All mantras are words, but not all words are mantras.
Some years ago, when I was living and teaching as a yogic monk, I initiated a young man into the Tantric path of yoga. According to traditional custom, after he had received his meditation instruction, I whispered a mantra into his right ear, and told him to close his eyes and silently meditate as per my instructions.
A few seconds later, he fell backwards with a powerful and ecstatic shout and landed on the floor with a blissful expression on his face. This spiritual knock-out almost floored me as well.
As a novice monk, I had seen people fall into cosmic ecstasy (Samadhi) before, but never like this, only seconds after initiation, only seconds after silently repeating a siddha mantra.
Such is the power of mantras. They can catapult our bodies and minds into spirit with the force of a lightening bolt.
According to the yogic science of Tantra, this world of matter is simply an ocean of energy. Even Western science would agree to that now. Going a step beyond Western science, Tantra furthermore states that this energy (Shakti) is conjoined with consciousness (Shiva) as the two poles of the same ultimate, nondual Reality.
So, when the young man fell backwards and experienced nondual bliss, it happened, in Tantric terms, due to the force of Shakti. This primal force of nature literally kick-started his kundalini Shakti and united him with his cosmic consort Shiva in an accelerated and exhilarated union of cosmic oneness. He was literally blessed out of this world and blissed into the next!
How is this possible, simply be repeating a few gibberish syllables? (First of all, let me make a disclaimer: this does not happen to everybody, of course. It is very rare, and Tantra explains these sudden enlightenment experiences occur due to a person’s spiritual karma from previous lives)
It happens because mantras are sacred words engineered to undo our minds of its fetters, unload its karmic baggage, liberate its past entanglements, compost its desires and afflictions, so that we can awaken, see and experience our true, inner nature. But how?
According to the esoteric science of Tantra, all these karmic fetters, these vrittis, of the mind are located in the various chakras, and they are each endowed with a sound energy.
The yogis of old discovered this in deep meditation and thus equipped the Sanskrit alphabet with a phonetic ability that no other language has, the ability to liberate us with repeated use.
There are 50 of these vritties, or sonic fetters, some positive (hope, love), some negative (hatred, jealousy) located in the chakras. Hence, there are also 50 letters in the Sanskrit alphabet.
The meaning of the word mantra is literally that sound, that word which liberates the mind. (man=mind and tra=liberate). But there is an additional element which makes the Tantric mantras powerful: the power of the guru.
Great gurus, who are skilled in this alchemical science, are able to empower the mantras with spiritual potency. In the words of yoga scholar George Feuerstein: [A word] acquires mantric value only when it has been empowered by an adept and transmitted to a disciple.”
For the practitioner of mantra meditation three things are important: 1) to use a proper siddha mantra, empowered by a legitimate guru, 2) to know and meditate on the exact inner meaning of the mantra and 3) to use the correct pronunciation.
Because of these three criteria, not all Sanskrit words are siddha mantras or effective tools at cultivating spiritual growth and liberation.
To use a mantra from a book is therefore not as effective as when instruction has been given by a teacher through the process of initiation. Moreover, Vedic chants, even though they are in Sanskrit, do not have the same spiritual potency as these siddha mantras.
Still, we all feel the unique vibrational power of mantras when we chant kirtan or recite a Sanskrit sutra. And that vibrational power has been gifted us by the mystical and scientific insights of the ancient yogis.
So, as I said at the beginning of this blog, all mantras are words, but not all words are mantras.