Śivāya ॐ नमः शिवाय, or “Om Namah Shivaya,” is perhaps the most popular mantra in the Hindu tradition. It translates roughly from Sanskrit into English as “Adoration to Shiva,” Shiva being the most exalted deity in the Hindu pantheon. Śiva was actually an adjective prior to becoming a proper name; it meant “auspicious,” or “friendly.” The mantra is from a prayer in the Sri Rudram Chamakam; it addresses the deity Rudra, calling him “benign.” Later, Rudra would gradually become known as Shiva.
Each syllable of this mantra is filled with meaning. Om, of course, is believed to be the mystical sound at the heart of the universe. “Na” is Lord Siva’s “concealing grace;” “Ma” refers to the world. “Śi” is a reference to Lord Siva himself, and “Vā” represents his “revealing grace.” Finally, the syllable “Ya” stands for the soul. Other explanations of the syllables include references to the five elements (earth, water, fire, and air) and the five chakras.
Om Namah Shivaya is considered a particularly powerful mantra. Hindus believe that intoning the mantra in sitting meditation can “salvage the bound soul.” According to traditional Hindu wisdom,
Mantra is life, mantra is action, mantra is love; the repetition of mantra, japa, bursts forth wisdom from within.
In his book The Ancient Power of Sanskrit Mantra and Ceremony, Thomas Ashley-Farrand writes,
This mantra has no direct translation. The sounds relate directly to the principles which govern each of the first five chakras on the spine…Earth, water, fire, air, ether. Notice that this does not refer to the chakras themselves which have a different set of seed sounds, but rather, the principles which govern those chakras in their place. A very rough, non-literal translation could be something like, ‘Om and salutations to that which I am capable of becoming.’ This mantra will start one out on the path of subtle development of spiritual attainments. It is the beginning on the path of Siddha Yoga, or the Yoga of Perfection of the Divine Vehicle.
Understood thus, Om Namah Shivaya may be seen as a jumping-off place for spiritual seekers who wish to become adepts. No doubt that describes most of us on the Yoga path! I can say from experience that, at the very least, this mantra definitely has the power to relax the mind and body. I began using it many years ago, when I was struggling with frequent migraine headaches. It surprised me how quickly my muscles, used to being held in tension because of frequent pain, responded to the simple intonation of six syllables. My mind, habitually anxious due to searching in vain for a cure, entered a state of great relaxation as well. It was not a miracle cure (there were to be medical interventions that worked), but it had a great and lasting effect, one that continues up to the present day. I highly recommend trying it in sitting meditation.
Image from OmSweetOm.net