Advaita Vision

Advaita for the 21st Century

The Fundamentals of the Bhakti Tradition
in Hinduism

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by Professor V. Krishnamurthy

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Part VII: Mantra, Tantra & Tirtha

Part I Part II Part III Part IV Part V Part VI

A mantra is a Vedic hymn, sacrificial formula, a mystical verse or an incantation. In general, it connotes any sacred chant or formula having the power to secure the blessings of God, when lovingly and reverently repeated. One warning has, however, to be mentioned. One has to respect the rule that no mantra would be efficacious unless it is learnt orally from a guru, who has himself that mantra-siddhi. By mantra-siddhi, one means that the mantra has sufficiently been meditated upon and repeated by the person concerned that the deity of the mantra has been realised by the person. The number of times required for this mantra-siddhi varies from mantra to mantra. Very often it goes into several hundreds of thousands. The word mantra in Sanskrit means 'that which protects by being meditated upon' (mananAt trAyate iti mantrah). This protection by the deity of the mantra does not devolve on you until you have sufficiently identified yourself with the mantra, heart and soul. Only such a person can be a guru for that mantra.

The mantra itself is considered as the embodiment in sound of some specific deity or supernatural power. So taking the mantra by oneself without a guru is disrespectful to the mantra itself and therefore doubly, a disrespect to the mantra-devatA (= the deity of the mantra). Yes, in that sense, the Hindu mantras are exclusive, no doubt. But that very fact connotes the sacredness of these mantras. A nuclear power, for instance, cannot be in the hands of every one. It has to be in the hands of those who will use it only for peaceful purposes. To wish to use such a force on the physical level is to assume the role of God and to satisfy unrestrained egos, positive or negative. Even Visvamitra misused the power that he got from GAyatrI, the Queen of all mantras, more than once and that was why he took a very long time and went through several hurdles before he was recognised. One has to be equipped for it, by self-sacrifice, by personal undertaking of suffering for the sake of the good of the others, by a personal attitude of renunciation to the pleasures of the world and by a total feeling of dedication to the cause of the good, the noble and the cosmic ecology.

Question: Why is GAyatrI the Queen of all mantras?

GAyatrI is spoken of in the Veda itself as the �mother of all Vedas� - chandasAm mAtaH. The essence of Hinduism, namely that Divinity is everywhere, is it is that Divinity that energizes us into thought and action and it is only with the help of that eternal omnipresent Divinity that we may ever hope to have a discerning intellect with which we may see the effervescence of the Godhead that is inherent in the visible universe including ourselves - all this is built into the GAyatrI mantra. The very word GAyatrI means that it protects those who chant it. Protecting here is for the sake of the Ultimate. Once the path to the Ultimate is protected, everything else is protected, not only of those who chant it but of the very neighbourhood, of the environment, of the world in which they live. Those who have had the privilege of being initiated into the mantra of the GAyatrI have the added responsibility of not allowing it to decay with them. Mantras have to be protected by repeated chanting, and meditation on their meaning and significance.

The japa and dhyAna on what GAyatrI stands for has been the cultural heritage of the Hindus. In spite of the fact that this responsibility has been allocated to only a small fraction of the total population, the power of the mantra is so much that it has been protecting the entire civilisation for mankind. It is not necessary that every one of the population has to chant it. Those varnas, however, who had the privilege and responsibility defaulted on the maintenance of this privilege by failing to live up to their responsibilities and have trampled the GAyatrI under their feet. Many of this privileged section, particularly the brahmins, have gone therefore in evolution far below those that did not have the privilege but only did the chanting of the names of God. For the same reason, many God-men of modern times have opened out the GAyatrI to all those who are interested.

The derivation of words from their root syllables each of which is the root of a verb signifying an action, is, in the Sanskrit language, a very instructive exercise. Hindu religious literature is replete with such derivations for almost every word that it uses. Each of the names of God like Rama, Krishna, Shiva, Narayana, etc., in fact, each one of the names of God in the various lists of the thousand names of God (= sahasra-nAmas) has been assigned several derivations from their root syllables. 'The one in whose memory yogis revel in the bliss of brahman' is the meaning of the word Rama, according to the declaration:

ramante yogino-nante brahmAnande chidAtmani

in the Padma-purANa. 'ramante' (they revel, enjoy) is the action which forms the root verb for 'Rama'. The greatness of the word 'Rama' is not just because what the son of Dasaratha did what he did. Preceptor Vasishta hit upon the name for the child of Dasaratha because he knew that it was already a 'tAraka-mantra', that is, the mantra which takes you across the ocean of saMsAra. And that is why the name Rama has been isolated and earmarked to be equivalent to the whole of Vishnu Sahasranamam.

There are only two mantras, in the whole of Hindu religious tradition, which get the epithet 'tAraka' (that which can ferry you across), and these are the syllable OM, and the name Rama. This single fact epitomises the importance associated with Rama, the name, as well as the Godhead, in the entire Hindu cultural milieu. The sage Valmiki before he became a MahaRshi, recited the name of Rama, several thousands of years and attained the status of a mahaRshi. The syllable 'ra' comes from the eight-lettered mantra of Narayana and the syllable 'ma' comes from the five lettered mantra of Shiva. Both are the life-giving letters (jIva-akShara-s) of the respective mantras; because without them the two mantras become a curse. Without the letter �ra�, the mantra 'narAyanAya' becomes 'na ayanAya' - meaning, not for good. Without the letter �ma�, 'namas-shivAya' becomes 'na shivAya' - meaning, again, not for good.

Thus the word Rama combines in itself the life-giving letters of the two most important mantras of the Hindu religion. The syllable 'ra' the moment it comes out of the tongue purifies you from all the sins by the very fact that it comes from the mantra of the protector, nArAyaNa. It expels everything which is not pure inside. On the other hand, the syllable 'ma' burns all the sins by the very fact that it comes from the mantra of Shiva, the destroyer. It prevents anything from entering and soiling the receptacle which has become pure. This is therefore the King of all mantras, the holy jewel of mantras, as is rightly sung by Saint Thiagaraja, who is one of the most famous recent historical examples of persons who attained the jIvan-mukti stage - the released stage even while alive, by the sheer repetition of the Rama name.

The eight-lettered mantra of Narayana and the five-lettered mantra of Shiva are the two greatest mantras of Hindu religion, next only, if at all, to the GAyatrI mantra. Volumes can be written about the name Narayana, which is to be pronounced as nArAyaNa, though we shall stick to the more popular spelling, Narayana. 'nara' means Atman, that is, brahman itself. All the elemental principles emanated from it, therefore they are nAra. They are the effects of the Supreme which is the Ultimate Cause, the Cause of all causes, for them all. The cause always pervades the effect. Without a cause, there is no effect. Wherever there is an effect there must be a cause. Therefore the effects which are the nAras are pervaded by the original cause, which is brahman. This is what is indicated by the word Narayana.

This name has been extolled to the skies in all the PurANas and other scriptures. The Tamil Veda says, 'It is the word which does all the good more than the mother.' 'Whatever sense experiences one goes through, whether it is inside or outside, everything is pervaded by the Lord Narayana,' says the Upanishad. 'They are all in me (mayi te) and I am in them (teshu caapyaham),' says the Lod in the Gita (IX - 29). That everything is in Him is the bahir-vyApti (transcendence; bahih = outside). That He is in everything is the antar-vyApti (immanence; antah = inside). Transcendence and Immanence are the T and I of the TIP of the iceberg that is the Godhead. These two are now in capsule form in the single name Narayana, where one takes the meaning of ayana as support, or base or substratum; ayana also indicates both the 'means' (upAya) and the 'end' (upeya). So Narayana may mean 'He (= His name) is the means and He is the end' as also 'He (= His Grace) is the means and He is the end.'

The �Shiva� name is said to be the �Gem of all Life� (jIva-ratnaM). Literally �Shiva� means auspicious. The Lord is so full of Love that Love itself is said to be Shiva. �anbe Shivam� says the Tamil scriptures. Just the two letters Shi and va when vocalized remove all sins. The five-lettered mantra Om namah-ShivAya has been extolled as representative of the entire Vedas. The five syllables na, ma, Shi, vA and ya represent respectively the five fundamental elements Earth, Water, Fire, Air and Space; they are indicative of the five psychic centres of the body starting from the mUlAdhAra upto viSuddhi. The sixth centre namely, the AjnA chakra is indicative of OM.

This is only the thin end of the wedge as far as the greatness of the �Shiva� name is concerned. It has an added importance in that it occurs in the Rudram chapter. One of the most thrilling and spiritually satisfying Vedic recitations is that of the Rudra-prashna of Krishna Yajurveda. It is seen in all the 100 branches of the Yajurveda and so it is also called Shata-rudrIyam. It is one of the five scriptural texts chosen by the ancients for constant repetition and meditation. The other four are: Vishnu Sahasranamam, Bhagavad Gita, Purusha-sUktam and the Upanishad of one�s own branch of the Veda. It is also known as Rudropanishad, because the three hundred prostrations to Shiva which constitute the central part of Rudram taking one to Ultimate Self-Realisation itself. The theme is that Rudra-Shiva is all pervasive; He is behind and beyond all forms of Divinity; nay, even all forms of human and sub-human beings. The Lord is worshipped as the indwelling presence of the entire universe, including all the high and the low, the good and the bad, the virtuous and the debased. For instance He it is who sports as the Chief of Thieves � �taskarANAm pataye namaH�. (Recall Bhagavad Gita 10-86: �I am the gambling of the fraudulent.�) To hear it chanted according to the South Indian style collectively in a full-throated fashion is itself a spiritual flight to heavenly Bliss and beyond. The Jabala Upanishad says, �By the repetition of the Shatarudra one gains immortality, for the names of God therein are nectarine.' The Kaivalya Upanishad says, �He who recites the ShatarudrIyam is cleansed of all sins as if by fire. He becomes free from the sins of theft, man-slaughter or commission of a prohibited act. He is like one who has taken refuge in the city of Avimukta (Varanasi). By this a man attains that knowledge which destroys the sea of saMsAra. Thus knowing he enjoys the fruit of Kaivalya or Bliss.'

The �Shiva� name occurs as the mantra �namah-ShivAya� in the Rudram chapter almost in the centre of the middle Veda, namely the Yajurveda.

The MahA-mRtyunjaya-mantra, also known as the tryambaka-mantra occurs in Rgveda VII-59-12 and also in Shukla Yajurveda 3-60. Among all mantras it is rated as a supreme one, next only to the GAyatrI. It is always invariably recited at the end of the Rudram recital from Krishna Yajurveda, though it is not part of it.

Tryambakam yajAmahe sugandhiM pushTivardhanaM /
urvArukamiva bandhanAt mRtyor-mukshIya mA-(a)mRtAt //

It means: Tryambaka, the three-eyed God we worship, sweet augmentor of prosperity. As from its stem a cucumber, may I be freed from bonds of death, but not from Immortality. (The cucumber, releasing itself from its stalk effortlessly is one of the happiest metaphors in the Vedas.)

The Sun, the Moon and Fire are the three illuminations that constitute the three eyes of Rudra. The third eye (of Fire) is situated on his forehead; it is the spiritual eye which he opened for destroying Manmatha. Very rarely does he cause it to open. Tamil literature has a story of Nakkirar, the leading poet of the Tamil Sangam period, who was the victim of the opening of the third eye on one occasion, but of course was later pardoned by the Lord.

�May I be freed from bonds of death�: this can be interpreted in more than one way. �Let me have full length of life and not be a victim of untimely death�; �Let me not die of any violent accident like fire, drowning or murder�; �Let me not die bedridden, of a wasting and protracted illness.' In fact a standard prayer at the end of daily pUjA is for a painless and easy death (anAyAsa-maraNam). Philosophically, coming back to saMsAra by being born again is also a death in the absolute sense. So let me not come back to saMsAra. All these meanings are legitimate.

Along with the Mantra Power that is certainly the undercurrent of everything in Hindu Philosophy and worship, there is also a dual concept, the tantra. The word is derived from the root 'tan' to spread. The word was originally applied to all sacred literature pertaining to the worship of each of the six types of favourite deities listed earlier. The composition of their special texts probably dates back to the sixth century CE. The tantric cults of the different deities has several features in common. There are mantras or prayer formulae, the Bijas or mystic syllables peculiar and specific to each deity, yantras or geometrical diagrams, mudrAs or special artistic positions of fingers, and, finally, nyAsas, meaning, placing of the deity within one's self through the different parts of one's body with the help of finger tips.

Each tantra has to be learnt from a guru and there is a technical and formal process of initiation called dIkshA. Tantras became very popular with every section of the population including the higher classes and the elite. By about the tenth century various influences mingled together to bring out a composite tantra regimen coloured by Brahminic and Buddhist cultures. The tantra literature spread everywhere. Mainly there are two fashions in tantra - the Right and the Left. The Left one is secretive, esoteric and involves questionable practices based on erotic mysticism. The Right one, which is based on Upanishadic concepts, got absorbed in the general procedure of Hindu rituals, so that nyAsas and mudrA-s became part of the daily ritual both of the individual and of temple worship and as of now is so much part of each Hindu religious performance that one may not recognise that it came from tantra.

Also, coupled with the concept of the power of the mantra is the concept of the holiness of a place. A holy place or a place of pilgrimage has two technical equivalents in Hindu usage, namely, tIrtha and kshetra. A tIrtha is a holy place where there is a pond, lake, river, or sea, a dip in which is considered to be holy. A kshetra is mostly a place where there is a holy temple. India is full of such tIrthas and kshetras. The various bathing ghats on the holy rivers like Ganga, Kaveri, Yamuna and Godavari, are important tIrthas. Kurukshetra and Gaya are very famous tIrthas. One of the holiest such tIrtha is the island of Ramesvaram at almost the southern tip of India. Almost every temple city is considered a kshetra. There are kshetras of very long standing like Kasi, Kanchi and Haridwar which have the longest continuing life in the history of the human race. He who gives a gift, in a tIrtha or a kshetra, say the scriptures, shakes off his poverty and he who accepts a gift in such places, purchases poverty for himself.

But however holy a tIrtha or kshetra may be, if the mind and intention are not pure, and if the attitude is not spiritually oriented towards God, no dips in tIrthas or visits to kshetras can be of avail. This is also the refrain repeated by all scriptures pertaining to tIrthas and kshetras. Thousands of watery creatures like fish, etc., are born in water and also die in water, even in the tIrthas. Flocks of birds reside in temples. But as the required mental approach is lacking in them, none would suggest that these creatures acquire any religious merit or a place in heaven. The proper faith or a devotional approach is a necessary prerequisite. Scriptures declare that this is as much true in the matter of a tIrtha or a kshetra as it is in the case of a doctor, a preceptor, an astrologer, a deity and a mantra.


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Page last updated: 10-Jul-2012