On Numinous Sound: some opening thoughts on Mantra
The King of Mantras, O dear One! is at all times engendered by the union of Śiva and Śakti, and by that of the Yoginīs, the Vīras, and the Vīrendas. Thus constituted, delighting in the utmost bliss, the Goddess, whose nature is vibration [spanda], of innate beauty, once known, is to be freely worshipped.
Yoginīhṛdaya 2, 17-18 (transl. André Padoux & Roger-Orphé Jeanty)
At the end of the last post in the Saundaryalahari series, I promised that I would say something on the subject of mantras. This is a vast subject, and even with over a quarter-century of study & practice at my back, it is still a topic which I would approach only slowly. Before diving into the historical & philosophical complexities of mantra, I thought I’d begin then, with some reflections on my own early encounters with mantra-practice.
Many years ago, my teacher of the time gave me a mantra to practice with. I was told that this was a special gift for me – that I shouldn’t ‘give’ it to anyone else – or at least not bring it up in casual conversation – that it was something that her teacher had given to her when she left the ashram and now she was giving it to me. There was no obvious ritual involved – but then I wasn’t really that clued up to the nuances of what could be considered as ritual back then.
My first question was “What does it mean?” I was told not to worry about that. “But what if I mispronounce it?” I was told not to worry about that, either. When should I use it then?” I was told that I should meditate with it, or simply recite it softly to myself whenever it felt appropriate to do so. “How will I know when it’s working?” At that, my teacher smiled, and said something to the effect that “Oh you’ll know. You’ll know when she wakes to you”. This last comment – imputing what I would, much later, understand as giving the mantra personhood, agency and gender – was perhaps the most cryptic. But at the time, having been immersed in the UK’s occult scene for a few years, I was used to cryptic statements from teachers. I trusted my teacher, and so trusted that in time, answers or understanding would be forthcoming.
So I began to repeat the mantra, softly or silently. Initially, during periods of meditation, then at offhand moments as I went about by day-to-day doings. I tried out different speeds – sometimes racing through many repetitions, sometimes stretching it out, matching it to the slow rhythm of in-breath, pause, out-breath. Gradually, I began to notice things. Occasionally, I’d lose consciousness of reciting the mantra – the cognition that I was ‘doing’ something. It seemed that the mantra was repeating itself through me – my sense of being a self which ‘did things’ had gone off somewhere. At first I found this alarming and would stop when I eventually realised that this had happened, jerking myself back to being conscious of repeating the mantra. Eventually though, I just let go and went with it.
There were other oddities too. Occasionally I’d lapse into a near-sleep state and ‘hear’ strange little noises. Like the high-pitched tinkling of tiny bells or the sound made when a finger is rubbed around the rim of a wineglass. Sometimes, I’d hear these sounds in the daytime – mostly early mornings. They weren’t particularly scary though, and I didn’t dwell on them or any possible significance they may have had overly (I’d already learnt to be suspicious of jumping to conclusions regarding spiritual practices).
One morning, I was walking through some fields on the outskirts of York (where I was living at the time). I had woken in the early hours of the morning, and sat for a couple of hours repeating the mantra silently. As I strolled along, enjoying the relative quiet, a feeling began to creep over me – that the mantra was everywhere. It seemed to vibrate, to throb silently through the ground and into my feet; it seemed to be carried along by the breeze, to touch my skin and flow into my lungs; it seemed to shimmer in the sun’s rays and be written invisibly throughout the sky. I felt an almost painful sense of clarity, and was flooded with the sudden aliveness and eternity of everything.
Later that day, I came to the realisation that this was – at least on some level – what my teacher had meant by the mantra ‘waking herself’ to me – but that I too, had ‘woken’ to her. It was as though the mantra and I had become bound together, that there had been a merging, and that through that mutuality I had opened – for an instant -to a different sense of being-in-the-world. What I began to think of – years later – as the “flood of beauty”.
Of course, such a moment of intensity faded away. But here’s the thing – it was as though it took root in me, so that the mantra – or indeed any other kind of practice could, at times, awake echoes, memories, floods of that singular immensity.
It wasn’t until years later, when I began to delve into Indian philosophy (Samkhya, and later nondual Saivism) that I began to understand just what a great gift my teacher had given me. She had timed the giving of the mantra deliberately, just before she left the UK for an extended trip to India (I never did meet her again), and – lacking anyone else to turn my questions on, simply had to trust in her and get on with the practice she had given me. I also discovered that the questions I asked her (which I see often on internet forums when mantra gets discussed) are not thought of as especially important in India – where it is widely held that a mantra can have an affect regardless of whether or not one understands its meaning – if indeed it does have a semantic meaning. So too, I was afforded an early experience of the collapse of the categories of the Knower-Known-Means of Knowing – and what lies beyond those categories; and that, according to the tantras, mantras are deities. This was something that, with my thoughts on deities shaped by contemporary British Paganism and ritual magic, I was not quite prepared for.
In the tantric traditions mantras are deities, and to utter a mantra is to bring about the presence of the deity. Mantras do not simply invoke, or represent the deity, but they are the deity in the form of sound. When you utter a mantra, your chosen deity is made immediately present. For example, in crossing any wild area haunted by various types of demonic spirits, a devotee might utter a Durgā mantra such as “Durgāyai Namah” or “Oṃ Hrīṃ Dūṃ Durgāyai Namah Phaṭ Phaṭ” – thus making Durgā present and thereby protected by her power over demons. This reflects a worldview in which the universe is a complex weave of forces and powers wherein the presence of deity is immanent.