RITUAL, RHETORIC, AND THE DREAM OF A NATURAL LANGUAGE IN HINDU
Publication Information: Book Title: Explaining Mantras: Ritual, Rhetoric, and the Dream
of a Natural Language in Hindu Tantra. Contributors: Robert A. Yelle - author. Publisher:
Routledge. Place of Publication: New York. Publication Year: 2003.
mantras have been a distinctive feature of the Hindu religious tradition since the time of its
most ancient texts, the Vedas (c. 1500-1000 BCE) and earliest Upaniads (c. 800-500 BCE),
but became even more central in the later Hindu movement known as Tantra (c. 600 CE-
According to The Oxford English Dictionary, the word mantra signifies "a
sacred text or passage, esp. one from the Vedas used as a prayer or incantation."
Mantras are used for both mundane and spiritual purposes, and span the continuum of
function between spells and prayers. In colloquial English, mantra may be used for any
repetitive slogan, such as is found in politics or advertising. The meaning of mantra
according to the Tantric tradition is described in detail in subsequent chapters.
Tantric mantras, as noted, are an important example of the cross-cultural idea of a
language that, having a direct connection to reality, is both true and effective: what I have
called a "natural language." By this term I do not mean what is commonly meant: a
language that arose spontaneously in a living culture, as opposed to a created "artificial
language." Many natural languages (in the sense in which I use the term), including
Tantric mantras, are highly artificial, deliberate attempts to remedy the failures of our
ordinary language to correspond to reality. Other terms that have been used to describe
such attempts, including "universal language" and "perfect language," might have avoided
some confusion, but at the expense of accuracy. 4
Language becomes a tool of production as well as prediction. The "word" is used to leverage
the "world." The reduction to canon may, as Smith argues, be arbitrary. However, the