A mantra (Devanāgarī मन्त्र) (or mantram) can be defined as a sound, syllable, word, or group of words that are considered capable of creating transformation. Their use and type varies according to the school and philosophy associated with the mantra. Other purposes have included religious ceremonies to accumulate wealth, avoid danger, or eliminate enemies. Mantras originated in the Vedic tradition of India, later becoming an essential part of the Hindu tradition and a customary practice within Buddhism, Sikhism and Jainism. The use of mantras is now widespread throughout various spiritual movements which are based on, or off-shoots of, the practices in the earlier Eastern religions.
Mantras can be interpreted to be effective as vibration, or more simply as sound, which may include verbal repetition, in the form of chanting, or internal mental repetition. For this reason great emphasis is put on correct pronunciation (resulting in an early development of a science of phonetics in India). Mantras can be used in Eastern spiritual traditions to divert the mind from basic instinctual desires or material inclinations, by focusing the mind on a spiritual idea, such as "I am a manifestation of divine consciousness".
In the context of the Vedas, the term mantra refers to the entire portion which contains the texts called Rig, Yajus or Saman, that is, the metrical part as opposed to the prose Brahmana commentary. With the transition from ritualistic Vedic traditions to mystical and egalitarian Hindu schools of Yoga, Vedanta, Tantra and Bhakti, the orthodox attitude of the elite nature of mantra knowledge gave way to spiritual interpretations of mantras as a translation of the human will or desire into a form of action, with some features in common with spells in general. For the authors of the Hindu scriptures of the Upanishads, the syllable Aum, itself constituting a mantra, represents Brahman, the godhead, as well as the whole of creation. Kūkai suggests that all sounds are the voice of the Dharmakaya Buddha — i.e. as in Hindu Upanishadic and Yogic thought, these sounds are manifestations of ultimate reality, in the sense of sound symbolism postulating that the vocal sounds of the mantra have inherent meaning independent of the understanding of the person uttering them. Nevertheless, such understanding of what a mantra may symbolise or how it may function differs throughout the various traditions and also depends on the context in which it is written or sounded. In some instances there are multiple layers of symbolism associated with each sound, many of which are specific to particular schools of thought. For an example of such see the syllable: Aum which is central to both Hindu and Buddhist traditions.
While Hindu tantra eventually came to see the letters as well as the sounds as representatives of the divine, it was when Buddhism travelled to China that a major shift in emphasis towards writing came about. China lacked a unifying, ecclesiastic language like Sanskrit, and achieved its cultural unity by having a written language that was flexible in pronunciation but more precise in terms of the concepts that each character represented. The Chinese prized written language much more highly than did the Indian Buddhist missionaries, and the writing of mantras became a spiritual practice in its own right. So that whereas Brahmins had been very strict on correct pronunciation, the Chinese, and indeed other Far-Eastern Buddhists were less concerned with this than correctly writing something down. The practice of writing mantras, and copying texts as a spiritual practice, became very refined in Japan, and the writing in the Siddham script in which the Sanskrit of many Buddhist Sutras were written is only really seen in Japan nowadays. However, written mantra-repetition in Hindu practices, with Sanskrit in any number of scripts, is well-known to many sects in India as well.
Mantras, the Sanskrit syllables inscribed on yantras, are essentially 'thought forms' representing divinities or cosmic powers, which exert their influence by means of sound-vibrations.
The Sanskrit word mantra- (m. मन्त्रः, also n. मन्त्रं) consists of the root man- "to think" (also in manas "mind") and the suffix -tra meaning, tool, hence a literal translation would be "instrument of thought".
Another explanation is that the suffix -tra means "protection".
The most basic mantra is Aum, which in Hinduism is known as the "pranava mantra," the source of all mantras. The Hindu philosophy behind this is the idea of nama-rupa (name-form), which supposes that all things, ideas or entities in existence, within the phenomenological cosmos, have name and form of some sort. The most basic name and form is the primordial vibration of Aum, as it is the first manifested nama-rupa of Brahman, the unmanifest reality/unreality. Essentially, before existence and beyond existence is only One reality, Brahman, and the first manifestation of Brahman in existence is Aum. For this reason, Aum is considered to be the most fundamental and powerful mantra, and thus is prefixed and suffixed to all Hindu prayers. While some mantras may invoke individual Gods or principles, the most fundamental mantras, like 'Aum,' the 'Shanti Mantra,' the 'Gayatri Mantra' and others all ultimately focus on the One reality.
In the Hindu tantra the universe is sound. The supreme (para) brings forth existence through the Word (Shabda). Creation consists of vibrations at various frequencies and amplitudes giving rise to the phenomena of the world. The purest vibrations are the var.na, the imperishable letters which are revealed to us, imperfectly as the audible sounds and visible forms.
Var.nas are the atoms of sound. A complex symbolic association was built up between letters and the elements, gods, signs of the zodiac, parts of the body -- letters became rich in these associations. For example in the Aitrareya-aranya-Upanishad we find:
In effect each letter became a mantra and the language of the Vedas, Sanskrit, corresponds profoundly to the nature of things. Thus the Vedas come to represent reality itself. The seed syllable Aum represents the underlying unity of reality, which is Brahman.
Mantra japa was a concept of the Vedic sages that incorporates mantras as one of the main forms of puja, or worship, whose ultimate end is seen as moksha/liberation. Essentially, Mantra Japa means repetition of mantra, and it has become an established practice of all Hindu streams, from the various Yoga to Tantra. It involves repetition of a mantra over and over again, usually in cycles of auspicious numbers (in multiples of three), the most popular being 108. For this reason, Hindu malas (bead necklaces) developed, containing 108 beads and a head bead (sometimes referred to as the 'meru', or 'guru' bead). The devotee performing japa using his/her fingers counts each bead as he/she repeats the chosen mantra. Having reached 108 repetitions, if he/she wishes to continue another cycle of mantras, the devotee must turn the mala around without crossing the head bead and repeat.
It is said that through japa the devotee attains one-pointedness, or extreme focus, on the chosen deity or principal idea of the mantra. The vibrations and sounds of the mantra are considered extremely important, and thus reverberations of the sound are supposed to awaken the Kundalini or spiritual life force and even stimulate chakras according to many Hindu schools of thought.
Any shloka from holy Hindu texts like the Vedas, Upanishads, Bhagavad Gita, Yoga Sutra, even the Mahabharata, Ramayana, Durga saptashati or Chandi are considered powerful enough to be repeated to great effect, and have therefore the status of mantra.
Some very common mantras, called Nama japa, are formed by taking a deity's name and saluting it thus: "Aum Namah (name of deity)" (meaning "I honor/salute...") or "Aum Jai (name of deity)" (meaning "Hail..."). There are several other such permutations, including:
The Navkar Mantra is the supreme Jain mantra and the fundamental prayer in Jainism which can be recited at any time of the day. While praying by reciting this mantra, the devotee bows with respect to Arihantas, Siddhas, spiritual leaders (Acharyas), teachers (Upadyayas) and all the monks. This worships the virtues of all the supreme spiritual people instead of just worshipping one particular person. It is important to note that the Navkar Mantra does not mention the names of even Tirthankaras and Siddhas. At the time of recitation, a Jain devotee remembers their virtues and tries to emulate them. In Universal Prayer
Some famous Vaishnava mantras are:
The Gayatri mantra is considered one of the most universal of all Hindu mantras, invoking the universal Brahman as the principle of knowledge and the illumination of the primordial Sun.