In the Yoga Sutras, Sri Patanjali Maharishi lists nine obstacles, which cover a range of physical, mental, and spiritual problems. They are: disease, dullness, doubt, carelessness, laziness, sensuality, false perception, failure to reach firm ground, and slipping from the ground gained. He states that they are accompanied by distress, despair, trembling of the body, and disturbed breathing. He is a very gentle and skillful teacher, so immediately before presenting this formidable and all-too-familiar list, he reassures us that a single practice can make all these obstacles disappear. This potent panacea is mantra japa.
Why is mantra japa so effective? To understand this, it’s helpful to explore a little cosmology, the science that explains the origins of the universe. The ancient yogis noted that the universe oscillates through cycles of potentiality and manifestation. When a new cycle is to begin, the first expression is sound. If you think of the physical universe as a grand machine, then this could be understood as the hum of an engine as it starts up. The yogis refer to this primordial sound as the pranava, the cosmic hum. The Holy Bible declares: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” The ancient Hindu scripture, the Rig Veda, echoes the same truth: “In the beginning was Brahman, with whom was the Word, and the Word was truly the supreme Brahman.”
As creation proceeded, variations of the original hum began to vibrate on different levels, giving rise to all the multifarious forms. So the entire creation—everyone and everything—is nothing but sound vibrations in different wavelengths. Each one of us has our own unique vibratory signature, which results from all the physical and mental, gross and subtle, activity that is occurring within us.
Even scientists tell us that musical production can be found everywhere in nature. The whole cosmos is like a grand symphony, in which our planet earth lends its own particular hum. Several years back, astronomers detected the deepest note ever observed in the cosmos, a B-flat that is fifty-seven octaves below middle C. They say it has been sounding through space for about two-and-a-half billion years.
Now, if you think of God as a cosmic radio transmitter, mantras represent particular divine frequencies that are being broadcast. We are all like radio receiving sets. If we tune in, we get the music. We experience the Divine, because we are vibrating at that level. All knowledge and power flow through us. On the other hand, if we’re not properly tuned, we may get a lot of static, resulting in confusion and delusion.
Japa, the repetition of a mantra, enables us to do that tuning. Mantras are mystic sound structures that were revealed to sages in deep meditation. They are divine power expressing through sound. Through the concentrated repetition of a mantra over time, we begin to vibrate in a new way, at a higher divine frequency.
Just like we use sound vibrations to clean items like jewels, teeth, or even kidney stones, mantras clean our entire system—physical and mental. Swami Sivananda, who was a physician before becoming a monk, states: “Chronic diseases can be cured by mantras. The chanting of mantras generates potent spiritual waves and divine vibrations. The mantra vibrations penetrate the physical and astral bodies of the patients and remove the cause of their suffering. They fill the cells with pure sattva and divine energy. They destroy microbes and rejuvenate the cells and tissues.” If you think of disease as disharmonious vibrations in cells, tissues, and organs, then mantras can be understood as establishing pure, clean, harmonious vibrations. When everything is vibrating at this new level, health is restored.
Mantras clean, heal, and attune us to the Divine. They can also protect us from danger, which I experienced firsthand years ago at our Connecticut ashram. I was in the habit of taking long walks at dusk. There is a palpable presence of peace at that time. It’s as if the earth, itself, exhales, releasing the tensions of the day, as it heads toward the deep relaxation of night.
Once when I was on such a walk, enjoying the quiet solitude, I noticed on a nearby hillside a very large dog. I recognized him as one that had attacked several of the men at the ashram. Our eyes locked for a moment, and then the dog began charging down the hill in my direction.
It was a deserted area; there was no one in sight. At moments like this, one remembers to pray. So, I clasped my hands, gazed up, and uttered, “God, if it’s Your will for me to be torn to shreds by a wild dog, an opportunity is fast approaching.” Then, I proceeded to repeat my mantra. Within seconds, the dog was before me, repeatedly rushing at me, but somehow, never touching me. He kept opening and closing his jaws around my fingers, but never made contact. I slowly kept walking, and eventually the dog ran off.
I continued my walk for another half-mile and then had to return. The only way back was the way I had come, and once again, I found myself opposite the hillside where the dog was waiting. I folded my hands, uttered the same prayer, and repeated the mantra. Again, our eyes locked, and he came storming my way. The same bizarre dance ensued in which he repeatedly charged and went to bite, but never made contact. Finally, he ran off, and I returned to the ashram.
The next day at work we were playing a tape of Swami Satchidananda in which he was speaking about the power of the mantra. He said if you develop the vibration through repetition, it will form a protective shield around you. In Sanskrit, this is called kavacham, which means armor. He said you could even be in the jungle, and animals might come to attack, but they will never touch you. An invisible mantric shield will protect you from all harm.
You can select a mantra yourself, or request one from your teacher, if you have found your spiritual path. The ceremony in which you receive a mantra is called initiation. At that time, the teacher not only imparts the mantra, but also transmits a little spiritual energy to enliven it within you.
If we make the mantra a constant companion, it will be the greatest friend, a steady anchor at all times. It can heal the body, lift the spirit, open the heart, and expand the mind. A mantra is like soap; it cleanses the body and mind. It is like fire; it burns all the impurities. Repetition of the mantra will make the mind strong, clear, and collected.
As our practice deepens, our minds will become more absorbed in the mantra. Instead of many thoughts, we become established in that one pure thought. At that point, when the mind is really strong, the mantra will dissolve, and the mind will be still. In that stillness, the true Self is revealed. In that state, we realize that we are not the body, not the mind, but the immortal Spirit. With that knowledge, all obstacles disappear. We have attained liberation, freedom from suffering, and will experience supreme peace and bliss.
~Swami Karunanandaji is one of Swami Satchidananda’s most senior monastic disciples and an Integral Yoga master teacher. She is a member of the Board of Trustees and chairperson of the Spiritual Life Board of Satchidananda Ashram–Yogaville. She teaches workshops and trains teachers at Yogaville and around the globe.
This article is excerpted from Swami Karunananda’s book, Awakening: Aspiration to Realization through Integral Yoga.