Earlier this year, we published an entry that explored Jonas’ daily practice of mantra japa –the internal repetition of a mantra during meditation. That entry gave a simple intro to the science of mantra, explaining some of the reasons why its practice is so widespread across traditions today. Wherever you may go on this magical planet you will find a form of mantra practice. The Budddhist do it; the Hindus do it; the Catholics do it; the Jew do it; the Muslim do it; some medical Doctor’s recommend it; and yogis, of course, do it too.
Still, for many people –particularly at the beginning of one’s yogic path– the idea of repeating several phrases or words in a language we don’t speak, let alone understand, can seem a bit daunting. And this is so not least because they’re generally all about praising the virtues or asking for the blessing of some form of deity or another. So... it all seems too close to a religious sort of thing for many people’s more secular taste. What can we say? We were also a bit skeptic at the beginning; but then, we learnt better. And, come to think of it, we spend a great part of our days listening to a million songs where sexist, racist, and overly sexual (not to say pornographic) content is 'praised' a million different ways and we chant them without even a thought! Now… how’s that more normal?!
This is just an example, but it goes to show that, while mantra repetition is definitely a profoundly spiritual practice –one akin to the practice of prayer in many religions– there’s nothing inherently religious about it. And that’s an important lesson to learn when it comes to Yoga. It is spiritual, but not necessarily religious. But if you are not sure about the difference between these two concepts, go on and check one of our earlier posts on the topic.
So, let’s explore the qualities of mantra a bit further in this entry by paying attention to the famous bija mantras of the yogic tradition. Also known as ‘seed sounds’ or “Shakti bija mantras,’ most of you will be familiar with them because they are normally scribbled in the petals of chakra pictures. They are, in fact, the origin of most key words present in longer mantra forms.
Most of these monosyllabic mantras are much easier to remember and pronounce than longer pieces like the Mantra Laya, for example, yet they’re a super effective way to get started with the practice of mantra and build up the habit. Oh! And did we mention already that they help empower our subconscious and get rid of the negative thought patterns in our minds?!
The Bija Mantras
As mentioned in our February post, mantra can be considered the deeper language of Yoga or, if you prefer, a sort of Yoga for the mind. It is a form of energized language (and thought) that, as Swami Goswami notes, “neutralizes the sensory mind [...] and develops the power of control” (1999, p. 8). This is, indeed, the reason why the use of mantra is so widespread around the globe: it helps us harness and control the wandering tendencies of our ‘monkey minds’ so that they won’t wander off and disperse too far into the valley of our imagination during meditation. We all know how easy it is to lose concentration. So mantras are a great tool to help us avoid that. Furthermore, they “create vibration (nada)” (Frawley 2008: 244) that “cleanses the causal body or samskaric field of the soul and helps alter subconscious habits and afflictions” (274). So, let’s say simply that mantras help us keep our minds’ eye fully focused and one-pointed, so we can dive deeper and deeper into the abyssal depths of our minds and souls.
The bija mantras are a series of monosyllabic words believed to be the most powerful way of energizing both prana and mind. They are supposed to be the most irreducible expression of cosmic, causal sound –aka: the sound of creation. These mantras are thus full of the reverberating potential of unmanifest, creative power; and being so closely related to the most essential expression of cosmic principles and ideas, the bija mantras are a great tool to bring more of the good stuff into our lives.
Though most posts tend to simplify bija mantras as the mantras for the seven main chakras, the truth is that there’s way more than seven of them, and that these are basically energy in vibration too. As such, they create specific energetic fields and networks that can sometimes resonate at the same frequency of certain chakras, but also of certain body parts, yantras, and elements. It is in this sense that some of the bija mantras relate to the chakras, though not just by virtue of their being depicted on a petal.
The whole deal with the bija mantras and with mantras in general is that they must be approached with clarity of intention, honesty of purpose, and devotion. Now, what does this mean? It basically means that there is no point in mechanically repeating a word you don’t believe in. Let’s never underestimate the power of belief. At some level, then, you must be able to first embrace the idea of sound as inherently powerful, of the existence of power in vibration and in your words, and thus, of the capacity of the words you utter and think of to mobilize energy in certain ways. If you can accept this, then, the next step is to find a mantra or combination of them you can relate to. This means that you must be able to establish some sort of deeper connection with the meaning, or intention, or essential principles embodied by a particular mantra.
OM and AUM
Let’s put an easy example first. Most people are familiar with the mantra OM or its ‘extended version’ AUM. OM and AUM are the most important and powerful of the bija mantras, representing the sound of the Purusha or cosmic intelligence. You can think of it as the sound of the ever-changing universe, the sound inherent in everything there is, including your own Self.
Now, when you join a Yoga class in a studio or practice at home and pronounce this mantra on an exhale, ideally you would do so having first contemplated the meaning of this most magical word. That’s not to say that just repeating the mantra won’t have a calming and inspiring effect. But should you connect with its vibration at a deeper level first, its internal or external repetition will be twice as powerful and twice as effective. As the famous line goes “in the beginning was the word, and the word was God.” This is nothing but a fancy way of saying that, first off, words matter; and secondly, words are 'godly,' 'divine' –aka, ‘super powerful.’
The use of OM is so commonplace today because it’s very easy to pronounce. It has a pitch that almost everybody can utter and enjoy, and its soothing effects are perfect to prepare the mind for meditation or to close practice with. Ideally, we would move from the repetition of AUM into that of OM, because OM is a sort of more refined expression of AUM; the part of AUM that resonates at a higher rate, towards the end of the 'm' sound. And it is precisely because of its calming and balancing effect that it’s also often used to open the chanting of other mantras with.
Hrim, Shrim, Krim, Hum and the Shakti Bija Mantras
This second group of bija mantras is also known as the Shakti bija mantras because of the presence of the long \e\ sound –which connects them directly to Shakti (inherent power). Being respectively the mantras of the Sun, the Moon, Electrical energy, and Fire –to name just a few of the Shakti bija mantras there are– these mantras are used mainly in Tantric forms of Yoga and are said to be more powerful than most other bija mantras for how they are able to mobilize the power of Kundalini. They allow us to tap into their underlying subtle powers to call forth their dharmic and benevolent qualities and help us energize our thoughts and feelings at their specific rate of vibration. Though they can stand on their own, they are more frequently chanted together and/or in combination with the name of a given deity; and, aside from being great tools to increase our sense of communion and devotion with 'the divine,' they are also great tools for overall healing.
Lam, Vam, Ram, Yam, Ham, Sham
More frequent than the former, these last group of bija mantras is better known because of their relation to the chakras. Being respectively associated with the first, second, third, fourth, fifth and sixth chakras, the mantras Lam, Vam, Ram, Yam, Ham and Sham are best practiced in association with particular chakra visualization techniques, where the elements normally associated with each of the chakras are visualized, including things like their color, animal, number of petals, etc. They call forth the qualities of their respective chakras to activate the unconscious power of specific physical, mental, and spiritual forces.
Music for the Soul
There are of course other bija mantras to choose from, but the main thing is to go with whatever resonates most with you. You can think of all of this as a form of subtle music for the soul. Most of us will agree that music and sound in general have the power to mobilize our emotions and thoughts. They can express our feelings even when words cannot. They have the capacity to change our mood, clear the air, and move us both physically and emotionally. So, if you find it hard to practice mantra because of some sort of intellectual barrier, think of them as you would of the lyrics in a song. And overall, don’t overthink it. Just feel it!
There is a reason why mantra is such a key component of most advanced spiritual traditions, including also particular forms of Yoga, such as Bhakti Yoga or the Yoga of devotion, where mantra is a key component. Mantra can take you to a place beyond the mind, where your heart can melt and explode in freedom, for you to experience the sheer enthusiasm of your own true Self.