Etymology is the study of what words mean. Broadly speaking there are two principles for constructing etymologies for words. The first looks at the historical progress of a word and tries to identify the 'original' meaning of a word, often creating putative roots in a theoretical language known as Proto-Indo-European. This is sometimes called scientific etymology as it is methodical, and employs as far as possible the principles of scientific inquiry; I prefer to call it historical etymology however since the focus is on the history of meaning. The second principle of etymology works on quite a model. It is not concerned with meaning over time, but in the moment – linguistics label this method synchronic (with or in time), and the historical method diachronic (across time). In this second principle, the meaning of a word is brought out by comparing it with words that sound similar. Sometimes breaking the words into parts as small as a single syllable, and comparing the parts to similar sounding words or parts. This method can produce contradictory results, and sometimes words that sound similar are not related in meaning. The result is that exponents of historical etymology dismiss it, rather as some Western scholars dismiss mantras as "meaningless". Traditional Buddhist etymologies are all of this kind which is known as "Nirukti etymology" after the 5th century BCE Indian linguist of that name. Nirukti wrote a book on etymology that systematised a principle that had been in use for centuries.

I want to dwell on this distinction for a little longer before giving any etymologies because without some idea of the principles behind them it will be easy to mistake the importance of their conclusions. In his book "The Order of Things" Michel Foucault makes a distinction between two kinds of epistemology. Epistemology it is concerned with theories of knowledge: with the study of what we know, and how we can know things. Modern theories of knowledge are rooted in ideas of difference. Something is a "thing" if it can be clearly distinguished, if it is sufficiently different from other things. Traditional epistemology however works on a different principle. Something is knowable only through association. Knowledge relies on similarity and relationship. Now this traditional principle of association is a very important one in ancient Indian thought. The Vedic sages believed that the world was separated into two basic spheres – earth and 'heaven' – with an intervening space. Between haven and earth was an infinite series of bonds (bandhu) or associations. The sages sought to control events in heaven, the realm of the gods who kept the cosmic order and performed such functions and raising the sun each day or bringing the monsoons in season. Such influence was wielded by manipulating the earthly counterpart of some heavenly body. Knowledge of the bandhus or associations was the chief knowledge of the Vedic sage.

So historical etymologies examine how a word has changed its meaning over time, trying to reveal an original meaning. Historical etymologies look for what is different and distinct about the word, trying to highlight those differences and spotlight the word. Traditional etymologies are only concerned with what a word means to a particular person at a particular time. Traditional etymologies are concerned to show how a word is similar to other words, how it relates to other similar words. Ironically we can get a better insight into a traditional etymology if we employ historical methods and place it in its historical context.

We need to know one more thing about the principle of association between words in traditional etymologies. The central principle of association is sound. To be more specific it is pronunciation, or what linguists would call articulation (the way a sound is pronounced). Indian scholars were the first to come up with a systematic description of phonetics – around the time of the Buddha. In fact the modern 'science' of linguistics, and phonetics in particular, owes its existence to the discovery of Sanskrit by Western scholars. Many of the important figures in the birth of modern linguistics studied the Sanskrit grammarians for instance.

I believe that we need to pay attention to both kinds of etymologies when dealing with Buddhist technical terms. Scientific etymologies can give us information about the meaning of a word as it stands alone, but they are often somewhat remote from the way a technical term is used in Buddhist. The word Dharma for instance cannot be understood only in terms of its etymology, it must be seen in context. However historical etymologies can reveal things about a word which are lost to tradition.

Before we proceed I want to point out that mantra has two quite distinct uses. We will be concerned with the religious sounds and words chanted in a ritual way. However, mantra can also mean "counsel, or advice". Although it interesting to see how the same word can be used in these different ways I don't have space to deal with this second meaning in this essay. We are now ready to begin looking at etymologies of the word mantra.

Historical Etymology

All agree that mantra is made up of two parts: a root (man-) and a suffix (-tra). Agehananda Bharati confidently states in his book "The Tantric Tradition"

"There can be no doubt about the correct etymology of mantra. It combines the old Vedic (and Indo-European) root 'man' 'to think' with the element –tra, i.e. the kṛt- suffix indicating instrumentality." [Bharati : 103]

The meaning therefore is something like "what the mind does". A far longer and more considered examination of scholarly opinion on the etymology of mantra is provided by Jan Gonda in what is considered a seminal article on mantra.

The verbal root man- is related to our English word 'mind'. Gonda draws out the a range of references:

Without entering into the linguistic details the root men- may therefore to be assumed to have expressed also such meanings as "emotional, moved, wilful, intentional, directed 'thought', experiencing impulses in heart and mind etc". [Gonda : 250]

Gonda says about the suffic tra-

The Sanskrit words in –tra < Indo-European –tro>, when neuter, are generally speaking, names of instruments or sometimes names of the place where the process is performed. The former category may occasionally express also a faculty: Sanskrit śrotram "organ, act or faculty of hearing"; jñātram "the intellectual faculty"; or a "function": hotram "the function or office of a hotar priest". [Gonda : 250]

So again, we get a meaning of something like "mental/emotional functioning". This doesn't really tell us anything about mantra though. Another possibility occurs in Gonda: "As shown by Renou the verb man- has in Vedic usage also the sense of "evoking, calling up", and is then often associated with the noun nāma "name". [Gonda : 250]

The word mantra is quite rare in the Vedas, and then more common in the parts which are thought to be newer, chapters 1 and 10. Mantras in the Vedas were verses in praise of gods; later as the Vedic rituals were internalised mantra became more abstract – strings of sounds.

Gonda explores the various ways the word is used and his definition of mantra is:

A mantra may therefore, etymologically speaking and judging from the usage prevailing in the oldest texts [ie in the Vedas], approximately be defined as follows: "word(s) believed to be of 'superhuman origin', received, fashioned and spoken by the 'inspired' seers, poets and reciters in order to evoke divine power(s) and especially conceived as a means to creating, conveying, concentrating and realizing intentional and efficient thought, and of coming into touch or identifying oneself with the essence of the divinity which is present in the mantra. [Gonda : 255]

This is a fair attempt at combining the etymological and usage meanings for Vedic mantra, though it is clear that he has had to work quite hard to make it come together. As a scholarly definition, it will probably also suffice for Buddhist mantra, though no doubt we would argue about the details.

Ellison Banks Findly draws attention to another etymological possibility, which echoes Gonda reference to Renou. Findly quotes Sharma who argues that 'man' actually comes from the root mnā (to rote, to utter) which would mean that mantra would mean "to speak, to utter". [Sharma : 25] This would lead to a simpler definition, and resolve the conflict between etymology and usage.

Traditional Etymology.

One folk etymology of mantra is it is that which saves (trā- "to save, rescue") the one "who, in thought, formulates it and meditates upon it" (man-). [Gonda : 248] This kind of protection is a theme especially in Mahayana Buddhist texts. Gonda is mostly interested in Vedic texts, and although he doesn't give a source for this etymology, he does footnote it to say that a similar folk etymology occurs in the Chāndogya Upaniṣad so that the idea is most likely pre-Buddhist. It reoccurs in the Guhyasamāja Tantra according to the Dalai Lama in his introduction to Tantra in Tibet.

An example of a Niukti style etymology from the Visuddhimagga by Buddhaghosa says that:

the Buddha is blessed (bhagavā) because he has broken (bhagga) greed, hatred and delusion; he partakes or shares (bhāgī) in the gifts of lay devoted (bhattavā) followers such as alms and robes. He is possessed of blessings (bhagī) because he is a frequenter (bhajī) of places conducive to meditation. He has analysed (vibhaji) and classified (paṭibhaji) the Dharma Treasure. He is fortunate (bhāgyavā) and developed (bhāvita, subbhāviatattno). [condensed from Vism VII.52-67; Ñānamoli : 224-230]

I haven't found a Nirukti etymology for mantra but it is easy enough to construct one on traditional models by collecting words that sound similar:

From these we can say that: Mantra protects ( tra) the mind (man) from confusion (trap) and so that one is not afraid (tras). A mantra tears (tru) the veil of illusion (māyā). Protection (tra) is born of the mind (manoja) because a well guarded mind protects on from all evil. A mantra is the function (tra-) of the intelligent mind (manas), it speaks (traṃs) intelligently (manu), it shines (traṃs) like a jewel (maṇī). In the final analysis wisdom (manu) is the best protector (trā), because all is mind (manas).

Paragraphs like this are very common in the Buddhist commentarial literature, if not the actual suttas themselves. You can see that the link between the words is poetic rather than literal; associative in a way that opens up possibilities rather than settling on certainties. Each word can be used in different ways.

There is a view in the West that ideally each word should stand for one thing or concept; and each thing or concept should have only one name. The consequences of this view are amusing at times and have lead to some quixotic adventures, some of which are chronicled in Umberto Eco's book "The Search for the Perfect Language". The view is fuelled by the idea that everyone spoke only one language before God divided the languages – that is to say it is rooted in a literal reading of the Bible, and the story of the tower of Babel. The assumption that there can be a one to one relationship between language and what we might loosely call the world is entirely unscientific, is not at all practical or pragmatic, and is not a feature of natural language. Multiple meanings – polysemy – is the norm. Nurukti etymologies exploit polysemy in constructing a story about what a word means.

Ancient Indian linguists had a sophisticated understanding of polysemy, metaphor and metonym, and synonymy. True they also had views about ideal languages, and artificially changed Sanskrit to be closer to their ideal, they did not, it seems fall for a one to one correspondence ideal. Ideal in their case meant on the whole regular grammar and meter – which reach a very high degree in Sanskrit literature. Sanskrit is one of the few languages which can rival English for synonyms generally, and is gave rise to wonderful poetry.


I believe that the question of "what is a mantra?" remains open to interpretation. In this essay, I have looked at the word mantra itself, drawing on a few key sources of scholarship. Amongst those who propose scientific etymologies there is not complete agreement on how to derive the word though at least one makes a claim to absolute certainty on the matter. Reconciling historical etymologies of the word mantra with actual usage, even in ancient texts, is not easy. The point of historical etymology is to remove as much ambiguity as possible, to make clear the 'original' meaning of a word. The urge to do this is more typical of Western approaches to language, which also spawned the search for the perfect language.

I found only one traditional etymology of mantra that was a fairly simple affair. But drawing on models in Buddhist commentarial literature I constructed what I hope is a plausible traditional etymology. It at last gives the flavour of how the traditional mind construed knowledge. The ancient etymologies hold more loosely to definition. What is important is to find a web of associations. The ancient Vedic principle of association meant that knowledge of associations gave one power over, or influence in, the heavens. This principle is still at the heart of mantra use, even in Buddhism.