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Spirituality Mantras What & Why
By the inspiration of His Divine Holiness Pramukh Swami Maharaj and as part of the 'Shree Swaminarayan Mahamantra Bicentenary Celebrations,' devotees around the world have taken various vows of chanting and writing the Swaminarayan mantra.
In this, the first of a three-article series centreing on this topic, we'll be taking a brief look at what exactly mantras are, and why they are used.
In next month's issue, we'll go back in time to the actual point in history when Lord Swaminarayan first passed on the mantra, and through various incidents, try to understand its overwhelming glory.
And then finally, in the third article, we'll see how actually to chant the mantra in order to reap its sweetest fruits.WHAT WORDS ARE WORTH
"What's in a name?
A rose by any other, would still smell the same."
- Romeo & Juliet
True. These often quoted paraphrased words of the great British bard, Shakespeare, cannot be refuted. Even if a rose were called a tomato, for instance, it would still smell the same. Rosy, that is. But then, to put it plainly enough, it would be called a tomato, not a rose. The fact that it is called something - whether a rose, a tomato, a bucket, or anything for that matter - does indeed help one visualize it, to the extent of almost being able to smell it in one's mind's eye! That is the power held within every name given to everything we have.
Consider the logic: a name is a name; an object, an object. A name never actually becomes the object itself, yet points to it so earnestly that one cannot but relate to it. For example, take the word 'table' - pronounced 'tay bul' and spelled as t-a-b-l-e. It's not made of wood, doesn't have a glass top, nor does it have four legs, and certainly cannot support a pile of books or a tea tray. Yet, what has just come to your mind as you read the word? A four-legged 'thing' probably made of wood with a glass top that can be used to support books and tea trays; a table.
Words and objects have an inseparable corresponding relationship. This holds just as true for people as well. The question, then, is that can this hold for God as well? Could there be a way of tagging on to this relationship between names and objects/persons that could connect us to God?
Ancient Hindu scriptures have revealed this very truth. They teach us to realise this fundamental relationship between God and His various names.
Just as calling out a name conjures up a vivid picture of the related person or object in one's mind, saying, reading or writing God's name can lead to the visualization of His divine form and qualities. Such a name used to help focus on God is called a 'mantra'.

What Is A Mantra?
'Mantra,' surprisingly enough, is just one of the many Hindu words that have earned a credited entry in modern-day English dictionaries. Defined quite satisfactorily in the Concise Oxford Dictionary as 'a word or sound repeated to aid concentration in meditation', one can appreciate its original Sanskrit derivation. 'Mantra' is derived from the Sanskrit verb-root man (rhyming with sun) meaning 'to think'. In its final, processed form, it literally means 'an instrument of thought.'
By definition, then, a mantra need not necessarily be a single word (Swaminarayan), but can also be a phrase (Aum Namah Shivaya) or stanza (He Rama, Jay Rama, Jay Jay Rama). Or conversely, it can just as well be a sound or syllable (Aum).
However, one condition, of course, has to be satisfied: a mantra has to be drawn from an authentic scripture. Other, self-concocted 'sounds' cannot and do not serve as aids to meditation. The scriptures further note that a mantra is only truly effective when it is given by a bonafide guru after initiation.
Since Vedic times, mantras have been considered 'mystic formulas' allegorically holding deep powers and even deeper meanings. They were chanted in perfect precision during rites and rituals to invoke the gods, and in effect, establish a type of divine force field in the atmosphere.
On a personal level, when mantras are repeated continuously - either aloud or mentally - they can have profound effects on the individual and his personal surroundings. The subtle tones of the japa (chanting) help in quieting the mind, harmonizing the inner bodies, and stimulating latent spiritual qualities.

Why Use Mantras At All?
Few will need much prompting that the words 'kitkat,' 'play,' 'hazelnut' and 'fizzical' complete these sentences.
Marketing firms use catchy slogans (with the added celebrity and an even catchier theme tune) very effectively to link consumers to their products. Politicians, too, very tactfully take advantage of powerful campaign slogans to 'sell' their ideas to the masses. Slogans are a tried and tested way of entering into the canvases of people's minds and painting the single picture of choice.
A mantra can very much do a similar job. Its repetitive chanting conditions the mind to, firstly, stabilize, and then visualize. Alone, a weak and wandering mind has little chance of zeroing in on what may seem an intangible and distant God. But armed with a mantra, the mind's rampant waves can be calmed, allowed to settle, and helped to latch onto something tangible.
But mantras don't just stop there. Each mantra has an intrinsic power endowed by God Himself that can help propel the mind forward to Him. It is, in effect, a power-statement of one sort.
Great personalities of the past have also tapped into the reservoir of energy generated from power-statements. These statements serve as mantras for them.
In mass rallies, Gandhi repeatedly called upon the British to 'Quit India!' This short but potent statement became a mantra for the people of India. It galvanized their efforts in the fight for freedom by arousing tremendous resilience and unity within them.
Martin Luther King's, 'I have a dream,' awakened an almighty surge of awareness and pride among the black community in the late 50s and 60s. It became a mantra for them, escorting and energizing them on their march for civil rights.
John F. Kennedy's promise to the nation in 1961 to 'put an American on the moon by the end of the decade' took the US space program scientists by the scruff of their overcoats. They had to rise to the challenge; the American people were counting on them. By daily referring to this 'mantra' given to them by the President, scientists said they found themselves refuelled with fresh motivation - especially when things were going slow and prospects looked bleak.
Sports players of all types - whether on the basketball court, on the soccer pitch, or on the running track - are often seen mumbling to themselves; powerful, uplifting statements no doubt.
Although these power-statements are not something necessarily chanted, they are, very much like mantras, a verbal or mental tool used to provide that extra drive needed to attain an elevated goal.
Where a mantra can go one better in helping to achieve our goal of focusing on God, is that the mantra itself can serve as the very form of God! Shree Krishna explains to Arjun:
Mantro'ham-aham-evãgyam-aham-agnir-aham hutam.
"I am the mantra, I am the holy ghee;
I am the sacred fire and the offerings to be."
- Bhagvad-Gita IX:16
Although the mantra never replaces God (just as the word 'table' never replaces the 'object' table), but enshrined within itself is the same divinity, peace and bliss as the God it takes us to.
And so the Narad Puran so firmly states:
Harer-nãma harer-nãma harer-nãmaiva kevalam;
Kalau nãstyeva nãstyeva nãstyeva gatir-anyathã.
"The name of God alone is verily the only way [to liberation] in [these grave times of] Kaliyug."

Reading or writing
God's name can lead
to the visualization
of His divine form
and qualities.

The mantra itself can
serve as the very
form of God...enshrined within itself is the same divinity, peace and bliss
as the God it takes us to.

Mantras In Other Religions
The universal resonance at the time of creation, 'Aum', and other mantras such as the Gãyatri Mantra, 'Aum Bhur-bhuvaha svaha...' all play an important role in Hinduism.
But Hinduism is not alone in making use of mantras. Other religions also lay great importance on chants and recitals of some sort or other.
The 'Naukãr (9-Letter) Mantra' in Jainism is used extensively in much the same way as any other Hindu mantra.
Buddhists turn special 'Prayer Wheels' so that sacred words inside the wheels are repeated hundreds of times and then released into the world to invoke a spiritual atmosphere.
Parsees (Zoroastrians) chant - what they call the 'Manthra' - while tying and untying a sacred thread around their waist.
The first words of the sacred Sikh scripture, the Guru Granth Sahib, are known as the 'Mul Mantra' (Original or First Mantra) and is recited repeatedly at many of their special ceremonies.
Muslims chant the name of Allah using a strand of glass beads called a 'tasbih', something very similar to a mãlã.
Christians, too, use either a 55- or 155-bead strand called a rosary to count the repeating of decades (groups of ten) of the recital 'Hail Mary...' which is preceded by 'Our Father Who Art in Heaven...' and ends in "Glory Be...'
So, irrespective of whether actually called 'mantras' or not, religious people around the world use verbal and mental aids to help focus on God.

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