Yāska in his Nirukta has provided us with the etymological meaning of the term Mantra in this way - mantra signifies that which saves one 0from taking recourse to reflection (manana), a kind of intellectual activity (mananāt trāṇatā). Abhinavagupta, while shedding light on the meaning of the word mantra, has accepted this etymological meaning given by Yāska. Shabaka in his commentary on the Mīmāmsā sūtra of Jaimini, as quoted by Mahāmahopādhyāya Gopinath Kaviraj, improves this etymological meaning by adding a few very significant expressions. The derivative means of the term mantra that Abhinavagupta gives is as follows:
mantrādi cimarīcayaḥ tadvācakatvād vaikharī varṇavilāsabhūtānāṃ vidyānāṃ mananāt trāṇatā |
That is, mantras are of the nature of the effulgence of the consciousness-light (cinmarīcayaḥ), the word in gross form (i.e. ordinary words used by common man in his daily life) called vaikharī varṇa or vāk denotes the highest and purest spiritual knowledge embodying within them the consciousness-light, which, when grasped by men, saves them from the trouble of resorting to reflection by their intellect for understanding its real import. To put it in other words, the mantras heard or used by us in vaikharī or gross verbal form contain within their bosom the effulgence of the consciousness-light which shines forth when the potency ‘lying dormant in it’ is aroused, i.e., when the outer cover encasing the consciousness-light is broken open by the Guru at the time of initiation (dīkṣā). The mantras received in this manner by the disciples and used during their spiritual practices provide them with the opportunity of obtaining a direct vision of the light of consciousness. When the mantras are used as an instrument for the revelation of consciousness (chaitanya) contained therein, the disciple is not required to look for spiritual knowledge from any other external source. This is what the expression trāṇatā (saving) signifies when used by Shabara in his commentary.
The word mantra is a generic term connoting different shades of meaning in different contexts. For example, mantras are used by people belonging to different levels for accomplishing different purposes. For instance, devout religious minded persons utter mantras for propitiating their favorite deity in the course of their daily worship. These mantras are drawn from different sources, such as Purāṇas, Stotras etc. It is impossible to conduct social rites, technically called daśakarma (ten kinds of rites), beginning with the ceremonial shaving of the head of a young child, the sacred thread ceremony, marriage or offerings to the departed souls, without using mantras as prescribed in the treatises on Dharmaśāstra. These mantras, borrowed freely from different texts, do not play however any role in the spiritual upliftment of the user. Such mantras are devoid of special potency, hence they are not relevant in the context of our present discussion.
Before we take up for discussion the nature of mantra and the role it plays in the spiritual discipline of a sādhaka following the Tāntric mode of sādhanā, it would perhaps be useful if we give a bird’s eye view of the development of the concept of mantra from the Vedic tradition, and then turn our attention to the Tāntric tradition.
When we study the Vedic literature, we find that the term mantra was first used to denote the spontaneous utterances of the Vedic seers on their obtaining the vision of the spiritual Truth through their inner eye called ārṣacakṣu. The Vedic seers are traditionally called mantradraṣṭā, the ‘seers’ of mantra or the Spiritual Truth. They articulated their deep and sublime experiences spontaneously in their own words before their disciples. As ordinary words were incapable of conveying their vision of the Truth, very deep and complex, they had to employ symbolic language pregnant with deep implications, which was later difficult to grasp by ordinary minds. Nonetheless, their words contained the vision of Truth in a condensed verbalized form, and the disciples of the Vedic seers had the privilege of listening to Vedic mantras coming directly from the lips of the seers of Truth, hence they could immediately grasp their inner meaning. The Vedic mantras had a denotative power hidden in them, which got ‘stirred up’ as it were as the Vedic seers uttered them before their disciples. This led to revelation of the spiritual Truth seen by them as a result of their saṅkalpa (conscious resolve). Others who came later, in succession to their direct disciples, could not decipher the hidden meanings in the Vedic mantras, but, realizing their sacredness because they had been uttered by the seers, made great efforts to preserve their outward verbal structure and then pass them on orally to their disciples. Thus the process of oral transmission started. The Vedic mantras, embodying the esoteric experiences of Vedic seers, came down orally through a chain of disciples without any distortion, but their true meaning remained hidden. However, some seekers of truth succeeded to a great extent in decoding their true meaning by elevating themselves to that level of consciousness on which the supreme Truth was ‘seen’ by the seers.
Looking from the point of view of the verbal structure, the Vedic mantras are mostly multi-worded complete sentences, which are difficult for the spiritual practitioners to use for their spiritual elevation. The Brāhmaṇa texts however have found their utility in the performance of different kinds of sacrifices for obtaining mundane results. The focus of the Brāhmaṇa texts is to secure the welfare of the sacrificer on the mundane levels, but they are only minutely concerned with the spiritual life of man.
However, a few mantras occurring in ṛgveda saṃhitā (II,3,2) and the Atharvaveda samhitā (IX,25,27) refer to a theory pertaining to the nature of vāka which has deep spiritual ramifications. They mention for levels of speech or vāk enshrined in the mantra, but does not spell out what these levels of speech are, neither whether these levels have any relevance in the field of spirituality. Taking clue from these Vedic mantras, Bhartṛhari, the celebrated grammarian philosopher formulated the philosophy of vāk (Primordial Word) in his famous work Vākyapadīya. According to him, the four levels of vāk in the descending order from subtlest to grossest are parā, paśyantī, madhyamā and vaikharī.
While the vaikharī represents the speech in grossest form, the form we use for communication in our daily life, the other three forms are very subtle and beyond the ordinary reach of our mind. These, parā, paśyantī and madhyamā represent the Shakti which is enshrined in the gross form of vāk, vaikharī.
This Shakti underlying vaikharī vāk is designated as the vīrya (potency) innate in the ordinary world. It may be mentioned in this context that some logins are well known for possessing the extraordinary power to use the potency lying encased within the word in vaikharī form to materialize gross objects denoted by the particular word by concentrating on it, thereafter unlocking the vīrya lying innate in it. There are several instances of amazing feats demonstrated by some Indian yogins, miracles which cannot be otherwise explained. It might appear as a miracle to ignorant persons but it can be explained on the basis of the theory of vāk mentioned above.
Let us now turn our attention to the mantra, the role it plays in the spiritual life of a seeker of truth, and the manner it secures their spiritual elevation. It is well known that the Guru ‘implants’ the mantra in the psychophysical apparatus of the disciple during dīkṣā (initiation), after it is purged of impurities. The Advaita Shaivites of Kashmir hold that with the influx of divine grace from the Supreme through the Guru into the spiritual seeker, the thick crust of basic defilement, āṇavamala gets ‘broken’ when the initiation takes place and when the divine mantra is implanted in him. When the Guru ‘gives’ him the mantra for use in spiritual practices, like japa of mantra during the control of prāṇavāyu (technically called prāṇāyāma) or for meditation (dhyāna) etc., he first arouses the Shakti lying encased in the mantra, and thereby ‘enlivens’ the mantra, drawing the consciousness energy (chaitanya shake) from the Parā vāk. The Guru has access to that level of vāk from which he can ‘draw’ shake and transform the mantra in gross vaikharī form into what has been called chaitanya mantra - the mantra becoming ‘alive’ with the arousal of Shakti lying latent in it.
It may be mentioned here that the Vedic tradition, prescribing the path of spiritual knowledge as a mode of spiritual discipline to be followed by practitioners, held similar views about the role of mantra in sādhanā. The Yajurveda Samhitā refers to the hams mantra. The term hams represents so.ahaṃ (‘That I Am’) arranged in reverse form, which was capable of bringing about self-realization by the spiritual practitioners as ahaṃ brahmāsmi. As a matter of fact, when the Upaniṣadas speak about the Mahāvākyas which are ‘great sentences’ conveying the spiritual experiences in different steps, this very idea about the role of mantra in sādhanā is somewhat implicit there.
The role of the mahāvākyas in the sādhanā as laid down in the Upaniṣads needs a little elaboration. It is said that as soon as the spiritual master utters the mantra ‘tattvamasi’ before the disciple who has acquired all the qualities needed for following the path of knowledge, and who has also succeeded in cleansing fully his antaḥkaraṇa, he grasps the highest spiritual knowledge contained in his great mantra through reflection (manana), deep and continued reflection (nidhidhyāsana) in samādhi of the savikalpa type. The Great Word contains within its verbal form the shake, which is manifested spontaneously the moment the Guru utters it. He immediately begins experiencing ahaṃ brahmāsmi. This is called anubhavavākya, the expression conveying the highest spiritual experience. This expression conveying the spiritual experience of the sādhaka is, in fact, an echo of the haṃsa mantra (so.ahaṃ) mentioned in the Vedic Saṃhitā texts. As the sādhaka turns around to experience his surroundings, he discovers the presence of his consciousness nature everywhere (sarvaṃ khalvidaṃ brahma). His own being-experience expands from individual being-experience into universal being-experience, i.e. Brahman. He is filled with ecstatic delight. When he reaches the peak of his spiritual path, his individual being-experience melts, as it were, into the Universal, and that is the indescribable state of spiritual realization which the savants of Kashmir call pure ‘bodha’ (self-experience). The sādhaka then gets immersed in his fullness-nature (akaṇḍa svarūpa).
As is clear from the brief account of modes of spiritual discipline followed by the sādhakaS belonging to the Tāntric as well as to the Vedic tradition, the role of the mantras ‘given’ by the Guru to disciples plays a pivotal role in their spiritual elevation, culminating in the achievement of the ultimate goal.
Let us now turn our attention to another aspect of the nature of mantra, namely the structural aspect. We have already mentioned that the Vedic mantras comprise complete sentences. It is obvious that the Vedic mantras, found in the multi-worded form is not commonly used by sādhakas for their spiritual elevation, in the classic sense, but for few exceptions. The mantras must be short so that they can be uttered with ease during contemplation or meditation. We find some shorter mantras comprised of fear words, also in later texts like the Purāṇas etc., but these are also not immensely popular with the sādhakas.
The Tāntric bījamantras, on the other hand, have found favor with the practitioners of spiritual discipline. These represent certain sounds of mātṛkā varṇas, coalesced together and put in an encased (saṃpuṭita) form. Since the components of bījamantras are mātṛkā varṇas i.e., letters symbolizing the spiritual energy or the consciousness force (Shakti), they, when used properly during the practice of sādhanā, are capable of generating the experience of true consciousness nature in the sādhaka. The bījamantras are likened to the ‘seed’ which, when implanted in the pure psychophysical framework of the sādhaka by the Guru, fructifies in the course of his sādhanā and produces the desired result.
The origin of the bījamantras can be traced to the Vedic times; the Praṇava mantra is the classic example. As is well known, the Māṇḍūkyopaniṣad explains the significance of the Praṇava mantra in philosophical terms. The Tāntric texts mention a large number of Bījamantras, which have been collected from different texts and listed in the Mantrābhidhānakośa, a dictionary of Tāntric mantras, along with shirt explanations.
We come across a reference in the first āhnika of the Tantrāloka by Abhinavagupta where the probable origin of bījamantras is given. It is said there that bījamantras originated from sañjalpa, i.e., sounds escaping involuntarily from the lips of a yogin during the transitional period from the state of trace (samādhi) to the normal state of awareness. The yogin is then in a state of half-trance and half-waking condition, being in a spiritually intoxicated state, and having no conscious control over his sense faculties. It is believed that during samādhi the yogin has wonderful spiritual experiences or visions, which he is unable to articulate, or wish to communicate. He only mutters something, which apparently does not appear to convey any meaning. These apparently meaningless sounds, condensed or juxtaposed one over the other, were heard by persons who were nearby, and constitute the bījamantras. These mantras contain a natural shakti or potency, and are therefore capable of revealing the power of chaitanya shakti.
There is a corroborative evidence about this explanation provided by Abhinavagupta from the spiritual life of many sādhakas. The Pātañjala yoga also refers to sañjalpa indicative of deep spiritual experiences of yogins during the state of of saṃprajñāta samādhi.
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