In the beginning was the word and for all Hindus the word is Om. Within the two syllables lies the essence of Hindu thought and carries within it power: the power to find oneself and connect with the cosmos that we believe is godhead. Ancient Hindus believed in a three-fold path to finding divinity: throughmantra, yantra and tantra.
Of these, mantra or repeated recitation of words, symbols and verse were most accessible to ordinary human beings and is what we call prayer. The repeated use of Shlokas and hymns helps concentrate the mind and what follows is not just a realisation of God but an all-pervading sense of tranquility. This is what ancient Hindus called meditation. A few moments away from the woes of the world to seek peace and power and within oneself.
Cutting away from the ritualistic mumbo-jumbo, just what is meditation and why does one need to meditate, if at all? There is no life without thought and thinking whether consciously or sub consciously is the essence of human beings. This constant process of thinking is reinforced by external stimuli. Noise, music, television, radios, conversation, the input of information is endless. Much of this is absorbed though not necessarily assimilated.
Meditation rescues the mind from this constant state of agitation and helps it settle down and focus. Meditation is not a shutting out of stimuli, rather a method to enhance the way the mind functions. It is a way to weed out rubbish and help concentrate on what is relevant. If you have tried to close your eyes and pray or even attempted reading a serious book, which is not a racy thriller, you will find your mind wandering to all the chores that need to be done: shopping, cooking, servants, dry cleaning to be picked up - the list of life's mundane activities is endless.
A technique to rejuvenate oneself, meditation usually involves concentrating on an object. It could be the tip of your nose, a flower on a table, your own rhythmic breathing. As you concentrate on one object, you will find that superfluous thoughts diminish. In what may appear to be an incredible process, all the trivial issues that needed your immediate attention fall away leaving you a little more detached, a little more aware of your priorities.
Whether practising yoga or even saying prayers at home or in a temple, meditation for all Hindus means sitting down, preferably cross-legged and either quietly chanting the name of the Lord or concentrating on a given object. One of the reasons ascribed to the chanting of god's name 108 or 1,008 times is to ensure a rhythmic pattern which helps concentrate the mind on the task at hand.
Scientifically, sitting quietly in the dark is usually interpreted by the brain as a signal to sleep. Sleep-inducing hormones such as melatonin are released that reduce circulation and heart rates and you feel swept away by a deep sense of relaxation. However pleasant this feeling, this is not meditation. Meditation means a relaxed but fully alert and conscious state of being.
Sit on the floor keeping your eyes partly open in a room that has some light. Initially sit quietly for 10 minutes. Do not set an alarm clock as your mind will anticipate its ringing and not concentrate. Count to a hundred initially if you like but keep still and breathe deeply and rhythmically. At the end of 10 minutes, stand up for a couple of minutes and stretch out your body. You can slowly increase the 10-minute sessions or alternate two 10-minute sessions with a break.
This then is the first step towards meditation. Are you wondering how something so simple can bring in all the benefits that you keep hearing about? Try it and you will discover a new world within yourself.