Can we chant the mantra if we are not aware of the meaning? Is it harmful to chant the mantra in an improper way or to mispronounce the words while chanting it?
We can chant the mantra, even if we are not aware of the meaning, but it is good always to understand the meaning of the mantra before chanting for the simple reason that there are good mantras and bad mantras and wrong mantras. When I say wrong mantras, it means mantras that are not meant for the purpose that you want to chant for.
So, it’s good to understand the mantra first and then chant it. But even if you don’t understand the mantra, if someone, in whom you have complete confidence, let’s say your Guru, gives you the mantra and says don’t worry about the meaning, chant it, then you chant it with full confidence, for it’s the right mantra for you, even if you don’t know the meaning. But then it is good to know the meaning.
Now, the second part of the question is that even if you don’t know the meaning, what if you chant the mantra properly as taught to you, using the right pronunciation, making the right sound, chanting for the correct time that is given to you. Then, the effect of the mantra is as much as when you chant knowing the meaning of the mantra. As I said earlier, the words of the mantra especially the Beejakshra Mantra like Hrim, Klim etc have an effect even without even when you have no understanding of what they are. In fact, some of the sounds of Beejakshara Mantras have no specific meaning except that they represent certain deities that are manifestations of infinite energy brought down to finite sound forms.
This takes us to the next part of the question, which is, what if we chanted in the wrong way, suppose we chanted with the wrong pronunciation or we chant wrong words instead of the right word. For instance, if instead of reem you chant kareem, what happens? Is it harmful? Will it create problems for us? Well! Yes and no.
“Not knowing the effects of this mantra, if you keep chanting it under different circumstances, it’s quite possible they may have an adverse reaction on others and maybe on yourself. So, it is good to check up with a person who knows, before chanting the mantra.”
The most important thing is: What is your mind’s attitude? Are you fully concentrating on the mantra? Is your entire attention on the chanting of the mantra and how long have you chanted? Have you persistently and repeatedly chanted it?
Now, if the answer to all this is yes, then it does not matter. Probably, there will not be any bad effect. But when you chant Beejakshara Mantras for instance, which have the sounds like ‘hoom’ ‘reem’, ‘bhum’ and so on–some of these beejaksharas are meant to bring about a certain negative reaction; for instance, if you are fighting against any enemy – enemy can be internal and external. Internal enemies are fear, anger and so on, which often attack or try to conquer the practitioner.
For such purposes, certain Beejakshara Mantras are given, which add sounds that are meant to be like weapons to cut through the negative assaulting emotions. Not knowing the effects of this mantra, if you keep chanting it under different circumstances, it’s quite possible they may have an adverse reaction on others and maybe on yourself. So, it is good to check up with a person who knows, before chanting the mantra. Which is why, it is said that you should not be chanting mantras by reading it in books, but go to a qualified teacher, question the teacher, find out which is best for you and then begin the chanting.
But, as far as the Gayatri Mantra is concerned, there is no such problem because there is are no Beejakshras in it. Apart from the pranava–’Om‘ and Om is a universal mantra that can be chanted by anyone provided there is certain sincerity, humility and desire to do good. So, don’t let that put you off from chanting the Gayatri. As far as the Gayatri is concerned, it should be taught from childhood and chanted throughout till one is incapable of chanting in old age. By then, the Gayatri would have entered your heart and the Ajapa Japa–the endless Japa–will go on. It is recorded in the ancient scriptures that the man or the woman–the human being who leaves the body while chanting the Gayatri enters the higher spheres of existence that are much more evolved than this Bhuloka or the world in which we live. So, as Dayananda Saraswati said, chant the Gayatri, it can only do you good.