Discuss the Changing Function of Mantra in Brahmanism and Hinduism from the Vedas to Tantrism


The pivotal function of mantra as the means of connecting the mundane and divine worlds continued from the Vedas to Tantrism. Yet the conceptualization of way in which mantra is able to perform such a function drastically changes as the relationship between man and god is transformed. This essay will explore the common definitions of mantra in early Vedic and Tantric liturgy, going on to demonstrate that although similarities give way to differences in mantric formulation, it is still not easy to draw a clear distinction. From the elaborate ritual sacrifices of the early Vedic śrauta system to the more individual worship services (pūjā) of the numerous forms of medieval Tantra, mantra is key (Wheelock, 1989, p.96). The similar ritual context in which mantras are employed will be investigated, depicting their parallel function as a means of invocation, transformation and access to power. Exploration into the role of mantra in Tantric soteriology and Vedic cosmology will show that despite contrasting conceptual frameworks, mantra is the fundamental medium in which the contrasting religious ideals of the respective traditions were attained. As a means of carrying out the essential stages of ritual, as the vehicle in which salvation is arrived at, and as a source of power in that mantra gives access into the unseen realms of the divine in which supernatural forces may be controlled, there are striking parallels in the function of mantra within early Vedic and early Tantric ritual life. However, despite similarities, one should note André Padoux’s contention that Tantric understanding of sound and its use of mantra is not a mere continuation from earlier times, rather new ideas are established that were ‘in seed-form and scattered in the preceding age’ (Padoux, 1990, p.52).


From the Vedas to Tantrism, mantra was understood to be a source of activity and the potential means of attaining a special effect, when and only when, used in a particular way (Gonda, 1963, p.4; Alpher, 1989, p.6). In reference to its etymology, the root MAN, to think, and the suffix TRA, denotes an instrument of thought (Padoux, 1990, p.373). Yet, rather than this being the discursive and conceptual thought that accompanies empirical language, it is a more intense and effective thought, a concentrated form of speech bestowed with special potency (Padoux, 1990, p.373). Wade Wheelock explains that in both Vedic and Tantric deployment of mantra, emphasis is placed on it being an effective word, a word of action, rather than purely thought, and that the action with which it was intimately bound to was primarily that of ritual (Wheelock, 1989, p.96). Jan Gonda writes that for classical Hinduism, mantra is defined as all potent (so-called magical) forms of words, letters and sounds bringing good luck to those who possess the right knowledge of their use and evil to their enemies (Gonda, 1963, p.4). For Tantrism, mantra ‘is power in the form of formulated and expressed thought’. (Gonda, 1963, p.4). In both these definitions mantra is continually a source of activity and the means of achieving a particular end (Gonda, 1963, p.249). The ability of mantra to function in this way is based on its power to open a channel between humans and the divine.


The similarities between the Vedas and Tantrism in employing mantra as ‘a finely honed instrument for exercising power’ give way to some distinguishing features in their formulation (Alpher, 1989, p.6). Originally, mantra was a term used to differentiate between the verses of the Vedas used in liturgy and the prose sections, the ritual exegesis, called the Brāhmaṇas (Flood, 1996, p 36). Vedic mantra is taught as fixed combinations of words with a rigid syntactical order that ruled out any alteration whatsoever, a doctrine conforming with the orthodox belief that mantra is eternal (Gonda, 1963, p.270). In fact, to incorrectly repeat a mantra is a sin (Gonda, 1963, p. 270). Tantric mantra is mostly, although not exclusively, formulated as syllables or phonemes (Padoux, 1990, p.378). Although appearing devoid of meaning, they have profound value and function and, as with Vedic mantra, are employed in a stereotyped and fixed form (Padoux, 1990, p.378). Whereas Vedic mantra would ideally be passed down orally and not written, Tantric mantra is committed to writing and the practices themselves involve visualization of written signs (Padoux, 1990, p.xiv).


Tantric expression of mantra is essentially an inward practice, progressing from external utterance to inner feeling and requires demanding mental concentration on increasingly more intricate visualizations, leading to the comprehension of their multiple meanings (Timalsina, 2005, p.232). Whilst much Vedic mantra practice is predominantly vocal, Tāntrikas saw the audible expression of mantra as a lower and less powerful stage of practice (Timalsina, 2005, p.214). However, whereas Tantra emphasizes internal and individualized practice, Vedic ritual was often public and performed by numerous participants, therefore vocalization was likely down to practicality rather than a belief that it was superior to mental recitation. In fact, Padoux argues that the superiority of the unuttered over the uttered is an ancient and essential Indian notion, and not exclusive to Tantra (Padoux, 1990, p.375). Furthermore, Frits Staal shows that many Vedic mantra were mentally recited, highlighting the important role of silence in Brahmanical ritual (Staal, 1993, p.225). Wheelock contrasts the function of mantra in the Vedas as a tool for proper action and the Tantric mantra as a tool for proper thought (Wheelock, 1989, p.119). However, Staal states that ‘in their ritual use, Vedic mantra is often silent, that is, objects of meditation, just as they are in Tantrism’ (Staal, 1993, p.225). Although some may draw a functional distinction between Vedic and Tantric mantra in that the former is used in ritual and the latter in both meditation and ritual, Staal explains that meditation is not as different from ritual as is often assumed (Staal, 1993, p.225). Gonda supports this, pointing out that focused mental effort and concentration on the god whose power is contained in the mantra was essential within Vedic ritual as well (Gonda, 1963, p. 271). Therefore, as Staal argues, despite some differentiation in mantric formulation, it is ‘not easy to make clear distinction between Vedic and Tantric mantras’, and in fact some of the Tantric mantras are in fact Vedic (Staal, 1993, p.225).


Indian society is traditionally predicated on the well-made ritual gesture and the efficacy of the well-spoken Word (Alpher, 1989, p.10). Whilst, Harvey Alpher illuminates the protean nature of mantra as ‘a tool of human intentionality’ and its use in a variety of contexts, mantra remained inextricably linked with ritual from the Vedas to Tantrism in its function as an effective word (Alpher, 1989, p.10). Wheelock examines the use of mantra in the Vedic śrauta and Tantric pūjā, revealing not only genetic relationships but also the fundamental characteristics of the ritual processes specific to each tradition (Wheelock, 1989, p.97). From the śrauta sutras Wheelock focuses on the New- and Full-Moon sacrifice, a medium sized ceremony serving as a paradigm for other rites (Wheelock, 1989, p.97). In representation of Tantric ritual tradition, he chooses the compulsory daily worship (nitya pūjā) of a deity (Wheelock, 1989, p.97). While there is much doctrinal divergence between Tantric sects, Gavin Flood states that there are homogenous elements in respect of spiritual practice (sādhana) and ritual: ‘practice cuts across doctrinal distinctions’ (Flood, 1996, p.160). Primarily dedicated to Agni or Soma, the śrauta is older and more complex than the pūjā and involved up to seventeen priests and required sixty written pages of Sanskrit (Staal, 1993, p.66; Wheelock, 1980, p.352). In contrast, the pūjā was primarily a personal worship service of an individual, generally performed in the home (Wheelock, 1989, p.98).


Tantric and Vedic ceremonial practices share the same general outline, in which mantra plays an essential function. Wheelock highlights the parallel ritual structure: invocation of deities, followed by a series of transformations of the ritual space into a microcosm of sacred forces, followed by a reverential attendance upon the gods (Wheelock, 1989, p.117). Mantra was the essential means in fulfilling these ritual functions patently discernable in both Tantric and Vedic ritual. Ritual can only begin once the gods are on the scene. Common to Vedic rites is the interpretation that deities descend from heaven by pronouncement of mantra, the Sāmaveda 1.1.1. declares, ‘come here, Agni, to the feast, after being extolled, come to the gift of offerings’ (Staal, 1993, p.229). In contrast, invocation of the supreme deity within the pūjā is perceived as being drawn out from the very heart of the worshipper and becomes manifest in a ritual object, depicting the intimate identification of man with god (Wheelock, 1989, p.122). Tantric ritualists generally presume that as soon as the mantra is recited the deity is present, as the two are co-extensive, developing into the notion that the deity and mantra were identical (Staal, 1993, p.229). Conversely, a more distanced relationship is depicted in the Vedas, as man is positioned in a petitionary relationship with the cosmic forces to which, through mantra, he turns to for help (Wheelock, 1980, p.364). In spite of the shared function of mantra as a means of opening channels between men and gods, the understanding of how mantra actually achieves this function illuminates distinctive differences between Vedic and Tantric conceptualization of the relationship between humans and deities. 


In the broadest sense the Tantric and Vedic ritual includes a series of transformations, making each component fit for divine service (Wheelock, 1989, p.98). It is through mantra that this is achieved. Guy Beck highlights that the ‘function of oral language as an agent of transformation from the human realm to the divine has been a perennial concern of Indian theological speculation’ (Beck, 1993, p.23). The fundamental task of New- and Full-Moon liturgy is both the linguistic invocation of intangible beings into manifest form and the linguistic transformation of tangible entities into something of divine magnitude (Wheelock, 1980, p.357). The Vedic Word contains an intrinsic relationship with the object signified, and thus reality. This esoteric identity between the physical elements of the sacrifice and the cosmic potencies that are their counterparts is conceptualized by the term ‘bandhu’ (Wheelock, 1980, p.358). The basis of priestly wisdom and the notion that sacrifice is the point of control over the universe is the knowledge of these mysterious connections that are created and accessed through mantra (Wheelock, 1980, p.357). Wheelock explains that mantra has the essential function of actualizing these bandhus (Wheelock, 1980, p.358). Due to the understanding of the relationship between man and god, Vedic liturgy employs many mantras to assert the various bandhus between the divine and mundane, seldom devising a consistent one-to-one relationship between deity and priest or ritual object and divine entity. This contrasts with the Tantric all-encompassing and direct identification of man and god (Wheelock, 1980, p.328). However, despite these differences, mantra in both traditions functions as the catalyst allowing the sacred potential of the sacrifice to become a reality.


The Tantric ritual depicts a practice of transforming the mundane setting into a minute and precise replica of the sacred cosmos, an elaborate system that built upon the Vedic ritual.  The pūjā is the purification and then recreation of the adept into the divine image. This occurs through a technique of internally re-enacting the destruction of the cosmos and the reabsorption of the fundamental elements into primal, undifferentiated matter. (Wheelock, 1989, p.102) Utterances characterize the change occurring, whist the repetition of nonsentances, bījamantra, is the actual means of transformation (Wheelock, 1989, p.103). These syllables are understood to be the sonic manifestation of principal cosmic powers; the seeds of the fundamental elements of the universe (Wheelock, 1989, p.103). As a necessary prerequisite of worship, there is a transmutation of the purified body of the worshipper into the complete manifest form of the deity, thus Tantric ritual is seen as god offering worship to god. Wheelock illuminates that the ability of Tantric mantras to independently transform ritual components contrasts with Vedic practice in which mantras actualize a transmundane reality already indicated by the physical symbolism or appearance or action (Wheelock, 1989, p.105). However despite these differences both traditions share the fundamental premise of anthropocosmic correspondences that are established through recitation of mantra. Tantrism, in this way, is a continuation of the Upanisads in its emphasis on gnosis founded on micro-macrocosmic correlations, the seeds of which are scattered within the Vedas (Padoux, 1990, p.38).


Praising the gods is the fundamental purpose behind the Vedic and Tantric ritual, which was accomplished by mantra (Wheelock, 1989, p.111). However, alongside this was the aim of cultivating power and access into unseen realms. Alpher asserts that mantras are to be understood as ‘polyvalent instruments of power’ (Alpher, 1989, p.6).  Whilst highlighting historical continuity in the relationship between the Word and power, Padoux elucidates that from the beginning it was firmly held that the Word is energy and it may be tapped into and employed by anyone who is capable of penetrating its mysteries and secret nature (Padoux, 1990, p.xi). These notions of the power of the Word are present as early as the Rig Veda, and also occur in the Atharva and Yajur Veda, continuing into the Brāhmaṇas, which with their magical identifications, their numerical divisions of the cosmos and vital functions, and the explication of vital breaths, syllables and formulas, may be the origin of many of the Tantric speculations we see later on (Padoux, 1990, p.4). Padoux is emphatic in his assertion that it is in Tantrism that these ideas about the power of the Word, therefrom identified with divine energy itself (śakti), fully evolve into an impressive theory in which mantras are most widely deployed, to such a degree that the Mantraśāstra, the science of mantras, is valorized as the essential portion of Tantric teaching (Padoux, 1990, p.4).


Vedic mantra, governed by rigid rules of phonetics and grammar, provide a locus of power by creating a link with the divine, inviting entrance into the unobserved world of supernatural forces (Beck, 1993, p.51). Not only do mantras establish bandhus, but through their employment the divine forces are cajoled and directed for human benefit (Wheelock, 1980, p 368). For the adhvaryu priests, the śrauta ritual is a grand gathering of cosmic forces controlled by his actions that are directed by mantra (Wheelock, 1980, p.368). Here, mantra functions almost without the involvement of the gods and fulfill the patrons wishes of prosperity (Wheelock, 1980, p.368). From the outset it was held that mantra has power stemming from the ṛta, the cosmic order that is the epicenter of the Vedic universe. Johannes Van Buitenen, quoting the Rig Veda 6.16.35-36, illuminates the bi-unity of Fire and Word and their origin in the ṛta: ‘most excellent Fire, sparkling in the Syllable which is thy mother’s womb, as thy father’s father, seated in the womb of the true order, deliver the child-bearing bráhman which radiates in heaven’ (Buitenen, 1959, p.178). Here, the sacrificial fire and aksara, the sacred syllable, are shown to be from the cosmic and ritual order, thus the ability to harness the power of mantra is to access the sacred order.


Developments in the Rig Veda witness a shift in power from the gods to the ritual mechanics of men (Findly, 1989, p.23). The classical Rig Vedic system propounded that power is sourced from the intimate relationship between god and man, as once this relationship was established through ritual the priest could tap into the power of the cosmic order (ṛta) and truth (satyá) (Findly, 1989, p.43).  This changes with the rise of mantra and the source of power becomes correct pronunciation (Findly, 1989, p.43). This development is reflected in the actual formulation of Vedic mantra in that they begun as poetic insight born of direct contemplation of god and developed into the intricate detailing of the mechanics of accurate pronunciation and rigid syntactical order, thereby becoming performative and agentive (Findly, 1989, p.17). Wheelock states that the mantras uttered by the Yajamāna, the patron on whose behalf the rites have been performed, provide the primary purpose of the sacrifice, the most common concerns focused on material goals of wealth, progeny and heaven (Wheelock, 1980, p.365). The sacrificial goals are not only won by pleasing the gods, but predominately through the manipulation of the physical components of ritual, the powerful identity of which is made effective by the mantras (Wheelock, 1980, p.365). In this way, the Vedic sacrifice is less of a prompting of divine grace than a contractual bond between humans and gods.


Tantric liturgy contrasts with Vedic concern of earthly prosperity and is almost devoid of such requests. The Tantric pūjā does not rest on external goals but on the experience of unity with the deity, the outcome of Tantric ritual (Wheelock, 1989, p.116). Yet, as power is a bi-product of upholding the cosmic order for the Brahman, the Tantric initiate’s endeavor to attain salvation is accompanied with the acquisition of occult powers by an indissoluble marriage of ritual and meditation, in which both mantra is pivotal (Beck, 1993, p.125). Padoux illuminates that the liberated-whilst-living man of Tantrism becomes a man-god, achieving not only self-mastery, but also mastery over the world (Padoux, 1990, p.xi). In a similar vein to Vedic conceptualization, the Word, uttered at the beginning of time, is a creative and efficient power, a human and cosmic energy (śakti) that humans may take hold of through mantra, hence becoming equal to gods or the creative principle itself (Padoux, 1990, p.38). Rising to the highest level of consciousness and becoming one with the Transcendental, the Tantric adept is able to control the world.


Mantra functions as the vehicle in which the road to salvation and accomplishing one’s sacred duty is journeyed. Although this function of mantra is shared between Vedic and Tantric soteriology, understanding of what constitutes the ultimate spiritual act or experience greatly differs. The sacred duty of Vedic priests is the performance of sacrifice, in that it upholds the ṛta and constitutes the support of the universe, thereby being essential for the maintenance of natural phenomena and cosmic order (Gonda, 1988, p.1).  The Śatapatha Brāhmaṇa is emphatic about the pivotal role of mantra in maintaining the sacred order: ‘by reciting definite texts in a continuous, uninterrupted way, one makes the days and nights of a year revolve in a continuous uninterrupted way’ (Gonda, 1988, p.1). If priests did not perform the sacrifice, the Śatapatha Brāhmaṇa states ‘the sun would not rise' (Gonda, 1988, p.1). Mantras participated in the original events of creation, they not only captured truth but were the truth, and therefore repetition of mantra preserves truth as well as repeats the same primordial, life-preserving acts, perpetually repeated by Agni with mantras (Findly, 1989, p.21). The function of mantra in upholding the sacred order wholly differs from its function within Tantra, yet the traditions cross over in the fact that mantra is the means to fulfilling ones sacred duty and potential. This divergence is partially based on different conceptualizations of the relationship between god and man. In contrast to Vedic ideas on the reciprocal relations between divine and mundane worlds, with a sense of duty that implies a separation between the two, Tantrism delineates a path to complete unification with the divine.


In essence, mantra functions as the means to liberation (Padoux, 1990, p.xii). Karma and transmigration were not yet systematized notions in the Vedas so unlike certain sects of Tantra, liberation from birth and rebirth was not a soteriological goal. Tantric salvation was sought through the practice of mantra that brings citta (mind) to rest in its true nature, cit (awareness) (Timalsina, 2005, p.217). Liberation is not so much a merging, rather than a possession of the adept. As Padoux explains, it is ‘an implosion of the individual self within the Self of the deity, a fusion into cosmic energy, therefore an identification with the force that moves the universe’ (Padoux, 1990, p.41). The aspirant consequently experiences himself as the deity of the mantra and visualization. Instead of pointing to some outward symbol in the objective world of differentiation, mantra activates an inwards journey towards the fundamental, transcendental, source of all sound and thus of all manifestation (Padoux, 1990, p.41). Śaiva texts demonstrate how the “gross” sound vibration of the bījamantra, made up of the phonemes, become subtler, then uniting with the pure transcendent energy that is undifferentiated to Siva, breath and sound are then reabsorbed from where they originate (Padoux, 1990, p.94). Wheelock, Padoux and Staal all make the case that this transitioning toward internalization, silence and unity originates in the Vedic sacrificial tradition and culminates in the Tantric liturgy (Wheelock, 1989, p.121, Padoux, 1990, p.248, FS 80). The Brāhmaṇas, delineating both ritual rule and explanation of their meaning and purpose, represents a move from the louder, more articulate worship of god, to the muttered governing of powers, to the voiceless rehearsal of the most sacred truths of homology between micro- and macrocosm.


The move towards silence and internalization that characterizes the speculative Vedic texts of the Brāhmaṇas, Āraṇyakas and Upaniṣads, depicts the transformation in the conceptualization of the relationship between man and god. The fewer mantras of the pūjā represent a simplified world view that focuses on the one-to-one relationship between man and god and sonically expresses the disintegration of the manifest universe into a unified principal (Wheelock, 1989, p.117). Although the patron of the Vedic sacrifice ascends to heaven and becomes godlike, it is only momentary. Therefore, as Wheelock argues, while the Vedic ritual intends to transcend the separation between mundane and divine worlds, it takes for granted the ultimate reality of that distinction (Wheelock, 1989, p.117). This explains the tremendous amount of Vedic ritual mantras reflecting the many bandhus, contrasting with the one, all-encompassing Tantric bandhu between god, ritual and worshipper (Wheelock, 1989, p.117).  Therefore, whilst mantra functions as the means to attaining the Tantric and Vedic ritual end, connection with the divine, the way in which this link is conceptualized highlights the contrasting understanding of the relationship between man and the divine. Yet this gap in understanding was gradually closed in the development of Vedic liturgy between the Vedas and Tantrism.   


To conclude, from the Vedas to Tantrism mantra remained a source of activity, a means of attaining an effect and a profound instrument of power. The common function of mantra as a source of power was based on the shared understanding of mantra as a link between the divine and mundane worlds. Due to this belief, mantra was pivotal in the early Vedic śrauta ritual and early Tantric pūjā ritual. Within both traditions, mantra carried out the fundamental ritual stages of invocation, transformation and praise. Yet, the way mantra was understood to be capable of performing these functions greatly differed, highlighting the contrasting conception of the relationship between man and god. From the Vedas to Tantrism, mantra is the key to the divine realms and access to supernatural power. Within the Vedic ritual, mantra is so powerful that it almost functions independently to gods. This contrasts with Tantric mantra, in that rather than it creating a strong link to which the gods’ will is bent, the Tantric adept rises to the highest level of consciousness, becoming the deity and thus attaining divine powers and the ability to control the world. Here, mantra again shares a similar function, yet how its ability is understood differs due to divergent cosmological frameworks. Whilst the conception of the ultimate spiritual goal greatly differed from the Vedas to Tantrism, mantra remained the means to achieving it. The divergence is based again on the changing understanding of the relationship between man and god. Yet this gap gradually closes through the development of thought and the transition from bewildering complexity to a few bandhas, from external action to internal thought and from sound to silence, characterizing the tendency of the speculative Vedic texts of the Brāhmaṇas, Āraṇyakas, Upaniads and culminates in the Tantric liturgy.




Alpher, Harvey. ‘Introduction,’ in Harvey Alper’s (ed.), Mantra (New York, 1989), pp.1-15.


Beck, Guy. Sonic Theology: Hinduism and Sacred Sound (Columbia, 1993).


Buitenen, Johannes Van. ‘Aksara’. Journal of the American Oriental Society (1959), p.176-87.


Flood, Gavin. An Introduction to Hinduism (Cambridge, 1996).


Findly, Ellison Banks. ‘Mántra kaviśastá: Speech as Performative in the R.gveda’, in Harvey Alper’s (ed.), Mantra (New York, 1989), pp. 15-47.


Gonda, Jan. Mantra Interpretation in the Śatapatha Brāhmaṇa (Leiden, 1988)  


Gonda, Jan. ‘The Indian Mantra’, Oriens (1963), pp. 244-297.


Padoux, André. Vāc: The Concept of the Word in Selected Hindu Tantras, translated by Jacques Gonthier (New York, 1990).


Staal, Frits. Rules Without Meaning: Ritual, Mantras and the Human Sciences (New York, 1993).


Staal, Frits. ‘Vedic Mantras’, in Harvey Alper’s (ed.), Mantra (New York, 1989), pp. 48-95.


Timalsina, Sthaneshwar. ‘Mediating Mantras: Meaning and Visualisation in

Tantric Literature’, in Jacobsen K. 2005: 213-235.


Wheelock, W.T. 1980. ‘A Taxonomy of Mantras in the New- and Full-Moon Sacrifice.’ History of Religions 19: 349-69.


Wheelock, Wade. ‘The Mantra in Vedic and Tantric Ritual’, in Harvey Alper’s (ed.), Mantra (New York, 1989), pp. 96-122.