aṣṭākṣarī

(‘the eight-syllabled [mantra]’)

Hindu religious tradition stresses the great importance of ‘mantra-japa’ or repetition of the divine name or sacred formula. There are several such names and formulae which must be received in a ceremonial way from a competent person, called guru or spiritual preceptor. This is known as ‘dīkṣā’ or initiation. The repetition of these divine names and sacred formulae done as per the injunctions of the guru can give any desired fruit.

Among the more well-known of such mantras is the ‘aṣṭākṣarī’, the eight-syllabled mantra: oṁ namo nārāyaṇāya, ‘Obeisance to Nārāyaṇa, the Supreme Lord!’

The first syllable Om (also called ‘praṇava’) is the most common and widely used word-symbol for Brahman or God, the Supreme Spirit. It is composed of three letters a, u and m. In the Vaiṣṇavite tradition of Rāmānuja (A. D. 1017—1037), a stands for Nārāyaṇa/Viṣṇu, u for Lakṣmī, his Consort and m for the jīva or the individual soul. It thus represents the totality of the Nārāyaṇa-principle viz., God (the Supreme independent Reality), his Power and the souls (who are depen-dent realities).

The word ‘Nārāyaṇa’ (of ‘nārāyaṇāya’) that stands for God, the Supreme Reality, is interpreted in several ways of which three are more important:

  1. One who has made the causal waters his abode;
  2. One who has made the human beings (or all living beings) his abode;
  3. one who has become the abode for human beings (or all living beings). The first is an explanation from the mythological standpoint wherein he is depicted as resting on the serpent Śeṣa or Ādiśeṣa, in the kṣrīrasamudra or the ocean of milk. The second and the third depict him as the immanent and the transcendent principle of creation.

The word ‘namaḥ’ which means obeisance, also signifies ‘not mine’ (but thine) (na = not, maḥ = mine).

A minor Upaniṣad called Nārāyaṇa Upaniṣad deals with this mantra and the fruits of its repetition which include the destruction of sins and reaching Vaikuṇṭha, the Perfect Abode of Nārāyaṇa.

See also DĪKṢĀ, MANTRA and NĀRĀYAṆA.