In Talk 8 of “Talks with Ramana Maharshi”, Sri Ramana Maharshi states that Sacred Mantras should not be taken casually, but that “one must be competent and initiated in such mantras”.
There are reasons why a Sacred Mantra is dealt with so cautiously and selectively.
One must be qualified
To give a simple example, when someone wants to join a university and get knowledge and a degree, the student chooses a suitable place or even a teacher, approaches the university and applies for admission. More importantly, the student must be qualified for this. Not any one can join a course, and not without going through the prerequisites for this course. Only such a student gets admitted. The student must also be willing to learn, understand and put to practice what is taught.
In the same way, a person must be qualified to take up a Sacred Mantra. A Sacred Mantra offers an in depth, precise, concise, enlightening spiritual information in a terse verse. It shows the delicate and subjective path to knowing one’s Real Self. It contains an ocean of information in a few words and it needs to be explained further by a knowledgeable teacher to a suitable student. This is what is meant by initiation in the practical sense. So one who wants to learn a Mantra must be initiated into it.
Why the apparent secrecy
In spiritual matters especially, if anyone is easily and casually allowed access to such intricate, profound Mantras or Scriptures, they could be misinterpreted and misused. Even with so much caution, it is well known how the scriptures can be misused for power, money and self-aggrandizement. To avoid such confusion and chaos in society, these Mantras and the Vedas have been protected from mentally and spiritually unqualified and unsuitable people. Hence the apparent secrecy about these Mantras. The shield of secrecy or safeguarding is there, not for keeping the knowledge from people, but for preventing the knowledge from falling into the wrong hands.
What does initiation mean in present times
A Mantra, such as Gayatri, is profound, same as the brief but profound advice of a Sage. It is used for purification of the mind, mental focus, concentration and to control and calm the mind to make it fit for self-enquiry and inner spiritual quest. It offers an explanation and insight into the whole universe and our existence and the Real Self. It offers spiritual guidance in a few words. So people should prepare themselves for it. One must be ready to avoid certain foods not suitable for spirituality. One should not just chant it casually for personal gain or for material desires, but should contemplate on the meaning for inner improvement and spiritual advancement. The meaning must be traced and understood. Ramana Maharshi says that eventually, “Utterance of words is not enough. The elimination of thoughts is wisdom. It is the Absolute Existence”.
In the ancient Hindu lore, students who were genuinely interested in turning inward and knowing more about the Real Self, approached an enlightened Master and if qualified, they got themselves initiated into this spiritual path and into a Mantra.
What does this mean in the present times? The traditional Guru-Sishya (Master-Disciple, Teacher-Student) method is not always possible, especially for those who don’t live in India, or live in places where such privilege is not available. So how does one obtain the benefit from these wonderful Mantras?
In the present times, what initiation really means is that a person should be sincere and dedicated in truly understanding the meaning of a Mantra. One should first follow and try to understand the teachings of authentic Hindu Scriptures and Sages. This will qualify a person to some extent. If one comes across the teachings of a great, enlightened Master, and particularly gets attuned to those teachings, and studies them reverently, and tries to follow such teachings, that qualifies the person to a greater extent.
Such a genuine spiritual seeker, who has already followed and grasped to some extent the teachings of authentic Scriptures or Sages or a particular Master, and has a preliminary understanding of the Hindu culture, should pray for the Grace of God with great humility and make themselves suitable, or in other words, qualify themselves, for taking up the Mantra. If the person is thus qualified, good results will follow. Anyone who has the self-confidence, or cultivates the confidence by efforts, can courageously venture to achieve anything.
In spirituality, it is the mental development that matters. Cleanliness and tidy habits help a lot, but a guileless mind is the primary factor. It is the genuine thirst for spiritual advancement, sincerity, reverence, humility and dedication that really qualifies a person in the spiritual path. This comes as close as possible to the formal and traditional initiation of the ancient Hindu lore.