For the last few weeks on the blog we've had a strong thread of posts on the mantram. This week, we'd like to share an excerpt from Eknath Easwaran's book The Mantram Handbook. In this excerpt Easwaran tells the story of how he first came to use a mantram and then goes on to explain the power and tradition of the mantram.
From The Mantram Handbook by Eknath Easwaran:
In my college days in India, I was on the debating team, and I enjoyed debating very much. I enjoyed preparing ahead of time to present both sides of the issues that the debating masters proposed. And, when facing a well-spoken and well-prepared opponent, I enjoyed the intensity of debate itself. For me, it had all the drama of an athletic event, with its possibilities for mastery of a difficult skill and for grace under pressure. What I didn’t like, however, was the feeling of intense stage fright that I felt for about an hour before each debate was to begin. During that hour, I suffered all the well-known symptoms of this common malady: sweaty palms, irregular breathing, a pounding heart, and, worst of all, the question that would go through my mind over and over: Why did I ever join the debating society? And the anguished answer: I wish I never had! I can’t go through with this; I can’t go through with this.
I was a young Hindu boy from a small village in Kerala State, South India, and it was my first year at a Catholic college where English was the medium of instruction. All debating was, of course, done in English. I had studied English in my high school, but it was not my native language, and in fact none of my high school teachers were native speakers of English. Needless to say, I felt insecure about my abilities to speak English on the debating platform with boys who, though also using English as a second language, had been brought up in the town, where they heard British speakers of English. Many had also come from schools where English had been the medium of instruction all along.
More subtly, I was a Hindu – a minority among a large majority of Catholics. It was not that I felt discriminated against. The head of the Catholic college went out of his way to see that I received every opportunity open to me. Yet, in those days of British rule in India, it was taken for granted that Western culture was superior – that a Christian, though an Indian, might naturally be expected to have an advantage over his Hindu brother.
There I was, just starting my college career, with a love for public speaking and especially for debating, about to give it all up because I couldn’t bear that hour of terror before stepping up onto the platform. Yes, it was unreasonable; but it seemed an obstacle I just couldn’t overcome.
Then I went to my grandmother, my spiritual teacher, and asked her what to do about the anxiety that gripped me whenever I had to stand and speak before an audience. She told me not to dwell on the anxiety, but just to keep repeating in my mind the words Rama, Rama, Rama. I knew this was a mantram that my granny used. When I was a child, I used to wake up every morning in our spacious ancestral home to the sweet sound of her singing her mantram as she swept the courtyard with her coconut fiber broom. At that time I didn’t give the mantram much thought; it was just something I heard every morning from the lips of someone I loved very deeply.
So I knew that Rama was used as a prayer or mantram, but I wasn’t a particularly devout young man, and my unspoken reaction to my granny’s advice was, “That’s too easy, too simple, too miraculous.” I was skeptical, but such was my love for my grandmother that I tried it anyway. “I hope it works,” I said, and the next time I sat on the platform waiting my turn to speak, I kept repeating the mantram in my mind. It seemed to help.
After that, whenever I was called upon to debate, I would silently repeat the mantram beforehand, and after a while I said, “I think it works.” I would still get a few butterflies in my stomach, but I no longer suffered from a pounding heart and irregular breathing.
Then I began to use it on any occasion that I found stressful. Today, after many years of using the mantram, I can say, on the strength of my own personal experience, “I know it works.”
Thanks to the wisdom of my grandmother, I enjoyed debating throughout my college career, which was crowned by the day our team won the intercollegiate debating championship. Later in life, also due to her blessings, I have enjoyed two careers involving public speaking: one as a college professor of English and one as a teacher of meditation. And I have never been paralyzed by stage fright, all because I followed her simple advice to “just repeat Rama, Rama, Rama.”
The Power of the Mantram
Many years ago, after I took to meditation, I started treasuring every moment that I could repeat the mantram. I did not undertake these practices out of frustration: by Indian standards, I was successful and had everything that was thought to be desirable in life. But just at this hour of fulfillment, all these things no longer satisfied me. The ground shifted under my feet, and I turned inward. It was then that I began to repeat the mantram in earnest, using it everywhere during the day and at night. Two minutes here while on my way to class, two there while waiting at the bank, two minutes there waiting for the bus, five minutes there waiting in a restaurant – I don’t think I wasted many opportunities.
All of this did not come naturally to me. I was not noted for devotion in my early life. I had come from a very deeply religious family, but I was more interested in the modern world and came under the influence of Western culture very early in life. Yet it was my enormous good fortune, when I began to face the storms that life is full of, that I could remember my grandmother’s unshakable strength and begin to rely on her mantram myself. Since then, every day has brought a deeper realization of the mantram’s power to turn fear into fearlessness, anger into compassion, and hatred into love.
After many, many years there comes a day when you are delivered from the turmoil of the mind and the mantram is with you all the time. Then no insecurity can come into your heart. No ill will can come into your mind. You can go into any situation, and you won’t get upset. You won’t be overwhelmed. You will be able to give your very best and you will be at your very best, whatever the circumstances.
This was my goal: to repeat the mantram so long and so often that it would become established in my consciousness. Today I don’t have to make an effort to repeat the mantram. It goes on all the time. The benefits are enormous, and I will be telling you about them later in this book.
The Power of Tradition
All the great religions have produced powerful spiritual formulas which are the highest symbol of the supreme reality we call God. In the Catholic tradition, and many other traditions in both East and West, such a formula is called a holy name; in Hinduism and Buddhism, it is called a mantram. The holy name stands for that supreme power of which Saint John asserts: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” A very simple and devoted man of God, Swami Ramdas, whom my wife and I had the blessing of meeting in India, tells us very much the same thing when he says, “The Name is God.”
The mental repetition of the holy name is one of the simplest and most effective ways of practicing the presence of God, to use the phrase of the seventeenth-century French mystic, Brother Lawrence. It is absolutely practical, and it can appeal to our common sense. When we repeat the mantram, we are not hypnotizing ourselves, or woolgathering, or turning our backs on the world. Repetition of the mantram is a dynamic discipline by which we gain access to our inner reserves of strength and peace of mind. With the mantram we regain our natural energy, confidence, and control, so that we can transform everything negative in us and make our greatest possible contribution to the welfare of those around us.
The mantram is the living symbol of the profoundest reality that the human being can conceive of, the highest power that we can respond to and love. When we repeat the mantram in our mind, we are reminding ourselves of this supreme reality enshrined in our hearts. It is only natural that the more we repeat the mantram, the deeper it will sink into our consciousness. As it goes deeper, it will strengthen our will, heal the old divisions in our consciousness that now cause us conflict and turmoil, and give us access to deeper resources of strength, patience, and love, to work for the benefit of all.
“The mantram becomes one’s staff of life,” declares Mahatma Gandhi, “and carries one through every ordeal.”
So, my advice is simple and direct: when you are faced with an overwhelming challenge or simply a difficult situation, repeat Rama, Rama, Rama, or whatever other mantram you have chosen. Just try it and see.