The Soul of Mantra: A meditation on yes from The Radiance Sutras by Dr. Lorin Roche.
Ask people, “What sounds do you make when you are feeling YES — when you taste or smell something utterly delicious, receive a perfect touch, or listen to music you love?” You’ll hear a chorus of sounds like “Mmmmmm,” “Aaaahhhh” and “Ooh.” These are the sounds of yes — Oh and MM and AHH and UUU — rising spontaneously in your heart. And this is where mantras come from.
The Chandogya Upanishad, which dates to perhaps 500 B.C., talks about OM as the sound of yes. The Monier-Williams Sanskrit-English dictionary describes OM as indicating “affirmation and assent, sometimes translated as Yes, verily, so be it. —OM consists of a, u, and m and is usually called pranava.” Pra = before, forward, + nava = sound, shout, exult.* Exult in turn is “to feel or show great happiness, lively and triumphant joy.” Modern equivalents to “Yes, verily,” would be OH YEAH!, YAY, and even, HELL YEAH! OM is a sound we can say, chant, and meditate on. If you’ve lost that OMMing feeling, return to your yes. What creates in you the spontaneous rising of pranava, your shout of exuberance?
The deeper OM, the real OM, is the sound of existence itself, joyously shouting, reverberating everywhere across the universe.
In the Vijnana Bhairava Tantra, Shiva and Devi are discussing the relationship of outer practices, such as chanting mantras, and internal listening. Shiva sings to the Goddess:
When you enter into the Great Self
You realize all prayers are going on inside you
Spontaneously without cessation.
In reality all songs of exuberance
And ecstatic lovemaking are resonating in
Every particle of creation at every moment.
When you are established in this recitation,
You are listening, and you hear them.
bhūyo bhūyaḥ pare bhāve bhāvanā bhāvyate hi yā |
japaḥ so’tra svayaṁ nādo mantrātmā japya īdṛśaḥ || 145 ||
For some reason, I love the sound bhooyoh bhooyah. This whole verse sounds playful. There are layers and layers of meaning here, so understand, this glossary is just hints. A book could be written about each word.
Bhuyo-bhuyah – again and again (bhuyas – becoming, becoming in a greater degree, mightier, abounding in, abundantly furnished with, more, once more, again, anew.)
Para – in the transcendence, transcendental, beyond.
bhavana – feeling, creative contemplation, meditation.
Bhavyate – contemplate
japa – recitation of the divine sounds
svayam – self
Svayam nado – about this phrase, Swami Lakshmanjoo comments, “the mantra emanating from the heart center with each inhalation and exhalation, which is the soul or source of all mantras.” **
mantratma – the soul of the mantra, soul of sound
japa – recitation (of the divine sounds)
idrishah – like this
In the verse just before this one, Bhairava was talking about external rituals and practices that focus the mind on the outer world. Outer practices, such as chanting the names of God, tune us and train us to notice the sacred. Here he is inviting us into internal practices — follow the inward current, the inward motion of attention into a continual contemplation of the divine. “The soul of all mantras is right here, Beloved, within you. Your heartbeat is a continuous, pulsating japa; your every breath, a chant and prayer of gratitude to eternity. The sacred is already here, always. Learn to dive into the vibrating silence after the mantras fade away.”
Initiation through hearing Sanskrit in song seems to be powerful and lasting. The Beatles included the phrase Jai guru deva OM in their song “Across the Universe,” released in 1969. The Beatles were one of the most successful acts in the history of popular music, and the song was broadcast all over the world on radio stations from 1969 onward. For many, it was the first time they had ever heard a word of Sanskrit. Beatles fans listened to their records over and over with rapt attention, relishing every word and chord change, and so apparently, millions of people received a kind of Shaktipat, a transmission of spiritual energy, through the song. I started teaching meditation around this time, and many people came for instruction because of having heard “Across the Universe.” It was clear they had already meditated, deeply, many times, while listening to the song. It was an honor to sit in their presence, and it was as if they had been initiated by the song and I was just giving them some coaching on how to meditate. Since then, all over the world, I’ve met many people who started meditating because of “Across the Universe” and are still at it. What amazing impact that song created.
The Beatles learned to meditate in 1967 and went to India for a retreat, so they were writing from intimate experience with the practice. The backstory for the song was that Lennon was lying in bed with his wife, who was “going on and on” about something that really irritated him. He got up and went downstairs, and the words she had been saying kept resonating in his head, like lyrics, and over time “it turned into sort of a cosmic song rather than an irritated song.” Lennon said that the four words of Sanskrit, Jai guru deva OM, just dropped into his mind as the bridge to the chorus, and he felt that “Across the Universe” contained perhaps the best lyrics he had ever written. The sound of the human voice, even a complaining human voice, merged in John’s awareness into the eternal song of OM. This is one of the secrets of mantra and meditation – the gift of peace and delight right here in the midst of it all. If you dive deeply into any sound, external or within, it will take you into the hum of the universe.

*this etymology of pranava is from Christopher Chapple, Doshi Professor of Indic and Comparative Theology at Loyola Marymount University, and can be found in his Yoga and the Luminous: Patañjali’s Spiritual Path to Freedom, State University of New York Press (2008).
** Vijnana Bhairava: The Manual for Self-Realization, revealed by Swami Lakshmanjoo, edited by John Hughes, Universal Shaiva Fellowship.

Lorin Roche began practicing with the Vijnana Bhairava Tantra in 1968 and it has been a love affair ever since. He is the author of The Radiance SutrasMeditation Made Easy (Harper 1998), and Meditation Secrets for Women (Harper 2001) (written with his wild Shakti wife Camille Maurine). He has a Ph.D. from the University of California at Irvine in Social Science, where he studied the language yogis and meditators develop to describe their inner experiences. The Soul of Mantra: A meditation on yes from The Radiance Sutras, by Dr. Lorin Roche has been reprinted with permission from