Understanding the Science of Mantra
The word 'Mantra' comes from two Sanskrit words -- manas (mind) and tra (tool). Literally, it means "a tool for the mind." Mantras were created to help sadhaks or practitioners find their true natures and attain a higher power.
"Mananat trayate iti mantrah" is how the Sanskrit language defines the word Mantra.
Continuous repetition (Mananat) of that which protects (trayate) from all miseries due to bondage or cycles from birth and death is Mantra. Mantras originated from OM, the primordial sound, which is also the sound of creation. The seers (Rishis) who visited and revisited these mantras to attain wisdom discovered the science behind these mantras. When put into practice, this science has the power to remove obstacles to growth, eliminate all miseries, elevate the sadhaka or practitioner in wisdom, and quicken the process of achieving goals. There are powerful Mantras for miracles that can help one achieve one's desires if one chants them in the proper manner and with a pure mind.
Mantras can help one to achieve siddhi and higher spiritual accomplishments. The first sutra of the 4th chapter of the Patanjali Yoga Sutras janmausadhi mantratapah samadhijah siddhayah means that the siddhis or powers of a sadhaka who follows a yogic life are attained by birth, through rasayanas (medicines), and the repetitive chanting of words or mantras, mortification, or concentration. The sutra says that the repetitive chanting of the sacred words under proper conditions helps the siddhis to converge.
But the science behind Mantra meditation is quite complicated and largely unknown.
One approach to understanding this science of Mantra is found in the Sharada Tilaka Tantra, composed around 1000 CE. The Sharada Tilaka is a most useful resource to understand Mantras. It comprises a general overview of the principles of Mantra Shastra and a detailed exploration of specific yogic meditative practices.
Ocean of Consciousness
Mantra-based meditative practices are based on the idea that one unitary consciousness pervades everything in the world. This universal consciousness is an ocean, while each one of us is like a wave in that ocean. Like water in every wave, consciousness is found in each of our individual experiences.
This ocean of consciousness has different names in different traditions. One name, given by the Sharada Tilaka is Kundalini. In Mantra Shastra, Kundalini is also called Shabda Brahman, or the universal consciousness (Brahman), which is embodied in language (shabda). The universal consciousness lies within each person as kundalini, and it also lies within all language as Shabda Brahman.
Language has 2 key components - sound and meaning. Sound is part of physical reality and, like human awareness, is limited by time and space. But meaning comes from consciousness, which is unrestricted in its purest form.
Thus, the true "meaning" of any word is actually an experience of the unrestricted universal consciousness called Shabda Brahman. However, this ultimate reference is hidden by the meanings we ascribe to specific sounds for communicating ideas and emotions to one another. Language helps us to communicate, but it can also expand our conscious awareness.
But certain sounds are not restricted by the communicative function of language. They are pure and "awakened," and they refer back to extraordinary states of consciousness. These sounds are Mantras.
The knowledge that one universal consciousness pervades both human awareness and language helps us to understand Mantra Shastra. The qualities of whatever resides in our awareness influence our consciousness. For example, if we focus on negative emotions, our consciousness becomes more restricted. If we focus on unrestricted consciousness, our individual consciousness expands.
3 Key Concepts
Each Mantra can expand a meditator's consciousness in a unique way. Each has its own traditions, personality, and characteristics. Hence, Mantra Shastra includes an exhaustive technical vocabulary to describe individual Mantras. The Sharada Tilaka mentions 3 key concepts: Rishi, Chandas, and Devata. Each concept enhances our understanding of the science of Mantra.
Let us explore them one by one.
Rishi means "see-er". Rishis are part-mythical figures who played a role in the process of revelation that produced Mantras. As they had performed intense yogic practices, they were very pure, and their conscious awareness was limitless.
These rishis supposedly had an internal "vision" of the universal consciousness that was concealed within their own hearts. Importantly, they were also masters of language who articulated that vision. A Mantra is the sound-form of a rishi's vision of the universal consciousness.
In other words, the rishis envisioned the Mantras and gave them to their students as a tool to expand their consciousness. The Mantras that we use today have been passed on across the vast ocean of consciousness. They were guarded and kept open by the sustained practice of our spiritual ancestors. In the process, they became more highly charged and efficient. Mantras that come to us through an unbroken line of Gurus or teachers are "awakened" and can lead a meditator to higher states of consciousness. But those taken from texts or teachers who are not part of this long chain are supposedly dormant and have no practical use for Mantra meditation.
A Mantra is an expansive consciousness wrapped in a bundle of language. Chandas is the linguistic structure that covers and protects the transformative consciousness hidden there. In order to use the Mantra properly, we should know how to open that bundle. This is why pronunciation is very important for students of Mantra Shastra.
Originally, Chandas denoted the poetic meters in which Vedic hymns were composed. But with the expansion of Mantra Shastra, Chandas came to denote the metrical structure of the Mantra. It can reveal as well as conceal.
Chandas does not directly expose the hidden consciousness within the Mantra. Only through experiential knowledge, we can see what lies within, and this happens due to the repetition of the Mantra. As the Mantra's linguistic structure is held in the meditator's awareness, it embeds itself within the brain's neural network and is increasingly integrated with the meditator's consciousness.
So, if consciousness is an ocean, Chandas is the shape taken by the mantric wave of consciousness as it rises out of Shabda Brahman.
In linguistic terms, Devata is the essential nature of a Deva. Deva means "god," but its correct meaning is 'a free and shining being' It is also a being in whose presence one becomes free and shining. Devata and deva both come from the root 'div', which means brightly shining and expansive light, and also a certain mood of playfulness.
From the practical perspective, Devata is the aim of Mantra meditation. When the Chandas or structure of the Mantra is fully assimilated into the meditator's consciousness, the Devata of the Mantra is revealed and pervades the awareness. At this precise moment, the consciousness of the meditator merges with that of the Mantra, and during the merger, the wave becomes aware that it has been the ocean all along.
Rishi, Chandas, and Devata are technical terms that tell us where a Mantra has come from, what its structure is like, and how its practice will influence our consciousness. But for a functional knowledge of Mantra science, intellectual understanding is not enough. It needs the continuous practice of Mantra meditation.