What Is a Mantram & What Can It Do?
by Eknath Easwaran
by Eknath Easwaran
Of late, the ancient word mantram (or the familiar
variant mantra) has had considerable exposure on talk shows and in the
Sunday supplements. To many it may conjure up an exotic image of flowing robes,
garlands, and incense. It may seem to be something impractical and
otherworldly, perhaps a bit magical and mysterious. Actually, just the opposite
holds true. The mantram — under other names, to be sure — has been known in the
West for centuries, and there need not be anything secret or occult about it.
The mantram stands open to all. And since it can calm our hearts and minds, it
is about as practical as anything can be.
If you have preconceptions about using a mantram, let me ask you to put them aside and give it a personal trial. Why take someone else’s word for it? Enter the laboratory of your mind and perform the experiment. Then you will be in a position to judge for yourself, and nothing can be as persuasive as that.
A mantram is a spiritual formula of enormous power that has been transmitted from age to age in a religious tradition. The users, wishing to draw upon this power that calms and heals, silently repeat the words as often as possible during the day, each repetition adding to their physical and spiritual well-being. In a sense, that is all there is to a mantram. In another sense, there is so much! Those who have tried it — saints, sages, and ordinary people too — know from their own experience its marvelous potency.
We find a clue to the workings of the mantram in the popular etymology which links the word to the roots man, “the mind,” and tri, “to cross.” The mantram, repeated regularly for a long time, enables us to cross the sea of the mind.
An apt image, for the mind very much resembles a sea. Ever-changing, it is placid one day, turbulent the next. Awesome creatures lurk below in the unconscious — fears and animosities, desires and conflicts. Each of us drifts about on the surface, blown by typhoons and carried by currents, in a rudderless little boat called “I.” With such vast and treacherous waters before us, with no glimpse at all of the far shore, can we ever hope to make the crossing without some help?
The mantram is such help. The scriptures of all religions proclaim it to be a radiant symbol of ultimate existence, the supreme reality which, depending on our background, we call by various expressive names: God, Nature, the Divine Mother, the Clear Light, universal consciousness. What we call it matters little. What matters greatly is that we discover — experientially, not intellectually — that this supreme reality rests at the inmost center of our being. This discovery constitutes the goal of life, and the mantram stands as a perpetual reminder that such perfection is within all of us, waiting to flow through our thoughts, words, and deeds.
In the simple act of repeating the mantram we accomplish remarkable things. The tension in our bodies, the cause of specific complaints and general malaise, ebbs away, and we find delightfully that real health is more than just an absence of disease. We toughen our will, too, which signals the end of addictions that may have enslaved us for years. Internal divisions are healed and our purposes unified, so we become a beneficent force in life and not, as all of us may have been at times, something of a burden on the earth. We gain access to inner resources — courage, patience, compassion — which are presently locked up within. Then all our relationships flourish; we love and are loved. Gradually, if we repeat it often, the mantram permeates and utterly transforms our consciousness.
This is a strong claim. Can a mere word achieve all that? It is a natural question. I remember when I had to give a speech to my high school class; I was so nervous at the prospect that I was afraid my knees might not hold me up. My spiritual teacher said, “While you’re waiting for your turn, don’t sit there worrying about the audience; repeat the mantram.” I was skeptical, but because I loved her I did as she suggested. I remember saying to myself, “Rama, Rama, Rama . . . I hope it works.”
I got through the ordeal safely enough, so the next time I had to give a speech I tried the mantram again . . . and again. I soon found myself saying, “Rama, Rama, . . . I think it works!” Now, after many years of practice, I know it works. As a medical friend once told me, until recently we didn’t know how aspirin works, but that didn’t keep it from relieving pain. Similarly, with the mantram, no explanation I can give can take the place of your own personal verification.
In daily life we often credit even common words with immense power. Take advertising. Be it soup or soap, cereal or cigarettes, product makers understand the impact of words and spend millions yearly trying to lodge a jingle, slogan, or brand name in our minds. And the key element of the campaign is repetition.
All that pounding away harms us because we are induced to buy things we don’t need, things that may weaken our bodies. But why can’t we use the obvious effectiveness of such repetition for our health and peace of mind? When we repeat a mantram, that is precisely what we do.
Repeating a mantram sounds so simple that most people cannot believe it works until they try it. For one thing, many consider it mere mechanical repetition — a job for any voice recorder. But I would say that a journey makes a better analogy. Each step on a journey superficially resembles the others, but each uniquely takes you into new territory and moves you closer to your destination. In just the same way, the repetitions of the mantram are superficially alike, but each takes you ever deeper into consciousness and closer to the goal of love and joyful awareness.
Mystics East and West have answered this objection. Mahatma Gandhi wrote:
The mantram becomes one’s staff of life and carries one through every ordeal. It is not repeated for the sake of repetition, but for the sake of purification, as an aid to effort. It is no empty repetition. For each repetition has a new meaning, carrying you nearer and nearer to God.
And in The Way of a Pilgrim, the remarkable tale of a Russian peasant’s spiritual pilgrimage, we read:
Many so-called enlightened people regard this frequent offering of one and the same prayer as useless and even trifling, calling it mechanical and a thoughtless occupation of simple people. But unfortunately they do not know the secret which is revealed as a result of this mechanical exercise; they do not know how this frequent service of the lips imperceptibly becomes a genuine appeal of the heart, sinks down into the inward life, becomes a delight — becomes, as it were, natural to the soul, bringing it light and nourishment and leading it on to union with God.
Nor can we call the mantram mere reverie or self-hypnosis — an attempt to escape from problems, whether personal, social, or global. When we are refashioning our consciousness so that what is ruinous in us becomes creative, our actions cannot help adding to the welfare of the whole. Our sensitivity grows until we become quite incapable of thinking of our own needs in isolation from the rest of life.
These two excerpts are from Eknath Easwaran's book Passage Meditation.