Hearing—Cleansing Our Consciousness Through Sound
by Dwarakadhisha Devi Dasi
In Srimad-Bhagavatam (7.5.23-24), the devotee Prahlada Maharaja, a great spiritual authority, says, “Hearing and chanting about the transcendental holy name, form, qualities, paraphernalia, and pastimes of Lord Vishnu, remembering them, serving the lotus feet of the Lord, offering the Lord respectful worship, offering prayers to the Lord, becoming His servant, considering the Lord one’s best friend, and surrendering everything unto Him (in other words, serving Him with the body, mind, and words)—these nine processes are accepted as pure devotional service. One who has dedicated his life to the service of Krishna through these nine methods should be understood to be the most learned person, for he has acquired complete knowledge.” Here we begin a series of articles on the nine processes of bhakti- yoga, or devotional service.
Eavesdropping On my mother’s phone conversations was a favorite pastime of mine as a child. Especially on long, draggy summer afternoons, overhearing her suspicions of my next-door neighbor’s nocturnal adventures really added some much appreciated drama. I would sit silently crouched in the hall, barely breathing, counting on Mom’s absorption in the conversation to keep my presence hidden. From my hiding place I learned about all sorts of diseases, about really hideous home decoration, and about the evil combination of alcohol and office parties. I heard extensive analysis of soap opera plots. I heard a side of Roman Catholic doctrine the nuns had completely neglected. In short, I entered the world of adulthood through my ears.
So many things in life begin this way, through sound. Before we learn and speak a language, we hear it. Before we build a skyscraper, we discuss the plans. Through sound, we understand and share feelings. We sell diet sodas with thirty- second sound bites.
The sounds we hear shape our awareness and understanding of the world and the people around us. We tend to be preoccupied with thinking about the things we hear about most. The sounds we allow to penetrate our consciousness play an enormous role in our experience of life.
Sound also plays a major role in shaping our spiritual consciousness. Consider the beautiful hymns that have enhanced church services for centuries; the sermons, bringing the words of scripture into relevant and personal focus; the murmur of prayers counted on beads in various traditions.
The Sound of Mantras
Hearing spiritual sounds is a powerful way to purify our consciousness and awaken our love for God. One type of spiritual sound we can hear is mantras. The Vedic scriptures recommend the chanting of mantras to elevate the consciousness. A mantra can be a single word or phrase, or it can be longer. Sanctioned by a spiritual authority, it is repeated and heard with reverential attention. Mantra literally means “to free the mind,” and the purpose of mantras is to clear the mind by focusing on spiritual sound.
Five hundred years ago, Lord Krishna descended to earth as Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu to promote the chanting of the maha- mantra (“great mantra”): Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare/ Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare. Srila Prabhupada explains that the maha-mantra is a calling out to God: “Dear Lord, please engage me in Your service.”
Spiritual sound is so powerful that one doesn’t even have to comprehend its meaning to benefit from hearing it. “When one links his ears to give aural reception to the transcendental vibrations,” Srila Prabhupada writes, “he can quickly become purified and cleansed in the heart.” Hearing in bhakti-yoga is so simple that anyone can take part. “Even a child can take part,” Prabhupada observes. “Even a dog can take part.”
Yet hearing is a challenge for someone like me, with a racing mind and limited attention span. I strain for some added divine revelations. I expect the presence of God in some awe-inspiring way. I wait for a spiritual payoff.
I know, though, that I have to be patient. The ancient Sanskrit texts explain that our material desires hinder the benefits of hearing spiritual sounds, so we may not perceive profound results right away. But when we’re free of material desires, the sound of God’s name invokes deep transcendental joy in the heart. If I’m not experiencing that joy, I can understand that my heart is congested with material contaminants.
The heart’s contaminants are things we love more than the service of the Lord. Fortunately, hearing spiritual sound starts the cleansing of the heart. In the beginning, spiritual hearing might feel like a chore. We’re like a jaundiced person who tastes sugar as bitter. As the disease regresses, however, the natural sweet taste returns. Similarly, as one continues hearing, all the accumulated contaminants in the heart gradually dissolve.
In my case, cleansing the heart is quite a formidable task. But I know that spiritual hearing gradually loosens the knot of material attachment and simultaneously encourages the flow of love for the Supreme Lord.
We can hear spiritual sound in various forms. For example, we can hear the maha-mantra when we sit in solitude and chant on beads. Or we can hear it with others, such as when singing together (kirtana). The words of the maha-mantra are simple. We should try to hear them attentively and with respect, since they are the names of the Lord.
Transcendental hearing can also take the form of reading or listening to the recitation of scriptures, such as Bhagavad-gita As It Is, which contains Krishna’s own words and Srila Prabhupada’s enlightened commentary.
I’d like to relate an example from my own life of the benefit of hearing the Bhagavad-gita. Many years ago I was once delighted to receive as a gift a lovely pale green and lavender sari. It was the nicest sari I had ever owned. I washed it with care and hung it outside on the clothesline to dry. Meanwhile, I went inside and studied a verse from the Bhagavad-gita (18.54):
“One who is thus transcendentally situated at once realizes the Supreme Brahman and becomes fully joyful. He never laments or desires to have anything. He is equally disposed toward every living entity. In that state he attains pure devotional service unto Me.”
I had heard the verse many times, and that day I was merely trying to memorize it. Nevertheless, I was pondering the phrase “never laments or desires to have anything” when it was time to fetch my new sari from the clothesline. As I walked outside, I wondered if I could ever be free from lamentation and desire.
Just then, I spotted my sari. The wind had blown it up against a fence that enclosed a dog. The dog had seized the edge of the sari and dragged it through the fence, playfully ripping it to shreds. My eyes filled with tears. My new sari! But just as quickly I thought of that verse—no lamentation! no desire!—and had to laugh a bit at the way Krishna had revealed my attachment to a piece of cloth.
When we regularly hear the scriptures, we get many opportunities to apply the teachings and increase our realization. (My story of the sari, trivial as it might seem, doesn’t end there. Several years later, a friend returned from India and brought me a sari. Against all odds, it was the same color and pattern as the destroyed sari.)
Perfection through Hearing
Ultimately, spiritual hearing—like all the nine processes of bhakti-yoga—can lead to perfection. In the Bhakti-rasamrita-sindhu, Srila Rupa Goswami, a direct disciple of Lord Chaitanya, mentions nine persons, each of whom became perfect through one of the nine processes of Bhakti- yoga. For the process of hearing, that person was Maharaja Parikshit. A powerful king in ancient times, Maharaja Parikshit was cursed to die within seven days. Although enormously wealthy and powerful, he chose to live his last days hearing about transcendental knowledge from the sage Sukadeva Goswami.
Maharaja Parikshit retired to the bank of the Ganges River. Sensing the importance of the exchange, many sages also came to hear. As Sukadeva Goswami spoke, the great king Parikshit listened submissively and became completely purified.
While hearing spiritual sound even without comprehension is beneficial, hearing transforms into realization when we comprehend and act accordingly. As we saturate our consciousness with spiritual sound, we restore our understanding of ourselves in relation to the world, to other people around us, and to God. This understanding protects us from the pain of natural calamity, be it ripped saris or broken hearts, and helps us be of real value in the lives of others.
A friend related a story to me about how her daughters used the wisdom of the Bhagavad-gita to soften the blow of a pet’s death. As they buried the animal, the youngest girl stood quietly weeping. Her older sister turned to her with dismay and quoted Bhagavad-gita (2.30): “He who dwells in the body can never be slain. Therefore you need not grieve for any living being.” Everyone, even a child, can hear, comprehend, and explain to others.