“The mahatma is always engaged in different activities of devotional service, as described in the Shrimad-Bhagavatam, hearing and chanting about Vishnu, not a demigod or human being.” (Shrila Prabhupada, Bhagavad-gita, 9.14 Purport)
Vishno-smaranam is one of the processes of devotional service, or bhakti-yoga, recommended by a young Prahlada Maharaja many eons ago. Devotional service is the constitutional engagement of the soul. This means that the soul’s ideal occupation is to serve God, the Supreme Absolute Truth. As the soul is eternal, so is its ideal occupation, and so the closest equivalent term for religion in the Vedas is sanatana-dharma, or the occupational duty which has no beginning and no end. Unfortunately, with residence in the material world, the soul goes on hiatus from the constitutional engagement. Therefore steps are necessary to rekindle the dormant love for God that rests within the heart. From the model of the assembly line, we learn one way in which to increase efficiency in devotional service.
Vishno-smaranam means remembering Vishnu, which is another name for God. In the Vedic literatures you will see many mentions of Vishnu, Rama, Krishna, Narasimha, and other such beings who are considered the original Supreme Lord. There is also mention of other god-like figures, but nowhere is it said that they are equal to Vishnu. Vishnu and Krishna are equal because they are the same person, the origin of life and matter. Just like there is an original candle that can then light many other replica candles, the original Personality of Godhead, Shri Krishna, personally expands into different avataras to carry out different functions. The living beings, both elevated and degraded, are separated expansions, so they are not the same as God.
A simpler definition of vishno-smaranam is “remembering God”. “This seems worthwhile enough. Just remember God.” You have to remind someone else of this because of the proclivity towards forgetfulness. If we can forget what we had for lunch yesterday, we can most certainly forget God. Aiding that forgetfulness is the preponderance of religious systems which appear to be contradictory. One person worships five times a day while another goes to church once a week. They both say that their religious system is authentic. How do we square the differences? Are they worshiping the same person?
In the Vedas, the oldest scriptural tradition in the world, the differences are reconciled through the truth that God is realized in three different ways. There is the impersonal energy known as Brahman. Think of collecting every individual fragment of spirit and putting them together. This is the Brahman energy. It is transcendental to the temporary changes of the manifest world. We are all Brahman, aham brahmasmi.
Brahman is only a partial realization of the Absolute Truth, because there is also Paramatma, or the Supreme Soul. This is the localized aspect of the superior spiritual force within every single living entity. The Supersoul is the same individual within each person. My identity is different from yours, but the Supersoul in my heart is identical to the Supersoul in yours. They are one and the same, and so they are conscious of both my activities and yours.
Bhagavan is the full realization of God. Bhagavan means one who possesses all opulences. To possess an opulence means to possess a form. To have a form that is above maya, or the material nature, means to have a spiritual form. This concept of spiritual matter is achintya, or inconceivable. We only use the term Bhagavan to get a slight understanding of the Personality of Godhead’s features. Bhagavan is a singular entity, and the different religious traditions around the world worship the same Bhagavan but with varying levels of knowledge. If you don’t really know who He is, you are essentially worshiping Brahman. If you want to attain spiritual awareness through yoga, you are essentially worshiping the Supersoul.
Bhakti-yoga is exclusively reserved for Bhagavan. Within bhakti-yoga, there are different methods, and they are not all required for perfection. Just one implementation done in the proper mood, where desires for material gain and for the elimination of distress are completely absent, brings perfection. Perfection is connection with God, or yoga. The question then remains as to how to implement any or all of the processes.
Remembrance seems the easiest, but how do we practice it in a way that is fruitful? We can look to the assembly line concept to see how to build something in an efficient way. Let’s say that I have to mail out a large number of letters. To mail a letter requires a piece of paper with written content, an envelope, a stamp, and the act of dropping the letter in the mail. There are different ways to tackle this project. I can take out a piece of paper, write the letter[which in this example will be a form letter], stuff it in an envelope, affix the proper postage, and then go to the mailbox to drop it off. Once the entire process is done, I can go back and start on my next letter.
The wise person, however, will divide up the components in a way that will allow for momentum in work. For instance, one part of the day can be spent solely on writing the letters. After all of the letters are written, all of them can be stuffed in envelopes. Then postage can be applied to all of the stuffed envelopes. Finally, all of the letters set to go out can be taken to the post office at once. This way there is momentum in each task, and the work is much easier to accomplish. If you break your concentration by jumping from one task to another, your mind will be less interested in the work itself.
Taking the same concept and applying it to bhakti-yoga, it is better to practice remembering God in a way that builds momentum. This brings us to the most important recommended practice for spiritual seekers of the modern age: the chanting of the holy names. If you’re going to chant, why not pick the best names? In the Vedas are to be found many names for God, but Krishna and Rama are considered the best. Hare refers to Bhagavan’s energy, and so the maha-mantra, “Hare Krishna Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare, Hare Rama Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare”, is the best sequence of words to chant.
Chanting out loud actually fulfills two other methods of devotional service, namely chanting and hearing, or kirtanam and shravanam. The recommendation by the acharyas who follow in the line of Shri Krishna Chaitanya Mahaprabhu is that we chant the aforementioned mantra for up to sixteen rounds a day on a set of japa beads. You can divide up the rounds throughout the day if you prefer, but one round consists of 108 recitations of the mantra. There is automatic momentum built into this recommended practice. Rather than chant one mantra, then drift off to something else, and then return to chanting, if you chant the mantras over and over again, in a circle that repeats, it slowly turns into a habit.
There is no better habit to have than remembering God, and by chanting and hearing the holy names, the best habit quickly forms. Devotional service, the soul’s constitutional engagement, soon becomes a fixture in everyday life rather than a separate endeavor viewed as a chore. In the recommendations of the acharyas we see that they give us the tools necessary to build our way to a spiritually-infused consciousness, a subtle house of delight so sturdy that it doesn’t even break at the time of death.
With someone with discipline instilled,
Work in way where momentum builds.
The work no longer to become a chore,
Otherwise jumping mind to easily bore.
In bhakti divine consciousness to make,
To find success lessons from assembly line take.
In japa chant holy names in succession,
Remembering and hearing God make perfection.