[Advaita-l] chanting knowing the meaning whether necessary

Naresh Cuntoor nareshpc at gmail.com
Thu May 29 17:06:22 CDT 2008

Some thoughts on reciting mantra with or without understanding their

The term mantras is quite broad and encompasses several classes. Some
mantras, such as the bijamantras, are sounds without meaning. Sage Kausta
said anarthakaaH mantraaH -- mantras are meaningless. They serve a purpose
in the ritualistic sense and perhaps as a tool in meditation. Intrinsically
they do not have a semantic meaning -- or at the very least, if they had a
meaning at some point, it has been lost. (The latter characterization is
indeed difficult to imagine. Our forefathers, after all, had an obsessive
desire to preserve. )

Other mantras such as those in the samhitas are apparently meaningful, i.e.,
they are formed by words that have a meaning. To understand these, one needs
a guru in the sampradaya and a knowledge of the 6 vedangas. Even in this
mode, one does not directly begin to "understand" the mantras. First comes
memorization. Then, after the pre-reqs are completed, the guru teaches the
student to analyze the memorized mantras.

Another class of mantras serve as instruction manuals during yagas. Clearly,
these have meaning -- "put the ladle on the right side", "yajamaana,
silence", "yajamaana's wife, silence" (Imagine the poor yajamaana who goes
on chatting after the priest says tUShNIM vraja!) The shrauta sutras are
these manuals. Panini seems to have taken his cue from the shrauta sutra
literature in composing his vyakarana sutras; as evidenced by the technical
similarities. Having said that, I must add that Panini's vyAkaraNa sutras
indeed represent a major breakthrough. The earlier grammarians such as those
of praatishaakyas had a decidedly narrower focus.

The newer mantras that sing praises of Gods are full of bhakti and
Ishvara-arpaNa-bhaava. These are best understood and recited with the right
feeling. (But does chanting shlokas with the utmost bhakti excuse a mangled
pronunciation? E.g., guruve namaH vs. gurave namaH?) Understanding these
shlokas, at least superficially, is not difficult. Knowledge of any Indian
language helps. If one spends a few months to understand the basics of
Sanskrit, many shlokas can be easily understood. Vidyasankar ji has already
mentioned a few resources.

Presently, the discussion was regarding popular suktas (puruSha-sUkta,
etc.), namaka, chamaka, etc. Does one need to understand these before
reciting? Unless you are an academic, the answer is no! First one learns to
recite it (correctly, I might add). Then one finds a guru to delve into its
analysis. Without the proper background (knowledge of vedangas, etc.), one
will the probably infer unintended meanings! Patanjali has an amusing
example of this in the motivation section of his mahabhashya where he
explains that unlike ordinary mortals, a grammarian would not wonder whether
a particular samastapada is under tatpuruSha or bahuvrIhi samAsa. This is so
because the grammarian knows that the two are differentiated by
udatta/svarita tones! The mere allusion to this example by Patanjali says
that even during his time, not everyone understood the intricacies of veda

 On a practical level, learning to recite the mantras puts one in the right
frame of mind - call it chitta shuddhi or whatever. For kids in the house,
it presents a great initial condition! Let them start by simply repeating
and learning - what is wrong in that? Memorization is sadly, under-rated.
This is one step in the learning process. Later (hopefully in the same
birth!), the kid will develop the inclination to learn more and understand

This email is already long. I will close with a note on one of the many
quotations that Dr. Yadu provided. tajjapas-tadartha-bhaavanam. Patanjali is
not "giving his understanding of the term japa" in this sutra. He assumes
that the meaning of japa is known to the student. To understand this sutra,
one needs to look at the previous few sutras. Quick summary of some of the
sutras immediately preceding it. He launches into a preview of samadhis
(i.e., the stage after dhaaraNa and dhyaana in aShTaa~nga-yoga). How does
one attain samadhi? Patanjali lists a few characteristics - intensity of
desire, shraddha, vIrya,etc.). Then he states, "or by the grace of Ishvara".
This is a point of contention among scholars. Some say, this sutra and the
next couple of sutras are later additions and not Patanjali's. Be that as it
may. He goes on to say, "tasya (Ishvarasya) vaachakaH praNavaH (om)" -- "his
(Ishvara's) pointer is Om".Then comes tajjapas-tadartha-bhaavanam -- Its
(om's) japa and its contemplation of its meaning".

The reason I felt compelled to make an admittedly long remark on Dr. Yadu's
quotation is the significance of context. We all hear politicians
complaining that quotes were pulled out of context. I dare say, Patanjali
may say the same here! He was talking about a specific japa, done for a
specific purpose (attaining sampra~jaata and other samadhis). Taking that
out of context and applying to any japa of any mantra done for any purpose
is a bit far-reaching, isn't it?

Generally (i.e., without reference to any particular quotation made), IMO,
it is perhaps best not to treat subhashitas as supporting evidence to a
claim. Subhashitas, undoubtedly, enhance the aesthetics of presentation.
Beyond that, it has limited value in a serious argument. Because it is not
difficult to find a subhashita that says something oriented 180 degrees from
the former! On the other hand, kaavya-shaastra-vinodena kaalo gachChati


On Wed, May 28, 2008 at 10:05 AM, Dr. Yadu Moharir <ymoharir at yahoo.com>

> Namaste R.Krishnamoorthy-Ji:
>  It does not matter whether you agree with me or not you should take up the
> issue with Sage paata~njali or and our niruktakaara who provided
> understanding for various "dhaatu".  This subject has been discussed
> extensively by all grammarians.  There were more than 64 Grammarians before
> PaNini.
>  Let us see the definition of word "mantra" - matraaH mananaata.
>  Sage paata~njali gives his understanding of the term "japa" -
> "tatjjapastadrthabhaavanam || samaadhipaada1.28 ||"
>  Therefore japa is certainly not reciting something without knowing the
> meaning.  It needs to be understood first.
>  there is famous shloka that establishes the procedure for mantra japa:
>  mantraartha mantra caitanya yo na jaanaati saadhakaH |
>  shatalakhsa prajaptopi tasya mantro na sidhyati ||
>  Meaning - A mantra does not become siddha (comes to fruition) even after
> it's repetition for 10 Lacks of times.
>  Similar thoughts where expressed by Acharya Shankara as well -
>  arthasya nishcayo draShTo | vicaareNa hitotitaH ||
>  nasnaanena na daanena na praaNaayama shatena vaa
>  yasya naasti svaya.m pradnyaa shaas{}tra.m tasya karoti kim .
>  locanaabhyaa.m vihiinasya darpaNaH ki.m kariShyati .. caaNaakyaniitii ..
>  ChaNakyaa tell us if there is no understanding there cannot be pradnya
> just like what is the use of a mirror to a blind person.
>  Now tell me, how can any one perform "manana" without understanding ?
>  We have lost our culture because we do not understand it.  That is we, the
> Indians cannot adequately defend when Western scholars take poke at it
> through their narrow academic perspectives and try to apply psychoanalysis
> and then try to hide behind the "Academic Freedom" in the West.
>  I have come across many vedanti's who prove the statement by their actions
> "kalau vedaantino bhanti phallgune baalakaa iva"
>  Often vedaanti are compared to the ladle that stirs the "baasundi" (a
> sweet preparation from evaporated milk) where the ladle in incapable of
> enjoying the the flavor of the preparation.
>  adhiitya caturo vedaandharmashaastraaNyanekashaH ||
>  beahmatattvaM na jaanaati darvii paakarasaM yathaa ||
>  After all above thoughts if you still feel that one should do recitations
> without understanding then let that be your personal choice at least do not
> preach it to others.
>  Finally, If you do not know what you say then what you say has no meaning.
>  Kind regards,
>  Dr. Yadu
> srirudra at vsnl.com wrote:
>    Dears
> I donot agree that that oneshould recite/chant mantras and slokas only
> after understanding their meaning or knowing syntax etc.What is required is
> concentration and devotion.Knowing the meaning does help in appreciating the
> context of the slokas and how beautiful are the thoughts /imagery of the
> composer etc.Thisway your thoughts are focussed and you feel that you have
> spent some time without straying out of the subject.Many of the beejaksharas
> have no meaning and the very chanting of them definitely helps in fixing the
> thoughts on Brahman or the Self.Ofcourse mechanical unrhythmic chantings
> just for commercial purposes has to be discouraged.
>  R.Krishnamoorthy.
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Naresh P. Cuntoor

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