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.

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