Because kirtana is done with others, our fellow chanters can help us immensely when we face our ultimate test.
By Pranada Devi Dasi
“Krishna gives himself to those who express this love: I will use all my breaths, including my last, to call your name.”
[Excerpted from Prema Kirtan: Journey into Sacred Sound, by Pranada Comtois. Copyright © 2022 Pranada L. Comtois. All rights reserved. This excerpt, from Chapter Seven, retains the book’s style for Sanskrit and other considerations. The printed book is available from the Krishna.com Store and Amazon.com, where the Kindle version can also be found. Audible.com has the audio version.]
Among my friends who’ve taken up mantra meditation as a practice there’s an abiding commitment to be present for each other when we die. Death is the most important moment of life in the sense that all our practices, prayers, and spiritual hopes lead to this crucial aspiration: let me remember Krishna as I die. If I can remember him as I take my last breath, if I can have his names on my lips as I breathe my last, he has promised to personally come for me. Krishna gives himself to those who express this love: I will use all my breaths, including my last, to call your name.
Why would someone be so devoted? Because they love him! Kirtan has aroused such a deep love for him in them – a love that had long been buried beneath an avalanche of false loves, false dreams, false values, and selfish desires.
What kind of relationship can you have with someone you’ve devoted everything to? A passionate and intimate one.
In your final bed, as you prepare to leave aside your body, you’ll know how much of your heart you’ve held back by what you find yourself absorbed in. We want death to be a moment of triumph; we know the moment is trying and we need help. For me and my friends, it’s an honor to serve one another in our striving for the rare attainment of pure love. So how to die is actually part of culturing kirtan, and it’s common in the bhakti culture to hold festivals of the holy name at one another’s deathbed.
The more our realization of the self and our relationship with the Supreme increases, we’ll find that chanting is making us fearless. The theoretical knowledge that we’re not the body-mind complex becomes lived – known fully – and we lose our fear of death and other types of loss. Everything happening to us here, in this world, is external to the self, that unit of spirit, untouched by time and matter, this is the deeper truth. Before we reach this direct knowing, we can remind ourselves of this truth throughout all our life experiences.
Like many people my age, I’ve lost many lifelong friends. We’ve stayed by each person, chanting kirtan and reading bhakti texts to them. At the moment someone departs, we let our kirtan soar in simultaneous sadness and joy, and the sound of our heartfelt union increases as we send them forward with affection.
Many of us raised our families together, took vacations together, celebrated the birth of our children, holidays, anniversaries, holy days, and festivals together. We dedicated ourselves to careers and worked for the good of the wider community. Throughout it all we also remained committed to our kirtan and japa practices, often meeting together to practice, because sanga, or the support of others who walk our path, is crucial in the practice of bhakti. We helped one another not neglect the inner pilgrimage and the imperative to prepare for the next life.
In essence it could be said that we lived two lives – the one everyone lives, and the one few choose to live – and achieved the advantages of both. Both material and spiritual pursuits are work, but if you choose to work only for a material life, you lose everything: at death you don’t take anything with you but your accumulated karma. If you choose only a material life and neglect your inner development, you’ll die only to be reborn again. To a spiritualist this is living as if you’ve never lived because you missed the aim of human life: to become free from the material entanglement. If you live spiritual practices, even if you don’t perfect them in this life, you pick up where you left off – your realization and progress isn’t lost with the death of the body – so there’s no loss. Better we choose to live the life of the heart by simply incorporating kirtan and japa into our lives.
It’s gratifying beyond words to devote yourself to the inner journey, have fellow travelers with whom you can compare notes about the obstacles, beauty, and surprises along the way and with whom you regularly share kirtan and japa, relish intriguing philosophical discussions, and engage your talents in ways that express your devotional heart. Such a life has so much meaning. How, then, can I describe what occurs when we sit with a friend as we help them try to launch themselves into the plane of existence beyond the mundane? How can I put into words the depth of gratitude one feels as one stands witness to a life worthy of being lived and cheer that soul onward? It’s a beautiful way to leave the body. If you like, you can make a similar commitment to your friends and family and ask that kirtan be part of your own rite of passage.
I want to take special note here that the holy names of the maha-mantra are different from other mantras. If we’ve cultivated a relationship with the Names in sadhana and genuinely done the inner work chanting brought up for us, then the person in the mantra will present himself to our awareness at that crucial moment even if we are ourselves unable to pronounce the mantra.
It’s by grace that we receive a spiritual body and identity. I’ve been speaking of the work we must do because our effort is a practical demonstration of our sincerity and desire – a demonstration of devotion and love. Ultimately, however, we’re dependent on grace. Grace, we learn from bhakti texts, is Krishna reciprocating our love. Thus we have our own participation in grace.
From our side we call out with feeling as we chant the holy names, throwing up both arms in surrender as Queen Draupadi did. Draupadi appears in the epic Mahabharata, the romantic, sociopolitical drama that nestles the Gita in its pages. She had five powerful husbands. Any one of them could have physically protected her, but a circumstance arose in which all of them were helpless. She was pulled into the throne room, where her husbands sat, humiliated, and a huge warrior pulled on her sari to disrobe her in front of her husbands’ enemies. At first Draupadi tried to grab hold of her sari to stop from being stripped, but realizing she was powerless, she raised one hand in the air and called out, “O Krishna, please help me!” Again she realized how futile it was to pit her strength against this mammoth attacking her, so she released her sari altogether and threw up both arms, again crying for help. Krishna responded by mystically supplying an unlimited length of sari cloth, making it impossible for the warrior to disrobe her.
We want to create an altar in the heart and invite our Divine Friend to sit there. Our Friend wants to know how much we want his participation in our lives, and how much we trust him. We’re habituated to ignoring him and have done so for a very long time. When we do pay him a little attention, once we get what we want from him we go on about our lives and, by our behavior, ask him to also be on his way as we return to ignoring him. We should be careful of this mood when practicing meditation on the holy name. Certainly we don’t want to develop a relationship with the person of the mantra, then send him away whenever his presence seems unnecessary or inconvenient – we want to keep both hands raised in supplication and submission, fully depending on grace. Of course, many of us have the tendency to dispense with God when we’ve had our fill, even if we don’t always recognize it in ourselves. We see this everywhere, and it’s graphically on display in India.
Every year, millions of people worship Durga, Shiva, or Ganesh by calling them into a deity sculpted particularly for a festival, at which they ask for boons. A few days later, when their festival is complete, priests recite mantras asking the deity, “Now please go back.” They then take the deity and throw it in a lake or the ocean to dispose of it. This is so prevalent in India that the disposal of the murtis pollutes rivers and lakes and regularly generates an outcry from concerned citizens and government officials. This self-serving “bhakti” is unbecoming and offers meager, material benefits and increasing material problems beyond only polluting lakes and rivers.
When we lean into our Friend as our only shelter, as Draupadi did, we show him that we trust him and that he can trust us – we’re not going to periodically throw him away. Love, after all, is reciprocal. We want his love, and he wants ours. When we become trustworthy, he gives himself to us in love and invites us home.
If you’re inclined to ask entry into the living world, then singing and dancing in prema-kirtan, following the ways of spiritually alive people, is your way. However, because Sri Krishna is subjugated by love and gives himself over completely in love, this crest jewel of all spiritual attainments is not easily achieved. The price we must pay is intense eagerness and longing to reach him. This is best cultured in good company.
This is Pranada Devi Dasi’s third book. Her first two, Wise-Love and Bhakti Shakti, have won multiple awards. She lives in Alachua, Florida, with her husband, BTG editor Nagaraja Dasa.