One of the most common tools used in Tantra to cultivate a relationship with Śakti is Mantra. So much so, that Tantra was sometimes referred to as the Mantra Marga, or the Path of Mantras.
A mantra is a verbal formula that is recited, recited internally, or subtly “vibrated” to connect with Śakti, and perhaps even Śakti in a specific form. Even when they are made up of words or statements that can be translated, a Mantra isn’t meant to “signify” anything. It is not about saying something in particular or speaking to a deity. In fact, Tantra states that the Mantra itself is the deity. A deity may have a gross form as an anthropomorphic image, and a geometric form as the Yantra, or sacred diagram of the deity.
Similarly, the Mantra, when properly activated by someone properly initiated into it, creates an energetic signature that is the subtle form of the deity. The is the Śakti of that Mantra and it can be felt as a powerful energy or sometimes just felt as a subtle shift in awareness. The first chapter of the Paraśurāma Kalpa Sūtra, a 14th century tantric text on ritual gives us some sense of how Mantras are conceived of within Tantric practice:
Mantrāṇām acintyaśaktitā I:8
“The power of the Mantra is unthinkable.”
The “meaning” of a Mantra is not its most important aspect. In Tantra, it is said that a Mantra expresses a deeper and higher level of Reality than the mind itself can fully grasp.
In Vedic Mantras, the exact pronunciation, intonation, and even rhythm of the Mantra is what gives it its power. In Tantra, proper pronunciation is important, but Mantras instead get their power through initiation and lineage. They are charged with the Śakti of the adepts who have received them and worked with them. So, it is not usually advisable to learn a Mantra from a book or any written source.
Saṃpradāyaviśvāsābhyāṃ sarvasiddhiḥ - I:9
“Through tradition and faith there is every fulfilment.”
The term sampradāya means a lineage or line of authentic practitioners. So, tradition here indicates that there is an unbroken oral transmission of the Mantra from teacher to student. The student must also have trust and confidence in this lineage. These are the two components that bring attainment in Mantra.
Viśvāsabhūyiṣṭhaṃ prāmāṇyam – I:10
“Abundance of faith proves its authenticity.”
Mantras exist in their fully realized form, but can also be condensed into single syllables. These are called Bīja Mantras, or “seed” Mantras. Many deities, elements, and other constitutive powers have their own Bīja Mantras. Many of the more extended Mantras contain one or more of these Bīja Mantras as well, often in particular orders.
Mantras are not “created” per say, they are considered to be eternal.
Varṇātmakāḥ nityāḥ śabdāḥ - I:7
“Eternal are the words constituted of letters.”
Considering the sacredness of Mantra and sound itself within Tantra, the entirety of Sanskrit alphabet is seen to have mantric potential. The Sanskrit alphabet is called the Varṇa Mālā, or the garland of colors. The letters are also called Mātṛkās, which can mean “mothers” or “measurers.” Each letter has its own energetic potential. So, the Varṇa Mālā itself can be used as a Mantra.
Mantras are sometimes merely recited, but there is an additional practice called Nyāsa where the sounds are energetically placed onto the body. There are countless ways that this is practiced, but there are also specific traditional forms of Nyāsas that can be done with the Varṇa Mālā itself.
Nyāsa also encompasses other practices of consecration with Tantra, such as anointing oneself with ash from fire ceremonies or other sacred substances that might serve as a way to reinforce the patterns of Śakti cultivation.
Ultimately, a Mantra is a powerful tool for achieving Yoga and it is all the more powerful for the ways in which its power seems difficult to define or delineate. With grace, may we receive the Mantra (or Mantras) which awaken our highest potential!