Mantra and Recitation: A Common Theme Across All Religions
Thursday August 18 is Janmashtami, a Hindu festival celebrating the birth of Krishna, an avatar of the god Vishnu. Part of the celebration involves the recitation of passages from the Bhagavata Purana and the Bhagavad Gita, believed to be the words of Krishna.
Repetition has tremendous value. It makes our feet sink deeper into the sand. It creates muscle memory. So, just as we train our bodies through repeat action, we train our brains the same way. Memory gets built by the database of information that you repeat to yourself. All religions have created mantras and daily recitations — often short distilled phrases that are easy to recall and recite daily. These become the tiny anchoring points that help us to deal with the fluid vicissitudes of life. They also automatically, and subliminally, guide us towards the core principles of our faith.
Repetitive mantras can change the neural pathways in our brain — even if recited without understanding the meaning, the vibrations resonate with a potency. When chanted with the meanings in mind, the impact is that much more powerful.
For Jews the Shema Yisrael is the most important prayer to be recited daily, morning and night, as an affirmation of the Oneness of God. Muslims are all required to pray five times daily and many are taught from an early age to memorize and recite all, or at least some, passages from the Qur’an. Additionally, Sufi Muslims practice Dhikr, which involves the repetition of short prayers or other phrases. Followers of the Baha’i faith recite the phrase ‘Allah’u’Abha’ 95 times a day in praise of God. In Confucianism, memorization and repetition are important aspects of education.
In Indian religions daily recitations are known as mantra, with the most famous and important being the single syllable ‘Om’ or ‘Aum’ — an expression of oneness; a clever way to incorporate saying it daily is by making it a greeting, so people often greet one another with a ‘Hari Om’. There are many mantras followed by the various Hindu traditions. Sikhs say ‘Wahe Guru’. The Transcendental Meditation technique involves the use of a mantra, which is uniquely assigned to each meditator. The mantra helps to reduce the chatter of the meditator’s mind and ushers her into a deep meditative state.
What we repeat to ourselves on a regular basis has a huge impact on how we think and behave, and mantras hold great potential for sculpting us into more loving and enlightened beings.
“That is why daily prayers and religious reading and church going are necessary parts of the Christian life. We have to be continually reminded of what we believe. Neither this belief nor any other will automatically remain alive in the mind. It must be fed.”
— C.S. Lewis, writer and Christian theologian
“The Prophet said to Ali, if he recited Surat al-Ikhlas [a short chapter of the Quran comprised of four verses] three times before going to sleep, it was as if he had recited the whole Quran.”
— Saba Mahmood, anthropologist
“Say, ‘He is God the One, God the eternal. He begot no one nor was He begotten. No one is comparable to Him.’”
— Qur’an (112:1–4), Muslim text
“Let every breath praise the Lord” (Ps. 1 50:6). At each and every breath a man takes, he should praise his Creator.”
— Sefer Ha-Aggadah, collection of Jewish writings
“It behoveth us one and all to recite day and night both the Persian Arabic Hidden Words, to pray fervently and supplicate tearfully that we may be enabled to conduct ourselves in accordance with these divine counsels. These holy words have not been revealed to be heard but to be practiced.”
— ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, Baha’i leader
“Recite ye the verses of God every morn and eventide. Whoso faileth to recite them hath not been faithful to the Covenant of God and His Testament, and whoso turneth away from these holy verses in this Day is of those who throughout eternity have turned away from God. Fear ye God, O My servants, one and all.”
— Baha’u’llah, Baha’i prophet
“Om Tat Sat: these three words represent Brahman, from which come priests and scriptures and sacrifice. Those who follow the Vedas, therefore, always repeat the word Om when offering sacrifices, performing spiritual disciplines, or giving gifts.”
— The Bhagavad Gita (17:23–24), Hindu text
“Let us meditate on this beloved light of the god who enlivens. May he inspire our thoughts.”
— Gayatri/Savitri mantra, recited by pious Hindus every day at sunrise
“In Japan we have the phrase shoshin, which means ‘beginner’s mind.’ The goal of practice is always to keep our beginner’s mind. Suppose you recite the Prajna Paramita Sutra only once. It might be a very good recitation. But what would happen to you if you recited it twice, three times, four times, or more? You might easily lose your original attitude towards it. The same thing will happen in your other Zen practices.”
— Shunryu Suzuki, Zen Buddhist monk and teacher
“[W]e use the term ‘ten thousand things’ as a way of saying that the number of things is very large. So also we use ‘Heaven and Earth’ to describe great things, and ‘yin and yang’ as original breaths of life which are vast, and the term ‘Tao’ as being that term which covers them all.”
— The Book of Chuang Tzu, Daoist text
Choose what is good and firmly hold onto it. If we extend our knowledge and investigate the phenomena of things then this is choosing what is good. If we make our thoughts sincere, maintain an upright mind, and cultivate ourselves, this is firmly holding on. These two principles are all that we need.
— Zhu Xi, Confucian scholar
Art and Literature
“What is important is to keep our mind high in the world of true understanding, and returning to the world of our daily experience to seek therein the truth of beauty. No matter what we may be doing at a given moment, we must not forget that it has a bearing upon our everlasting self which is poetry.”
— Matsuo Basho, haiku poet