Repeating a mantra or a hymn or a name of the Lord is japa जप. It is also a form of prayer and worship. A devotee performs japa with a spirit and attitude of devotion. Japa is a special kind of worship that can be at the level of speech or mind. Japa has three forms ucca ऊचा, manda मण्ड and manasa मनस japa, Ucca japa is to repeat the name of the Lord loudly so that others around can also hear. Manda or upamsu japa is when it is repeated softly so that the performer alone can hear. Manasa is when the name is repeated mentally. Each form is considered superior to the previous one. Chanting softly is considered superior to chanting aloud and mental chanting superior even to that, for simple reason that each following step requires more concentration than the previous one.
A mantra is p a sacred formula in repeating which a certain attitude is also involved. For example, in the mantra, Om namah Sivaya ॐ नमः शिवाय, salutations to Lord Siva, the attitude of surrender is involved. Similarly also in Sri krasnah Saranam mama श्री कृष्ण शरणम् मम्, Lord Krishna is my refuge. In the GayatrI-mantra we meditate upon the brilliant light of Lord Sun to inspire our thoughts in a noble direction. Japa is a very important form of worship. Lord Krishna says in the Gita :
यज्ञानां जपयज्ञोऽस्मि !!
yajñānāṁ japa-yajño smi!! [10.25]
“Among the yajna I am japa-yajna.” Japa, repeating the name of the Lord is compared to yajna, sacrificial ritual. The Lord says, among all sacrifices japa is the most exalted. He identifies himself with it, saying he is the ritual in the form of japa, since it does not involve offering of any material other than one’s own self and devotion.
Japa is prescribed as a spiritual practice for the devotees. It helps us develop focus and concentration of the mind. When Om namah Sivaya, Om namah Sivaya is repeated, the mind is able to maintain the flow of the same thought form. The mind is nothing but a flow of thoughts, in which there seems to be a connection between one thought and another. We do not know what that connection is and hence it is hard to say what that next thought will be. The mind also has a habit of wandering and getting distracted. Therefore in japa, we deliberately give a specific occupation to the mind. When every successive thought is the same, like when repeating a name or a mantra, the mind develops an ability to focus itself on one thought. When the mind wanders it is brought back to the mantra or the name that is being repeated.
Japa is a spiritual practice because not just any word or formula is repeated. It is the name of the Lord that is repeated. The very utterance invokes the devotee in a person. It is the devotee who repeats the name of his Lord, his ista-devata इष्ट देवता for whom he has reverence and love. It is with this worshipful and prayerful mind that the Lord’s name is repeated and that has a soothing and purifying effect. Japa is compared with the flow of the sacred Ganga. Just as many unclean streams of water become the Ganga when they merge in her, so too when the impurities of the mind merge in the name of the Lord they become sanctified.
Japa can be for meditation also. When it is performed at the level of the mind it becomes an excellent form of meditation, involving a worshipful attitude. Our Pujya Swamiji says that the japa can be further utilized for contemplation on the Self, by repeating the name of the Lord with devotion, the mind does calm down. The repetition gets progressively slower. As the repetition becomes slower and the mind gains a degree of calmness, one gains an ability to witness the mantra that is chanted. By long practice the mantra emerges from the mind without any effort and one becomes the witness. The observation of the mantra and the space between the mantra also becomes possible. Om namah Sivaya, silence, Om namah Sivaya, silence. Appreciate the fact that silence precedes and follows the mantra, that the mantra emerges from silence and merges back into silence and that the mantra is nothing but the manifestation of silence. As the mantra merges into the silence what remains is only silence. That is the silence of the mind. At the same time you are the silent conscious witness of the silent state of mind. This leads to the appreciation that you are the consciousness that is silence.
We prescribe meditation involving the repetition of the name of the Lord because meditation should necessarily be mental worship of the Lord.
Thus japa is a form of prayer, worship, meditation and contemplation. It is not easy to do mental japa. So first of all start with loud recitation of the name, make it soft to a murmur and then bring it to the level of the mind. If the mind gets distracted, then go back to loud chanting. By long practice, doing japa at the mental level can be accomplished. This is an excellent form of prayer leading to -meditation and samadhi, absorption. Yoga-sastra says that isvara-pranidhanam ईश्वर प्रणिधानम worship of the Lord leads to samadhi, absorption, identification with the Lord. The idea behind any form of worship is to ultimately identify with the worshiped.