Mantra sadhana or japa has been a constant in my path, a practice common to all spiritual traditions and faiths. Here, I’ll share a few of the incredible benefits noted over the years.
Memorizing complex Sanskrit hymns is something I enjoy tremendously. Thus, although I grew up with commonly chanted mantras accompanying worship and rituals, it was in high school that I discovered my innate love for chanting. My math teacher, a Sanskrit scholar and jnani, insisted on teaching me Bhagavad Gita chanting for local competitions. Although at the time I didn’t grasp the meaning of the verses I was memorizing, I discovered that Sanskrit enunciation came quite effortlessly and that there was a sense of deep peace in losing myself in the rhythm and intonation of the verses.
Quite early on, I discovered the Hanuman Chalisa, being intensely drawn to Hanuman. I would chant the chalisa day and night, and it would go on in the back of my mind automatically during daily activities, and often in my dreams. Through this, I began to feel Hanuman’s powerful presence everywhere, never feeling alone. And it was with Hanuman Chalisa that I came to understand the power of japa.
The Vishnu Sahasranama (the thousand names of Vishnu from the Mahabharata, and other Puranas), was the first long hymn that attracted me greatly. It took nearly a year to perfect but even during that year, I began to feel its tremendous power; all kinds of doors began to open in my life. Many years later, while trying to recall the source of all the goodness that has come my way, I realized that it was after I began chanting this supreme hymn that things shifted drastically, including meeting gurus and being guided from everywhere.
Some years ago, I was drawn to the magnificent hymns from the Rig Veda (the oldest of the four Vedas) – Purusha Suktam, Narayana Suktam and Sri Suktam. It was with Sri Suktam, a hymn dedicated to Goddess Lakshmi that ecstatic energetic movements began to arise along with moving visions of the radiant mother – resplendent in her shimmering form, showering her abundance beyond anything I could have asked for.
There is a peculiar phenomenon I’ve observed with respect to mantras and hymns.. It seems that they pick the person, and “click” as they wish, or not. There are many hymns and mantras I have wanted to learn or practice but found that I simply couldn’t proceed. The hymn would seem to slip easily from my memory, rendering memorization impossible. Months or sometimes years later, the attraction to the mantra would arise again automatically, when it would seem miraculously easy to memorize and practice, as was the case with the Sri Rudram, a Vedic hymn.
The power of japa has been written about extensively by Mahatma Gandhi and by beloved teachers like Ram Dass and Eknath Easwaran. The incredible power of the Jesus Prayer is described in the spiritual classic, “The Way of the Pilgrim”, where a simple peasant in 19th century Russia discovers the true meaning of unceasing prayer first-hand. Japa is unceasing prayer that is established deep within the psyche and transforms one from within. It does not have to involve complex words; the simple name of our beloved ideal is enough, as described in Swami Ramdas’ elucidation of his extraordinary pilgrimage with his chosen mantra -the monosyllable “Ram”. In the Bhagavad Gita, Lord Krishna lauds japa as the most supreme of worship or meditative practices (BG 10:25).
Discovering Eknath Easwaran’s teachings decades ago, I was inspired to pick a “permanent” mantra, and “Om Namo Narayanaya” seemed to pick me. In the years that I’ve practiced this mantra, it has been interesting to notice how japa settles into one’s being. At first, japa is a conscious effort that is noticed at the brain/thinking mind level, which then settles gradually into the throat chakra and finally into the heart. Once at the heart level, the dynamic changes entirely – at this point, the mantra moves by itself, arising in conscious and subconscious levels of its own accord (known as ajapa japa). It is the first thing that arises between sleep and wakefulness and the last thing that is noticed before deep sleep, arising automatically in dreams and turning them lucid. This mantra has become integrated into the very fiber of my being, and seems like it is being embedded into the deepest recesses at a primordial, cellular level.
The technique for mantra sadhana is simple. The first step is to pick the mantra or let it pick us. We then set an intention for transformation and begin the practice. For mantra “siddhi” (the power of the mantra) to occur, it is said that at least 125,000 repetitions are necessary. While this number may be arbitrary, the more we repeat it, the greater is its ability to settle into our psyche. Thus, it is helpful to set aside time everyday to chant/practice. A rosary or mala can be used if that is helpful, using the beads for counting; malas with 108, 54, or 27 beads are most commonly used. However, this can sometimes be distracting and using a mala isn’t strictly necessary for japa. The key is to remember to allow it to arise during activities like cooking, cleaning, showering, waiting, exercising and and so on. It should be the first thing we think of upon waking up and the last thing before falling asleep. It should become the refuge whenever emotions get the better of us. The first sign that the mantra is beginning to settle within is when it comes up on its own at unexpected times.
There is an incredible power associated with mantra sadhana that is easier to experience than to describe. It has the ability to transform life into a stream of miracles.
Update (April 2018): Earlier this year, a study was conducted to examine the “Sanskrit effect” on the brain. Structural MRI scans were performed on Vedic pandits who’ve spent years memorizing and reciting exceedingly long texts consisting of 40,000-100,000 words. Researchers found that compared to non-Pandits, many regions of these folks’ brains lit up and they had 10% more grey matter, particularly in the right hippocampus.
While studies like these are nice to convince people about the benefits of chanting, they fall short in their ability to explain the seemingly miraculous effects mantras have on our minds and lives. My suggestion is to set skepticism aside and approach it with an attitude of awe and curiosity.
Mantra works because everything in creation is a product of sound that arises from vibration. Our bodies are made up of the five elements, each of which has a unique vibratory frequency. Every thought, emotion and perception has a unique vibratory frequency. Similarly, each mantra has a unique vibratory frequency. When we take up mantra sadhana, we entrain our body-minds to the frequency of the mantra. When the vibratory frequency of our body-mind begins to align itself with that of the mantra, our physiology begins to change. Why? Because all nerve impulses, glandular secretions and cellular functions have unique frequencies, entraining to that of a mantra begins to change these functions.
While there have been some sporadic studies looking into these effects, the proof of the pudding is in eating it. Try it. See what happens.