Answer: The purpose of human life is to know and love God. Any practice or method that can help us achieve that goal is the perfect religion. In the current age, the recommended method for achieving love of God is the chanting of His holy names.
The Vedas consist of various hymns and mantras glorifying God. There are literally thousands of different mantras, each having their own purpose and prescribed time for recitation. Lord Krishna Himself used to regularly recite the gayatri mantra as part of His daily routine when He appeared on earth some five thousand years ago. Prior to that, in His incarnation as the warrior prince Lord Rama, mantras also played an integral role in His life. During His battles with the evil rakshasa demons, Lord Rama used to call upon the mantras given to Him by the great sages. These mantras would enable His weapons to gain further strength, giving the arrows shot from His bow strength similar to that of a nuclear weapon. Of all the Vedic mantras, the maha-mantra, “Hare Krishna Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna Hare Hare, Hare Rama Hare Rama, Rama Rama Hare Hare”, is considered the most efficacious since it directly addresses God and His energies in a loving way.
God takes many forms and His holy name is one of them. Constantly repeating His name is the easiest way to stay connected with Him. In the current age of Kali, mankind spends most of its time trying to satisfy the senses. People in general aren’t as religious as they used to be with many people not thinking of God even once in a day. Chanting the maha-mantra is recommended as the initial step for neophyte devotees because it is easy for anyone to pick up and there are no hard and fast rules associated with it. Anyone can chant this mantra wherever they are at any time of the day.
To begin, one needs a set of chanting beads, also known as a japa mala. Each japa mala contains 108 small beads connected together on a string with one large bead at the center. Holding the mala in your right hand, place one of the small beads adjacent to the large bead in between your thumb and middle finger. Repeat the mantra once out loud and then roll to the next smallest bead and say the mantra again. Repeat this process until you reach the large bead. In this way, by repeating the mantra 108 times, you will have completed one round of japa meditation. Once you reach the large bead, turn the mala around and start the chanting process again in the reverse direction starting with the small bead adjacent to the large bead. The large bead represents the “Krishna” bead and is not to be chanted on.
To truly understand God and the science of devotional service, one needs to approach a spiritual master, or guru. Lord Krishna Himself states this in the Bhagavad-gita:
“Just try to learn the truth by approaching a spiritual master. Inquire from him submissively and render service unto him. The self-realized soul can impart knowledge unto you because he has seen the truth.” (Lord Krishna speaking to Arjuna, Bg. 4.34)
The guru acts as the via-medium, showing us the proper way to return back to Krishna’s spiritual realm. A spiritual master that everyone can approach in this age is A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada. Though he is no longer physically present in this world, he lives forever through the teachings found in his books and recorded lectures. Shrila Prabhupada’s primary recommendation was for everyone to chant at least 16 rounds of the maha-mantra daily on a japa mala. Sixteen rounds means reciting the mantra 16 x 108 times every day. The concept of repeating the same phrase over and over may seem silly at first, but it is actually very effective. By investing so much time in thinking and hearing about God, one is sure to develop an attachment for Him and at the same time become detached from activities of sense gratification. Along with chanting, Prabhupada also requested everyone to abide by the four regulative principles of devotional life: abstention from meat eating, illicit sex, intoxication, and gambling. Though it may be helpful, one isn’t required to live in a temple or even attend one. Anyone can implement these devotional practices into their daily life wherever they may live.
For those unaccustomed to the Vedic lifestyle, these regulations may seem very difficult to live by. Chanting sixteen rounds can take a few hours, and many of us are strongly attached to meat eating and intoxication. Just as with anything else, success in spiritual life requires perseverance and persistence. One should start off slow, building a routine, and then gradually build off of that. One can commit to chanting at least one round a day to start off. Then gradually as the routine becomes easier, extra rounds can be added. The key is to stick with it. Unlike in our material endeavors, there is never any wasted effort in devotional service. Even if we aren’t successful in achieving God consciousness in this life, in our next life we are allowed to resume from where we left off as stated by the Lord in the Bhagavad-gita:
“The unsuccessful yogi, after many, many years of enjoyment on the planets of the pious living entities, is born into a family of righteous people, or into a family of rich aristocracy. Or he takes his birth in a family of transcendentalists who are surely great in wisdom. Verily, such a birth is rare in this world. On taking such a birth, he again revives the divine consciousness of his previous life, and he tries to make further progress in order to achieve complete success, O son of Kuru.” (Lord Krishna speaking to Arjuna, Bg. 6.41-43)
Attending temples is a nice way to gain association with fellow devotees who can offer helpful tips and insights. The reality is that attending temples isn’t an option for many of us since there may not be any close to where we live. Luckily for us the great saints of India have left behind voluminous books and other writings about Krishna and the science of devotion to Him. Reading is another way we can have direct association with Krishna and his bona fide representatives, the spiritual masters.
Whichever avenue we choose, the end goal is the same, to develop a love for Krishna. Bhakti yoga, or devotional service, consists of nine different processes which allow us ample opportunity to serve the Lord. By engaging in chanting, remembering, worshiping, serving the lotus feet of the Lord, offering prayers, becoming friends with Him, or by surrendering everything to Him we can make our lives perfect. The key is to always remain connected with the Lord. Just as we value spending quality time with our friends and family, spending quality time with Krishna is even more important. Christian leaders ask people to attend church once a week, which is very beneficial. But wouldn’t it be better to think about God every day?
Chanting and following the regulative principles is just the beginning stage. As we gradually get a routine together and start progressing in spiritual life, Krishna Himself starts to guide us from within. Devotees are always excited about finding new ways to serve the Lord, for the different processes of devotional service provide us endless opportunities each and every single day.
We urge everyone to take up the chanting process and to read the books written by the great Vaishnava saints. Any of Shrila Prabhupada’s books are a great place to start, with the Bhagavad-gita and the Science of Self-Realization tailored specifically for beginners.