The Hare Krishna Maha-mantra: Our Ultimate Benefactor

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The Vedic scriptures cite the indisputable authority of Lord Brahma to establish the unique spiritual power of chanting Hare Krishna.

harer nama harer nama
harer namaiva kevalam
kalau nasty eva nasty eva
nasty eva gatir anyatha

“In this Age of Kali there is no other means, no other means, no other means for self-realization than chanting the holy name, chanting the holy name, chanting the holy name of Lord Hari [Krishna].” – Brihan-naradiya Purana 38.126

The Hare Krishna maha-mantra – Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare/ Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare – offers spiritual protection from the evil age in which we now find ourselves. Additionally, it is the best possible resource for those who seek genuine spiritual enrichment.

The Vedas are emphatic about this point, as indicated in the Kali-santarana Upanishad (part of the Krishna Yajurveda):1 When the sage Narada asked the creator of this universe, Lord Brahma, how to navigate the turbulent waters of Kali-yuga, our current age of quarrel and hypocrisy, the answer was immediate and definitive: “Chant the holy names of the Lord, particularly Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare/ Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare. This collection of sixteen names is the only destroyer of sins in Kali-yuga. No other remedy can be found in any part of the Vedic literature."

“In this way,” Brahma concluded, “the illusory coverings of the soul (jivatma), which are composed of sixteen constituents, are automatically destroyed. At that time, Lord Krishna fully manifests before the jiva, like the rays of the sun upon the removal of a cloud.” (verses 5–7)2

The sixteen constituents mentioned above are outlined in the Srimad-Bhagavatam and refer to the five material sense organs (ear, nose, eyes, tongue, and touch); the five types of breath (prana, apana, vyana, samana, and udana); the five working organs (hands, feet, tongue, genitals, and anus); and the subtle body (the materially conditioned mind, intelligence, and ego). The chanting of the holy name purifies all these components of the living entity’s existence, rendering each soul eligible for pure devotional service (bhakti). That is to say, the Lord is properly served only with purified mind and senses, and the only way to attain such purification is through chanting His names. This is because the Lord is absolute, and so He and His name are identical. Thus, by chanting His name one directly associates with God Himself, and the consequent purification allows one further progress in spiritual life, ultimately resulting in love of God.

Three Special Words

The three words of the mantra – Hare, Krishna, and Rama – are in the vocative case, i.e., enunciated as a direct address. The Deities mentioned in the mantra are being implored, and not merely glorified as an abstract expression. Thus the maha-mantra is a petition: “O energy of Krishna, O Krishna, please engage me in Your service.”

“Hare” can refer to both Hari, or Krishna, the Supreme Lord, and Radha, known as Mother Hara. When perceived in the latter sense, common in the Gaudiya Vaishnava tradition, it is an address to God’s energy, specifically His spiritual pleasure potency (hladini-shakti), who is also known as His female manifestation: Radhika. The word hari also means “thief.” In relation to Radha and Krishna, it refers to Their stealing of each other’s hearts, and the hearts of all living beings.

“Krishna” is a name of God meaning “the all-attractive one.” Here readers might protest: “If He is all-attractive, why am I not attracted to Him?” But do you know Krishna? If you cannot see Him, how can you possibly be attracted to Him? For one who is in material illusion, unable to see Krishna face to face (or to perceive Him properly), one might consider Krishna’s qualities or characteristics. He is all strength, beauty, knowledge, wealth, fame, and renunciation – who is not attracted to any or all of these qualities? Thus, if one is not in the presence of Krishna one will be allured by one of His characteristics.

The word krishna can also mean “blackish,” and in this sense it is indicative of His beautiful dark complexion.

“Rama” means “one who gives pleasure and enjoys life,” indicating that God is the ultimate enjoyer. It can refer to Balarama, Krishna’s first expansion and elder brother, or to Ramachandra, an incarnation of Krishna.3 More commonly, it refers to Radha-ramana-rama, or “Krishna, the lover of Radhika.”4

The exact Hare Krishna maha-mantra, complete with the order in which the words are to be chanted, is revealed in an ancient text known as the Sanat-kumara Samhita (quoted by Dhyanachandra Goswami in his Gaura Govindarchana Smarana Paddhati, 132–133):

hare-krishnau dvir avrittau
krishna tadrik tatha hare
hare rama tatha rama
tatha tadrig ghare manuh

hare krishna hare krishna
krishna krishna hare hare
hare rama hare rama
rama rama hare hare

“The words ‘Hare Krishna’ are to be recited twice; then ‘Krishna’ and ‘Hare’ are to be recited separately twice. Similarly, ‘Hare Rama,’ ‘Rama,’ and ‘Hare’ are also recited twice. The mantra will thus be Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare/ Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare.”

Devotees recite the mantra a fixed number of times every day on a string of japa beads and sing the mantra out loud congregationally (kirtana). Srila Prabhupada describes the process of chanting:

Krishna consciousness is not an artificial imposition on the mind; this consciousness is the original energy of the living entity. When we hear the transcendental vibration, this consciousness is revived. . . . This chanting of Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare/ Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare is directly enacted from the spiritual platform, and thus this sound vibration surpasses all lower strata of consciousness – namely sensual, mental, and intellectual. . . . As such anyone can take part in the chanting without any previous qualification.

Jiva Goswami’s Commentary5

While a number of spiritual masters throughout history have commented on the maha-mantra and given insights into its practice and meaning, Jiva Goswami (c. 1513–1598), one of the preeminent philosophers of the Gaudiya tradition, extrapolates a deep meaning that shows the inner core of the mantra and its most profound dimensions. In doing so, he uses several of the definitions given above for the three words, thus offering profound mystical insights into the implications of the names.

Indeed, as Krishna is the original source of all manifestations of the divine, and as He is known in the tradition as lila-purushottama, or the supreme Godhead who manifests beautiful activity (lila) for the pleasure of His devotees, Sri Jiva, through each of the mantra’s sixteen words, overtly summarizes these divine pastimes. Thus in his Maha-mantrartha Dipika we find his explanation in consecutive order:

1. Hare:

sarva-cheta-harah krishnas
tasya chittam haratyasau
vaidagdhi-sara-vistarair
ato radha hara mata

“Krishna steals everyone’s mind. Yet, due to Sri Radha’s expert nature, She steals even His. She is thus known as Hara.” As Hari can mean “He who takes away,” or “thief,” Sri Jiva here shows how this adheres in relation to Krishna and the first word of the maha-mantra, specifically when reading the first word as a reference to Radhika. Sri Jiva indicates that as attractive as Krishna is, Radhika is even more attractive.

2. Krishna:

karshati sviya-lavanya-
murali-kala-nihsvanaih
shri radham mohana-guna-
lankritah krishna iryate

“He inexorably attracts Sri Radha with the sweet sound of His flute music. For this reason the enchanting Lord is known as Krishna.” Here Sri Jiva uses the definition of Krishna meaning the “all-attractive one,” showing how His attractive feature extends even to the supreme emblem of devotional service, Sri Radha.

3. Hare:

shruyate niyate rase
harina harinekshana
ekakini rahah-kunje
hareyam tena kathyate

“It has been heard that during Hari’s rasa-lila, the Lord kidnapped the doe-eyed Radha to be alone with Him in a secret forest bower. Therefore She is known as Hara.” Sri Jiva here draws on one of Sri Krishna’s most confidential pastimes, telling us that although Krishna ostensibly ran off with Sri Radha, that is precisely what She wanted. Thus Mother Hara is instead seen as having stolen away with Krishna during the rasa dance, giving special meaning to Her name Hara.

4. Krishna:

anga-shyamalima-stomaih
shyamalikrita-kanchanah
ramate radhaya sardham
krishno nigadyate

“When Krishna enjoys pastimes with Radha, Her golden hue sometimes takes on His darkish complexion. He is consequently known as Krishna.” Here we see a play on the fact that Krishna means “black,” wherein His illuminating and beautiful dark color influences even Radha’s resplendent golden hue.

5. Krishna:

kritvaranye sarah-shreshtham
kantayanumatas-taya
akrishya sarva-tirthani
taj-jnanat krishna iryate

“To please Sri Radha, Krishna manifested in the Vraja area the most wonderful lake (Syama-kunda). Having accomplished this, He then called all the holy rivers to fill it. He is thus known as Krishna.” Krishna means “all-attractive,” so He was able to attract all of the world’s holy rivers to fill His Syama-kunda.

6. Krishna:

krishyate radhaya premna
yamuna-tata-kananam
lilaya lalitash-chapi
dhiraih krishna udahritah

“Through Radha’s unequalled love, She enchants the Lord, who performs wonderful lilas on the banks of the Yamuna. Therefore those who consider deeply know Him as Krishna.” Sri Jiva indicates that Krishna, as “the all-attractive one,” draws even Radha’s love into His heart of hearts.

7. Hare:

hritavan gokule tishthann-
arishtam pushta-pungavam
shri haris tam rasad uchchai
rayatiti hara mata

“While in Gokula, Sri Hari (Krishna) killed the demon known as Arishtasura. When this happened, Sri Radha cried out with great feeling. By so doing, She was able to steal His mind. She is thus known as Hara.” Bringing the most esoteric Radha-kunda episode into his commentary on the maha-mantra, Sri Jiva gives an example of how Radhika steals Krishna’s mind and heart.

8. Hare:

hy asphutam rayati priti-
bharena hari-cheshtitam
gayatiti mata dhirair
hara rasa-vichakshanaih

“With a fully loving heart, Sri Radha sometimes quietly sings the glories of Hari, and sometimes She sings them aloud. Those who are expert in the secrets of divine sentiments call Her Hara." By such divine repetition, i.e., japa and kirtana, Sri Radha sets an example of how to steal Krishna’s heart.

9. Hare:

rasavesha-parisrastam
jahara muralim hareh
hareti kirtita devi
vipine keli-lampata

“Because of Sri Radha’s unwavering love, Sri Hari becomes distracted, and His flute falls from His hand. At that time, desirous to enjoy with the Lord in His forest bowers, Radha steals His flute. That goddess is thus famously known as Hara.” The memorable episode of Radha stealing Krishna’s flute is mentioned here. This is a well-known instance of Radhika as a “thief” (Hara), in which by taking a tangible item, She steals Krishna’s heart.

10. Rama:

govardhana-dari-kunje
parirambha-vichakshanah
shri radham ramayamasa
ramas tena mato harih

“Krishna, who knows the art of the embrace, enjoys with Radha in the forest groves and caves of Govardhana. Thus He is known as Rama.” “Rama” is introduced as “that which gives Krishna pleasure.” It refers to His divine pleasing exchanges with Sri Radha.

11. Hare:

hanti duhkhani bhaktanam
rati saukhyani chanvaham
hara devi nigadita
maha-karunya-shalini

“Radha, who is most merciful, obliterates the miseries of Her devotees, affording them daily happiness. Therefore She is known as Hara.” Radhika steals away the miseries of the devotees.

12. Rama:

ramate bhajato chetah
paramananda-varidhau
atreti kathito ramah
shyamasundara-vigrahah

“When the devotees perceive Krishna’s beautiful darkish form, their minds are always submerged in an ocean of joy. Therefore He is known by the name Rama.” Krishna means “black,” and Rama means “pleasing.” Sri Jiva combines the words to explain this truth of Krishna consciousness.

13. Rama:

ramayaty-achyutam premna
nikunja-vana-mandire
rama nigadita radha-
ramo yutas taya punah

“Radha enjoys loving pastimes with Her infallible Krishna in a secret part of the Vrindavana forest. Since He is always by Her side, exchanging deep pleasure through loving union, He is known as Rama.” Sri Jiva here suggests that the esoteric loving affairs of the divine couple know perfection in union and bring Them both unending pleasure.

14. Rama:

rodanair gokule dava-
nalam ashayati hyasau
vishoshayati tenokto
ramo bhakta-sukhavahah

“The devotee residents of Gokula cried due to fear of the forest fire, but Krishna quickly swallowed it and gave them great joy by doing so. In this way He is known as Rama.” He gives pleasure to His devotees and is thus known as Rama.

15. Hare:

nihantum asuran yato
mathura-puram ity-asau
tadagamad-rahah-kamo
yasyah sa ’sau hareti cha

“Sri Krishna went to Mathura to kill the demons. Because of His profound love for Radha, however, He returned to Vrindavana. Therefore She is known as Hara.” Although Krishna goes to other important places for the sake of others, Sri Radha pulls Him back to Vrindavana with Her incomparable love. She is therefore the ultimate thief, stealing His heart.

16. Hare:

agatya duhkha-harta yo
sarveshamam vraja-vasinam
shri radha-hari-charito
harih shri nanda-nandanah

“When the son of Nanda (Krishna) returned to Vraja, He thereby took away all the suffering of all the devotees who live there. By exhibiting such compassion, He stole the heart of Sri Radha. Thus He is known as Hari.” In this last word of the maha-mantra, then, Sri Jiva sees Krishna rather than Radha, for He steals Her heart with His all-encompassing love. In other words, most commentators think that the "Hare" at the end of the mantra is yet another reference to Radha, but no, Jiva indicates that it is instead a veiled reference to Krishna.

Benefits of Chanting

The above is an esoteric reading of the maha-mantra, meant to evoke the pastimes of Krishna as a meditation for advanced students. For most of us, however, it is sufficient to understand that chanting this mantra will lead to love of God. Apropos of that fact, Sri Jiva identifies and substantiates a number of other theological conclusions about the holy name.

In his Bhakti-sandarbha (248), for example, he says that chanting relieves one of all sinful reactions (papa-vishodhana) but that even this is not the ultimate result of the chanting process. Rather, he writes, chanting Krishna’s name gives direct experience of God’s attributes (264) and awakens intense passion (anuraga) for Him, causing one to dance, cry, scream, and laugh like a madman (263). Jiva further tells us that singing the names out loud (anugiyate), especially, is much more effective than quiet recitation – japa, which, as mentioned above, is also an essential practice. Jiva tells us that people who engage in loud chanting (kirtana) are humanity’s greatest benefactors (269).

This latter point speaks to the profound phenomenon of kirtana, especially when enacted congregationally (sankirtana), for if even nonbelievers merely hear the transcendental sound, they become purified and their spiritual life moves forward. This is why devotees go out into the streets (nagara-sankirtana) – it is for the benefit of all souls.

“Indeed, among all spiritual practices,” writes Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati, “sankirtana is the best and foremost means of attaining the grace of the Supreme Lord Sri Krishna. Other types of sadhana, or devotional practices, are worthy of being called such only if they favorably assist the performance of sankirtana; otherwise they should be known as obstructions to actual sadhana. Whether one is a child or an old or young man, male or female, learned or illiterate, rich or poor, beautiful or ugly, pious or sinful – regardless of the condition of life someone may be in – there is no spiritual practice for him other than Sri Krishna nama-sankirtana.”6

NOTES

1. This text is listed as number 103 in the Muktika Upanishad, which chronicles all legitimate Upanishads. It is thus accepted as authentic Vedic literature by all authorities on Indic religion.

2. Lord Brahma, it should be noted, is the first teacher in the Brahma-Madhva-Gaudiya sampradaya. Thus it is significant that he was the first to specifically teach the importance of chanting the Hare Krishna maha-mantra, a teaching he revisited and championed when he incarnated as Haridasa Thakura in Chaitanya-lila.

3. According to Srila Prabhupada, there are two other ways to see the “Rama” of the maha-mantra: “Since Nityananda is an expansion of Balarama, Rama also refers to Lord Nityananda. Thus Hare Krishna, Hare Rama addresses not only Krishna and Balarama but Lord Chaitanya and Nityananda as well. (Sri Chaitanya-charitamrita, Adi-lila, Introduction) Rama can also be seen as Parashurama, though less commonly: "So Lord Rama and Lord Krishna, Hare Krishna Hare Rama, there is no difference between Them. When you chant the holy names purely, then understand that Lord Ramachandra, Balarama – any Rama. The Lord came as Parashurama, Balarama, and as Lord Ramachandra. They are all the same." (Lecture, Sanand, Gujarat, December 24, 1975)

4. The Gaudiya conception of Rama in the maha-mantra meaning Krishna, the lover of Radha, is mentioned by Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati Thakura: “According to the mood of aishvarya [awe and reverence], ‘Rama’ refers to Ramachandra, the son of Dasharatha. According to the mood of madhurya [love and intimacy], ‘Rama’ refers to Krishna, the relisher of Sri Radha's association. Whenever the name 'Rama' indicates service to Radha-ramana Krishna, then the word 'Hare,' the vocative form of Hara, refers to Sri Radharani, the origin of all spiritual potencies. Sri Radha is known as Hara because She attracts the mind of Krishna. Hari means 'attracter.' Hare is the vocative form of the word 'Hara'. There are three Ramas – Rama the husband of Sita-devi, Rama the husband of Revati, and Rama the lover of Radha.” (Sri Srila Prabhupader Upadeshamrita)

5. Jiva Goswami's commentary is reminiscent of those of Gopala Guru Goswami and Raghunatha Dasa Goswami, though Dasa Goswami’s has a more intimate and confidential component. Gopala Guru Goswami wrote two commentaries, one similar to Jiva’s and one that engages a pedagogical device in which he poses as a conditioned soul, beseeching the name to steal his mind (Hari) or attract his mind toward the all-attractive one (Krishna). Bhaktivinoda Thakura’s commentary on the mantra is written in a similar pedagogical style.

6. Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati, “Sri Nama-sankirtana” in The Gaudiya, Volume 23, No. 10. Translated in Rays of the Harmonist, No. 19 (2009), 22–23.

About the Author: 

Satyaraja Dasa

Satyaraja Dasa (Steven Rosen) is an initiated disciple of His Divine Grace A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada. He is also founding editor of the Journal of Vaishnava Studies and associate editor of Back to Godhead magazine.