A mantra (Skt. “Instrument of thought”) is a sacred word or chain of words in Asian religions.
Traditionally given by a guru (Skt. “teacher”) to a disciple, when repeatedly spoken or sung the mantra apparently acts much like the Zen koan, delivering the disciple beyond mundane consciousness into the realm of the transcendental.
The mantra is said to work much like music and some types of scripture. Believers say that the right type of vibration helps to liberate a fettered soul to a better plane (or place) of existence.
Skeptics say the mantra may be calming, but it also numbs or simply dumbs down the mind. Back in the day, popular writers like Edwin Schur argued that “awareness” is really self-absorption that leads to social apathy and inactivity.¹
This challenge that mantra chanting makes us apathetic has been leveled against both Asian and Christian mysticism, mostly by secular humanists and Biblical fundamentalists. And just the other day I saw a post claiming that Buddhist meditative techniques sap the creative juice and productivity out of workers because they suddenly don’t see achieving as important (which is the opposite of what we usually hear).²
The word mantra is also used in English as a kind of slogan expressing a prized practice or belief, for instance, “Less is more,” “Sex sells,” “Time is money.”
Interestingly, centuries ago an insightful Buddhist monk, Kūkai (774-835), made a claim that enjoys some support by contemporary psychology.
One of Kūkai’s distinctive contributions was…saying that there is no essential difference between the syllables of mantras and sacred texts, and those of ordinary language. If one understood the workings of mantra, then any sounds could be a representative of ultimate reality.³
A fairly recent study suggests that the simple repetition of any monosyllabic word, not necessarily carrying religious significance, may have a calming effect on the mind (e.g. “da… da… da…”).4
The mantra, like most Asian ideas, is complicated and this entry is a quick summary. For more check out my highlights here.
² The article appeared in one of my news feeds but it seemed off the cuff so (unfortunately) I didn’t bookmark or post it. If I see it again I’ll reference it here.
³ http://getliner.com/OndfA (scroll down to the only pale blue highlight on the page) I have suggested elsewhere that all words have numinous potential partly because they are historically grounded. Any numinous effects, however, vary in character and intensity.
4 I distinctly remember reading this but am having a hard time finding the source. For now, this is the best I can do: https://www.google.ca/search?q=calm+effect+of+word+repetition+psychology+study.