“Regardless of time or place, one who chants the holy name, even while eating or sleeping, attains all perfection.” (Lord Chaitanya, Chaitanya Charitamrita, Antya 20.18)
Regardless of the specific religious tradition, there will always be rules and regulations associated with spiritual life. People are told to follow these regulations otherwise they are committing great offenses. Offenses aren’t good because they offend the object of worship, the Supreme Lord, and His adherents, the devotees. If these two entities are offended, there is no chance of advancement. While these rules and regulations are certainly valid and worthy of being followed, there is one spiritual practice inaugurated by one of India’s most celebrated saints which has no rules and regulations attached to it. Far from a blasé spiritual practice, this one method of worship actually brings about greater rewards than any other perfunctory ritual or regulation.
What are some of the rules and regulations that people are advised to follow? Every spiritual tradition has them. In the Christian faith, the center of religious practice is the church. Attending church has some unspoken rules attached to it, such as a dress code which involves shirt-and-ties for men and dresses for women. Once in the church, people are advised to kneel down at the appropriate times, shake hands with fellow churchgoers, and make donations when given the offering vessel. The Vedic tradition, which is the oldest spiritual discipline in existence, has many many associated rules and regulations. We will only cover a small subsection so as to get the point across.
The central practice of the Vedic tradition is the yajna, or sacrifice. Those who grow up in Hindu families are quite familiar with these sacrifices. A brahmana, or priest, is called to the house and everyone gathers around a central place of worship, which can be considered an altar. The attendees sit on the floor and prior to performing any activity, they must purify themselves. This purification requires taking water in the hand and then reciting specific mantras. This is just the beginning, the initiation period. After this, the sacrifice gets started. The priest then goes through a series of mantras and hymns which are accompanied by various offerings to the deity. The participants of the sacrifice don’t just sit idly by; they take part in the offerings and hold various objects in their hands while all of this is going on. The priest makes sure that everyone is following the rules and not committing any offenses. If all goes well, the sacrifice is deemed a success and the performers are blessed with whatever rewards are associated with the yajna.
This situation is seen in sacrifices which specifically involve a fire, but the more regularly performed spiritual practice is known as archanam, or formal worship. This is done in the temple in front of a resident deity, which is a statue or picture incarnation of the Supreme Lord. Not anything like idol worship, archanam involves offering prayers to a visible form of the Supreme Lord. The Vedas state that as conditioned souls, we don’t have the proper eyes to see the Supreme Lord in His original form. Similar to how a microscope is needed to see tiny particles, spiritual eyes are required to get a vision of God. The Lord is all-merciful, however, so He kindly appears in the incarnation of the deity in order to allow even the conditioned souls, those without the proper set of eyes, to see Him.
Since deity worship involves seeing God and welcoming Him as the most honored guest in a particular dwelling, naturally there will be many rules associated with this type of worship. Several books have been written which list all the different rules. A quick glance at these stipulations is enough to make a person’s head spin. It essentially seems like the makers of these rules want the worshipers to act like robots who remain in a catatonic state. The worshipers are advised to eliminate all negative thoughts from the mind and offer obeisances at the proper times. Some of the more commonly adhered to rules are ringing the bell before entering the deity room, offering obeisances immediately upon seeing the deity or guru, refraining from talking about non-religious issues in front of the deity, not standing with one’s back to the deity, not offering obeisances to others while in front of the deity, etc.
These rules and regulations expand out to other religious practices as well, such as visiting places of pilgrimage. In the Vedic tradition, there are hundreds upon hundreds of holy sites located in India and the neighboring parts. These places are where many famous historical events took place relating to God and His various incarnations. Of all the sacred places, Vrindavana is considered the holiest because that is where Lord Krishna, the supreme form of Godhead, appeared on earth some five thousand years ago. Vrindavana is considered a replica of the same land that exists in the spiritual sky, i.e. Krishna’s eternal home.
One of the more famous incidents from Krishna’s time on earth was His lifting of Govardhana Hill. At the time, the chief demigod in the sky, Lord Indra, was angry that his specific yajna was ignored that year by the residents of Vrindavana. Wanting to punish them for this transgression, he sent forth a torrential downpour on the city. We can think of it in terms of the worst kind of flash flood, with people being drawn away by the waves. Krishna, who had initiated the idea of ignoring the Indra-puja, protected the inhabitants of Vrindavana by lifting the gigantic Govardhana Hill and holding it up as an umbrella with His little finger. He held up the hill for seven days and thus shielded the residents from Indra’s wrath. Ever since that time, Govardhana Hill has been worshiped annually to both celebrate Lord Krishna’s amazing feat and also to honor the puja inaugurated by the Lord Himself.
Aside from being worshiped every year on the anniversary of its lifting by Krishna, Govardhana Hill is also one of the popular destination sites for spiritual tourists. Yet even visiting this famous hill has rules and regulations attached to it. Visitors are advised to circumambulate the Hill in a certain way, with some people falling flat on the earth at periodic intervals. Similar rules are in place for those wanting to bathe in Radha-kunda and Shyama-kunda, two wonderful pools created by Lord Krishna and His eternal consort Shrimati Radharani.
These rules certainly can be perceived as too much to digest. After all, isn’t the purpose of human life to know and love God? How can love be aroused when we are told to essentially act like robots? These are certainly valid concerns, but we should also understand why these rules are in place. These rules and regulations relating to worship aren’t stipulated so as to punish the aspiring transcendentalist or even to get them to become regulated in their practices. Rather, the inaugurators of these religious practices had so much love and respect for God that they wanted to make sure no one offended Him. The rules of the deity room are in place to show respect to the Supreme Lord, thus preventing non-devotees and miscreants from defaming Him. Obviously Krishna can handle any sort of criticism and ridicule, but devotees can’t. Their lives are dedicated towards serving the Supreme Lord, so they can’t bear to see anyone disrespecting Him. It is primarily to protect the devotees from seeing and hearing offenses that the rules and regulations were put into place. The benefit is that anyone who follows these stipulations certainly can quickly make advancement in spiritual life. There is no doubt about this, for the entire Vedic system is built on the shastras, which are essentially law codes.
“But he who discards scriptural injunctions and acts according to his own whims attains neither perfection, nor happiness, nor the supreme destination.” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 16.23)
This being said, there is actually one spiritual practice that transcends all rules and regulations. This practice is known as sankirtana-yajna, or the sacrifice of chanting the holy names of God. This sacrifice was inaugurated by Lord Chaitanya, an incarnation of Krishna who appeared on earth around five hundred years ago. Though Lord Chaitanya made sankirtana famous, the practice is actually recommended in many Vedic texts as the most effective religious practice for the people of this age.
Why is this practice the most effective? Unlike ages past, the current age brings conditions which make it difficult to adhere to all the rules and regulations of spiritual life. Therefore there needed to be a quick and effective method for spiritual advancement, something which any person could adopt, regardless of their parentage or country of origin. The glories of sankirtana are mentioned in the famous Shrimad Bhagavatam and Mahabharata, so in reality, Lord Chaitanya was only fulfilling a prophecy.
What is the magic behind sankirtana? Unlike with the other aspects of spiritual life, chanting “Hare Krishna Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare, Hare Rama Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare” has no rules and regulations attached to it. There are no limits and no laws. This means that one can chant this mantra as often as they want, though the general recommendation calls for a minimum sixteen rounds of chanting on a set of japa beads daily. There are no laws in that one doesn’t have to chant at a specific time of day or at a specific place. In this way, spiritual life becomes fun and open to endless possibilities.
Sankirtana also relates back to the quintessential Vedic spiritual practice: the yajna. As mentioned before, one usually has to call a brahmana to the house, gather everyone around an altar, and follow along with the process. With chanting Hare Krishna on a set of japa beads, one actually does the same thing but without all the pomp. Simply set up a small altar with a picture or two of Krishna, Lord Rama, Lord Chaitanya, etc. and just begin chanting. You’re essentially performing a great sacrifice without any effort or adherence to regulations. This can be done by any person, regardless of the language they speak or their age. Chanting to oneself is known as japa, and when performed in congregation with others it is sankirtana. The yajna is still the same in either case, for the devotee is sacrificing time and effort to connect with Krishna.
So with the slackened regulations, one may think that chanting must not be as beneficial as the other spiritual practices. Ironically enough, this chanting actually provides rewards greater than any other religious practice. Unlike other formal sacrifices, there is no personal motive behind chanting Hare Krishna. Other sacrifices reward the practitioner with material benedictions, eradication of sins, or an end to the cycle of birth and death. Chanting Hare Krishna involves pure love for God, so anyone who makes a serious effort of adopting this transcendental process will eventually be rewarded with Krishna-prema, which is love for God and the highest benediction, spiritual or material, a person can receive. Why is this? Love for God enables a person to survive any condition without any problem. Birth, death, living on land, sea, air, assuming the body of a human being or a monkey, living in the spiritual world, material world, etc. – all these predicaments are of no concern to one who loves God. One can think of it as almost becoming God-like, for only the Supreme Lord can survive any and all conditions. As a lover of God, the devotees assume a nature similar to the Lord’s.
It must be noted that there are offenses that should be avoided while chanting. However, these offenses are excused for those who commit them unintentionally. Moreover, one is advised to chant, jaya shri-krishna-chaitanya prabhu-nityananda shri-advaita gadadhara shrivasadi-gaura-bhakta-vrinda, prior to chanting Hare Krishna as a way of calling upon Lord Chaitanya and His closest associates for their mercy. Lord Chaitanya is the most merciful incarnation of Godhead, so He overlooks unintentional transgressions of the rules and regulations made by sincere devotees. If we follow the prescriptions of Shri Gaurahari, Lord Chaitanya, our love for God will surely sprout into something beautiful.