We've all heard the Hare Krishna mantra at some time, but what the heck is so special about this mantra? Why are we supposed to spend time chanting it? What can it do for us?
First of all, let me explain a little about mantra-yoga. Mantra-yoga is actually a mystical tradition found in almost every spiritual path in the world. It may involve the softly spoken repetition of a prayer or mantra for one's own meditation, or it may be the congregational singing of spiritually uplifting songs, prayers, or the sacred names of the Supreme Being. It all involves the same process, but in the Eastern tradition it is called mantra-yoga because it is the easy process of focusing our minds on the Supreme, which helps spiritualize our consciousness. Man means the mind, tra means deliverance. Therefore, a spiritual mantra is the pure sound vibration for delivering the mind from material to spiritual consciousness. This is the goal of any spiritual path. Although all spiritual traditions have their own prayers or mantras, the Vedic mantras are especially powerful and effective in uniting us with the spiritual realm. However, a complete yoga process is generally a blend of a few yoga systems, such as bhakti-yoga with mantra-yoga. Therefore, bhakti-yoga, as described in the previous chapters, also includes mantra-yoga, or the process of concentrating on the sound vibration within a mantra. This is especially important in this age of Kali.
Many years ago the brahmana priests could accomplish many kinds of wondrous deeds simply by correctly chanting particular mantras. Many of these mantras still exist, but it is very difficult to find those who can chant them accurately. This is actually a safety measure because if the wish-fulfilling mantras were easily chanted, there would no doubt be many people who would misuse them. But other mantras that are available can easily help purify one's consciousness, give spiritual enlightenment, and put one in touch with the Supreme.
In Bhagavad-gita (10.25) Sri Krishna explains that He is the transcendental om mantra and that the chanting of japa (chanting a mantra quietly for one's own meditation) is the purest of His representations and sacrifices. It is understood that by chanting japa and hearing the holy sounds of the mantra, one can come to the platform of spiritual realization. This is the process of mantra-yoga. Even though the mantra is powerful in itself, when the mantra is chanted by a great devotee, it becomes more powerful. This is the effect when a disciple is fortunate enough to take initiation from a spiritually powerful master who gives him a mantra for spiritual purposes. Then the disciple can make rapid progress by utilizing the mantra.
In this age of Kali-yuga the process of chanting japa or mantra meditation is much more effective than practicing other spiritual paths that include meditating on the void or Brahman effulgence, or trying to control the life air within the body as in raja-yoga. Only a very few can become perfect at moving the life air up to the top of the head or raising the kundalini force up through the various chakras. And meditating on the void becomes useless as soon as there is the slightest external distraction, which in this age of Kali is a continuous thing. Therefore, the most effective means of focusing the consciousness is to concentrate on the sound vibration of a mantra.
There are two mantras that are especially recommended in the Vedic literature. One is omkara or the om mantra, and the other is Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare/Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare, which is known as the maha or great mantra. It is explained that these two mantras can deliver one to the realm beyond material existence.
Omkara (pranava) is considered to be the sound incarnation of the Supreme Personality of God and is identical with the Supreme Lord. It is beginningless, changeless, supreme and free from any external contamination. The Narada-pancharatra states: "When the transcendental sound vibration is practiced by a conditioned soul, the Supreme Lord is present on his tongue." The Atharva-veda and the Mandukya Upanishad both mention the importance of omkara. Omkara is said to be the beginning, middle, and end, and is eternal, beyond all material restrictions or contaminations.
Actually, the chanting of omkara is generally practiced by those engaged in the mystic yoga process. However, anyone who chants Vedic verses will also be chanting om, because om is often included as the bija or seed mantra at the beginning of many such verses or other mantras. By chanting om and controlling the breathing perfectly, which is mostly a mechanical way of steadying the mind, one is eventually able to go into trance or samadhi. Through this system, one gradually changes the tendencies of the materially absorbed mind and makes it spiritualized. But this takes many years to perfect and such a slow process is hardly practical in this age. If one is not initiated into the brahminical way of knowledge, he will find it difficult to understand the depths of omkara and will not likely be able to get the desired results from chanting it. Therefore, it is not advised that people in general chant omkara in this age of Kali-yuga and with the expectation of reaching full spiritual perfection because they are often not qualified or unable to chant it properly to attain the inner depths of spiritual completion. [Much more information about om, its significance and how to chant it is in our ebook on "Meditation".]
The mantra that is meant to be chanted in this age is easy and is actually more directly connected with the Supreme than the sound vibration of omkara because it contains the direct holy names of the Lord. So the mantra for Kali-yuga is the maha-mantra, or great mantra for deliverance, which is Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare/Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare.
CHANTING THE MAHA-MANTRA
There are many Vedic references which specifically recommend the chanting of the Hare Krishna maha-mantra as the most effective and advantageous means of reaching spiritual realization and counteracting all the problems of this age. Some of these verses are the following:
These sixteen words--Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare/Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare--are especially meant for counteracting the ill effects of the present age of quarrel and anxiety. (Kali-santarana Upanishad)
All mantras and all processes for self-realization are compressed into the Hare Krishna maha-mantra. (Narada-pancaratra)
Chant the holy names, chant the holy names, chant the holy names. In this age of Kali [the age of quarrel and confusion] without a doubt there is no other way, there is no other way, there is no other way. (Brihan-naradiya Purana 38.126)
In this age there is no use in meditation, sacrifice and temple worship. Simply by chanting the holy name of Krishna--Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare/Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare--one can achieve perfect self-realization. (Vishnu Purana 6.2.17)
The self-realization which was achieved in the Satya millennium by meditation, in the Treta millennium by the performance of different sacrifices, and in the Dvapara millennium by worship of Lord Krishna [as the Deity in the temple], can be achieved in the age of Kali simply by chanting the holy names, Hare Krishna. (Bhag.12.3.52) (Verses similar to this are also found in the Padma Purana,Uttara-khanda 72.25, and the Brihan-naradiya Purana 38.97)
Living beings who are entangled in the complicated meshes of birth and death can be freed immediately by even unconsciously chanting the holy name of Krishna, which is feared by fear personified. (Bhag.1.1.14)
When instructing King Pariksit, the great sage Sri Shukadeva Gosvami said, "O King, constant chanting of the holy name of the Lord after the ways of the great authorities is the doubtless and fearless way of success for all, including those who are free from all material desires, those who are desirous of all material enjoyment, and also those who are self-satisfied by dint of transcendental knowledge. What is the value of a prolonged life which is wasted, inexperienced by years in this world? Better a moment of full consciousness, because that gives one a start in searching after his supreme interest." (Bhag.2.1.11-13)
The reason that chanting the Lord's names is such an effective process is because the Lord and His names are identical: they are the same spiritual energy. By chanting Hare Krishna we are in immediate contact with God. If we chant someone else's name, we cannot enjoy their association because the name and the person are different. For example, by chanting "water, water, water," we do not quench our thirst because water and the name are two different things. But in the spiritual world everything is absolute. Krishna is nondifferent from His names and, therefore, we can feel His presence simply by chanting His names. This is further elaborated in the Caitanya-caritamrta (Madhya-lila, 17.131-133), which explains that there is no difference between the Lord's name, form, or personality, and they are all transcendentally sweet. Krishna's name is the same as Krishna Himself, and is not material in any way. It gives spiritual benedictions and is full of pleasure. But in the material world everything is different. Furthermore, in Caitanya-cartamrta (Adi-lila, 17.22, and the Padma Purana), the Hare Krishna maha-mantra is said to be the sound incarnation of Krishna, and anyone who chants this mantra is in direct association with Krishna and is delivered from the clutches of the material energy.
It is explained that because chanting the names of God brings us in direct contact with God in proportion to the chanter's purity, this process of self-realization is the way of success for everyone. The Bhagavatam (2.1.11) discloses that the chanting of God's names in the manner of the great authorities is the doubtless way to spiritual success for everyone, no matter whether they are full of material desires or free of all desires or self-satisfied because of their spiritual knowledge.
Simply by relying on the chanting of the holy names of God, one need not depend upon other processes, rituals, paraphernalia, or persons. One does not even have to be initiated by a spiritual master to chant the maha-mantra. As the Caitanya-caritamrta (Madhya-lila, 15.108) says, one does not have to take initiation, but only has to chant the holy names. Thus, deliverance is available to even the lowest of people. Furthermore, Rupa Gosvami writes about the potency of the holy name in his Padyavali:
The holy name of Lord Krishna is an attractive feature for many saintly, liberal people. It is the annihilator of all sinful reactions and is so powerful that save for the dumb who cannot chant it, it is readily available to everyone, including the lowest type of man, the chandala. The holy name of Krishna is the controller of the opulence of liberation, and it is identical with Krishna. Simply by touching the holy name with one's tongue, immediate effects are produced. Chanting the holy name does not depend on initiation, pious activities or the purascarya regulative principles generally observed before initiation. The holy name does not wait for all these activities. It is self-sufficient. (Padyavali 29)
Herein is evidence that the Hare Krishna maha-mantra is so powerful that one who sincerely takes shelter of it will attain all the desired results of connection with the Supreme. The Skanda Purana gives further evidence of how powerful is the maha-mantra:
The name of the Lord need not be chanted with regard to place, time, circumstantial conditions, preliminary self-purification or any other factors. Rather, it is completely independent of all other processes and rewards all the desires of those who eagerly chant it. (Skanda Purana)
Therefore, without a doubt, the Hare Krishna mantra is the most potent mantra one can utilize for spiritual upliftment. The Caitanya-caritamrta (Madhya-lila, 15.107) also points out that one is freed of all sinful reactions simply by chanting Krishna's names. And all the nine types of devotional service are completed by this process. Thus, in Kali-yuga only the chanting of the holy names is necessary for worshiping the Lord. However, if one is not able to chant purely or follow the regulations for chanting, it is recommended that one get further guidance from a bona fide spiritual master.
In Kali-yuga the chanting of the holy names is certainly the most practical and effective process for the conditioned souls. It is also the easiest process whether one finds himself in Kali-yuga, Satya-yuga, Treta-yuga, or Dvapara-yuga. Regardless of what age one may be living in, the process of chanting the holy names is always recommended for everyone. "The names of the Supreme Lord who has the disc as His weapon should be glorified always and everywhere." (Vaisakha-mahatmya section of the Padma Purana) But since the age of Kali is the most difficult, where men have short durations of life, it is also the most fortunate age. This is explained in Srimad-Bhagavatam (11.5.36-37 and 12.3.51) which states that those who are wise know the value of this age of Kali because, in spite of the fallen nature of this age, the spiritual perfection of life can be attained by the easy process of sankirtana, the congregational chanting of Krishna's holy names. No better position can be found to attain freedom from material existence and entrance into the spiritual kingdom than joining the Lord's sankirtana movement.
Even those living in other ages desire to take birth in Kali-yuga to take advantage of this special concession of a speedy delivery from the cycle of birth and death through the process of sankirtana. This is confirmed in Srimad-Bhagavatam (11.5.38) where we find it said that those who live during Satya-yuga and other ages wish to be born in Kali-yuga just to take advantage of associating with the devotees of Lord Narayana, who are especially found in South India.
The Srimad-Bhagavatam (11.5.32) explains that intelligent persons perform congregational singing of Krishna's names to worship the incarnation of Krishna who sings His own names, and who is accompanied by His associates and confidential companions. Therefore, as the Caitanya-caritamrta (Adi-lila, 7.74) specifically says, the essence of all scriptural teachings is that the only religious principle in the age of Kali is to chant the Lord's holy names, which are the basis of all Vedic hymns. "In this way the most perfect penance to be executed in this world is the chanting of the name of Lord Sri Hari. Especially in the age of Kali, one can satisfy the Supreme Lord Vishnu by performing sankirtana." (Caturmasya-mahatmya section of the Skanda Purana)
The fact of the matter, as explained in Srimad-Bhagavatam (3.33.6-7), is that regardless of what one's present situation is, if a person once speaks about the activities and chants the holy names of the Supreme, or hears about and remembers Him, he becomes eligible to engage in the Vedic rituals. And how much more glorious are those who regularly chant the holy names. Such people are indeed worshipable, for they must have performed all kinds of austerities, achieved the characteristics of the Aryans, studied the Vedas, bathed at all the holy places of pilgrimage, and done whatever else is required.
When the great sage Narada Muni was explaining to Srila Vyasadeva the means by which he became enlightened, he said, "It is personally experienced by me that those who are always full of cares and anxieties due to desiring contact of the senses with their objects can cross the ocean of nescience [illusory darkness] on a most suitable boat--the constant chanting of the transcendental activities of the Personality of Godhead. It is true that by practicing restraint of the senses by the yoga system one can get relief from the disturbances of desire and lust, but this is not sufficient to give satisfaction to the soul, for this [satisfaction] is derived from devotional service to the Supreme Personality. " (Bhag.1.6.34-35)
Lord Krishna goes on to explain to Uddhava that in the association of saintly devotees, there is always the discussion about Him, and those who partake in such hearing and chanting about the Lord's glories are certainly purified of all sins. In this way, whoever hears, chants and respectfully opens his heart to these topics about the Lord becomes faithfully dedicated to Him. Thus, he achieves devotional service to Lord Krishna. Then, as Lord Krishna Himself asks, "What more remains to be accomplished for the perfect devotee after achieving devotional service unto Me, the Supreme Absolute Truth, whose qualities are innumerable and who am the embodiment of all ecstatic experience?" (Bhag.11.26.28-30)
As further related by Sukadeva Gosvami, "A person who with faith engages in chanting the glories of these various pastimes and incarnations of Vishnu, the Lord of lords, will gain liberation from all sins. The all-auspicious exploits of the all attractive incarnations of Lord Shri Krishna, the Supreme Personality of Godhead, and also the pastimes He performed as a child, are described in this Srimad-Bhagavatam and in other scriptures. Anyone who clearly chants these descriptions of His pastimes will attain transcendental loving service unto Lord Krishna, who is the goal of all perfected sages." (Bhag.11.31.27-28)
Sri Suta Gosvami relates that in a conversation between Narada Muni and Sanatkumara, Sanatkumara explained the way to attain freedom from this world, even for the most wayward sinners. Even all those mean men who are destitute of all good ways of behavior, who are of a wicked mind, who are outcaste, who deceive the world, who are intent upon religious hypocrisy, pride, drinking liquor, and wickedness, who are sinful and cruel, who are interested in another man's wealth, wife and sons, become pure if they resort to the lotus-like feet of Vishnu. The name of Vishnu, sure to succeed here, protects those sinful men who transgress even Him who causes divinity, who give salvation to the immobile beings and the mobile beings. A man who has done all kinds of sins is freed if he resorts to Vishnu. If a contemptible, wicked biped would commit sin against Vishnu, and by chance resorts to His name, he is emancipated due to the (power of the) name (of Vishnu). However, a man falls down due to his sin against (Vishnu's) name, which is the friend of all. (Padma Purana 4.25.8-13)
The sage Kavi instructed King Nimi that the holy names of the Supreme Lord are all-auspicious because they describe His transcendental birth and pastimes, which He performs for the upliftment and salvation of all conditioned souls. For this reason the Lord's holy names are sung throughout the world. By chanting these holy names of the Supreme, one reaches the level of love of God, in which one becomes fixed as an eternal servant of the Lord. Then such a devotee becomes very attached to a particular name and form of the Lord in his service. As his heart melts in ecstatic love, he may laugh loudly or cry or shout. Sometimes he may even sing or dance like a madman in such ecstasy because he becomes indifferent to the opinion of others. (Bhag.11.2.39-40)
In this way, we can begin to understand how elevated the writer of the Vedic scripture considers those who have adopted the process of chanting Krishna's holy names. However, for those who do not like the chanting of the holy names and blaspheme the process and criticize or try to restrain those who do chant, we can understand that their sentiment is due to their sinful and offensive activities. Such people are said to have no intelligence and work for no useful purpose and simply contribute to the chaos and confusion within society. The Bhagavatam (3.9.7) confirms that those who do not engage in the blessed chanting and hearing about the activities of the Supreme are bereft of intelligence and good fortune. They perform sinful activities to enjoy sensual pleasure which lasts only for a short time.
LORD VISHNU'S NAMES ARE MORE POWERFUL THAN THE GREATEST HOLY PLACES The power of the Lord's holy names is also related in the following story. It is described in the Padma Purana that many years ago when asked by the sages at the forest of Naimisharanya which one single act will bring the fruit of visiting the many holy places, Suta Gosvami answered in this way: Out of so many rituals and rites that are prescribed, only one is superior. There is no doubt that one who has devotion to Lord Vishnu has undoubtedly conquered everything. Hari, [Vishnu, Krishna], the Lord of all gods, should alone be propitiated. The goblin of sin will perish by means of the great sacred hymns in the form of the names of Vishnu. There is no doubt that those with pure hearts, going around Vishnu even once, get (the fruit of) having bathed at all the holy places. A man would obtain the fruit of (having visited) all holy places by seeing Vishnu's image. Chanting the excellent name of Vishnu, a man would obtain (the result) of having chanted all the sacred hymns. A man having once smelt the tulasi plant, the grace of Vishnu, does not see the huge and terrible face of Yama [Yamaraja, the lord of death]. A man having (but) once saluted Krishna does not drink the mother's milk [does not need to be reborn again]. I always repeatedly salute them whose mind is (fixed) on the feet of Vishnu. Even [those of lower tribes, such as] pulkasas, chandalas, or other mleccha tribes, who serve the feet of Vishnu alone are fit to be saluted. Then what about the meritorious and devoted brahmanas and royal sages? Having placed one's devotion in Vishnu, a person does not experience confinement in the womb (is not reborn). A man who with high sounds chants the name of Vishnu purifies the world as does the Ganga [Ganges River]. There is no doubt that a man is freed from sins like murder of a brahmana by seeing (the image of), touching (the feet of), reciting (the name of), and devoting oneself (to Vishnu). Circumambulating (the image of) Hari [Vishnu, Krishna], and loudly chanting His names in a sweet and melodious voice, accompanied with clapping of the hands, a man has struck the sin of murdering a brahmana from his hands. A man becomes pure by just seeing Him, who having narrated His story, would listen to a narrative about Him. Then, O best of sages, how can there be the slightest doubt about such a person's sins. (Padma Purana, 3.50.1-17)
"O great sages, Vishnu's name is the best holy place of all holy places. Those who have uttered the name of Krishna make the world a holy place. Therefore, O best of sages, they consider nothing more meritorious than this. A man using and holding on his head the remains of offered flowers to Vishnu, would beckon Vishnu, who is the destroyer of grief due to fear of Yamaraja. Undoubtedly, Vishnu (alone) is to be worshiped and saluted. Therefore, see and worship Vishnu only who has no beginning or end, who is the soul (of everything), and who is unmanifest. Those who look upon Vishnu and another deity as equal, go to terrible hells. Vishnu would not care for them. Vishnu, the Lord Himself, liberates a fool or a chandala to whom Vishnu is dear. There is none greater than Vishnu, who is like a wild fire for (burning) heaps of sins. A man, even after having committed a terrible sin, is freed by the name of Vishnu. Lord Vishnu, the Father of the worlds, has put greater strength than Himself into His name. Therefore a man looking highly upon Vishnu's name should be devoted to Hari. The name of Vishnu is a great destructive weapon like the thunderbolt in rending the mountain of sins. His feet are fruitful and move for that (only). The hands that worship Him are alone said to be blessed. That head which bends before Hari (Vishnu) is the best part of the body. That is (really) the tongue that extols Vishnu. That is the mind which follows His feet. That is the hair that bristles [stands up in ecstasy] at the utterance of His name. Those are the tears that are shed due to devotion to Lord Vishnu. Oh, people are very much duped by their faults if they do not resort to (Him) by merely chanting His names. Those who though having got a tongue do not utter the name of Vishnu, easily fall [back into the cycles of birth and death] even after having secured the stairway to liberation. Therefore, a man should carefully (please) Lord Vishnu by means of worldly and religious rites [devotional service]. Lord Vishnu is pleased with worldly and religious rites, not otherwise. The worship of Vishnu is said to be a holier place than a holy place. A man obtains that fruit by serving Vishnu which he obtains by bathing at and drinking (the water from) all the holy places. Only blessed men worship Vishnu by means of worldly and religious rites [devotional service]. Therefore, O sages, worship Krishna (Vishnu), who is the most auspicious. (PadmaPurana 3.50.17-39)