By Satyaraja Dasa
A talk given at a yoga center in Rockland County, New York, explains why yoga and chanting Hare Krishna go well together.
I’ve been asked to introduce this program by briefly speaking about the relationship between chanting and modern-day yoga, to discuss how the sacred sound of the maha-mantra, for example, can benefit one’s yoga practice. For those who don’t know, the maha-mantra – Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare/ Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare – is a sacred sound vibration, affirmed in Vedic texts as the best of all mantras, or transcendental utterances. It serves to free the mind of all unwanted distractions, to help one progress in spiritual life, and finally to bring one into the highly advanced realms of love of God.
The connection between this mantra and the Yoga-sutra of Patanjali may not be obvious at first, but a careful look reveals that chanting such sacred sounds is a natural part of Patanjali’s strategy, as we shall see. First of all, the Yoga-sutra, originating in roughly the third century of the Common Era, should not be taken as an isolated text. It appeared in a milieu of Vedic rituals, cultured brahmanas, ancient Sanskrit texts, and a deep understanding of theological truth, which included daily chanting as a religious practice. Patanjali’s work was an addendum to an already evolved spiritual environment.
Moreover – and contrary to popular belief – in all its 196 aphorisms, the Yoga-sutra rarely espouses the need for breathing exercises (pranayama) and sitting postures (asana). Perhaps four or five such verses exist in the text. Rather, it centers on meditation, focusing the mind, and the importance of mastery of one’s senses.
This is clear throughout the text, beginning with the famous second sutra of the first section, which includes the famous words yogash citta-vritti-nirodhah. This is lauded as Patanjali’s succinct definition of yoga. As most of you know, it basically means, “Yoga is the restriction of the mind’s fluctuations.” In other words, it refers to getting the mind under control – instead of letting the mind control you.
Lord Krishna talks about this very same principle in the Bhagavad-gita (6.6), a yoga text that predates Patanjali’s work: “For one who has conquered the mind, the mind is the best of friends; but for one who has failed to do so, his mind will be the greatest enemy.”
And how does one get the mind under control? This is where we see the natural correlation between mantras and yoga as expressed by Patanjali. The two Sanskrit syllables of the word mantra can be taken to mean release or liberation (tra) of the mind (man). Mantra is thus a sound that can liberate the mind from all things material. In other words, controlling it, or situating it in transcendence.
Patanjali was aware of this. When he discusses the expected obstacles on the path to yogic perfection, he highlights the importance of focusing the mind (1.32). If the mind is focused, he teaches, it is less likely to get entangled in the material world and lost in the delusion of everyday existence (1.4). This is where mantras come in, and Patanjali mentions mantra chanting as a necessary part of the yoga process.
He says in the first verse of the Yoga-sutra’s Second Section, which focuses on practice, that mantras, among other things, are an inescapable part of the yoga paradigm, and specifically mantras in relation to Ishvara, or God. He writes, tapah-svadhyayeshvara-pranidhanani kriya-yogah: “Austerity, study of scriptures (svadhyaya, which includes the chanting of mantras), and dedication (pranidhana) to the Supreme Lord (ishvara) constitute the way to yoga.” Although Patanjali doesn’t use the word mantra in this verse, the famous Yoga-sutra commentator known as Vyasa (not to be confused with the compiler of the Vedas) writes in his commentary, “Svadhyaya in this context also refers to japa and general repetition of purifying mantras.” Again, the Yoga-sutra did not arise in a vacuum, and the culture that gave birth to it considered the chanting of mantras fundamental to spiritual practice.
In the first verse of the Fourth Section, which is about ultimate liberation, we are again directed toward the chanting of mantras, this time more specifically. Patanjali writes, janmaushadhi-mantra-tapah-samadhi-jah siddhayah: “The mystic perfections (siddhayah) come (jah) with birth (janma), [or they may be attained through] herbs (aushadhi), mantras, austerities (tapas), or the culmination of concentration (samadhi).” So, mantras – mantras dedicated to Ishvara – figure prominently in both Patanjali’s method of practice and his concept of ultimate liberation.
The Mantra Om
Patanjali doesn’t mention the maha-mantra as such, but he does mention om in 1.23–1.29 and elsewhere. Here he calls om the “direct route to yogic perfection.” Now, again, let us be aware of context: As far back as the Upanishads we are taught that om is the sound representation of Krishna. This is specifically mentioned in the Gopala-tapani Upanishad, and it was well known to the teachers of the past. In fact, the great sixteenth-century philosopher Jiva Goswami quotes the Padma Purana (6.226.22–23) as follows in his Bhakti-sandarbha (178):
“Regarding om (aum), a represents Vishnu, u represents Sri (Lakshmi), and m represents the soul, the twenty-fifth element and a servant of these two [Vishnu and Lakshmi].”
Sri Jiva’s contemporary Raghava Pandita offers an even more esoteric reading in his book Krishna-bhakti-ratna-prakasha (verse 49):
“[In aum] the letter a refers to Krishna, the supreme leader, the letter u refers to Radha, and the letter m refers to the jiva soul.”
One might ask why Sri Jiva and Raghava Pandita seem to disagree on details. But in fact the essence of what they are saying is the same: They are basically saying that a in aum refers to God, u refers to His energy or potency, and m refers to the tiny soul, who is meant to serve Them.
What we have here essentially is the maha-mantra, a prayer to Radha and Krishna: “O Krishna (God), O Hara (Radha, Krishna’s energy or feminine aspect), please engage me (the living being) in Your service.” The connection between om and the maha-mantra is directly mentioned by the great nineteenth-century Vaishnava theologian Bhaktivinoda Thakura in his book Bhajana-rahasya (Prathama-yama-sadhana 1.29): “The three syllables in omkara – a, u, and m – represent Hari, Krishna, and Rama.”
Although Patanjali predates some of these specific references, the ideas themselves are ancient, and it would be highly unlikely that Patanjali wouldn’t have known about them, and his contemporaries, his cultured and learned audience, would have known them too.
The Name and the Named Are the Same
Now, why should mantras, like om or the maha-mantra, be so important? It’s because they are identical to the spiritual entity they invoke. This is what the tradition teaches. The sages ask us to reflect on a thing and its name. In this world, they are two different things, right? If you chant “water, water, water,” your thirst is not quenched. This is because the word water and the substance water are not the same. But that’s not true for spiritual substance: God and His name are identical. In fact, Patanjali alludes to this notion when he writes, in Yoga-sutra 3.17, “The name associated with an object, the object itself, and the conceptual existence of the object – all three must in some sense interpenetrate each other. By contemplating the distinction and sameness between these three, one understands the true meaning of sounds.”
This is the idea, and this is what the sages of India taught. When extended to God and the spiritual world, we see that all distinctions between the name and the named evaporate. This understanding was part of Indian culture long before the Yoga-sutra existed.
So the chanting of mantras is how one gets the mind under control, because the mantra frees the mind of all material concepts and establishes it in a spiritual environment, focusing it on God, who is identical to His name. Therefore, Krishna says in the Gita (6.27): “The yogi whose mind is fixed on Me verily attains the highest happiness. By virtue of his identity with the spiritual element, he is liberated; his mind is peaceful, his passions are quieted, and he is freed from sin.” This is the perfection of yoga.
Controlling the Wild Horses
As my spiritual master, Srila Prabhupada, says in his book On the Way to Krishna, “The mind is always concocting objects for happiness. I am always thinking, ‘This will make me happy,’ or ‘That will make me happy.’ ‘Happiness is here. Happiness is there.’ In this way, the mind is taking us anywhere and everywhere. It is as though we are riding on a chariot behind an unbridled horse. We have no power over where we are going but can only sit in horror and watch helplessly. As soon as the mind is engaged in the Krishna consciousness process specifically by chanting, then the wild horses of the mind will gradually come under our control.” This is what chanting does: It stops us from becoming devoured or overcome by materialistic life and situates us in our natural consciousness, which is spiritual and ever blissful.
It must be noted that this chanting is entirely spiritual – it is not material in any sense of the word, even if, externally, it appears like everyday sound vibration. Prabhupada writes about this as follows: “You may chant someone’s name a half an hour, or sing a mundane song three or four times, but before long this becomes tiresome. Hare Krishna, however, can be chanted day and night, and one will never tire of it. Therefore it is only through transcendental vibration that the mind can be kept in a state of equilibrium. When one’s mental activities are thus stabilized, one is said to have attained yoga.”
In conclusion, I want to return to that verse from the Yoga-sutra with which I started this talk: yogash citta-vritti-nirodhah. Real yoga is about controlling the fluctuations of the mind. Vritti, a key word in this verse, literally means “whirlpool.” It’s a complex yogic term indicating that the conditioned mind is debilitating, like a vortex that sucks all our energy and leaves us completely depleted, unable to pursue spiritual life. Chanting mantras, specifically the maha-mantra, reverses that process, rejuvenates us, and allows us to gradually see who we really are: eternal spiritual souls always hankering to transcend material life and become lovers of God. This is not only the goal of yoga, but the goal of all of life and something we all strive for, in one way or another.
Thank you very much.