Thoughts & Ideas

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Lokah Samastah Sukhino Bhavantu!

As a child growing up in a middle-class Hindu family in India I was taught, and memorised a number of religious mantras, shlokas, and other incantations.  Some of these were formally taught, but I imbibed a larger number in the normal course of life by listening it during either religious ceremonies or as part of regular usage.

A number of my friends, specially those who came from overtly devout and pious families knew many more mantras & shlokas than I did, which somehow made me feel belittled due to apparent lack of knowledge of the sacred and profound. I tried to make up for this by either scorning this skill or trying to show off other knowledge that I possessed.

While some of these mantras & shlokas have evolved and now exist in the commonly spoken tongues, most of them are in esoteric and chaste Sanskrit, a language which historians tell us was never spoken by the common man. So their use has always intrigued me.

We were advised that these mantras have magical qualities and their regular chanting brings about profound positive changes in both the person reciting and to the general atmosphere. They can also be used for putting bad spells on ones enemies or adversaries. This also explained holding of pujas and yajnas where such mantras were recited by cohorts of priests and lay persons with various aims and intentions. Right from invoking the Gods to bring about rainfall, to achieving world-peace, relief from illness, to give the person arranging (read as spending the dough for the yajna) supernatural powers etc. The actual meaning of the mantras & shlokas seemed to be of little interest to the believers. For them, the resonance of reciting the mantra would help in achieving the desired objectives.

Some very spurious pseudo scientific reasons were also placed for buttressing this line of thought. We were told that just as the power of resonance can shatter glass or make bridges sway, the power of resonating mantras effect the human body and mind in ways both subtle and gross.

I once had occasion to request a holy man to explain the meaning of the mantras that he had taught us in course of my attending a spiritual conclave. He loftily explained that the regular repetition of the mantras were sufficient, since their inner meaning becomes apparent on regular repetition over time. Moreover, these mantras have power much beyond their meaning and the resonance of reciting them has profound and deep all round effects. On the person doing the reciting, the people who listen to it and the also the general atmosphere around, to the extent that it benefits all living and non-living being in its vicinity like birds, trees, domesticated and wild animals, stones etc. Very many stories were retold from the ancient epics to modern times in support of this argument.

On another occasion, one of my neighbours called to invite our participation (my wife and mine) for a group recitation of the Vishnu Sahasranamah (recitation of the 1008 names of Vishnu). This was being organised simultaneously at various places in the world with the objective of achieving World Peace. It was explained in all sincerity that the more people got involved in the simultaneous recitation the more power would be generated for World Peace. My natural scepticism overcame me and voiced my disagreement to this line of thought in what I hoped was a light, and flippant way. The lady got very upset with me and just crossed me off her list of acquaintances. This was unfortunate, as I liked flirting with her.

Well some of the mantras are fairly simple and their meaning actually becomes apparent over time, especially with repeated use. For example;

Tvameva Mata cha Pita Tvameva,
Tvameva Bandhu cha Sakha Tvameva,
Tvameva Vidya Dravinam Tvameva,
Tvameva Sarvam Mama Deva Deva.

It translates to:

You are my mother, and you are also my father,
You are my friend and also best friend and closest relative,
You are knowledge and also the food that I eat,
You are all

It is simple, easy to understand, appreciate, and relate to this shloka. It brings about a one to one communion between mankind and his Maker. Reciting this hymn always made me feel nice from inside and gave me a sense of particular closeness with God.

However, this mantra is the exception to the rule. One of the most famous and supposedly very powerful mantra is the Gayatri Mantra. It is supposed to be so powerful that the purists advise against saying it aloud. It is generally whispered into the ears of the novice brahamachari as part of his initiation rituals. It has not been possible for me to make sense of this mantra inspite of reciting it regularly over a number of years. But then I realised, that I was not alone. Different scholars have given different interpretations to this mantra, though the overall sense is similar as may be seen from the details below:

Gayatri Mantra

Om Bhoor Bhuvassuvah
Tat Saviturvarenyam
Bhargo Devasya Dheemahi
Dhiyo Yo Nah Prachodayaat

"May there be peace on mortal, immortal and divine plans
 I meditate upon the most brilliant splendor of the Sun God                   
May he stimulate our intellect (so that we are inspired to take the right action at the right time."

S. Radhakrishnan: "We meditate on the adorable glory of the radiant sun; may he inspire our intelligence.

Swami Vivekanand: "We meditate on the glory of that Being who has produced this universe; may He enlighten our minds."

Another famous and supposedly very powerful mantra is the Maha Mrityunjaya Mantra. We learnt it with the eagerness of the greedy since we were told that it helps in conquering death. And who does not want to remain immortal? The mantra goes like this.

Om Triyambakam Yajaamahe
Sugandhim Pushtivardhanam
Urva-rukamiva Bhandhanan
Mrytor-muksheeya Maamritat

It sounds nice reciting it and the thought that it helps in conquering death adds to its importance and by reflection our own importance. But its meaning was quite lost to me inspite of prolonged recitation over long years. I then looked up its meaning on the net thanks to the mantra of Google. And this is what I came across.

"We worship Lord Shiva, the three-eyed one
Who is fragrant and nourishes all beings
May he liberate us from death, for the sake of immortality
even as a cucumber is severed from its bondage to the creeper."

Well, nothing earth shattering or profound I would say and the significance of the last line is totally lost on me.

Another common mantra is the Shanti Mantra usually recited before starting any new activity and which goes like this:

Shanti Mantra:

Om Saha Naavavatu
Saha Nau Bhunaktu
Saha Veeryam Karavaavahai
Tejasvi naavadheetamatsu Maa Vidvishaavahai

"May the Lord protect and bless us
May he nourish us
Giving us strength to work together for the good of humanity
May our learning be brilliant and purposeful
May we never turn against one another."

While the essence of this mantra does have quite some significance, for a layman simply reciting it like a parrot might not really add to much. And I am quite sceptical about nature and effect of so called vibrations which it produces.

On a different vein, the mantra

Asato Maa Sadgamaya
Tamaso Maa Jyotir Gamaya
Mrityor Maa Amrtam Gamaya
Om Shanti Shanti Shanti

which translates to:

"Lead us from unreality to reality         
From darkness to light (ignorance to knowledge)
From death to immortality
OM Peace Peace Peace."

is quite simple in meaning, easy to understand and appreciate and at the same time provides solace.

Another mantra which I have been reciting for long, which did produce some feeling of wellness in me (the so called ephemeral positive vibrations) goes like this:

Lokah Samastah Sukhino Bhavantu

I recently looked up its exact meaning and was pleasantly surprised to know that its import is to the effect that:

May all beings everywhere be happy and free, and may the thoughts, words, and actions of my own life contribute in some way to that happiness and to that freedom for all.

This agrees very much with my personal philosophy of life and I have adopted it as my personal mantra. It is short, sweet, and to the point. So like Wordsworth’s “Daffodils”, whenever I am in vacant or pensive mood, I silently recite it and it in turn acts like an elixir to my mood.