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The Study and Practice of Yoga
An Exposition of the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali
by Swami Krishnananda


Chapter 35: The Recitation of Mantra

The adoration of God, the contemplation of God, the attunement of oneself with God, says Patanjali, can be easily achieved through the repetition of the Name of God. It is difficult to contact God, for reasons that are obvious. But we need not despair or feel that it is impossible to contact Him, because while there are most difficult techniques of the soul's merger into God, there are also very simple methods of drawing His attention to oneself. The most traditional, accepted and common sadhana, not only in India but in religious circles in almost all parts of the world, is what is known as japa or recitation of the Divine Name. The object that we are having in our mind becomes associated with our idea of it by the invocation of its name, as it is known in common parlance. There are two aspects to the way in which there can be an invocation of anything in our mind. One is, if I want to draw the attention of a person towards myself, I call the name of that person, and the person listens. The expected effect is then produced.

There can be a reciprocal action on the part of the object of our idea, when we summon the name of that object, if it is an object which is conscious, like a human being. But if the object is not conscious like a human being, or it is so withdrawn into itself that it has no consciousness of itself at all, then we can generate an idea of that object by calling its name and visualising it in our mind so that we are able to remember it. Japa has something to do with the drawing up of a memory in respect of anything that we wish to maintain in our consciousness. There are objects of various kinds in this world, of which some are conscious and some are unconscious. If I summon a conscious object, there is an immediate reaction; but more effort is necessary for summoning an unconscious object. I can call a dog by making a sound with my mouth and it will come running to me. But if I call an umbrella: "You come," - it will not come, because it is not conscious of my intention in regard to it. Though, ultimately, even unconscious objects can be made to move by the power of thought, it cannot be done easily; it requires extraordinary effort.

The Name of God is a peculiar mode of invocation by which we generate in ourself forces of a peculiar character which have significance, both in our inner life as well as in our outer life. The particular symbol by which we can invoke the form of God into our mind, and which Patanjali has in mind, is pranava or omkara. Tasya vācakaḥ praṇavaḥ (I.27): The Name of God is Om, says Patanjali. Now, when he says 'Om', he does not mean any kind of Hindu concept or any type of sectarian tradition. What he intends to tell us is that the symbol of God should be comprehensive enough to contain within itself almost all of the characteristics of God. A limited object, a finite thing in this world, can be designated by a finite name. But, an infinite object like God cannot be designated by any kind of finite designation or epithet. When a finite name is uttered, an idea in the mind is generated which corresponds to that finite name. The name 'tree', for instance, immediately generates in the mind the idea of a tree, which is the corresponding finite object that is related to this finite name. A particular name can summon up only a particular idea of a given object.

God is not any particular thing. He is the most general of all beings, satta samanya, as He is called, the universal substratum or the greatest common factor present in every conceivable thing, anywhere. Therefore, the designation of God should be possessed of similar characteristics – namely, it should be very comprehensive. That is, when the name of God is chanted, it is not that any particular finite idea is generated in the mind, but a vaster and more comprehensive notion is generated, which works in such a way that it removes the finitude of consciousness in our mind. Tajjapaḥ tadarthabhāvanam (I.28) – 'japa' is the word used here in this sutra. Japa is a holy recitation, a constant hammering into the mind of a particular formula, an idea, or a name, in order that the same idea may be allowed to originate in the mind, and nothing else is allowed. The mind is made in such a way that it cannot think one and the same thing continuously and, therefore, it is necessary to repeat the designation or formula of a particular given object again and again, without any remission or gap, so that the mind reconstitutes itself into the form of that object, and there is a new type of vyapti or pervasion taking place in the mind, which is our intention in the recitation of the mantra.

The mystic formulas, known as mantras, have some peculiar features. A mantra, in its spiritual connotation, is not an ordinary name like John, Jack, or Rama, Krishna, Govinda, Gopala, etc., as we have in respect of ordinary human beings. It is a specialised combination of vibrations which are packed into a very concentrated form, so that when they are repeated, what happens is not merely the generation of an idea in the mind in the sense of any abstract notion, but a positive vibration, though it may be invisible. When we take a powerful homeopathic dose, for instance, we cannot see the vibration, but it has its own effect. Words are really symbols of vibration. They are charged with the force of which they are supposed to be the external shape or the form. The mind, which itself is charged with consciousness, is associated with the meaning of the word with which it connects itself, and so sympathetically there is an effect produced in consciousness itself on merely hearing the word uttered. The word-symbol is a concentrated energy presented to us, which can be thrust into our system and made part of our nature.

In Indian tradition, we have the mantras which are also associated with certain factors other than merely a combination of words, one aspect of which is what is known as chandas. This a peculiar feature of the formation of a mantra. A chandas is a particular method of combining words according to a rule called ghana shastra, which is known in mystical circles in India. A particular word, when it is combined with another particular word, produces a particular effect. Rhetoricians are well acquainted with this subject. Great novelists and poets in India, especially those endowed with special genius and charged with divine power, such as Kalidasa, followed this technique of ghana shastra, and knowing the power of words, composed their poems or their works in such a way that they follow the rules of accepted rhetoric. Ordinary literature is not acquainted with this secret of Sanskrit literature. The greatness of a poet can be judged from the way he starts the work. How does he start the work? What is the word that he uses in the beginning? It is the belief among great writers in India that the initial phrases at the commencement of the work tell upon the nature of the entire work that is to follow.

This system of the combination of particular words with other words of the requisite character is followed in the composition of a mantra, which literally means, 'that which protects a person who thinks of it'. Mananat trayate iti mantrah – a mantra is that which protects us when we chant it. It protects us like armour, like a shield that we wear in a war, by generating in us a resisting power against any kind of influence which is extraneous in nature, and which is unwanted for the purpose on hand. Chandas is the peculiar chemical combination of the letters, we may say. Particular chemical substances produce special results or effects when they are combined with certain types of other chemical components. But when they are mixed together, they may create a third force altogether.

A mixture that is chemically produced, like hydrogen and oxygen for instance, is not merely an arithmetical combination of two elements, because when the two are combined, some peculiar effect is produced which is not apparently present in either of the components. For instance, water is produced by a combination of hydrogen and oxygen, but we will not find the character of water either in hydrogen or in oxygen. The water that is the effect of the combination of hydrogen and oxygen in a certain proportion is a new effect altogether, and we cannot, by analysis, discover the essence of water in its original causes. Likewise, the words of a mantra, the components of a mantra, have special forces present or inherent in them, and when the words are combined in the requisite proportion and in the manner mentioned in the chandas shastra, they produce a third kind of effect which is the purpose or intention of the mantra, and that effect is called the devata. We may say that water is the devata of hydrogen and oxygen – it is the deity. That is the intention. That is the purpose. That is what we require. That is what we are aiming at and want.

The mantra, when it is chanted, generates a force which is the object of the realisation of the sadhaka. A mantra has a chandas, or the combining feature, which is the determining factor of the particular shape that the effect takes, and so the mantra determines the deity, and vice versa. So we have a deity, or the aim or the goal of the mantra, and the chandas of the mantra, as well as another thing altogether, namely, the discoverer of the mantra has some say in this matter. The discoverer of the mantra is called the rishi of the mantra. A rishi is a seer of the mantra – not merely a composer like a writer, or an author, or a poet – but a seer into the truth of a mantra, to whom the mantra, in its truth, has been revealed in his meditations; and so the will of the seer also is present there. So, according to our tradition, when we chant a mantra we remember the rishi of the mantra, the chandas of the mantra, and the deity of the mantra. Rishis, chandas, devata – these three are always remembered before the mantra is chanted, so that we have the grace of these divine precedents of the sacred mantra that we are going to chant, because these are the causes behind the action that the mantra takes.

The mantra that Patanjali particularly refers to in his sutra is pranava or omkara. This is something very difficult to understand and cannot easily be explained however much we may try, because these are very great secrets which are invisible to the eyes and, therefore, ordinarily incapable of explanation. It is believed that the chanting of pranava or Om, in the prescribed manner, sets up a novel type of vibration in the system, which is free from every kind of distraction or particularisation in respect of any external object. Every name in this world particularises itself in respect of an external object, such as tree, mountain, sun, moon, star, etc. – they are external objects. But here, the object of pranava or Om is not any given object in particular. It is a general being, and anything that is general is also harmonious. Hence the chanting of pranava or Om in the prescribed manner, with the required intonation, produces a generalised harmonious vibration in the entire physical and psychological system, and this is what is conducive to the concentration of the mind in meditation, because meditation is nothing but the harmonious condition of the mind.

'Samadhi' is the word used for the highest state of harmony achieved thereby. Adhi is a mental condition, and an equilibrated mental condition is samadhi - equilibrated in the utmost manner, so that every component of thought is systematically harmonised with every other component, and not one setting itself against the other or distracting the other. So harmoniously are they knitted together that there is a uniform fabric of the mind, as it were, in respect of the object. A harmonious vibration creates a thrill in the system, which is the trick that the chanting of the mantra or pranava produces, and one can feel it when one chants pranava at least for a few minutes continuously. We will feel a subtle, creeping sensation in our system, as if ants are crawling through our nerves. We will feel a peculiar touching sensation, a titillating feeling in the beginning, which is an indication that our chanting is correct and the mind is getting concentrated.

Simultaneously with this feeling of a subtle thrill in the system when the chanting of pranava is done properly, there is a feeling that a loss of body-consciousness is gradually taking place. We will not feel that we exist at all. We will be aware of a non-objective something, and it is this non-objective awareness, which is the effect of the chanting of pranava, which also creates the feeling of levitation. We are not actually getting lifted up physically, but we will feel as if we are lifted up from the earth and moving in the air, as it were. Though we are on the ground and not moving in the air physically, the mind will feel as if it is lifted up, and this is the astral body getting stirred because of the harmonious vibration that is being produced. Though the physical body is not moving in the air, the subtle body is trying to get up, and that is why we feel as if we are moving in the air. The feeling of levitation is generated by the effect produced upon the subtle body, by the chanting of the mantra. The subtle body is ordinarily so intimately connected with the physical body that we cannot isolate one from the other. When we are intensely conscious of the physical body, the subtle body gets impregnated with the notion of the physical body, and we cannot forget that we are anything but the body.

This difficulty one has in getting tethered to the notion of the physical body alone arises on account of a distracted, inharmonious movement of the mind and the pranas. If we want to draw the mind or the subtle body away from its contact with or attachment to the physical body, the first thing we should do is to create a system of harmonious feeling in the mind, as well as to very, very carefully isolate every component of the subtle body from its contact with the physical body by a new type of vibration altogether. Sometimes sticking plasters cannot be removed from the finger immediately. If we pull them off, the skin is removed and we feel much pain. So doctors and nurses try to remove a sticking plaster from a wound very, very slowly by pouring some solution over the sticking plaster, and this detaches the plaster automatically by the smoothness and softness produced by the application of the solution.

Likewise, we cannot wrench the subtle body from the physical body by effort; it will mean death if that is attempted. It has to be healthily detracted from its attachment to the physical body, and pinpointed towards the universal object which is God, which the chanting of pranava is supposed to do, as the yoga shastras tell us. We are not in a state of vibration that is appreciably harmonious, usually speaking, because we have attachments to particular objects. Any kind of special concern that the mind has with the particularised objects of sense prevents the subtle body from being in a state of harmony with itself. There is non-alignment of itself with the universal objective. The alignment can be effected only by producing in the subtle body a condition which is akin to the condition of universality. As we know, the universal is the most general of all beings, and nothing can be more harmonious than the universal.

Thus, the purpose of the recitation of pranava or mantra is to produce a condition in the subtle body – the vehicle of the mind – which is sympathetic in nature with the universal objective of harmony. What is harmony? It is equal attention paid to every structure, and every component of the structure of one's being. It cannot be done easily and, therefore, we take to the method of the chanting of mantra. The mantra, pranava, is supposed to be the king of mantras because the various parts of the soundbox in our vocal system that ordinarily operate in the chanting of any mantra, or the utterance of any word of any language, take part in the utterance of Om. The entire soundbox vibrates from the bottom to the top, and so it is believed in many mystical circles that Om is inclusive of every language. Every word conceivable is included in it in a very potential latent form, and because it is thus the most general of all symbols conceivable, it is the best designation of God, Who is the greatest of universals.

This has to be chanted again and again, says Patanjali – tajjapaḥ tadarthabhāvanam (I.28). Here, Patanjali does not say that the chanting of the mantra alone is sufficient. He also says that we have to concentrate on the meaning of the mantra to a produce quick result. Tadarthabhāvanam – the meaning should be felt in the mind. We must be feeling the content of the mantra. "What does it signify? What am I chanting? What does it mean, ultimately?" When the intention behind the mantra is coupled with the chanting, there is a quickening of the process in the realisation of the objective. There are many various other prescriptions mentioned here for the purpose of accelerating the process of realisation through the chanting of the mantra, such a proper seat, a proper direction, a proper time, a proper place and given circumstances, etc. – all of which are known to us.

Also, there is a special tradition of chanting mantra, known as purascharana in India, and it is supposed to be the recitation of the mantra as many lakhs of times (a lakh is one hundred thousand) as there are letters in a mantra, so that the completion of the purascharana is supposed to be the completion of a round of sadhana, the completion of a given cycle. As many lakhs of japa as there are letters in a mantra are to be chanted, and then it produces a novel effect in oneself. There are devotees, even today, and there were many previously, who did numerous purascharanas of this kind for the purpose of the realisation of the deity of the mantra. I personally feel that for the minds of today, japa is perhaps the best sadhana, because it is a technique by which the mind can be automatically drawn towards the point of concentration by habitual recitation – repetition of the mantra. It does not require much logic, study, or analysis, or anything of that sort. It requires merely a will to do – that is all. There were many saints and sages who had spiritual realisation merely through this japa sadhana, because japa or recitation of the Divine Name or the mantra is virtually the same as meditation. As Patanjali mentions, japa is charged with the notion, idea or concentration of the mind on the meaning of the mantra.