The hallucinogenic meaning of mantras

by Hartosh Singh Bal

Harappa For a tradition that seems to extend back to the Harappan civilization, our lack of knowledge of some key aspects of Indic religions continues to be baffling. One problem, of course is our inability to unlock the world of the Harappans. Signage and seals are available in large number but so far progress in deciphering them has been slow. Over the past few years an acrimonious debate has been underway between those who claim that we can bring new tools to the job such as Rajesh Rao and those such as Steve Farmer who argue that the script is actually no more than signage and is not in fact a writing system.

This argument over the meaning that can be ascribed to signage is reminiscent of another area of Indic studies, which while not mysterious in the same way, remains baffling to me – the meaning of mantras.

The word mantra has entered the English language as a ritual chant, a magic formula repeated over and over. As a definition this only partially conveys the sense in which a large number of Indians even today understand the word. Perhaps, in no other part of the world does a non-tribal tradition lay so much stress on the power of particular Sanskrit words chanted in a particular order to harm or heal. The mantra is at the heart of most tradition of Gurus and disciple where the initiation is connected to the passing on of a guru-mantra tailored to the individual disciple, often unique to him. This is a tradition that extends to closely related religious forms, such as Tibetan Buddhism, which also lay great stress on mantras. This is as far as healing goes, the ability to harm is also explicitly identified with the term. In popular usage the entire phenomenon of spells, witchcraft etc are often subsumed under the practice of tantra-mantra.

Interesting though this may be from the sociological or anthropological point of view, I am more concerned by what a skeptic or a rationalist is to make of this. One possibility is to ignore this as so much mumbo-jumbo (or tantra-mantra) but to me that makes little sense when faced with a tradition that relies so much on experiential knowledge as a basis for belief. What possible experience could explain the origins of this belief in the power of mantras?

Actually as defined so far, the term mantra is too nebulous, it originally referred to select portions of the Veda of great ritual importance which were marked by particular set of characteristics that some early commentators on the Vedas noted. University of Berkely Emeritus Professor Frits Staal has elaborated the case made by one of early exegesist of the Vedas, Kautsa

These were:

  1. In the Veda, the order of words may not be changed as is generally the case in Vedic or Sanskrit which are languages in which word order is basically free: since the inflected ending of words convey their function, changing the order of words does not affect the meaning. It is different in the case of mantras…
  2. The sound of the mantras may not be changed: words may not be replaced by synonyms…
  3. In so far as some meaning can be attributed to them they often contradict each other
  4. There is a tradition for mantras to be learnt by heart, but no corresponding tradition to teach and thereby preserve their meaning.

Staal also notes that the foremost religious philosopher of India, Sankara has commented that “he who teaches a mantra or officiates at a ritual with mantras without knowing their composer-seer, metre, deity and brahamana, will run his head against a pole or fall into a pit.’’ There is no stress on getting their meaning right. The power of the mantra, then according to traditional belief, seems to lie in their pattern and sound, in their form rather than their substance.

The question though remains, what kind of experience could originate from such patterns of sound? One possible suggestion comes from a very different tradition. The Sanema of the Ornico Basin in South America use a drug called Ebene also known as Sakona derived from the dried sap of the Virola tree. It contains N,N-Dimethyltryptamine (DMT) a psychedelic compound. A majority of the adult male population partakes of this shamanic experience. Bruce Parry went as part of a BBC crew to live among the Sanema and wrote of his experience in the book Tribe. His description of the experience is as follows.

Once I started chanting Sosa's song I realized the power of that too. It was a mantra. If said over and over, it tripped you into a deeper state of trance. I could feel myself slipping away again into another place. I didn't notice that I was singing, just that my head was becoming blurred, the resonance of the sounds I was making was shaking the core of my body and my senses were spinning out of control. And then I was off again on a magical, mental journey. Looking around at all the shamans chanting their different hekura songs, I now realized why the songs were so powerful to them.

Interestingly Parry experienced the power of the chant in the absence of any understanding of the meanings of the songs, he did not speak the language. Clearly the power of Sanema songs seems to lie in the patterns of sounds that feed the effect of the hallucinogen. Like the Sanema the creators of the Rg Vedic hymns in all likelihood were regular users of a hallucinogen – Soma, whose origins now seem lost to us. Could mantras then really be the equivalent of the Sanema songs?

The power of chanting and music to heighten the effect of psychedelic drugs has enough anecdotal evidence though I am not sure there has been any real rigorous study. But as a suggestion it makes some sense. Even the earliest exegesis of the Vedas in the post-Vedic age was done by people who had no direct understanding of the experiences and the circumstances that led to the composition of the Vedas. Certainly the Soma cult had disappeared by then, but much of the ritual aspect of the cult seems to have survived. In effect what has been transmitted to us as mantras could well be the Soma songs devoid of their original context. Their power to impact us may already be in the remote past but in myth and religion the realization of “why the songs were so powerful to them’’ seems to have survived.

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