A Little Bit of Mantras Review

A Little Bit of Mantras Review
Given the commercialization of yoga, we should not be surprised to find the same happening with specific practices such as mantra, which has been broadly interpreted as synonymous with “affirmation.” While both are helpful rituals, they are at the same time different practices. One of the best points about Lily Cushman’s A Little Bit of Mantra is her insight into the difference between the two. Her explanation returns mantra to its rightful place as a form of meditation, and if this was the only reason to read this slim volume, it would be enough.

Happily, there are other reasons to recommend the book. Divided into ten chapters and five sections of end material, it packs quite a bit of information into one hundred and eighteen pages. Chapter One, entitled What Are Mantras? The History of Sacred Sound, explains the beginnings of the practice in the Hindu tradition, takes a quick look at its use in other religious traditions including Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, and explains the difference between the concept of a sacred sound and the use of a motto or affirmation.

Chapter Two, The Benefits of Mantra: What Science Says, takes a brief look at medical research on the subject. Studies have explicitly documented the benefits of using historical mantras within a meditation practice, showing how they help improve physical and mental health. Interestingly enough, one study cited by Cushman compared the repetition of a specific mantra with simply saying the words Santa Claus; findings showed the mantra to work on various parts of the brain and central nervous system.

Chapter Three, What is Mantra Practice? explains how to use a mantra. Although this seems obvious, the texts makes some important points about the procedure and why it works. Readers will especially appreciate the way in which Cushman explains the wandering of the mind and why mantra helps in a loving and encouraging way. Chapter Four, called Formal Mantra Practice, follows with a discussion of the difference between japa, kirtan, and Likhita Japa practice, three different ways of using a mantra during meditation. At the end of the book, Chapter Ten, entitled Daily Mantra Application picks up on this theme, suggesting ways to use a mantra in daily life.

Chapters Five through Nine each discuss different mantras, giving information about pronunciation, benefits, related mythology, and application. The selection is varied, but limited to Hindu mantras. It would have been nice to see similar discussion of choices from other traditions, especially as the first chapter listed choices from around the world. Those who feel uncomfortable with or prefer alternatives to Hindu mantras will feel left out by this section.

One other omission needs to be noticed. Within the Hindu tradition, there are so-called open mantras, some of which are discussed here, and closed mantras, which are handed down from a teacher to a student. Cushman does not discuss the latter at all. This might lead some aspirants to believe that all mantras are accessible by the greater public, which is not the case. In a book of this size, this oversight is understandable, but it mars this otherwise wonderful introduction to the practice of mantra.

Disclaimer: I am not affiliated with the author or publishing company. I purchased my copy with my own funds.

Cushman, Lily. A Little Bit of Mantras: An Introduction to Sacred Sounds.Sterling Ethos, New York, New York, 2019. ISBN: 978-1-4549-3373-1

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