Question: "What is a mantra?"

Answer: The word mantra is used to describe any thoughts, utterances, songs, or other sequences of words or sounds that are supposed to have spiritual efficacy or magical power. A mantra is defined as “a tool of the mind that has a spiritual effect on a person’s will or emotional state of being.” A mantra can be a religious or sacred prayer or chant, but it can also be a spell or supernatural weapon. Mantras are not specific to any one system of thought or religion. Any utterance or thought that is believed powerful enough to affect either the inward state of a person’s soul or the world at large can be called a mantra.

Mantra is a Sanskrit word that consists of two parts: the root word man, which relates to thought, and the suffix -tra, which refers to tools or instruments. The word literally means “a tool of the mind” or “instrument of thought.” Some people say that a mantra is intellectually meaningless but has emotive power of communication, like a bird’s song. Others say that a mantra is by definition meaningful, being, as its etymology suggests, an instrument of the mind. However it is defined, a mantra has a numinous effect, that is, the recitation of the mantra creates a spiritual feeling in the practitioner.

The literal Chinese translation of the word mantra is “true words.” The idea is that truth has power. When one speaks something true, it is thought to help bring that truth into existence in a practical way. Many self-help books and gurus will suggest the repetition of mantras as a way to accept truths. For example, an overly conscientious person whose people-pleasing tendencies are causing her to ignore her own needs might repeat something like “I am not responsible for making other people happy.” By repeating such a statement, the mind can convince itself to accept the idea, leading to a change in behavior. A mantra can obviously be adjusted to fit a person’s culture, personal needs, and system of belief.

One problem with mantras is that their effect is only as good as the idea they express. Repetition does not equate to truth-telling. Repeat a lie often enough, and we begin to accept it as true. A person might choose the mantra “I know I can fly,” but repeating it won’t make much of a difference, no matter how much he flaps his arms, given the laws of gravity and aerodynamics.

The Bible does not support the idea that, by finding the right combination of words or musical tones, a person can create spiritual peace. Peace comes through faith in prayer (see Philippians 4:6–7). Also, Jesus strongly warned us against mantra-like chanting: “When you are praying, do not use meaningless repetition as the Gentiles do” (Matthew 6:7). Christians are advised to dwell on good, noble, beautiful things (Philippians 4:8), and the source of those things is God Himself. The mind that is fixed on God’s Spirit is a mind at peace (Romans 8:6; Isaiah 26:3).