distance, there are crucial
but dissolve the mantra into letters, claiming that problems even in imposing this idea to read man-
the power of the mantra is the constellation of the tras. The fundamental problem lies in the differ-
powers of the “mothers” (mātṛkā), or letters. ence between sign and what it stands for. As
The concept of “force” found in the discussion has been demonstrated, the exegetes interpreting
of J.L. Austin and J.R. Searle is completely differ- mantras repeatedly establish identity between man-
Mantras 415
tra and the divinity. One of the identified mean- Gonda, J., Selected Studies, Presented to the Author by the
ings of Śrī Vidyā is that the aspirant, the mantra, Staff of the Oriental Institute, Utrecht University, On the
and the goddess are identical. Although perfectly Occasion of his 70th Birthday, 4 vols., Leiden, 1975.
Holdrege, B.A., Veda and Torah: Transcending the Textual-
feasible in a dualistic paradigm, the monistic world- ity of Scripture, Delhi, 1996.
view of tantric philosophers and the inherent Iyer, K.A.S., Bhartṛhari: A Study of the Vākyapadīya in the
difference between sign and sign-holder pose Light of the Ancient Commentaries, Poona, 1992.
contradictions. To argue that mantras are signs Jacobsen, K.A., ed., Theory and Practice of Yoga: Essays in
and to establish identity would be something Honour of Gerald James Larson, Leiden, 2005.
similar to establishing that the driver, the high- Kaviraj, G., Bhāratīya Saṃ skṛti aur Sādhanā, part 1, Patna,
way signs, and the highway are identical. 1977 (Hind.).
Paradoux, A., Vāc: The Concept of the Word in Selected
Hindu Tantras, Albany, 1990.
Patton, L.L., Bringing the Gods to Mind: Mantra and Ritual
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