Mantra Meditation: Everything You Need to Know

mantra meditation

Many meditation techniques are available for us to practice and progress spiritually. Aspirants usually turn to breath meditation or loving-kindness since they are easy to get started with. However, mantra chanting is another popular technique that produces remarkable results when practiced diligently.

A mantra is essentially a word or a phrase you repeat, either verbally or mentally, during meditation. It is a combination of sacred Sanskrit sounds meant to produce spiritual traits in your mind. Mantras clear the mind’s clutter, increase your concentration, and provide clarity of thought.

In this article, we’ll discuss everything you need to know about mantra meditation. You’ll learn its significance, how to pick a mantra, and how to practice it for spiritual attainment.

What is a mantra?

Sanskrit is an ancient language that’s one of its kind. The syllables and words in Sanskrit have been carefully crafted to elevate our consciousness. An example of such syllables is a mantra, which can be defined as the combination of sounds that uplift us spiritually.

The word mantra comes from the Sanskrit words man (meaning “mind” or “to think”) and tra (meaning “to cross over” or “release”). The idea is that mantras help us cross the ocean of our thoughts and the material world. They show us the way to be free from all the anxieties of material life. For beginners, we can think of mantras as vehicles to cut through the mental clutter and reach deeper states of awareness.

Mantra meditation is the science of using mantras to enhance our mindfulness and develop spiritual qualities. In mantra meditation, we mindfully repeat the mantra inside our head. It increases our concentration, boosts our emotional well-being, and helps us progress spiritually.

The mantras we chant today date back to thousands of years. Many mantras have well-known precise meanings, while the meaning of many others is not known or is unknowable. The good news is that knowing the meaning of a mantra is not necessary for chanting it daily.

Mantras are not just about meaning; they also have a rhythm and melody to them. Mindlessly repeating a mantra like a robot will not yield many benefits; it is best to chant it mindfully and melodiously.

For example, Om Namaḥ Śivāya is one of the most popular mantras in Hinduism. Om refers to the ultimate reality or consciousness, and Namaḥ Śivāya means “salutations to the auspicious one!” The mantra also has several other similar meanings.

How do mantras work? The science behind them

mantra written on stone in tibetan script
Tibetan Buddhists engrave mantras on stones as a form of meditation.

The words we speak, either verbally or mentally, create our reality. As we’ve discussed, mantras are sacred sounds produced by the sages of early Hinduism and Buddhism. And neuroscientists have revealed that sound and language influence many aspects of our lives.

The sound and feel of mantras are critical elements. When you concentrate your mind on a mantra while chanting it, it increases your focus and calms the mind. Mindful repetition of these mantras leads to superior concentration and deeper states of awareness. You can meditate on a mantra any time you want, whether in the morning or at night.

Science has been catching up with meditation for the last few decades. There have been numerous scientific studies delving into the benefits of meditation, but mantras have not yet been explored to the same depth. Although much quality research is still required, the current evidence on the science of mantras is encouraging.

Scientific benefits of mantra meditation

Learning how mantras can change your life will inspire you to build a daily meditation practice. Here are the science-backed benefits of regular mantra meditation:

1. It reduces the mind’s chatter

Default mode network is the brain region that’s active during self-reflection and mind-wandering, which means it’s an indicator of the brain’s activity. The more active this area is, the more distracted your mind is.

A study asked a group of people to participate in six 90-minute sessions over two weeks. Each session began with yogic exercises and concluded with 11 minutes of mantra meditation.(1)

The researchers concluded that the activity in the default mode network is more suppressed while doing mantra meditation. It is useful in calming down the mind and reducing the constant rambling within.

2. It relieves stress, anxiety, and depression

The calming sound of mantras has been shown to have positive effects on the general population’s mental health. Regular practice of mantra meditation improves your mood, allowing you to make better decisions.

A review of studies concludes that mantras have a calming effect on the mind. In some studies, mantra meditation was reported to cause a significant improvement in people with anxiety issues. Some other studies claimed that chanting mantras has a massive impact on depression as well. Lastly, most studies revealed that stress reduction is one of the most certain benefits of mantra meditation.(2)

3. It improves concentration and attention

Meditation doesn’t come naturally to most of us. It is challenging to maintain focus on a single thought. A mantra, like your breath, can be an excellent object of meditation. You can concentrate on the sound of the mantra, and it’ll help you bring the ever-restless mind to the present moment.

Mantra repetition increases your mindfulness. The chanting occupies your mind and reduces wandering thoughts, preventing the brain from drifting off. Many people who find it difficult to meditate on their breath have an easier time chanting a mantra.

4. It enhances your well-being and increases self-awareness

Mantra meditation improves your mood and promotes emotional health. Regularly chanting a mantra helps you understand how the mind works and leads to an improved self-image. Understanding your thought patterns can allow you to recognize harmful or self-defeating thoughts.(3)

A 2014 study had two groups of people watch a collection of negative images. They discovered that the people who had meditated before the experiment had fewer negative thoughts than non-meditators.(4)

Kirtan Kriya is a form of meditation where you chant mantras and move your hands to focus your thoughts. It has been found to reduce age-related memory loss among older people.(5)

The difference between mantras and affirmations

Affirmation and mantras are often interchangeably used these days. You’ll even find positive affirmations like “I am prosperous” recommended alongside Sanskrit mantras as if they were the same thing.

However, there’s a vast difference between the two terms. Affirmations are phrases or sentences with precise meanings. They are limited to thought and based on modern language. When you say “I love myself,” you’re only thinking about it. “I love myself” means what it says, and it makes you feel loved. Similarly, “I attract wealth” makes you feel wealthy.

The idea behind these statements is to hammer a positive thought inside your head and change the mind at a subconscious level. Do affirmations work? That’s a topic for another article.

On the other hand, mantras are different, and we’ve already seen how they work. They are designed to take you into deeper states of meditation when you concentrate on them.

I’m not saying that affirmations don’t influence the mind—they do; what I am saying is that mantras are very different from affirmations. Mantras may include the benefits of affirmations, but they’re much more than just positive statements.

In short, The difference between mantras and affirmations is that affirmations are about the literal meaning, while mantras are about the sound. Affirmations work by instilling a particular idea deep in your mind, while mantras increase your mindfulness and concentration.

Mantras in different religions

meditation on om mantra
mantras are use in the form of meditation or prayer in all religions.

As we’ve said, almost all religions have some type of mantras. Some require initiation, while others are open for everyone to chant. Here’s a brief overview of mantras in four chief eastern religions:

Hinduism

Mantras were first formulated during the Vedic period of Hinduism, the oldest religion in the world. Sages derived mantras from different Vedic compositions. In fact, every verse from Hindu texts like Vedas, Upanishads, or Gita is a mantra that can be chanted repeatedly for spiritual progress.

In Hinduism, you can find mantras for virtually all purposes. The Mahāmrityunjaya Mantra is beneficial for physical, mental, and emotional health. And Gāyatrī Mantra is believed to take the practitioner to new heights in both spiritual and material realms.

One of the most common mantra formations is Om Namo/Namah [deity name], meaning “Om, salutations to [deity].” Om Namah Shivaya is for Lord Shiva, Om Namo Narayana is for God Vishnu, and Om Shri Ganeshaya Namah is for Lord Ganesha. You can find more popular mantras of Hinduism here.

Buddhism

Buddhism arose out of Hinduism, and so the two religions have many similarities. They share many concepts like reincarnation, karma, and salvation. Mantra chanting is a common form of meditation in Theravada Buddhism, and mantras have various purposes.

Om mani padme hum is the most famous Buddhist mantra. It is a six-syllable mantra of Avalokiteśvara, the Bodhisattva of compassion. Interestingly, the Dalai Lama is believed to be an incarnation of Avalokiteśvara, which makes the mantra especially revered by his devotees. You can find more popular Buddhist mantras here.

Jainism

Like Buddhism, Jainism is an offshoot of Hinduism. In Jainism, though, there are no gods. The mantras are instead aimed at seeking forgiveness, praising ancient saints, and cultivating compassion.

The navkar mantra is the fundamental and most significant mantra in Jainism. While reciting the mantra, the aspirant bows down to the enlightened ones, teachers, Gurus, and sages. It is the first prayer chanted by Jains when meditating.

Jains don’t ask for any material benefits or favors from the ancient sages. In Jainism, mantras serve to pay respect and remind aspirants of their ultimate goal, i.e., liberation. You can find some more popular Jain mantras here.

Sikhism

Sikhism a monotheistic religion around the end of the 15th century. It is believed that chanting mantras leads to purification of mind and tuning in to the voice of God.

Wahe Guru, literally meaning “Wonderful Lord,” is the most famous mantra in Sikhism. It is believed to eliminate ego and take us nearer to God. Then there’s the Mūl mantra. It is the opening verse of Guru Granth Sahib, a Sikh scripture. It is also the first composition of Guru Nanak, the first of ten Sikh gurus.

How to choose a mantra

Several factors play a role when it comes to choosing a mantra for your meditation practice. As we’ve discussed, many traditions require initiation before you begin chanting. However, there are some popular and common mantras in all religions that can be meditated upon without initiation.

Hinduism has many gods, and each has its own mantra. So you will need to select a deity and then choose a mantra accordingly. For example, if Lord Shiva is your deity, you should pick a mantra like Om Namah Shivaya. And if your deity is Goddess Durga, Om Dum Durgayei Namaha would be an excellent choice.

We’ve already seen examples of mantras in Buddhism, Jainism, and Sikhism. You can pick any of the above for your practice. Intuition plays a huge role when choosing a mantra for yourself. So if you feel drawn to a particular mantra, try finding its meaning and learn what it resembles. If it still resonates with you, make sure it doesn’t require initiation. Then, you can start chanting it daily.

Note that if you’ve been initiated into a mantra, you should always prefer it over any other mantra. Initiation is a sacred process in which your spiritual guru accepts you as their disciple and shows you the way to freedom from suffering. The mantra given by a living guru has special significance, and chanting that mantra yields more remarkable results.

Can’t decide what mantra to pick?

If you can find neither a living guru nor a mantra for yourself, you can start chanting Om. Om is considered to be the essence of the universe. It refers to Brahman (truth or ultimate reality) and is one of the most important spiritual symbols. Om is often used as a building block for other mantras, as you may have noticed in the previous section.

Om is pronounced with a long “o” sound followed by a vibrating “m.” If you want to practice chanting but don’t have a mantra, I recommend you begin with Om. Keep practicing diligently, and you will undoubtedly progress.

Four types of mantra chanting

You can either chant a mantra out loud, whisper it, or repeat it mentally.

There are three primary ways to chant a mantra. There’s also a fourth type, but it’s not something you do. Here is what you need to know about the kinds of chanting:

1. Vachik or loud chanting

In this type of chanting, the practitioner pronounces the mantra audibly. Throat, tongue, and lips are used such that the chanting can be heard clearly by others. Group chanting is often done in this manner. An atmosphere of serenity is created when several people utter the same mantra melodiously.

This method is mostly adopted by beginners, as it is easier to perform. It doesn’t take as much effort to chant the mantra aloud, and the mind doesn’t wander as much. However, it is less effective than the other chanting methods because it doesn’t directly affect the mind.

2. Upanshu or whispered chanting

When you only move your lips during mantra chanting, it is known as Upanshu or whispered chanting. In this method, you whisper the mantra to yourself so that only you can listen to it. Even the person sitting next to you won’t be able to hear what you’re saying.

Note that you’re not chanting mentally; instead, you’re whispering the mantra in a very low voice. Naturally, it is slightly easier to concentrate your mind on the mantra because it’s subtler and more effective than Vachik or loud chanting. Less energy is spent in this chanting, and the mind is also less distracted.

3. Manasik or mental chanting

In mental chanting, there’s no lip or tongue movement and no external sound or whispering; you have to chant the mantra in your head. As you might expect, mental chanting is the most effective type of chanting as it directly affects the mind.

Sounds difficult, right? That’s because it is. Pure mental chanting can be exhausting because it takes a lot of effort. The restless of the mind becomes evident, and it is challenging to control it. It takes a lot of practice and dedication to be able to concentrate the mind while chanting mentally.

4. Ajapa or unspoken chanting

This is the fourth type of chanting. Ajapa or unspoken chanting is when you don’t make any effort to chant the mantra, but you’re always aware of it. When a continuous stream of mindfulness flows through you all the time, it means you’ve reached the Ajapa chanting stage.

Some experts say that in Ajapa chanting, a portion of the mind keeps repeating the mantra throughout the day. Others link the phenomenon to the effortless breathing that goes on 24 hours a day. Either way, Ajapa chanting requires no conscious effort from the practitioner.

This is an advanced stage of mantra chanting, so don’t bother yourself trying to understand exactly what it is. It would be best to just focus on chanting the mantra regularly and wholeheartedly. Over time, your mind will learn to stay concentrated on the mantra, leading to spiritual progress.

How should you do it?

From the three ways of chanting, which one should you adopt? Since mental chanting is the most effective, you may decide to stick to it. But remember that it is also more challenging than the other types. Loud chanting is the easiest to do, but you’ll have to do a lot of it to see results.

The best method is to mix different types of chanting. Start by doing much mental chanting as you can. But when you realize that the mind is becoming restless, switch to whispered or loud chanting. That way, you won’t feel bored or restless. And you can return to mental chanting again after a few minutes.

How to practice mantra meditation

Once you have a mantra, you will need to learn its correct pronunciation. This will not be an issue if you chose something simple like “Om,” but it becomes vital if you have a mantra with several syllables. Native English speakers usually have a hard time pronouncing Sanskrit sounds, so make sure you have the pronunciation down before beginning your practice.

Once that’s out of the way, you can start practicing mantra meditation in the following way:

  • Sit in a proper meditation position. I highly recommend you read the complete guide to meditation posture to learn how to sit correctly.
  • Chant the mantra out loud a few times. Don’t rush it; make sure you’re able to hear the mantra clearly.
  • Now, close your mouth and recall what you just chanted. This is the most effective way of chanting a mantra mentally. Don’t just repeat the words like a parrot; instead, replay the mantra in your head and listen to it. Recall the mantra you just chanted aloud.
  • When thoughts and images pop up, you can make a mental note and let go of them. Your mind will wander most of the time at first, but it will begin to stay on the chanting over time.

Best rosary or mala for mantra meditation

mala beads for mantra meditation
A mala is often used to count mantras while meditating, though it’s not necessary.

A mala (Sanskrit for “garland”) is a strand of beads used in mantra chanting to count the number of mantras you’ve chanted. Usually, it consists of 108 beads, with an additional bead on top indicating the starting and ending points of the mala.

A mala can help keep the mind on track. But I’ve seen that it can just as easily become a distraction. Instead of chanting the mantra mindfully, the practitioner starts focusing on completing another cycle.

I don’t want to confuse you by explaining the types of rudrakshas and other materials used for beads. And to be honest, you don’t even need a mala; just keeping your hands folded in your lap is enough. What’s more important is that you recall the mantra mindfully instead of repeating it mindlessly.

However, if you want to use a mala, you can pick one with 108 beads (excluding the one on the top). Here’s a link for you to buy a 5-faced rudraksha mala. (It will redirect you to your country’s Amazon website based on your location).

Tips for progressing in mantra meditation

You’ve learned everything you need to get started with mantra meditation. But before you start your practice, let’s review some tips that will help you benefit the most from mantra chanting:

  • You can choose any place in your home for meditation, but there are a few things to keep in mind. Your chanting place should be quiet, low-traffic, and comfortable. I recommend reading the article on choosing the best place for meditation to learn how to pick the right spot.
  • Mental chanting is the most effective, but it is often challenging for beginners to chant a mantra mentally for more than a few minutes. So it is best to mix how you chant the mantra. When the mind becomes restless or bored, switch to whispered or loud chanting for some time before returning to mental chanting. Mixing up types of chanting in this way keeps the mind engaged.
  • It is crucial to listen to the chanting in your head instead of just repeating the mantra. Recalling the mantra is far more effective as it requires mindfulness and concentration on your part. It may feel challenging to replay the chanting in your mind, but you’ll get the hang of it with practice.
  • Don’t try to sit for long periods, at least not in the beginning. Try to sit in multiple short, lucid sessions instead of a long, sleepy one. You can read the articles on how often you should meditate and how to sit longer in meditation for more guidance.

We’ve talked about a lot of things in this article. I’ve tried to discuss everything you really need to know to start practicing mantra meditation. Perhaps now you want to dig deeper into mantras and learn how they can change your life. Well, I’ve got you covered. Here are some of the best books on the science of mantra chanting:

1. Mantras: Words of Power – Swami Sivananda Radha

This book is for those who want a light yet comprehensive read about mantra meditation. It is a complete guide that teaches you the fundamentals of mantras, how you can use them, and how they improve different aspects of your life. You will also learn how to pronounce the mantras, and the author has detailed several popular mantras with specific benefits.

This is the book I recommend for people new to mantra practice, especially for Westerners who are not very familiar with Hinduism or eastern spirituality. Everything is explained clearly and concisely, and you will be ready to start your daily mantra meditation practice after finishing the text.

2. The Ancient Science of Mantras – Om Swami

The book is written by a Himalayan monk who used to own a multi-national software company before giving it all up for spiritual life. It is an in-depth book about the origin and invocation of mantras. You’ll learn the history of mantras, why they are so important, and how you can get the most out of your mantra meditation.

The book lives up to its title. It is a complete guide for anyone wanting to learn about the nuances and science of mantra chanting. Remember that the author is a Hindu monk, which means the book discusses how mantras are used in Hinduism (as most books on mantras do). If you aren’t interested in Hinduism or don’t want to go too deep into it, you might want to skip this book.

Final thoughts

Mantras are an incredible gift of ancient Indian sages. They date back to more than 3500 years, and all religions use mantras in some form.

Concentrating your mind on a mantra yields excellent results. It increases your concentration, boosts mental health, and calms the mind. Mentally chanting a mantra is not easy, but with patient and consistent effort, the mind learns to stay mindful of the mantra.

You can choose any mantra you like, but starting with something simple like Om is recommended. Don’t pick an English affirmation, though; they work differently than mantras. You can also use a mala can also be used to help the mind stay on the mantra.

If you want to build a meditation practice but don’t want to get entangled in the nuances of various meditation techniques, mantra chanting is for you.

Good luck.

References [+]
1. Simon, R., Pihlsgård, J., Berglind, U. et al. Mantra Meditation Suppression of Default Mode Beyond an Active Task: a Pilot StudyJ Cogn Enhanc 1, 219–227 (2017
2. Julie Lynch, Lucia Prihodova, Pádraic J. Dunne, Áine Carroll, Cathal Walsh, Geraldine McMahon, Barry White, Mantra meditation for mental health in the general population: A systematic review, European Journal of Integrative Medicine, Volume 23, 2018, 101-108
3. Dahl, C. J., Lutz, A., & Davidson, R. J. (2015). Reconstructing and deconstructing the self: cognitive mechanisms in meditation practiceTrends in cognitive sciences19(9), 515–523.
4. Kiken, L. G., & Shook, N. J. (2014). Does mindfulness attenuate thoughts emphasizing negativity, but not positivity?Journal of research in personality53, 22–30.
5. Khalsa D. S. (2015). Stress, Meditation, and Alzheimer’s Disease Prevention: Where The Evidence StandsJournal of Alzheimer’s disease : JAD48(1), 1–12.
About the author

I was introduced to spiritual practice at the age of 12. I didn't find it intriguing back then, but my curiosity about life has brought me to spirituality again, and I've been reading others' insights and learning from life for over three years. You can read more about me here.

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