Chanting with urgency by remembering we will die--part 1
When we chant the Hare Krishna mantra in either japa or kirtana there are certain moods that are favorable for getting the most from chanting. The most basic thing is to really hear the holy names, and gradually developing the proper conceptual orientation and feeling of urgency and finally love. Shrila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati Thakur has instructed us that our chanting should not be lip deep, but heart deep. This means that it is not just moving our lips, but engaging our heart that is the most important thing. With the proper attitude amazing things may happen--even defying gravity!
I gave a phone talk with a group who meet weekly to hear different topics related to chanting. The topic I choose was the title of this blog: Chanting with urgency by remembering we will die.
I have been away at New Vrindavana for the last week and haven’t written anything for quite awhile, so I thought I could share with you some of my thoughts about this subject.
Prabhupada often said we should keep death in front of us. This is not a “morbid preoccupation”, but is facing an important part of life in a material body—it is only temporary. Gandhi gave an example that everyone has two boxes, one of life, the other of death. In each box is the key to understanding the other box. In other words in order to live our life fully we must understand the nature of death, and in order to successfully get the benefit of death we must use our life properly. Another way of saying this is found in the 11th verse of the Isopanisad: “Only one who can learn the process of nescience and that of transcendental knowledge side by side can transcend the influence of repeated birth and death and enjoy the full blessings of immortality.” We have to understand how the soul is embodied in matter and the process of returning to our spiritual home beyond the material world.
Krishna certifies the material world as a miserable place. Even if you are in the illusion that you are happy, you can’t remain in that so-called happy situation. It will change to another condition or you will be forced to leave. Real happiness by Vedic definition is everlasting, unending or eternal, and the soul wants to return to this true standard of happiness. Identifying our soul with matter we feel incomplete and think that material things will complete our hidden spiritual hunger. We seem to be threatened by non-existence and we struggle to prolong our existence.
We fight with others for what appear to be scarce resources to get the most out of life, or we fight the conditions of Nature or even our own body. As we push our body to the limits trying to enjoy it or other bodies, we have to try to strengthen it by diet, exercise or medicine, or we have to try to kill microbes within our body which give us disease or threaten our life. Then at all costs many people try to avoid old age, or at least cover it up by make-up, hair coloring, or plastic surgery. All these endeavors are a lot of work, and ultimately we will be defeated. Although even devotees need to be healthy, our main work is in being Krishna conscious which will bring us to Krishna at death, or at least a better birth for making further spiritual progress.
Krishna says, he is time, who destroys and devours all. Or we have the English proverb that teaches us that “tide and time wait for no man.” Death is the representative of God for the materialist. A person may deny God our whole life, but eventually death comes and takes everything away from them. What remains is our consciousness, our faith, or our attachments, repulsions, and stock of pious or impious activities. All of these factors are combined together by Krishna’s agents to award us another body or chapter of our material sojourn. We can remember these facts when we chant Hare Krishna.
The Shrimad Bhagavatam [1.5.18] teaches us that: “Persons who are actually intelligent and philosophically inclined should endeavor only for that purposeful end which is not obtainable even by wandering from the topmost planet [Brahmaloka] down to the lowest planet [Patala]. As far as happiness derived from sense enjoyment is concerned, it can be obtained automatically in course of time, just as in course of time we obtain miseries even though we do not desire them.”
Repetition is the mother of skill, and is required to remember. Thus as a daily practice we must study and remember the naked truth of the material world, the blissful nature devotional service, and the beauty and wonder of Krishna and his world, by hearing or reading the Vedic literature. In order to realize these truths beyond the theory (to make it “our own” and “walk our talk”) we must engage in Krishna’s devotional service (bhakti-yoga) in association with faithful and advanced devotees, engaging in the nine practices of bhakti, most important of which are to hear and chant the holy name, qualities, form and pastimes of Radha and Krishna and/or Shri Chaitanya-Nitai and their associates.
Japa—or our chanting on tulasi beads the maha-mantra (the great chanting for deliverance) of Radha and Krishna as given by Lord Chaitanya—is one of our main spiritual practices to purify our heart, or remove the dust that covers our true self concept. This idea of allowing the soul to come out from under the illusion of physicality or the exploitive mentality that we are the enjoyer, is the real meaning of purification or spiritual upliftment.
The Chaitanya Chariamrita [Madhya 22.107] tells us that our love for Krishna always exists, but only has to be awakened: ”"Pure love for Krishna is eternally established in the hearts of the living entities. It is not something to be gained from another source. When the heart is purified by hearing and chanting, this love naturally awakens.”
When we chant the Hare Krishna mantra in either japa or kirtana there are certain moods that are favorable for getting the most from chanting. The most basic thing is to really hear the holy names, and gradually developing the proper conceptual orientation and a feeling of urgency and finally love. Shrila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati Thakur has instructed us that our chanting should not be lip deep, but heart deep. This means that it is not just moving our lips, but engaging our heart that is the most important thing.
We are advised by Queen Kunti [SB 1.18.26-27] that Krishna is easily approached, but only by the materially exhausted. If we are only absorbed in trying to improve ourself materially, we will be unable to approach Krishna in the correct mood. [Is Krishna our steering wheel guiding our life or our spare tire for emergency use only?] Thus she refers to Krishna as the property of the material impoverished. This doesn’t mean we have to all be poverty stricken, but it does mean that we have to consider our only real asset is receiving the Lord’s eternal shelter. We are all encouraged to accept what is favorable for devotional service, and reject what is unfavorable. This is meant to be our standard of renunciation which comes from our attraction to Krishna, not in giving up things of the world for the sake of giving them up as in the path of jnana or knowledge.
Here is part of Shrila Prabhupada’s explanation of verse 26: “It is said in the sastras that by once uttering the holy name of the Lord, the sinner gets rid of a quantity of sins that he is unable to commit. Such is the power of uttering the holy name of the Lord. There is not the least exaggeration in this statement. Actually the Lord's holy name has such powerful potency. But there is a quality to such utterances also. It depends on the quality of feeling. A helpless man can feelingly utter the holy name of the Lord, whereas a man who utters the same holy name in great material satisfaction cannot be so sincere. A materially puffed up person may utter the holy name of the Lord occasionally, but he is incapable of uttering the name in quality.”
Prabhupada has taught us the proper mood for chanting is like a child crying for his mother. In other words this is the mood of total dependence. Admittedly this is a gradual process, though at least we can read about those with this mood, reciting their prayers, and pray to be in the right mentality to be absorbed in chanting the holy names.
Often in the Japa Retreats which are so popular now, participants are encouraged to chant with feeling. Many find this difficult, though they want to very strongly. One thing most of us can do is to express our gratitude for the opportunity to chant and engage in devotional service. We may not be aware of our love or feelings for Krishna but at least we may be able to feel gratitude. In addition we can get an idea of what it is like to feel love for Krishna by hearing his name by remembering someone we love, and thinking of what we feel when we say their name. Many of us will feel our love for them just by hearing their name--or we can. This conceptually gives us some idea of what it will be like to say Radha and Krishna’s holy names in love.
At present, for most of us, chanting japa is like our medicine for our material disease. Eventually it will be our food or that which sustains our life. We have to begin from where we are, while understanding the goal. Another practice that is helpful is to imagine some circumstance which will bring death within a short time in order to chant attentively with urgency. For example, we have just been notified that missiles are coming to our city and will arrive within 30 minutes. How would your rounds be in this situation? What would be important to you from the perspective of your immanent death? I will save more of my thoughts on this talk for next time.