In the west, we see a little of sound healing and music therapy. But the science of mantra is applied to multiple fields in the east. Not only is it used in meditation and devotional ritual, it’s used in healing, neutralizing karma, developing abilities, architecture, and more.
The trick is, much of it has become couched in ritual and religion making it much less accessible. This was one of Buddha’s big pushes: to throw out superficial ritual and dogma and come back to the core teachings. Father Joseph Girzone also spoke to this on another post.
To understand mantra, the first part to know is the language of nature, the sounds (vibrations) nature uses to build the world. According to Shiksha, a Vedic book on Sanskrit, the closest we have to nature is the Sanskrit alphabet. This is the foundation of all mantra.
Shiksha describes an alphabet of 64 characters but many of these are very rare punctuation and the extra-long 3-count vowels. The working alphabet of common use is about 48 to 50 characters. That’s what is typically taught as a foundation.
Like English, a letter represents a sound, not a word. Sanskrit is twice the size of the English alphabet but has none of the variables. A given letter is only pronounced one way. And unlike many First Nations languages or something like Greek or Russian, the entire Sanskrit alphabet can be represented (transcribed) with English letters, although a few accents may be needed. There is 36 phonemes of 21 unique sounds. The rest are variations in tongue position and length resulting in 4 N’s, 3 S’s, some D’s, short and long vowels, and so forth.
Some of the differences are subtle to a western ear but it is precise and consistent and pretty easy to learn. Sanskrit grammar, however, is much more complex. But to simply read and speak it, little of that is necessary. Just a familiarity with the alphabet and a few common compound consonants like Ksha. (as in kshatriya, the ruling and warrior caste)
Bija mantras are based directly on the Sanskrit alphabet. Add an M to any letter and you have a new, potent tool. Even reciting the alphabet itself is a form of mantra practice, addressing the range of nature. The alphabet also gives you the ability to read many of the old texts directly, checking how the translator interpreted the work.
It’s worth noting here a key aspect of Sanskrit and mantra. In Sanskrit, there is a direct relationship between the sound, the form that sound produces, and the meaning of the sound. These are not just random sounds but sounds that can be experienced in form when heard on the vibrational level of consciousness, known as ritam bhara pragya.
And this is why correct pronunciation and correct choice of mantra is significant. The effects are significant. The sound is the form or effect. The chair you’re sitting on has a Sanskrit name that produces its form. The name also give you its nature, composition and complete history. It’s the signal key to the chairs knowledge base.
Thus, you want to make sure you’re starting with the correct pronunciation. You’ll want an understanding of the right tongue position and audio samples to get it right. A tutor can certainly help.
Another issue is that a lot of the Sanskrit floating around is actually Hindi, a “modernized” version. You’ve undoubtedly seen the Om symbol, looking like a decorated 3. That’s not proper Devanagari Sanskrit even if it says otherwise. The proper A looks like an open hand pointing down because it is – Shiva’s. He is said to be the source of the alphabet. His drum (a damaru) beats out the vibrations and his hands show the correct symbols (letters). We might even call the letter-shapes mudras. That’s why it’s called Deva-nagari. (see comments)(It’s also worth noting that Nature operates in a 3D space. Sanskrit is not used linearly by nature.)
I didn’t find a single on-line alphabet that was correct classical devanagari. I thus decided to prepare a reference file.
The Attached Alphabet (113k) has 3 sections:
1 – The Alphabet with transliteration and some usage examples and modern variants. Also a table of Sanskrit numbers and some compound consonants.
2 – The “Classic” Alphabet alone
3 – The Alphabet with sample words for pronunciation practice plus a mouth position chart for the Tongue position key.
(I’d been meaning to update my scribbled table anyway)
There is a large and growing library of Vedic texts in devanagari on-line, for free. A few are extremely rare.
My own study was in grad school with the man who literally wrote the book used in Universities of the west to learn Sanskrit. But those materials are not available free on-line. And I’m no pronunciation expert.
Once the alphabet is known, you can begin to study mantra. And then you learn technique. If you just say a mantra or think it in your head, it’s just a sound like any other in the noise of the world. Proper technique charges or energizes the mantra so it works on the level of vibration itself. This is, for example, partly the purpose of a guru puja before meditation instruction. Also one of the reasons you want proper instruction in meditation rather than learning from a book.
From these basics you can learn the applications. The mantras for different body parts and locations, for the areas of a building, for special abilities, and for various influences in time. This is also the origin of yagyas or performances to bless a home or new child or marriage.
Without the right mantra at the right time and the right technique, a precisely performed yagya will offer a pleasant blessing rather than a profound result. Much of it is taught traditionally, passed down within families and traditions. It is kept secret from the untrained to avoid folly. But that also makes it hard to find quality information.
In my own experiments with a healing mantra, for example, I tried the right mantra on a joint. It made little difference. But when I used it in a more effective way, putting the sound into the flow of the energy, it was much more potent and brought immediate results.
A good introduction to applications is Mantra Yoga and Primal Sound, Secrets of Seed Mantras by Dr. David Frawley. While I don’t agree with all of his interpretation, the small book is packed with reference charts and detailed background.
While all this may seem kind of strange and foreign, much of our world-context is derived from this ancient set of sciences. Our number system, the way we divide space (360 degrees), the way we divide time (hours, days, etc), and more.
As may now be clear, the basics are simple and powerful but it’s all in the details and it takes some training and practice to become proficient. Still, it’s worth getting to know the alphabet. If you know of any good on-line audio resources, let me know. The British prof who sounds like she’s being poked when she does a, i, u really won’t do. 😉