Nope, but mantras work just fine. A mantra focuses your mind on a single point of thought, gradually pushing away the bothersome wandering thoughts that some people say do not belong to meditation. Some meditators use a visual technique, like focusing their field of vision on a candle flame.
Lots of mantras, like those used in Transcendental Meditation, are foreign language words, which when translated, speak to religious beliefs and figures from Eastern religions. This doesn’t mean that if you do TM you turn into a Hindu… it just means you are using Hindu mental references to work with your mind. It’s all good.
But there’ a totally different way to meditate… vipassana mindfulness. This technique doe not use mantras to try to calm the mind. instead, the objects of meditation can be body sensations, mental images, internal talk, thoughts and/or emotions. This way everything you experience in mind or body becomes a meditative anchor.
Imagine just sitting, concentrating with great clarity on whatever pops us, and using a sense of equanimity (non-reaction) to just watch the parade of sensations arise and pass away. I learned TM first and loved every second of it. I loved the exotic flavor of Hindu mantras.
Then when I heard about vipassana, I figured it would be a logical extension from what I learned in TM, and this is exactly what it turned out to be. Instead of focusing on my mantra at the exclusion of other mind and body experiences, I could use everything from an itch on my nose to an old memory as my meditative anchor.
Both techniques get you to the same ultimate spiritual goal; they just get you there in two different ways. it’s all good.