How Do Mantras Work?
By Mahanidhi Swami
We are chanting the greatest of all possible mantras: Hare Krishna Hare Krishna Krishna Krishna Hare Hare Hare Rama Hare Rama Rama Rama Hare Hare!!!
And we are all chanting our diksha mantras with faith, love, determination, steadiness, knowledge and hope. The firm hope that these mantras will purify our minds, fill our hearts with joy, and engage us eternally in the loving service of Radha and Krishna in the spiritual world, Sridhama Vrindavana.
But how do mantras, which are APPARENTLY just sounds and vibrations like any other names or words, have supernatural, unlimited transcendental powers?
Authentic Vedic mantras have inconceivable powers to transform, to purify, to elevate, to elate, to enliven, to inspire, to reveal, to empower, and to please Bhagavan Sri Krishna, attract His affectionate mercy, His loving embrace and to award perfection in Sri Krishna’s eternal service.
Let’s read on and learn how mantras work in all their amazing and astonishing ways.
All Vedic mantras (those coming from the Srutis—Rg, Sama, Yajur, andAtharva Vedas), such as the Brahma-gayatri, are eternal sound vibrations of spiritual import. The Vedas are apauruseya, not composed by any man at a certain point in history. The mantras of the Vedas are eternal representations of God in the form of sound, sabda brahma. By repetition of a particular mantra under authorized guidance a purified person can realize the spiritual purpose of the mantra.
The Narada-pancaratra, Hari-bhakti-sudhodaya, Hari-bhakti-vilasa, and many other scriptures explain that the potency of a mantra manifests only when it is received from a bona fide spiritual master and recited without impurities. Although one may see mantras written in books by the previous acaryas, by Srila Prabhupada, or in this one, and then try to chant them, these mantras will produce results only when received through the process of diksa. Mantras are like seeds in that they contain vast potencies within them, but they need outside factors to manifest their power.
The tiny seed of a banyan tree contains the form of a huge, full-grown tree. Placing the seed directly into the ground, however, will not produce a tree. But if a sparrow eats the seed and passes it on the ground with its stool, then a majestic banyan will grow forth. The banyan seed must be processed in this way to give results. Similarly, if one begins chanting a mantra after randomly hearing or reading it in a book, it will not produce Krishna-prema. But if one properly receives the mantra by hearing from apremika-bhakta, then that mantra, which is coated with the guru’s prema, will produce prema in the heart of the sincere disciple.
“A mantra is purified when chanted with proper knowledge.” (SB 11.24.32) In the purport to this verse Srila Visvanatha Cakravarti Thakura says, “A mantra becomes purified when it issues from the mouth of a Sad-guru. The bona fide spiritual master instructs the disciple in the method, meaning and ultimate purpose of the mantra.”
“It is confidential in this sense: one may receive a published mantra anywhere, but unless it is accepted through the chain of disciplic succession, the mantra does not act. It is said by authoritative sources that any mantra chanted without having been received from the disciplic succession has no efficacy.” (SB 4.8.53 p.) “Mantras and the process of devotional service have special power, provided they are received from the authorized person.” (SB 8.16.24 p.)
Even the Hare Krishna maha-mantra, though not waiting for nor requiring initiation, has more effect when received from an advanced devotee. Acaryas claim that chanting the Hare Krishna maha-mantra without receiving or hearing it from an advanced Krishna conscious Vaisnava will bring one the fruits of bhukti or mukti but not the precious sweet ambrosia of prema-bhakti.
The hearts of pure devotees are compared to gem-filled mountains of Radha-Madhava prema; rivers of madhurya-rasa rush down from these mountains to drown anyone who accepts the mercy. The holy name chanted by a pure devotee is saturated with Krishna-prema. When this prema-nama is poured into the ear of the eager disciple, it nourishes the tiny creeper of devotion and eventually produces the nectarean fruit of prema-bhakti.
Srila Prabhupada said, “When the Hare Krishna mantra is chanted by a pure devotee of the Lord in love, it has the greatest efficacy on hearers, and as such this chanting should be heard from the lips of a pure devotee of the Lord, so that immediate effects can be achieved.” (SSR)
The pure sound vibration from a realized guru works like a forest fire to burn up all the sins and impurities within the mind and heart of the disciple. When Krishna and Arjuna were traveling on a chariot through the covering of the universe, the Lord used His Sudarsana cakra to penetrate the dense and fearful layers. In the same way, Krishna’s holy name acts like a cakra to burn away all the dark coverings of a sadhaka’s heart and clear the path to prema. The effect of hearing a mantra from an advanced, empowered devotee also depends on the intensity of the sadhaka’s hankering for perfection in pure love of Radha and Krishna.
In great humility and lamentation, Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu expressed the mood of the unfortunate conditioned soul.
“O Govinda, You have invested Your full potencies in each individual holy name, but I am so unfortunate that I have no attachment for chanting Your holy names.” (Cc. Antya 20.19) Attachment will come if one is fortunate enough to hear the holy name from a truly empowered Vaisnava. However, attachment for chanting and serving Krishna will not manifest within the sadhaka who hears the holy name from a Vaisnava devoid of Krishna-sakti.
kali kalera dharma—Krishna-nama-sankirtana, Krishna-sakti vina nahe tara pravartana
“Unless one is empowered by the Supreme Personality of Godhead, Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu, one cannot spread the holy names of the Hare Krishna maha-mantra throughout the world.” (Cc. Antya 7.11)
Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati Thakura called this type of chanting without connection and backing from a realized guru “alphabet nama,” wherein only the letters of the holy name are received, and not the fully manifest beautiful forms of Radha and Krishna dancing together in the yugala-mantra for prema-dharma.
A bona fide spiritual master must have the strength of devotional purity to empower the holy name that he bestows upon his disciple. If for some reason the guru is not empowered, then a sadhaka can still receive full strength for bhajana by hearing from a realized and empowered siksa-guru. In the Gaudiya tradition the uttama-adhikari devotees come down to the madhyama platform to preach either as diksa or siksa gurus.
During His South Indian preaching tour Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu instructed thousands of people, who had already received diksa mantras elsewhere, to chant Hare Krishna. By Mahaprabhu’s siksa they received the power to chant, realize the full potential of Krishna’s holy names, and spread the mercy to others.
Srila Krishnadasa Kaviraja confirms the need to hear the Hare Krishna maha-mantra and other diksa mantras directly from a guru: “One has to learn about the beauty and transcendental position of the holy name of the Lord by hearing the revealed scriptures from the mouths of devotees. Nowhere else can we hear of the sweetness of the Lord’s holy name.” (Cc. Antya 1.101)
“It is said in the Padma Purana: atah sri Krishna namadi na bhaved grahyam indriyaih. Chanting and hearing of the transcendental holy name of the Lord cannot be performed by the ordinary senses. The transcendental vibration of the Lord’s holy name is completely spiritual. Thus it must be received from spiritual sources and must be chanted after having been heard from a spiritual master. One who hears the chanting of the Hare Krishna mantra must receive it from the spiritual master by aural
reception.” (Cc. Antya 1.101 p.)
In this regard, Srila Prabhupada said, “Lord Siva voluntarily came to bless the sons of King Pracinabarhi as well as do something beneficial for them. He personally chanted the mantra so that the mantra would be more powerful, and he advised that the mantra be chanted by the King’s sons.
“When a mantra is chanted by a great devotee, the mantra becomes more powerful. Although the Hare Krishna maha-mantra is powerful in itself, a disciple upon initiation receives the mantra from his spiritual master, for when the mantra is chanted by the spiritual master, it becomes more powerful. Lord Siva advised the sons of the King to hear him attentively, for inattentive hearing is offensive.” (SB 4.24.32 p.)
Further Srila Prabhupada said, “There are different types of mantras for different types of devotees (e.g.Rama-mantra, Nrsimha-mantra, Gopala-mantra and so on). Each and every mantra has its own spiritual significance. The spiritual master has to select a mantra for his disciple, according to the disciple’s ability to chant different mantras.” (Cc. Madhya 24.331 p.)
At the time of initiation, the Guru gives a Vedic or pancaratrika mantra to the disciple according to the tradition of the parampara. While doing puja a duly initiated disciple who is free from ignorance will realize the relationship between the spiritual meaning of the mantras he chants during japa and Deity worship, and the identity of his individual spiritual master and his personal ishta-devata.
Although there are specific mula and Gayatri mantras for meditation upon the spiritual master, the sastras advise that one should see the spiritual master in all the mantras received from him.
The Vedas say: yo mantrah sa guruh sakshat, yo guruh sa harih svayam, guru-yasya bhavet tustas-tasya tusto harih svayam, “The mantra which is given by the guru is itself the guru, and the guru is directly the Supreme Lord Hari. If one pleases the spiritual master, then he also pleases Sri Hari Himself.”
Acaryas explain that through the medium of a mantra the spiritual master conveys his internal mood of service to Radha and Krishna to his disciple. The disciple will not perceive this immediately, but he will gradually understand everything by guru bhakti, seva and meditation upon the given mantra. The mantra, therefore, is the direct representation of the spiritual master.
The story of Gopa-kumara in Brhad-bhagavatamrta illustrates the power of steadily chanting one’s diksha mantra. Due to good karma, Gopa-kumara took birth in a cowherd family in Vrndavana. While taking the cows out one day he noticed a saintly person singing and crying profusely. Gopa-kumara became attracted and started serving him by bringing milk. One day the saint gave him the Gopala-mantra.
After chanting just half the mantra Gopa-kumara started crying, and upon completing it he fell unconscious. The saint, however, disappeared without even teaching how to chant the mantra properly. Nonetheless, Gopa-kumara started chanting it faithfully, and soon all his material desires vanished.
By continually chanting the Gopala-mantra he traveled throughout the universe and into the spiritual sky. After visiting Brahmaloka, Sivaloka, Vaikuntha, Ayodhya, Dvaraka, and Mathura, Gopa-kumara finally met Krishna in Vrndavana, attained Krishna’s loving embrace and fainted on the ground in transcendental bliss. Gopa-kumara attained this extraordinary fortune by chanting the Gopala-mantra.
The results of chanting a mantra depend on the conception in the mind while chanting it. Ordinarily, the Brahma-gayatri gives mukti, but understanding that Savita is Lord Visnu takes the chanter to Vaikuntha. If one chants the Kama-gayatri understanding that it is non-different from Krishna in His ultimate rasika form, then one will attain that.
It is the same as chanting the Hare Krishna maha-mantra, which contains everything. If one chants Hare Krishna with material desires, he will attain those; and if one wants mukti, one will get it. If one chants the Hare Krishna maha-mantra understanding that Radha and Krishna are personally present there enjoying intimate pastimes in Vrndavana, then one will attain Their eternal loving service.
Ultimately the content of the mantra cannot be separated from the sadhaka’s mentality. Both have a part to play. “One must know the meaning of the mantra which he is reciting; without knowing the meaning of a mantra, one cannot reach the goal.” (Yajnavalkya-smrti)
Success in chanting mantras depends on steadiness, sincerity, absorption and concentration, meditation on its meaning, a prayerful, humble attitude, and a grateful heart expecting wonderful miracles from the mantras. Simply do these things, and by the grace of Sri Guru, Gauranga and Govindaji the mantras will fulfill all your spiritual desires.
(Excerpt from book Gayatri Mahima Madhuri by Mahanidhi Swami)
Jai Jai Sri Radhe!
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