Sambandha (“relationship”) is an inner orientation for chanting Krishna’s name that brings us into His presence.
By Sachinandana Swami
If we don’t chant in awareness of our relationship with Krishna, we will only ever obtain a shadow of the Holy Name, not the real Name.
[Excerpted from The Living Name: A Guide to Chanting With Absorption. Copyright 2018 Saranagati Publishing. This section is from chapter two. It begins with a mention of yojana (“connecting”), which the author elaborates in chapter one, titled “Yojana: Aligning the Body, Mind and Heart in Chanting.” This excerpt retains the book’s typographical and grammatical styles.]
BOUND TOGETHER IN A RELATIONSHIP
After yojana, the next practice represents the most important element in my view: chanting with a sense of relationship. If you learn how to do this, there will be a vast improvement in your chanting.
The Sanskrit word sambandha indicates ‘relationship’ but literally it means ‘bound together’ (sam: together; bandha: bound). Sambandha is that understanding which binds you to Krishna. It is an inner orientation for chanting the Holy Name that brings you into the presence of the Lord.
Sambandha begins with a general sense that ‘I am a part of Krishna.’ Later, when you chant the Holy Name free from offences, your relationship with Krishna becomes clearer. At the last stage, the Holy Name reveals your unique spiritual identity, including your spiritual body, character traits, and the particular service you have for Radha and Krishna in the spiritual world. Srila Prabhupada writes in this connection:
By the practice of devotional service, beginning with hearing and chanting, the impure heart of a conditioned soul is purified, and thus he can understand his eternal relationship with the Supreme Personality of Godhead. That eternal relationship is described by Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu: jivera ‘svarüpa’ haya krishnera ‘nitya-dasa.’ The living entity is an eternal servitor of the Supreme Personality of Godhead. When one is convinced about this relationship, which is called sambandha, he then acts accordingly. (Sri Chaitanya-charitamrita, Adi 7.142, purport)
The greatest problem of material life is that we forget that we have a completely different identity to the one we have temporarily assumed right now. Our true identity is covered as we become bound by Maya’s illusions. When the self is lost – all is lost.
The purpose of any yoga system, particularly bhakti-yoga, must therefore be to again connect the disconnected soul to the Lord. In a well-known analogy, this means that the spark returns to the fire where it can sparkle and dance again.
CHAIN AROUND THE NECK
Srila Prabhupada describes how we are bound by maya in the material world:
It is a fact that every living entity is eternally a servant of Krishna. This is forgotten due to the influence of maya, which induces one to believe in material happiness. Being illusioned by maya, one thinks that material happiness is the only desirable object. This material consciousness is like a chain around the neck of the conditioned soul. As long as he is bound to that conception, he cannot get out of maya’s clutches. However, if by Krishna’s mercy he gets in touch with a bona fide spiritual master, abides by his order and serves him, engaging other conditioned souls in the Lord’s service, he then attains liberation and Lord Sri Krishna’s shelter. (Sri Chaitanya-charitamrita, Madhya 22.25, purport)
We conditioned souls can be released from Maya’s tight bond around our necks only by the mercy of guru and Krishna. Only when that chain is broken are we free to enter a loving sambandha with Krishna. Here is an anecdote that expresses this beautifully.
There was once a circus in India that burned to the ground. All the animals escaped with the exception of one elephant. The tigers broke free; the monkeys scurried away. Every animal managed to find freedom in spite of being behind prison bars – all except for this one robust elephant. Much to everyone’s surprise, it was discovered later that the elephant was tied to a pole with nothing more than a thin, flimsy rope. That elephant was stronger than all the other animals! His obstacle to freedom – a flimsy rope… how could it be?
A deeper study brought to light that when this elephant was young, it had been captured from the jungle and tied with an iron chain to a tree. For one week the calf tried to escape. It pulled on the chain until its leg was covered with blood and pus. The wound got infected and flies feasted. The young elephant continued trying frantically to break the chain but finally surrendered to its fate and stopped pulling. From that time onward his guards removed the chain and replaced it with a flimsy rope. The elephant never tried to escape. They then sold him to the circus.
What was going on?
This elephant always remembered how it was bound when it was young and could not escape. The iron chain still existed in its mind, even after being physically removed. For the elephant, the chain forever bonded him to the sentiment: ‘I can’t change my fate.’
Each of us is also bound by an iron chain in our minds. It is covered with the rust of impressions and desires hardened over many lifetimes! You cannot see it with these eyes though you can know its presence by behaviours stemming from your conditioned nature. The chain keeps us under indenture: we are tightly tied to our present condition, to our present identity and to the material world. Every time we feel impelled to advance spiritually, it tugs at us doing its best to halt our progress.
Worse still, our problems deepen because this chain feels like a part of us. We are so accustomed to being in maya that we have never known anything else. Who would you be without the chain? It’s frightening to glimpse into the unknown.
Can we break free from this chain?
Virtually impossible. The chain is far stronger than any actual iron chain. We can escape a physical chain if we crack it with heavy tongs, but in this world there are no tongs to destroy the chain in the mind.
FREED BY KRSHNA
But there is hope! Krishna lives in the inner mind which is called the chitta in Sanskrit and the subconsciousness by modern psychologists. As the Deity of the chitta, Krishna is known as Chitta Hari because he is the enchanter of the inner mind. He can easily break the chain and free us from the clutches of past conditioning – if we seriously turn to Him.
And that is the whole point of chanting in sambandha: to become aware that we have a relationship with the Lord and need to turn to Him. In Sri Chaitanya-charitamrita (Madhya 22.33) it is said:
krishna, tomara hana’ yadi bale eka-bara
maya-bandha haite krishna tare kare para
One is immediately freed from the clutches of maya if he seriously and sincerely says: ‘My dear Lord Krishna, although I have forgotten You for so many long years in the material world, today, I am surrendering unto You. I am Your sincere and serious servant. Please engage me in Your service.’
This powerful prayer brings us into divine connection, or at least into the awareness that we have a divine relationship with Krishna. Thus, it brings us closer to Krishna’s saving grace. We can see this in action during the amazing pastime where Krishna delivers the snake Kaliya from its demoniac mentality. After the dramatic moments when Krishna crushes Kaliya’s hundreds of hoods while dancing on them, Kaliya, wearied and barely breathing, says:
O my Lord, it is so difficult to give up one’s conditioned nature, though it causes us to identify with that which is unreal. We serpents are bitter, envious and angry by nature. How can we possibly give this up on our own? Thankfully, you are the omniscient Lord of the universe and can free us from our illusion. (Srimad-Bhagavatam 10.16.56–59, paraphrased)
MEDITATING ON THE MEANING OF THE MANTRA
In the Hari-bhakti-vilasa, Srila Sanatana Goswami encourages us to practice mantrartha-chintanam, that is, we must meditate on the meaning of the mantra. Only then is the full power of the mantra released. If we’re absentminded and not aware of the meaning, we remain unfocused.
In the aforementioned verse from Sri Chaitanya-charitamrita (Madhya 22.33) we learn the secret: proper inner orientation incorporates the meaning of the mantra in the mind: ‘Please engage me in your service.’ By this, sambandha-jnana is established and thus we understand that we have a relationship with Krishna. The whole idea of chanting the Holy Name is to attract the presence of the Lord by glorifying Him. We call Him with affection because He possesses all the best qualities of beauty, strength, kindness, knowledge and is capable of the supermost form of action . . . and because we really need Him!
All the acharyas (great teachers), such as Jiva and Raghunatha Goswamis, Gopal Guru Goswami and Bhaktivinoda Thakura, have left us lists of meanings of the maha-mantra. Srila Prabhupada compacts all of these into the prayer: ‘My dear Radha, my dear Krishna, please engage me in Your service.’
In this connection, Srila Prabhupada gave an instruction that guides kirtana leaders when they sing: Your business is not to satisfy the crowd.
Your business is to satisfy Krishna, and then the crowd will be automatically satisfied. We are not going to please the crowd. We are going to give them Krishna. So you should be very much careful whether you are delivering Krishna in the right way. Then they’ll be satisfied. Your only business should be to satisfy Krishna.*
Kirtana is not primarily about music, rhythms, fancy mridanga-beats, karatala playing, attractive voices or melodies. The Lord is not really attracted to our music; He has gopis in the spiritual world who are expert musicians far beyond our capabilities. They are served by thirty-three thousand ragas and Krishna Himself plays His flute all day in a style that transforms hearts, making even rocks melt! That is real music. He really doesn’t need our music. He only needs our hearts.
Kirtana is about a relationship; this cannot be emphasised enough. If we don’t become aware of our relationship with Krishna and don’t begin to meditate on where we are right now in that relationship, we will sing more or less like folk singers and never enter the mysteries of the mantra. Thus, Krishna will not be present in our kirtana because we are not present in our relationship with Him. The relationship is all He looks for. If we overlook this, we will never enter the world of kirtana but remain in the world of mundane music. Srila Haridasa Thakura, the great teacher of the Holy Name, also explains this:
If a person by a saintly Vaishnava’s mercy understands his relationship with Lord Krishna and chants Lord Krishna’s Holy Name, he then attains a great treasure of spiritual love. (Sri Harinama Cintamani 3.26)
The word kirtana itself is derived from the root krit, to glorify. Thus, ask yourself before you begin to sing: ‘Whom do I glorify now?’ You can actually visualise yourself standing before your Lord and addressing Him through His Holy Name, ‘O Radha, O Krishna . . .’
After we have connected with Krishna and start to address Him in a mood of servitorship, then if we are able, it’s wonderful to add violin, sitar, flute, etc., to produce a concert worthy of pleasing Krishna. But first things first: the relationship should always be the focal point. With that in our hearts, we can furnish further ornaments. If, however, you are not present in the relationship, you miss the point of kirtana and will always practice shadow kirtana, which will not nourish you spiritually.
THE REAL NAME VERSUS THE SHADOW NAME
Srila Bhaktivinoda Thakura has written two books on chanting: Sri Harinama Chintamani and the sequel Bhajana Rahasya. He says in the third chapter of Sri Harinama Chintamani that we need to chant in the awareness of our relationship with Krishna. If we don’t do this then we will only ever obtain a shadow of the Holy Name, not the real Name.
yavat sambandha jnana sthira nahi haya
tavat anarthe namabhasera ashraya
As long as someone does not understand his relationship with Krishna, the individual soul will take shelter of namabhasa – the shadow of the Holy Name. (Sri Harinama Chintamani 3.27)
There is a difference between the real Name and its shadow, just as there is a difference between an actual tasty meal on a plate and a projected image of one. We can’t actually eat from the latter. It is a shadow of the real thing leaving us hungry, and as a result, forcing us to go elsewhere to eat something real. It is the same with chanting. If we chant the shadow of the Holy Name, that is to chant without any conscious awareness of our relationship with Krishna, we also remain spiritually hungry, and as a result, we are drawn to taste the pleasures of the material world. Without the spirit of the Name, we are forced to seek out material satisfaction and make unconscious compromises to our Krishna consciousness. The tragedy is that this is often done unconsciously and we don’t even know what we’re really doing or what we’re really missing!
You might ask: Why can’t we just remain neutral and go on chanting the Name of Krishna distractedly without becoming materially motivated?
The constitutional nature of the soul is to constantly gravitate towards enjoyment. We need enjoyment like we need water. Therefore, if we don’t get spiritual enjoyment, we have no other choice but to look for short term illusory material enjoyment. Hence, it is absolutely essential to get spiritually nourished! If we don’t, our hearts will feel immediately spiritually weak. This is an important signal we often miss and must urgently pay attention to.
Therefore, as long as one does not learn from a bona fide spiritual master about the true relationship that exists between oneself and the Supreme Lord, he or she remains consigned to the anartha of ignorance.
At a certain point in my life, I stopped all I was doing to look back on the years behind me. I was deeply disappointed because I could see that I had not made full use of the teachings of Krishna consciousness. I still had most of the symptoms of material consciousness. I needed to change something or felt I would die of frustration! It was then that I began a sincere inquiry into why my spiritual progress had come to a halt and how I could truly advance from where I was. I asked the question: What is missing in my life?
After arduous soul-searching for maybe three to four years, one dear Vaishnava who was very close to Srila Prabhupada reminded me in a moving conversation of the importance of chanting the Holy Name properly. He challenged me, ‘Is that not what your spiritual master had told you? Why have you forgotten?’
These words came from the mouth of a man who chanted 64 rounds a day – there was tremendous force behind them. I thought to myself, ‘He really does know what he’s talking about!’ so I received his words deeply and felt a new awakening to the teachings of my spiritual master. Then I knew what I had to do!
I began anew my journey with the Holy Name and discovered many things I had only heard of before. Perhaps the most important realisation was that we have to chant the real Name and not the shadow of the Name.
Let me ask you now: Have you achieved what you most deeply desire in your spiritual life? What is your plan to get there? How long can you go on tasting shadow spiritual experiences – one more year? Two more years? Three more years? It’s a serious issue. Personally, I have spent a lot of my life in shadow chanting and I am still falling into that trap. When I look around I see many devotees who are not yet spiritually satisfied because they too are experiencing only the shadow of spiritual life. They attain a semblance, a look-alike, but not the real thing . . . It is for this reason we are not as spiritually strong as we would wish to be.
Do you have strong friendships? By this I mean people close to your heart, who are with you through good and bad times, people with whom your life is tightly bound. Will these relationships endure at your deathbed and beyond?
There is only one person who is tightly bound to us beyond the barrier of death. He has always been with us, even before this life. He is a friend who knows the contents of our heart . . . and yet we have somehow managed to forget Him. We have inconceivably lost our most important relationship . . .
Of course, in the ultimate sense this relationship can never be lost; we only lose our consciousness of it. We are always a part of Krishna for we are souls and the soul is part of God. But we have to awaken from our forgetfulness to fully benefit from that one relationship.
In the Second World War, family members from countries like Poland and Romania were torn apart. Years after the war they again found each other. Imagine the moving scene when a son was reunited with his old parents. How must he have felt? In some cases, people were infants when they were separated from their families but nevertheless they felt a deep bond when they met as adults. Their natural relationships started to blossom as soon as they were active in those relationships – talking to each other, eating and working together as a family.
Just as these inactive relationships were revived instantaneously, our relationship with Krishna can be reactivated the moment we turn to Him – for example when we go on pilgrimage to a holy place such as Vrindavana, the home of Radha and Krishna. Transcendental feelings of love awaken just by visiting Them ‘at home.’
In Vrindavana or Mayapur, the latter is home of Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, one can engage in chanting or other devotional practices and especially feel, ‘Krishna is here and I have a substantial relationship with Him.’ No one has to tell you about it. It comes naturally. Srila Prabhupada writes in The Nectar of Devotion: ‘The places in the eighty-four-square-mile district of Mathura are so beautifully situated on the banks of the Yamuna that anyone who goes there will never want to return to this material world.’**
SRILA BHAKTIVINODA THAKURA’S RECOMMENDATION
For a divine relationship to manifest, we need three elements:
•Bhakta: the devotee
•Bhagavan: the Supreme Lord Krishna
•Bhakti: the process of devotional service (chanting is a limb of bhakti).
When these three come together, the Holy Name dances on the tongue of the devotee as described by Srila Rupa Goswami,
‘Love (bhakti) makes Krishna dance.
It makes the devotee dance. It dances itself. The three dance together.’
(Sri Chaitanya-charitamrita, Antya 18.18)
For this kind of magical chanting to take place, Srila Bhaktivinoda Thakura recommends the following three-step process that renews our understanding and establishes our position in relation to Krishna. The steps respectively address the questions:
1) Who am I?
2) To whom do I relate?
3) Where does this relationship take place?
Step 1 Connect to your spiritual essence and identity
I am an atomic particle of consciousness and the eternal servant of Krishna.
Step 2 Connect to the other person in the relationship
Krishna is the infinite conscious entity and my only master.
Step 3 Inhabit the space of the relationship
The material world is a prison house meant to reform my adverse tendencies and teach me to be present in my relationship with Krishna in the sacred space of kirtana and japa.
By deliberately creating this space of spiritual consciousness within, you can actually chant with devotion. Sambandha is established the moment a devotee sincerely turns to Krishna and thinks ‘I don’t wish to be a slave of Maya anymore. It is enough! I don’t want to be chained to an ordinary material existence in a world of birth and death, slapped by Maya at every opportunity she gets! It’s now time to turn to my relationship with You.’
*Srila Prabhupada, lecture on Bhagavad-gita 7.1, Los Angeles, December 2, 1968.
**The Nectar of Devotion, p. 111.