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How to Pronounce a Mantra

Wednesday, October 15th, 2008

Can a mantra be incorrect because of stress or rhythm?

– a question from Germany

Mantras are are the subtle chemical catalysts of the cosmos. They have effects in the world. They are embodied, creative wisdom. When we do mantra practice, called japa in Sanskrit, we are trying to realize the the direct, embodied wisdom of the mantra.

For a mantra to be “incorrect” means that it is dysfunctional; it does not have vidya shakti, or wisdom energy. An incorrect mantra is not actually a mantra. It is just a word.

There are three answers to the question of pronunciation.

Some mantras are universal mantras in that they may be practiced with good result by anyone, even if you do not have mantra initiation. These are mantras such as “Om” ; “Om Namo Narayani” ; “Om Nama Shivaya” ; and “Om Ma.”

If you are practicing one of these mantras without the guidance of a teacher, you should do your best to learn the correct pronunciation. You can ask a person who knows Sanskrit, or try to find a reliable recording on the Internet. I would not recommend learning these mantras, or any mantra, from a kirtan recording. Mantras sung in kirtan often have a different intonation than the same mantra used for japa practice. Also, Western kirtan singers often misprounounce mantras.

The best way to get a mantra is to receive it from a teacher who has realized the wisdom of the mantra. Realizing the wisdom of the mantra is called “piercing” the mantra. If a teacher has pierced the mantra, then she or he will be able to transmit the mantra to you in an activated form. This means, instead of starting from step one, you will be starting your practice from step ten. The teacher takes the “lid” off of the mantra through her or his own practice and then gives it to you.

If you receive a mantra from a teacher via initiation, you should practice the mantra exactly as it is given to you. Even if the pronunciation is different from what you have heard elsewhere, you should do it as your teacher instructs. The mantra your teacher gives you is the form of the mantra she or he has realized, not some other sound.

One time, a teacher of mine transmitted a very powerful healing mantra. It was in Sanskrit, but the words were pronounced very differently from how I have been taught to pronounce them. I had to record the teacher chanting the mantra so that I could learn his pronunciation exactly, and unlearn the “correct” pronunciation.

Later, I heard that the teacher was angry because some people had complained about his pronunciation! Then, he gave the mantra again with perfect university Sanskrit pronunciation. But I always suspected that this was not the real mantra.

The third answer to how to pronounce a mantra is illustrated by this story. A certain person had been a yogi in a former life, but in order to resolve some karma, in his present life he was a simple, uneducated farmer.

One day, the farmer heard some monks chanting a mantra. It was a mantra the farmer had practiced a lot in his former life, but of course he didn’t remember this now. However, he felt attracted to the mantra, so he started to chant it as best he could, pronouncing it in some funny way.

Day after day, plowing up and down his fields, the farmer constantly chanted the mantra. As years went by, the farmer and his family prospered. The farmer became more and more peaceful and expansive in his view. Although he was uneducated in this life, he began to directly remember some of the wisdoms he had previously learned, and so he became a respected person in his community.

One day, a scholar walked by the farm and heard the farmer chanting the mantra as he plowed his field. The scholar addressed the farmer saying: “You are pronouncing that mantra incorrectly, you ignoramous!” The farmer felt very bad about this. He begged the scholar to teach him the correct pronunciation. This made the scholar feel important, which he liked. And so he gave the farmer the corrected mantra.

More time went by, and the farmer’s life again had changed, but this time for the worse. His crops were failing. He and his family became poor, and the farmer no longer gave such wise advice to his neighbors.

Now the scholar happened to come by again. He heard the farmer, doggedly repeating the “correct” mantra, and he saw the conditions of the farmer’s life had changed. He realized his mistake and immediately asked the farmer to go back to his old way of pronouncing. The farmer happily did so, and his life prospered again.

This story illustrates that when fate, grace, diligence and devotion align in a person’s life, all bets are off; anything can be accomplished.

In Ma’s love,

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