The word is a sound expressive of the idea. In the supra-physical plane when an idea has to be realised, one can by repeating the word-expression of it, produce vibrations which prepare the mind for the realisation of the idea. That is the principle of the Mantra and of japa. One repeats the name of the Divine and the vibrations created in the consciousness prepare the realisation of the Divine. It is the same idea that is expressed in the Bible, “God said, Let there be Light, and there was Light.” It is creation by the Word.
[Sri Aurobindo. Letters on Poetry and Art, 6 May 1933, page 7]
The Mantra as a mental armour
The significant use of गिर्वण: (girvaṇaḥ) indicates that the safety from mortal strokes is also claimed as a result of the Vedic mantra. “Let not those who would slay, do harm against us (अभि [abhi] in our direction); do thou Indra, lord of mental force, in the strength of the mantra, govern our bodies and when the blow comes in our direction ward it off or enable us to ward it off (यवय [yavaya], causal).” The reference seems to me to be to that power of the mental force in which the Indian yogin has always believed, the power which, substituting a divine mental action for the passive helpless and vulnerable action of the body, protects the individual and turns away all attempts physical or otherwise to do him hurt. If I am right in my interpretation, we see the source of the Tantric idea of the stomaor stotra acting as a kavaca or mental armour around the body which keeps off the attacks of suffering, calamity, diseases, wounds or death.
(Sri Aurobindo. Secret of the Veda, Hymns in Praise of Indra)
The Vedas define four types of Mantra
Stoma: that which establishes or confirms
Uktha: that which desires or wills
Gayatra: that which brings up and sets in motion
Samsa: that which brings out into the field of expression
(Sri Aurobindo. Secret of the Veda, Hymns in Praise of Indra)
The theory behind the Mantra – Sri Aurobindo
All creation is expression by the Word; but the form which is expressed is only a symbol or representation of the thing which is. We see this in human speech which only presents to the mind a mental form of the object; but the object it seeks to express is itself only a form or presentation of another Reality. That reality is Brahman, Brahman expresses by the Word a form or presentation of himself in the objects of sense and consciousness which constitute the universe, just as the human word expresses a mental image of those objects. That Word is creative in a deeper and more original sense than human speech and with a power of which the utmost creativeness of human speech can be only a far-off and feeble analogy.
The word used here for utterance means literally a raising up to confront the mind. Brahman, says the Upanishad, is that which cannot be so raised up before the mind by speech.
Human speech, as we see, raises up only the presentation of a presentation, the mental figure of an object which is itself only a figure of the sole Reality, Brahman, It has indeed a power of new creation, but even that power only extends to the creation of new mental images, that is to say, of adaptive formations based upon previous mental images. Such a limited power gives no idea of the original creative puissance which the old thinkers attributed to the divine Word.
If, however, we go a little deeper below the surface, we shall arrive at a power in human speech which does give us a remote image of the original creative Word. We know that vibration of sound has the power to create — and to destroy — forms; this is a commonplace of modern Science. Let us suppose that behind all forms there has been a creative vibration of sound.
Next, let us examine the relation of human speech to sound in general. We see at once that speech is only a particular application of the principle of sound, a vibration made by pressure of the breath in its passage through the throat and mouth. At first, beyond doubt, it must have been formed naturally and spontaneously to express the emotions created by an object or occurrence and only afterwards seized upon by the mind to express first the idea of the object and then ideas about the object. The value of speech would therefore seem to be only representative and not creative.
But, in fact, speech is creative. It creates forms of emotion, mental images and impulses of action. The ancient Vedic theory and practice extended this creative action of speech by the use of the Mantra. The theory of the Mantra is that it is a word of power born out of the secret depths of our being where it has been brooded upon by a deeper consciousness than the mental, framed in the heart and not constructed by the intellect, held in the mind, again concentrated on by the waking mental consciousness and then thrown out silently or vocally — the silent word is perhaps held to be more potent than the spoken — precisely for the work of creation. The Mantra can not only create new subjective states in ourselves, alter our psychical being, reveal knowledge and faculties we did not before possess, can not only produce similar results in other minds than that of the user, but can produce vibrations in the mental and vital atmosphere which result in effects, in actions and even in the production of material forms on the physical plane.
As a matter of fact, even ordinarily, even daily and hourly we do produce by the word within us thought-vibrations, thought-forms which result in corresponding vital and physical vibrations, act upon ourselves, act upon others and end in the indirect creation of actions and of forms in the physical world. Man is constantly acting upon man both by the silent and the spoken word and he so acts and creates, though less directly and powerfully, even in the rest of Nature. But because we are stupidly engrossed with the external forms and phenomena of the world and do not trouble to examine its subtle and non-physical processes, we remain ignorant of all this field of science behind.
The Vedic use of the Mantra is only a conscious utilisation of this secret power of the word. And if we take the theory that underlies it together with our previous hypothesis of a creative vibration of sound behind every formation, we shall begin to understand the idea of the original creative Word. Let us suppose a conscious use of the vibrations of sound which will produce corresponding forms or changes of form. But Matter is only, in the ancient view, the lowest of the planes of existence. Let us realise then that a vibration of sound on the material plane pre-supposes a corresponding vibration on the vital without which it could not have come into play; that, again, presupposes a corresponding originative vibration on the mental; the mental presupposes a corresponding originative vibration on the supramental at the very root of things. But a mental vibration implies thought and perception and a supramental vibration implies a supreme vision and discernment. All vibration of sound on that higher plane is, then, instinct with and expressive of this supreme discernment of a truth in things and is at the same time creative, instinct with a supreme power which casts into forms the truth discerned and eventually, descending from plane to plane, reproduces it in the physical form or object created in Matter by etheric sound. Thus we see that the theory of creation by the Word which is the absolute expression of the Truth, and the theory of the material creation by sound-vibration in the ether correspond and are two logical poles of the same idea. They both belong to the same ancient Vedic system.
This, then, is the supreme Word, Speech of our speech. It is vibration of pure Existence, instinct with the perceptive and originative power of infinite and omnipotent consciousness, shaped by the Mind behind mind into the inevitable word of the Truth of things; out of whatever substance on whatever plane, the form or physical expression emerges by its creative agency. The Supermind using the Word is the creative Logos.
(Sri Aurobindo, The Upanishads,pp 168-170)
When does the Mantra succeed ?
The japa is usually successful only on one of two conditions – if it is repeated with a sense of its significance, a dwelling of something in the mind on the nature, power, beauty, attraction of the Godhead it signifies and is to bring into the consciousness, – that is the mental way; or if it comes up from the heart or rings in it with a certain sense or feeling of bhakti making it alive, – that is the emotional way. Either the mind or the vital has to give it support or sustenance. But if it makes the mind dry and the vital restless, it must be missing that support and sustenance. There is, of course, a third way, the reliance on the power of the mantra or name in itself; but then one has to go on till that power has sufficiently impressed its vibration on the inner being to make it at a given moment suddenly open to the Presence or the Touch. But if there is a struggling or insistence for the result, then this effect which needs a quiet receptivity in the mind is impeded. That is why I insisted so much on mental quietude and not on too much straining or effort, to give time to allow the psychic and the mind to develop the necessary condition of receptivity – a receptivity as natural as when one receives an inspiration for poetry and music.
[Sri Aurobindo. Letters on Yoga, Sadhana through Meditation, p745]
Three kinds of Japa (Japa=chant)
Japa is of three kinds. Japa done aloud is the lowest; Japa done in low tones is the middle; Japa done mentally is the best. (Kularnava Tantra 15.54)
WHEN the Japa is done aloud (in the hearing of others) there is a tendency for the repetition to get mechanical. The sound predominates over the sense and much of the benefit is lost.
When it is done in low tones (with the movement of lips but outside the hearing of others) there is less distraction of sound. But still the effort of repetition of the words affects the concentration of the consciousness.
Such a concentration is fully possible when the Japa proceeds without verbal repetition (without any movement of lips). One dwells upon the meaning and the consciousness participates uninterruptedly in the affirmation and re-affirmation of the invocation. The letters or words are repeated very subtly within the being as supports to this How of consciousness to the Deity. This is called Ajapa Japa.
[M.P. Pandit. Gems of the Tantra, Series 1, p43]
Ajapa Japa (i.e. chanting that occurs automatically without the chant)
When one repeats a mantra regularly, very often it begins to repeat itself within, which means that it is taken up by the inner being. In that way it is more effective.
The true Mantra must come from within OR it must be given by a Guru
Mother Mirra Alfassa: Nobody can give you the true mantra. It’s not something that is given; it’s something that wells up from within. It must spring from within all of a sudden, spontaneously, like a profound, intense need of your being – then it has power, because it’s not something that comes from outside, it’s your very own cry.
I saw, in my case, that my mantra has the power of immortality; whatever happens, if it is uttered, it’s the Supreme that has the upper hand, it’s no longer the lower law. And the words are irrelevant, they may not have any meaning – to someone else, my mantra is meaningless, but to me it’s full, packed with meaning. And effective, because it’s my cry, the intense aspiration of my whole being.
A mantra given by a guru is only the power to realize the experience of the discoverer of the mantra. The power is automatically there, because the sound contains the experience. I saw that once in Paris, at a time when I knew nothing of India, absolutely nothing, only the usual nonsense. I didn’t even know what a mantra was. I had gone to a lecture given by some fellow who was supposed to have practiced “yoga” for a year in the Himalayas and recounted his experience (none too interesting, either). All at once, in the course of his lecture, he uttered the sound OM. And I saw the entire room suddenly fill with light, a golden, vibrating light…. I was probably the only one to notice it. I said to myself, “Well!” Then I didn’t give it any more thought, I forgot about the story. But as it happened, the experience recurred in two or three different countries, with different people, and every time there was the sound OM, I would suddenly see the place fill with that same light. So I understood. That sound contains the vibration of thousands and thousands of years of spiritual aspiration – there is in it the entire aspiration of men towards the Supreme. And the power is automatically there, because the experience is there.
It’s the same with my mantra. When I wanted to translate the end of my mantra, “Glory to You, O Lord,” into Sanskrit, I asked for Nolini’s help. He brought his Sanskrit translation, and when he read it to me, I immediately saw that the power was there – not because Nolini put his power into it (!), God knows he had no intention of “giving” me a mantra! But the power was there because my experience was there. We made a few adjustments and modifications, and that’s the japa I do now – I do it all the time, while sleeping, while walking, while eating, while working, all the time.[[Mother later clarified: "'Glory to You, O Lord' isn't MY mantra, it's something I ADDED to it - my mantra is something else altogether, that's not it. When I say that my mantra has the power of immortality, I mean the other, the one I don't speak of! I have never given the words.... You see, at the end of my walk, a kind of enthusiasm rises, and with that enthusiasm, the 'Glory to You' came to me, but it's part of the prayer I had written in Prayers and Meditations: 'Glory to You, O Lord, all-triumphant Supreme' etc. (it's a long prayer). It came back suddenly, and as it came back spontaneously, I kept it. Moreover, when Sri Aurobindo read this prayer in Prayers and Meditations, he told me it was very strong. So I added this phrase as a kind of tail to my japa. But 'Glory to You, O Lord' isn't my spontaneous mantra - it came spontaneously, but it was something written very long ago. The two things are different." ]]
And that’s how a mantra has life: when it wells up all the time, spontaneously, like the cry of your being – there is no need of effort or concentration: it’s your natural cry. Then it has full power, it is alive. It must well up from within…. No guru can give you that.
[Mother's Agenda, May 11 1963]
The Mantra controls the physical mind according to Mother Mirra Alfassa
Satprem: Doing japa seems to exert a pressure on my physical consciousness, which goes on turning! How can I silence it? As soon as my concentration is not absolute, the physical mind starts up – it grabs at anything, anything at all, any word, fact or event that comes along, and it starts turning, turning. If you stop it, if you put some pressure on it, then it springs back up two minutes later … And there is no inner consent at all. It chews on words, it chews on ideas or feelings – interminably. What should I do?
Mother: Yes, it’s the physical mind. The japa is made precisely to control the physical mind.
I myself use it for a very special reason, because … You see, I invoke (the words are a bit strange) … the Lord of Tomorrow. Not the unmanifest Lord, but the Lord as he will manifest ‘tomorrow,’ or in Sri Aurobindo’s words, the divine manifestation in its supramental form.
So the first sound of my mantra is the call to that, the evocation. With the second sound, the body’s cells make their’ surrender,’ they give themselves. And with the third sound comes the identification of this [the body] with That, which produces the divine life. These are my three sounds.
And in the beginning, during the first months that I was doing the japa, I felt them … I had an almost detailed awareness of these myriads of cells opening to this vibration; the vibration of the first sound is an absolutely special vibration (you see, above, there is the light and all that, but beyond this light there is the original vibration), and this vibration was entering into all the cells and was reproduced in them. It went on for months in this way.
[Mother's Agenda, Oct 11 1960]
Mantra in Sri Aurobindo’s poem Savitri
As when the mantra sinks in Yoga’s ear,
Its message enters stirring the blind brain
And keeps in the dim ignorant cells its sound
The hearer understands a form of words
And, musing on the index thought it holds,
He strives to read it with the labouring mind,
But finds bright hints, not the embodied truth:
Then, falling silent in himself to know
He meets the deeper listening of his soul:
The Word repeats itself in rhythmic strains:
Thought, vision, feeling, sense, the body’s self
Are seized unulterably and he endures
An ecstasy and an immortal change;
He feels a Wideness and becomes a Power,
All knowledge rushes on him like a sea:
Transmuted by the white spiritual ray
He walks in naked heavens of joy and calm,
Sees the God-face and hears transcendent speech.
Om Vishwani Deva Savitur Duritani Parasuva Yad Bhadram Tanna Asuva
Gayatri Mantra: Om bhur bhuvas suvah, tat savitur varenyam, bhargo devasya dhimahi,dheeyo yo naha prachodayat. (youtube link)
Sri Aurobindo’s Gayatri Mantra : Om Tat Savitur Varam Rupam, Jyoti Parasya Dhimahi Yannah Satyena Dipayet. (recording link) (Mohan Mistry’s rendition) (Joya Di’s rendition) [Tat = That, Savitur = Sun-god who is the Creator, Varam = most auspicious, Rupam = form, Jyotih = Light, Parasya = of the Lord (since para = Transcendental), Dhimahi = meditate on (since Dhi = Intellect), Yannah = by which,Satyena = Truth, Dipayet = illumine (dipa = light) ]
Note: According to M.P.Pandit, the original Gayatri Mantra was intended for illumining the intellect, while Sri Aurobindo’s modification of the Gayatri Mantra is intended for supramentalization of the entire being. Refer to M.P. Pandit’ book Sri Aurobindo and his Yoga page 107 (google book link)