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Understanding Mantras explores the origin, nature, function, and significance of mantras within the bounds of the Hindu tradition. It analyses the use of mantras in the Vedic age in the great theistic movements of Saivism and Vaisnavism, and in Tantra. A brief introduction by Alper outlines the major controversies in Western scholarship concerning the nature of mantras and gives an insightful and suggestive paradigm for resolving the issues. The essays provide enlightenment into the Indian mantric tradition, and into Western attempts to understand that tration. They also discuss the issues surrounding the debate over whether mantras should count as instances of language.

Of immeasurable worth is the comprehensive bibliographical and methodological essay and list contributed by Professor Alper. This essay covers more than 1600 items and situates mantra contextually in Indian history, society, and culture. It approaches a bibliography on all of Hinduism and will serve as an invaluable tool for future research.

About The Author

Harvey, P. Alper was Associate Professor of Religious Studies at Southern Methodist University from 1974 to 1987. As a Sanskritist, his primary interest was the religious traditions of South Asia. He served as editor of the series on Saiva Traditions of Kashmir. Professor Alper died suddenly on April 4, 1987 after completing the editorial work on the present volume.


This Volume of Essays And bibliography has been assembled in order to focus attention on the Hindu mantra, a common and vital but troubling feature of Indian culture that more often has been taken for granted than made the object of sympathetic and systematic reflection. The volume is exploratory, not definitive. It may, I trust, be used as a general introduction to the Hindu mantra and its study, but it does not offer any comprehensive survey, nor does it deal with the use of mantras and mantralike formulas in non-Hindu settings or in those portions of Asia beyond India where Indian culture has penetrated. It is my conviction that the essays collected here speak eloquently for themselves and need no brief content summaries in this Introduction. Rather, I shall set the stage for reading the essays by indicating quite schematically some of the themes and issues in mantric studies that the essays themselves raise.

Mantras: Why They Matter And Why They Perplex Us

In 1984, Sri Satguru Publications in Delhi brought out an English translation of Mahidhara's Mantramahodadhi, a sixteenth-century synthetic treatise on Mantrasastra Prior to the book's Introduction the publishers insert a "warning" in which they disclaim responsibility-ethically and, I suppose, legally-for the consequences that ensue when mantras are used unsuccessfully or irresponsibly.

Is this disclaimer meant seriously? Does the publisher fear being sued by someone who believes that he has been harmed by the use of a mantra? Might a disgruntled devotee haul his guru into small claims court because the mantra the latter had imparted did not perform as advertised? Perhaps not, yet this disclaimer underscores the fact that belief in the efficacy of mantras is commonplace in Indian culture, today as in the past. It further suggests the difficulty of approaching Mantrasastra from a perspective at once modern and sympathetic.

For India, mantras are real, palpable, mental artifacts to be revered and mastered, to be used or misused. While the significance of mantras is not exclusively religious, mantras obviously play a pivotal role in the religious realm. Instead, the history of the religious life of the Indian people might plausibly be read as a history of mantras. To be sure, there must always have been individuals who were skeptical about mantras. The extent of such skepticism in the past is difficult to gauge, but it could not have been great." The possibility of the successful use of mantras was, and is, simply a common part of the Indian mentality.

This centrality of mantras in the common life of the Indian people is indicated, for example, by the observation in the Rajatarangini that, in twelfth-century Kasmir, the crops in the fields were protected from Nagas by mantrikas, "guards who exercised their function by means of mantras" (cited in Gonda [1963b] 1975b, IV:268). The general repute in which mantras have been held is expressed with uncanny force by as "secular" a text as the Arthasastra (perhaps third-fourth century A. D.), which holds that "a mantra accomplishes the apprehension of what is not or cannot be seen; imparts the strength of a definite conclusion to what is apprehended, removes doubt when two courses are possible, [and] leads to inference of an entire matter when only a part is seen" (Gonda [1963b] 1975b, 260, citing 1.15.20).

The difficulty we have understanding and explaining mantras may be highlighted by considering the place of Mantrasastra in India as analogous (but it is not identical) to the place of prayer in the West. Among the monotheistic religions of the West, prayer has long been understood as a conversation with God; it has long been taken as the paradigmatic form of religious utterance. The most common form of prayer has been petition, but the most prestigious form often has been considered to be praise, thanksgiving, and adoration, forms of religious discourse lacking practical ends. (This is especially true of the Jewish and Muslim traditions and of Christian monasticism.) Recently, a number of theologians and social scientists have suggested that narrative (story) rather than prayer (conversation) plays a primal role in shaping human religious life. Both prayer and story are ways in which human beings use language to domesticate the enormity of the cosmos, bringing it into scale with the human dimension, and both are fundamentally personalistic. Whatever their importance might be elsewhere, it is arguable that in India neither prayer nor story is the paradigmatic form of religious utterance. It is the mantra.

Most of us who study mantras critically- historians, philosophers, Sanskritists the Enlightenment consensus for granted. We do not believe in magic. Generally, we do not pray. If we do pray, we try to do so in a universalistic idiom. We do not ask openly for mundane, temporal goods. If we prayed for the latter and if our prayers were answered, many of us would be incredulous and deeply embarrassed. In contrast to prayer and story, mantra is impersonal. In contrast to the most "desirable" forms of prayer, it is often practical. According to the standards of modern science, mantras are irrational. Mantrasastra thus shares neither the 'prestige of modernity nor the lingering prestige of traditional Western religion. Perhaps for this reason it has fallen through the cracks of Indology. As an impersonal, often practical form of religious utterance, yet associated with a sophisticated civilization, mantra invites special attention.


Earlier studies of mantra often began by proposing formal or informal definitions. An enumeration of these definitions is beyond the scope of this introduction and, in any case, would serve little purpose. But, one should note the heterogeneity of the various definitions. Gonda (1963b) and Bharati (1965) represent the two poles.

Gonda treats definition quite informally and tends to use it to de- scribe the understanding of mantra in whatever text or secondary source with which he happens to be dealing. Therefore, it is not unusual for him to move effortlessly through a series of "definitions" within a few pages. Gonda ([1963b] 1975, IV:251) first focuses on the Veda and defines mantra "provisionally and for practical purposes" as "a general name for the formulas, verses or sequences of words in prose which contain praise ... , are believed to have magical, religious, or spiritual efficiency, are recited, muttered or sung in the Vedic ritual and which are collected in the methodically arranged corpora of Vedic texts." He immediately qualifies this by adding that the word applies to "comparable 'formulas' of different origin used in the post-vedic cults." Focusing on practical morality (idandaniti), Gonda (p. 259) offers a second definition of mantra as "consultation, resolution, advice, counsel, design, plan, secret." Moving on to classical Hinduism (p. 271), he offers a third definition, notable for its anthropological and heuristic breadth: In the religious practice of the Hindu age, as well as earlier, the term mantra "covers also all potent (so-called magical) forms of texts, words, sounds, letters, which bring good luck to those who know or 'possess' them and evil to their enemies." By the very next page, Gonda has moved on to another, Tantric, context and defines mantra as "a power (sakti-) in the form of formulated and expressed thought."

Bharati's strategy (1965, 105-11) could not be more divergent. After surveying attempts at a definition of mantra by scholars such as Bhattacharya, Eliade, von Glasenapp, Govinda, Guenther, Majumdar, Woodroffe, and Zimmer, he offers his own succinct, formal definition:

"A mantra is a quasi-morpheme or a series of quasi-morphemes, or a series of mixed genuine and quasi-morphemes arranged in conventional patterns, based on codified esoteric traditions, and passed on from one preceptor to one disciple in the course of a prescribed initiation" (p. 111).

Whatever the advantages of such informal and formal definitions, generally speaking, the essays in this volume do not find the problem of definition a profitable point of departure. A loose working consensus, however, may be discerned in the way many of them take the scope of the term mantra. First, they assume that a mantra is whatever anyone in a position to know calls a mantra. * Second, they usually assume that the term and the phenomenon are not coextensive. Third, they recognize that, as far back as the evidence goes, there has been a large family of Indic terms-e.g., brahman, stobha, bija, kavaca, dharani, yamala-employed in various traditions and periods to name especially potent "words" and "sounds." Sometimes, these terms have been used with overlapping or roughly synonymous meanings, often they have been used with technical precision. When they are used technically, their exact force and meaning can be determined only through an exegesis that is text and tradition specific. Finally, there is a recognition that the precision of the texts cannot be read into social usage without caution. On the popular level, words such as mantra long ago acquired a broad, if imprecise meaning.


Jan Gonda has long championed the view that certain continuities in Indian culture undergird and facilitate the admittedly real discontinuities. Thus, it can be no surprise when he quotes a long passage discussing mantra from the twentieth-century neo-Hindu mystic Sri Aurobindo and comments, "The survey of the Vedic uses of the term [mantra] will show that the essence of [Aurobindo's interpretation] is indeed already characteristic of the mantras of the Vedic period,-one of the numerous indicia of the agelong continuity of Indian religious thought" ([1963b] 1975, IV:253). Such generalizations are dangerous, for they tend to reify traditional Indian culture and suggest that it was an unchanging monolith. Nonetheless, my study of mantra leads me to conclude that Gonda is correct in some large measure. The history of Mantrasastra strikes me overwhelmingly as a set of variations on a theme: The further afield, the more "rococo," the development gets, and the more it reaffirms its original character. In this, it might be apt to compare the history of Mantrasastra to the development of a raga. In the realm of mantra, there has been forward movement; there has been no revolution.

The essays in this volume present diverse evidence of historical change and historical continuity. Quite naturally, readers will form their own judgments concerning the import of this evidence. It might, however, be useful to draw attention to three points that relate directly to the assessment of the balance between continuity and discontinuity in Mantrasastra. (1) The historical origin of the mantra is not easily reconstructed on the basis of the surviving documents. Nonetheless, as Findly shows, the RV itself contains evidence of a fundamental transformation that created the mantra as the tradition subsequently knew it. In other words, the journey from poetic inspiration to ritual utilization is noticeable from the start. (2) The evidence presented by Staal, and Wheelock, underlines the historical continuity of mantra from the period of SV to the Tantras. The parallel between Vedic and Tantric deformations of ordinary, otherwise linguistically meaningful, sentences is particularly suggestive. In a sense, the patterned repetitions of japa are the theistic and meditative correlates of the ritual deconstruction of the texts in the tradition of Brahmanic sacrifice. (3) Several of the essays that deal with classical Hinduism-Oberhammer, Gupta, and especially Rocher-underscore the difficulty of drawing hard and fast distinctions between different periods of mantras. The distinction between Vedic, Puranic, and Tantric must be considered one of those pious organizational fictions in which Indian culture, like most cultures, abounds.




  Introduction 1
1 Mantra Kavisasta: Speech as Performative in Rgveda 15
2 Vedic Mantras 48
3 The Mantra in Vedic and Tantric Ritual 96
4 Mantra in Ayurveda: A Study of the Use of Magico-Religious Speech in Ancient Indian Medicine 123
5 Are Mantras Speech Acts? The Mimamsa Point of View 144
6 The Meaning and Power of Mantras in Bhartrhari's Vakyapadiya 165
7 Mantras in the Sivapurana 177
8 The Use of Mantra in Yogic Meditation: The Testimony of; the Pasupata 204
9 The Pancaratra Attitude of Mantra 249
10 The Cosmos as Siva's Language-Game: "Mantra" According to Ksemaraja's Sivasutravimarsini 295
  Conclusion: Mantras--What Are They? 319
  Note on The Contributors 322
  Abbreviations Used In This Volume 327
  A Working Bibliography For The Study of Mantras 444
  Bibliographical List 531

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