From Back to Godhead
Why Krishna’s holy names are the greatest treasure.
Some people fantasize about accumulating immense wealth and dream of what they would buy if they only had enough. To them, happiness hovers elusively on the other side of that new car, that big house, that diamond necklace.
While many of us will say, “Money can’t buy happiness,” do we really believe it? If not money, what is the solution to our hankerings? What is the greatest treasure that will bring true happiness? And how do we acquire that treasure?
Srila Prabhupada answers these questions in one of his purports, which recounts the story of a fortunate brahmana who sought the best benediction from Lord Siva (see purport to Srimad-Bhagavatam 4.7.7). The story reveals that the greatest treasure is not material, but spiritual.
Once, a poor brahmana worshiped Lord Siva to get the best benediction, hoping for the solution to all his problems. Lord Siva is known as midhushtama, the best of the benedictors, and many materialistic people approach him to fulfill their desires. But for this brahmana, Lord Siva granted the best benediction for his spiritual life. He directed the brahmana to see Sanatana Goswami, a direct disciple and close associate of Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, for only Sanatana could award the best benediction.
When the brahmana approached Sanatana Goswami, he noticed that Sanatana had a touchstone that he kept with the garbage. This powerful gem could turn iron into gold simply by contact. Upon the brahmana’s request, Sanatana gave him the touchstone, which seemed like the greatest blessing to the brahmana, who went away gratified by the assurance of immense financial success.
As the brahmana left Sanatana’s company, however, a doubt nagged his mind: If the touchstone were truly the greatest benediction, then why did Sanatana Goswami keep it with the garbage, as if it had no value at all? Surely, he realized, this could not be what he was seeking; Sanatana Goswami must have an even greater treasure.
The brahmana returned to Sanatana Goswami and inquired, “Sir, if this is the best benediction, why did you keep it with the garbage?”
Sanatana Goswami replied that the touchstone was not the best benediction.
“But,” Sanatana asked, “are you prepared to take the best benediction from me?”
The brahmana eagerly assented, and Sanatana then told him to throw the touchstone into the nearby Yamuna River.
When the brahmana returned, Sanatana Goswami initiated him with the Hare Krishna maha-mantra: Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare/ Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare. By Lord Siva’s mercy, the brahmana achieved the best benediction of all: the chanting of the holy names of the Lord in the association of a pure devotee.
Rejecting Materialistic Desire
The touchstone represents materialistic desire. When we want wealth or the enjoyment of our senses separately from Krishna, we sabotage our spiritual efforts. We think of ourselves as the proprietors of our wealth, which we consider the fruit of our own hard work. We then become attached and fail to realize that everything comes from the Lord and should be used in His service, for His pleasure. Accordingly, Jesus Christ declared that it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God. As Srila Prabhupada explains, “Material hankerings and spiritual advancement go ill together.”
Sanatana Goswami’s order to throw away the touchstone signifies a call to renounce materialistic desire. If we want spiritual life, the best benediction, we cannot simultaneously try to satisfy our own senses. That’s like rowing a boat with the anchor still out: We cannot go anywhere despite our exertion. Likewise, if we want to make spiritual progress, we need to lift the anchor of material desire.
Srila Bhaktivinoda Thakura, one of the previous spiritual masters in our disciplic succession, points out that the holy name of the Lord is the real touchstone (the Sanskrit word is chintamani). In his book Harinama Chintamani, he mentions that the Lord’s holy names are “a touchstone yielding all desires.” Through the simple process of hearing and chanting the Lord’s names, we can directly achieve the highest treasure—krishna-prema, pure love of God, the ultimate goal of life.
When the fortunate brahmana discarded the material touchstone for the spiritual one, he thereby achieved the truly greatest benediction: the pure path to Krishna’s lotus feet under the guidance of Krishna’s pure devotee.
The Absolute Name
Since Krishna is absolute, His name, form, pastimes, paraphernalia, and associates are all equal to Him. This means that the Lord and His unlimited attributes are fully present in His names, which are brilliant like the sun. We cannot perceive this because the clouds of materialism cover our hearts and obscure our view.
How can we see the sun of the holy names and thus recover our original position as Krishna’s loving servants? Krishna tells us to surrender to Him (Bhagavad-gita 18.66), and in His most merciful form as Chaitanya Mahaprabhu He shows us how to do it. The chief method is the chanting of Krishna’s names, especially the Hare Krishna maha-mantra. Chaitanya appeared in this word specifically to spread the sankirtana movement: the congregational chanting of the holy names of the Lord. According to Lord Chaitanya, sankirtana is “the prime benediction for humanity.” (Sikshashtaka 1) Rupa Goswami (Sanatana’s brother) praises Chaitanya Mahaprabhu as “the most charitable incarnation” because He widely distributes pure love of Godhead, krishna-prema, without regard for caste, creed, or color. He invites everyone to take exclusive shelter of the holy names.
We can easily approach Krishna through His names, which contain all of His transcendental energies (see Sikshashtaka 2). The holy names are not just symbols for Krishna, but Krishna Himself. They’re also the means to approach Him. As He proclaims in Bhagavad-gita (10.25): “Of sacrifices, I am the chanting of the holy names [japa].” In fact, this sacrifice is so important that it is the chief religious process (yuga-dharma) for this Age of Kali (kali-yuga).
Kali-yuga contains an abundance of inauspicious qualities, such as short lifespan, diseases, weak memory, diminished intelligence and bodily strength, and negligible interest in religious activities. These faults render spiritual efforts exceedingly difficult, but not entirely hopeless: The one good quality of Kali-yuga is that simply by chanting the Hare Krishna maha-mantra, we can achieve pure love of Krishna. As stated in the Brihan-naradiya Purana (3.8.126):
harer nama harer nama
harer namaiva kevalam
kalau nasty eva nastya eva
nastya eva gatir anyatha
“In this age of quarrel and hypocrisy, the only means of deliverance is the chanting of the holy name of the Lord. There is no other way. There is no other way. There is no other way.” The repetition here emphasizes the need to chant the name of God. Spiritual paths prescribed in other ages, such as jnana (cultivation of knowledge) or yoga (mystic meditation), might even deviate us from the path of devotional service to Krishna, but chanting Hare Krishna helps us achieve our ultimate goal quickly. We can surpass all obstacles and attain the ultimate spiritual success of returning back home, back to Godhead.
The Name’s Transcendental Qualities
To help us cultivate our attachment to the holy names, the Vedic scriptures contain many statements describing their unlimited glories. The Padma Purana reveals:
The holy name of Krishna is transcendentally blissful. It bestows all spiritual benedictions, for it is Krishna Himself, the reservoir of all pleasure. Krishna’s name is complete, and it is the form of all transcendental mellows. It is not a material name under any condition, and it is no less powerful than Krishna Himself. Since Krishna’s name is not contaminated by the material qualities, there is no question of its being involved with maya. Krishna’s name is always liberated and spiritual; it is never conditioned by the laws of material nature. This is because the name of Krishna and Krishna Himself are identical. (Quoted in Chaitanya-charitamrita, Madhya 17.133)
Whatever is in Krishna is in His name. As Srila Bhaktivinoda Thakura recounts in Harinama Chintamani, Srila Haridasa Thakura tells Lord Chaitanya that the holy name “is the ultimate treasure in Krishna’s storehouse, because it contains within it the whole spiritual realm.”
In the material world, names are merely representative. As Srila Prabhupada explains, “One cannot taste the mango fruit simply by chanting, ‘Mango, mango, mango.’” (Srimad-Bhagavatam 10.2.36, Purport). But Krishna and His names are identical and supreme in all aspects. If we project our mundane understanding and continue to think that Krishna and His names are separate, we are missing the point. As long as we offend the holy names by thinking of them as material sounds, we cannot achieve love of God, but when we sincerely call Krishna’s names, He comes with all His transcendental qualities to dance on our tongues.
Because of our material contamination, we cannot perceive Krishna’s presence in His names. Life after life, we have been migrating through the material universe in different kinds of bodies, perpetually identifying the body as the self and driven to satiate our ever-demanding senses. This misidentification is just like dust covering a mirror, hiding our reflection. We have lost our ability to discern what we are (tiny spiritual sparks, Krishna’s eternal servants) because the mirror of our intelligence has lost its integrity. Krishna’s holy names are so pure and potent, however, that they wash away all this deluding dust. When our materialistic desires become spiritual desires, we will no longer seek to serve our mind and senses, but will act only for Krishna’s pleasure.
This transformation is possible only through the mercy of Krishna’s names, which are the cure for our disease of materialism. Rupa Goswami provides the analogy of a jaundiced patient who perceives all tastes, even sugar, as bitter. Ironically, the cure for jaundice is rock candy or sugar crystals. At the beginning of treatment, the rock candy tastes bitter, but soon the patient recovers the ability to taste its natural sweetness. That sweetness was always there, but it could not be tasted because of jaundice. Similarly, the holy name is the sweetest of all things because it is Krishna Himself, but we cannot perceive this because materialistic desires infect our consciousness. We must persist in our chanting, and eventually our material disease will vanish. At the topmost platform of pure chanting (shuddha-nama), we will continuously taste the nectarean sweetness of the holy name.
The Greatest Giver
The causeless mercy of Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu and His pure devotees has given us the sweetest, most valuable treasure of the holy name. By teaching the maha-mantra to the brahmana, Sanatana Goswami became the greatest giver. A Vaishnava not only chants the holy names purely, but also shares the chanting with others. Prahlada Maharaja, for example, did not worry about his own liberation but was tremendously anxious for the deliverance of innumerable conditioned souls. Srila Prabhupada therefore proclaims the spreading of Krishna consciousness to be the highest welfare work. Krishna is supremely merciful, but the scriptures tell us that the pure devotee who gives Krishna (or His names) is even more merciful.
Thus, with humility, and with gratitude for this inconceivable mercy, we must accept the chanting of Krishna’s names with sincerity and earnestness. We must ask ourselves the same question that Sanatana Goswami asked the brahmana: Are we ready for the best benediction? If we understand, at least intellectually, that the Hare Krishna maha-mantra is the best benediction, then we must take it seriously. If someone gave us gold or diamonds, we would keep them in a protected place and worry about their being stolen or damaged. Yet these things are merely temporary manifestations of the inferior, material energy. Krishna’s names, however, are pure, eternal, and full of unending bliss. They are the greatest gift from our spiritual master to reconnect us to our original identities as Krishna’s eternal servants. We should value them as our greatest asset, carefully guarding against offenses such as inattentiveness.
For chanting to be sincere, it must be attentive. Prabhupada recommended that we focus our mind by concentrating on the sound of each name within the maha-mantra. Sincere chanting is just like the child’s cry for its mother: genuine and urgent. Like a helpless infant, we have no shelter other than the lotus feet of Krishna and His internal energy, Hara (Radharani), and so our chanting becomes a plea to be accepted as Krishna’s servant.
Srila Prabhupada says that “we should simply cry and pray that the Lord accept us,” as Chaitanya Mahaprabhu taught by His own example: “O Krishna, son of Nanda, somehow or other I have fallen into this ocean of nescience and ignorance. Please pick me up and place me as one of the atoms at Your lotus feet.” (Sikshashtaka 5)
The Poison of Worldliness
If we do not take advantage of the simple process of hearing and chanting, we are worse than dead: We have knowingly drunk poison. Srila Narottama Dasa Thakura has sung, “O Lord, I have spent my life uselessly. Having obtained a human birth and having not worshiped Radha and Krishna, I have knowingly drunk poison.”
The human body is meant for spiritual cultivation beyond the animal propensities of eating, sleeping, mating, and defending. Our intelligence is meant for developing spiritual knowledge so that we work in devotional service to please Krishna. We can thus achieve liberation from the seemingly endless cycle of birth, death, old age, and disease, and personally associate with Krishna in His transcendental abode. We must not miss the chance the human form of life affords us, because only now do we have the capacity to hear and chant Krishna’s names.
Harinama-sankirtana is the greatest treasure, and we are deeply unfortunate if we do not take advantage of it.
“The treasure of divine love in Goloka Vrindavana,” Narottama sings, “has descended as the congregational chanting of Lord Hari’s [Krishna’s] holy names. Why did my attraction for that chanting never come about? Day and night my heart burns from the fire of the poison of worldliness, and I have not taken the means to relive it.”
Narottama’s words teach us how we should lament for our lack of faith in Krishna’s names. If we don’t shiver in ecstasy at the sound of the Lord’s name, we can understand that our hearts are hard like stone. Narottama says that this is due to the “poison of worldliness”: the fierce desires of our mind and senses that prohibit complete surrender to Krishna’s service. The antidote for that poison is continued chanting. If we are sincere, the Lord’s pure names will remove our faithlessness and offenses, so that we can eventually relish the best benediction as our most precious asset.