The non-dualistic traditions of both Vedanta and Tantra tell us that without even knowing or realizing it, we are silently chanting a mantra 21,600 times daily! Not only is this mantra being silently recited by every living being, but it affirms the most fundamental of truths propounded by the monistic tradition – that you are one with the Ultimate Reality. Multitude of Vedantic and Tantric texts explain this mantra, known as the Ajapa (unchanted) Mantra, Ajapa Gayatri, Hamsa Gayatri, Hamsa Mantra, Soham Mantra, etc.
The essential teaching of the Ajapa Mantra, an extension of the teaching on prana (vital life-force), is that the very process of breathing is a mantra. The sound of inhalation plus the sound of exhalation together form this mantra known as So'haṁ or Haṁsa. Before we proceed further, however, we must understand that there is a fundamental difference between how Vedantic tradition treats the Ajapa Mantra and how the Agamic/Tantric tradition treats it.
Texts of Vedanta uniformly accept and teach that the sound of inhalation is so (or the syllable sa) and the sound of exhalation is haṁ (or the syllable ha). Put together, the two syllables become So'haṁ. This teaching is elaborated in multiple Upanishads, particularly those classified as Yoga Upanishads. In the Vedantic context, So'haṁ indicates saḥ (He) + ahaṁ (I), and means “He I am.” Essentially, it is a silent reaffirmation of the Vedantic great statements (mahavakyas): tat tvaṁ asi (That Thou Art) and ahaṁ brahmāsmi (I am Brahman). In other words, with every breathing cycle (So'haṁ) we affirm the fundamental non-dualistic Vedantic teaching of the oneness of the Atman (ahaṁ) and Brahman (saḥ)
Texts of Tantra, in contrast, accept and teach that the sound of inhalation is haṁ (or the syllable ha) and the sound of exhalation is sa (the syllable sa). Together, the two syllables become Haṁsa. This is dealt with in multiple Shakta Tantras like the Todala Tantra, in Shaiva Tantras like the Vijnanabhairava Tantra, and Vaishnava Tantras like the Lakshmi Tantra. In the Tantric context, Haṁsa indicates a dual affirmation. On the one hand, Haṁsa indicates ahaṁ (I) + saḥ (he) – meaning “I am He”; or ahaṁ (I) + sā (she) – meaning “I am She”. This affirmation is no different than the Vedantic affirmation of the oneness of the individual Atman and the Paramatman (Brahman).
The other affirmation inherent in the Ajapa Mantra, which is characteristically and uniquely Tantric, is that of the oneness of the masculine and feminine principles. The two syllables of the Haṁsa (ha + sa) are taught in the Tantric tradition to represent Shiva (ha) and Shakti (sa). The terms Shiva and Shakti may be replaced in Shaiva-Shakta sources with Sun (ha) and Moon (sa) or Bindu (ha) and Nada (sa). Similarly, in Vaishnava Tantras, ha represents Narayana, and sa represents Sri. In the Tantric tradition, therefore, the very process of breathing (Haṁsa) also affirms the absolute oneness of the Divine, seen as a dual principle of Shiva-Shakti, Bindu-Nada, Sun-Moon, Narayana-Sri, or ha-sa.
Since the Vedantic and Tantric traditions of Hinduism are not mutually exclusive, what we find is that the doctrines of one system intermingle with the other. As a result of this, the terms So'haṁ and Haṁsa are used interchangeably in both traditions to refer to the Ajapa Mantra. Regardless of the term used to refer to the Ajapa Mantra, the phase of breath for which the syllables stand remains unchanged within the given tradition. Nevertheless, both traditions accept the Ajapa Mantra as the base mantra upon which all mantras ride, whether they are chanted out loud, pronounced without vocalizing, or recited mentally. In fact, the Haṁsa (which means swan) is depicted as a vehicle of Gayatri Devi, the personification of supreme mantra of the Rigveda.
Regardless of the tradition, the great yogis of Hinduism have used sound and breath to understand both evolution from the Divine and involution back to the Divine. With regards to the Ajapa mantra, the in-breath reflects involution, a refolding of Shakti back into Shiva, and the out-breath reflects evolution, an unfolding of Shakti from Shiva. One who has understood the meaning of the Haṁsa mantra, mastered the esoteric teachings of Prana therein, and through this vehicle come to full and direct realization, therefore, is given the honorary title Paramahaṁsa (supreme swan) because s/he is now a liberated being.
Aum Namah Shivaya.
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