What is a Mantra?
The origin of this word comes from Hinduism and Buddhism. The literal meaning of mantra is a word which is repeated continuously during the course of meditation to aid concentration. It is a collection of words which have a monotonous sound and denote spiritual meaning. It originated in the Vedic scriptures of Hinduism. A single word “Om” (Aum) is also considered a mantra as per the Upanishads. It is known as the pranava mantra (the source of all mantras). Each one has a profound meaning, but the meanings differ from one tradition to another. The meanings also differ across time periods.
Initially these were found written in Hinduism. This was because of a unified language of communication in the culture (Sanskrit). The word also comes from Sanskrit literally meaning “instrument of thought”. There are many Latin, Indo-Iranian and Chinese words which have mantra as the root word. The writing of this became a practice in Buddhism after Chinese achieved a cultural unity through language. The first record of inscriptions of chants in both culture are found on barks and stones.
The Vedas have the first record of chants. Although many chants exist as single lines or even a single word, most follow a two-line pattern. In Hinduism, Om is the seed syllable from where all the other chants are derived. While some of them are specific to invoking and inviting a particular God, the basic mantras resonates the message of The One reality. There are three major mantras in Hinduism, “Om”, the Gayatri mantra and the Shanti mantra. Bhajans, Kirtans, the Guru mantra (recited by the teacher before starting to teach the student) and the Bija mantra are also several forms of mantra. The Vedic sages werethe first to practice “mantra japa”. It involved a series of mantras recited together as prayers to invoke any Hindu deity. The number of repetitions of mantra varies from japa to japa but the most common number is 108. A Rudra mala is used to do japa. Each mala contains 108 beads to help in the count.
In Buddhism, the use of it became popular during the rule of emperor Shunzhi. The monks Yulin and Kukai were the main contributors in etching out the important mantras in Buddhism. Yulin was responsible in etching out the ten basic chants along with the Great Compassion Mantra, and the heart sūtra, which were popular in the reign of Shunzhi. Kukai was responsible in advancing the general theory of theory with the help of mantra.
Although chants in Sikhism and Taoism are fundamentally different from those in Hinduism and Buddhism, their purpose is the same. In Sikh religion a mantra (or a mantar) is a word or a hymn from their holy book (Adi Granth). In Sikhism, mantras are taught more openly compared to other religions. Hinduism and Buddhism assign the task of reciting the mantras to specific people, who are considered messengers of God.