Category Archives: i. Mantra and the Theology of Sound

Mantras in Hinduism

Mantras are a complex feature of the Hindu tradition that people sometimes do not understand all that well.  Different mantras are used for different things.  “For India, Mantras are real, palpable, mental artifacts to be revered and mastered, to be used or misused (Alper 2)”.  Mantras are very important in religion but they are not completely significantly religiously they have other significance also.  Mantras are important for religious and non religious purposes.  The history of mantras can be extensively related to Indian people’s religious life (Alper 2).   One way of defining mantras is that they are sacred utterances, that are uttered sometimes daily, and sometimes for special occasions.  There are formal and also informal definitions of mantras.  Mantras are used in a variety of contexts.  Hinduism sees certain mantras as only being useful for certain things. Each mantra has a specific function with a specific time and place for use.  The Hindu tradition sees mantras as effective because they are believed to be useful and powerful (Alper 6).  There are Vedic, Puranic, and Tantric mantras (Alper 5-6).  Certain types are used to achieve some sort of escape from hardships from outside nature.  There are certain mantras that are used to cope with the daily up and downs of everyday life.  Besides these, there are also mantras that address the problems of the whole of human nature (Alper 7-8).  Scholars debate whether mantras are language (Alper 9).  The Rg Veda has several mentions of mantras.  It is hard to understand mantras when you are not immersed in Indian life but it is possible if we try, it is just more difficult (Alper 9).

Mantras are considered to be sacred utterances.  Mantras may be recited or chanted when religious rites are performed.   They may also be uttered when one is not doing a ritual act (Burde 28).  Mantra means “instrument to think” (Burde 28).  Mantras are usually regarded as utterances that will aid you if you need some form of protection.  Two functions are said to be performed by mantras.  The first is the power to not get injured and a possible wish fulfilment (Burde 28).  Mantras first appear in the Vedas but they also appear in the tantric texts and the Puranas.  The guru is usually charged with teaching mantras. There are several types of mantras.  There are Vedic mantras and also meditative mantras. The Guru gives his student several mantras and helps them learn them, so that one day the student can put the mantras he has learned to good use (Burde 28).

There are six Vedic Mantras.  One of the Vedic mantras is agnin… which is a command.  The second Vedic mantra is mitro na ehi…, which is a sacrificial formula.  This mantra accompanies an act.  The third Vedic mantra is yo’sman dvesti…, which is purely used for ritual purposes.  It is recited when the soil of a ritual enclosure is prepared with a wooden knife, a sphya.  The fourth Vedic mantra is devasya tva savituh…, which you recite frequently and it indicates that material is being measured for an offering.  The fifth Vedic mantra is indra jusasva which are considered to be mantras in their normal meaning.  The sixth Vedic mantra is ha bu ha bu ha bu… which is chanted by the Udgata priest (Staal 201-207).  These mantras represent what most of the Vedic mantras look like (Alper 59).  It is not possible to compare different mantras such as Vedic, tantric or other mantras to each other (Alper 63). This is because these different mantras have things that make them characteristically unique and they are interpreted differently and so because of this, it would be almost impossible to compare these mantras with each other (Alper 63).

There four basic types of utterances, each of them is responsible for certain parts of the religious acts.  They are all focused on some aspect of the presentation.  The first mantra deals with presenting the characteristics.  These are utterances that define parts of the situation such as the qualities and identities.  The second one deals with presenting the attitudes.  These are expressions of personal feeling, such as personal wishes.  The third mantra deals with presenting the intentions.  These are statements expressed in the first person that expresses the commitment that person has to that action; why is this particular person doing this.  The fourth one deals with presenting the requests.  These are commands that are directed to a second party because they wish to establish a relationship with that person (Alper 99).  In order to perform a ritual, the person who wishes to perform the ritual must be purified (Alper 99-103).  The multiple repetitions of bija mantras are felt to accomplish the transformation.  Bija mantras are felt to be symbols of the elements in their essential form (Alper 103).

Mantras are felt to put a person in contact with divine power, and that is why they are essentially controlled through very strict rules (Alper 165).  There are certain prerequisites a person must have in order to recite a mantra.  The person must have a proper moral basis, purgation, excellent practical skills, sufficient intellectual grounding, and the status of a person in an esoteric tradition (Alper 165-166).  The person who wants to perform a mantra must have purified themselves before the ritual to get rid of all the bad stuff.  They must be of a moral standing, so they can not have done anything bad.  The must have the proper skills to perform the mantra.  They must be from the right class in society.  And they must have sufficient knowledge about mantras.   A mantra must be performed by a disciple who pays close attention to the proper ways of saying the mantra (Alper 166).  There is one mantra that is identified as comprising all other mantras.  It is the AUM mantra.  Pranava and also Vedic mantras are said to be the means of knowledge and also a way to help you achieve moksa (Alper 167).  If a person does not understand a certain mantra it is due to their ignorance or absence of their mind in finding the meaning; which is there if you look (Alper 167).  Another place mantra is used in Yogic Meditation.  Using mantra in meditation is attested in the classical yoga meditation.  The aim of Yoga is to receive a vision of your outer body Purusa.  Because a mantra is not necessary it is not useful in this situation (Alper 204).  There is a relationship between mantra and god but it is not given in much detail (Alper 205).  There is claimed to be a relationship between the mantra and god, because when you meditate you are claimed to be realizing god in the meditation.  It is not the same as the relationship between the object in human language and the word, which has to follow certain rules.   In Yoga  the individual is attempting to attain a bond with the divine.  Mantras are similar because you are trying to enlighten yourself by saying your sacred utterance (Alper 205).

The field of mantras is very large.  “The fundamental, role of mantras, their great variety, and the powers ascribed to them, and the fact that belief in their efficacy has survived in India from the Vedas down to our own day does indeed confront us with a problem: How is one to explain the mantric phenomenon?” (Alper 296).  There is a tendency that has become widespread that believes that the existence of mantras can be explained rationally.  It is believed by some that mantras can only be properly understood and explained within Indian tradition itself (Alper 296).

Since there are varying definitions of mantras it is possible to say the word is untranslatable (Gonda 247).  Mantras are considered to be formulas of worship and believed to contain a presence of a deity.  It is believed that if correctly prounced the deity will appear from it (Gonda 248).  The reason the mantra is produced by your mind is to gain deific assistance when you need help of some kind (Gonda 251).  There are several mentions in the Rg Veda of mantras which are called the songs to the Gods (Gonda 252).

Mantras are mentioned in several different ways.  Mantras can be used as an arm for those who make the rules and help decide religious orthodoxy (Alper 17-18.).   “Not only does the power of mantra have clearly designed policing powers against Vedic enemies, it also is so highly charged that, unless properly and carefully handled, it can fall back upon  and burn its handler” (Alper 18).  To be considered a perfect mantra it must be done with the greatest of care, and said exactly how it should be, and that it be done in a poetic way (Alper 19).  One of the most common mantras is the mantra that is given to a boy at his sacred thread ceremony, Upanayanam.  This ceremony is to celebrate his coming of age.  The mantra which he should repeat three times a day is called the Guyatri mantra (Rodrigues 132-135).

Can mantras be considered speech acts?  In order to designate something a speech act it involves viewing language a certain way and having everybody believe that is the way to view it.  The best way to approach theories of language is to see it in action.  Because mantras are recited by a person with specific intentions they are considered speech acts.  Some discussions have said that mantras are obscure, because it is hard to pin point what the true meaning is behind them (Alper 144-145).  Because, of the fact that mantras are intended to be indicative and refer to things (Alper 149).  But overall it would appear that since mantras are actually trying to convey meaning they should not be considered speech acts (Alper 149).

References and Further Recommended Reading

Alper, Harvey P. (1989) Mantra.  Albany: State University of New York Press.

Burde, Jayant (2004) Rituals, Mantras and Science. India: Shri Jainendra Press.

Dhavamony, Mariasusai (1982) Classical Hinduism. Rome: Gregorian University Press.

Dowson, John (1979) Classical Dictionary of Hindu Mythology and Religion, Geography,

History, and Literature. Great Britain: The Gresham Press.

Fowler, Jeaneane (1997) Hinduism: Beliefs and Practices. Great Britain: Sussex Academic


Gonda, J. (1963) The Indian Mantra. Brill.

Rodrigues, Hillary (2006) Hinduism—The Ebook: An Online Introduction. Journal of Buddhist Ethics Online Books Ltd.

Staal, Frits (1990) Ritual and Mantras: Rules Without Meaning.  New York: Peter Lang

Publishing, Inc.

Williams, George M (2003) Handbook of Hindu Mythology. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Yelle, Robert A. (2004) Explaining Mantras: Ritual, Rhetoric, and the Dream of a Natural

Language in Hindu Tantra.  New York: Routledge.

Related Topics for Further Investigation



Blood Sacrifice



Rg Veda


Sacred Thread Ceremony


Noteworthy Websites Related to the Topic

Article written by: Brittany Hermanson (April 2010) who is solely responsible for its content.

The Rsis of Ancient Indian Tradition

Rsis are unique figures in Indian culture with a distinct status. Their role in Indian culture in both ancient and modern times is significant. Despite their importance to Indian tradition, the topic of the rsis has not been explored in the literature to as great an extent as many other topics within the study of Indian religious tradition. Much of the literature that exists lacks academic objectivity, which can lead to bias, limiting the usefulness of those sources. Even so, the amount of scriptural material dealing with rsis is overwhelming, as are the seemingly endless categories and classifications within the broad designation of rsi, and as a result this study will only briefly explore the legends and traditions of the rsis.

To satisfactorily define the rsis is a fairly daunting task in itself, given the wide variety of descriptions and scriptures associated with them. Mitchiner describes a rsi as “one who seeks to bring about change, a transformation both of himself and also of his environment” (246). This definition is broad, and by no means comprehensive. Some of the rsis’ means of implementing change must be described in order to understand Mitchiner’s definition. First, and perhaps foremost, the rsis are said to be composers of Vedic hymns, or rather, those to whom Vedic hymns are shown by means of divine revelation (Mitchiner 172). According to Mitchiner, rsis are said to have composed all ten books (mandalas) of the Rgveda and various Dharma Sastras (books of law and duty,) among other things (172-176). The rsis also performed the distinct (albeit closely related) role as teachers, passing on the knowledge revealed to them. While the Vedas emphasize rsis as seers, the Epics and Puranas emphasize rsis as teachers (182). Pandey (2-3) notes a distinction between categories of rsis, namely between saksatkritadharma (direct seers of hymns) and asaksatkritadharma (those who could not directly perceive divine truth.) Rsis of both categories, however, are said to have observed other important traditions as well.

The rsis’ position as seers of hymns is linked to their traditions of sacrifice, as many hymns are said to have been “seen” during the performance of sacrifice (Mitchiner 177). By offering sacrifice (yajna,) the main goal is said to have been “svarga-loka” (paradise) and ‘brahmaloka’ (eternal residence of the god Brahma)” (Pandey 158). It is by reaching such a realm that the foremost Seven Rsis are said to have become stars in the sky (Mitchiner 249). Other aims of sacrifice also included the acquisition of sons, wealth and cattle, but not all sacrifices performed by rsis were in pursuit of personal gain. Some literature tells of rsis performing sacrificial rituals for kings and their families, fulfilling the role of family priests (purohitas) (Mitchiner 178). Mitchiner points out that in most cases “men are urged to perform the same sacrifice in order to fulfill the same aim” (178), whether that aim is obtaining heaven or obtaining earthly goals (178-180).

Agastya, one of the legendary Seven Rsis, Cidambaram Temple Sculpture, Tamil Nadu
Agastya, one of the legendary Seven Rsis, Cidambaram Temple Sculpture, Tamil Nadu

Another rsi tradition was that of asceticism (tapas.) The word tapas is derived from the Sanskrit tap, basically meaning heat, and tapas has come to mean “the basic idea of inwardly heating oneself, through the performance of various religious and ascetic practices” (Mitchiner 187). In the Atharvaveda it is said that through the practise of severe austerities, one could acquire supernatural abilities (Pandey 187). These powers (siddhis) are said to have been wide ranging. Through severe practices of tapas, one could acquire the ability to fly, to fulfill one’s desires, and to escape old age and even death (Mitchiner 206). Siddhis were not the only goal of tapas, however. In the Vedas, immediate goals were often sought, such as wealth or victory over enemies, however the goals of tapas could also be more abstract, for example the “destruction of past sins and deeds (karma) (Mitchiner 201). Pandey (187-188) outlines several ascetic practices that rsis are said to have engaged in including: sitting “motionless like wood” (187) for extended periods, laying on various beds designed to cause pain and following strict diets. Rsis reportedly chose isolated locations (often called hermitages) to practice tapas in order to be “free from the disturbances and distractions of the world around” (Mitchiner 190). Hermitages were often located in forested or mountainous areas, especially in the Himalayas around the sources of the river Ganga, or in the pine forests of the southern slopes of the Himalayas, which remain a popular location for modern ascetics (190). Some rsis maintained hermitages and dwelled there for extensive periods, and became known as asramavasis or hermitage dwellers (Pandey, 5).

Another common method of practicing tapas is by abstaining from sexual activity, or more specifically by avoiding the spilling of semen. Rsis practicing total celibacy were referred to as urdhvaretas (having the seed drawn upward) and are held in high regard (Mitchiner 233). There are several tales in which the gods (or Indra, specifically,) seeing the power that the rsis acquired through tapas as a threat to their (or his) status or well being, sent beautiful water nymphs (asparas) to seduce them. Some tales tell of rsis succumbing to the temptation of the asparas, while others are said to have prevailed and subsequently used their supernatural abilities to curse the asparas (234-235). Interestingly, by some accounts all rsis are said to have married, which is seemingly at odds with their status as celibate ascetics. It has been said that only after Siva, the ideal ascetic, made clear his intention to marry Parvati, that the foremost Seven Rsis became unashamed of marriage (235-236). Marriage, or at least the performance of sexual intercourse, however, is essential to many accounts, which claim the rsis as the progenitors of all creation (Pandey 241, Mitchiner 248).

Having described the rsis without extensive breadth or detail, it is already clear that they occupy a large and enigmatic place in Indian scriptural history. They are legendary for their roles as seers and revealers, teachers, devout ascetics, celestial bodies, celibate urdhvaretas and (perhaps most interestingly) progenitors of all existence. They are difficult to define, largely because of their dynamic roles in Indian religion. However, it is their dynamic nature that has made them so integral to the scriptures in which they play such a broad role.


Mitchiner, John E. (1982) Traditions of the Seven Rsis. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass.

Pandey, Chandra Bhanu (1987) Risis in Ancient India. Delhi: Sundeep Prakashan.

Related Readings

The following is a brief list of readings pertaining, at least in some aspects, to the material discussed in the work above. For more comprehensive research, one might be advised to look into various scriptural texts through which rsi tradition has been maintained. It is scriptural texts such as the Vedas, the Puranas, the Mahabharata and the Ramayana that provide the greatest wealth of knowledge on the legends and traditions associated with rsis.

Brent, Peter (1972) Godmen of India. New York: Quadrangle Books.

Doniger, Wendy (1993) Purana perennis. Delhi: Sri Satguru Publications.

MacDonell, Arthur Anthony (2004) History of Vedic Mythology. New Delhi: Sanjay Prakashan.

Oldenberg, Hermann (1988) The Religion of the Veda. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass.

Sullivan, Bruce M. (1999) Seer of the Fifth Veda. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass.

Related Topics

Presented here is a brief list of topics that one who is interested in rsi tradition might also enjoy researching:

Topics within the study of rsis:

  • The Seven Rsis
  • Brahmana lineages (gotras) claiming descent from rsis
  • Legendary Rsi authorship of scriptural texts

Topics related to the study of rsis:

  • Traditions and culture of gurus
  • Vedic sacrificial rituals and practices
  • Indian ascetic traditions
  • Puranic mythology

Related Websites

The websites provided in the following list pertain not to rsis specifically, but rather provide valuable resources on Hindu tradition in general. While not necessarily academically defensible, these pages provide a wealth of information for casual study and reference:

Written by Alex Masse (Spring 2006) who is solely responsible for its content