On Mantras and the indispensable Guru

A Mantra is defined as “मननात् त्रायते इति मंत्रः” – that, which by repeatedly chanting (manana) of, protects the chanter. There are innumerable mantras in Hinduism, and most of them have 3 things in common – a Ṛṣi (Rishi) or seer, the enlightened being who first received the mantra and revealed it to humanity, the Devata to which the mantra is addressed, and the Chandas or the metre in which the mantra is composed. It is customary to bow to the Ṛṣi and seek his blessings (typically while placing one’s hand on one’s head, mentioning the Ṛṣi – symbolically surrendering oneself under his feet), and mention the Chandas and Devata before a mantra is chanted. It is universally held by the Astikas that the mantra will be efficacious only when received as an Upadeśa / Dīkṣā / initiation from a Śāstravat Guru, but not otherwise.

In the era of ed-tech startups and on-demand education where both elementary and highly specialized subjects are available for all and sundry, it is natural for Hindus, especially those who have not had exposure to traditional methods of learning or to scriptures in the original, to either:

1. In all earnestness, question the belief that mantras are efficacious only when received from a Guru

2. Ask that mantras be taught on-demand to everybody, or that everybody have Adhikāra to teach and learn mantras

3. Argue that mantras are efficacious even when self-taught, just as those self-taught in secular subjects such as physics and programming have become successful.

Some may go ahead and recite self-taught mantras, and even achieve the objective for which they took to the recitation, and attribute success to their act of chanting of the mantra, and therefore claim that a Guru is not required to teach the mantras. We’d like to draw attention of such enthusiastic Hindus to the doctrine of Karma, which is highly complex, subtle, and is almost always responsible for the successes and failures we see in the seemingly random daily life. On the other hand, there are some who claim that reciting mantras without initiation will cause serious harm – which often invites ridicule from atheists and even practicing Hindus who often chant without receiving Dīkṣā . While this is true for Devatas in their aggressive forms and those invoked in specific Tantric practices, most deities are forgiving as long as the devotee is innocent. Yet, not learning the mantra from a Guru, and not observing Shaucha are some of the most common reasons why mantras do not deliver the benefits they promise.

Some Tantra schools have stricter guidelines regarding obtaining mantras from sources other than a bona fide Guru. For example, the KriyAsAra Tantram & KulArnava Tantram say:

Kalpe drishtA tu yo mantram japed gurumanAsritaha |
SutanAsho bhavet tasya phalam kinchinna vidyate||
The person who, without depending on a Guru ( Gurumanasitaha), chants mantras by taking them from a book, gets his progeny destroyed [by doing so] (sutanasho) and does not get any benefits [of the chant] either.

Pushtake likhitAnmantrAn vilokya prajapanti ye|
BrahmahatyAsamam teshAm pAtakam parikirtitam||
One, who chants mantras by seeing them from books [that is not obtained duely from a sampradaya Guru] commits, thereby, sin as grave as BrahmahatyA (Brahminicide).

[KulArnava Tantram, UlAsaha 5, Verse 22.]

The argument that mantras must be taught to everybody just like secular subjects is a very poor one, and easily countered – secular subjects deal with the phenomenon of the world and are subject to the physical laws, whereas mantras are designed to please the Devatas who are beyond the physical laws and are to be known only via scriptures. It follows that for the mantras to be effective, the rules laid down in the scriptures (such as those of Adhikāra, the initiation as a prerequisite, rules of chanting, etc.) must be scrupulously followed. We’d also like to point out that the Sanskrit word Guru, often translated as a “teacher”, is much more than that – ‘Gu’ means darkness, and ‘Ru’ one who dispels it, and therefore Guru is someone who dispels the darkness of those who surrender to Him. Therefore, the title ‘Guru’ is appropriate only for such exalted persons who teach us the highest Vidya, and not secular subjects. As far as Adhikāra of teaching mantras are concerned, it is our position that it rests with Gurus alone, as we will presently demonstrate, with a short story.

Sri Sacchidananda Shivabhinava Nrisimha Bharati Mahaswamigal, Sringeri

A gentleman who accepted the efficacy of mantras in helping concentration of the mind had other doubts in the matter. His Holiness Sachidananda SivaAbhinava Narasimha Bharati Svaminah (the 33rd Jagadguru of Sringeri Mutt) answered his questions:-

Gent: I do not understand why certain Mantras are allowed only for members of particular castes or persons in particular stages of life and are prohibited for others.

His Holiness (HH): Only if a person for whom a particular Mantra is prescribed pronounces it, it is a Mantra; otherwise it is mere a sound.

Gent: How can that be? Is not a Mantra only a collection of sounds?

HH: A mere collection of sounds will not be a Mantra. It will be a Mantra only if pronounced by a person qualified to pronounce it.

Gent: How so?

HH: In answer to your question, I shall relate a story. In the days of old, a Naik Chief had a petty kingdom of his own and was guided by a Brahmana minister. He learnt that the high intelligence and capacity of the minister was due to his devoted repetition of the sacred Gayatri Mantra and felt impelled to ask him to initiate himself also in that Mantra. The minister however declined to do so. But there happened to be a poor Brahmana cook in the Royal establishment for the benefit of Brahmana guests and the King managed, by threats or bribing, to persuade him to impart to himself the Gayatri.

In a mood of exultation at his success, he proclaimed to the minister in the open court that he had learnt the Mantra. When the minister said that it was not possible, he repeated the words of the Mantra. The minister immediately denied it was the Gayatri. The King grew suspicious of the cook and sent for him and asked him to repeat it. He did so and the King at once pointed out that that was just what he himself pronounced. The minister however persisted in saying that it was not the same thing. The King naturally concluded that the minister was under some temporary mental aberration when he chose to deny a patent fact and attended to his other business.

After some time, the minister suddenly and in loud tones shouted to the bodyguard pointing to the King, “ Give him two slaps on his cheek”. This confirmed the king in his opinion about the mental condition of the minister, but when the latter repeated the same command more than once , the king became angry and said to the bodyguard, “ Give him two slaps on his cheek”.

The guard immediately gave a strong slap on the minister’s cheek. Then the minister said to the King, “This is the difference. I pronounced the same words as you did but they bore no effect but the same words from your lips had immediate effect and resulted in an injury to me. If a person like myself pronounces the same words, they not only do not amount to a command but have the contrary effect of bringing punishment on myself”.

In the same way, a combination of sounds becomes a Mantra only when it is communicated by an authorized person to another qualified under the Shastras to get it. This explains incidentally why people who claim to have learnt Mantras from printed books are never benefited by them. On the other hand, such procedure has the decided effect of reducing the faith of ordinary people in the efficacy of Mantras. When even qualified recipients have to submit to various restrictions in the repetition of a Mantra, how can we expect any result, other than any undesirable, if it is resorted to by incompetent people in quite a light manner? The Shastras alone are our guide in such matters and must be strictly adhered to [Source: ‘Golden Sayings’,1969, Sri Jnanantha Grantha Prakasana Samiti].

As the story highlights, the biggest risk of not following the rules laid down in the scriptures is that the Śraddhā or faith of ordinary people in the efficacy of mantras is destroyed. For those genuinely interested in Sadhana, there are innumerable Stotras and Shlokas that have the same efficacy as mantras, and can be easily learnt and recited without the necessity of a Guru. After all, in the Viṣṇusahasranāma stotra, Lord Shiva has himself said that the 2-syllable nama-japa of Lord Rama is equal to chanting the 1000 names of Viṣṇu. With firm faith and in due course, we have no doubt that the Lord himself will bless the genuine Sadhaka with the Guru.

[We humbly offer this write-up at the Lotus feet of Gurus. Om Tat Sat.]

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