It's available to everyone, it's simple and joyful to perform, and it works.
THE VEDIC scriptures prescribe for each age a particular religious practice by which people can attain the goal of life love of God, or pure Krsna consciousness. The religious process for each age suits the resources and capabilities of the people of that age. Each age, or yuga, lasts hundreds of thousands of years, and we are now in the last of the cycle of four ages. The prescribed religion for the first age (Satya-yuga) was meditation, for the second (Treta-yuga) performance of sacrifice, and for the third (Dvapara-yuga) elaborate worship of the Deity in the temple. The prescribed religion for the present age, known as Kali-yuga ("the Age of Quarrel"), is the chanting of the holy names of the Lord. The Brhan-naradiya Purana (3.28.126) states:
harer nama hare nama
harer nama eva kevalam
kalau nasty eva nasty eva
nasty eva gatir anyatha
"In the age of Kali the only means of deliverance is to chant the holy name of the Lord, chant the holy name of the Lord, chant the holy name of the Lord. There is no other way. There is no other way. There is no other way."
For Everyone in all Ages
Although all the religious processes mentioned in the Vedas are authorized, having been given by the Lord Himself, only one harinama-sankirtana,* the chanting of the holy names of the Lord is effective for everyone at all times and places. People have become self-realized by harinama-sankirtana throughout the ages. It has been and still is the most effective means for achieving spiritual perfection and seeing the Supreme Lord, Sri Krsna, face to face.
*Hari is a name for God, nama means "name," and sankirtana means "congregational chanting" or "glorification of the Complete Whole [Krsna]."
People today would do well to learn about the harinama-sankirtana religious process, which is both practical and pleasurable. Chanting the names of the Lord doesn't cost anything, and one can do it anytime and anywhere.
Lord Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu introduced the religious process for this age five hundred years ago. His followers in disciplic succession have continued to spread His teachings to this day. As recorded in the Caitanya Mangala, a sixteenth-century biography on Lord Caitanya, the Lord Himself predicted, "My commander-in-chief devotee [mora senapati bhakta] will spread the chanting of the holy names around the world." His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, the founder-acarya of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness, fulfilled that prediction.
The Principle of Sacrifice
To understand the importance of accepting the religious process prescribed for the age, we need to understand the principle of yajna, or religious sacrifice. The Vedic scriptures teach us to show our appreciation and gratitude to the Lord, who alone provides us the necessities of life. We do this by performing yajna, or sacrifice. Pious souls naturally feel gratitude and devotion for the Lord, and they willingly perform yajna. Impious nondevotees, on the other hand, claim that material nature is all in all and that thanking God is useless. Spiritual life begins when one appreciates Lord Krsna and worships Him by the methods of sacrifice He has prescribed.
Lord Krsna says in Bhagavad-gita that by performing yajna one receives all material and spiritual necessities of life. And by neglecting yajna, He says, one becomes liable for punishment and wastes the valuable human form of life: "My dear Arjuna, one who does not follow in human life the cycle of sacrifice thus established by the Vedas certainly leads a life full of sin. Living only for the satisfaction of the senses, such a person lives in vain."
The Benefits of Chanting
The main benefit of chanting is that one gradually develops pure love of God, the ultimate goal of life. Lord Caitanya Mahaprabhu explains that chanting cleanses the mind and "extinguishes the blazing fire of material existence," in the form of the miseries of birth, old age, disease, and death, all caused by our false identification with the material body. By reawakening our dormant Krsna consciousness, we come to understand our real identity as eternal servants of Krsna and naturally develop progressive spiritual qualities such as patience, humility, tolerance, fearlessness, and freedom from anxiety.
Having cleansed the mind of the dirt of materialistic thoughts, feelings, and desires, the chanter begins to taste the transcendental sweetness of the holy names. Pure devotees of the Lord have compared the spiritual happiness derived from chanting Hare Krsna to "an ever-expanding ocean of spiritual bliss." That happiness the real happiness we all seek is available to anyone who takes up the practice of chanting the holy names.
Lord Caitanya taught the essence of sincere chanting:
trnad api sunicena
taror iva sahisnuna
kirtaniyah sada hari
In this verse Lord Caitanya reveals the proper mood for performing harinama-sankirtana: "One should consider oneself lower than the straw in the street, one should be more tolerant than a tree, and one should be prepared to offer all respects to others, without desiring respect for oneself. In this mood, one can chant the holy names of the Lord constantly."
The Hare Krsna Maha-mantra
Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu taught that God has hundreds and millions of names, such as Krsna and Govinda, and one can chant any of them and receive immeasurable spiritual benefit. He Himself specifically taught the chanting of the Hare Krsna mahamantra ("the great chant"): Hare Krsna, Hare Krsna, Krsna Krsna, Hare Hare/ Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare. Krsna means "the all-attractive person," Rama means "the highest pleasure," and Hare refers to Lord Krsna's spiritual energy (or, more precisely, His internal pleasure potency), known as Srimati Radharani. By chanting the maha-mantra one can eventually achieve the highest perfection even in this lifetime.
To benefit from chanting other Vedic mantras, one must chant with perfect meter and pronunciation and fulfill many other conditions not possible in the present age. One can reap the rewards of chanting Hare Krsna, however, simply by chanting the mantra and hearing attentively. Anyone can chant at any time, in any condition of life. Lord Caitanya, in his treatise on chanting, known as Siksastaka,has written, "There are no hard and fast rules for chanting Hare Krsna."
One can chant Hare Krsna loudly in a group, softly to oneself, or even within the mind. Loud chanting has the added benefit of allowing other living beings to hear the holy names. This fits well with one of the characteristics of real religion: everyone should benefit from its performance. The Vedas proclaim, sarve sukhino bhavantu: "Let everyone be happy." More than any other religious process,harinama-sankirtana fulfills that need in human society. Lord Caitanya proclaims, "All glories to the congregational chanting of the holy names. It is the prime benediction for humanity at large because it spreads the rays of the benediction moon." (Siksastaka 1)
Devotees in the Hare Krsna movement perform the traditional methods of congregational chanting called kirtana and bhajana. Though the word kirtana in its broadest sense means simply "glorification," it often refers to group singing of Hare Krsna accompanied by percussion instruments, such as gongs, drums (mrdangas), and cymbals (karatalas). During kirtana, whether in the temple or outside, devotees usually stand or dance. One person leads the singing, and everyone else responds.
Devotees hold kirtanas in public places so that others may benefit by hearing the Lord's holy names. Krsna considers such unintentional hearing devotional service, and it entitles one to render more service in the future.
Bhajana refers to the singing of devotional songs and prayers written by great devotees of the Lord. Devotees usually sit during bhajanas, which are often accompanied by melodious instruments such as the tamboura (a stringed instrument) or harmonium (a small hand-pumped organ), in addition to mrdangas and karatalas.
Chanting softly for one's own spiritual benefit is called japa. Srila Prabhupada taught the traditional practice of chanting the Hare Krsna maha-mantra on a string of 108 beads, often made from the wood of the sacred Tulasi plant. Initiated disciples in the Krsna consciousness movement vow to chant every day at least sixteen "rounds" (sets of 108). Beginners are encouraged to chant as many rounds as they can. It is helpful to chant a fixed number of rounds daily without fail (four rounds is a good starting point) and gradually increase to at least sixteen rounds daily. Srila Prabhupada writes in The Nectar of Devotion, "It is better if one fixes up a regulative principle according to his own ability and then follows that vow without fail. That will make him advanced in spiritual life."
Chanting is easier in the association of devotees, and everyone is welcome to chant japa with devotees in any ISKCON center during the daily japa period (generally 5:30-7:00 A.M.).
Japa can be thought of as "spiritual weightlifting" the more you chant, the more you can chant. As we build our spiritual strength by chanting japa, we will gradually develop a desire for chanting and become joyful. Be patient, and don't expect overnight results (though they've been known to happen). Be enthusiastic to chant every day and be confident that your faithful performance of the prescribed religious sacrifice for this age will please Lord Krsna.
Chanting to Please the Lord
Most important is to chant with a sincere desire to serve and please Krsna. Because the Lord has instructed us to chant His names, we can be sure He is pleased when we do so. And when He is pleased, we automatically become happy. Krsna is the root of everything, so we benefit ourselves by pleasing Him, just as we nourish the leaves and branches of a tree by watering the root.
We don't even need to try for our own happiness in any other way. Everything is in the holy name, because the name is nondifferent from the Lord Himself. Harinama-sankirtana is Lord Krsna's greatest kindness upon the fallen souls of this age. He has given us an easy, effective means by which to please Him.
Prabhupadacarya Dasa, a disciple of Sriman Virabahu Dasa, joined the Hare Krsna movement in 1986. A small-business marketing consultant, he assists BTG in marketing and other areas.
Chanting aids musical instruments, meditation beads, and so on are available through the Hare Krsna Catalog (see page 36).