We risk disrespecting God when we underestimate the spiritual power of chanting His names.
This is the fourth in a series of articles on offenses to be avoided when trying to progress spiritually by chanting God's names. This article discusses the offenses of considering the holy name a mundane auspicious ritual, giving the holy name an imaginary meaning, and thinking that the glories of the holy name are exaggerated.
"She has between two and twenty-four hours left."
My mother's breathing had become labored, and she could no longer give that tiny nod or shake of head to indicate her desires.
So, it had come. Unable to speak, my mother had written "When?" once or twice in her many weeks without any sustenance but water. Now I immediately thought of rituals of protection marking her body with sacred clay, putting beads of tulasi wood on her, and so on. But that was not to be.
"No Krsna rituals," my cousin the doctor admonished me. Although not her attending physician, being a doctor he had more or less taken charge of things. "Your mother was not a Hare Krsna. Let her die as she lived."
"But," I argued, "these last weeks I've been chanting to her, reading stories to her from our scriptures, singing devotional songs. She often asked me to, and really loved it. Why should I do something different today?"
I was hopeful, yet nervous. For two weeks now I'd been with my mother twelve hours or more a day. The first week my muscles gradually became intensely strained, as I was on constant full alert, trying to notice when death would come so I could help her remember Krsna. Finally I understood: If I told my mother to surrender to Krsna, I had to do the same. The time and circumstances of her death were not in my hands. I couldn't be with her every moment, controlling the situation. Hadn't her roommate here in the nursing home, apparently in reasonably good condition, died unexpectedly from a heart attack practically in this very room just days ago? At that moment, I'd been at the nurses' station. Would I be there when my mother's death came?
"No Krsna rituals," he repeated.
I sighed and then looked directly into his eyes and shook his hand.
"No rituals," I said, "and that's a promise."
Keeping that promise, I again read my mother the story of how Krsna married Rukmini. Then I chanted out loud on my beads, "Hare Krsna, Hare Krsna, Krsna Krsna, Hare Hare/ Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare."
My mother's private aide, who had worked as a registered nurse in South America, was an educated, intelligent woman with a sweet simple faith in God and Jesus.
When she heard my chanting, she said with a conspiratorial glance, "Your cousin is still in the building."
When he returned to the room sometime later, I quickly put down my beads, but though he saw and heard me chanting, he didn't complain. Did he understand that chanting the holy name is not a religious ritual, what to speak of a sectarian one?
Purity Without Rituals
Because Krsna, the Supreme Lord, is the summit and definition of purity, no one can achieve His direct service without also being pure. All the genuine scriptures and religious traditions of the world, therefore, have rituals and processes for bringing a human being to a level of purity where love of God becomes possible. But the holy name itself has the power to create purity without the need of rituals.
Unfortunately, transcendent spiritual practices such as chanting God's names can be mistaken for rituals or become transformed into external, meaningless traditions over time. Therefore, many people assume that the chanting of Krsna's names, as in Hare Krsna, Hare Krsna, Krsna Krsna, Hare Hare/ Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare, is the formal procedure of a particular religious sect, meant for gaining worldly happiness, power over the body and mind, or salvation. Such thinking is an offense to the name. Similar offenses are to give a material interpretation of the holy name and to think that the spiritual glories attributed to the name are exaggerations or mythology. If we offend the name in these ways, Krsna will hide His name's true meaning and blessings from us. The result will be sorrow, rather than the awakening of our love for Krsna.
There are reasons why we might be confused about the transcendental nature of Krsna's name. For example, the scriptures promise material rewards or liberation to one who chants the holy name. And there are standard procedures apparently rituals for chanting the Lord's name, such as taking a vow to chant a certain number of names a day and using beads as an aid to meditation.
Krsna's name, however, is Krsna Himself incarnated as sound. The holy name comes directly from the most intimate, sacred realm of the Supreme: Goloka Vrndavana, Krsna's abode in the spiritual world. The holy name is Krsna entering our hearts and rising to dance on our tongues. But just as computer novices know only a few elementary functions, beginners in spiritual science may not appreciate who the name is and how the name is within their mouth. In other words, beginners might not understand that the holy name has unlimited power.
Krsna has invested the holy name with all energies, so chanting gives one access to all energies, including the spiritual. In contrast, a person who performs mundane, karmic activities, or pious acts meant to obtain wealth, health, and other things of this world, contacts only material energies. And meditation, contemplation, and philosophical endeavors connect one only with energies for salvation, sometimes called brahma-nirvana. Therefore, we offend the name if we think chanting to be only as potent as activities of piety and salvation.
It is true that sometimes working piously (karma) or for liberation (through jnana) helps create a situation conducive to chanting the holy name. Yet the difference between these activities and chanting can be further explained as follows. Actions for piety or salvation are means to an end. They're eventually abandoned and are always less than pure. Chanting the holy name, however, is both the principal means to attain love of God and the main activity one performs once one attains that love. The holy name is never impure; the purity and glories of the name become uncovered as the chanter's purity increases. A person who understands these points about the holy name rejects karma and jnana and takes solely to bhakti, which centers on chanting.
Works and Faith
Critics of chanting who see it as a ritual say that God and His service are unattainable through our own effort, including chanting. Like austerities, study, and other "works" (to use the biblical term), chanting can't force God to accept us. We would agree with that at least in the sense of mechanical chanting. Srila Prabhupada writes, "Revival of the dormant affection or love of Godhead does not depend on the mechanical system of hearing and chanting, but it solely and wholly depends on the causeless mercy of the Lord. When the Lord is fully satisfied with the sincere efforts of the devotee, He may endow him with His loving transcendental service." (Srimad-Bhagavatam 1.7.6, Purport)
What are those "sincere efforts" that attract the grace of Krsna? They are our efforts to grab Krsna's merciful love when offered. The externals of genuine systems of spiritual life and religion, such as taking up a regime of chanting, are meant to display our sincerity to Krsna so that He will be inclined to reveal Himself to us.
There is thus a symbiosis between "works" and "faith" (citing the biblical terms again). But ordinary pious or philanthropic works do not attract Krsna's attention, although they can be helpful to bring a soul to a life of self-realization. Only work in devotion, in direct service to the Lord and saintly persons, brings Krsna's notice.
In fact, ultimately nothing but the mercy of the Lord will bring us to our original state of spiritual happiness.
The main way to show our desire for this mercy is to connect with Krsna's names, especially by chanting the maha-mantra: Hare Krsna, Hare Krsna, Krsna Krsna, Hare Hare/ Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare.
But what of those material benefits promised to the chanter? They're true, and not held up as merely glittering trinkets to attract our attention and get our motivation churning. Yet Krsna's devotee may not achieve such benefits. Why? Because the devotee doesn't ask for those small and tasteless fruits, having attained the juicy sweet nectar of Krsna's love.
The scriptures also describe examples of immediate tremendous spiritual realization and purification through chanting and other transcendent services of devotion. Because such results are uncommon, however, one might think the scriptures exaggerate the benefits of chanting. But the benefits are real. It's just a matter of when and how a person experiences the name's glories, and that depends on Krsna's mercy and the chanter's careful avoidance of offenses.
Why Chanting Gives Happiness
Some people think that positive changes in one who chants the holy names result from the mechanics of chanting rather than from a spiritual transformation. For example, a prominent American newsmagazine recently ran a cover article about how all "religious experience" can be attributed to the brain's neurological functions. In other words, some scientists claim that the physical act of chanting changes brain chemistry and such alterations cause what is then termed spiritual happiness or realization. But scriptures and saints tell us that transcendent pleasure and understanding cause positive changes in the body and mind, some of which may be measured in brain chemistry. It is reasonable that the love of someone enraptured by Krsna would affect the body in which he or she resides, just as a party in a house would vibrate the walls and floors. To state that the floors' vibrations caused the joyous mood of the revelers would be illogical.
The holy name has the potency to transform someone from illusioned to enlightened because the name is Krsna Himself and in the form of the maha-mantra Hare Krsna, Hare Krsna, Krsna Krsna, Hare Hare/ Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare it is the Lord and His supreme energy, Radha. The word Hare is the way to call someone named either Hari (masculine, a name for Krsna) or Hara (feminine, a name for Radharani).
Srila Prabhupada told us that we are calling to the supreme mother, Hara, to help us approach the Lord, Krsna or Rama. Krsna means all-attractive, an appropriate name for God because He is the strongest and the most wealthy, renounced, famous, beautiful, and intelligent the primary categories of opulence. And Rama is a name for God as the supreme enjoyer, full of pleasure. Hara literally means "to take away." Radharani, addressed as Hare, takes away the pain of material attachments and brings us to Krsna. She also steals Krsna's mind, attracting the most attractive with her incomparable love. The maha-mantra is thus an exultation of Radha-Krsna's love and a plea to Radha-Krsna to allow the chanter to help further the unlimited expansion of Their love.
Many great spiritual teachers have given their own meditations on the name and the maha-mantra, all in accord with the basic understanding above. Bhaktivinoda Thakura, for example, explained that each couplet of the mantra refers to one of the eight prayers (Siksastaka) written by the Lord to Himself when, as Caitanya Mahaprabhu, He appeared in the mood of Radharani. Bhaktivinoda further says that each of these couplets and prayers corresponds to a stage in the gradual progress of realization of a spiritual aspirant.
"Go to Govinda!"
Krsna may find many ways to convince us of the name's power. My mother's passing was a powerful lesson for me.
My many relatives who had vehemently objected to "Krsna rituals," both directly and through the doctor, suddenly and inexplicably left the room after declaring that they would stay "until the end." As I sat with my mother, another devotee entered the room and began chanting Hare Krsna to her, not knowing she had only moments left.
The aide sat on one side, saying, "Just go to the Lord, just love the Lord!" And I sat on the other, describing Krsna's form and singing songs of the spiritual world. My mother's body shuddered as if someone had grabbed the stem of a large plant within her and shaken it. For several weeks, she'd been unable to speak, even though her consciousness had been clear and alert. Was it her inner desire that had set the stage for hearing only Krsna's glories? Would my relatives come back and accuse me of sectarian rituals? Would she go on like this for days, with the chance that I could be out of the room at the moment the soul left? Leaving all this up to Krsna, I told her of His beautiful hair, His eyes, and His love.
"Go to Govinda! Go to Gopala! Give Him all your love and everything. Leave your material attachments and become attached only to Him. Radhe Jaya Jaya, Madhava. Go to Gopala!"
Her breathing stopped. Then a tiny bit of air came from her mouth, and her body was still. Could one whose life had no background of Vedic ritual come to Krsna through the power of His name, even in the last moments? I'm still astonished at how the holy name is so merciful and how Krsna in that form is above all considerations.
The phone rang.
"How is Grandma?" my daughter asked.
"Grandma just died. One minute ago."
"One minute ago? One minute ago I was at the altar, begging Lord Caitanya to protect her."
With faith in the power of the name, with awareness that Krsna in that form is fully present with all potencies, and with conviction that the names includes and is beyond all else, let us chant with enthusiasm.
Urmila Devi Dasi and her family run a school in North Carolina. She is a frequent contributor to BTG and the major author and compiler of Vaikuntha Children, a guide to Krsna conscious education for children.