A reader, who identifies as a contemplative/mystical Christian, posted this question to me on Facebook:
Carl….when I meditate/contemplative prayer…can I use a mantra such as-OM or Hare Krishna or something similar?
It’s a great question, and the short answer is, it depends.
Some Christians are allergic to the very idea of a mantra. They see it as the importation of a “foreign” (non-Christian) practice, an adulteration or impurity that God will reject in anger.
That “God” is neither one I believe in or I experience, but for those who are particularly drawn to the more tribalistic passages in the Bible, this can very much define their faith.
Language can be found throughout the Bible that describes God as wrathful toward those who worship other gods, as a jealous god, as one who punishes not only sinners, but their children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Consider this little gem from the Exodus version of the 10 Commandments:
You shall not bow down to them or worship (other gods); for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and the fourth generation of those who reject me… (Exodus 20:5)
People who take the Bible literally are more likely to have an image of God shaped by this kind of language: a tribal God of reward and punishment, who reacts with fury at any hint of spiritual infidelity.
But it’s not the only image of God found in the Bible, and certainly not the only image of God found in Jewish or Christian history.
There is also the God who loves justice and mercy, who is the very embodiment of Love (with a capital L), who stresses compassion and hospitality above purity and partisan identity. Consider these verses:
He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God? (Micah 6:8)
God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them. Love has been perfected among us in this: that we may have boldness on the day of judgment, because as he is, so are we in this world. There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love. We love because he first loved us. (I John 4:16-19)
But let’s be clear: just a few verses earlier (I John 4:3) the author writes, “every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God.” So, once again, those who read the Bible in a literalist way are more likely to relate to other religions through fear, rather than through the love which casts out fear.
It really boils down to your image of God:
- Is your image of God primarily shaped by power, limits, and control — in other words, do you see God as an authoritarian, patriarchal figure who establishes order by punishing those who transgress the limits he sets?
- Or do you see God primarily as a profound mystery, Love and mercy in sentient form, the one who continually creates, saves, redeems, heals and guides all people of good will, urging us toward lives shaped by mercy, compassion, hospitality, kindness, and joyful hope?
And then the next set of questions to ask: regardless of your image of God, which of these approaches to spiritually appeal more to you:
- Do you feel it is important for your spiritual practice to consist exclusively of historical Christian practices?
- Or do you feel called to explore a spirituality that is more universal in scope, grounded in Christianity-in-dialogue-with-other-faiths?
Generally speaking, if you answer “yes” to the first question in each of these sets of questions, I would encourage you to avoid non-Christian mantras, since using one would just cause you internal conflict. But if you find you are more likely to say “yes” to each of the second questions, then you might find such a mantra to be very meaningful.
What is a Mantra?
Mantra ( मन्त्र) is a Sanskrit word that literally means “instrument of thought.” I would encourage anyone interested in mantras to spend a few minutes reading the Wikipedia entry on “Mantra” — it becomes evident in a hurry that mantras take many different forms across world religious traditions, and have different functions in spiritual practice. Some mantras are meaningless words, that are used in meditation to give the discursive mind something to play with while the meditator seeks to settle the mind into silence. But others — like the two examples my reader gave, OM and Hare Krishna — do carry meaning.
I think the simplest way to understand a mantra is this: it is a word, phrase, or utterance that is used as a means to gently focus one’s attention during meditation. In this sense, it has an obvious parallel in repetitive forms of Christian prayer, including the Jesus Prayer/Prayer of the Heart, Centering Prayer, and even the Rosary. In Centering Prayer, the meditative word is called a “prayer word” rather than a mantra, which I suppose is helpful as a subtle reminder that in a Christian sense, the exercise is prayer (communication with God) and not just an exercise in awareness or concentration.
Now, let’s look at OM and Hare Krishna specifically.
“OM,” (ॐ) also rendered “aum,” according to Wikipedia…
…is a sacred sound and a spiritual symbol in Hinduism, that signifies the essence of the ultimate reality, consciousness or Atman… the meaning and connotations of Om vary between the diverse schools within and across the various traditions. In Hinduism, Om is one of the most important spiritual symbols. It refers to Atman (soul, self within) and Brahman (ultimate reality, entirety of the universe, truth, divine, supreme spirit, cosmic principles, knowledge)… It is a sacred spiritual incantation made before and during the recitation of spiritual texts, during puja and private prayers, in ceremonies of rites of passages (sanskara) such as weddings, and sometimes during meditative and spiritual activities such as Yoga.
Some spiritual teachers suggest that “om” shows up in English words like “home” or “omni-” suggesting it is as big as the universe and as intimate as our hearts. I’ve also heard it suggested that “amen” is related to “om.” Since English is an Indo-European language, I suppose it’s possible, but I don’t know that there is solid evidence to support this; still, it makes for a nice idea.
So can a Christian recite ॐ during meditation? I don’t see any reason why not. The word’s meaning has more philosophical than theological content. And anyone interested in fruitful interreligious or interspiritual exploration between Christianity and Hinduism (see the writings of Ramon Panikkar or Francis X. Clooney I’ve listed below), might find this a rich word to use in their prayer or meditation.
Hare Krishna is actually the beginning of a 16-word mantra: (Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Hare Hare, Krishna Krishna, Hara Rama, Hare Rama, Hare Hare, Rama Rama) “Hare,” “Krishna,” and “Rama” are all names of Hindu deities. Once again, different interpretations exist as to the meaning of these names, particularly Hare.
So this mantra has more theological content, in contrast to the philosophical OM. Which means that some Christians might feel less comfortable using this mantra: now you are in the arena of invoking deities from another faith.
But others may see all the names of all the gods as pointing to the one nameless mystery, and may find it culturally meaningful to approach the one-who-cann0t-be-named using names from a tradition other than the faith of their upbringing.
Why Use a Mantra?
It seems to me that mantras (or prayer words) have multiple purposes. As “instruments of thought,” they are tools for occupying our endless capacity for thinking — which enables the heart of our awareness to open up into the silence to which God calls us (“be still and know that I am God;” “the Lord is in his holy temple; let all the earth keep silence before him”).
But whenever a mantra or prayer word has meaning — whether abstract and philosophical like OM or more devotional like Hare Krishna or Jesus, mercy — then in addition to distracting the thinking-mind to allow attentiveness to silence, the word or phrase also functions like a spiritual vitamin: its meaning is repeatedly “spoken into” consciousness, which means we are basically entraining our mind accordingly.
Repeat the word “Love” in your mind for thousands of times over the months or years, and you are gently “programming” your mental computer to be oriented to love.
Same goes for any other prayer word or mantra.
Even though in the act of contemplation / meditation / centering prayer itself you are placing your attention on silence, the prayer word is still resonating in the background. So over time, it will undoubtedly shape how you structure your thinking.
People in recovery (alcoholics anonymous, etc.) talk about “stinking thinking” — the kinds of thoughts that breed anxiety, fear, resentment, judgment, low-self-esteem, arrogance, and so forth. But there’s an alternative to stinking thinking: graceful thinking, thoughts of love, compassion, mercy, forgiveness, generosity, reconciliation, peace, joy, hope. If stinking thinking makes us more vulnerable to substance abuse, then logically doesn’t graceful thinking fortify us to live a more healthy and integrated spiritual life?
So I think it does matter which mantra or prayer word we choose. Whether or not you choose a word (or name of a god) that comes from Sanskrit, or Hebrew, or whatever language, to me matters less than what that word or concept or name means to you: does it open your heart and mind to the mystery of love, of joy, of peace, of the other fruits and gifts of the Spirit? I would encourage you to entrain your meditative mind to a word that says “yes” to Divine grace in a real and loving way.
For Further Reading
If you want to learn more about mantras from an interspiritual (and Christian-friendly) perspective, check out Eknath Easwaren’s wonderful little book The Mantram Handbook: A Practical Guide to Choosing Your Mantram and Calming Your Mind. Spoiler alert: he recommends Christians stick with the name “Jesus,” since that is the name that has the most spiritual resonance and meaning for most Christians.
Finally, no discussion of Christian/Hindu interfaith dialogue would be complete without mentioning Bede Griffiths (The Marriage of East and West), Sara Grant (Toward an Alternative Theology), or Abhishiktananda (Prayer), all of whom were European Catholics who moved to India to explore this rich opportunity for interreligious dialogue.