All faiths/religions/practices recommend focusing the mind and chanting hymns/mantras in proper manner. Regardless of the language, what is important is confidence, belief, faith and repeating the lines and stanzas correctly, ie: incantation with intonation. Like deep breathing and exhaling that clears the lungs of toxic deposits, prayers help to purge the mind and organs of undesirable accumulations. Practice makes perfect and faith heals.
The following is a westerner’s view on the Indian Hindu/Brahmin practice. --- JD Salinger, Seymour

Words have the power to change the world. “In the beginning was the word”, says the Bible, which describes God as bringing different creations to life by naming them. Words have the ability to turn us away or convince us to stay.

Refrains repeated by us during childhood remain a part of our lives, sometimes resurfacing in nostalgic moments or flooding us with forgotten memories. In India, repetitions and refrains of significant verses, although inculcated at a very early age, usually stay on with the listener and contribute in some way to his or her personality.

The act of chanting is not confined to Hindus and Buddhists alone. In Christianity, Gregorian chants are sung during Mass and other Christian rituals. These chants are usually learned orally and cultivated after years of practise. Chanting also extends to African, Jewish and Native American cultures.

Mantras, however, are unique to Hinduism in terms of structure and phonetic value. A mantra is a Vedic hymn, sometimes also described as a magical formula. It most certainly is a formula, with its precise, encapsulated form, and like a formula, it quite radically produces effects. While a stotram is a form of praise addressed to God and is sung, a mantra has an incantatory, charm-like quality and is chanted. There are more than 60 million primary, important mantras. The secondary ones cannot be counted. Mantras constitute parts of the Vedas that are not the Brahmana or Upanishad portions, but are the Rig, Yajur or Sama portions.

When one chants, one combines rhythm, intonation, and singing, often confined to one or for the most part, two pitches. These are called reciting tones. Mantras can either be simple (reciting ‘Om’ or ‘Om Namo Naryanan’) or more complex (the Sudharshana mantra or the Gayatri mantra). Some mantras feature refrains but for all of them, repetition is an integral aspect of chanting them.

When chanted in unison, mantras can evoke a religious fervor that has to be felt top be believed, especially in temples. It is a feeling of power that envelops the listener. Even the non-believer feels religious emotion, similar to a non-believer being moved by the Creation of Man on the ceiling g of the Sistine Chapel, painted by Michelangelo.

The Science and Logic Behind Chanting

If we can have radio signals, why can’t we have words that produce powerful vibrations? Yoga teachers emphasis the importance of chanting with intention, meaning, and concentration rather than repeating mantras endlessly and randomly.

Mantra is called the science of the mystic sound – ‘Om’ is said to contain all the sounds that exist.

Contrary to popular belief, anyone can chant mantras, as long as he or she chants them with meaning and focus. Apart from being chanted out loud, mantras can also be mouthed silently or repeated in silence within one’s mind.

Mantras produce vibrations and the shorter it is, the more meaningful the mantra is. Of all the mantras that Hinduism offers, the Gayatri mantra is said to be supreme and powerful.

Mantras should be recited from the base of the stomach, which is often compared to a lotus. It represents the seat of a person’s dormant power, the base of all sources or mooladharam. There is a lot of hidden shakti here. It produces subtle vibrations in the fine nerves of the brain, thereby empowering the brain’s 108 centres and quelling their inactivity.

Even mantra has Beejaksharas or seed letters, which destroy negative vibrations and opens the senses. An akshara is a syllable and in Sanskrit it means ‘that which is indestructible‘; so one can imagine the power of this single syllable when repeated endlessly. Beejakshara are om, Kleem and aim, whose source lie in Omkara, which is he basic, root sound.

Beejakshara empower speech, in the sense that they emphasis individual, single sounds – very much like how atoms become powerful when isolated. When a person focuses on every single syllable and letter emanating from the Shabda Brahma or the nada (the vibration) it is said to have profound effects on the psyche as well as one’s physical self.

A branch of yoga, called Nada yoga, is the meditation on sound, in which the person tries to focus on certain sounds, and get his or her body to react to and move according to these sounds, so as to achieve a certain state of consciousness.

When set to specific, scientifically constructed and terse patterns, chanting results in strong changes that are brought about in the mind and the body.
In Hinduism, Ayim is the Sri Saraswathi Beejakshara, Srim is the Sri Mahalakshmi Beejakshara and Hrim is the Sri Maha Shakti Beejakshara, all producing different effects according to what each Goddess stands for and symbolizes.

Mantras and Nature of Worship

The mantra for Siva ‘Om Nama Sivaaya’ and has 5 aksharas (syllable). ‘Om Namo Narayanaaya’ is called the Ashtaakshara, because it has 8 syllable. The mantra for paravathi is called Pancha dasaakshari, because it has 15 syllables.

There are three aspects to the worship of Devi, namely the mantra, the yantra and tantra. Mantras are the condensed formulae. The yantra is the picturisation or embodied in the mantra (something like the swastik sign or the lotus Kolam). The tantra is the procedure or the different kinds of puja.

In the Gita, Krishna says that Japa Yagna or Chanting is the best way to reach God, more so than rituals or elaborate sacrifices.

While it is important to pronounce mantras the right way, it is written in the Narayaneeyam that what with the Kali Yuga (the present era) being so wrathful, regressed and full of woes and wickedness, even an imperfect but heartfelt pronunciation can yield remarkable results.

Mantras also produce better effects when said a particular number of times. For instance, the Gayatri mantra should be recited 18 times a day and the Aditya Hridayam either 9 or 27 times.
Each mantra is chanted with a singular purpose, to produce a particular effect. In the Ramayana, Valmiki describes Vishwamitra and his teaching of the two mantras-Balam and Atibalam-to Rama and Lakshmana, in the forest, to quell fatigue and hunger respectively.

Gayatri mantra

Mantras that are in the Gayatri metre are called Gayatri mantras and the most superior among them is the Gayatri maha mantra, usually recited first during the thread ceremony of a Hindu Brahmin boy. The Gayatri metre consists of 24 syllable arranged differently, but usually in triplets, each line consisting of 8 syllables. The Gayatri maha mantra is addressed to Savitri or the Sun God. The verse is personified as the Goddess wife of Brahma and the mother of the four Vedas.

It is said that Vishwamitra discovered the Gayatri mantra, which enabled him to use rare weapons. The mantra bowed to his will because he recited it with faith.

The Gayatri mantra is considered to be the essence and encapsulation of all the wisdom, knowledge, and enlightenment of Vedas. It is supposed to be chanted only by men, because the vibrations that it produces and effects that it produces and the effects that it produces are intended solely for the male body and constitution.

Chanting the Gayatri mantra fine-tunes the mind and makes it hungry for knowledge and intense activity. Above all, it is said to bring immense prosperity and success to the chanter. The Gayatri mantra should be chanted three times a day, during dawn, noon and dusk and specifically before meals and after or during baths.

The Mahamritunjaya mantra is considered to be the greatest work of sage Vashista. It is from the Rig Veda and is chanted for the eradication of woes, evils and problems. There are also mantras associated with planets, such as Guru, Shani, Rahu and Ketu.

‘Om Sri Ramaya Namah’ is a mantra prasing Lord Rama. In the Vishnu Sahasramam (the Hundred Names of Vishnu) stotram, it is said that merely repeating Rama’s name amounts to having recited the entire stotram.
Similarly, there are many mantras glorifying Lakshmi (‘Om Sri Maha Lakshmyai Namah’), Goddess Parvathi (‘Om Sri Durgaya Namah’) and Goddess Saraswati (‘Om Aim Saraswatiayah Namah). ‘Om Kleem Krishnaya Govindayah’ is one of the most beautiful and powerful mantras, invoking Lord Sudharshana, who is the personification of Lord Vishnu’s charka, which destroys evil. In the mantra, the words ‘astra shastrani samhara samhara’ almost seem to resonate with the sound of the charka, destroying the evil that comes in the way of the chanter.

Mantras can be chanted by anyone, irrespective of caste or religion, as long as they are chanted with meaning, seriousness and concentration. Just as poetry is written to rouse feeling, mantras are written and composed with the aim to produce strong, incantatory effects.

Mantras have their basis in energy. They are charged with energy and voicing them will produce subtle physical vibrations. The results are gradual but tremendous. These are, after all, the secrets behind esoteric sounds, that are passed down through the ages and which cannot fail us.