A Muses of musical medicine special: Mantra & Bhajan
By Moriah Hope
“Very well, I shall describe to you the supreme character of the mantras, their key letters and the way to use them. This is however a secret… It is by mantra that God is drawn to you. It is by mantra that God is released. By secret utterance, these are mantras, and therefore these are not to be published. Their form is not to be written and their features not to be described.”
—Parama Samhita 6.2-4
Through the ancient practice of uttering mantras and singing bhajans (songs with a spiritual theme), we can discover just how powerful words really are as they travel through sound. The above quote, found in medieval hindu literature, describes this power and also poses the paradox of writing about something that can only be realized through sound and direct experience. Nevertheless, I see no better way to explore this timeless sonic tradition as I write from the very genesis of these ancient sounds—India.
Mantra and bhajan generally share the same goal, invoking the power of the divine, though their means to that goal differ. A whole series could be written on the subject, but for the sake of simplicity and to honor the wisdom of ancient sages, I will keep my breakdown brief before sharing some personal experience with the practices. Perhaps then, as the Parama Samhita describes, you may be encouraged to put this into practice which is paramount to any reading or studying.
So, what exactly is a mantra? Also known as ‘divine speech,’ a mantra is essentially a systematic formula of Sanskrit words and syllables. Each syllable is said to carry the vibrational tone which matches the subject being described—as Indian grammarians call them, ‘meaning bearing sounds.’
Alongside this vibrational quality is the correspondence of each Sanskrit letter to a physiological center (chakra) or artery (nadi) in the body. With all of this in mind, we catch a glimpse of the complex significance of these sacred syllables. Each utterance leaves not just a spiritual impression on the mind, but a physiological impression on the body as well.
This is why the Brāmanas (Vedic priests and seers) emphasized the need to study the influence of sound phenomena on consciousnesses and physiology. According to the Oxford Tab, computer scientists herald Sanskrit as being the language closest to coding due to its precision and systematic structuring. What began as only secret oral transmission was refined by the Indian sages to form the alphabet, word structure and grammar of Sanskrit.
The good news is, one doesn’t need to intellectually comprehend the intricate system of this ancient language in order to benefit from chanting it. This is precisely why mantras are “not to be written and their features not to be described.” Dissecting such a technique is like studying the universe itself. Much of our ability to truly understand it is limited and lost in translation.
Take for example the most simple, yet often considered the most powerful mantra, ‘OM’, written in Sanskrit as ॐ. According to the Vedas and other various ancient texts, it is said to be the sound of the Universe. Therefore it has been utilized to connect body, mind and soul with the universal soul or ‘Super Soul.’ With it being ‘the cosmic vibration of creation,’ it is associated with healing and activating the entirety of our physiology. In Indian schools of thought this has been explored in depth over centuries’ time, yet just the ancient texts have asserted, no words can ever truly articulate what ultimately must be felt viscerally.
“Understand this word in its essence:
Om! that is the word.
This syllable is the highest.
He who knows that syllable,
Whatever he desires, is his.”
— Katha Upanishad, 1.2.15-1.2.16
This excerpt from the 3,000-year-old Upanishads is testament to the tradition’s faith in the practice of mantra. But being a natural skeptic myself, I would like to offer my personal account with the power of a practice with mantras and bhajans.
In 2013, I spent two months living in an all women’s bhakti yoga ashram where our days consisted of ashram chores, studying, chanting and repeating. Coming from Boulder, Colorado where yoga, mantra, and all things esoteric dominate the culture, it wasn’t exactly a novel experience for me. However, the reverence and respect behind our use of the mantra there greatly differed from the diluted, commercialized yoga scene in the west.
At the ashram the use of mantra was not taken lightly, just as quoted in the Parama Samhita above. The mantra was passed down from the Indian spiritual teacher. This is the original way mantra was designed to be used—given to the student by the enlightened master.
Every morning at five A.M. we chanted 16 rounds on a mala (string of beads) of 108 tulsi beads. One round is complete after having chanted the mantra on each individual bead. We chanted only one mantra each day. This means that each morning we repeated the same mantra 648 times. This opposes the sea of mantras floating around in the west.
In Vedic ritual, one mantra corresponds to one ritual act. Due to this direct relationship with action, the true significance of a mantra cannot be fully conveyed with words. In this case at the ashram, the action was chanting with the mala beads in walking meditation as well as the action that took place within ourselves and beyond the senses.
To be perfectly honest, at the ripe age of 18 I wasn’t totally sold on the power of mantra yet. And I couldn’t get myself up that early every morning as religiously as the others. But when I did manage to conjure up the discipline, to my surprise I actually experienced tangible results. I reached a profound state of peace while chanting. It was as if each cell in my body was being purified. Yet what really had the most lasting effect on me came from mantra accompanied by music, song and dance—bhajan.
Bhajan, more widely recognized as kirtan, is in my opinion more suitable for these busy modern times. With so much sensory stimulation via technology, calming the mind is becoming more challenging than ever. Sitting like a monk in meditation for an hour is not a viable option for everyone.
With bhajan, one doesn’t have to restrain the senses, but rather engage them entirely. In this practice we invigorate the senses with sound and dance while achieving a divine state of mind through mantra or other spiritual lyrics.
I have fond memories of kirtan nights at the ashram chanting the very same mantra we would chant at 5 A.M. but this time through music and movement. It was a completely intoxicating experience despite us being 100% sober.
Over and over and over again we chanted with a simple melody that might shift when a wave of inspiration came to the lead singer. Drums and bells clanging, chanting, jumping up and down, again and again, a complete absorption into the sounds and loss of sense of self. Liberation from thought, problem, and pain. No trace of worry. No contemplation on past or future. Simply transported to a place of timelessness.
At the end of kirtan nights I would lie in bed marinating in the aftermath of this first vivid experience, soaking in the extreme natural high. My body felt as light. My mind as clear. My heart awake. I had reached ecstatic states before, but this energy was noticeably different and to this day stands out as a distinctly memorable chapter in my book of life. I’m sure the mantra itself played a role in this awakening.
My experience was not scientifically measured and I do not have the data to prove any of this to you. What is left for you is the invitation to create your own direct experience for yourself, if you feel the call. The power of word and sound is not to be underestimated. All ancient cultures were aware of this and continue to utilize its mysterious properties. This is the purpose behind the Shakti Journal’s Muses of Musical Medicine segment. It was designed as a place for our readers to find music that permeates the mind and body in a positive way, especially in contrast to what we see in the mainstream music industry.
Since there is an overwhelming number of mantras and bhajans out there, I have provided a few suggestions you can listen to, or find a community near you to explore this divine phenomenon for yourself.
- Explore Traditional Mantra/Bhajan Music:
- Explore Modern Mantra/Bhajan Music:
With her amalgam of certifications in holistic arts and over 10 years of personal practice, Moriah is devoted to addressing the harmony of body, mind and soul so that we may effectively participate in creating sustainable change in the world.