Mantram (singular), mantra (plural) is a short verbal formula like Rolling Stones’ “I’m going home,” or Gertrude Stein’s “A rose is a rose is a rose,” which is repeated as a form of prayer meditation over and over until the original thin-conscious association with meaning disappears and the words become pure physical sounds uttered in a frankly physical universe; the word or sound or utterance then takes on a new density as a kind of magic language or magic spell and becomes a solid object introduced into the science fiction space-time place where the worshipper finds himself, surrounded by jutting mountain crags or city buildings.
After several minutes of devoted repetition—such as Alfred Lord Tennyson practiced with his own name (a form of worship of a form of the Self categorized by one Hindu as Atma Darshan. Self-communion translated—one might garland one’s own photo with flowers and kneel to worship that particular manifest image of Divinity)—it is possible that the awesome physical sound reverberating out of the body into the air might serve as a vehicle for the expression of nonconceptual sensations of the worshipper. That is to say, the magic formula pronunciation can be loaded with affects—feelings, emotions—(Bhakti or devotions is the Hindu term) passing through the body of the devotee. Feelings which arise spontaneously all the time, but rarely have suitable channels for direct expression. So that longer stretches of mantra chanting may become the opportunity for realization of certain blissful or horrific feelings which are latent and hitherto unrealized—tears may arise of which the devotee was not aware earlier. Or gaieties, or Hebraic solemnities. Thus the mantram may serve as an instrument for widening the area of immediate self-awareness of the singer; much as an intense conversation with psychoanalyst or lover, or priest or connection may bring out emotional news; singing (from olden times) deepens the soul of the singer. By deepens the soul, I mean not that the soul is added to like brick by brick, but that what’s already there becomes visible or audible. Well, we all know that about singing. I’m just explaining these simplicities to dispel mysterious notions or provincial resentments agains the use of oriental tricks.
Negro spirituals which involve deepening of the expression of a repeated refrain function like mantra. So lovers’ cries in moments of crisis like “Oh I’m coming, coming. I’m coming. I’m coming, etc.” Singing in the bathroom or on lonesome bridges may have some general function of providing situations where full force of feeling is slowly developed and outwardly expressed in solitude. From Yoruba drum-dance-and-shout worship rituals to electronic folk-rock we have developed Western situations to manifest our fugitive aetherial consciousness.
The Indian practice of mantra-chanting is ancient and useful to know; but I don’t know enough about it technically to be the right guru. I wish to explain what I do know through gossip and practice, and hope that scholarly holymen will make allowances for my ignorance.
One Oriental idea is suggestive: that the mantra in itself has magic or practical power irrespective of the sincerity or propriety of its pronunciation in a given situation; and that mere pronunciation of the mantra is a meritorious and mysterious art. On this assumption I take liberty to chant and explain mantram publicly.
The name of Shiva pronounced accidentally by a dying man asking for a glass of water was, on one occasion of legend cause for his immediate release from bondage to rebirth and suffering.
Why is that? Because, according to theory, the names of the Gods used in the mantra are identical with the Gods (or powers invoked) themselves. So that one who sings Shiva’s name becomes Shiva (Creator or Destroyer) himself. The subjective experience of repeated singing of Shiva’s name confirms this theory, as far as I have been able to tell. Obviously it is a subjective experience, not an “objective” one. Subjective sensation is what I’m interested in recovering contact with; and here interpret “objectivity” as a retreat from feelable phenomena.
The mantram is generally given by a teacher to pupil, and most often is to be kept secret, and recited aloud when alone, or silently with lips or only mentally; and recited continually, until the mind’s activities become fixed around the mantram. That way a continuum is begun that deepens till maybe deathbed. Fixing the mind on one point, focusing and deepening in one spot is a classical method of yoga meditation. Some mantra are all-India common property, and are universal, public. The late Swami Shivananda (May his self bless us all!) of Rishikesh recommended Hare Krishna as the Maha Mantra—Great Mantra—for this age, infallible publicly and privately for everyone. He was a large souled man, “Vishnu Himself” as one beautiful yogi explained in a hermitage across the river from Shivananda’s Ashram. Shivananda was the first “accredited” Guru I encountered; a year later at the confluence of Yamuna and Ganges rivers called Trivondrum in Allahabad at a great fair of half a million holymen and ladies, I passed by a larger wooden Nepalese structure where a lady saint supposed to be some Northern princess sat enthroned, with her attendants and worshipers gathered to one side around a harmonium (hand organ) and heard her smiling enrapt singing of the same Hare Krishna Hare Krishna Krishna Krishna Hare Hare Hare Rama Hare Rama Rama Rama Hare Hare. Her face had an inner smile reflected, eyes half closed, the song had lilt of tenderness and odd inevitable sweet rhythm, and though I did notice it at the time, the song was impressed on my own memory. It came back after many adventures. I never knew her name.