The Role of Mantra and Sound in Tantric Hinduism

Mantras in Hinduism are associated with the primal uncreated sound called the Vac, the creatrix of the universe. 

Tattva Team
| 7 min read
April 01, 2021
Illustrations by Shreyansh Singh

Since the Vedic period, certain phonetic sounds, when repeated in specific pre-fixed patterns, were thought to have a powerful effect on the speakers' body and environment. These mantras were associated with the primal uncreated Word, called the vāc, the creatrix of the universe.

Drawing from this Vedic lineage, Bhartṛhari, a 5th century philosopher grammarian from Kashmir postulated that the Absolute or the Supreme consciousness was in essence śabda-brahman. All knowledge in the world is permeated by speech, and this speech is the outward manifestation of the primordial uncreated śabda-brahman. He postulates three levels of vāc - from the unheard cosmic sound descending through various levels of reality to the normal speech which is audible by ear. This cosmological theory of linguistic is taken up by Kashmir Śaiva tradition.

The Kashmir tantra tradition assumes as its starting point that the supreme godhead Śiva is vāc, a pure subtle energy (śakti). The vāc materializes into a subtle form of phonic vibration called nāda—this nāda then congeals into a drop of phonic energy called bindu. And bindu, through various processes, evolves into a form of kuṇḍalinī. The kuṇḍalinī gives rise to the Sanskrit alphabet and then the outward manifestation of the world.  

Vāc initially was considered a power or śakti (energy), which later came to mean the śakti of Śiva, and this śakti of Śiva is nothing but a mantra, a sonic vibration. The manifested speech is the phonic energies emanating from Siva. The person who recognizes the true nature of speech, and its representation in the mind, will attain liberation. However, if he is unable to recognize the true nature of speech and is entrapped in the diverse external configurations of phonemes and syllables, then he is trapped into the cycle of transmigration.

In our daily lives, we know that words have an internal effect on us. A compliment uplifts our mood while angry words arouse passion. The power of language binds us by the thought construct that it generates in our mind, but it can also liberate us by channelling the power of speech in the form of a mantra. The chanting of mantra in consonance with the rhythms of our breath connects us with the spanda (vibration) of our consciousness. 

The word mantra comes from the words manana and trāṇa. 'Manana' means reflection, which in this context refers to the continuous awareness of the speech of mantra as the emanation of consciousness, while 'trāṇa' means to save.1 The process of manana results in a progressive heightening of our reflective awareness,2 which protects and saves us from the fear of our own limitations and the duality associated with it.

The mantra may or may not have any meaning associated with it. The rules of mantra are not bound to the convention of everyday speech, and the mantra is not concerned with external objects. A mantra is a form of language directed inwards, deriving its energies from the supreme power of consciousness from which the sonic vibration of the mantra initially evolved and into which it will eventually involute.

The mantra in Tantric Śaivism is the phonic aspect of the deities. At the higher level of concentration, the very nature of the deity is the mantra itself. Mantra and deity become identical. The particular deity does not have an ontological reality but is the sonic personification of the mantra, whose essence is the all-pervasive vāc.

The repetition of the mantra by directing attention to the consciousness itself stills the mind of any thought constructs. The mantra, so to speak, assimilates the thoughts back into their origins in the consciousness. In this way, a sādhaka recognizes the ultimate reality, through the power of speech.

Vāc is the pure inner awareness of the light of consciousness. In the Kashmir Śaiva tradition, the highest level of speech or the Word (parā-vāc) is identified with the spanda or the eternal pulsation of consciousness. Utpaladeva writes that, "The supreme voice (parā-vāc) is consciousness. It is self-awareness spontaneously arisen, the highest freedom and sovereignty of the Supreme Lord."3 The speech from its supreme transcendental state manifests itself through different stages of evolution as described in the Saṃkhya-inspired model of the physical universe.


We have briefly described the seminal role of sounds and mantras in tantric Hinduism. This is a vast topic, and we will eventually do a complete series on vāc and mantra. However, readers interested in understanding this topic in-depth can refer to Andre Padoux’s very erudite work: Vāc – The Concept of the Word in Selected Hindu Tantra. For readers interested in Shaiva tantra especially from the Kashmir tradition, we can highly recommend the classic text by Mark Dyczkowski: The Doctrine of Vibration.

Despite the pervasive presence of tantric thought in Hinduism, it has not received the recognition it deserves among contemporary Hindus (especially the non-dualistic tantra). Tantric Śaivism was the most dominant form of Hindu religion from the 5th-13th centuries, a period called the 'The Śaiva Age'.4 Right up to the late 19th century, tantric practitioners were producing profound religious manuals on tantra, such as Prāṇatoṣaṇī (1820) by Rāmatoṣaṇa Bhaṭṭācārya, and Śāktapramoda (1889) by Rāja Devanandan Singh.

However, the use of numerous deities, mantras, mudras and the secretive nature of tantra were looked upon by the British and by anglicized Hindus with extreme suspicion. Nevertheless, beginning in the 20th century, the pioneering tantric studies of Arthur Avalon and Gopinath Kaviraj have made some of these ancient Hindu texts available to a wider Indian and western audience. With the rise of haṭha-yoga in the last few decades, tantra studies and the tantric underpinnings of yoga have come to worldwide attention. This bodes well for the future of Hindu tantra. 

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