Mantras are sacred words that have spiritual qualities when uttered. They are used to connect with the Divine and protect the mind from sources of suffering. Mantras have been used for thousands of years by many different religions and cultures around the world including Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism.
In Hinduism, it is believed that Krishna created the world partly out of the vibration of sounds. Vedic traditions believe that mantras are part of the heart chakra, said aloud to help energy flow outward and love to flourish. Today, students of Krishna who carry on his legacy and teachings describe mantras as “...break[ing] down the difference between the inside and the outside...” and opening up the heart even in the face of challenges.
In yoga and meditation practices, mantras are repeated as individual words, phrases, songs or sounds that are used to improve concentration, quiet the mind and relax the nervous system. These mantras have many different meanings such as connecting with all beings, calling upon the highest Self, worshiping the Divine, and showing respect for one's teachers. Below are five of the most powerful mantras and their sacred meanings.
Om (also spelled Aum) is believed to be the origin of all sound. It is also the most well-known mantra in the West.
In Hinduism, Om is the pure sound of the universe. Om is often called pranava, the sacred syllable, because it symbolizes Brahman and the essence of spiritual reality. Traditionally, it’s been taught that using Om illuminates the mind and brings about an image of bright rays of light. It connects individuals to others by acknowledging that we are all human. We all possess the same internal seeds of goodness and purity of heart.
Chanting Om helps soothe the ruminating mechanisms of the mind that can bring on negative feelings such as anxiety. It helps purify the mind and allows us to move beyond the ego-based self in order to align with the Divine.
Om is traditionally chanted in three parts, with equal time given to each part. It is chanted from the navel, then moves up to the sternum and then through the throat and out of the mouth. In the process, an internal vibration is created. This vibration is said to be the trinity that connects the physical body, mind and spiritual Self. Spelled as Aum, with three letters, it represent the three states of consciousness. “A” is the waking state, “U” is the dream state and “M” is the state of deep sleep.
(Continue learning more in The Meaning of Om.)
Throughout history, different meanings have been associated with the Sanskrit word, Ram. Many believe that Ram is symbolic of daily life as an act of worship, along with bringing oneself closer to God. It has been described as a reorientation to one’s true, purest Self, or “...the essence of who you are when you realize your true Self (the Atman).”
As a mantra, Ram is repeated as a way to show bhakti (devotion) and commitment to acting justly, with wisdom and compassion for all. A popular mantra that contains Ram is Sri Ram Jai Ram Jai Jai Ram, which was originally popularized in western India by the enlightened saint, Samantha Ramdas.
According to Vedic tradition, So'ham is considered the universal mantra, used to identify someone with Ultimate Reality and the larger Universe. It may be translated from Sanskrit to mean "I am That," and is an answer to the mantra, Hamsa, which means "Who am I?" As a mantra, So'ham has the primary purpose of connecting people to one another because the sound it makes is like the sound of breathing and every human must breathe. It acknowledges that all of us have the same nature, life force, maker and origin.
The first part of the mantra (pronounced as an extended “sooo”) is said on an inhalation, while the second part (“hummm”) is said on an exhalation. This creates a natural vibration and slowly relaxes the nervous system. Because it is practiced while inhaling and exhaling at a steady, slow and consistent speed, the So'ham mantra is one of the easiest ways to quiet the mind and reduce muscle tension. Repeating this mantra activates the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) which is responsible for reducing heart rate and increasing restfulness.
(More on this powerful mantra in So'ham. I Am That.)
Om Namah Shivaya
The mantra of Om Namah Shivaya is intended to call upon the highest, purest Self. Some consider this mantra an act of respectfully bowing to Shiva. Shiva being the “true Self,” or identifying that each person is eternal, even after the body is destroyed.
Om Namah Shivaya is sometimes called the five or six-syllable mantra. It contains at least five syllables (na-mah-shi-va-ya), which all have different meanings, and Om is the sixth syllable when added at the beginning of the mantra. In Hindu traditions, namah means "adoration" and "respect," while shivaya means "aligning with Absolute Reality." In practicing this mantra, one can work on attaining Self-realization and dissolving the ego. By aligning with a pure self, one is able to reduce negative, ego-based feelings such as jealousy, disappointment, anger, frustration, insecurity and greed.
(Learn even more about the Om Namah Shivaya Mantra.)
Chanting Guru Om is a way of showing thanks and respect for one’s guru. It is especially beneficial to chant if you are seeking a teacher to learn from, or are showing devotion to an existing guru that you practice with.
A guru is a spiritual teacher who helps his/her student dispel ignorance and connect with the Divine. This mantra contains the original sound of Om because it’s a way of connecting with the original source of energy while acknowledging gratitude and commitment to one’s personal guru.
(If you are currently searching, read Seeking Your Guru: A History of Gurus in the West + 6 Bits of Advice for the Seeker.)