Why committed practitioners of bhakti-yoga chant the Hare Krishna mantra at least a minimum number of times every day.
By Vishakha Devi Dasi
An appreciation of the value of the daily practice of japa.
Due to our material desires, we’re conditioned souls with, among other things, multifarious layers of psychological complexities. One of the layers covering us, for example, may be busyness: I’m too swamped to be with you, to help you. Prejudice may be another layer: I make assumptions and judgments about you based on your gender, race, or religion. Lack of confidence in myself can be yet another layer: I doubt myself because I’m afraid I’m not good enough and I’ll be embarrassed. Distrust, yet another: I isolate myself because I’m afraid I’ll be hurt.
How do we remove these psychological layers and access our actual self, the joyous soul that gives consciousness to the body? In fact, the endeavor to peel away our layers of conditioning – to allow the self (the atma, or soul) to become more and more prominent – is meant to be a lifetime endeavor and a priority for each of us. In Srila Prabhupada’s words, “The need of the spirit soul is that he wants to get out of the limited sphere of material bondage and fulfill his desire for complete freedom. He wants to get out of the covered walls of the greater universe. He wants to see the free light and the spirit.” (Bhagavatam 1.2.8, Purport)
To be freed of conditioning may sound disquieting, like someone pulling us – unwilling – from a safe and comfortable haven. It may seem we’ll be vulnerable, awkward, and ill-prepared. But in truth, it’s our layers of conditioning that create interpersonal blocks and unnecessary distancing. It’s our conditioning that causes us endless problems and discomfort. If we can remove those layers, we’ll reveal an empathetic, kind, friendly person who can hear without negativity, who can help others without expectation of return, and who trusts and has confidence despite past experience. We’ll discover someone with unflinching faith in guru and God, and with genuine love for His creation and created beings. We’ll find an enthusiastic devotee of God.
A surprising number of people are awakening to this understanding of reality and are determined to free themselves of conditioning. They’ve felt the cry of the soul and are responding to that cry. Sometimes even surprising themselves with their own earnestness, these spiritual seekers absorb themselves in hearing and chanting God’s names, in learning about Him and His teachings, and in relishing the company of likeminded souls. In short, these people want to experience the “free light and the spirit” that Srila Prabhupada writes of. They want to break the shackles of conditioning that keep them bound to this temporary world, and to do so they confidently and courageously step out of the ordinary and into the extraordinary. They engage in daily spiritual practices, called sadhana.
Day by Day
Although we’re meant to be in the spiritual world, for eons we haven’t been there, and that long absence has created two sorts of problems. One is that we’re so used to being in this world that it appears normal for us to be in a place where everything is temporary and beset with difficulties. The other is that, even as we try to remove the many layers of conditioning that cover us, we can easily lose our focus and resolve and become covered once again. Layers of conditioning can easily re-enfold us, simply because we’re so accustomed to being so enfolded.
Thus the inviolable necessity of sadhana for all spiritual practitioners.
The Sanskrit word sadhana means “leading straight to a goal”; it also means “subduing a disease” and “accomplishment, fulfilment.” All these definitions are relevant. Srila Prabhupada has directed his followers to chant the maha-mantra daily: Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare/ Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare. Chanting God’s names, which are nondifferent from God Himself, leads us straight to the goal of experiencing the free light and the spirit. The sincere repetition of these names counteracts our disease of identifying with our coverings rather than our actual self, the soul. And by dedicating ourselves to this regular, daily practice we will succeed spiritually; we’ll accomplish our goal.
Chanting the maha-mantra as a personal meditation is traditionally done on japa beads, which consist of 108 beads strung together and one “head” bead marking the beginning and end of the “round.” The practitioner chants the full, sixteen-word mantra on each individual bead and then moves on to the next bead. Completing this circuit by returning to the head bead constitutes one round, and Srila Prabhupada required his initiated disciples to chant a minimum of sixteen rounds daily without fail, about a two-hour service.
The first time I completed a round, I found it such an arduous and drawn-out process that I thought it was practically miraculous that devotees chanted sixteen of them daily. I was quite certain that I could never and would never do that myself. But for various reasons I kept at it, and things shifted, as they do when anyone practices anything for long enough.
The practice of chanting japa, however, is different from ordinary practices. It’s liberating, and because it involves God, who is beyond the purview of our senses and mind, it brings with it the flavor and promise of mystery and wonders to come.
At a glance, repetition may look like invariability. But by repeatedly chanting the maha-mantra one notices differences emerging from the calming and uplifting pleasure of a routine practice. The sameness of repetition is never the point. Rather, our japa meditation is a door we daily step through, on the other side of which we are, to some extent, emptied of distractions and filled with something better. We leave the familiar behind to embrace what is unfamiliar and inexplicable and transcendent. No matter what’s happening in our lives, conscientiously doing this practice allows us to deliver ourselves to the moment at hand.
Eventually a point will come where we can no more resist picking up our japa beads and locating the head bead to begin our mantra meditation than we can keep ourselves from taking a breath after exhaling. Via our commitment to daily repetition, the simple act of chanting japa allures the mind. The more years the repetition goes on, the stronger its focusing force becomes, and the more our layers of covering thin under the sweet glare of our commitment to hearing and chanting God’s names.
Over the years, our positive responses to our determined practice will grow. We’ll always know where our sacred japa beads are, and as we use them to absorb ourselves in the rhythmic chanting, time will slide by. Initial moments of resistance dissolve as the melodious sound of the mantra encourages us to continue. The operational chatter of our mind begins to still and may even surprise us by grinding to a halt. We transition into the almost alien territory of contented flow and focused concentration. After doing it thousands of times, chanting becomes a welcomed oasis of sanity in an often insane world.
Before japa meditation entered my life, hankering and lamenting were forces that exiled me from the present, that caused me to repeatedly revisit hackneyed thoughts and irrelevant and unhelpful events. Long gone or not yet present incidents were intruding in the middle of my present-moment life. Committing to the routine of sadhana inexorably settled my mind. No longer beset by a swirl of options, it first acquiesces to and then willingly accepts my daily spiritual practice, having experienced its remarkable benefits. The rhythm of the chanting, its cadence, its ebb and flow, is transporting.
For brief moments we’re aware that we need nothing more than this otherworldly sound, that the enemy within, relieved of his darkness and guile by the presence of spirit, has befriended us. Our innumerable coverings lessen.
Such are the rewards of devotional repetition.
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.