bhakti yoga


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)

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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.

Today is Gaura Purnima, the Holy Appearance Day of Sri Krishna Chaitanya Mahaprabhu.  Devotees of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON) will be celebrating this festival all over the world, especially at ISKCON Mayapur, near the Lord’s birth-place.

Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu is known as the ‘channa avatara’ or ‘hidden incarnation’ of the Lord.  He appears in this world to experience the sweet love of  Radha for Krishna.  As Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, the Supreme Lord appears in the mood of His devotee – not in the mood of the Supreme Enjoyer, Krishna.  His eternal associates like Rupa and Sanatana Goswamis, however, understood His secret identity.

Here are Sanatana Goswami’s prayers to the Lord on first meeting Chaitanya Mahaprabhu at Dasasvamheda Ghata in Prayaga, India.  The first of these prayers is often recited when devotees perform worship, initiation ceremonies and food offerings to the Lord.  The second is not as well known, but equally important.  Lord Chaitanya is also known as ‘karuna avatara’ or the ‘avatara of compassion’:

namo maha-vadanyaya/krsna-prema-pradyate/krsnaya krsna-caitanya-/namne guara-tvise namah

‘O most munificent incarnation!  You are Krsna Himself appearing as Sri Krsna Caitanya Mahaprabhu.  You have assumed the golden colour of Srimati Radharani, and You are widely distributing pure love of Krsna.  We offer our respectful obeisances unto  You.’

This is Sanatana Goswami’s next verse:

yo jnanam-mattam bhuvanam dayalur/ullaghayann apy akarot pramattam /svaprema-sampat-sudayadbhuteham /sri-krsna-caitanyam amum prapadye

‘Let me surrender unto the lotus feet of Sri Krsna Caitanya Mahaprabhu, who is the most merciful Personality Of Godhead.  He delivers those souls who are merged in ignorance and offers them the highest gift, love of Krsna, and thus makes them mad after Krsna consciousness’

[Sri Rupa Goswami, Govinda Lilamrita 1.1-2]

Here is another beautiful verse from Sanatana Goswami:

na prema sravanadi-bhaktir api va yogo thava vaisnavo /jnanam va subha-karma va kiyad aho saj-jatir api astiva /hin arthadhika-sadhake tvayi tathapy acchedya-mula sati /he gopijanavallabha vyathayate ha ha madasaiva mam

‘I am poor in love of Godhead, and I have no asset for hearing about devotional service.  Nor do I have any understanding of the science of devotional service, nor any cultivation of knowledge, nor any righteous activities to my credit.  I am not even born in a high family.  Nonetheless, O darling of the damsels of Vraja, I still maintain hopes of achieving You, and these hopes are always disturbing me’

‘Such a devotee, being touched deeply by such strong desires, always chants Hare Krsna Hare Krsna, Krsna Krsna Hare Hare/Hare Rama Hare Rama, Rama Rama Hare Hare’ [Teachings Of Lord Caitanya, A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, p.139]