May 2011


This is an attempt to explain japa meditation on chanting beads or japa mala. This article is meant to assist those who are interested in mantra meditation, particularly the Sanskrit maha-mantra or the Holy Names of Krishna. Again, it is dedicated to Emina, Inno and Simone.

The Sadhana Of The Holy Names

The chanting of the maha-mantra is the principle sadhana or spiritual practice of the Hare Krishna movement. The maha-mantra or ‘great prayer of deliverance’ – Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna/Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare/Hare Rama, Hare Rama/Rama Rama, Hare Hare – can be sung, chanted or repeated in the mind. Chanting Hare Krishna is not something confined to the Hare Krishnas; it is, according to the Vedas, the recommended process of self-realization in this modern age.

Spiritual Perfection

The perfection, or sadhya, of chanting the Hare Krishna maha-mantra is love of God.  Love of God has many facets.  In loving God, we realize our eternal identity in the Spiritual Kingdom of God.  This is self-realization in its truest sense.  Bhakti, or devotion, is compared to the planting of a seed within the heart.  This seed is watered by hearing and chanting.  Hearing and chanting purify the heart or mind.  When the heart is sufficiently purified, we are able to ‘see’ our true spiritual form and the pure spiritual form of the Lord.  The chanting of Hare Krishna Hare Krishna/Krishna Krishna Hare Hare/Hare Rama Hare Rama/Rama Rama Hare Hare gradually brings us to this elevated point.

Chanting On Beads

When the chanting of the Hare Krishna mantra is sung in a call-and-response manner, congregationally, it is called kirtan. Kirtan is usually accompanied by traditional instruments like karatalas, mridanga and conchshells. When the mantra is spoken softly (the Sanskrit word is jalpana) with the assistance of prayer beads or japa mala, it is called japa. This kind of chanting can be performed alone or in the company of others.

Each japa mala has 108 wooden beads. The number 108 is considered very auspicious in Vedic culture. For example, there are 108 Upanishads. Another example is that of ancient Vedic kings performing a 108 ashvameda or horse sacrifices to invoke auspiciousness. On a more esoteric level, however, the 108 beads represent the 108 principal gopis or female assistants of Radha and Krishna. The bead at the top of the japa mala, the one between the biggest and smallest bead, is called the visarga. The visarga represents the Divine Couple, Radha and Krishna. No mantras are chanted on this bead.

The chanting beads are usually carved from sacred tulasi wood. In Vaishnava culture, tulasi beads are believed to invoke bhakti or devotion to Krishna. To avoid offences to the holy tulasi plant, beginners are advised to chant on beads made from the sacred neem tree. It is the custom for devotees to first chant the Pancha-tattva mantra, before chanting the Hare Krishna mantra. The Pancha-tattva mantra is: jaya sri krishna-chaitanya/prabhu nityananda/ sri advaita, gadadhara/ srivasadi gaura-bhakta-vrinda. Chanting of the Pancha-tattva mantra eliminates offences the chanter might make against the maha-mantra.

The Hare Krishna japa meditation begins by holding the biggest bead between the middle finger and the thumb. As each mantra is completed, the chanter works his/her way down from the biggest to the smallest bead. When the chanter reaches the smallest bead, he/she turns around, beginning the next ’round’ of chanting from the smallest bead to the biggest. When the big bead is reached again, the chanter begins another ’round’ on the big bead. And so on.

Serious chanters usually chant a daily quota of japa. Each ’round’ of a 108 mantras is measured by the chanting beads. The number of ’rounds’ chanted is measured by a separate bead counter. Those initiated into the chanting of the maha-mantra take a vow to chant a minimum of sixteen ’rounds’ of the maha-mantra every day. That is about two hours of chanting a day. The Vedas recommend the best time for chanting is during the brahma-muhurta period – an hour-and-a-half before sunrise. The brahma-muhurta hour is the most auspicious time for spiritual activity, subduing the effects of tamas guna and rajas guna – the modes of ignorance and passion.

Purifying The Heart

On rising, devotees chant the Holy Names of Krishna and various other mantras to remind themselves of the Lord and their spiritual position as servants of God. We remember Krishna even before we take bath. There is the beautiful story of Sarvabhauma Bhattacarya from the Caitanya Caritamrita where he chants ‘Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna’ on rising before mangala-arati (early morning worship of Krishna in the Temple at 4:30am) and Lord Chaitanya’s pleasure on witnessing this.

Some nice verses for Vaishnavas to chant on rising include:

‘A Prayer To Mother Earth’:

samudra-vasane devi/ parvata-stana-mandite
visnu-patni namas tubhyam/ padasprsam ksamasva me

‘Oh, Mother Earth, I offer my humble obeisances to you, who are the wife of Lord Visnu and the residence of the oceans, and who are decorated with mountains. Please forgive me for stepping on you’

‘A Prayer Describing Lord Krishna’

jayati jananivaso devaki-janma-vado
yadu-vara-parisat svair dorbhir asyann adharman
sthira-cara-vrjina-ghnah susmita-sri-mukhena
vraja-puram-vanitanam vardhayan kama-devam

‘Lord Sri Krsna is He who is known as Jana-nivasa, the ultimate resort of all living entities, and who is also known as Devaki-nandana or Yasoda-nandana, the son of Devaki and Yasoda. He is the guide of the Yadu dynasty, and with His mighty arms He kills everything inauspicious as well as every man who is impious. By His presence He destroys all things inauspicious for all living entities, moving and inert. His blissful, smiling face always increases the lusty desires of the gopis of Vrindavana. May He be all glorious and happy’ [Hari Bhakti Vilas, Srimad Bhagavatam 10.90.48]

During the course of our early morning purificatory rituals, we chant mantras such as this one from the Garuda Purana (cf. the Hari Bhakti Vilasa): Om apavitrah pavitro va/sarvavastham gato ‘pi va/yah smaret pundarikaksam/sa bahyabhyantarah sucih – ‘Whether pure or impure, or having passed through all conditions of material life, one who remembers lotus-eyed Krsna becomes externally and internally clean’. Our morning bath helps us to become externally clean. Our remembrance of Krishna, by chanting of the maha-mantra, however, helps us to become internally clean. The purification of the heart by chanting Hare Krishna is what will ultimately bring us to spiritual perfection.

His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada explains the transformation of consciousness from worldly to spiritual in his purport to Bhagavad-gita 3.37: ‘When a living entity comes in contact with the material creation, his eternal love for Krishna is transformed into lust, in association with the mode of passion. Or, in other words, the sense of love of God becomes transformed into lust, as milk in contact with sour tamarind is transformed into yoghurt. Then again, when lust is unsatisfied it turns into wrath; wrath is transformed into illusion, and illusion continues the material existence. Therefore, lust is the greatest enemy of the living entity, and it is lust only which induces the pure living entity to remain entangled in the material world. Wrath is the manifestation of the mode of ignorance; these modes exhibit themselves as wrath and other corollaries. If, therefore, the mode of passion, instead of being degraded into the mode of ignorance, is elevated to the mode of goodness by the prescribed method of living and acting, then one can be saved from the degradation of wrath by spiritual attachment’. This elevation of consciousness is easily achieved by the chanting of Hare Krishna.

Bhajan

The Sanskrit word bhajan is derived from the root word bhaja which means ‘to worship’. When devotees or sadhus (saints) refer to their bhajan, they are usually referring to the solitary spiritual discipline of chanting on beads. The followers of Lord Chaitanya would chant in a Holy Place in a cottage called a bhajan kutir. Nowadays, devotees perform their bhajan in Temples or at home.

The Holy Names can be chanted anywhere and at any time, but the brahma-muhurta is considered the best time to chant. The chanter should chant in such a way that the words of the mantra – Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna/Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare/Hare Rama, Hare Rama/Rama Rama, Hare Hare – are distinctly heard. If the mind wanders from the mantra, we should bring it back by hearing the Holy Names. Chanting is a prayer to Krishna that means, ‘O energy of the Lord [Hare], O all-attractive Lord [Krishna], O Supreme Enjoyer [Rama], please engage me in Your service’. If we chant the Holy Names with attention, we can make rapid spiritual progress.

Heart And Soul: Meditations On The Chanting Of The Holy Names

The Holy Name is understood and experienced only by those who have renounced all conceit and pretension and directly embraced the process of chanting with humility, faith and devotion.

Having received the Holy Name from the lips of a spiritual master, the student embarks upon the path of daily chanting, being careful to pronounce the mantra clearly and distinctly and to chant loud enough to hear himself.

The chanter must absorb his consciousness deep within the divine sound of the mantra, vigilantly protecting the mind from the distraction of trivial or directionless thought.

The chanting of the Holy Name is a devotional art, a form of prayer, and thus one must chant with reverence and devotion. The Hare Krishna mantra is a prayer for protection and deliverance, a prayer to the Lord for His divine presence and the opportunity to serve Him.

It is a prayer from the core of the repentant heart. It is chanted therefore, in humility.

(These ‘Meditations’ are excerpts from the ‘Sri Namamrita’, by His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, copyright of the BBT)

Today I gave a talk at the University of Johannesburg’s Bhakti Yoga Society at the Doornfontein Campus.  There were about 40 students and one or two lecturers in the audience.  After some introductory words by Ananga Manjari, I was asked to speak on Kirtan and Japa.

I began my talk by writing several Sanskrit words on the chalkboard: MRIDANGA, KARATALAS and SANKHA.  Since I had a mridanga strapped around my shoulders, I introduced the instrument to the students.  I asked them if they knew what a tabla was.  Quite a few put their hands up.  So I asked one of them to describe the instrument.  I explained that the tabla was a relatively modern Islamic instrument.  The mridanga is older.  It is a bit like the big head and the small head of a table combined.  I then explained what karatalas were.

Karatalas are small cymbals made of bell-metal or bronze.  They are percussion instruments.  In the Vedic culture there are personalities who preside over different aspects of material creation.  Just like Anglo-American.  Anglo-American may have a big building in town, with a staff and mines all over Africa.  But there is a personality, a Chairman of the Board, who runs Anglo.  Similarly, we may see a thunderstorm outside and simply see phenomena of nature.  There is, however, according to Vedic thought, a personality behind that storm – Indra.  There are many powerful personalities who preside over the material nature.  These are the Demigods.  We may not be able to see them, but they are there.  And the power behind the Demigods is the Supreme Lord, Krishna.  Nothing is produced in this world without a person behind it.  Similarly, everything has an ultimate source:  God.  There is a personality who presides over death, and he is called Yamaraja.  It is said that when there is kirtan (chanting of the Holy Names of Krishna in the assembly of devotees) and the sound of karatalas and mridangas, then there can be no influence of Yamaraja or Death.  When we chant together, we are in contact with the Holy Names of God and His Eternal nature.  It is like a little bubble of eternity.  I explained that sankha means ‘conch’.  We sometimes blow the conch to add to the auspiciousness of the kirtan.  

At this point in the presentation, I wrote down some more words: HARINAMA, KIRTAN, JAPA and JAPA MALA.  I briefly explained what harinama was.  Harinam is also a form of mantra meditation.  Manas is ‘mind’ and tra means ‘to free’ – mantra means to ‘free the mind’.  The mind is a bit like an internet server.  An internet server, like Yahoo or Google, collects words, images and sounds and captures them in a data base.  Similarly, the mind collects all the data from the senses and stores these impressions in its memory. By focussing the mind, which is the “server” of the senses, we can be liberated of all the impressions that the mind captures and the desires which stem from the senses contact with the external world.  Hari is one of God’s names and nama (pronounced ‘naam’) means name ie.  chanting the Holy Names of Hari/God.  Kirtan is congregational chanting.  One person ‘leads’ the chanting, by singing the mantra to a melody. Then everyone else follows, in unison. Those who can play mridanga and karatalas play them.  This is a very powerful form of meditation in the modern age.  We then performed a little kirtan.  

I then explained japa meditation.  Japa meditation is a more personal form of meditation.  Instead of chanting to the accompaniment of musical instruments, we chant on japa mala or a ‘garland’ of wooden beads (similar to the prayer beads of the Catholics, Buddhists and Muslims).  The word japa comes from the Sanskrit word jalpana which means ‘to speak’.  This kind of speaking is soft speaking, not loud.  A similar word is prajalpa which means mundane talk.  Another Sanskrit word is gramya-katha or ‘village talk’.  Like when we go on Google to see read about Rihanna’s new haircut or Wayne Rooney’s salary or the outcome of the South African elections.  Most of us are very eager to speak about or hear about these things.  How many of us are chanting japa?  How many of us are giving time to talking about or researching spirituality and self-realization?

I cited the great Kirtan singer, Vaiyasaki prabhu.  He was giving a talk to our Youth Group in Randburg and he asked the youth, ‘Do any of you watch movies?’  They all put up their hands (I got a similar response from the UJ students).  How long is a movie?  About two hours?  We can spend two hours watching a movie, yet we say we have no time to “focus” on chanting.  Some of us sleep 10 hours on the weekend.  Yet we do not make time for our spiritual lives.  We only need 6 hours sleep.  I encouraged the students to make some time for chanting, for reading spiritual literature and for some kind of devotion in their lives.  I mentioned that this would help them to cope with the stresses and problems of this world and also simply to get in touch with the divinity within their own selves.  Someone asked what the names meant so I explained, briefly, that Hare was the female aspect of God, the Lord’s energy.  We appeal to Hare to be engaged in the service of Krishna or the ‘all-attractive’ Lord.  Rama means ‘the reservoir of all pleasure’ and, by contacting the Holy Names, we can experience spiritual pleasure.

I then explained to them how to chant on beads and we chanted about half a ’round’ of the maha mantra on japa mala.  I asked the students to keep their eyes shut and quoted from the Brihad-aranyaka Purana – harer nama harer nama/harer nama eva kevalam/kalau nasty eva nasty/eva gatir anyatha – The method for self-realization in this Age of Kali is the chanting of the Holy Names of Krishna, the chanting of the Holy Names, the chanting of the Holy Names.  There is no other way, there is no other way, there is no other way.  I explained that in the Vedas that something that was repeated three times was very important.

I then wrote another word on the board: YAJNA (pronounced ya-gya). Yajna means ‘sacrifice’.  We cannot make spiritual progress without making some sacrifice.  We are giving so much time to our studies, to sleeping, to our friends and families.  How much time are we giving to spirituality and to our own higher interests?  Very little.  As we can see, this requires some kind of sacrifice or yajna.  I explained how we gave most of our waking time in sacrifice while living in the Temple. Why not sacrifice half an hour of our time to chanting japa? Or getting together with our friends and doing some kirtan?  You will see the difference this will make in your lives.  You all felt the spiritual effect of the chanting which we just did.  These techniques of kirtan and japa are empowering tools to help us awaken our spirituality.  In fact they are the Names of God Himself and just by contacting them, we are in contact with pure spirituality.

The students took prasada.  One girl took a Chant and Be Happy.  We chatted a little, then left.

Tomorrow is the celebration of Nrsimha Caturdasi, the Holy Appearance of Lord Nrsimhadeva, the half-man/half-lion form of the Lord.  I have many wonderful memories of Lord Nrsimhadeva’s mercy and protection.  

Yesterday we had a wonderful programme at the Vedic City Project in Johannesburg, South Africa.  It was, in one sense, a celebration of Lord Nrsimhadeva’s Appearance.  The programme was attended by students from the University of Johannesburg and devotees associated with the project.  Rasika Sekhara prabhu led the devotees in sweet kirtan – which was, basically, the focus of the programme.

I remember celebrating Nrsimha Caturdasi in the back of the Sankirtan van in a caravan park in Kimberley in May 1998.  May is Autumn in South Africa.   Our VW Combi was so cold there was condensation on the roof.  We distributed books in the town during and cooked in the late afternoon.  I can’t remember what we prepared for Lord Nrsimhadeva, but I seem to remember that we made sweets.  Lord Nrsimhadeva is fond of sweets.  There was a picture of Ugra Nrsimha on the wall.  Patita Pavan, Nevil and I chanted Nrsimhadeva prayers in the Sankirtan vehicle.  Looking back now, it seems ecstatic.

Another poignant memory of Lord Nrsimhadeva’s mercy was on Sankirtan in Hatfield, Pretoria.  It was our habit to sometimes distribute books in the Hatfield Mall, which is near ISKCON Pretoria.  Devotees are not allowed to sell books in the Mall, but do anyway.  In fact, there has been a history of conflict between book distributors and Centre Security in the Mall.  I had been selling books in the Mall until I noticed a lady from a hair salon speaking to a security guard in the distance.  She was pointing to me.  I turned around and slowly walked around the corner.  When I was out of sight, I quickly ran out of the mall.   I crossed the road, and waited for about half an hour.  I read a random section of one of Prabhupada’s books, then started selling books to students at the main entrance of the Mall.  A few minutes passed.  Next thing a security guard approached me and, in a mild manner, asked me to follow him to the Management Centre to fill in a form.  I decided to co-operate with him.

His calm manner, however, was a deception.  Instead of leading me to the Centre Management, he took me to the security guards’ locker-room, situated in the underground parking.  Knowing the South African Law, I knew it was not within his jurisdiction as a security guard to take me there.  I questioned this action and asked him to take me to the management office. By this time his mood had changed.  He had begun to address me in an abrupt manner.  I was now surrounded by several guards.  The only thing I could thingk of doing was to reason with them.

I asked him if I could call my Temple President.  I thought that might help.  But he refused.  I was now in the basement locker-room.  The room was flanked with lockers and there was a single wooden bench in the middle of the room.  I found myself surrounded by five large security guards.  The guard who had led me into the room began to taunt me, asking me what was in my bag.  I showed him the books, but he was not really interested in them.  He accused me of trespassing and hawking and mentioned that I could get into trouble for that.  I told him that he was not allowed to arrest me, but this only made him angry.  So I thought it was better not to be too challenging lest I unnecessarily anger the guards.

He took out some handcuffs and asked me to give him my wrist so that he could cuff me to the bench.  Realizing that I would be trapped in the basement if they cuffed me, I began to try to reason with the guards.  ‘I am a fundisa [the Zulu word for ‘priest’]’, I said.  This didn’t seem to make a difference.  I showed him pictures of our Food For Life programme on my camera.  They seemed unfazed.  ‘Please can I call my Temple President.  This all seems to be a big mistake’.  Deadpan looks.  The main guard took a can of pepper spray from his locker and held it a few inches from my eyes.  ‘I am going to spray your eyes with pepper spray’, he snarled.  My heart started to beat fast.  I began to fear the worst.  I looked left and right at the guards around me.  I tried a rugby manouever, dodged two guards, and reached the door.  The last two guards grabbed my wrist.  I let out a shrill scream.  I did not want to scream loudly because I felt no-one would help me anyway.  This would surely anger my assailants.  He forced me to sit on the bench and cuffed my right wrist.  I was very scared.  I did not want to chant aloud, as I feared they would react badly to the name of Krishna.  This was the first time I feared for my life.  The room became very small.  The main guard pressed his face close to mine.  His face twitched with uncontrolled anger.  What would happen to me if they cuffed me to the bench?  I was trying, in terms of my own strength, to get out of this situation.  I figured the best thing to do was to remain calm.

The guard seemed to be really disturbed.  He said, ‘You could crack your head on the floor or leave here without an an eye.  What are you going to tell your fundisa friends?’  The hairs of my back bristled.  I had the stark realization that I was really in danger.

The guard snatched a business card from out of my bag.  Aside from unconsciously glimpsing the maha-mantra, he would have seen some of my credentials.  He said, ‘How do I know if this is true?’  He then asked if I had any money in my pockets.  I had R250 from my collection in my pockets.  I handed the Laxmi (money) to him.  He took it.  He then searched through my bags and took out my dog-eared copy of the Nrsimhadeva Kavaca (Protective Prayers Of Lord Nrsimhadeva).  He looked at the cover and said, ‘What is this?’  I said, ‘It is a scripture’.  He put it back in the bag.  After that he mellowed out.  The other guards also mellowed out.  The tension seemed to dissipate.  The guard handed me my book bag, and escorted me out of the basement and then out of the Mall.  I never thought of it at the time, but Lord Nrsimhadeva had protected me…in a very tangible way.

Lord Nrsimhadeva is the Protector of the Devotees.  Aside from physical protection, He protects the devotees’ spiritual lives.  When Prabhupada introduced the chanting of the Nrsimhadeva prayers in ISKCON – which is now an ISKCON standard – he introduced them with the intention to protect his society.  He was invoking spiritual protection from Lord Nrsimhadeva.  Lord Nrsimhadeva saved the great devotee Prahlada Maharaja from his abusive father, Hiranyakasipu. And, by the grace of Prabhupada, he helped me…even though I did not directly invoke his protection.

All glories to Lord Nrsimhadeva!  All glories to Prahlada Maharaja!  And all glories to Srila Prabhupada!

‘It is a shame and unfortunate that through our own fault we don’t understand ourselves or know who we are. Wouldn’t it show great ignorance, my daughters, if someone when asked who he was didn’t know, and didn’t know his father or mother or from what country he came from? Well now, if this would be so extremely stupid, we are incomparably more so when we do not strive to know who we are, but limit ourselves to considering only roughly these bodies. Because we have heard and because faith tells us so, we know we have souls. But we seldom consider the precious things that can be found in this soul, or who dwells within it, or its high value. Consequently, little effort is made to preserve its beauty. All our attention is taken up…with these bodies of ours.’

(St. Theresa of Avila, The Interior Castle 1.1.2)

This article is dedicated to Colleen

I was finishing-up my Master’s dissertation on the abolition of the slave trade in January 1997.  I stayed at my friend Andrew’s house in Sun Valley, Cape Town.  My schedule was intense.  Andrew and his wife, Teena, would drop me at the University of Cape Town every morning at about 6:30am; and I would finish around 8:45pm.  I’d then take the 9:15pm train to Fish Hoek.  Their house was about half-an-hour walk from Fishoek Station.  I’d get in at 10:45pm.  I usually had a piece of toast and some juice and take rest at 11.

My friend, Andrew, had adopted a dog which he later named Justerini (“Justerini and Brooks” (J&B) is a South African whiskey).  She was what South Africans call a brak.  She was a mongrel.  Teena and Andrew had another dog called Killer.  Killer was cute, but a brak – or in Andrew’s words, a “pavement special” – of even lesser pedigree than Justerini.  Andrew’s wife Teena liked to spoil the dogs by giving them biscuits, odd bits of meat and sometimes even chocolate.  Justerini and Killer were, in my opinion, just pampered dogs.  This sentiment was exaggerated by a basic disliking, within me, of dogs – especially when they licked me or came close to me while eating. If Teena and Andrew were not at home I would have to let the dogs in the house.  I’d open the door, and the dogs would come scrambling into the living room, sliding and scratching the parquet floor.  I was usually hungry after my fourteen-hour days in the Postgraduate Art Student’s computer lab.  I’d let the dogs in, then grab a snack from the kitchen.  The whole thing was becoming a ritual.  The dogs would follow me into the kitchen yelping, shuffling and wagging their tails.  They would rub their cold, wet noses against my legs.  Oh, how this would irritate me!

One night I arrived home and it was the same scene – the dogs flanking me into the kitchen.  I was quite hungry so I was annoyed that the dogs were begging food from me again.  I noticed a barbecued lamb ‘chop’ (cutlet) on top of the microwave.  The thought of eating the lamb-chop flashed through my mind.  Justerini, however, continued to brush against me with affection.  I thought, ‘Stupid dog.  Just wants some food.’  I’d get rid of her by throwing the meat down on the ground.  After all, the stupid animal just wants to eat.  To my amazement, however, she did not seem to notice the piece of meat!  Yet she was being so affectionate.  I cynically waved the meat in front of her nose, hoping to get rid of her.  But she just looked at me with her big, dark eyes.  I was touched.  I realized that this animal, this dog, had feelings and emotions just like me.  For the first time in my life I considered seriously that this dog had a soul – just like me.  Why was I so hard-hearted?  If our meat supply ran out would we put this poor creature on the table?  It suddenly dawned on me how cruel it was to eat meat.  To take the life of an animal who has feelings and emotions and so many other attributes.  I had the distinct feeling that meat-eating was an act of cannibalism – since animals have feelings, thoughts and emotions just like human beings.  I broke down and cried.  What kind of person had I become? I had, strangely enough, considered giving up meat for Lent (the Catholic fasting month).  My reasons, however, were based on health issues (I was doing a lot of exercise and noticed that meat had a dulling effect on my body).  But now I was taking up vegetarianism for ethical and spiritual reasons.  It was a major step forward for me in terms of the development of my consciousness.  And Justerini was my guru!

The next day, by Krishna’s grace, I met a Hare Krishna monk in Rondebosch.  He was selling Vedic Literatures (Indian spiritual writings) from a book table.  We spoke for about four hours.  I wanted to buy an Isopanisad but he thought it would be better if I got a copy of the Higher Taste.  ‘You’ll need this more…’, he said, ‘…now that you have become vegetarian.’  As we parted, Nicholas gave me a Science of Self-Realization.  His explanations of Krishna consciousness convinced me that Prabhupada’s teachings were giving the true culture and meaning of the Bhagavad-gita.  A door had opened in my life…and I walked through it….

‘It is not for everything to serve such a small thing.  There are many small things both in this world and in the realm of the Absolute.   These small things may either try to Lord it over one another, to co-operate with onen another in lording it over themselves or they may serve things that are greater than themselves.  In this world the small things pursue the first two methods.  This is ego-worship.  It is a very mean thing because the ego is so small.  These ego-worshippers are punished by being endowed with an abnormal vision which is incapable of perceiving any thing which is really greater than themselves’ – [Real And Apparent p.40, Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati Thakur]

Based on a lecture given at the University of Johannesburg, 6 May 2011.

The Material Body

I recently saw a friend of mine wearing a t-shirt that said, ‘I am not who you think I am.’  This was interesting because we were always told in the Hare Krishna movement that, ‘You are not this body!’  Who are we, then, if we are not this bodies?

We were all born somewhere – in a hospital or maybe at home.  When we were born our parents thought: ‘Oh, what a beautiful baby boy!  What a beautiful baby girl!’  Our birth was registered at Home Affairs.  Our information was stored in a filing-cabinet or on a computer system.  We were classified according to sex, nationality and race.  This information appears as numbers on our Identification Document.  Birth, for most of us, meant that we were identified in terms of the material body.  Certain rites, based on race or gender, perpetuate this bodily identification until the moment of death.  The Sanskrit word for this phenomenon is upadhi or ‘bodily designation’:  ‘I am white’,  ‘I am black’, ‘I am male’, ‘I am female’, ‘I am young’,  ‘I am old’,  ‘I am South African’, ‘I am Zimbabwean’,  ‘I am Christian’, ‘I am Hindu’ and ‘I am Jew’.  These identifications, however, are temporary.  We are identifying with a body that will only last for 70 to 80 years – if we are lucky.  The environment that we identify ourselves with is also false, because it is temporary.

It is, therefore, stated in the beginning of Rupa Goswami’s devotional textbook Sri Bhakti-rasamrta-sindhu 1.1.2 (quoted in Sri Caitanya-Caritamrita 19.170): sarvopadhi-vinirmuktam/tat-paratvena nirmalam/hrsikena hrsikesa-/sevanam bhaktir ucyate – Bhakti, or devotional service, means engaging all our senses in the service of the Lord, the Supreme Personality of Godhead, the master of all the senses.  When the spirit soul renders service unto the Supreme, there are two side effects.  One is freed from all material designations (sarva-upadhi-vinirmuktam), and, simply by being employed in the service of the Lord, one’s senses are purified’.

What Is Materialism?

Possessing wealth and material possessions is the stereotyped view of “materialism”.  Transcendentalists, however, consider materialism to be more something far subtler than owning a nice house or a sports car.  Material facility does not necessarily determine the level of one’s spiritual advancement.  A rich person may be surrounded by beautiful material objects and be detached; and a poor man lying in the street may kill another over a blanket.  To consider the material body to be our self, to identify with the temporary material world and to nurture material desires are more deeply rooted aspects of materialism.  The perpetuation of material existence depends on our desire.  If we are attached to this material world and to this material body, we will remain here. A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami explains that if we desire even one ray of sunshine, we’ll have to come back to this world to experience it.

False Ego/ Real Ego

Buddhism teaches us that this world is a place of suffering.  Most of our suffering is experienced through our own egos or those of others.  The solution to suffering, according to Buddhism, is the negation of ego or personality.  The Vedas identify the problem of ego as false ego – false ego being the pure soul or atma’s false identification with matter.  The Vedic perspective is positive.  Rather than negate identity, our true spiritual identity is re-awakened through the process of yoga or self-realization.  The Bhagavad-gita explains that there is no loss or diminution on the spiritual path.  The slightest amount of spiritual progress made in this life carries over into our next life.  Whatever material progress we make in this life, however, is lost at the time of death.

Self Realization

The Vedas teach three levels of self-realization, namely: sambhanda, abhideya and prayojana.

Sambhanda is the development of our relationship with Krishna or the Divine.  Sambhanda begins with the first aphorism of the Vedanta (spiritual conclusions of the Vedas) – athato brahma jijnasa.  Athato brahma jijnasa means ‘now that you have achieved the rare human form of life enquire into the nature of the Absolute Truth.’  This human form of life is, therefore, meant for self-realization.  Our ultimate purpose is not meant to simply acquire wealth or to maintain this material body.  We are meant to understand our eternal spiritual identity.  Self-realization begins with self-interest – understanding our position in relation to the world around us, understanding our spiritual identity and understanding the nature of God.

The next stage of self-realization is called abhideya – the practice of spiritual life in this material world.  The most important abhideya, or spiritual practice, is the chanting of the Holy Names of God, the Hare Krishna maha-mantra.  The chanting of Hare Krishna is both the means and the end of spiritual practice.  You might think, ‘Why do I need to chant this mantra?  Surely self-realization is more complicated than reciting words?’  The cause of the problem is simple.  Material desire.  The solution, however, is also simple.  Spiritual application.

The final stage of self-realization is called prayojana.  At the stage of prayojana or spiritual perfection we are fully aware of our eternal, spiritual identity and are free from the temporary identification with matter.  This is called siddha-deha or svarupa-siddhi -realization of our spiritual form.  At the stage of spiritual perfection, we still chant – but in full awareness of our spiritual body and our spiritual purpose.

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