Introduction: Understanding Mantras
This is a summary of a wonderful and thought provoking article (https://www.academia.edu/s/2c2860e7c9) by Martin Fárek and Pavel Horák- University scholars in the Czech Republic. Martin Fárek is doing commendable work in understanding Indian traditions from Indian viewpoint countering the dominant narratives set since the times of colonials. The latter narratives continue uninterrupted in Western and Indian universities unfortunately. Farek belongs to a small group of dedicated scholars which includes the Ghent school of Dr Balagangadhara who would hopefully correct some of the disastrous discourses ravaging the country. His significant contribution is editing a path-defining book Western Foundations of the Caste System along with others. In this paper he and his colleague discuss the understanding of mantras from western scholarly view and how these are based on Christian theological frameworks.
There are three main positions concerning mantras: as spells (magical practices); as prayers (religious practices); or both at the same time. There is a growing scholarly dissatisfaction with the explanation of Indian mantras as spells or charms- magical practices, specially advocated by the missionaries. Yet the debate is not new as some early Orientalists had already suggested that mantras are prayers and some, like John Woodroffe, believing nothing holy or prayerful about a mantra. Over the last 200 years, the scholars vacillated between the two positions: Mantras are prayers and thus religious practice; or mantras are spells and thus magical practices. There are other stands too but current research on mantras remain trapped within the same cycle of problems shaped by ideas about spells and prayers.
The authors strive to show that it was a whole structure of interconnected ideas, deeply rooted in Christian belief in a biblical God and fallen angels, which formulated the dominant characterization of magical practices in modern scholarship on India. They propose a three-step scheme which explains how the originally coherent account of Christian theology gradually dissolved into set of vague and otherwise problematic ideas that have typified discussions of Indian mantras. We need to come out of the entrenched framework of ideas.
Are Indians Adoring Their Gods or Manipulating Them?
Scholarship since the last 200 years debates extensively on whether mantras are prayers, spells, sacred formulas, or charms. Others used the terms interchangeably, leading to an impression that magical and religious practices are ultimately the same thing. Both basic explanations of mantras were present in 19th century European scholarship on India: for the early British Orientalists, mantras were prayers; for others, originally mainly missionaries, they were spells. A set of problems of those early debates remains with us to this day.
This debate also closely links to the debate about the character of Vedic mantras. The first three Samhitas (Rigveda, Samaveda, Yajurveda) were ‘religious’ containing prayers to gods while Atharvaveda Samhita became ‘magical’ because of its alleged spells. However, this is hardly consensus though widely believed. Some modern scholars think all Vedic mantras are magical. With the emergence of Tantric studies, the mantras of traditions labelled Tantric became spells or charms.
The First Position-Are Mantras Prayers?
The early Orientalists like HT Colebrooke, HH Wilson, Max Muller, Monier-Williams, and Paul Deussen thought that mantras are a form of adoring the gods of India. They were ‘prayers’, ‘petitions’, ‘thanksgiving’, ‘praise’, or ‘worshipping’ a deity or god as the object. However, the British Orientalists themselves quoted instances when mantras do not address any deity at all like the Vedic hymns addressed to kings, their wives, or even ‘prayers’ offered by a groom to his bride during a marriage ceremony. These raise questions about the precise meaning of prayer. Finally, British Orientalists mentioned the existence of meaningless mantras (a few syllables like ira ayira repeated many times), but did not know how to account for them by the standard explanations.
The Second Position-Are Mantras Magic?
About the second position, what would make mantra into an example of magical practice? The direct use of Christian ideas about pagan idolatry misleading worshippers and directing them towards the wrong goals in life is obvious here, both in the books of Christian missionaries and scholars. William Ward, one of the famous Serampore Baptists described the mantras as ‘formularies’ used before the images with a tendency to corrupt the mind with love of pleasure.
In the nineteenth century Orientalists’ view, idolatry was the result of a degeneration of original noble and pure Vedic monotheism into Brahmanism and later still, into Hinduism. They postulated a theory about the much later development of Shaktism and Tantrism, an ‘ocean of sorcery’, which were in their “left-handed, or indecent mode of worship” seen as “unbridled debauchery with wine and women”.
The goals pursued by worshippers became an important part of discerning between spells and prayers. If mantras are for ‘salvific’ or other ‘noble’ causes, it is religious performance. If used for this-worldly, and especially ‘selfish’ or even ‘harmful’ goals, they are magical. This division of goals also exists in the Tantric practices: spells are for attainments in astrology, medicine, or supernatural abilities; and prayers for spiritual emancipation.
In Orientalist scholarship, the evolutionary model of religion was from an early stage of primitive magic to advanced religion; a characteristic shift from this-worldly to other-worldly goals. The use of mantras within the evolutionary model had two different goals, namely ‘success in gaining health, wealth and power’ and ‘full enlightenment in this life’ according to scholars. They identified three stages of mantra use in Buddhist traditions. Mantras described as spells originally aimed worldly goals; then they became vehicles of salvation; and finally, if practiced properly, “there is nothing they cannot achieve”.
Manipulation and Coercion of Gods
Other researchers of the twentieth century also maintained that mantras can be spells, but focused on manipulation and ‘coercion’ of gods as their main characteristic. The idea comes also from earlier research, which pointed to the ‘Hindu belief’ that an able magician is superior to gods. This explanation saw a common source of magical practices for both Hinduism and Buddhism. In this scheme, the textbooks outlining the means (sadhana) of doing this were Tantras, and the new cult tantric. As the latest edition of AL Basham’s classic proclaims, ‘By pronouncing the right formula (mantra) in the correct manner, or by drawing the correct magical symbol (yantra), one might force the gods to bestow magical power on the worshipper and lead him to the highest bliss.’
Some scholars propagate the view that these mantras were for ‘control of hidden forces of invisible reality’. Vedic ritual and the Vedic mind use the parallel experience between a human and a god which makes human especially qualified to act in the divine realm and manipulate the god whose experience matches his own. The efficacy of such sympathetic magic depends on homologies- mystical or cryptic similarities between human and divine realms. Hence, a human can use his weak means to control forces far more powerful than his.
The Third Position-Both Prayer and Spell- ‘Magico-Religious’
The final position merges the two previous stances into one by claiming that the mantras could be prayers and spells at the same time. Expressing dissatisfaction with all the different translations for the concept of mantra, scholars sometimes concluded that it is not possible to translate the Indian term into Western languages. This can indicate that in the traditional Indian understanding, mantra is utterly different from prayer, spell, sacred formula, or other phenomena discussed, say the authors.
However, with the possibility that mantra is something altogether different from prayers or spells, there is another insight of scholars that mantras “were mainly used in magico-religious rites, for the purpose of furtherance of worldly interests and protection from danger”. This claim is puzzling because this contradicts the ideas of evolutionary theory from magic to religion. Why cannot the scholars clearly decide that these mantras were at first used only in magical rites? Why are they ‘magico-religious’, despite the talk of different goals? Such explanations enter standard textbooks and encyclopaedias unfortunately despite the contradictions.
Problems for Understanding Mantras
There are now several problems in understanding mantras: a) magical practices should characteristically manipulate or coerce but scholars are not clear who or what the object of manipulation is (b) typically, the goals of mantra divide between this-worldly and other-worldly goals. Although disputed, several generations of scholars keep using the pursuit of this-worldly goals as characteristic of magical practices; (c) these criteria apparently allow for characterizing the very same mantra as either of the two, or even as ‘magico-religious’; (d) some mantras do not fit the characteristics at all, but they are also explained as spells, prayers, or both at the same time; (e) ideas about the degeneration of the original monotheism or evolution from magic to religion were theoretical frameworks of the efforts to understand mantras.
Therefore, ideas about gods, demons, or supernatural powers play some role in the debates, but it is not clear what exactly is under discussion. Is it an attitude of worshippers towards these beings? For example, mantras were adoration of Vedic gods according to the early Orientalists, whereas later scholars maintain that the same mantras were manipulating the same gods.
Does Magic Exist?
The founding fathers of comparative religion, sociology, and anthropology once formulated bold ideas and grand theories on magical practices but they have now run into serious problems. For many scholars, magic exists as a universally shared kind of human activity, ranging from the prehistoric magic of hunters (shamanism), through various ancient traditions, early modern Hermeticism, the magic of Asian, African, Native American, and other peoples, to different modern schools of magic.
In this perspective, the concept of magic provides a useful description of mantras. However, other scholars propose to define magic for different cultures and periods differently. For example, scholars felt that clearly ‘magic’ in the context of a pre-industrial African tribe does not have the same meaning as it does in a Graeco-Roman context.
Yet if one needs to examine the same term ‘magic’ independently for each culture and period then are the scholars studying the same phenomenon in these cases, or not? If incantations of the ancient world and Indian mantras are phenomena of the same kind, what is the problem with using the same word about them? And if they are not the same kind of phenomena, why should one same word be redefined to describe them? Why do we not use some other word to indicate that we are dealing with different phenomena in the world?
Puzzlingly, some scholars in specialized journals have suggested that magic does not exist at all. This contradicts the standard descriptions of the magical use of mantras in some introductory courses on Hinduism and Buddhism. Yet, the authors of such claims nevertheless continued to use ‘magic’ and ‘magical’, either explicitly or implicitly. Even modern research into magic seems to be dissatisfying.
Would anthropology have some solutions? Earlier scholars rejected this and later anthropologists consider magic to be a part of religion, because it is associated with supernatural powers. Hence, there is a huge conceptual mess in studies of magic. Debates about definitions of words aside, the phenomena of practicing mantras are real. They exist, or existed in Vedic, Buddhist, Tantric, Bhakti, and other traditions of India. We will not advance in understanding any phenomenon described as magic by merely arguing about the proper definition of the word. This is an important step, because research should aim at explanations of real phenomena.
However, the characteristics of magical practices, as a set of clear criteria, are opposite of the characteristics of religious practices. Scholars in different study fields dispute the very same set of characteristics for discerning between magical and religious practices. Prayers and magic differ in tone and sentiment. Prayers imply humility but magic is a demand for power and centers on ego.
Coercion and This-Worldly Goals of Life: What is wrong with These Characterizations?
Academic ambiguity aside, there is a deeper conviction that magical and religious practices are fundamentally different from each other, yet they are also of the same kind. Can we connect this explanation with analysis of the ideas that created criteria for discerning between spell and prayer? The possibility lies in a discussion of the role that Christian theological ideas play in modern attempts to explain magic. The authors of “The Notion of Magic” say that the supplication/manipulation dichotomy does not apply to non-Western peoples, but it does reveal a great deal about how Westerners conceptualize their religion and their morality. Later discussions were more about how this dichotomy did not apply to non-Western cultures.
In his recent analysis of the alleged magical characteristics of mantra, P.E. Burchett concluded that Western problems with understanding mantras are the legacy of a Protestant division between religion and magic. This somehow transformed in the thinking of the Enlightenment. Thus problematically, mantras seem to have be in the category of ‘downgraded alternatives’ to modern Western views of language and religion. Often translated as ‘spells’ and ‘magical formulas’, mantras are by implication irrational attempts to manipulate the Divine, in contrast to the supplicative prayers of authentic ‘religion’.
One author says that the dividing line between ‘magic’ and ‘religion’ hardened by the parallel attempts of Protestant and Catholic Reformers to eliminate all popular rites of ‘unauthorized and ambiguous status’. If both Protestants and Catholics attempted the same goal (eliminating magical practices), they must have shared some basic understanding about these ‘diabolical attempts to manipulate the supernatural’. What was this common ground? If the Christian characterization of a division between magic and religion became part of later Enlightenment rationalist thought, why exactly is it problematic? Answers are not self-evident.
We should carefully consider which Christian theological ideas shaped modern debates on magic, and whether the emerging characterizations (such as setting coercion versus supplication as a criterion) are still dependent on the original biblical assumptions, or not. Such a precise analysis of the ideas that enabled characterizing practices in India as magical was by M. Keppens and J. De Roover recently.
The authors showed how the Early Church Fathers’ understanding of magic as human ‘trafficking with demons’, which should have been an important part of ‘heathen idolatry’, became a crucial structure of later European explanations of Brahmins as pagan priests and of their powers. This is an important conceptual structure that “establishes a connection between the ‘rites’ and ‘formulas’ of pagan priests, on the one hand, and the occurrence of certain effects in the world, on the other”. If Keppens and De Roover are right, the original Christian structure of ideas about demons would still be present in the academic debates by a conviction that such ideas form the content of the beliefs of mantra practitioners.
The Supernatural in Debates about Magic: God, Gods, and Demons
An analysis of the concept of supernatural powers (or beings) in the debates may be the crucial link to clarify the issues raised by the recurring debates on submission-versus-coercion characterizations; this-worldly and other-worldly goals; and tying these ideas to the beliefs of practitioners.
For Christians in the first centuries of Church, the world was full of demons that seduced those of fragile faith to the wrong path. Demons were responsible for the appearance of false prophets and the creation of heresies; for the creation of pagan stories about sons of gods, which were made up in order to divert people from the only true Son of God; for teaching people magic or astrology ; and, finally, for mental and physical diseases. In sum, demons were responsible not only for human physical suffering but, more importantly, for spoiling human minds and souls.
In this perspective, spells were functional means of ‘trafficking with demons.’ In this way, conceptualization of the differences between prayers and spells reflects differences between true and false religion. Worship of one true God, that is, the supernatural being in the Bible, was true religion, whereas worship of beings or objects of this world was false religion. Christian ideas of God the Almighty, Perfect, Creator of the world, etc., contrasted with pagan stories about gods and demons. The Church fathers amply criticized the latter. If humans desire something for their earthly life, within the limits of God’s commandments, they should ask Him, which is one form of prayer. Other forms of prayer are adoration of God the Almighty, thanksgiving, confession of faith and so on.
These ideas created a coherent explanation in which prayers are a means of a submissive contact between believers and a Biblical God, whereas spells are a means of coercive human communication with demons. Human beings can properly pray to the Biblical God for both the final salvation of their souls and their ‘daily bread’ of this world. Understandably, such attitudes are ascribed to ‘magicians’ to this day in Catholic theology.
Of course, this is not an absolutely clear-cut method for discerning between prayer and spell, because prayers asking for ‘daily bread’ could address God. Therefore, the submissive approach of the worshipper must compound this criterion. In this perspective, spells do fulfil some temporary wishes, but finally, all magic seduces people from the right path to God and leads to damnation.
Now we see how exactly ideas about the nature of a biblical God, as a superhuman being who is different from all demons (or false gods), are a crucial background structure for the specific debates about magic being part of false religion. In this sense, it is answering a question about how true religion can be the same and yet different from magic (false religion). Without these ideas, all discussions about a submissive versus a coercive approach by worshippers, this-worldly and other-worldly goals, and, by logical extension, also distinctions between spell and prayer, lose their precise meaning. These theological ideas shaped many centuries of European thinking about prayers and spells. As such, they became the conceptual source for those who began to study Indian traditions in the 18th and 19th centuries.
From Clear Theological Explanation to Current Conceptual Mess
The authors propose that the structure of Christian ideas about God and demons formed the core of the explanation of mantras as either prayers or spells. The first historical stage of research on the religions of India kept the originally Christian idea about the degeneration of the pristine monotheism of nations as a guiding explanation. The consequence for understanding mantras was simple: original Vedic teaching was ‘monotheism’, albeit with ‘the seeds of idolatry’, whereas Tantras were an ‘ocean of sorcery’.
In this view, a pantheon of strange gods and demons usurped the place of striving for one true God. In the 19th century descriptions, if scholar was sure that Indian practitioners of mantras were basically monotheists, their worship of Vedic and other gods was an indirect worship of the one true God. However, if the scholar thought, as many Christian missionaries, that Indians were simply idolaters, then all mantras were the nature of spells like European magic. Healing, harming others, igniting feelings of love in the heart of a chosen person, protection from all kinds of disasters, wealth, success in political endeavors, etc.; all these goals promised in Indian texts look very much the same as the promises of ancient magical texts. The list of goals “typical for magic” became a necessary part of accounts on mantra, with little changes over the last 200 years.
The second stage of changes in the structure of explanatory ideas formed by the rise of grand theories of magic which understood magic as an early stage of development of religion, being in this sense a reverse of the degeneration model. The originally Christian concern with the personal qualities of a biblical God retained, but demons are not personalities any more. Nevertheless, the difference between religious worship and magical ritual is still clearly based on the original Christian ideas, including the idea about both involving a tie with ‘the supernatural powers.’
One scholar maintained the general theory of the degeneration of religion into magic, of which “the development of Indian religion from the hymns of Rig Veda to Brahmanas” should be “the classical example”. His explanation of mantras is a logical outcome of this theorizing: the pious prayers of the Rig Veda contrast with “ecstatic and emotional magic”, “shamanic demonology”, and “sexual orgies” of the Atharva Veda. However, independent of the theological ideas such theorizing may look, it retains the Christian focus on differences between true God and other beings. It would have been the primitive thought of the ancient Indians that made “obsolete the God who directs fate of the world”, according to this scholar.
The third stage brought another change in the structure of the ideas characteristic of attempts to describe the beliefs of mantra practitioners. Ideas about supernatural powers or beings as agents in magical practices retained but in a very vague form which allowed for fundamental changes and different additions. The clearly respectful and adoring prayer to gods became ‘sympathetic magic’ which manipulated the same gods. Others postulated ‘hidden connections’ between phenomena in this world, and called it “sacred magic”. This stage of research is puzzling; although some of the main ideas from the previous theorizing retained, they freely mixed with different other concepts. Mantras could be symbols with imagining of all kinds of correspondences.
For other scholars, the focus of mantras should be ‘hidden connections’, typically characterized as ‘homologies.’ Others speculated about the ‘divine power’ that mantras contain, and how they are identical with gods or their energy in the traditional Indian understanding.
The originally central concept of Christian God and the difference between God and fallen angels was still present in the form of a search for believers’ ideas about ‘supernatural power’. Because the concept was not clear any more, the general idea of ‘supernatural beings’ soon allowed for adding ideas about ‘hidden correspondences’ or homological connections. At this stage, a connection between humans and the supernatural could have different variants: between humans and gods; between human body and universe; or between human mind and ‘supernatural reality’.
Coercion versus supplication does not explain anything here, because it is not clear at all who or what is undergoing coercion. As the remnants of the originally clear-cut division between transcendental God and the demons of this world dissolved, the other-worldly and this-worldly goals of Indian traditions merged. It is not clear anymore what exactly all these concepts mean and why we are still using them.
Before Pursuing New Routes for Understanding Mantras
Not only individual concepts but the whole structure of ideas arising from Christian theological concerns with God and fallen angels became the core of modern theorizing about Indian mantras. All these concepts clarify the central Christian theme, which is the nature of supernatural God and the human relationship with Him.
The Early Church built a coherent explanation, where man either prays to one true God, or uses spells to manipulate demons. Regarding the attitudes, prayers are a means of communication between humans and God, spells between humans and demons. If seduced by demons, humans aim at this-worldly goals. In this structure of ideas, the difference between the concept of God and demons implies other differences: between prayer and spell; a supplicatory attitude versus a coercive one; and between this-worldly and other-worldly goals.
For early European Orientalists trying to understand mantras, the Christian ideas about religion as the worship of one true God were the only available meaningful explanation. These ideas were also in the background of developing theories about the religious evolution for the Enlightenment thinkers. Therefore, if Indian practices were expressions of original monotheism for the respective scholars, mantras were prayers, like the Rig, Sama, and Yajur Vedas. If scholarship decided that Indians practiced idolatry, mantras became spells (like Atharva Veda and Tantra). Ideas about evolution and degeneration of religion could stand next to each other.
The original coherent structure of a biblical God and demons transformed into questions about the beliefs of the mantra practitioners in ‘supernatural powers.’ The alleged beliefs are still the focus of research, and the results of scholarly efforts to understand them also determine whether mantras are spells or prayers causing a conceptual mess.
The Conceptual Mess
Firstly, the concepts and relationships between them became vague. Secondly, the relationship with God or demons can be replaced by other relationships in the alleged worldview of mantra practitioners: between men and gods (or demons); or humans believe in the manipulation of ‘hidden’ connections in the universe; or it is a relation between the human body and the universe; or even between the human mind and divine sound.
Thirdly, the character of the coercive versus supplicatory approaches of the worshippers became a problem. When you remove the ideas about a biblical God and demons, it is no longer clear to whom or to what a worshipper is submissive, and what exactly such submission means. Fourthly, the original meaning of magical and religious practices being different and yet of the same kind plays a role of vague intuition in the background of academic discussions. Therefore, some scholars can retain the dividing characterization, however problematic; others reject it; and yet others keep the division in even more by obscure talk about scales, overlapping of categories, and mantras being ‘magico-religious’ practices.
Several generations of scholars automatically assumed that there must be a magical belief, or magical worldview, which is the ground for magical practices. Indians could hardly have equivalents of Christian concepts. As theoretical concepts, they still depend on the assumptions about a biblical God, but they do not have even the clarity and coherence of the original Christian explanation.
The power originally attributed to God, to demons, or to ‘supernatural powers’ is now attributed to mantras themselves. Western and Indian scholars alike talk about mantras being ‘God’s Creative Power incarnate in sound’, or ‘divine sound’, which enables one to describe ‘sonic theology’ in Hinduism. Yet the traditional understanding hardly sees Indian mantras as divine (transcendent), or even perfect, because one can read about complex practices that Indians developed to purify mantras, to perfect them, and to make them work.
The authors suggest an in-depth analysis of the problematic concepts of ‘spell’ and ‘prayer’ as necessary, because unless we understand what exactly is wrong with them, it will be difficult to pave new ways for understanding mantras. All new attempts should include a clear understanding of the problems caused by transformations of Christian theological ideas about magic. Otherwise, we will be prone to sliding back to the conceptual problems outlined above.
Personal Concluding Remarks
The most amazing and striking aspect in the wonderful paper, for especially an Indian Hindu, is the realization of the complete absence of the traditional practitioners of the mantras in the debates across ages. It takes almost eight to nine years of rigorous training to master even one Veda. As most traditional scholars concede, there are perhaps only a few living individuals who would have learnt all the four Vedas. One human lifespan is not enough.
It is sad that continuous scholarship of the west combined eerily with the traditional response of silence to at least two centuries of deconstruction by the West starting with German Indology. Indology was a malicious racist enterprise which manged to make translations, sometimes shoddy, of Vedas, Puranas, Itihaasas, and a huge corpus of literature. Universities, chairs, and scholarships then thrived on a closed group of scholars with mutual give-and-take and many scholars making their careers based on translations. They did not even know the language leave alone reading the texts in original. Mahabharata and the Gita were main examples of scholarship which included the racist theme of Aryan supremacy. Vishwa Adluri and Joydeep Bagchee explore this fully in their book The Nay Science.
Just as the colonial scholarship was dissecting, disarticulating, and disembodying our traditional scriptures, our English-speaking Indians joined them in hopes of academic careers. Not one was interested in talking to the practitioners of a live and throbbing tradition. This same idea of scholarship is evident in the western study of mantras too. Like before, the traditional scholars and the traditional practitioners are not involved in the debates and in return, they are not even aware of these debates. Even if they do come across such discussions, the characteristic response unfortunately is that of profound indifference. This has unfortunately led to a one-sided monologue in discussing Indian traditional and cultural issues amounting to tremendous intellectual violence on Indians as Dr Balagangadhara says.
Many times, the traditional practitioners understand the debates but they do not have the conceptual tools of the western academic schools and hence choose to remain silent. In this regard, the authors of the article must be hugely complimented when they defend Indian traditions by questioning the very source of the discussions. A Christian, mainly Protestant, theological framework and secularization of such ideas laid the basis of many narratives on India like the so-called caste-system, a universality of religion in all cultures, and creating religions out of traditions. Most of the social readings of India is the result of such looking at Indian systems through Western lenses.
At the root of discussions might lie the core difference in the dominant philosophical stand of the West and that of the East, especially India. Western philosophy believes in the secondary nature of consciousness arising out of matter. Mind and matter problem exist at a deep level. Indian philosophy is clear about the primary nature of Consciousness and mind-matter being two sides of the same coin. The primary Consciousness in Advaita is Brahman and it is infinite, indivisible, and the only sentience. The entire mind-matter arises as a superimposition on this Brahman. These ideas clearly embed in Hindu traditional understanding of mantras.
In the Hindu traditional philosophy, nouns, verbs, and all other kind of words have four stages – the para (Brahman stage), pasyanti (incipient ideation stage), madhyama (effort for articulation stage) and vaikhari (audible stage). The first three stages are beyond an ordinary person enveloped in ignorance. The para stage of speech is like internal eternal light and by its true intuition a man attains moksha (loosely salvation). In the world of objects, Turiya is the state of Brahman, Prajna that of objects in their undifferentiated unmanifest state, Taijasa the sphere of ideated objects, and Visva is the sphere of gross physical objects. It is not difficult to see the correlation of the word to the world in Indian traditions.
The Self perceives the eternal object through two different modes of cognition. For the Self, the mind is an instrument to think about the object while the sense-organs are instruments for perception of the object. Thus, mind and matter are two conditions of the same thing, the one appearing as thought and the other as an individual object in the world. It is maya that makes the same object apprehended through the two different modes of cognition as different.
In the Indian tradition, therefore, there is rejection of the idea of language having a physical substrate. Instead, language is coterminous with Consciousness, the Ground of the Universe. At its most primal level -the speech stage of Para or the object-stage of Turiya, it is luminous and same with Brahman. In this way, mantras which arise as deep contemplation of the sages can be a direct route to enlightenment or Brahman. In simple terms, a mantras is Consciousness or Brahman itself.
All perception is direct and real in contrast to the western paradigm where there is transformation of datum and there are representations or constructions in our brain. Whatever we see or hear is what exists in the outside world in its true and real form. The mantras directly cognate with the primary Consciousness in this understanding. The physical organs are only to enable this transparency and work as seats of experience too. Indian philosophy thus places the Self or Consciousness as a Primary sentient entity (purusha) and Nature as insentient (prakriti). Both mind and matter belong to the realm of prakriti with individual qualities. The Self is ever free, but only appears embodied by an erroneous mental cognition.
Hence, at a basic level, prayers and spells imply a duality with man and God standing separate; however, mantras arise in a tradition where non-duality is the dominant thinking. In such a scenario, there might be a completely different meaning to the concept of mantras. The attempt to understand mantras through another cultural framework may simply mislead and may not make sense. Like Dr Balagangadhara’s example of asking a Belgian priest whether he is a Brahmin. The Belgian priest lies outside the scope of both the question and the answer. Similar may be the case here. Maybe, this implies a complete winding up of the concept of mantras as prayers or spells and start fresher narratives.
Apart from mantras which may imply personification of the Self or Consciousness, Indian traditions have suktams, stotras, shlokas, and stutis related to various rituals and with various purposes. They are both related and unrelated to the mantras. As one poojari in a temple versed in Yajurveda simply said that mantras manifest during a deeply contemplative state of a sage and these have no origin from mind or matter. The others are products of spiritualized minds.
Perhaps, research needs to take place if one wants to truly understand Indian mantras in these lines of enquiry. But that would require to shed off the duality inherent in western philosophy and think in terms of non-duality. That would require rising above one’s own biases and training and approach another tradition with humility and an eagerness to learn. Otherwise, all the studies in the western context amounts to ignorance or mischief. In the meantime, scholars like Martin Farek, sympathetic to the Indian cause would be greatly helpful in first deconstructing the dominant explanations as a first step.
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