“While chanting and dancing or hearing the holy name of the Lord, one automatically remembers the Supreme Personality of Godhead, and because there is no difference between the holy name and Krishna, the chanter is immediately linked with Krishna.” (Shrila Prabhupada, Chaitanya Charitamrita, Adi 7.83 Purport)
Question: “What should I concentrate my mind on during chanting?”
Answer: The path of self-realization most recommended for the people of the present age is the chanting of the holy names, “Hare Krishna Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare, Hare Rama Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare.” Lord Chaitanya, in trying to convey the importance of this method and its superiority over all other means of self-realization, often quoted a verse from the Vedic scriptures that declares that in this age of Kali there is no other way besides chanting the holy names to find salvation. The “no other way” is stated three times for emphasis. While the need for chanting may not be fully understood in the beginning, many people do take up the process anyway, thinking it worthy enough to try. But after getting a set of japa beads and sitting down to chant, what should be done next? How do we know that we’re chanting properly? What is the best way to make this style of meditation fruitful?
Meditation is the antithesis of work. With physical activity there is some task that needs to be performed. The effects of work done with attachment are long lasting, because even during periods of rest the mind remains fixed on obligations and what it has to do next. This explains why the nap produces some of the best sleep imaginable. The nap, which is an impromptu respite that can take place at any time of the day and for any length of time, is free of pressures that are encountered in practically every endeavor. When we go to sleep at night, there is pressure to wake up at a certain time the next morning. If we lie there in bed for a few hours while falling asleep, the tension will only mount. “If I don’t fall asleep right now, I’m going to wake up tired and the rest of my day will be ruined.”
With an ideal nap there is no pressure to fall asleep or even wake up at a certain time; hence the relaxation. In this sense meditation is similar to taking a nap, except the person remains awake and tries to block out negative thoughts, concerns over what needs to be done in the future and lamentations over what just transpired. Since chanting silently to oneself, which is the process known as japa, can be considered meditation, the person reciting the mantras expects some kind of difference, some kind of change. Meditation should be different from our daily activities, no? Otherwise, what is the point to chanting? Isn’t concentration on a sequence of words supposed to have a positive influence?
While meditation can be done for different reasons, such as for the removal of distress or achieving a peaceful state of mind, the tradition of japa, especially in the realm of bhakti-yoga, or devotional service, has a singular purpose. A person’s active propensity is just a reflection of the soul’s inherent characteristics, especially its tendency to love. When the clouds fill up the sky during the daytime, natural light does not completely vanish. We know that the sun is shining brightly but that the clouds are partially blocking its rays. Similarly, the soul trapped in a material body still retains its active propensity to serve, but since the nescience formed through association with gross matter acts as an inhibiting force, that service gets directed to every area except the proper one.
How does one decipher what the proper outlet for service should be? How can anyone know this with certainty? In the beginning, we have to accept this information from authority, as it is passed down from the spiritual masters of the Vedic tradition, who have Lord Krishna as their original teacher. Krishna is God, the same person the entire world worships, honors, loves, scorns, tries to forget about, or vehemently denies the existence of. Not just a folk hero specific to a region in India, Krishna is Bhagavan. He is the wisest, strongest, most beautiful, smartest, most famous and most renounced. These are the opulences necessary to be labeled as God. Since Krishna has these features in full supply, He is worthy of our worship.
The soul’s essential characteristic, its dharma, is to love God with full faith and confidence. In the constitutional state, the love is offered without motivation and without interruption. This stands in stark contrast to the pattern of behavior we are familiar with. Motivation must be there, otherwise what would drive sincerity? Interruption must also be present, otherwise how will we know when to stop? Since we have no way to grapple with the paradoxical combination of an absence of both motivation and interruption, even bhakti-yoga is adopted in the beginning with a purpose. In the Bhagavad-gita, Krishna states that four different types of devotees approach Him.
“O best among the Bharatas [Arjuna], four kinds of pious men render devotional service unto Me—the distressed, the desirer of wealth, the inquisitive, and he who is searching for knowledge of the Absolute.” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 7.16)
There are the desirers of wealth, the inquisitive, the distressed, and those who are knowledgeable. The knowledgeable are considered the best of the four because they are already situated in a position of intelligence. If a smart person takes to worshiping God, they have the best opportunity for remaining committed to the task and eventually following it with steady devotion. Nevertheless, the initial motivation isn’t that important, especially if the processes adopted are effective. Chanting is the most recommended process of service to God because it can lead to lasting benefits for the most number of people. Moreover, other methods of spirituality are not only more selective in their list of eligible candidates, but the benefits achieved are also narrow in scope.
How can benefits be judged for completeness? Whichever methods can extract the natural qualities of the soul the best would have to be considered superior. Think of a pile of gold covered with dust. We have several different ways to clear the dust off. Some ways work better than others, but the one that can fully remove the dust and allow the gold to shine in all its glory would have to be considered the best.
In the realm of spirituality, bhakti-yoga is that superior method, allowing the golden spirit soul to transcend the effects of the dust-like material existence. In bhakti’s arsenal of tools, the chanting of the holy names is the most effective. It must be stressed that the specific names recited are very important. The effectiveness is not so much in the process, but in the beneficiary. The holy name is non-different from God. Since He has unlimited qualities and performs so many wonderful activities, He has thousands of names assigned to Him in the Vedic tradition. Of these names, Krishna and Rama are considered the best. “Krishna” is the most complete address because it describes God as being all-attractive. “Rama” says that the Lord acts as the supreme benefactor by giving transcendental pleasure to His devotees.
Chanting the maha-mantra is more than just meditation, for it is part of loving God. Bhakti is divine love, so in order for love to shine while we recite a specific name, we have to hear it. Thus the secret to success in chanting is hearing the names you are reciting. Chanting the maha-mantra does not have any hard and fast rules. This stands in stark contrast to other Vedic rituals and their component mantras. If during a formal sacrifice, or yajna, the brahmana doesn’t say every syllable in a specific mantra perfectly, the effort will be a waste. Whether the sacrifice is for bringing auspiciousness to a home, curing a disease, or asking for general prosperity, the mantras must be recited by a qualified brahmana, or priest, and enunciated perfectly, irrespective of how complex the Sanskrit words might be.
Chanting Hare Krishna is an act of love, so how can the parent in this case, Lord Krishna, not recognize a sincere effort? Material opulence, peace of mind, alleviation from distress, and other rewards tied to a temporary existence are just nice side effects of chanting. The primary aim is to remove the dust covering the individual’s natural brilliance. A golden soul is one who constantly thinks about Krishna, loves Him, loves His devotees, and never remains satisfied in their own devotional efforts.
While chanting the maha-mantra doesn’t have any specific rules, the effectiveness of the process is increased when offenses are removed. There are nine general offenses listed, with one of them being “inattentiveness”. This is the issue many people deal with, for how can we curb the restless mind? Even Arjuna, while talking to Krishna on the battlefield of Kurukshetra, compared controlling the mind to trying to control the wind. Just try to sit down for a second and not think. It’s impossible.
“For the mind is restless, turbulent, obstinate and very strong, O Krishna, and to subdue it is, it seems to me, more difficult than controlling the wind.” (Arjuna, Bg. 6.34)
Each devotee has their own realizations on how to chant perfectly, but the key component to success is hearing the words that are recited. From hearing the holy name the mind merges into pleasant thoughts about Krishna. If the mind should wander off again, just bring it back by hearing the names recited. Unlike with other types of meditation, there is no state of maturity that one is trying to reach. Rather, as more time is spent in bhakti, attachment to God will increase. More attachment leads to more eagerness to serve, and thus an increased desire to chant. Talk to someone who chants the maha-mantra for sixteen rounds daily on a set of japa beads for years on end, and they will tell you that nothing can get them to stop their routine. Not even millions of dollars thrown their way will coax them into giving up the practice for even a single day.
This level of dedication can only come from steady practice in chanting and also a focus on hearing. The secret in chanting is that the conditioned soul remains active while simultaneously taking in Vedic wisdom through the ear. The holy name carries with it Krishna’s pastimes, forms and qualities. The mind takes pleasure in hearing about activities, so when this tendency is matched with someone whose pastimes are the most sublime, there can only be lasting benefits. Remaining active is important, because without a steady engagement, the tendency towards lethargy will increase. If we are tired, how will we remain eager to serve? On the other hand, if we are active, regularly using the tongue to produce incarnations of the Supreme Lord, the eagerness for hearing will increase all the more. With increased hearing there is a greater chance of awakening from our slumber and finding the comfortable arms of the spiritual world, where Shri Krishna’s smiling face can be seen every day and the sounds of His wonderful flute can mesmerize us at every second.
For those who are hesitant to follow a formula that seems specific to a foreign tradition, just do a quick review of the different methods of maintenance promoted around the world and see if they lead to the same position of pure love for God. Chanting is never imposed on anyone, and neither is love for God. In a realm where misery is rampant, the absence of God consciousness must be the norm. As soon as the face is turned away from the smiling image of Shyamasundara, Shri Krishna having a dark complexion like a raincloud, the shelter of the material energy is used. This only brings an illusory protection, as no one can fully prevent the loss of body, injury, pain and suffering except the Supreme Lord.
Even if there is trouble concentrating during chanting, the process shouldn’t be interrupted. We don’t follow bhakti to get blanket amnesty from sinful behavior, but this doesn’t mean that setbacks should deter us in our pursuit. A failing grade on a test doesn’t necessarily mean we are going to flunk the course. The mind’s roaming away from Krishna consciousness during chanting shouldn’t stop one from continuing to recite the holy names. Slow and steady wins the race, so only those who can tolerate the bumps and bruises on the road to the imperishable spiritual sky will reach their intended destination.