from the Sanskrit 'man', meaning 'to think'. Mantra literally means 'instrument of
thought'. It can be defined as a hymn, chant or verse which possesses magical or divine
power. Vedic mantras are said to have been divinely 'heard' (shruti) by ancient sages.
Mantras are hymns, which are believed to benefit that chants them. They are the original constituents of the Vedas. These hymns are mostly invocations to the gods for protection against evil, or for assistance in performing one's duties or specific functions. They also eulogise certain sages. Mantras are supposed to be recited during all sacrificial rites, sanskaras, and the five daily sacrifices For example, the Gayatri Mantra is supposed to be chanted everyday by "twice-born" Hindus (see Upanayanam).
These mantras are compiled in books, called Sanhitas, which are the main portion of each Veda. The Sanhitas form the basis of all other Vedic literature, like the Brahmanas, the Aranyakas, and the Upanishads. These works explain the mantras. Most mantras are believed to have been composed around 1500 - 1000 BC, and some as far back as 5,000 years ago. This might well mean that the oldest mantras pre-date the Aryan invasion of India. Numbering more than 70 million, the Vedic mantras address subjects as varied as the mystery of creation, divinity, aspects of nature, everyday life and behavior. There is even a hymn against the evils of gambling with dice.
The mantras of the Rig Veda (see Veda), which are also found in the Yajur Veda and Sama Veda, are supposed to invoke the gods to ensure success in battle, grant long life, avert droughts, secure good pastures and keep all evil at bay. Or they are simply thanksgiving. Those of the Atharva Veda are believed to expel demons, which cause diseases, to bewitch and destroy enemies, and to stimulate love in unresponsive lovers. The mantras of the separate Vedas were recited by different groups of Brahmins, who traditionally performed different functions: those of the Rig-Veda were recited by the Hotri Brahmins (from 'hota' or fire, therefore tenders of the sacrificial fire. The last name 'Agnihotri' still survives.) The mantras of the Yajur Veda were the intellectual property of the Adhvaryu Brahmins (the chanting priests), and those of the Sama Veda, of the Udgatris (the singing priests). However, this classification is no longer strictly maintained, though many Vedic mantras are still recited during the different ceremonies.
The effectiveness of the mantras is said to depend on the mental discipline involved in its correct recitation, and the accompanying mode of breathing. According to the Agni Purana, if a mantra is recited quietly or in the mind, it is very effective.
Mantras are sometimes classified according to gender. Charms or spells to confuse enemies are considered masculine, while all other mantras are considered Recitation of mantras feminine. Besides the Gayatri mantra, which is called Vedamatri (mother of the Vedas), the Mrityunjaya japa, is frequenty chanted by the depressed and the ailing. Translated as 'the chant of victory over death', this mantra is believed to be powerful, though it is not a Vedic mantra and draws its strength from the Trimurti. A mantra from the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad (see Upanishad) usually appendiced to it.
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