Spiritual Life


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.

radha-krishna-pranaya-vikritir hladhini saktir asmad/ekatmanav api bhuvi pura deha-bhedam gatau tau/caitanyakhyam prakatam adhuna tad-dvayam caikyam aptam/ radha-bhava-dyuti-suvalitam naumi krishna-svarupam

‘The loving affairs of Sri Radha and Krishna are transcendental manifestations of the Lord’s internal pleasure-giving potency.  Although Radha and Krishna are one in Their identity, They separated Themselves eternally.  Now these two transcendental identities have again united in the form of Sri Krishna Caitanya.  I bow down to Him, who has manifested Himself with the sentiment and complexion of Srimati Radharani although He is Krishna Himself’ [Caitanya Caritamrita Adi-lila 1.5]

radha – of Srimati Radharani; bhava – mood; dyuti – the lustre; su-valitam – who is adorned with; krishna-svarupam – who is identical with Sri Krishna

‘Radha-Krishna is one.  Radha-Krishna is Krishna and Krishna’s pleasure-giving potency combined.  When Krishna exhibits His pleasure potency, He appears to be two – Radha and Krishna.  Otherwise, Radha and Krishna are one.  This oneness may be perceived by advanced devotees through the grace of Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu.  This was the case with Ramananda Raya.  One may aspire to attain such a position but one should not try to imitate the maha-bhagavata‘ [CC Madhya-lila 8.282 Purport]

Braja Mohan, who had appeared very relaxed, suddenly said, ‘Come, let’s go!’ Yes, I decided, I would.  Braja Mohan stopped at a chaiwalla and bought some chai.  We sat together as he drank his tea.  ‘I want you to come to my house’, he said.

We turned around the corner and arrived at a small house at the foot of Vrsabhanu’s Hill.  An old woman greeted us at the door.   Braja Mohan said, ‘This is my mother’.  The old woman humbly offered pranams.  I returned the gesture.  She couldn’t speak a word of English.  Like many Indian village houses, Braja Mohan prabhu’s family residence opened into a courtyard.  Inside the courtyard were two cows, flanked by huge piles of grain.  Braja Mohan looked at the cows and looked at me and proudly announced, ‘This is my mother!  And this!  This is my father!’  I felt most embarrassed.  Just under a year ago I would have thought nothing of eating a  hamburger.  And here were two healthy cows being offered respect in the way that you’d offer respect to your parents!   I may have changed my ways but did that make me pious?  Did that make me a Vaisnava?

I was warming to my host: The loving reception of his mother;  his beautiful infant daughter, Gunjin (named after the flower in Sri Radha’s hair); and his natural respect for the cow.   Braja Mohan took me to a room at the side of the courtyard and said, ‘This is your room.  My house is your house’.  I had heard Indian businessmen in South Africa make similar pronouncements to sadhus.  Braja Mohan, however, said this with so much sincerity I felt like I had become a member of his family!  The room was spotlessly clean and white.  There was a picture of a white-haired Indian gentleman above the single wooden bed.  ‘That is my father’, Braja Mohan said.   He left the room and returned with a handful of writings in Devanagari, impressed with my recognition of certain Bhagavad-gita verses.  He started speaking to me in Hindi but stopped when I said, ‘Hindi samasta nahi‘ – ‘I do not understand Hindi’.

We talked and talked and talked.  Night fell, and Braja Mohan continued talking – about his family, his job in the fan factory in Mathura, about the sadhus who had visited his house and so on.  It was pitch dark.  We couldn’t see each other.  There was only the sound of the crickets and Braja Mohan speaking to his new friend.   I would have to stay the night in Varsana.  This was Radharani’s wish.  I was reminded, in some way, of the episode in Krsna Book where Uddhava and Nandamaharaj talk throughout the night.

After some time Braja Mohan’s elderly mother came upstairs with a candle, like a figure out of a fairy-tale.  She spoke animatedly to her son, visibly pleased to have a guest.   She disappeared into the darkness, returning with some braja rotis and sabji.   We relished this simple meal.  I was thankful for all the love and hospitality my hosts had shown me.  This must be the mercy of Sri Radha.   ‘Come’, Braja Mohan said, ‘it is almost time for arati‘.

November 1997, Varsana, India Kartik was drawing to a close.  I had only a few more days left in Vrindavan.  Even though I had gotten over my dysentry, I was eager to leave the Holy Dhama.  I had started off with ideas of performing austerities like Rupa Goswami.  Rupa was a contemporary of Lord Chaitanya who had resided on the banks of Radha Kunda, which are as hot as a desert – chanting for hours and hours, sleeping under a different tree every night, eating very little, writing devotional poetry and scripture and offering respects to devotees of Krishna. My neophyte level was exposed to me within days of arriving in Vrindavan – I just couldn’t stop thinking about eating pizza and custard.  Now, one month later, I felt as if I had been marooned on a desert island.  If my ship didn’t come soon, I might die.  There was one place I had to see before I left.  Varsana. Varsana is the ‘place of rains’, named after the gopis (the young cow-herd girls who sported with Krishna) tears of separation from Krishna.  It is the place of Sri Radha, one of the most sacred places in all of Vraja.  My travelling companions – Nicholas and Ivor – had other plans, so I ventured out on my own.  The autoricksa only arrived in Varsana in the afternoon, leaving only one or two hours of daylight within which to safely pay homage to this holy place.   A beautiful Temple loomed in the distance on the sacred hill which was once the site of Maharaja Vrishabanu’s palace.  I was excited.  I gulped back my Limka and focussed all my efforts on making my way for the sacred Hill and the Sriji Temple on its peak.  The first thing that struck me about Varsana was the beauty of the residents.  Had this something to do with their lineal relation to Krishna’s consort Sri Radha?  A winding cobblestone path drew me into the town.  After some time, the narrow path opened into a square where I walked into a gentleman sitting on a raised platform.  He wore black trousers and a white collared shirt.  He sat, like a yogi, beckoning to me with his right hand. He had a moustache and his hair was bryl-creamed.   Being a crime-conscious South African, and heeding the cautions of experienced devotees, I approached the man with due care.  He patted the sandstone dais and said to me, ‘You, sit here!  Sit here!’   I thought that it would be good manners if I sat with him for a while (Indians are very particular about hospitality).  The gentleman introduced himself in broken English, ‘I am Braja Mohan.  I live here.  We are all Radharani’s family here’.  He explained to me how the people of the village were mostly Goswamis and were all relatives of Sri Radha.  He explained to me that the place where he was sitting was a Temple of Sudhama, Lord Krishna’s Brahmana friend.  He then commenced with a fragmentary narration of the pastime of Krishna and Sudhama Brahmana.  Somewhat wary, I avoided discussing my purpose or plans in the village of Varsana with Braja Mohan.

Sudama Brahmana and Lord Krishna had been close friends at Sandipani Muni’s gurukula, in the town of Ujjain. After their education, they went their separate ways. Krishna was the son of Nanda Maharaja, a wealthy vaisya or business man; and Sudama was a poor and simple brahmana (priest or intellectual). One day, Sudama’s wife said to him, ‘My dear husband, we are very poor. There is hardly any food on our table. See how thin you are! Remember your old friend Krishna. Go to him and ask Him to assist us.’  Sudama Brahmana had only a handful of flat rice to offer the Lord when he met him in Mathura. Krishna was so pleased with Sudama’s simple devotion that when he returned to his wife, he found her in a beautiful gem-laden palace, resembling the opulences of Vaikuntha (‘place of no anxiety’) or the Kingdom of God.  

‘Let us know if there’s any more work’, I tell him. ‘I can take it back to Mott Street and type there’. ‘More? Yes’, he says, ‘There is lots more’. He opens a closet door and pulls out two large bundles in saffron cloth. Within, he shows me thousands of pages of single spaced, marginless manuscripts of literatures unknown in the western world. I stand before them astounded. ‘It’s a lifetime of typing!’, I protest. ‘Oh, yes!’, he smiles happily. ‘Many lifetimes’.
[Hayagriva Das, The Hare Krishna Explosion, p.24]

‘Service in Krishna consciousness is, however, best practiced under the able guidance of a spiritual master who is a bona fide representative of Krishna, who knows the nature of the student and who can guide him to act in Krishna consciousness.  As such, to be well versed in Krishna consciousness one has to act firmly and obey the representative of Krishna, and one should accept the instruction of the bona fide spiritual master as one’s mission in life’ – A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, Bhagavad-gita As It Is 2.41 purport

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