From Back to Godhead
A look at Lord Caitanya’s “Eight Instructions” and their relevance to japa, the individual practice of chanting Hare Krishna.
A friend once told me this analogy about spiritual life: a flock of geese share strength by flying in a V formation, but if one goose goes down, the others can’t help. Similarly, though seekers of enlightenment help each other, success ultimately depends on personal effortand the kindness of the Supreme Lord, Sri Krishna.
Krishna’s kindness appears in the Hare Krishna mahamantra: Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare/ Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare. Even for one with no qualifications, repeating this sacred sound vibration opens the heart to ever more self-understanding and intimate love of God.
How does the avian analogy apply to chanting Hare Krishna, a practice so important for spiritual life?
Group chanting is called sankirtana or kirtana; individual chanting is called japa. For most people kirtana is easier than japa. Chanting in kirtana is like flying in the V formation; you get strength from others. You play or watch others play instruments, by turns you listen and sing, and you follow as the leader varies the tempo and tune.
When chanting japa, however, it’s just you and Krishna and your nagging mind.
Krishna’s most recent incarnation, Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu, though a great scholar, left just eight written verses. These quintessential verses, known as the Sikshastaka, explain how Krishna’s names energize and enrich spiritual life. Here they are, in poetic English translation, with thoughts about their relevance to the all-important individual spiritual practice of japa.
anandambudhi-vardhanam prati-padam purnamrtasvadanam
sarvatma-snapanam param vijayate sri-krishnasankirtanam
To chant the name of Krishna is to watch the waxing moon bestow abundant fortune like a lotus fully bloomed.
To chant cleans up the dust our shining hearts accumulate,reviving sacred knowledge as a wife inspires her mate.
It also drenches painful flames of endless birth and death with oceanic waves of bliss we crave at every step.
Chanting attentive japa opens one’s heart to higher and higher stages of loving God, just as natural forces make a lotus unfold or the moon seem to wax.
We japa chanters often begin a japa session dull, anxious, or bewildered. We leave it strong and focused. Why? Not because our breath becomes regulated or our minds numb; we change during japa because, however awkwardly, we are associating with Krishna by chanting His name.
Attentive chanting means to let go of thoughts and problems and submit to hearing the mantra. It is to trust Krishna and abandon ourselves to Him with eyes wide open. Krishna reciprocates with such willing surrender. When we realize Krishna’s presence, at once our hearts become pleased and peaceful.
“As you surrender to Me,” says Krishna in the Bhagavad-gita (4.11), “I reward you accordingly.”
Experiencing Krishna through japa each day creates a conviction that surpasses mere belief. Japa becomes a refuge, a safe place to go when life seems overwhelming. Japa becomes both the symbol and the practical means of surrender to Krishna, and every time we chant attentively, Krishna responds.
Chanting japa as if we have no one to turn to but Krishna cleans anxieties from our minds and hearts. It transforms us from anxious, self-absorbed spiritual infants to calm, gracious, patient spiritual adults.
In this verse the Sanskrit phrase vidya-vadhujivanam refers to the wife (vadhu) of transcendental knowledge (vidya). This beautiful phrase captures in three Sanskrit words how bhakti (devotion) brings life to jnana (knowledge). The scriptures provide knowledge; japa invokes realization of that knowledge, as a wife’s sweet words encourage and enliven her husband.
Done properly, chanting Hare Krishna on japa beads becomes a daily joy. Material life is like being trapped in a burning forest with no escape. But the fire will be smothered in the huge waves of joy unleashed by attentive japa.
namnam akari bahuda nija-sarva-saktis
tatrarpita niyamitah smarane na kalah
etadrsi tava krpa bhagavan mamapi
durdaivam idrsam ihajani nanuragah
My Lord, You have more names than I could ever count or say,
and You invest each one to bless my life in every way.
You kindly set no rules, so I can always chant or call,
yet, sadly, for Your precious names I have no taste at all.
Because attentive japa leads to such powerful realizations, experienced chanters share the practice, and sometimes others mistake their natural enthusiasm for fanaticism. Followers of Lord Caitanya are not fanatics, however, for Lord Caitanya is completely liberal and nonsectarian. As He declares in this verse, any name of God, chanted properly, awakens us like any other.
Why don’t more people meditate with this simple, profound chanting? Though everyone feels the effect of a rousing hymn or a plaintive call to prayer, few repeat the experience within themselves by chanting constantly, or even regularly.
Why do we fail to chant? Lord Caitanya laments, nanuraga: “I have no taste.” Thoughtful people build a taste for beneficial activities like reading and exercise; fools build a taste for poisonous habits such as intoxication and TV brainrot. In the same way, chanting japa is an acquired taste. Understanding the matchless value of spiritual life, the truly wise learn to nourish their spirit through God’s holy names.
The next verse explains how to obtain a taste for japa. Be warned: The more we chant, the more we see Krishna’s greatnessand the more we become shocked by our own pathetic condition.
trnad api sunicena
taror api sahisnuna
kirtaniyah sada harih
The soul who chants the holy name in meek and humble mood,
respectful and without a proud, self-righteous attitude,
submissive like a trampled straw, forbearing like a tree,
obtains a taste to chant Your holy names incessantly.
I confess that by chanting japa over the years I’ve discovered many unpleasant things about myself. My thoughtless actions have hurt others, and I’ve made a fool of myself hundreds of times. Still I approach japa proudly, thinking, “I know how to do this. Krishna is mine.” I fail to realize that, in fact, I am Krishna’s. My chanting is meant for His pleasure, and His pleasure is my only true pleasure.
When will I understand that Krishna has no obligation to me, given the poor quality of my devotion? When will I understand that everyone I see is a glorious spiritual being, a son or daughter of Krishna, worthy of respect?
Why should I, seeing my foibles, be so proud? Japa has opened my eyes. Though it hurts, an unpleasant reality beats a happy illusion. To the extent I confront my faults and ignore the faults of others, I will relish the sound of Krishna’s name and never give it up.
na dhanam na janam na sundarim
kavitam va jagadisa kamaye
mama janmani janmanisvare
bhavatad bhaktir ahaitaki tvayi
My Lord, I don’t want lovers, fame, or endless piles of wealth;
I want to serve You, life by life, with no thought for myself.
What do I want from Krishna?
Some people turn to God for money. Some follow their mate to God, or turn to God to find one. Others come to God for something else but stay to enjoy the adoration of followers.
All these motives become dry, but Krishna’s loving reciprocation will sustain us and entangle us happily in His service.
To enjoy Krishna’s loving reciprocation we must chant attentive japa. Why?
Stated simply, Hare Krishna means, “Dear Krishna, please allow me to serve You.” Thus, when chanting japa we are repeatedly praying for Krishna’s service. Though He needs nothing, He kindly accepts our service.
So sweet is the chance to serve Krishna that Lord Caitanya prays for it to the exclusion of wealth, fame, or romance.
ayi nanda-tanuja kinkaram
patitam mam visame bhavambudhau
krpaya tava pada-pankajasthita-
Though I am meant to serve You, I have somehow fallen down
into a sea of birth and death where I have almost drowned.
Please pluck me from this sea of death there’s nowhere to retreat
and place me as a speck of dust beneath Your lotus feet.
Giving up the chase for lovers, money, and fame, we discover a new reality: We are in terrible danger. Death is looming, but we’re so hooked on what’s killing us that we don’t care. Nor do we care for the loving service of Krishna that can save us from death. Growing up I learned to fear God and to love the things of this world. In the Sikshastaka, Lord Caitanya teaches us to love God and fear the things of this world.
Why fear God, as if God were inflicting pain? God is neutral; if we want to enjoy this world, He gives us a material body with which to do it. But that body, like anything material, comes to an unwanted end. Then we need a new one to continue filling materialistic desires. Thus we flounder in an ocean of suffering until we change.
How do we change our desires? Krishna explains that we can’t give up a desire unless we replace it with something better. When we learn to relish chanting Hare Krishna, we will be rescued by Krishna’s grace.
vadanam gadgada-ruddhaya gira
pulakair nicitam vapuh kada
tava nama-grahane bhavisyati
I chant and wonder, “When will tears of love adorn my eyes,
my voice choke up with joy, and all my body’s hairs arise?”
We may call for Krishna out of fear or pain; that’s better than not calling. We may also expect to advance, to learn to chant out of love. Krishna is ecstatic; when we chant purely we associate with our ecstatic Lord. Then, naturally, we also become ecstatic.
Having repeatedly experienced that Krishna satisfies our heart, having curled our lips and spat upon the illusions we used to chase, we learn an entirely new way to enjoy ourselves. Then we abandon ourselves to chanting.
After researching the Vedic scriptures, Lord Caitanya and His followers chronicled the path of chanting. The spontaneous symptoms described in this verseunprovoked tears, faltering voice, bodily hairs standing on endindicate ecstatic love of God. They are not meant for showy imitation; they naturally appear by Krishna’s grace when the lost soul finally calls out His name in a heartfelt way.
We don’t chant japa to attain these symptoms of love of God. When they appear, they are signposts that we are progressing, as signs on the highway are not our destination but show us that our destination is near.
Yet symptoms of ecstasy may not appear, even to the sincere chanter. As His sons and daughters, we are obliged to call out for Krishna, but He is not obliged to show up when we do.
sunyayitam jagat sarvam
O Krishna! In Your absence every moment lasts for years.
The whole world seems so empty that my eyes are raining tears.
When we no longer expect happiness from illusions, we naturally expect happiness from Krishna. Yet the ever-independent Krishna may or may not give it. Happiness accompanies Krishna, who comes and goes at His own sweet will.
Very advanced devotees find ecstasy in separation from Krishna; beginners may struggle. Still, when Krishna leaves us, where else in creation can we turn? We must call out for Him. If fact, when we don’t feel Krishna’s presence it’s time to chant with extra determination and patience. Krishna accepts everyone, but He doesn’t collect casual devotees. He is testing our resolve.
Though we experience Krishna through His holy names, we discover that He does not reveal Himself at our command. Who is this unreliable person? Do we still want Him?
aslisya va pada-ratam pinastu mam
adarsanan marma-hatam karotu va
yatha tatha va vidadhatu lampato
mat-prana-nathas tu sa eva naparah
My only Lord is Krishna, and my Lord He shall remain,
though His embrace may crush me or His absence cause me pain.
He’s free to cheat or trample me or act in any way;
regardless, He’s my very life. I’ll never go away.
Lord Caitanya’s final prayer embodies the mood of Krishna’s lovers, the gopis, who pined for Him after He left His home village and never returned. Their attachment to Krishna sometimes angered their husbands and endangered their reputations, yet they could not forget Him. Their selfless, unconditional, deeply blissful love of God excels all others.
Even if we’re riddled with materialistic urges, chanting japa attentively every day can lead us to such love. Loving Krishna is as natural to the soul as breathing is to the body. If we associate with Krishna through japa, we will quickly revive and develop the natural love of Krishna dormant in every heart.
A Living Example
Starting in 1965, Lord Caitanya’s exemplary follower Srila Prabhupada introduced Hare Krishna chanting freely throughout the world. His humility, detachment, and ecstatic, unconditional love of Krishna demonstrated the reality of Lord Caitanya’s verses. Srila Prabhupada’s life and example continue to inspire millions to chant God’s names.
Lord Caitanya’s Sikshastaka takes us from the foothills the cleansing effect of chanting Hare Krishnato the peak of selfless, unconditional love. To scale such a huge mountain is daunting, but bead by bead, mantra by mantra, a daily japa session insures our progress. Srila Prabhupada showed us how.