Chanting for Higher Consciousness: A Cultural History

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By Vaishnava Das

From CHANT AND BE HAPPY – THE POWER OF MANTRA MEDITATION

It’s a scene that has been repeated countless times on the thoroughfares of cities throughout the Western world-from Hollywood Boulevard and Fifth Avenue in America, to London’s Oxford Street and the Champs Elysees in Paris. There, in the midst of traffic, shops, restaurants, and movie theaters, people suddenly find themselves confronted by a group of young persons singing and dancing to the beat of cylindrical drums and the brassy cadence of hand cymbals. The men are dressed in flowing robes and have shaven heads; the women wear colorful Indian saris. Of course, it’s the Hare Krsna people, chanting their now familiar mantra, Hare Krsna, Hare Krsna … But what’s actually going on? Is it some form of protest, avant-garde street theater, a religious demonstration, or what?

If you were to ask them, you’d learn that these people are performing a type of meditation long encouraged and practiced in the West-the chanting of the holy names of God. (Krsna is the Sanskrit name for the Supreme Lord.) Of course, meditation is a word that’s thrown around quite loosely these days. It’s come to mean practically any technique employed to silence and calm the harried modern mind. But the ancient and authorized form of meditation practiced by Hare Krsna people has a much deeper and more sublime purpose. Although it easily soothes the turbulent mind, it also awakens those who chant it to their original, joyful spiritual nature and consciousness, imparting a genuine sense of pleasure unavailable by any other means.

The Vedas, scriptures containing the timeless spiritual knowledge of ancient India, state that such an awakening process is desperately needed because everyone in this material world is in a sleeping, dreamlike condition. We have forgotten our original, spiritual identity, accepting instead a temporary material body composed of physical elements as our real self. The Vedas compare the material body to the subtle forms we experience in dreams. While sleeping, we forget our normal waking identity and may find ourselves enjoying or suffering in different types of bodies. But when we hear the ringing of the alarm clock, we awaken and return to normal consciousness. We remember who we are and what we should be doing. Similarly, by hearing the powerful transcendental sound vibrations of the Hare Krsna mantra, we can gradually wake up to our original self, the soul, which is characterized by eternality and is full of knowledge and ever-increasing pleasure.

The sages of ancient India therefore tell us that the goal of human life should not be to try to enjoy our temporary dreamlike situation in the material world. Rather, we are advised to awaken to our original, spiritual nature and ultimately return to our true home in the spiritual world, where we may enjoy an eternal relationship with the Supreme Personality of Godhead, Lord Krsna.

This search for the true self through the meditative process is not something recently discovered, nor is it in any way alien to the basically rationalistic philosophical and spiritual traditions of the West. Although Western civilization has for the most part directed its energies outward in various efforts to control and exploit the resources of nature, there have always been inner-directed philosophers, saints, and mystics who have dedicated themselves to a higher purpose than material well-being, which is in all cases temporary.

CABH 4.1: The Search for the Self

The Search for the Self

The Greek philosophers Socrates and Plato held a view of man’s original nature quite similar to that of the Vedic sages. This temporary world, they taught, is not our real home; we once existed in a spiritual world. In Plato’s famous dialogues, Socrates says that in our original condition, “We were pure ourselves and not yet enshrined in that living tomb which we carry about, now that we are imprisoned in the body like an oyster in his shell.1. Phaedrus, translator Benjamin Jowett. 1 The purpose of philosophy, for these early Athenian thinkers, was to awaken a person to his original, spiritual identity, now hidden within the covering of the physical body.

The very same thing was taught in Galilee four hundred years later by Jesus Christ. In the Gospel of St. John, Christ says, “It is the spirit that quickeneth [gives life], the flesh profiteth nothing.”2. John, 6:63. 2 In other words, the body is simply an external covering for the soul, which is the real life-giving force. Therefore, Jesus warned, “What profiteth a man if he gain the whole world, but lose his immortal soul?”3. Mark, 8:36. 3 The highest goal of life, Christ taught, is to understand and experience our inner spiritual nature. In the Gospel of St. Luke, Jesus instructs mankind to look within for true spiritual life: “Neither shall they say, Lo here! or lo there! for behold, the kingdom of God is within you.”4. Luke, 17:21. 4

Describing his inner search for God through meditation, St. Augustine, a great saint and eminent philosopher of the Roman Catholic Church, tells us in his Confessions how his mind “withdrew its thoughts from experience, abstracting itself from the contradictory throng of sensuous images.”5. Confessions, translator C. Bigge. London: Methuen and Company, Ltd., p. 244. 5

During the Middle Ages in Europe, there was widespread interest in meditation, with many saints and philosophers writing of their thoughts about the inward quest for divine reality. Thomas a Kempis, in his classic Imitation of Christ, cautions man about material life and summarizes the purpose and goal of meditation: “What do you seek here, since this world is not your resting place? Your true home is in Heaven; therefore remember that all things of this world are transitory. All things are passing and yourself with them. See that you do not cling to them, lest you become entangled and perish with them. Let all your thoughts be with the Most High.”6. Imitation of Christ, translator Leo Sherley-Price. Baltimore: Penguin Classics edition. 6

When one achieves this deep spiritual vision, his entire world view is completely transformed, as in the case of St. Francis of Assisi, who devoted his life to prayer and meditation. In his Life of St. Francis, St. Bonaventura says, “In all fair things, he beheld Him who is most fair, and, through the traces of Him which He has implanted in all His creatures, he was led on to reach the All-loved, constructing of these things a ladder whereby he might ascend to Him who is Loveliness itself….”7. The Life of St. Francis. New York: Everyman’s Library, 1912. 7 In other words, when one’s original, spiritual consciousness is revived, one sees God everywhere and in everything. One enters a unique world of spiritual knowledge and pleasure, far superior to what most of us perceive as reality-a spiritual reality that lies just beyond our ordinary abilities of perception. William James, the American philosopher who specialized in the psychology of religion, writing on this point, said, “Our normal waking consciousness, rational consciousness as we call it, is but one special type of consciousness, whilst all about it, parted from it by the filmiest of screens, there lie potential forms of consciousness entirely different. We may go throughout life without suspecting their existence, but apply the requisite stimulus, and at a touch they are there in all their completeness….”8. The Varieties of Religious Experience. William James. London: Longman, Green, and Co., p. 388. 8

But what is the “requisite stimulus” for awakening the dormant consciousness of the self and God that lies within everyone’s heart? All genuine spiritual authorities agree that such transcendental experiences cannot be awakened by any material stimulus or experience, including ingestion of chemical substances like LSD and other “mind-expanding” drugs.

When Srila Prabhupada, the founder-acarya (spiritual master) of the Hare Krsna movement, was asked by a follower of Timothy Leary about LSD’s place in man’s spiritual life, he said that drugs were not necessary for spiritual life, that they could not produce spiritual consciousness, and that all drug-induced “religious visions” were simply hallucinations. To realize God was not so easy or cheap that one could do it just by taking a pill or smoking.9. Srila Prabhupada-lilamrta, Satsvarupa dasa Goswami. Los Angeles: Bhaktivedanta Book Trust, 1980, p. 201. 9

CABH 4.2: Sound and Self-Realization

Sound and Self-Realization

The Vedic scriptures advise that the proper technique for awakening spiritual consciousness is the hearing and chanting of transcendental sounds or mantras, like the Hare Krsna mantra. The power of sound to effect changes in consciousness has long been recognized. The English philosopher and statesman Sir Francis Bacon noted that “the sense of hearing striketh the spirit more immediately than any other senses.”10. Sylva sylvarum, in Works, ed. James Spedding, et. al. New York: 1864, IV, p. 231. 10

Ordinary material sounds, however, will not awaken spiritual consciousness. For this, one must hear spiritual sound vibrations. Therefore, almost every religion in the world recommends that we meditate upon the Word of God. St. John wrote in his Gospel, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”11. John, 1:1. 11 Divine sound is thus of a vastly different quality than worldly or material sound. This fact was clearly explained by St. Augustine in his Confessions. Once, as he emerged from a mystic trance, he said he “heard again the babble of our own tongues, wherein each word has a beginning and an ending. Far unlike Thy Word, our Lord, who abideth in Himself, never growing old and making all things new.”12. Confessions, X, p. 321. 12 And in the Gospel of St. John, Christ says, “The words that I speak unto you, they are spirit.”13. John, 6:63. 13

While the Word, or teachings of God, have enormous power to transform and uplift our lives, just as important are the actual names of God, which are sometimes praised aloud in song or quietly meditated upon. Since God is fully spiritual and absolute, the Vedic scriptures inform us that His holy names are invested with the Lord’s full spiritual potencies. God and His name are the same. The Padma Purana states, “There is no difference between the holy name of the Lord and the Lord Himself. As such, the holy name is as perfect as the Lord Himself.” The Stoic philosopher Maximus noted, “There is one supreme God who is, as it were, the God and mighty father of all.” “It is Him,” he said, “whom we worship under many names.”14. Comparative Religion, Esther Carpenter, 1913, p. 35. 14 Modern Jewish theologian Martin Buber also agreed that “All God’s names are hallowed.”15. Worship in the World’s Religions, Geoffrey Parrinder. London: Faber and Faber, 1961, p. 7. 15

And the Bible is replete with similar statements. In the Old Testament it is said, “The name of the Lord is a strong tower: the righteous runneth into it and is safe.”16. Proverbs, 18:10. 16 In Psalms, King David proclaims, “I will praise the name of God with a song.”17. Psalms, 69:30. 17 Indeed, the Psalms contain countless references to the name of God: “All nations whom Thou hast made shall come and worship before Thee, O Lord: and shall glorify Thy name.18. Psalms, 86:9. 18… O give thanks unto the Lord: call upon His name: make known His deeds among the people. Sing unto Him, sing psalms unto Him: talk ye of all His wondrous works. Glory ye in His holy name.19. Psalms, 105: 1-4. 19 … Praise Him with the timbrel and dance: praise Him with stringed instruments and organs. Praise Him upon the loud cymbals.”20. Psalms, 150:4-5. 20 The prophet Isaiah described God as “One that inhabiteth eternity, and whose name is Holy.”21. Isaiah, 57:15. 21 Centuries later, Israel Baal Shem Tov (1699-1761), the great Jewish mystic, founded Hasidism, a popular pietist movement within Judaism, in which members dance and chant in glorification of the Supreme Lord.

Christ, when teaching his disciples how to pray, glorified the Lord’s holy name: “Our Father, who art in Heaven, hallowed be Thy name.” And in his Epistle to the Romans, St. Paul wrote, “For whosoever shall call upon the name of the Lord shall be saved.”22. Romans, 10:13. 22

In the early Christian churches, there was, according to the historian Eusebius, “one common consent in chanting forth the praises of God.”23. Ecclesiastical History. 23 The Gregorian chants, popularized in the sixth century by Pope Gregory the Great and later by works like Handel’s masterpiece the Messiah, with its resounding choruses of hallelujah (“praised be the Lord”), are still performed and appreciated all over the world.

In addition to praising the Lord’s name and glories in song, there also developed in the Christian churches the practice of meditating upon God by chanting prayers on rosary beads, a tradition continued today by millions of Catholics worldwide. John Chrysostom, a saint of the Greek Orthodox church, especially recommended the “prayerful invocation of the name of God,” which he said should be practiced “uninterrupted.”24. The Way of a Pilgrim, translator R. M. French. London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge. 24 The repetition of the Jesus prayer (“Lord Jesus, Son of God, have mercy on me”) became a regular practice among members of the Eastern Church. In The Way of a Pilgrim, a Russian monk describes this form of meditation: “The continuous interior prayer of Jesus is a constant uninterrupted calling upon the divine name of Jesus with the lips, in the spirit, in the heart…. One who accustoms himself to this appeal experiences as a result so deep a consolation and so great a need to offer the prayer always, that he can no longer live without it.”25. Ibid. 25

Among the followers of Islam, the names of God (Allah) are held sacred and meditated upon. According to tradition, there are ninety-nine names of Allah, called “the Beautiful Names.” They are found inscribed on monuments such as the Taj Mahal and on the walls of mosques. These names are chanted on an Islamic rosary, which consists of three sets of thirty-three beads. Worshipers repeat the names to help them concentrate their minds upon Allah. The dual titles Al-Rahman, al-Rahim, meaning “God, the compassionate, the merciful,” are invoked at the beginning of each chapter of the Koran. Other Arabic names of God glorify Him as the creator, provider, and king.

In India, the Sikhs place special emphasis on the name of God. Indeed, the Sikhs call God Nama-“the name.” Guru Nanak, the founder of the Sikh religion, prayed, “In the ambrosial hours of the morn I meditate on the grace of the true name,” and says that he was instructed by the Lord in a vision to “Go and repeat My name, and cause others to do likewise.”26. Japji (The Meditations of Guru Nanak). 26

“Rosaries are widely used in Buddhism; large ones by monks, smaller ones by the laity, says Geoffrey Parrinder, a professor of comparative religion at the University of London, in his book Worship in the World’s Religions. “The large ones have 108 beads, the two halves representing the fifty-four stages of becoming a boddhi-sattva (enlightened one). The large bead in the middle stands for Buddha.”

Members of Japan’s largest Buddhist order, the Pure Land sect, practice repetition of the name of Buddha (namu amida butsu). The founder Shinran Shonin says, “The virtue of the Holy Name, the gift of him that is enlightened, is spread throughout the world.”27. Buddhist Psalms, Yamabe, S., and Beck, L.A. Murray, 1921, p. 86. 27 The Buddhist teachings reveal that by chanting the name of Buddha, the worshiper becomes liberated from the cycle of reincarnation and joins the Buddha in the Pure Land, or spiritual world.

CABH 4.3: Krsna: The All-Encompassing Name of God

Krsna: The All-Encompassing Name of God

Although God is known throughout the world by many different names, each of which describes some particular aspect of His glories and attractive features, there is one name which expresses the sum total of God’s infinite qualities and characteristics This supreme, all-encompassing, and most powerful name of God is found in the oldest religious scriptures in the world, the Sanskrit Vedas of India, which state that the principal name of God is Krsna.

Srila Prabhupada explains: “When we speak of Krsna, we refer to God. There are many names for God throughout the world and throughout the universe, but Krsna is the supreme name according to Vedic knowledge.”28. Sri Namamrta: The Nectar of the Holy Name, Los Angeles: Bhaktivedanta Book Trust, 1982, p. 142. 28 He further states, “God has many names according to His activities, but because He possesses so many opulences, and because with these opulences He attracts everyone, He is called Krsna [‘all-attractive’].”29. Ibid. 29

The spiritual qualities of Krsna’s holy name are described throughout the Vedic literatures. The Padma Purana states, “The holy name of Krsna is transcendentally blissful. It bestows all spiritual benedictions, for it is Krsna Himself, the reservoir of all pleasure…. It is not a material name under any condition, and it is no less powerful than Krsna Himself. Since Krsna’s name is not contaminated by the material qualities, there is no question of its being involved with maya [illusion]. Krsna’s name is always liberated and spiritual; it is never conditioned by the laws of material nature. This is because the name of Krsna and Krsna Himself are identical.”

Since time immemorial, millions of devotees and saintly persons have chanted the name of Krsna to achieve spiritual perfection. But history records that it was widely popularized by Lord Caitanya, an incarnation of Lord Krsna who appeared in Bengal barely five centuries ago and established the chanting of the Hare Krsna mantra as the universal spiritual practice for the present age.

According to Vedic cosmology, the material creation eternally passes through cycles of four ages. Each begins with a Golden Age (Satya-yuga), then conditions progressively deteriorate, ending in the Kali-yuga, an age characterized by quarrel and hypocrisy. For each of the four ages, the Vedas prescribe a universal method of self-realization just suited for that particular age.

For instance, in the Satya-yuga, the recommended path was that of the mystic yoga system, which involved a lifetime of unbroken yoga practice, accompanied by strict vows of penance and austerity. We are presently at the beginning of the last age, Kali-yuga. In this age people no longer have the endurance, willpower, or sufficient life span necessary to successfully practice the original yoga system described in the Vedas. The Vedic scriptures therefore advise, “In this age of Kali there is no alternative, there is no alternative, there is no alternative for spiritual progress other than chanting the holy name, chanting the holy name, chanting the holy name of the Lord.” 30. Brhan-naradiya Purana. 30

The Kali-santarana Upanisad specifically recommends the chanting of the Hare Krsna mantra: “Hare Krsna, Hare Krsna, Krsna Krsna, Hare Hare/ Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare-these sixteen names composed of thirty-two syllables are the only means to counteract the evil effects of Kali-yuga. In all the Vedas it is seen that to cross the ocean of nescience there is no alternative to chanting the holy name.”

Lord Caitanya’s biographers record that He spent many years traveling all over India spreading the chanting of the holy names of Krsna. He chanted the Hare Krsna mantra congregationally (kirtana) to the accompaniment of musical instruments, including drums and hand cymbals. The Lord also chanted the mantra quietly a specific number of times daily as a private meditation (japa). In the Siksastaka, His famous prayers about the holy names of Krsna, Lord Caitanya wrote, “Let there be all victory for the chanting of the holy name of Lord Krsna, which can cleanse the mirror of the heart and stop the miseries of the blazing fire of material existence. That chanting is the waxing moon that spreads the white lotus of good fortune for all living entities. It is the life and soul of all education. The chanting of the holy name of Krsna expands the blissful ocean of transcendental life. It gives a cooling effect to everyone and enables one to taste full nectar at every step.”

During His lifetime, Lord Caitanya predicted that the holy names of Krsna would spread to every town and village in the world. This prophecy lay unfulfilled for four hundred years, until the time of Bhaktivinoda Thakura, a great spiritual master in the direct line of disciplic succession from Lord Caitanya. In 1885 Bhaktivinoda wrote, “Lord Caitanya did not advent Himself to liberate only a few men in India. Rather, His main objective was to emancipate all living entities of all countries throughout the entire universe and preach the Eternal Religion…. There is no doubt that this unquestionable order will come to pass…. Very soon the unparalleled path of hari-nama sankirtana [the congregational chanting of the holy name of the Lord] will be propagated all over the world…. Oh, for that day when the fortunate English, French, Russian, German, and American people will take up banners, mrdangas [drums], and karatalas [hand cymbals] and raise kirtana [chanting] through their streets and towns! When will that day come?”31. Sajjana-tosani (newspaper). 31

Bhaktivinoda’s vision became a reality in less than a century. In 1965, India’s greatest spiritual and cultural ambassador, His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, arrived in New York’s East Village, the heart of the countercultural movement of the sixties. Within a year Srila Prabhupada, tenth in the line of spiritual masters from Lord Caitanya, had founded the International Society for Krishna Consciousness. Very quickly, the sound of the chanting of Hare Krsna spread, first across America, then on to England and throughout the world.

The Vedic scriptures predict that although the age of Kali is the most degraded of all, the chanting of the Hare Krsna mantra will dramatically alter the present war-torn, hate-filled atmosphere of the world. These most ancient, timeless writings forecast a Golden Age, beginning with the widespread chanting of Hare Krsna, during which the painful disturbances of this age will be mitigated and people everywhere will be economically, politically, socially, culturally, and spiritually happy.

Srila Prabhupada explains, “Kali-yuga continues for 432,000 years, of which only 5,000 years have passed. Thus there is still a balance of 427,000 years to come. Of these 427,000 years, the 10,000 years of the sankirtana movement inaugurated by Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu 500 years ago provide the opportunity for the fallen souls of Kali-yuga to take to the Krsna consciousness movement, chant the Hare Krsna maha-mantra, and thus be delivered from the clutches of material existence and return home, back to Godhead.”32. Sri Namamrta, p. 249. 32

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