“The Sanskrit word mantra is a combination of two syllables, man and tra. Man means "mind," and tra means "deliverance." Therefore a mantra is that which delivers you from mental concoction, from hovering on the mental plane.” (Shrila Prabhupada, Journey of Self-Discovery, Ch 2.6)
The advent of the information age has brought a bevy of new ways for information to be transmitted. Transmission can be both sent and received at the same time in what is known as full-duplex transmission. In these message exchanges, there are the transmitters of information and the receivers. The receiver processes the information differently based on how the information is transmitted. This is not only the case with electronic transmissions, where the formats can vary between data packets, flat files, and xml, but also with human interaction. Of all the methods of transmission available, the Vedas, the ancient scriptures of India, tell us that voice, or hearing, is the most effective, the best way to take in information, especially as it relates to spiritual life.
A good way to get a handle on the current situation of a particular country and its future is to take stock of the graduation speeches given at high schools and colleges. The graduation is a big deal, especially for the parents. In America, graduating from high school means the child has just finished twelve years of rigorous studies, so naturally there will be a celebration to commemorate the achievement. At this ceremony, distinguished students give speeches, along with select faculty members. The speeches given by the teachers, school administrators, and notable guests make for an interesting study. These speeches are intended to give guidance to the graduating students, a look ahead to the future. Naturally, one would expect to hear sound words of advice, with information about what to look for and what activities to stay away from.
Yet many of these speeches often turn into complaint-fests, wherein the speaker bemoans the condition of the country at the time, voicing their dissatisfaction about everything from politics to technology. At one speech in particular that we attended a few years back, students were ridiculed for their way of life and the attention they paid to video game systems, cellular telephones, and the internet. While this type of speech certainly isn’t positive in nature, the seeds of such complaints are quite easy to decipher. The speaker is usually much older, so many of these advancements in technology weren’t around during their time in school. Since the speakers see students giving so much attention to things that they themselves deem useless, naturally there will be gripes and issues raised. Also, the speakers lived with less during their youth and they were still able to get by just fine. Their speeches essentially reflect their desire to have the students avoid attachments to the latest gizmos and gadgets.
The information age has led to a dramatic shift in the area of communication. This is an area which the elder generation finds much fault with. Since emails and text messages can be sent through smart-phones and computers, many people don’t like to answer their telephones. We were recently informed of an opinion given by a coworker of a friend. This coworker was speaking about the current generation of young adults, which is labeled Generation Y, and describing their information gathering abilities in terms of a machine. This person was a little perplexed by the fact that many of his young coworkers simply refused to answer the phone or respond to voice messages. This led the person to conclude that if today’s generation would be compared to a computer, it would be one that couldn’t process voice, just data.
Obviously people in the computer or IT industry will find this joke more humorous than will others, but the point raised certainly has validity. Sending a text message or an email is a much easier way to transmit information. It is hassle-free and devoid of any personal interaction. Voice interaction, be it over the phone or in person, requires the proper use of tone and expression. One must learn how to express themselves well in a very short period of time, being able to react to the other person’s comments quickly. Email and text allow a person to take in the information and carefully craft a response. There also aren’t time constraints. A text message or an email doesn’t have to be responded to right away. There is also instant messaging, which usually is responded to more quickly, but still has the safety of non-voice contact.
While transmitting information through data is certainly an easier and less confrontational way than through voice, there are some drawbacks, with the most important being that of tone. If we are talking to someone, they can gather the tone of our voice, which then gives added meaning to our words. This tone is lacking in the written word. For example, if we were to tell one of our friends, “I’m going to kill you”, they could usually tell by the tone of our voice that we are kidding. If the same statement was transmitted in a text message, instant message, or an email, they wouldn’t be so sure. As a friend, they could probably tell that we are kidding, but if someone else were to read the data version of this message, they might think that we are serious. This is just one small example but just imagine the issues that come with transmitting information that has hundreds or thousands of words. Tone becomes even more important, and improper interpretation of it can lead to confusion and issues.
We live in an advanced age after all, so of course people have found ways to get around the tone issue. One of the best ways is through the use of emotion icons or symbols. These fancy looking characters can do a lot to help present a message in just the right way. The savvy communicator knows of all the nice icons and symbols that are out there, such as the flower, heart, smiley face, and butterfly. These symbols are created by pressing select combinations of keys on a standard keyboard. They even have symbols for Sanskrit words such as omkara, or om. Om is the transcendental sound vibration representation of Lord Krishna, or God. It is actually non-different from God; therefore it is used in almost all important Vedic mantras and sacrifices. If we include these symbols in our message transmissions, the recipient can better understand our mood and what we are feeling. Certain instant message programs have many of these symbols built into their system, so the wise users know just the right symbol for each occasion. There are also other tricks of the trade, such as abbreviations, and symbols created using regular keyboard characters such as colons and parentheses.
All of these issues present challenges to the God conscious devotees, those who want to spread the glories of the Lord to others. How should information about Lord Krishna and bhakti-yoga be transmitted in the proper tone to today’s generation which has trouble processing voice? To find the answer, we can simply look to Krishna Himself, who around five hundred years ago inaugurated a system which is still as effective today as it was then. This system is known as sankirtana, or the congregational chanting of the holy names of God.
Vedic information was originally passed down through an oral tradition; people hearing the truth and then speaking it to their loved ones, neighbors, and children. Later on, the ancient Vedic seers saw the need for the written word when mankind’s mental capabilities began to diminish. Even though the eternal truths of life found in the Vedas started to be written down, the hearing process always remained the most effective method of transmission for Vedic wisdom. This hearing process is still just as effective, provided that it is presented in the same authorized way. Lord Chaitanya stressed the chanting process, the repetition of the holy names of God, “Hare Krishna Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare, Hare Rama Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare”, as the means to salvation. This sequence of words is known as the maha-mantra, and its constant recitation can deliver a person from the cycle of birth and death.
Vedic wisdom is quite comprehensive, but the sum and substance of it is that the living entities are pure souls that belong with God. Lord Krishna, or God, is the complete soul, the original fire from which all tiny sparks emanate. Krishna is God for everyone, not just the Hindus. He isn’t some mythological figure either; He has an eternal form which is full of bliss and knowledge. While some other faiths refuse to acknowledge the existence of God’s personal form, the Vedas not only tell us what God looks like, but also inform us of His countless names derived from His pleasurable activities. If God can derive pleasure and enact pastimes, then He can most certainly have a form. There is no limit to the number of forms, and many of them are equal in potency to the original, but there is still nevertheless an original candle from which all other candles are lit. This original Personality of Godhead is Krishna, and the maha-mantra addresses Him and His energy in a loving way.
The word “mantra” has taken on its own meaning in modern parlance. It’s usually taken to be a single term or a saying that one repeats in order to stay focused on a goal or to remind themselves of a particular fact. The word itself is Sanskrit for the delivering of the mind. How is the mind delivered? Through the hearing process of course. A mantra is meant to be recited, preferably out loud, over and over again until the mind is rescued from its troublesome circumstance. The Vedic seers didn’t just concoct this idea of the hearing process being the most effective method of data transmission. It is a fact that has existed since the beginning of time, for the Vedas were originally known as the shrutis, meaning that which is heard.
Chanting Hare Krishna certainly can deliver the mind by taking it to the spiritual plane, but what about the acquisition of knowledge? Vedic information is now stored in great books like the Bhagavad-gita, Ramayana, and Shrimad Bhagavatam. Even if we read a nice English translation of any of these books, how do we get the tone of the authors? Are there smiley faces and symbols? Luckily for us, these books are all presented in a poetry-style format which is meant to be sung. If one were to visit Vaishnava temples around the world, they would see that the original Sanskrit found in these books is sung in a standard format. This reinforces the hearing process. The ancient sages of India were so advanced that they knew of the issues that would arise in the future. Therefore, they never deviated from this hearing process, and they took it into account when they composed their literature. Even poets like Goswami Tulsidas, whose epic Ramacharitamanasa is one of the greatest devotional books ever written, styled his writings in such a way that the verses could be sung. Can we imagine such a thing? The Ramacharitamanasa is quite lengthy and detailed, and it not only contains philosophical truths, but descriptions of historical events as well. Yet this is all put together in such a way that it can be sung continuously by anyone who has love for God. Tulsidas’ Hanuman Chalisa, a Sanskrit poem which is an ode to Lord Hanuman, is today sung in a wide range of styles by many different artists and devotees. By the same token, the Hare Krishna mantra can also be sung in a variety of different ragas, or rhythms.
While there are many kinds of yoga, or processes for linking the soul with God, the topmost is bhakti-yoga, or devotional service. This sublime engagement has many components, such as remembering, offering prayers, and worshiping, all of which can bring spiritual perfection. But for the people of this age, the recommended processes are chanting and hearing, kirtanam and shravanam. Devotional service is open for anyone to take up, regardless of their religious affiliation or family history. God is God after all, so anyone who chants his name in a loving way is sure to be heard.
“O descendant of King Bharata, one who desires to be free from all miseries must hear about, glorify and also remember the Personality of Godhead, who is the Supersoul, the controller and the savior from all miseries.” (Shukadeva Gosvami speaking to Maharaja Parikshit, Shrimad Bhagavatam, 2.1.5)
The lesson here is that if we want to be delivered in spiritual life in the shortest amount of time, we should do our best to take to the hearing process. Hearing certainly is a passive activity, but if the subject matter is transcendental and related to Krishna, then it is most sublime. Chanting Hare Krishna, which was Lord Chaitanya’s foremost spiritual practice and recommendation for the people of this age, is both an active and passive engagement. The active part is in relation to the use of the tongue and its recitation of the words in the mantra, and the passive part relates to the hearing process. If we sit down quietly and chant to ourselves, the process is known as japa, and when done congregationally it is known as sankirtana. Reading is also another form of hearing since the reader listens to the words in their head. The key is to hear from the right source, a devotee; someone who can convey the proper tone in their writings, along with providing the proper meanings. While this method is certainly effective for acquiring spiritual knowledge, nothing surpasses the process of hearing mantras, especially the maha-mantra. Hearing mantras relating to Lord Krishna automatically helps in the acquisition of knowledge, for these mantras are free from any defects. When Hare Krishna is chanted out loud, the innocent, welcoming, and blissful tone is already built in, for these sweet, transcendental sound vibrations emanate from the spiritual world, where Krishna and His liberated associates enjoy each other’s company. Hearing and reciting the great Vedic mantras can deliver us by bringing the mind the happiness that it so desperately needs.