If material sound can create astonishing effects, what transformations might transcendental sound produce?
By Vishakha Devi Dasi
Transcendental sound can transport us from this world of suffering to our eternal, spiritual home.
The beauty, harmony, and quality of our existence often depend on the nature of sounds we hear and make. We’ve all experienced how hurtful and undermining, as well as how enthusing and empowering, words can be. Words can shape the intent and direction of our lives, strengthen or dismantle our fortitude, make us angry or gentled, alienated or grateful.
While mundane sound is undoubtedly powerful, transcendental sound can’t be compared to anything of this world. We get a hint of that fact in the beginning of Bhagavad-gita (1.14), where we learn, “On the other side, both Lord Krishna and Arjuna, stationed on a great chariot drawn by white horses, sounded their transcendental conchshells.” The sounds that Krishna and His sincere devotees make are transcendental; they are qualitatively different from mundane sounds.
God makes sounds? Yes, He’s a person, and when He wants to communicate He makes sounds. But unlike the sounds we make, His sounds are divine. The infinite Supreme Person cannot be conceived by or contained within our senses, mind, and intellect; however, since He really is infinite, He has the power to make Himself known to our finite selves through the medium of sound.
If we take the opportunity to know God through sound, it’s tremendously exciting – who can fathom that our tiny, fallible self has the possibility of connecting with the primal creator of all that be? Yet, if that Supreme Person decides to reveal Himself to us, who can stop Him? Who can declare that He couldn’t or shouldn’t or wouldn’t?
For millions of years, great sages have chanted and spoken philosophical truths on the banks of holy rivers. Piercing the mind, the supra-mundane sound uttered by such sages enters our consciousness through scriptural writings, and we ponder deep philosophical and metaphysical truths. By infusing our consciousness with supramundane sound, saturating it with divinity, we’re spiritually nourished and enlightened and begin to experience the transformative potency of transcendental sound. Those vibrations cut through our worldly mind and intellect and awaken our understanding of our spiritual existence. We learn that beyond the intellect is the spiritual element, the soul – me.
When we open ourselves to authentic transcendental sound waves, our progress and happiness in spiritual life are assured. Our worldview radically shifts, along with our values, goals, priorities, diet, habits, likes, dislikes, and the way we want to spend our time. What happens is “a revolution in the impious lives of this world’s misdirected civilization” (Bhagavatam 1.5.11).
Srila Prabhupada’s followers are world famous for unabashedly promoting the chanting of the maha-mantra: Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare / Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare. The skeptic in us will wonder at the remarkable potency attributed to reciting these words both privately as a personal meditation (japa) and publicly in call-and-response fashion (kirtana) accompanied by musical instruments. Unequivocally, we’re informed that chanting the Hare Krishna maha-mantra wipes material dust from our mind. In other words, the sound of the mantra powerfully alters our consciousness by shattering our misconceptions and establishing us in our actual identity. As the transcendental maha-mantra conquers the material mind and allows it to access the spiritual knowledge, quality, and energy of the soul, we feel the practical results of chanting: the distresses of conditional life lessen, and we are more peaceful and positive.
As spiritual beings, we’ve been searching for these experiences from time immemorial. We crave more than negation; we want a full draught from the ocean of divine nectar. When we chant the maha-mantra, the holy name bathes us, a soul, in spiritual joy, knowledge, and love. With our heartfelt exclamation of “Hare Krishna,” our mind, body, and intelligence are saturated with transcendence. Material energy is transformed into spiritual. Srimad-Bhagavatam (2.1.11) tells us, “Constant chanting of the holy name of the Lord after the ways of the great authorities is the doubtless and fearless way of success for all, including those who are free from all material desires, those who are desirous of all material enjoyment, and also those who are self-satisfied by dint of transcendental knowledge.”
Whoever we are, we will achieve spiritual success when we chant without material desire. And there lies the rub.
Just prior to the beginning of the great battle of Kurukshetra, the Kaurava leaders blew their conchshells. “Bhishma, the great valiant grandsire of the Kuru dynasty, the grandfather of the fighters, blew his conchshell very loudly, making a sound like the roar of a lion. . . . After that, the conchshells, drums, bugles, trumpets and horns were all suddenly sounded, and the combined sound was tumultuous.” (Gita 1.12–13) Unlike Krishna’s and Arjuna’s conchshells, mentioned earlier, the sounds of these conchshells were of this world, not transcendental. Srila Prabhupada notes the vast difference between the material and spiritual sounds: “The sounding of the transcendental conchshells indicated that there was no hope of victory for the other side.” (Gita 1.14, Purport) We cannot overstate the importance of the distinction between material and spiritual sound. That which is connected to Sri Krishna is transcendental and victorious, and that disconnected from Him, mundane and subject to the inviolable laws of material nature.
When we consider the transformative effect of hearing from God and His representatives, we must use our discriminatory powers to determine who is actually representing God as opposed to those who are after their own interests. Failing to do this, we may be cheated. A representative of God follows high moral standards, serves God selflessly and ceaselessly, and speaks what is confirmed by saints and the scriptures. God’s representatives do not make up their own process for realizing the self and God, but instruct others in bona fide, God-given processes.
Hearing from an authentic representative, however, is half the equation. The other half is for us to become qualified recipients of the glorious message those representatives offer. For an understanding of how to do this, we can look at the ten offenses against the holy name mentioned in the Padma Purana, for if we can avoid those, we’ll experience the spiritual potency of transcendental sound.
The first offense, to vilify devotees who teach the Lord’s glories, indicates that we need to appreciate rather than find fault with God’s devotees. God’s devotees are dear to Him, and He will not be pleased with or reveal Himself to those who criticize His near and dear ones.
The second offense is to consider the holy names of the Lord mundane. The Lord is known in different places by different names, but that does not in any way minimize His fullness. Srila Prabhupada writes, “Any nomenclature which is meant for the Supreme Lord is as holy as the others because they are all meant for the Lord. Such holy names are as powerful as the Lord, and there is no bar for anyone in any part of the creation to chant and glorify the Lord by the particular name of the Lord as it is locally understood. They are all auspicious, and one should not distinguish such names of the Lord as material commodities.” (Bhagavatam 2.1.11, Purport) God’s names are as transcendental as God Himself, and, grasping this, we honor those names. And we do not equate His names with the names of demigods, however powerful they may be.
The third offense is to neglect the orders of the authorized spiritual masters. The spiritual master’s instructions are to help us control our mind and senses so we can come closer to Krishna. When we follow those instructions, our spiritual journey will progress unhampered.
To vilify scriptures or Vedic knowledge, the fourth offense, like vilifying God’s devotees, displeases God and will alienate God from us. We honor all bona fide scriptures.
The fifth offense is to think the glories of the holy name are exaggerated. We need to humbly recognize our minuteness and limitations and acknowledge that the potency of the holy name of God is beyond our comprehension, just as God Himself is beyond our comprehension.
The sixth offense, to interpret the holy name, is along the same lines. Our minds are continuously accepting and rejecting, and our duty is to accept what’s favorable and reject what’s unfavorable for our spiritual development. There’s a place for creativity and imagination in Krishna consciousness, but they need to be guided by the saints and scriptures, not based on our mental concoctions and flights of fancy. So we don’t interpret the holy name, but accept it as it’s described in the scriptures. In Srila Prabhupada words, “Neophytes, due to their being in the lower stage of devotional service, are invariably envious, so much so that they invent their own ways and means of devotional regulations without following the acharyas. As such, even if they make a show of constantly chanting the holy name of the Lord, they cannot relish the transcendental taste of the holy name.” (Bhagavatam 2.3.24, Purport)
The seventh offense, to commit sins intentionally on the strength of the holy name, is especially egregious. Srila Prabhupada explains, “In the scriptures it is said that one can be liberated from the effects of all sinful actions simply by chanting the holy name of the Lord. One who takes advantage of this transcendental method and continues to commit sins on the expectation of neutralizing the effects of sins by chanting the holy name of the Lord is the greatest offender at the feet of the holy name. Such an offender cannot purify himself by any recommended method of purification. In other words, one may be a sinful man before chanting the holy name of the Lord, but after taking shelter in the holy name of the Lord and becoming immune, one should strictly restrain oneself from committing sinful acts with a hope that his method of chanting the holy name will give him protection.” (Bhagavatam 2.1.11, Purport)
The eighth offense is to consider the holy name of the Lord to be a materially auspicious activity. Chanting God’s names is much more than a pious activity. Krishna, the Supreme Person, is the supreme enjoyer, not our servant or order supplier. We shouldn’t use Him or His names for our personal service. The holy name of Krishna is nondifferent from Krishna and allows us to connect with Krishna and resume our natural, happy position of serving Him with loving abandon. So our chanting should be for Krishna’s pleasure, not our own material profit. There are various kinds of pious activities that are done for material benefit, but our motivation for chanting the holy name should not be to benefit ourselves materially but to please Krishna.
The ninth offense is to instruct those who are uninterested in chanting the holy names of Krishna about the transcendental nature of His name. Such unwilling people may blaspheme Krishna and the process of chanting, which will serve to increase their distance from Krishna. We’re advised to share this knowledge with those who are receptive to it.
The tenth offense is to maintain material attachments and to become uninterested in the holy name of the Lord even after hearing many instructions about it. We want to steadily increase our attachment to spiritual activities, for this will free us from the mistaken idea that we’re the enjoyers and controllers of this world and give us entrance into Krishna’s world.
Transcendental sound comes from a realm beyond this world, and that sound can transport us to that divine realm. To be so transported, we first need to hear from authentic spiritual teachers – people who have properly heard the sages and scriptures and have realized and are following their teachings. And we need to avoid committing offenses to the holy names of God.
The sound of the maha-mantra powerfully shatters our misconceptions and establishes us in our actual identity as spiritual beings, atmas. By chanting attentively, we feel practical results: we’re less fearful and angry, less envious of others, and more satisfied within ourselves. In a word, we’re happier. We enjoy the sound of the mantra, its pleasant company, and the effect of listening and hearing. The holy name bathes us in spiritual joy, knowledge, and love. As we go on chanting God’s names with attention, carefully hearing each divine word, our mind and body are transformed. By mindfully chanting Krishna’s holy names in the company of His devotees, we come closer to Him. In this way we can have a full draught of the ocean of bliss and satisfy our self – a soul – who has been thirsty from time immemorial.
Chanting the holy name of the Lord is the doubtless way of success for all; the more attentively and sincerely we chant the names of the Lord, the more spiritual progress we will make and the more He will reveal Himself to us. In Srila Prabhupada’s words (Chaitanya-charitamrita, Adi 17.212, Purport), “Any man from any part of the world who practices chanting of the holy name of Krishna can be liberated and after death go back home, back to Godhead.”
Vishakha Devi Dasi has been writing for BTG since 1973. The author of six books, she is the temple president at Bhaktivedanta Manor in the UK. She and her husband, Yadubara Dasa, produce and direct films, most recently the biopic on the life of Srila Prabhupada Hare Krishna! The Mantra, the Movement, and the Swami Who Started It All. Visit her website at OurSpiritualJourney.com.