Mani Rao is a poet, translator and scholar. She has nine books of poetry including New & Selected Poems (Poetrywala, India), Echolocation (Math Paper Press, Singapore) and Ghostmasters (Chameleon Press, Hong Kong). Her books in translation are Bhagavad Gita as a poem (Autumn Hill Books USA, Fingerprint India),
and Kalidasa for the 21st Century Reader (Aleph India). Mani’s poems and essays are in journals including Poetry Magazine, Wasafiri, Colorado Review, Iowa Review, Indian Literature etc., and in anthologies including The Penguin Book of the Prose Poem, W.W. Norton’s Language for a New Century and the Bloodaxe Book of Contemporary Indian Poets. She has performed at many literary and cultural festivals including New York PEN World Voices and The Age Melbourne Writers Festival, and translations of her poems have been published in Latin, Italian, Korean, Chinese,
Arabic, French and German. She has held writing residencies at Omi Ledig House (2018), Iowa International Writing Program (2005, and 2009) and was the 2006 University of Iowa International Programs writer-in-residence. Mani has an MFA in Creative Writing from UNLV, and a PhD in Religious Studies from Duke
University. Her latest book Living Mantra— Mantra, Deity and Visionary Experience Today (Palgrave Macmillan, 2019) is an anthropology of mantra-experience. She lives in Puttaparthi, India.
Interview by Usha Akella (2020)
Pictured with students of Veda school at Basara Photo by John N Bancroft
at a homam
Pictured with students of Veda school at Basara Photo by John N Bancroft
The Power of Mantra
Mani Rao: Author of Living Mantra: Mantra, Deity, and Visionary Experience Today, Contemporary Anthropology of Religion Series, Palgrave Macmillan, 2019.
“Mantra-sadhakas consider mantras ontological—mantras are natural forms that exist in nature, both within
and outside us, and can be perceived in revelatory experiences. Mantra-sadhana is hard work, but has results
and can be gratifying to the extent that practitioners get attached to mantra-sadhana and continue to develop a
lifelong practice, and may even consider themselves as researchers. Mantras must not be confused with audible
sound, for they are also uttered and thought silently, and they become the directed intention and creative will of
the practitioner. Mantras charged with earnest effort, imagination and intention are effective. Mantras help
change the status quo and transform the practitioner. People do mantras to seek the favor of deities, overcome
obstacles, gain or maintain health and prosperity and even to achieve ultimate knowledge and bliss…Mantras
are inseparable from deities; they help contact, communicate with and build relationships with deities.
Imagination is a methodology in mantra-sadhana; at the same time, sadhakas discriminate between what is
imagined and what actually occurred. Mantra is a link between the human and divine, between guru and
disciple, desire and action, intention and manifestation, imagination and reality, and even between sound and silence.”
---- Mani Rao, Living Mantra
Usha Akella: Mani, I am truly excited to converse with you. I was drawn to your book Living Mantra that delves deep into mantra as a practice examining multiple aspects and relationships with the deity, guru, yantra, experience, mudra, chakras, visualization and imagination. In your word—there in an entire “taxonomy” to the subject, “Mantras are repeated intentions that manifest results facilitating self-empowerment.” Why were you drawn to the subject?
Mani Rao: Ever since I can remember, I have been fascinated by sound in language. Spending much of my time with words and sounds for poems, I felt the depth or the range of syllables and relished syllabic combinations. So, it’s a subject that attracted me.
In 2004, many aspects of my life became questionable to me – I was 39 at the time. Leaving my job/career, I began to meditate in earnest, and then spent a few months in Puttaparthi. Vedic mantras were chanted twice a day in the ashram before bhajans, and I was drawn to them. I became conscious of vibrations of /within my own body and had several experiences that I could not – then or now – explain. A few years later, joining a PhD program in Religious Studies, I found that there was a gap in the literature on mantras, and a big difference between how scholars and practitioners regarded mantras. There were books by gurus and practitioners with instructions and prescriptions such as what mantra to use for what ailment or result. And there were books by scholars—these were either explanations of ancient theories, or speculations based on modern frameworks such as structuralism, semiotics, etc. There was really no scholarly study of the experience of mantra. In Living Mantra, I blend both– the methodology of a scholar, and the insights and insider access of a practitioner.
UA: You concentrated on the Andhra-Telangana area describing the book as ‘moments of discovery’ in practitioners. Why did this region become your focus?
MR: Actually, I started out with Pune and surrounding areas. I met Vedic ritualists (yajñikas) and probed their experience of Vedic mantras. They were erudite, responses full of quotations from one Sanskrit source or the other. People quoted doctrinal sources about how Vedic rituals and mantras resulted in “nishkama karma” (selfless action). But I was looking for
leads on first-hand experience. Then my advisor Dr Leela Prasad (and really, she was also my best friend during some of my most trying moments of fieldwork) suggested that I change my region to Andhra-Telangana. There was already a lot of scholarly concentration on Pune and surround. And I speak Telugu fluently. So I set up a base in Hyderabad and began to meet ritualists all over again. There, a pundit gave me information about revelations of mantras to a meditator in Gokarna. Immediately after that, a yogini told me about mantras she received from “celestials” during her deep meditation. Around that time, my project gathered its own momentum. Let me put it this way - a door would open, I would walk through it. There would be another person there pointing me to yet another person and story. My focus became visionary experience. I homed in on three advanced practitioners—Guruji Amritanandanatha Saraswati, and
Swami Siddheswarananda Bharati and Mataji Paramahamsa Sivananda Puri. who were gurus to other practitioners in Andhra Telangana. Although I had set out to research Vedic mantras and my core PhD preparation had been in Vedic studies, I found myself led to, and into, tantric circles. Andhra has a history of tantric practice. There are numerous local legends in Andhra and the neighboring Orissa, with a history of tantric practices in the forests of these regions.
UA: I was struck by the detailed discussion of research methodologies (such as examples of field narratives of insider/outsider.) How did you position yourself to write the book?
MR: See, my complaint about previous scholarship was that it was from the position of an outsider. So, I had to become a mantra-sadhaka, a practitioner, an insider. The position of an insider is also about giving up manipulation and control, about being
genuinely open. The “field” acts upon us in ways we do not expect. One has to be transparent to those whom we hope to study—and those whom we study also study us. At Nachiketa, I took mantra-initiation, it was a natural outgrowth of the bond that had
grown between me and Swami Sivananda Puri. And she did not mind that I used information from our conversations. But even the position of an insider has a full range. I did not “belong” as much in all the locations. I did not connect with Swami Siddheswarananda in the same way, and I maintained some distance. At Devipuram, I asked Guruji Amritananda’s permission to train in Srividya for the sake of learning and told him that I did not plan to do the yantra worship daily.
UA: You make two statements, 1. ‘knowledge is not of human origin’—a deep-seated belief in India in regard to much of its religious/mystical literature. How does this work for a modern scholar as yourself trained in modern scholarship research methods? How do you work with ‘revealed literatures?’
MR: That section in the book was about how Indian thought approaches knowledge. “Veda” means “to know” and the content of the Veda are considered as revelations- i.e., pre-existing, and accessed by select human beings. That is, Vedic content is not regarded as the composition of human beings. The idea of an absolute and authoritative source also goes along with the assumption that what is not already in that source is not authoritative. That is, revelations are typically considered a closed canon. In my fieldwork, however, I met many practitioners who spoke about new mantras. So, I then began to think about how this becomes possible or acceptable. One, there is the idea of the lost canon. Something that has not been known before could be thus explained as a part of the canon that was once known and has since been lost (and now found). The other idea is that the source is vast, inexhaustible – so revelations can be endless too.
Quoting from my book: "The Indian philosophical tradition does not consider knowledge as being of human-origin, but it also considers the actual source as vast, and accessible. Even though there is the idea of absolute, transcendent knowledge, there is also the idea that it is inexhaustible. Even if revelatory material is a priori and authorless, there are happy gaps— the source is inexhaustible, and a seer may have direct access to areas in these sources that have been untapped by his or her predecessors. Therefore, the commentators reason that rishis would have access to a more complete grammar than their predecessors.”
UA: Do you think there is a vital difference in Eastern and Western intellectual thinking? You mentioned A.K. Ramanujam’s viewpoint.
MR: It is impossible to identify what is “Eastern” and what is “Western.” Some say India is “different.” I hesitate to make such distinctions mainly because they are all speculative. Whatever I say I am sure there will be some example to prove the opposite! But these are ideas I had to think about and to work through as I tried to find my comfort zone for fieldwork. Anthropology presupposes the idea of outsider and insider – the anthropologist studies the “other” person and culture. But now identities are much more hybrid. Just as a hypothetical example – say you are born in India, but schooled and raised in Canada, and but become adept in Japanese and then that becomes your intellectual and cultural community … how to identify your culture?
AKR proposed that Indian thinking was context-sensitive. This is a brilliant observation about India, and I think it speaks to the diversity of this region – the socio-economic disparity, population size and linguistic and cultural diversity, and a long history – how can it
but be context sensitive! It is hard to say. Does belief in non-human entities make one western or eastern? Is yoga – with its emphasis on empiricism, and thriving in the USA in all sorts of forms - traditional or modern, western or eastern? In India, we find what seems a respect for, or an engagement with, tradition – whether manifested in the care of elders, or in the continuity of (say) worship rituals. Is this genuine feeling, or a social convention?
UA: A fascinating exploration in your book was the relationship between deity and mantra, “Mantra, a seed; deity, a tree.” Comment.
MR: Some practitioners told me they see deities/shapes emerging from mantras, i.e., visual forms emerging from the repetition of sound forms. According to early Indian thought, the entire material world is formed by vibrations. The sound of mantra is a vibration (audible and inaudible wavelengths), and this is the basis of the idea of the materialization of the deity-form. Every mantra is related to a deity. In the Veda, every mantra has a rishi (the visionary who first intuited the mantra), a deity (who is invoked by the mantra) and chandas (the meter of the mantra). In tantra too, mantras are linked to deities, they are like calling cards. When a practitioner “does” a mantra, it is regarded as an invocation or code that evokes or connects with a deity. The deity then grants or enables the realization of the objective or intention.
UA: I was stunned by the number of mantra practitioners you referenced and interacted with. Guru Karunamaya, Guru Amritananda, Chandole Sastry, Mani Prasana, Sheela, Jillelamidi amma, Siddheswarananda, Vadlamudi, Potturi, Ramya. Lakshmi, Daivarata, Sivananda, Anu, Maheshwari and Geeta, to name a few of them. Each of them had a different equation with their mantra practice that was revealing. Could you succinctly summarize the salient viewpoints of a few of them?
MR: In academia, we call some works as primary sources, and we call books that are based on these as secondary sources. The way I see it— all written sources are secondary because they are records of the primary source which is human experience and thought. Many times, manuscripts and books are like notes or out-takes, side-effects of the real work and they contain partial information that has been selected for literary coherence. My research turned to practitioners as the primary sources to understand mantra-experience
and rethink about mantra. I found that each person – even though following basic techniques of guru-connection, devotion or mental silence, mantra repetition, etc., ended up with an individualistic practice, and unique discoveries. The style or mode seemed to follow the mode of the guru. For instance, disciples of Siddheswarananda had a practice based in very hard work of countless mantra repetitions and ritual homas at the end of which they would achieve their goals. Disciples of Guruji Amritananda were more devotion-led for their intensity of practice. Disciples at Nachiketa integrated yoga, breathing, mental discipline into their practice. Some practitioners saw visual visions of deities, mantras, cognized future events, saw what they believed was past-life information. Some other practitioners intuited new mantras which they then dispensed to help heal people of physical afflictions. Almost all had some improvement or advancement in their faculties after doing mantra.
UA: Two quotes by Guruji Amritananda stood out for me, “Nothing’s not a mantra” and “Mantra is the language of nature being perceived by the individual and being interpreted in terms of imagery. Elements outside speak in mantras and speak to the mantras inside of us.” Please elucidate.
MR: Guruji Amritananda is referring here to the parts of nature around us, and within us. Thus, air, water, etc are both outside and inside us. “Language of nature” means of course the sounds of nature … for instance he mentions the sounds of gurgling water, and the whining wind. These - at a more complex level - are sound combinations which are mantras. For human language, we combine sounds we can make with our voice-box to create human language. “The language of nature” of course is also referring to natural language. That is, these are naturally occurring sound forms, that is why they can be intuited in meditation. By the same way of thinking, our body is a repository of sounds, or seed-mantras (bijaksharas). There are different sounds in different chakras, and when we do mantra, we become conscious of them and also this is called activation. When we meditate in silence, we can hear the sounds of our chakras like bells, or keys. Likewise, all these sounds come from the basic substratum sound of Aum.
UA: Your research revealed to you that mantras are received from deities, some are seen, some heard some hidden and lost; some dormant, some with hidden meanings and seems to me there is an infinite fount from where there is an inextinguishable supply. I was intrigued by the concept of mantra as another Veda, as another system of knowledge as revelatory literature.
MR: Yes, there seem to be infinite mantras. But the critical thing is to link mantra with intention.
UA: Did the writing of the book transform you?
MR: The people I met transformed me. All three gurus were generous—Guruji Amritanandanatha Saraswati, Swami Siddheswarananda Bharati, and Mataji Sivananda Puri they allowed me access, answered every question. All the practitioners expanded my vision—they shared their experiences with me and discussed many questions freely, trusting me, sometimes entrusting me with knowledge and insights they had gained after years of effort.
UA: Concluding words or hope for the book?
MR: Now, the book is out worldwide, but the work is still not 'done' - because the content belongs to India, where it all comes from -- and the English edition will only have so much reach. The books needs to be translated and published and available in Indian languages - Telugu (especially), Oriya, Hindi, Bengali, Tamil, etc. That is when the circle will be completed.