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Hindu, Hinduism and Hindustan: Part XXXVII
by Dr. Jaipal Singh Bookmark and Share

Mantra, Yantra and Tantra: Part 'A'

Continued from Part XXXVI

Sanskrit terms Mantram, Yantram and Tantram are rooted linguistically and phonologically as also deeply associated with Indian religious and cultural traditions since ancient times. In common parlance, Mantram (more common Mantra) denotes the chant, Yantram or Yantra denotes the means or machine and Tantram or Tantra is identified with ritualistic actions. The sacrificial mantras and yantras were traditional instruments to invoke natural deities during Vedic age for specified purposes and one or all the aforesaid instruments are still used to invoke and worship manifested deities like Shiva, Shakti, or Kali for mundane success, peace and prosperity or even liberation (Moksha) in life. This position is best illustrated in the very first hymn of Devi Mahatmyam (popularly known as Durga Saptashati) as part of the Markandeya Purana composed around the middle of first millennium.

Na mantram no yantram tadapi cha na jane stutimaho
Na chavhanam dhyanam tadapi cha na jane stutikathah I
Na Jane mudraste tadapi cha na jane vilapanam
Param jane matastvadanusaranam kleshaharanam II 1 II

(O Mother ! Neither I know any incantation (Mantra) nor I have any mystical talisman (Yantra). I don’t even know any hymn either. I have no idea how to invoke you or how to meditate on you. Neither I know your story nor your glory, nor I know your various postures nor I am given to weeping in distress. But I know for certain that seeking your protection, and following your command, is definitely going to end my all afflictions.)

Mantra, Yantra and Tantra are unique and closely linked disciplines in Hinduism. If Mantra is the energy, the Yantra is geometrical representation of the combination and workings of these energies while the Tantra carries the philosophy and methods of redirecting and channelizing the energies of the body and mind for the guidance of the seeker in his spiritual pursuit and evolution. In a way, they are three supreme means for the peace and prosperity in life as also the means of spiritual advancement of the soul on the path of liberation. They are known to purify the mind and body and strengthen the souls by awakening and energizing the hidden powers and energy centers. The Hindu way of devotion making use of these three instruments is a complex divine worship that invokes the higher universal forces in the energy levels of the mind and body thereby facilitating the devotees to achieve not only the intended material ends but also spiritual evolution into higher beings closer to self-realized soul.

Mantra – Nature, Composition and Role

A Mantra is a Sanskrit word (root man = to think; tra = instrument or device) with multiple overtones such as syllable, word or phonemes, or a group of sacred utterance, a numinous sound with a belief by practitioners to have a strong religious or spiritual overtone suggesting the presence or invocation of specific divine power. The composition, function, meaning, type and importance of mantras vary depending upon the school and philosophies of Hinduism. Some mantras are just one syllable such as “Aum” with deep meaning while others have more syntactic and sophisticated structure with literal meaning. The majority mantras are melodic phrases with religious and spiritual interpretations on a variety of themes such as a human yearning for the divine, truth, wisdom, light, immortality, peace and tranquility, love, knowledge, and so on. Mantras also come in various forms; for instance, they are in verse form in Rig Veda and as musical chants in Sama Veda. Typically, they are melodic, mathematically structured meters and resonant with numinous qualities.

The mantras have a known history of more than 3000 years and the earliest known mantras were composed in Vedic Sanskrit in ancient India. In Hinduism, for instance, the Gayatri Mantra is a highly revered mantra from the Rig Veda (Mandala 3.62.10), which is dedicated to Savitri, the deity of five elements. Its recitation is traditionally preceded by “Aum”, the great mystical utterance, and the Rig Veda Samhita itself is estimated to have been composed between 1500 and 1200 BC. Many scholars agree that the mantras have melody and a well-structured mathematical precision in their construction and they equally influence the reciter and listener throughout the world. Besides, the mantras are read with yantras and have specific and central role in Tantra too, where they are treated as sacred formula deeply ritualistic in nature.

Many Indologists and Sanskrit scholars have given their independent definitions and interpretations of mantras. Jan Gonda, a Dutch Indologist and Sanskrit professor defined Mantra as general name for the verses, formulas or sequence of words in prose that praise and glorify divine. Besides, they are believed to have religious, spiritual or magical efficiency, which are meditated upon, recited, muttered or sung in a ritual, and which are collected in the methodically arranged ancient texts of Hinduism. According to Lilian Silburn, a French Indologist specialized in Kashmir Shaivism, Tantra and Buddhism, the mantras are structured formulae of thoughts. Agehananda Bharati, a Sanskritist and Hindu monk in the Dasanami Sannyasi order, defined Mantra as a combination of mixed genuine and quasi-morphemes arranged in conventional patterns in codified esoteric traditions, passed on from a guru to disciples through prescribed initiation in the context of the Tantric School of Hinduism. The general belief among the followers is that the mantras are a religious or spiritual thought, prayer or sacred utterance, comprising of a single syllable to structured melodic verses that can also cause a spell or serve as weapon of supernatural power.

Eknath Easwaran defined the Mantra as “the living symbol of the profoundest reality that the human being can conceive of, the highest power that we can respond to and love.” The definition seems practical because mantras can be recited even silently and repeatedly at any time or any place taking a momentary “time out” and for many they indeed prove a “portable stress buster” for the mind. In fact, if we look around the world, we will find that almost religious or spiritual traditions have some sacred and sanctified words or phrases with divine innuendo having the capacity to calm and refresh human bodies and minds. The Mantra recitation works in many ways: Mere constant repetition of a Mantra takes away mind from the troubles, worries or negative feelings; besides, constant recitation of a Mantra also creates a spiritual path thereby allowing greater access to our hidden inner resources of body and soul.

Regarding the evolution of the mantras, it is believed that during the early Vedic period, the composers (mostly Rishis) perceiving the inspirational power of the melody and chants of the metered verses and poems, started using them during Dhyana (meditation), and the structured text used to facilitate and carry on this process manifested into the concept of the Mantra. Gradually mantras became an important feature of all Vedic compositions as is evident from the verses in the Mandalas of Rig Veda, saman or musical chants of the Sama Veda, and yajus (muttered) and nigada (loudly spoken) formulae in the Yajur Veda. In the later period when Puranas and Epics were created, this tradition continued with mantras diversifying to meet the express needs and passionate zeal of various traditions of Hinduism, including taking centre stage in tantric practices with time.

As for the functions of mantras, the most common function that evolved in Vedic age and has continued till date is to solemnize and endorse various rituals in Hinduism. Since the Vedic age, each Mantra was assigned to one sacrificial act on recurring basis. According to Apastamba Dharmasutra, among the best preserved ancient texts on Dharma in Hinduism, each ritual act corresponds to one mantra, unless explicitly indicated in the relevant text that the particular act corresponds many mantras. Later the Puranas and Epics were composed and the concepts of devotional worship and spirituality took deeper roots in Hinduism. Therefore, the function of the mantras too shifted to redemptive virtues. To put it in a simpler form, while the mantras in Vedic age were invoked to cope with the ephemeral needs and dilemmas of the day-to-day life, the focus of the mantras shifted towards the transcendental goals including areas beyond normal human experience, knowledge or understanding, especially in religious and spiritual ways with objects such as to escape from the cycle of life and rebirth, seek forgiveness for bad karma or even attaining spiritual connection with the God. In many cases, the mantras are used as silent tools of meditation by the seekers. However, they can be chanted or spoken aloud, upamsu (not audible), anirukta (not told or pronounced clearly), or manasa (recited in mind) too.

Harvey Paul Alper, an American scholar and Indologist with extensive study on Indian mantras, suggested that the redemptive spiritual mantras expanded the scope of mantras where each part of it need not have a literal meaning, instead its resonance and musical quality together with content assist the transcendental spiritual process. The Hindu mantras have philosophical themes and are metaphorical with social dimension and meaning that makes them a spiritual language and instrument of thought. For illustration, “Aum” or “Om” is the most fundamental Mantra in Hinduism which is also known as Pranava Mantra and source of all mantras. In Hindu philosophy, the Aum is sound representation of Brahman (God); hence it is considered as the foundational thought and reminder which is prefixed and suffixed with all mantras and prayers. While some fundamental mantras like the Gayatri Mantra and Shanti Mantra(s) focus on Supreme Reality (Brahman), other mantras are dedicated to individual deities and principles.

Yantra – Nature, Composition and Role

Yantra is a Sanskrit word ( root yam = to sustain or support; tra = instrument or device) with a literal meaning of supporting machine or contraption. It actually represents a mystical geometric diagram used for the worship and invocation of deities in temples, home and other places as also as an aid in meditation. Yantras are specifically relevant in tantric traditions of Hinduism where they are largely associated with the benefits supposedly accrued from occult powers used in Hindu astrology and tantrism. Like mantras, yantras too are associated with specific deities and are used for specific purpoe such as for meditation, protection from evil influence, getting rid of poor health or disease, achieving special powers, wealth or success, and so on. Besides, their aesthetic value and symmetry is also utilized for the adornment of the temples by drawing them on temple floors for embellishment. Yantra could be drawn on a flat surface or it could be three-dimensional; it could be drawn or painted on paper, birch bark, engraved on metal or any other flat surface.

Originally, yantras find a reference in Rigvedic text implying as an instrument for restraining or fastening. The literal meaning is also evident from Sushruta’s medical terminology where it refers to blunt surgical instruments such as tweezers or a vice. Several Sanskrit syllables (mantras) are found inscribed on Yantras, which essentially represent various divinities or cosmic powers that exert their influence through sound-vibrations. Specific yantra is associated with specific deity for specific benefit(s). Such intended benefits could be in meditation, acquisition and sustenance of specific powers, protection from harmful effects of evil powers and acquisition of wealth or success, etc. They are also used in ritualistic worship in temples or homes and even worn by people as talisman.

A Yantra typically has geometric shapes radiating concentrically from the center, including triangles, circles, hexagons, octagons, and even lotus petals. The aforesaid geometric shapes are usually drawn into a square representing the four cardinal directions, with doors to each of them. The yantras used as foundation for ritual implements such as lamps, vessels, etc. are typically simple geometric shapes upon which the implements are placed, while ones used in regular worship comprise of the geometric design that are energized with the commensurate mantras for the specific deity, and sometimes the Mantra itself is written in the design. As against these, the yantras used in specific will-driven rites are usually made up on the birch bark or paper, and can also include elements like flowers, rice paste, ashes, and so on.

Among the most popular forms of yantras is the Sri Yantra (or Sri Chakra), which is considered as all-encompassing manifestation of the entire Universe. It represents the supreme goddess as Tripura Sundari, symbolic to the totality of creation and existence, and the devotee’s own unity with the cosmic existence. Here Sundari literally means Beauty (goddess) and Tripura refers to three lokas (worlds). These worlds refer to Bhu Loka which is the Consciousness of physical plane; Bhuvar Loka is the Antariksha or Space Consciousness of Prana; and Swar Loka represents Svarga (heaven) or the Consciousness of Divine Mind. It consists of nine interlocking triangles that surround a central point or bindu. The four upward-pointing isosceles triangles represent the goddess’s masculine embodiment Lord Shiva while the five downward pointing triangles symbolize the female embodiment Shakti. Sri Yantra is the symbol of Tantra in Hinduism based on Shaktism tradition. Sri Yantra has same status and importance among other yantras as is Aum Mantra to other mantras.

Ordinarily, yantras may have names, forms, diagrams, patterns and sound forms with divine virtues of creation, upholding, concealment, manifestation and destruction. The designated Yantra may have any of these virtues or all and acts act like temporary energy center for them. The Yantra radiates spiritual energy is invoked through it. Depending upon the purpose of user, it may have both positive and negative effects. For instance, the Yantra could be used to increase person’s own will power or weaken that of his adversary; it may ward off evil and seek protection from the enemies or cause harm to them. In essence, yantras are instruments to enhance the user’s life in different dimensions including physical health and wellbeing, material development, emotional stability, spiritual growth, and so on.

Yantras are typically characterized by their structural elements and symbolism. Structurally, a Yantra may comprise of geometric shapes, images and written mantra. While the triangles and hexagrams are very common, circles and lotuses of 4 to 1,000 petals are also abundantly used. Yantras and mantras essentially go together with the latter inscribed within the structure of the former. Use of colors in the Yantra is not just for decoration or aesthetic purpose, instead each colour denotes ideas and inner states of consciousness. White, red and black are abundantly used colours which are symbolic to three gunas viz, sattva (purity), rajas (activity) and tamas (inertia), respectively. Besides, specific colours also speak for certain attributes of the goddess. The central point in any Yantra is characterized by a bindu or point that represents the main deity associated with it. This bindu may be represented by a dot, mini circle or it even remains invisible but symbolizes the point from where all creation emanates. In some cases such as the Linga Bhairavi Yantra, the central point is in the form of a lingam.

As already mentioned, most yantras include triangles, of which downward pointing triangles represent feminine aspect of God or Shakti and upward pointing ones symbolize masculine aspect of it as Shiva. Hexagrams in yantras are basically two equilateral triangles intertwined symbolizing the union of Shiva and Shakti. The lotus petals in yantras and mandalas are symbolic to purity and transcendence. The lotuses with eight petals are most common but the number in some cases could be as high as one thousand or more petals. The presence of circles, usually three concentric ones at the centre, represents manifestation. The outer square or nested squares with sacred doorways are symbolic to earth and four cardinal directions. Occasionally, some yantras have a pentagram which is ascribed to goddess Kali. In rare forms, octagon is also used in yantras, which represents the eight directions.

Yantras are used by devotees in daily ritual worship at home and in temples, and are also worn by people as a talisman. Where used as a talisman, the Yantra represents the particular deity invoked by the user. Such talisman is usually consecrated and energized by the designated priest, including the use of mantra(s) closely associated with the deity and Yantra. It is generally believed that if Yantra is not properly energized with Mantra as per prescribed ritual, it will be lifeless without any positive effect. Some practitioners also use occult yantras which are believed to have good luck charms with magical powers to ward off evil spirits in exorcism. The mantras inscribed on yantras are essentially in "thought forms" symbolizing divine or cosmic powers that exert their influence by means of sound-vibrations.

Tantra - Nature, Composition and Role

Tantra in Sanskrit (root tan = to warp or weave) literally means "warp, spin or weave on a loom" that could also be referred to as interweaving of traditions and teachings as threads into a mystic esoteric discipline or practice evolved most likely around the middle of the first millennium CE. In Indian context, this term also broadly refers to a discipline, technique or practice, which evolved with specific connotation of a mystical religious ritualism in Hinduism. The word appears in the hymns of the Rig Veda (10.71) with the meaning of "warp (spinning)" and other texts including remaining three Vedas, Brahmanas, Vishnu Parana and other later texts in wider contexts and meanings like loom, warp (weaving), thread, science, practice, ritual, doctrine, and so on.

The Tantra combines Mantra, yogic methods and philosophy i.e. Tatva-Mantra-Samanvaya, detailing the procedures that a Sadhaka (seeker) shall follow in his (or her) Sadhana (devotion). The essence of any Tantra Shashtra is to transform the spiritual knowledge of the scriptures into the seeker’s experience through well-defined and time tested practices. Tantra is a methodical use of the body and perceptual mind for self-transformation and self-realization. The body and the perceptual mind represent the lower self that indulges in desire-ridden materialism and activities under the influence of the triple gunas, viz. sattva, rajas and tamas leading to bondage in the cycle of death and rebirth. In Tantra, the sadhakas (practitioners) use the same obstacles and impurities i.e. body and mind to achieve control over them and transcend them. Desires are not resisted but used to overcome the very gunas that induce them. Different postures, breathing and meditation techniques, including restrained sexual union are used for self-purification and transformation. Because of the extreme nature of some Tantra practices, it remain questionable by many people; hence such practices are often exercised under secrecy and revealed only to eligible seekers.

Though Tantra in present form is believed to have evolved during the first millennium (CE), the term had been in use in various contexts since Vedic period and, accordingly, it has been defined from time to time with different meaning and interpretation. Many definitions or interpretations have been suggested as there is no universally accepted definition for Tantra. For illustration, the ancient Mimamsa school of Hinduism used Tantra with the following definition: “When an action or a thing, once complete, becomes beneficial in several matters to one person, or to many people, that is known as Tantra.” Kamika-tantra, a medieval era text, defined Tantra as follows: “Because it elaborates (tan) copious and profound matters, especially relating to the principles of reality (tattva) and sacred mantras, and because it provides liberation (tra), it is called a tantra.”

In modern age, Tantra is often defined as a tradition of supernatural ritual magic found within many branches of Hinduism and other Indian religions that emphasizes personal experimentation and experience as a method to move forward on the path to self-realization. Accordingly, Tantra is studied as an esoteric practice and ritualistic religion, and is also known as tantrism in modern age. Broadly, it is based on a combination of texts, techniques, rituals, monastic practices, meditation, yoga and ideology. In Hinduism, Out of a large number of Agamas in Shaiva, Shakta, Vaishnava and other traditions, at least 18 Agamas of ritualistic characters are referred to as Shiva tantras. Also, currently there are three distinct tantrik traditions in Hinduism, namely Dakshina, Vama and Madhyama.

The tantric traditions are largely prevalent in Shaiva Siddhanta and the Mantrapiá¹­ha (Bhairava-centred) traditions in Shavism, and the Vidyapiá¹­ha and Kulamarga traditions of Shaktism. In Vaishnavism, Tantra practices are found in the Pancharatra tradition and some Pancharatra Samhitas elaborate such practices prevalent among the Vaishnavas. Among Tantra Agamas, some texts include self-realization through yogic means while others emphasize Kundalini Yoga, asceticism, and even concepts of dualism and monism as means of similar accomplishment. As the means of worship, the Hindu tantric practices rely on idols and other symbolic icons and substances. The Tantra texts like any other Agamas comprise of four parts: Jnana Pada explaining the doctrine, philosophical and spiritual knowledge; Yoga Pada on general rules intended to regulate the physical and mental conduct; Kriya Pada to explains rules and procedure of rituals including consecration of idol and initiation of the initiate; and Charya Pada explaining procedure of worship and regulation of associated rites and rituals.

According to Gavin D. Flood, a British scholar specialized in Shaivism and Phenomenology, the earliest Tantra texts related to tantric practices in Hinduism belong to 600 CE, while the majority of text were possibly composed from 8th century onwards. The tantric texts were mostly composed in Kashmir, Bengal and Nepal and they were named as Agamas in Shaivism, Pancharatra in Vaishnavism, and as Tantras in Shaktism. By 11th century, many tantric texts had been translated in regional languages too and tantric practices had spread over large geographical areas in the Indian sub-continent. In Indian history, some people have attributed the early tantric practices to the Kapalikas (skull men), also referred to as Somasiddhatins or Mahavartins). The historical information about them is primarily available in fictional works, including a famous novel “Kapalkundala” of 19th century vintage by Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay in Bengal.

Tantra is mainly rituals based; however, instead of a unified and coherent system, it is more of an accumulation of practices and ideas with a wide range of communities exercising it. Scholars believe that the tantrism has been all pervasive in Hinduism following eleventh century with impact on major sects including Shaiva, Vaishnava, Shakta and Smarta traditions. Some Tantra scholars have also viewed Kama and sex as an aspect of life and the root of universe, the purpose of which is far beyond procreation and is another means to spiritual journey and bliss. The Tantra texts and tantric practices cover a wide range of subjects, with focus on spiritual topics but not necessarily of a sexual nature, though eroticism and sex are universally regarded in tantric literature as natural and identified means of transformation and to reflect and recapitulate the bliss of Shiva and Shakti. As against this, the practice is esoterically focused on eroticism and ritualized sex in the name of religion in the West, including alcohol and offering of meat to fierce deities. This distorted form of tantricism is, however, practiced by some tantrics in certain parts of India too.

Tantra is primarily ritualistic in nature, and rather than a coherent system, it cumulatively offers many practices and ideas in Hinduism. Important attributes of tantric tradition are the centrality of rituals and mantras through worship of specific deities, yogic practices, necessity of initiation, esotericism and secrecy, requirement of Guru and ritualistic use of mandalas, transgressive ways, use of body and role of woman, analogical reasoning, and so on. Many of these attributes are common with other Hindu traditions; however, some unique practices of Tantra may involve shamanic beliefs and practices, worship of the Matrikas and ferocious form of goddess (e.g. Kali), association of Kapalikas and Kaulas and specific tantric texts (literature). The mandalas, as medium of meditation on life and to connect with the divine, are key element of Tantra that represent the steady course and interaction of divine, demonic, human and animal energy or impulses in the cosmos. The shamanic beliefs suggest presence of some extraordinary people having qualification to access at will and influence the world of good and bad spirits.

Similarly, Tantra Sadhana has many common techniques with other Hindu traditions. Sri Yantra with the ten Mahavidyas is essentially used in this sadhana. The ten Mahavidyas are Kali, Tara, Tripura Sundari, Bhuvaneshvari, Bhairavi, Chhinnamasta, Dhumavati, Bagalamukhi, Matangi and Kamala, representing various aspects of Shakti (Goddess Parvati). As already explained earlier, the triangles of Yantra represent Shiva and Shakti. Some common techniques in Sadhana are Diksha (initiation) to initiate, Dakshina (gift) to Guru, mantras, mandalas, mudras (gestures), yantras, chanting of hymns, yoga, worship, vrata (fasting), ganachakra, and so on. However, certain practices specific to tantric Sadhana are abundant use of animal sacrifice, intoxicating substances such as alcohol, cannabis and other entheogens, meat, ritual music and dance, supernormal powers (siddhis), and maithuna (sexual union) with a consort in some cases.

Three Disciplines Intertwined Together

Millions of adherents of Hinduism engage themselves in daily worship of deities of their choice by employing one or all the three basic disciplines or techniques viz. Mantra Yantra and Tantra. They also represent basic tools to yoke the divinity of gods and make use of it in discharge of obligatory duties in the world by believers (Hindus), practice self-purification or achieve self-realization. As mentioned in the Bhagavad Gita, three paths of self-realization are Karma-yoga, Jnana-yoga and Bhakti-Yoga and aforesaid disciplines are constructively used by the followers of all paths. Besides their constructive use for the peace and prosperity, same disciplines could also be used for destructive means by casting evil spells and causing sufferings on others.

The mantras are employed to invoke intended deiy in positive (and occasionally negative) sense by using the power of the mind or thought and yantras too are utilized for the similar ends. In contrast, the tantras are used for the transformation and transmission of the physical power of the body and perceptual mind from the lower planes to higher planes through the use of tantu (i.e. nerve fibers or nadis). It is believed that the mantras activate the mind and intelligence, yantras activate ego that operates between the conscious and the unconscious leading to reality testing and a sense of personal identity, and tantras work through the organs of actions and perception. As already mentioned before, the Mantra is predominantly sattvic, the Yantra is rajasic and the Tantra tamasic. They also represent the fundamental disciplines and universal techniques in Hinduism, which followers employ to fulfill obligations and achieve the four basic goals (Purusharthas) of human life.

Notwithstanding the influence of Gunas and other attributes, the dissimilitude or difference among them is more or less amorphous and all the three disciplines are found in practice together and often deeply intertwined in various forms of worship in Hinduism. They were present in the Vedic sacrificial observances and procedures with slightly different connotation i.e. mantras for invoking natural gods, yantras for making the sacrificial pit in specified formations and tantras to condition the body for the sacrificial ceremony. In contrast, in the modern age, mantras are used to invoke and please the intended deity, yantras are used for the worship of the deity by drawing or inscribing it on the specified medium and tantras employ rituals for self-purification and transformation, where necessary, even by resorting to sexual union to transform impure sexual energy (retas) into pure spiritual energy (ojas) and body vigor (tejas). In doing so, Tantra aims to liberate and transform the mind and body from their impulses and binding impurities.

To be continued&

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