By: Devakinanda Pasupuleti
One of the most widely used words in Sanskrit religious literature is the word mantra. It is, etymologically speaking, defined as that which protects (tra=to protect) when repeated and reflected upon (man=to think, to reflect). This word has two meanings: the poetic part of the Vedas, and the names and syllables used to indicate or propitiate deities. The former is Vedic and the latter is tāntrik. The Vedas are generally divided into two broad divisions: the mantras, the part of the first three Vedas further classified as Ruk, Yajus, Sāman and the Brāhmaṇas, which are in prose, deal with the details of sacrificial rites and quote the appropriate mantras (sacred formulae) to be used in the rites.
In the mantra section, a fourth category, the nigaḋa, is sometimes added. Nigaḋās are, strictly speaking, not mantras but instructions uttered loudly by one priest to another, during a sacrificial rite. There are several rules in the Śrauṫa sūtras about the recitation of Vedic mantras. The most famous of all Vedic mantras which is very much in vogue even today is the Gāyaṫrī mantram. The latter kind of mantras appears in the earlier purāṇas. They extol the greatness of the panchākṣharī or shaḍāksharī (mantra of five or sixletters-namasśivāya and OM namasśivāya), aṣhtakṣharī (of eight letters-OM namo nārāyaṇāya) and ḋvāḋaśākṣharī (of twelve letters - Oṁ namo bhagavate' vāsudevāya) mantras and few others. Mainly people who have undergone the thread ceremony (upanayanam) and some other spiritual seekers perform sandhyāvandanam (offering water to Sun god) before dawn with Gāyatrī mantram on a daily basis before starting their daily activities.
Priests who do daily rituals in the temples and offer worship to gods on behalf of the devotees usually learn the rules and regulations and the techniques involved in the rituals over 12 to14 years learning under supervision Yajur Veda (either Sukla Yajurveda- in North India or Krishna Yajurveda- in South India). They not only memorize the mantras but also their correct pronunciation.
However it is the ṫanṫrās or Śhakṫāgamās that developed the art and science of the mantras, both extensively and intensively. Various types of mantras for the various deities of the Hindu pantheon along with different bījākṣharās (the seed-letter) and their usage have been dealt with within the well-known works like the Prapanchasāra, Śāḋāṫilaka and Mahā nirvāṇa tantra.
There are many books and sacred texts explaining the meaning of these mantras and their influence and power when recited properly with devotion and śraḋḋhā.
Our land, which taught the mantras for the redemption of humanity, is 'Mantra Bhūmi'.