Chanting

Japa as Meditation

Complexity: 
Easy

from Back To Godhead Magazine #32-02, 1998

Meditation is the seventh stage in the eightfold mystic yoga system by which one gradually learns to sit still, control the breath, withdraw the senses from the world, fix the mind on one point, and eventually attain full concentration on the object of meditation.

In Western countries, “meditation” has become a buzzword. In the 1960s the only meditation that people discussed was “Transcendental Meditation,” by which one could purchase a mantra and meditate on it twice a day. Now many other forms of meditation and “mindfulness” are popular both in Christian and non-Christian traditions. People meditate for a short time each day to relieve stress and augment health. Srila Prabhupada said that serious yoga practice aimed at a spiritual goal is far too difficult in this age of distraction. Real meditation is full time.

For those who chant the holy names, hearing japa (private chanting on beads) described as “meditation” may sound distasteful when considered alongside the other processes practiced these days, but japa is meditation, and to achieve the result we must do it with attention.

Meditation involves controlling the mind, and that’s difficult, as anyone who has tried to chant realizes quickly. Therefore, we sometimes wonder whether it is necessary or helpful to study meditation techniques and bring them into our own practice.

Srila Prabhupada didn’t think so. Whenever devotees asked him how to concentrate on the holy name, he responded simply: “Just hear.”

“But what about my mind?”

“Just hear.”

Prabhupada knew that by chanting we would learn how to chant; the holy name itself would teach us. The Bhagavad- gita assigns the path: “From wherever the mind wanders due to its flickering and unsteady nature, one must certainly withdraw it and bring it back under the control of the self.”

Therefore, in the name of disinterest in other forms of meditation, we shouldn’t abandon the practices common to all forms. We should begin our daily japa by calming the mind. We should chant our rounds (of beads) in a sacred space and control the breath by the chanting. We should fix the mind on the syllables of the holy name. We should maintain good posture. In the early days at 26 Second Avenue in New York City, we would sit slouched over as Srila Prabhupada gave his morning class. Once he stopped his lecture and asked us to sit straight. Although Bhakti-yoga does not involve sitting postures and breathing exercises, he said, it is still yoga.

With the aid of these basic components of meditation, we can learn to become prayerful in our approach to the holy name. Sarvabhauma Bhattacharya was able to chant with no other thought than the name and Lord Chaitanya’s mercy. Sarvabhauma Bhattacharya had been a famous logician and teacher of the impersonal path, and his conversion to Vaishnavism is chronicled in several chapters of the Chaitanya-charitamrita. It is said of Sarvabhauma after his conversion, “He did not know anything but the service of the Lord, and he always chanted the holy name of Sri Krishna Chaitanya … . Indeed, chanting the holy names became his meditation.”

Our biggest obstacles to chanting are indifference to the holy name and distraction. Bhaktivinoda Thakura addresses these points in his Harinama Chintamani, suggesting that we chant in the company of devotees focused on the holy name. By learning to emulate their mood, we will learn to concentrate. He also suggests we chant in a secluded place. By accepting the discipline of a vow to chant, we will be forced to fix our attention. Gradually we will move from an hour spent chanting to two hours to four hours, and eventually we will chant constantly.

And enthusiasm is vital. Bhaktivinoda Thakura states: “Those who chant distractedly are always eager to somehow complete the fixed number of holy names and be done with it. It is important to concentrate on the quality of the chanting and not on trying to artificially increase the number of holy names.”

He adds that we should utter and hear the name distinctly. It is only by the Lord’s mercy that distraction can be overcome. “Therefore it is essential to fervently beg for the Lord’s grace with great humility. This is the living entity’s only means of salvation.”

Ultimately, our success in chanting will come from Krishna’s mercy, but while awaiting that mercy, we can continue to chant with enthusiasm and concentration and, as far as we are able, make the holy name the central focus of our lives.

On Chanting Hare Krishna

Complexity: 
Easy


Mahatma dasa hosts this discussion on how to move from unconsciousness to consciousness in our practice of Krishna consciousness - specifically the practice of chanting the Hare Krishna mantra.

Channels:

How to chant on beads

Complexity: 
Easy

Bhakti yoga practice includes chanting the Hare Krishna mantra softly to oneself. This is called japa.

While chanting, you'll keep the sacred japa beads in a bead bag to keep them clean and off the floor. One side of the bag is large enough to insert your hand. Your index finger comes out of the smaller hole on the other side, to help you hold on to the bag. Place your beads in the bag, and you’re ready to go.

Chanting “Rounds”

Bhakti yoga practitioners decide on a minimum number of mantras they want to chant each day. The main purpose of the beads is to keep track of the number of mantras chanted. Fingering the beads also engages your sense of touch and helps to focus your mind on the activity of chanting.

There are 108 beads and one larger bead, known as the head bead, or Krishna bead. Begin with the bead next to the Krishna bead. Gently roll the bead between the thumb and middle finger of your right hand while chanting:

Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare
Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare

Then move forward to the next bead (pulling the bead towards you, into your hand) and repeat the mantra.

In this way, continue chanting on each of the 108 beads in the strand until you again reach the Krishna bead. This is known as one round of japa and usually takes from six to ten minutes.

Bhagavad-gita courseIt is beneficial to chant the Pancha-tattva mantra before beginning your japa meditation. Many people like to chant it before each round. This is a prayer to Krishna's most merciful avatar, Lord Chaitanya and His associates, to help us become ecstatic and avoid offenses while chanting.

sri-krishna-chaitanya prabhu-nityananda
sri-advaita gadadhara
srivasadi-gaura-bhakta-vrinda

"I offer my obeisances to Sri Krishna Chaitanya, Prabhu Nityananda, Sri Advaita, Gadadhara, Srivasa and all others in the line of devotion."

If you are going to chant more than one round of japa, then, without chanting on the Krishna bead, turn the strand around and begin the next round. (Continue pulling beads towards you, as before. Watch our helpful demonstration video: How to Practice Japa Mantra Meditation.)

If you have a string of counter beads tied to your bead bag, you can keep track of the number of rounds you have chanted by moving one counter bead for each round.

Chant clearly and try to hear the holy names with attention. Some chanters find that looking at the mantra or a picture of Krishna helps them concentrate. If that works for you, that’s fine. But remember that the goal is attentive hearing.

Where can I get the beads and bead bag?

You'll find a good selection in our Krishna.com store: japa beads | bead bags

More on this topic

The Best and Worst of Japa

Complexity: 
Medium

I love chanting japa—some days. Other days, I endure chanting japa. It seems to be bliss or boredom. On the good days I am enthralled. Krishna feels very close, and very dear. Not that I’m seeing visions or hearing voices—nothing dramatic that would excite the tabloid crowd. The experience is closer to returning home after a long, arduous journey. Such a sweet pleasure from the simple fingering of beads, the rhythmic repetition of the maha- mantra:Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare/ Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare.

But then there are the bad days. Unfortunately, when I speak of bad days I don’t mean an occasional lapse. There are so many bad days they could actually be divided into categories: sick days, cold days, sleepy days, busy days, lonely days, traveling days, foul-mood days, messy-house days, family-visiting days, summer-vacation days, lots-on-my-mind days, too-many-kids-around days, all of the days between Christmas and New Year—those are just a few. And there are others that spring up unannounced, defying categorization.

The paradox is that while there is always some really appealing excuse for the mental gyrations that prevent good japa, it is precisely the resultant inattention that makes chanting seem a chore, a task to be endured. Good japa is a pleasure in the deepest sense. And yet the persuasions of the mind steal this pleasure from me again and again.

So why listen to the mind? Knowing that the mind’s entertainment is taking me away from the process of nourishing my soul, why would I fall for it more than once? Compare me to the alcoholic who has some experience of the rewards of sober life but keeps succumbing to the temptation to drink, knowing that eventually he’ll lose the very desire for sobriety. The normal state, the sober state, no longer seems desirable when one is enslaved by alcohol. In the same way, the normal state of happiness that comes from attentive chanting is forgotten when chanting is habitually inattentive. Japa time becomes the time for the mind to assume center stage, and like a bad comic it tries all kinds of routines to capture the whims of the audience.

If you are by now appalled that anyone would ever let their japa fall into such a state, then you might as well move ahead to the next article. You don’t need to hear this part, which gets really shocking.

When my rounds get really bad, I start to question the value in even chanting them. I start to question my motives: Is it just to maintain some kind of pride in chanting sixteen rounds, even if they’re crummy rounds? At the core of it all, am I superstitious, chanting to ward off the evils of the world? Is chanting japa a way to assure myself of devotee status, something that gets me on Krishna’s good side? As these kinds of questions come up, I get swamped by shame and discouragement. I think it might be better to be honestly fallen than to chant so offensively.

A friend once commented to me that it would be better to chant one good maha-mantra a day than sixteen distracted rounds. I squirmed when I heard that, because I knew that I was indeed guilty of empty chanting. But I couldn’t quite agree. I took a vow at initiation to chant sixteen rounds, so I can’t give that up. And on one level, sure, just one sincere cry to Krishna is better than mechanical chanting. And yet, if one is resigned to chanting just one mantra a day, how many days would go by when those precious ten seconds of devotion would never come? If it’s easy to space out for the duration of sixteen rounds, how much easier to miss the one little scheduled chance you set up to cry out for Krishna?

There’s certainly a better solution to inattentive chanting than giving up. And that’s the solution that always becomes obvious to me when I see I’m sliding.

It’s never better to give up the fight! There always comes a point when I get disgusted enough to try harder at hearing my rounds. And whenever I make that attempt, Krishna is always there. My dearest friend always gives me shelter. When I start listening to my prescribed rounds, I have the wonderful sensation of returning to a place I love. I know that if I just put my beads aside, thinking that no chanting is better than bad chanting, I would never have these exhilarating homecomings. Srila Prabhupada encourages us: “If one goes on chanting the holy names of the Lord, which are not different from the Supreme Personality of Godhead, naturally his mind becomes absorbed in thought of the Lord.” (Srimad-Bhagavatam 4.8.44, purport) My karmic reality is that my mind is polluted by passion and worse. My spiritual practice is meant to confront that polluted state and break through it.

So, all you fellow problem chanters out there, take heart. The damage is not irreparable. There are a number of tricks to quiet the mind, similar to the tricks a parent uses to quiet a two-year-old. I’ll share with you a few I use.

One good trick is to promise your mind that as soon as you finish your rounds you will give it undivided attention. You will ponder your problems, write your speeches, worry about your future—all after the rounds are finished. Another trick is to listen to just ten mantras in a row, and I mean really listen. Then try ten more, and ten more. Try to hear a whole round, not missing a bead. Challenge yourself, if you’re that type, or make it a game, if you’re that type. Another strategy is to put your beads down for a minute and make a prayer of whatever is on your mind. Then let it go and give your attention to chanting.

Regulation is invaluable in chanting sixteen decent rounds, so be sure you have a good time for chanting. I find that unchanted rounds hang like clouds in my mental landscape. Unless your schedule prohibits it, it’s best to chant all of your rounds during the auspicious morning hours.

Try these suggestions, and confide in devotees you trust and ask for their special tricks. Soon you will develop your own. (Then perhaps you can send them to me.)

Chanting japa is truly an individual expression of our desire to serve guru and Krishna. No one else can know the quality of our rounds. I, for one, can be a really good faker. And there is little recognition from the outside world if one is a conscientious chanter. But who cares for such recognition when the true reward is the pleasure of the Supreme Lord, the master of the entire universe?

What is Japa?

Japa is a personal meditation on a mantra. Hare Krishna devotees each have a strand of 108 beads, on which they chant the Hare Krishna mantra. Initiated devotees vow to chant on the full set of beads at least sixteen times a day.

Regard for the Devotees of the Lord

Complexity: 
Medium

This is the first in a series of articles on offenses to be avoided by anyone trying to progress spiritually by chanting the names of the Lord. This article discusses the offense of blaspheming devotees who have dedicated their lives to spreading the holy names.

How to instantly win people’s hearts? Point out the good qualities of their children, or even their pets. How to make people dislike you? Insult or harm someone dear to them. Similarly, the most grievous way to block the Lord’s mercy is to have contempt or irreverence for those who love and serve Him, especially those sacrificing to teach others about spiritual life. If we offend Krishna by insulting His dear sons and servants, we will fail to feel the ecstasy of love of God when we chant His holy names, as in the maha-mantra: Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare/ Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare.

The logic is easy to understand: Why should Krishna show us mercy—revealing that the taste of His name is concentrated sweet joy—when we are intolerant of others, serving them only the bitterness of criticism and fault- finding? Krishna in the form of His name is the most merciful, certainly. But why should He give mercy to the merciless?

The Skanda Purana lists six improper dealings with God’s devotees that obstruct one’s chanting: to kill a devotee, to blaspheme a devotee, to envy a devotee, to get angry at a devotee, to fail to offer respects or obeisances to a devotee, or to not feel joy upon seeing a devotee. (Vaishnava authorities say that our joy should extend to practitioners of other genuine spiritual processes, to devotees who have done or said something to cause us grief, and to devotees who have struggled with varieties of material enticements.) Some of these six unwanted interactions involve our bodies, others our words, and yet others our attitudes and thoughts.

Qualifying For The Spiritual World

Learning to interact properly with Krishna’s servants is the key to entering His abode. In Krishna’s kingdom, the spiritual world, everything is alive. Water, buildings, furniture, and clumps of grass are all living beings, far more realized in love of God than most of the devoutly religious of this world. All souls there are absorbed in thoughts of Krishna’s name, form, qualities, and adventures, and all are in harmony not only with Krishna but with each other. Dedication to Krishna and His holy name is not enough to enter that abode. We require real love for Krishna—a love that fills our hearts so that it overflows with similar love for all living beings, who are part of Him.

If instead of loving Krishna’s devotees, we offend them, we are unlikely to reach perfection in one life. Srila Prabhupada writes in The Nectar of Devotion (Chapter 18), “If it is seen that a person has developed a high standard of devotion without having undergone even the regulative principles, it is to be understood that his status of devotional service was achieved in a former life. For some reason or another it had been temporarily stopped, most probably by an offense committed at the lotus feet of a devotee. Now, with a good second chance, it has again begun to develop.”

Chaitanya Mahaprabhu explains that the effect of vilifying a devotee is similar to that of letting a wild elephant into a garden—one’s spiritual progress is trampled. Unfortunately, a prime symptom of a neophyte, whose ignorance impedes his or her service to God, is mistreatment of other living beings. The beginner’s lack of universal love and respect is evident in many sectarian religions. Congregations that show much reverence to God in their house of worship may exuberantly condemn all others who serve the same God in a different way. Going so far as to torture, persecute, or wage war against those whose rituals differ from theirs, such separatists displease Krishna and sully the very concept of religion in the minds of innocent people.

What Can We Do?

Understanding the danger of criticizing God’s devotees, then, and desiring full benefit from our chanting, we may resolve to feel joy upon seeing or hearing about others who love, or aspire to love, the Supreme Lord. We may resolve not to look for faults or think ourselves superior. Yet time and again, our mind may induce us to slam against this most formidable of blocks to self-realization. What can we do?

First, we can avoid intimate friendship with people who will encourage us to fault religious people. Rather, we can choose as close associates those free from the propensity to criticize others. When teaching about Krishna consciousness, we may have to point out the flaws in a more elementary system of spiritual advancement, but we can still hold out all encouragement and love to those within that system. Our critique can be practical and constructive, without envy or hatred. And while we must carefully choose our intimates—selecting those most realized in spiritual science—we must mentally respect even the weakest who desire pure love of God.

Respect For Other Systems

It’s easy to come up with excuses for criticizing and finding fault with others who are doing their best to serve the Supreme Lord. But if we consider who is guiding them and why these guides teach as they do, we’ll see that our criticism is unfair. Sometimes the most exalted saint teaches in a circumstance where only lesser truth can be communicated, acting like a graduate professor teaching six-year-olds.

We should remember that everyone needs to progress from his or her present position. So why fault the students or teachers in a religious system that teaches less than the highest knowledge and process? Rather than criticize beginning students, we should encourage and praise their attempt to love God. How happy the holy name is to know that we extend love and hope to those with less understanding or knowledge than ourselves! Is not criticizing them simply self-righteousness and pride, perhaps envy?

Of course, we can honestly evaluate systems of religious and spiritual practice, as much as we can distinguish between primary school and doctoral programs. But we should remember that today’s primary students might achieve doctoral degrees, while some now in graduate programs might fail to persevere.

Is it safe to point out genuine defects in others striving for perfection? The monk Thomas a Kempis addresses this question in the thirteenth-century work Imitation of Christ:

Try to bear patiently with the defects and infirmities of others, whatever they may be, because you also have many a fault which others must endure. If you cannot make yourself what you wish to be, how can you bend others to your will? We want them to be perfect, yet we do not correct our own faults. We wish them to be severely corrected, yet we will not correct ourselves. Their great liberty displeases us, yet we would not be denied what we ask. We would have them bound by laws, yet we will allow ourselves to be restrained in nothing. Hence, it is clear how seldom we think of others as we do of ourselves.

In this connection, the great Bhagavatam commentator Sridhara Swami wrote, “Whether the words are true or not, pointing out the faults of a Vaishnava constitutes blasphemy.”

Even if we meet a perfect, pure devotee who openly follows and teaches the principles at the pinnacle of spiritual life, we might find faults with his or her birth, background, past sins, unintentional sins, or traces of past sins. We might see a lack of some saintly qualities—kindness, peacefulness, truthfulness, magnanimity, cleanliness, and so on. But in time, full devotion to Krishna will certainly bring out these qualities. Just because some are developing gradually, we shouldn’t dwell on their current deficiency.

Begging Forgiveness

If despite our best efforts to cultivate respect and admiration for devotees of the Lord we instead offend them, we should lament, fall at their feet, and satisfy them with praise and respect. We should serve any unforgiving devotee for many days. If he or she continues to be angry with us, we should spend our time constantly chanting Krishna’s holy name.

It is important to fall at the feet of a devotee we’ve offended, even if that devotee has no quarrel with our words, thoughts, or behavior. Such humble dealings will purify us and please Krishna, who is much more unhappy with an offense to His devotees than to Himself. It is said that without falling at the devotee’s feet, the devotee may forgive but the dust of his or her feet will hold one accountable. Performing a physical act of repentance when asking for forgiveness shows great humility and sincerity.

Just as Krishna is the heartfelt friend of all living beings, one who wants to be His devotee should be a vehicle for revealing that friendship. A lover of God should love everyone who loves God. As we deal with Krishna’s devotees with reverence, the holy name will gradually show His full power. Then chanting Hare Krishna will bring us to spiritual health, and we will know that there is nothing greater than the name, anywhere or at any time.