© 2019

Living Mantra

Mantra, Deity, and Visionary Experience Today


  • An intellectual journey through mantra practice at three Goddess-centered mantra communities in Andhra-Telangana, India

  • Combines narrative, autoethnography, and recent scholarship to paint a full picture of mantra as lived experience

  • Reinterprets mantra in the light of fieldwork to bring a new understanding of mantra to anthropological and religious scholarship


Part of the Contemporary Anthropology of Religion book series (CAR)

Table of contents

  1. Front Matter
    Pages i-xix
  2. Preparation

    1. Front Matter
      Pages 1-1
    2. Mani Rao
      Pages 3-12
    3. Mani Rao
      Pages 13-26
    4. Mani Rao
      Pages 27-49
    5. Mani Rao
      Pages 51-63
  3. Fieldwork

  4. Conclusions

    1. Front Matter
      Pages 181-181
    2. Mani Rao
      Pages 183-207
  5. Back Matter
    Pages 209-215

About this book


Living Mantra is an anthropology of mantra-experience among Hindu-tantric practitioners. In ancient Indian doctrine and legends, mantras perceived by rishis (seers) invoke deities and have transformative powers. Adopting a methodology that combines scholarship and practice, Mani Rao discovers a continuing tradition of visionaries (rishis/seers) and revelations in south India’s Andhra-Telangana. Both deeply researched and replete with fascinating narratives, the book  reformulates the poetics of mantra-practice as it probes practical questions. Can one know if a vision is real or imagined? Is vision visual? Are deity-visions mediated by culture? If mantras are effective, what is the role of devotion? Are mantras language? Living Mantra interrogates not only theoretical questions, but also those a practitioner would ask: how does one choose a deity, for example, or what might bind one to a guru? Rao breaks fresh ground in redirecting attention to the moments that precede systematization and canon-formation, showing how authoritative sources are formed.


mantra tantrism religious practice Hindu deities gurus seers visionary experience Andhra-Telengana India South Asia

Authors and affiliations

  1. 1.BengaluruIndia

About the authors

Mani Rao, PhD, is a poet and independent scholar. She has nine poetry books and two books in translation from Sanskrit including The Bhagavad Gita and Kalidasa for the 21st Century Reader. See for links and updates.    

Bibliographic information


“Rao dovetails scholarship and practice to grapple with the captivating, eye-opening, mind-blowing narratives of the practitioners … Living Mantra documents the modern-day existence of seers (rishis), thus underscoring the open, ongoing nature of divine revelation in Hindu traditions.” (Raj Balkaran, New Books network,, February 01, 2019)

“Mani Rao moves beyond aesthetic and linguistic interpretations to elaborate mantra as an activating force and transformative embodied experience. Mantras, deities, practitioners, communities of practice, even authoritative texts, emerge as dynamic, evolving assemblages of meaning, knowing and feeling. We are invited to think of mantra as a form of potency dynamized by the agency of its practitioners. An insightful, gripping and accessible scholarly work.” (Lata Mani, Historian, Cultural Critic, Filmmaker)

“Mani Rao shows an extraordinary ability to enter into the lived experiences of her informants. In this ‘anthropology of mantra,’ Rao studies modern situations of visionary and auditory religious experience, with many descriptions of the relationship between image and sound, deity and mantra. This book should be of great interest to scholars of Indian religion and to practitioners of both Hindu devotion and yogic meditation.” (June McDaniel, Professor Emerita of History of Religions, College of Charleston, USA)