Mohani Heitel, mantra-singer, physician and psychotherapist from India answers in the following some often asked questions about mantras and their effects.
What is a mantra?
Mantras are syllables, words or short sentences which have besides their literal meaning a special inherent power. Mantras have effects of sound and resonance as well as metaphysical or mystic meaning. In every culture and language since ancient times such words of magic existed. The word "mantra" is derived from the Sanskrit language and consists of the roots "manas" and "tra". "Manas" is the totality of thoughts and emotions with all their desires and fears. "Tra" means saving, holding or protecting. Mantras are words which excecute a collecting effect on the mind. They work in a way as a key. With their help we can make certain energies and resonance fields of body and soul accessible.
How did you start singing mantras?
From my childhood in India, the use of mantras was well known to me. My father already taught me to sing mantras as a little girl. For instance, he used to recite mantra prayers during cooking. I was sitting nearby and was listening with devotion. I felt very attracted to this and was calmed and transferred into another world. In this way I had already started singing one or another sanscrit mantra at that time and felt happy with it. Many years have passed since then in the development of my songs of mantras. To tell it straightforwardly, I love to sing songs with a spiritual background. Singing for the veneration of God is delighting and it stands in the first place in so far it is an artistic expression of a devotional feeling. All other aspects like scientific explanations, different ways and models of explaining the effects of mantras etc. follow afterwards. For me it was important in daily life to come for a certain time to peace and self-reflection. In this context I remembered the mantras and have sung some spontaneously. In the following time I dealt with my experiences in singing and hearing mantras in greater detail. In doing so I developed a certain style of singing by which the atmosphere and vibration of the respective mantras was transferred. In the time when I suffered from a long and heavy disease, I came to know about the healing and strengthening power of mantras. Since then mantra-singing is an integral part of my daily life.
What is the origin of mantras?
Most of the tradition of mantras is in the Sanskrit language. Sanskrit is one of the oldest languages of the world. The scripts of the vedic time report that rishis - the wise men of that time - captured and received the mantric wisdom by intuition. Today these experiences can be brought back by proper application of mantras. The mantras which consist of single or compounded letters, the so called "bija-mantras" or germ-mantras ar also well-known. The letters which form such mantras are called "bija aksaras". In the Hindu religion, each deity is represented by a "bija aksara" which in human language is the nearest equivalent form to the "nada", the sound vibration which arises at the moment of manifestation of the deity. These "aksaras" or mantras are all used as words of invocation of this deity. The most well known of these germ mantras is "pranava", "Om" for Brahman. In Yoga, the teachings of the chakras - the energy centres - also contain the teaching of the germ mantras belonging to each chakra. There are yoga teachings which have systematically registered and described the meaning and applications of mantras.
In the scripture of the Bhagavat Gita the use of mantra is already mentioned. Sri Krishna says in the Bhagavat Gita (10-25):
Among all rishis I am Bhrigu
Among all word I am the syllable Om
Among of all forms of prayers I am the repetition of mantras
Among all mountains I am the Himalaya
In which way mantras do effect us?
Mantras have wonderful effects, if they are repeated in a proper way. The holy scriptures of India are full of stories about persons who have reached superhuman and supernatural powers by chanting mantras. The Vedas, especially the Rig-Veda, contain thousands of mantras. These mantras are considered highly effective although their meaning is not known. Actually the literal meaning has little to do with the power which mantras give. Our mind, our actions and our surroundings can be purified by mantras and charged with spiritual energy. The special vibrations of holy places and centres of pilgrimage arise from the fact that someone at some time has chanted holy mantras at these places. Afterwards, these places exercised great spiritual attraction for many years. The vibrations which are set to work by singing mantras make our subtle sensations receptive for spiritual knowledge. Brahman, the highest and unperishable being, is not only described as light but also as sound. The sound which is emitted by every being and moves into the atmosphere creates uncounted waves in the ocean of sound. This total atmosphere of sound effects cosmic interactions. Mantras have effects on this atmosphere of sounds.
Which role plays the sound and the breath with mantras?
Each letter, word and syllable apart from their meaning in the general use of language, has, in addition, a sound information which is a special pattern of sound. The carrier of this sound pattern is on one hand our body, which consists of different chemical elements, and on the other hand it consists of the air stream which is directed by the breath. The diaphragm, larynx, mouth, lips, tongue and the differently directed air stream are involved in the articulation of sound. Every sound pattern is based on a certain pattern of breath and direction of the air stream. The breath is charged with life energy. In the language of Yoga it is called power of Prana. Great significance was given to the Prana-Yama, the equalization and inherent regulation of breath. Because of this reason mantras have a breath activating and regulating effect. On a different level, each pattern of breath is based on an energy pattern. Breathing and articulation of voice creates subtle frictions in the air stream which vibrates the body cells and the tissues. This further leads to chemical and electrophysical reactions on, for instance, the brain waves, microelectric currents of skin and muscular tone. Thus the application of mantras is a subtle energetic work.
In which way should mantras be applied?
The body should rest and be relaxed and the mind should concentrate on the content of the mantra. Chanting mantras can unfold a strong effect. The song of the mantra with its subtle, recurring melody helps to reach vegetative equalization, mental and somatic relaxation. The application of mantras however varies individually. Some who like to meditate in perfect silence and are able to concentrate accordingly, will use mantras by silent mental repetition. Others who enjoy the voice, and like to work with voice and sound, will prefer their own singing or to sing along with someone, a cassette or CD. Others can concentrate and meditate best by listening to a mantra. Normally it will take a certain time until the mind has adapted adequately and the mantra can unfold its effects. It is recommended to apply mantras or mantra songs in an undisturbed and devotional attitude so that the effects of the mantras may be preserved.
Which significance has repetition in the application of mantras?
Through repetition, the travelling mind is tight up to the mantra. Through the repetition of a mantra the mind gets a simple and effective task. By this a spontaneous meditative effect is reached. A perfect awareness of the mantra in consciousness results from the repetition. By concentrating the consciousness, the inner microcosm is connected to the outer macrocosm. A subtle flow of energy is generated. The process of becoming perfectly aware of the contents of the mantra is very important in the use of mantras. It signifies to bring a state of consciousness into the presence, to build a bridge over time and space into the here and now. Becoming aware means to be aware of the perfect presence and uniting the past and the future in the present experience of being. Accordingly the meanings of mantras like Tat tvamasi - this is You - or So Hang - this I am - are based on such direct experience of being in meditation.
What significance has the language of mantras?
One should not try to translate mantras into another language because this would change their original character. The effects of sound and vibration are not generated in the same way. Sanskrit is a special language for mantras. Besides, many European languages have their roots in Sanskrit so this is not a completely foreign language. Old prayers in their original form of language had quite another mantric effect of sound and resonance. In former times for instance the prayer "our father in heaven" from the christian tradition in the Greek form was sung. The "Gatas" too, the holy sayings of Zoroaster, were sung. The effects of Sanskrit mantras are objects of present scientific research. By experiments and self-experiments, it was observed that people experienced a deep inner peace and self integration. The affinity to a certain cultural or language group here was of minor significance.
Is the use of mantras a special form of meditation?
In my opinion meditation should be an act of devotion to the divine. All the forms of meditation that fulfill this are to be recommended. Spiritual matters are not mere subjects of intellect or practical abilities, not to be possessed, etc. Genuine spiritual experience crosses the borders of the personality. One cannot bring forward a state of meditation alone by will and self control. The meditative state can only happen by itself. Silent meditation is not available at once and is quite difficult to achieve in times when everybody is engaged in the working process. The mantra song accompanies the spirit. By this it is a little bit easier to concentrate and meditate on the contents. According to my experience mantras are - described by a picture - like a boat which you may enter to row into the sea of your soul. By this it is a little bit easier.
How one can use mantras for healing?
There is quite a considerable potential of healing powers within man which could be used for prevention or support of treatments of diseases. Many people would like to use their inner powers more consciously and targeted. Mantras are quite helpful in this. The introduced meditative deep relaxation of body, mind and soul hereby plays an important role. Mantras have different levels of healing effects. On the body level, the vibrations of mantras work as a subtle massage. On the emotional level, positive healing feelings are produced. Silence, equimindedness, joy, love and reconciliation are experienced inside which you may call healing of the heart. Subconscious emotional blocks are dissolved. We gain access to our inner psychic world again. Another dimension of healing effect lies on the level of transpersonal and transcendental experiences which are beyond description.
Does the mantra song effect the quality of sleep?
One sentence of the old Indian scripture "Upanishad" runs as follows: "In sleep man is near to himself, the Atma". Sleep itself is a mystery and has left many questions open to scientific research. To remove sleep disturbances by natural means is an important matter. Already in ancient times sleep was applied for healing purposes and named "healing sleep". Healing sleep was initiated by the recitation of words and music. The initiation of sleep by mantra songs fulfills a similar purpose using the soothing effect of the repetition for carrying over to sleep. Mantras then continue to effect us unconsciously by their pleasing vibrations for a while.
What the is the musical concept of the mantra songs?
These mantra songs are in a way contempory sacral music which is based on meditative experience inspired by mantras. The development of the voice guided by the mantra from an undifferenciated stream of sound is important in this process. The immature sound is a cosmic sound equivalent of endless unformed energy and this is the source of all shaping processes in creation. The stream of music as a symbol of the primal sound in traditional Indian music is always present in the background by the sounds of the strings of the Tanpura which accompanies solo melody intruments or singing. The characteristic voice of the tanpura creates a pulsing cosmic sound energy in which the listener hears endless melodies and rhythms. They are already there but still unmanifested and they are, so to say, felt as potential music. Based on the fundamental tone rises the song of mantra which consists in secret syllables of Sanskrit. The chant of mantra lives by the mystic union with the fundamental tone which is experienced as a procreative primal force. Singing mantras is living practice in which the mystic of music tries to leave the surface of nature and dive into the depth of sound and further to the spiritual origin of the self. Mantras are sung with breaks of silence in between. In these breaks, the resonance on the human mind and heart is attentively felt inside.
Can You explain one mantra to us, for example one which You have received yourself?
I will explain the mantra "Shisha Prashanam". In complete original terms the mantra goes: "Shisha Prashanam, Chit Anandam, Sukh Prad Vachanam, Smirti Maya Monam, Dehi Me Jagdeesham, Dehi Me Jagdeesham". This mantra contributes to being aware of human goals, it removes inhibitions, sorrows and entanglements by consciously bringing happiness to the heart (shisha prashanam is happiness of mind). This creates healing words, respectively leading to happiness (sukh prad vachanam) because words from a joyful heart have healing effects. Likewise this mantra was created from a joyful heart. The silent rememberance in God comes next (smirti maya monam). Happiness of mind also means to be free from the burden of sorrows. This is possible by being set free and not being too entangled in wordly affairs. Simultaneously, a confidence in the eternal being is created. It is a fundamental inner detachment. Words coming from the heart have healing power and they lead to higher knowledge. This effects a silence in a real sense. In daily life, when one is alone and in seeming silence, one is still occupied with different thoughts. This is not really being silent because there is no inner silence in the mind. Here also is meant the silence (Monam) in remembrance of God. The mantra prayer helps to set one free from the entanglements of the world of thought. "Dehi me Jagedishan" asks God that this should happen. It confirms the will for spiritual development and to become aware of the spiritual goal.