By Bir Krishna Swami
The names of Krishna are the repository of all happiness and the greatest wealth. If we chant properly, we will not experience material miseries, but we may experience what the materialist might mistake as misery: the spiritual joy of intense separation from Krishna.
Since that joy comes from proper chanting, we might wonder how we can chant with attention and concentration, even if we are not yet pure devotees of Krishna. How can we control the mind? How can we keep ourselves from thinking of a million and one other things besides Krishna’s names?
Chanting properly takes practice, and the first point is to approach the practice positively. When we approach the holy names negatively, we often think more about what we should not be doing rather than what we should be doing. It is said, “You can’t do a don’t.” So, instead of thinking: “Now I have to control my mind and not think of other things,” we can think, “Now I will concentrate on Krishna’s names, which are identical to Krishna. By concentrating on Krishna’s names, Krishna will give me full intelligence, and I will love Him more and more.”
Besides a positive way of thinking, there are other ways to stay focused on Krishna’s names. We generally chant in two situations: in kirtana, or group singing, and in japa, or private soft chanting. We can approach each one somewhat differently.
In kirtana, we need to give our attention to the holy names regardless of the musical quality of the kirtana. For example, it used to really bother me when the person chanting could not keep a tune, or was a bad singer, or couldn’t keep a beat. Sometimes it seemed that I was surrounded by people who struggled in those ways. I was sometimes in places where almost everyone seemed to lack musical abilities. Then I realized that Krishna had arranged the situation so that I could appreciate His names.
Two Levels of Taste
Ruci, the stage of deeply relishing the holy name, has two levels. On the first, one has a taste for kirtana only when the person leading is an expert singer and the instruments are all in tune and are being played by experts. On the second level, one has a real taste for kirtana regardless of the musical expertise of the persons leading or accompanying the kirtana, as long as the name is being chanted by devotees who are strictly following the process of loving service to Krishna. It is said that Prabhupada’s guru, Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati Thakura, would sometimes have the worst singer lead kirtana, just to encourage devotees to come to the higher level.
So, I realized that by the grace of my spiritual master, Srila Prabhupada, and my spiritual grandfather, Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati Thakura, I was being pushed to come to a higher level of appreciating the holy names. Finally I surrendered, and I understood that the musical accompaniment was just the vehicle in which the holy names arrived, and that I should not be attached to the vehicle. I should be attached to the passenger in the vehicle: Krishna in the form of His names. So with practice I was able to focus on the holy names—Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare/ Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare—and not be concerned with the musical abilities of those performing the kirtana.
When I did that, I began to relish every kirtana. One can find the holy names amazing. Devotees who truly relish the holy names feel they can never get enough of them. As Srila Rupa Goswami writes, one will pray for millions of tongues and millions of ears to chant and hear.
My previous attachment to the vehicle was like someone attached to the dinner plate rather than the prasadam, spiritual food, on it. Imagine rejecting tasty prasadam because it was served on a leaf plate rather than on a silver one. It doesn’t make sense.
When one attends kirtana, one can simply hear the maha-mantra and think of its meaning: We are begging Radha and Krishna to situate us at Their lotus feet; we are begging Radha and Krishna for Their mercy. If I meditate on how I am begging Radha and Krishna to give me compassion and other devotional qualities, then kirtana becomes a joyful prayer session regardless of the quality of the musical accompaniment.
After practicing hearing like this for some time, I find it hard to relate to someone who says something like, “That was an ecstatic kirtana!” (which indicates that some other kirtana wasn’t ecstatic), or to someone who thinks he has to travel hundreds or thousands of miles to experience an “ecstatic kirtana.” Ecstatic kirtanas are there for everyone all the time.
Of course, when we present Krishna consciousness to others, it is important that the musical accompaniment be first class. And we should not force the above understanding on those who are not ready to take that leap.
To focus on the holy name during japa, it usually helps to sit with one’s back straight. Elevating one’s bottom on a cushion and crossing one’s legs on the floor can also be helpful. One can then consciously relax every muscle in the body, so that the only task is to pay attention to the holy names. With a relaxed mind, one then focuses on the sound of Krishna’s names.
It’s very good to be conscious of some specific request made to Radha and Krishna, as mentioned above in the kirtana section. The request should be in the mood of begging Radha and Krishna with emotion. When we chant, we should always have a sankalpa: a spiritual desire or purpose.
Then just let the holy names flow. No forcing. No fighting with the mind. Just the relaxed chanting of Krishna’s names. When you sit down to relax the body and chant japa, tell the mind in a positive way to focus on the sound. If you repeat this several times, the mind will obey. With the proper desire and understanding, our mind will naturally be attracted to the holy name, and we’ll swim in an ocean of nectar. Nothing else will matter, and time and space will dissolve.
It is important to be strict about not using your japa time for any other activity. For some devotees, the japa period in the temple is used for socializing or management. Except in emergencies, I don’t interrupt my japa.
We don’t want our japa time to be a social break. We should take it as seriously as if we were leading kirtana and someone wanted to talk to us during kirtana. Certainly we wouldn’t stop the kirtana unless it was an emergency. We should chant and hear as the Bhagavatam (2.3.10) recommends, tivrena bhakti-yogena yajeta purusham param: we should worship the Lord with great intensity.
Good chanting in the morning starts the night before. What we do right before sleeping at night affects our consciousness not only while we are resting but also the next day, particularly in the morning. The Vedas describe two stages of sleep—unconscious and dreaming—and they involve different activities of the mind. For example, while we dream, we process (what we received in the past), predict (work through events we might have to go through in the future), and vent (throwing out unnecessary or unwanted data). These activities involve the subconscious mind. So, for example, if our thoughts are absorbed in something right before we go to sleep, we process those thoughts during the night and that affects our consciousness when we wake up in the morning.
Many years ago when I was a teenager, my father bought me a manual shift car, which I didn’t know how to drive. Every attempt I made was unsuccessful. So I studied the movements and theory behind shifting the car, meditated on it, and dreamt of it, and the next morning I was able to drive a manual shift perfectly.
Srila Prabhupada understood this principle well. That is why he advocated an evening devotional program, and especially reading his book Krishna: The Supreme Personality of Godhead before resting at night. If you absorb yourself in krishna-katha (topics of Krishna) before you take rest at night, during the night your mind and brain will process krishna-katha, you will likely wake up thinking about Krishna, and your subtle body will be purified. What a nice way to become conscious of Krishna!
It might happen that when we read krishna-katha at night we become so excited by the Lord’s pastimes that we start bouncing off the walls and can’t sleep. That, I guess, is an occupational hazard! So, one should pick a type of krishna-katha that is meditative.
Chanting upon Awakening
How should one wake up in the morning? Generally people wake up groggy, but that’s less likely if you’re hearing krishna-katha at night. Still, in whatever state we wake up, we can immediately start to chant the maha-mantra out loud.
I sing when I go through my bathroom routine. I often take this opportunity to practice new kirtana tunes. Sometimes singing like this is so nice that I have to remind myself that I have other things to do in the morning than chant in my house to myself. An alternative is to listen to a class or kirtana by Srila Prabhupada. It is important to listen only to a class or kirtana by someone practicing devotional service. We should be very discriminating in that way. By listening to the chanting or speaking of someone not strict in the Krishna conscious practices, our consciousness can get covered by the modes of nature.
The Padma Purana states:
shravanam naiva kartavyam
sarpocchishtam yatha payah
“One should not hear anything about Krishna from a non-Vaishnava. Milk touched by the lips of a serpent has poisonous effects; similarly, talks about Krishna given by a non-Vaishnava are also poisonous.”
So, the above two suggestions—what to do before resting and what to do when waking—prepare the mind for chanting proper japa.
Approaching the holy names with care during kirtana and japa will bring us to understand how simple and sublime spiritual life can be.