Gergely Hidas gives the following definition, in his excellent overview of dharanis:
- Dhāraṇī is an exclusively Buddhist term, the primary literary meaning of which is not completely clear. In the extended sense, dhāraṇī has most often been interpreted as “spell.” However, its semantic range is wider than the sphere of incantations, with a further principal interpretation as “memory” or “mnemonic device.” Especially in earlier sources, dhāraṇī was a mnemonics-related term in most cases, a use that appears to have faded away with the course of time. At least synchronically speaking, dhāraṇī is decidedly polysemic and context sensitive. In the present literary context, the “spell” interpretation of dhāraṇī as used here describes a reasonably distinct scriptural body. However, dhāraṇī is often appositional or interchangeable with two other closely related words – mantra and vidyā, which also refer to a spell.
The Difference between a Mantra and a Dharani
All dharanis are mantras, but not all mantras are dharanis. Often dharanis consists of a homage or invocation of the deity, followed by a request to act. Therefore, a dharani is usually longer than a mantra. Dharanis usually contain imperatives such as bandha, bandha, bind, bind: these words express the request to act. Mantras on the other hand just consist of mantric syllables and possibly the name of the deity, without words of homage or a request to act.
Structure of Dharanis
- teyata (Skt. tadyathā; Eng. it is like this) indicates the main mantra. What is written before teyata is the homage and what follows teyata is the main mantra or dharani. Traditionally in India, the homage was recited only once and the main mantra or dharani would be repeated many times. However, in Tibet this was neglected and the whole is considered as a mantra or dharani and recited repeatedly.
- om and hung. When writing om and hum quickly in Sanskrit manuscripts they only write the anusvara (Skt. anusvāra), that is ṃ. However, both syllables in its full form take the anunāsika (Skt. anunāsika), that is the half-moon. The anunasika causes a nasalization of the syllable. Thus, when the Tibetan say hung, they are quite close to the actual sound. Regarding om, although it also takes the anunasika it is not pronounced as strong. Thus, om stays om in terms of pronunciation. To indicate the anunasika it is good write the syllables as om̐ and hūm̐ rather than oṃ and hūṃ.
- om is an old vedic syllable of address and is usually followed by a vocative, that is, the name or names of the deity in them vocative case.
- soha (Skt. svāhā), coming from su ahā, well said, takes the dative case in the mantra or dharani.
- Many mantras and dharanis follow a Buddhist hybrid Sanskrit grammar. In particular, a peculiar construction happens when it is a dharani. In this case, since dharanis are seen as goddesses themselves, although the main deity addressed may be male, the grammar will follow the feminine stem.
om̐ namo bhagavate aparimitāyurjñānasuviniścitatejorājāya tathāgatāya arhate samyak saṃbuddhāya |
tadyathā | om̐ puṇye puṇye mahāpuṇye 'parimitapuṇye 'parimitapuṇyajñānasaṃbhāropacite |
om̐ sarvasaṃskārapariśuddhe dharmate gaganasamudgate svabhāvaviśuddhe mahānayaparivāre svāhā |
The Boundless Life and Wisdom Dhāraṇī:
om̐ homage to the blessed boundless life and wisdom, the firm king of the splendor, the tathāgata, the arhat, the fully awakened one!
It is like this: om̐ merit merit, great merit, boundless merit, you (who) perfected the accumulation of boundless merit and wisdom!
om̐ you who have purified all compounded phenomena, you the dharmatā, you have risen into the sky, you (who) are pure by nature, (you) together with the retinue of [the followers of] the great vehicle, svāhā!
- Dodrupchen Jikme Tenpe Nyima, byang chub sems dpa'i gzungs kyi rgyan rnam par bshad pa rgyal yum lus bzang mdzes byed legs bshad phrel ba
- Jamgön Kongtrul Lodrö Thayé, rten la nang gzhug 'bul ba'i lag len lugs srol kun gsal dri bral nor bu chu shel gyi me long
- Banks Findly, Ellison. “Mántra kaviśastá: Speech as Performative in the Ṛgveda” in Understanding Mantras, edited by Alper, Harvey P.. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1990.
- Coward, Harold. “The Meaning and Power of Mantras in Bhartṛhari's Vākyapadīya” in Understanding Mantras, edited by Alper, Harvey P.. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1990.
- Hoernlé, Rudolf. Manuscript remains of Buddhist literature found in Eastern Turkestan. Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1916.
- Hidas, Gergely. “Dhāraṇī Sūtras. In: J. Silk, O. von Hinüber, V. Eltschinger (Eds.) Brill’s Encyclopedia of Buddhism. Vol. I. Literature and Languages. Brill, Leiden, 2015: 129-137.
- Padoux, André. Vac: The Concept of the Word in Selected Hindu Tantras. Translated by Jacques Gontier. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1990.
- Padoux, André. “Mantras – What are they?” in Understanding Mantras, edited by Alper, Harvey P.. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1990..
- Gyatso Janet, 'Letter Magic: A Peircean Perspective on the Semiotics of Rdo Grub-chen's Dhāraṇī Memory' in J. Gyatso, In the Mirror of Memory: Reflections on Mindfulness and Remembrance in Indian and Tibetan Buddhism, SUNY, 1992
- Yael Bentor, 'On the Indian Origins of the Tibetan Practice of Depositing Relics and Dhāraṇīs in Stūpas and Images', Journal of the American Oriental Society, Vol. 115, No. 2, pp. 248-261
- Gergely Hidas, “Dhāraṇī Sūtras,” in J. Silk, O. von Hinüber, V. Eltschinger (eds.) ‘’Brill’s Encyclopedia of Buddhism. Vol. I. Literature and Languages,’’ (Brill, Leiden, 2015), 129.
- A Sanskrit version of the Aparimitāyurjñānadhāraṇī is partly found in the Sarvadurgatiparisodhana Tantra: http://gretil.sub.uni-goettingen.de/gretil/1_sanskr/4_rellit/buddh/sdurst_u.htm And a full, but slightly different version is found in: Hoernlé, Rudolf. Manuscript remains of Buddhist literature found in Eastern Turkestan. Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1916: 300 – 301. Available on: https://archive.org/details/cu31924023185584