“Chaitanya Mahaprabhu teaches us that we should only beg God for His service life after life. This is the actual meaning of the Hare Krishna maha-mantra.” (Shrila Prabhupada, Teachings of Lord Kapila, Ch 14)
The maha-mantra, “Hare Krishna Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare, Hare Rama Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare”, is considered the perfect prayer for so many reasons. The foundation of the efficacy in chanting it is the motive, or to be more exact, the lack of one. Go through every other prayer you can think of, whether it emanates from scripture or from your own mind in a time of distress, and you’ll see that the objective is usually to meet a self-interest. The self in these instances is not properly defined, so the resulting benefit has a shelf life. Not so, however, with the prayer that addresses the Supreme Lord and His energy in a loving spirit.
For analysis purposes, let’s take the common prayer of asking for rescue from a troublesome situation. It should be noted that worshipers of the Supreme Lord who adopt a mood of pure love have often times asked for the same benediction, but the purpose was different. Let’s say that we’re in a difficult situation at work. The company who employs us has been in financial difficulty for months now, so we are worried about whether or not we’ll have a job in the future. “Don’t worry. I will not cut anyone’s pay until the company finally folds. You and your team are here to stay”, says the boss to allay your fears. He needs you to run the business, so he wants to make sure that you don’t go anywhere.
Fast forward a few months and suddenly everyone in the office has their pay reduced. Then the boss wants to fire some people on your team, but this time you fight for them. He gives you an ultimatum. Either agree to take another pay cut or the other people are getting fired. You take the pay cut. Wouldn’t you know it, he fires those people anyway. Now you’re making less money and have less time to look for another job, as the company itself might fold. At this time you may pray to God. “O Lord, please help me. I don’t know how I got into this distressful situation, but it is so painful that I can’t sleep at night. I can’t believe life can be so difficult.”
It is not uncommon to ask for divine intervention at such a moment, but what is it exactly that we’re praying for? A better job? The future health of the company? The reward is rooted in duality and also in the false identification with the body. Sometimes what we think is good for us actually isn’t. What if the company failing actually will help us to land a better job, at a place where we’ll be happier and make more money? Should not the Lord then keep a deaf ear to our pleas, no matter how heartfelt they may be?
“As the embodied soul continually passes, in this body, from boyhood to youth to old age, the soul similarly passes into another body at death. The self-realized soul is not bewildered by such a change.” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 2.13)
And what does a job do for us anyway? The Vedas reveal that the essence of identity is the spirit soul. The soul has travelled space since time immemorial, but with each entry into a new body the knowledge and experiences of the most recent life are forgotten. Those past actions influenced the circumstances of the present birth, but the conscious memories of those incidents is gone forever. Even within the present body one has limited memory. Can you remember exactly what you were doing one year ago? What about ten years ago? Obviously the minutiae are not easily recalled, indicating a defect.
The soul’s business is to become God conscious, as personal interaction with spirit is what gives the soul pleasure. You follow real religion to achieve that state of consciousness, to fulfill the destiny of meeting with God and staying by His side. The prayer in a time of trouble is good in the sense that there is acknowledgment of the higher being, but at the same time the request is akin to asking for food from a garbage pile that is outside of an establishment that has a free gourmet meal waiting for us inside.
The many prayers that we can offer have a point of expiration. With the previous example, if in one year we start working somewhere else and are happy, the previous prayer is no longer applicable. It must be thrown away. It’s like hearing back from a place of business about an open position after you have already accepted a position somewhere else. If we ask for wealth, eventually that wealth will dissipate. If we ask for good health, at the end of life we will have to exit the body.
With the maha-mantra, the request is for the opportunity for service. “Let me serve You, Krishna, who are the all-attractive form of the Supreme Lord. I know that You have many different aspects, but Bhagavan is who I am interested in. The impersonal feature of Brahman is terrific for those who are bewildered by duality, and Paramatma is wonderful for the yogi who sits in meditation, but I have no qualifications nor any desires for such interaction. I wish that I can see Your beautiful face in my mind’s vision at all times. I hope to hear about Your delightful pastimes in the holy land of Vrindavana. And most importantly, I hope to serve You and Your cherished devotees without fail, regardless of the outcome of that service. Whether in good times or bad, let me have the blessings of Your energy expansion, Shrimati Radharani, so that I may please You, or at least attempt to please You.”
These humble offerings are packed into the succinct maha-mantra, sixteen words that say so much. Perhaps one may not know what the mantra is asking for when they recite it. In that case there is still no loss, as the recitation of the mantra fulfills the above stated objectives even without a person’s cognizance of it. Hearing Krishna is as good as being with Him. Hearing His name eventually brings to mind His transcendental features, which provide the sweetness that every living entity is looking for.
What if we mix motives into our chanting? What if when we’re in trouble instead of explicitly asking for something from God, we chant the maha-mantra? Indeed, when devotees are in difficult circumstances they automatically reach for that sacred sound vibration, so isn’t there something wrong with that? In these instances for the devotees again it is the underlying motive that matters most. If we are in a distressed situation and worried about our ability to carry out service to Krishna, then surely the recitation of the maha-mantra is the way to go. Prahlada Maharaja, a famous five-year old son of a king, often prayed to Vishnu, Krishna’s four-handed form, to save him from the attacks of his father. The requests never expired because the desired condition was always the same. Prahlada asked to serve Vishnu, so that result’s applicability is never void.
In the case that there really are other motives, such as the accumulation of wealth or the reversal of misfortune, the devotion is considered mix. Hence we often see distinctions made between regular devotees and “pure” devotees. A devotee in mixed consciousness still has some desires for fruitive gain, high knowledge, mystic perfection, or the alleviation of distress. A pure devotee may receive these rewards, but their only motive is to serve Krishna. A particular section from the Gitavali of Goswami Tulsidas very nicely illustrates pure devotion. In describing the life and pastimes of Lord Rama in song, Tulsidas has a few verses towards the end of his work discussing the daily pastimes of Shri Rama when He became the King of Ayodhya. Rama is the same Vishnu and Krishna but in His transcendental form of a warrior prince who roamed this earth during the Treta Yuga, the second time period of creation.
Kings during that time were known for holding open assemblies and sometimes granting whatever wish a citizen had. That’s right. If you wanted a cow or some gold, you could go up to the king on this day and ask for it. The king could not deny any request on these occasions; that was the vow. Tulsidas, cleverly taking full advantage, describes that on one of these assigned days he himself is figuratively approaching the King of Ayodhya, Shri Rama, the protector of the fallen souls. Tulsidas then asks for devotion to Rama for lifetime after lifetime. Because of the nature of the day, Rama cannot deny the request of the subject. He is compelled to give pure devotion to His feet to Tulsidas, the sweetheart poet.
Pure devotion can come from chanting the holy names regularly. The names of Krishna and Rama are what give the maha-mantra its strength, and since they are so nicely sequenced together in a string of words that can be sung in an infinite number of melodies, every person can adopt the perfect prayer as their mantra for life. Should the motives be impure at the outset, through steady chanting, the impurities are removed. The resultant reward of devotion to God never expires, and it continues to provide happiness both in this life and the next.
Having trouble in your particular task,
For success the Supreme Lord you do ask.
Tough times at work your resolve they test,
So you ask God for problems to redress.
But what about after, when things become good?
Through fruitive gain meaning of life understood?
Maha-mantra best prayer because of benefit,
Gives reward to continue after body you quit.
Even if motives impure chant the holy names,
Pure love for Krishna represents highest gain.