japa mala


Vaishnava texts state that just as a sleeping person is awakened by the calling of his/her name, similarly that chanting of the Holy Names of God can awaken us from our dream of material life. There are many names of God. Secondary names of God describe the Lord’s majesty, compassion, omniscience and mercifulness. Whereas primary names describe the Lord in His full personal aspect. Chanting the names of God is a practice that exists in all religions.

Mohammed, for example, exhorted his followers to, ‘Glorify the name of your Lord, the most high’ (Koran 87.2); Saint Paul wrote, ‘Everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord will be saved’ (Romans 10.15); Buddha stated, ‘All who sincerely call upon my name will come to me after death, and I will take them to paradise’ (Vows of Amida Buddha 18); King David preached, ‘From the rising of the sun to its setting, the name of the Lord is to be praised (Psalms 113.3); and the Vaishnava scriptures say, ‘Chant the Holy Name, chant the Holy Name, chant the Holy Name of the Lord. In this age of quarrel there is no other way, no other way, no other way to attain self-realization (Brihan-naradiya Purana 3.8.126). There are many wonderful descriptions of the value of chanting in the Vaishnava literary tradition. Chanting is a meditation, a religious practice and a way of life.

Chanting Hare Krishna Hare Krishna/ Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare/ Hare Rama Hare Rama/ Rama Rama Hare Hare, is the process of awakening our spiritual identity. We are not these bodies which are made of matter. We are the life or soul (atma) within the material body. Our spiritual identity is eternal and it is realized through pure chanting of the Holy Names of God. This chanting can be performed as a meditation on prayer beads or japa mala. Japa beads are something like the Christian rosary or Muslim zikr. The maha-mantra can also be sung. Such congregational chanting (where one person leads the chanting and others follow in unison) is called kirtan. Kirtan is usually accompanied by traditional drums called mridangas, cymbals called karatalas and various other instruments. Kirtan is spiritually enlivening.

The Vedic literatures recommend the chanting of Hare Krishna in this modern age. The chanting purifies the heart or consciousness and evokes spiritual realization. The word ‘Hare’ refers to Lord Hari – a name of Krishna that indicates His ability to remove obstacles from His devotees’ path. ‘Hari’ means ‘He who takes away all inauspiciousness.’ ‘Hare’, in a higher sense, is a vocative (ie. that which calls out) form of ‘Hara’. Mother Hara or Srimati Radharani embodies the Divine Feminine energy. ‘Krishna’ means ‘all-attractive’ and refers to the original form of God.

Krish means the attractive feature of the Lord’s existence and na means spiritual pleasure. The combination of these ‘krish’ and ‘na’, krishna, means, ‘the absolute person who gives spiritual pleasure through His all-attractive qualities’. In the ancient Sanskrit (the language of Ancient India) language, na refers to the Lord’s ability to check samsara, or the cycle of repeated birth and death; and krish means sattartha, or ‘existential totality’ ie. ‘the Lord who embodies all of existence and who can help the living entities overcome the repeated suffering of birth and death’. Rama is a reference to Krishna’s older brother, Balarama and Lord Ramachandra (an incarnation of the Lord). ‘Rama’, however, refers to Radha-Ramana which is a name of Krishna meaning, ‘the one who brings pleasure to Radharani’. This mantra contains confidential names of the Lord that embody the essence of the Divine. It is a prayer, spoken from the core of the heart, that means, ‘O Lord, O Divine energy of the Lord! Please engage me in Your service!’

(from Steven Rosen’s The Hidden Glory of India)

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This article is dedicated to Inno, Emina, Simone, Wepener, Ingrid, the BYS students at Wits and UJ and all those who want to know the techniques of mantra meditation.

I first spoke to Hare Krishna devotees in Cape Town in February 1997. Most of the devotees were in their early twenties. They wore eastern clothes. And they seemed to be happy. They were always chanting which sometimes frustrated me because I wanted to speak to them. I had so many questions.

The devotees had something I had been ardently looking for – a method of self-realization that connected them to God twenty-four hours a day. What was this? The chanting of the Hare Krishna maha-mantra. Yes. It was that simple: Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna/Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare/Hare Rama, Hare Rama/Rama Rama, Hare Hare. Their spiritual lifestyle complemented their constant chanting of the mantra. They refrained from intoxicants, meat-eating, gambling and were celibate. Everything they seemed to know – the philosophy, wisdom and practices of Krishna consciousness – was attributed to a teacher named A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada.

Aside from the obvious pleasure they derived from chanting, the devotees substantiated their practices with quotes from the Vedas. My second or third meeting with the devotees took place amidst the Parthenon-like architecture of the University of Cape Town (UCT). On this particular occasion, I approached a scholarly young woman named Rati. It was an incongruous situation. I was talking to a western girl, dressed in a sari, about the Ancient Indian spiritual culture. And this conversation was taking place amidst the neoclassical columns and steps of a university campus in Africa!

We philosophized on the Bhagavad-gita before Rati launched into an explanation of the chanting. I asked her, ‘How long should we chant?’ Rati answered matter-of-factly, ‘Twenty-four hours a day’. There was a distant look in her eyes as she quoted a verse from an ancient Sanskrit writing called the Brihad-aranyika Purana: harer nama harer nama/harer nama eva kevalam/kalau nasty eva nasty/eva nasty gatir anyatha. In this age of Kali the method for self-realization is the chanting of the holy names, 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’.

After reading Juan Mascaro’s Bhagavad-gita I was convinced that I could become ‘enlightened’ or ‘self-realized’ through spiritual knowledge and principled living. Impressed by my knowledge of Hinduism and my interest in the Vedas, Rati encouraged me to read Prabhupada’s Bhagavad-gita As It Is. We spoke again, a few days later, and she asked me if I had gained anything significant from the book. I replied, ‘Determination’. Prabhupada seemed, however, to be repeating the same thing over and over again in his ‘purports’ or commentaries to the Gita – chant Hare Krishna. Hare Krishna Hare Krishna/Krishna Krishna Hare Hare/Hare Rama Hare Rama/Rama Rama Hare Hare. It was the same message and practice the devotees advocated.

Rati carefully pulled some wooden prayer beads from a cloth bag and, very gently, extolled the glories of chanting the mantra. ‘These are for you’, she said. There was no need for me to chant, I thought. I was quite happy reading the Bhagavad-gita. Sensing my apprehension, Rati said, ‘Just try’. ‘Okay’, I replied. That night I chanted on the beads for about half-an-hour. The chanting had a profound effect on me. Everything slowed down. The mantra seemed to open my perceptions and my ability to see the unity of God’s creation. All the knowledge in the Bhagavad-gita assumed a tangible form in the chanting of Hare Krishna.  Statements of Krishna like, ‘I am the light of the sun and the moon’, ‘I am the strength of the strong’ and ‘of bodies of water I am the ocean’ made perfect sense.  The chanting gave me a sense of God’s presence within and without myself.

I saw Rati the next day. ‘How was it?’ she said. ‘I feel like there is no need to read the Bhagavad-gita now. The chanting seems to encapsulate everything Krishna says in the Gita.’ ‘Well, the two go hand-in-hand’, she said. Rati was very convincing.

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.