Guidance for Pilgrims: Hare Krsna and the Jesus Prayer
I was with His Divine Grace Srila Prabhupada in Australia in 1974 when he spoke on several occasions to church leaders and audiences of seminarians.” While telling about Lord Caitanya’s universal sankirtana movement of chanting God’s holy names, Srila Prabhupada would explain that Christians could also take part by chanting the name of Jesus Christ. He pointed out that the word christ, coming from the Greek word christos, is philologically related to the name Krsna. He also said that if, along with chanting Christos, Christians would give up slaughtering animals and eating meat, they would advance in spiritual realization. Srila Prabhupada has written about the universality of chanting the names of God:
The Lord is the proprietor of all the universe, and therefore He may be known in different places by different names, but that does not in any way qualify the fullness of the Lord. Any nomenclature which is meant for the Supreme Lord is as holy as the others because they are all meant for the Lord. Such holy names are as powerful as the Lord, and there is nothing to bar anyone in any part of the creation from chanting and glorifying the Lord by the particular name of the Lord as it is locally understood. They are all auspicious, and one should not distinguish such names of the Lord as material commodities.
There is an old Christian tradition that; stresses the chanting of the holy names of God. The Philokalia, a collection from eleven centuries, of early Christian writings, documents that certain early fathers -of Eastern Christianity gave exclusive importance to the recitation of the Jesus Prayer: “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me” These early fathers lived in solitary, eating, only a little bread and water. In their practice of constant prayer, they used breathing exercises and concentration on the heart, reminiscent of hatha-yoga techniques from India. Yet although the severe austerities and divine insights of these fathers are inspiring, hardly anyone now can expect to adopt such a life of constant solitude.
The practice of chanting the Jesus Prayer was also current in nineteenth century Russia, as described by the wandering renunciant-author of The Way of a Pilgrim. This book is an autobiographical. account of a pilgrim who, having discovered the virtues of the Jesus Prayer, wandered homeless through the forests and towns of Russia, requesting whomever he met to recite the prayer constantly.
But how many Christians today would follow the pilgrim’s example of denying himself earthly pleasures and simply wandering with a backpack and a little bread, chanting the name of Jesus Christ? Today we are accustomed more to seeing “born-again” Christians justify a life of subdued hedonism in the name of religion. Popular evangelists urge their followers to send them money and pray to God for wealth and material blessings. These extreme constrasts—on one hand the life of austerity and detachment from the material world and on the other hand , the life of materialistic Christianity in which God wants us to enjoy the world—are too often the only alternatives open to Christians. For sincere Christians, this presents a serious problem. A modern reference that touches on the same problem is J.D. Salinger’s book, Franny and Zooey. I had never read this book, but I had heard that it mentions the chanting of japa. Zooey says,
It’s nothing new, for God’s sake. It didn’t just start with the little pilgrim’s crowd, I mean. In India, for God knows how many centuries, it’s been known as japam. Japam is just the repetition of any of the human names of God. Or the names of his incarnations—his avatars, if you want to get technical. The idea being that if you call out the name long enough and regularly enough and literally from the heart, you’ll get an answer. . Not exactly an answer. A response.
As the story goes, Franny, sickened with the phonies in the world and with a college system that teaches knowledge but not wisdom, takes up chanting the Jesus Prayer. While in a restaurant with her shallow boy friend, she faints in desperation and is taken home, where she emotionally withdraws, cries, and continuously chants the Jesus Prayer. Her concerned parents and her brother Zooey try to persuade her to become her old self, again, and finally Zooey brings her out of her isolation by advising her not to hate the phony people of the world but to remain detached. Since Franny is an actress, she should not retreat from the, world but work as an actress in service to God.
Yet Zooey’s philosophy is sentimental. His advice leaves much to be desired, as he himself admits:
When you first felt the urge, the call, to say the prayer, you didn’t immediately start searching the four corners of the world for a master. You came home…. So if you look at it in a certain way, by rights you’re only entitled to the low grade spiritual counsel we’re able to give you around here, and no more.
A genuine spiritual master would have been able to give Franny much more practical help in spiritual life, for he would , have been able to explain the art of precisely how to render service to the Lord by chanting His name and at the same time offering the results of one’s work to Him in devotion.
The name of God is identical with the Supreme Lord Himself; therefore, by chanting God’s names a devotee comes in direct touch with the Lord. One need not cut himself off from the world, because the whole material world is the energy of God and can be used in His service. Without expert guidance, however, one’s philosophy is bound to be incomplete, and he will either want to renounce the world or enjoy for himself. A devotee can become an actress, or for that matter a lawyer, a welfare worker, a humanitarian, or a family person in the service of God. But one has to learn the art of performing all activities as service to Him.
The process, of Krsna consciousness offers many facilities to help pilgrims, whether Christian, Hindu, Muslim, or whatever. There’s the worship of God in His Deity form in the temple. There the process of offering food to Krsna and accepting the remnants as His mercy. These spiritual practices are pleasant, easy, and powerful. A materialist cannot, understand how God and His name can. be the same or how God’s Deity form can be nondifferent from His original form. But these absolute facts are stated in the Vedic scriptures and understood by pure devotees.
If a pilgrim does not, know how to worship the Deity form of God or how to offer Krsna delicious food and then eat the spiritual remnants—if his only choices, therefore, are either to reject; this world and chant in solitude or, on the contrary, to think that God sanctions a. life of materialistic enjoyment including even animal slaughter and illicit sex—then he is at a great disadvantage, despite his prayers or his professing the name of God. Only by following the guidance of a genuine spiritual master can a devotee of God, a chanter of God’s names, pass through all the difficulties of living in the material world and attain the pure and eternal devotion to Krsna that is the ultimate fruit of chanting.—SDG