Chanting Hare Krsna: A Practice for Saints and Sinners
Devotees in the Krsna consciousness movement are known for their chanting of Hare Krsna, Hare Krsna, Krsna Krsna, Hare Hare Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare. But why so much stress on chanting?
We chant because we follow Vedic scriptures, which prescribe chanting the name of God as the primary religious principle for the present age. We also chant because five hundred years ago in Bengal our great spiritual predecessor Lord Caitanya used to perform hours-long kirtanas, chanting and dancing with His associates. They would chant Hare Krsna, dance and leap in great ecstasy, and play musical instruments. Only when the devotees were exhausted would Lord Caitanya stop the kirtana. And we chant because His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, our spiritual master, who came to the West to spread the teachings of Lord Caitanya and the Vedic scriptures, especially stressed the chanting of Hare Krsna.
The Vedic literature explains the power of chanting God’s name in the story of Ajamila, a great sinner who at the time of his death called out the name of God and was immediately purified of all sinful contamination. “Indeed,” states the Srimad-Bhagavatam, “he atoned not only for sins performed in one life but for those performed in millions of lives, for in a helpless condition he chanted the holy name of Narayana [Krsna].”
Present sins bring future suffering. But the story of Ajamila teaches that no matter how sinful a person may be, chanting Hare Krsna frees him from the hellish suffering that would otherwise await him for his bad karma. This is why the scriptures, Lord Caitanya, Srila Prabhupada, and other great spiritual authorities, while encouraging us to live a pure life and chant Hare Krsna, still urge us to chant even if we are unable to give up our sin. Sinful life basically consists of meat-eating, illicit sex, intoxication; and gambling-habits almost universally common in this degraded age. If someone wants to go beyond these, find a higher pleasure, and avoid the impending punishment of karma, he should chant Hare Krsna.
In June of 1967 Srila Prabhupada wrote, “We do have certain restrictions they are not restrictions but something better in the place of something inferior. . . If you live peaceful, regulated lives, eating nothing but krsna-prasadam [food offered to Krsna], then the tissues in your brain will develop for spiritual consciousness and understanding. However, if you are not agreeable to these simple restrictions, still I request you to join the chanting with us. Everybody can do that, and that will gradually clarify everything. All problems will be solved, and you will find a new chapter of your life.”
But one can misuse the chanting. One may think, “My sins could cause me suffering in the future, but chanting will free me from suffering. So I’ll use the power of the holy name of God to go on sinning and not have to suffer.” This is offensive. If one chants with this mentality, for him the Hare Krsna mantra will become ineffectual, like fire doused with water.
Chanting is sweet. There is nothing sweeter in life than chanting the holy name, which brings the soul to the ecstasy of reciprocation with Krsna. The ecstasies Lord Caitanya showed during kirtana attest to the sublime sweetness of the name of Krsna. Srimad-Bhagavatam states that if one does not experience ecstasy while chanting, one’s heart must be steel-framed. The pleasure that comes from chanting Hare Krsna is not like material pleasure, which stays for a while and then goes away; it is a spiritual pleasure. The more one chants, the more the sweet taste increases. And it is this sweet taste that enables one to give up the lower taste of material sense gratification.
Nevertheless, in the first stages of chanting one may fail to taste the sweetness, and thus one resembles a person with jaundice, for whom sugar candy tastes bitter. According to Ayurvedic medicine, the best remedy for jaundice is rock candy crystallized from fresh sugarcane juice. Although rock candy tastes bitter to the patient, as he goes on eating it daily he becomes cured, and gradually it begins to taste sweet. Similarly, although one may find the restrictions unpalatable—no illicit sex, no meat-eating, no gambling, and no intoxication—and although one may have little taste for chanting, regularly chanting Hare Krsna will gradually free one from the disease of excessive sense gratification. And the cure will be evident when he finds the chanting very sweet and relishable.
If one does not taste the sweetness immediately, he shouldn’t give up the cure, the chanting. He should go on chanting, and before long the taste will come—his original spiritual consciousness will revive. The happiness we have been looking for-in travel, study, nationalism, religion, sex—is actually to be found in the chanting of the holy name.
Aware of the difficulties we would have in trying to chant Hare Krsna purely in this materialistic age, Lord Caitanya expressed our position in His prayers: “O My Lord, You have kindly appeared in fullness in Your holy name, but lam so unfortunate that I have no taste for chanting.” It’s natural that one may want to chant yet find himself overpowered by his materialistic environment or by his own desires. Narottama dasa Thakura, a great devotee who followed Lord Caitanya, expresses this position: “What good is my life? I know that this chanting is everything, yet I don’t like to chant Hare Krsna. I must have been cursed. What is the use of living?” Narottama dasa Thakura presents himself as someone who doesn’t want materialistic life yet cannot taste the nectar of the holy name. Such despair, however, is not permanent; rather, it produces a feeling of helplessness, which leads to inoffensive chanting. Just as Ajamila chanted in utter helplessness at the time of death and was saved, when we feel overwhelmed by material desires we can also chant in helplessness. Even the “cursed” person, if he chants not to help himself along in sinning but to rid himself of sin, can chant in helplessness and be delivered. He can know within his heart, “Though this chanting is everything, the highest nectar, I am unable to taste it now, because of my materialistic mentality. But it is my only hope of deliverance.” This is the proper mood of helplessness for inoffensive chanting.
Lord Caitanya says, “All glories to the chanting of the holy name, which cleanses the heart of all the dirt accumulated for many, many births.” The chanting of the holy name of God is “the prime benediction for all humanity because it spreads the rays of the benediction moon.” The moon begins as a small sliver and waxes full. So one who starts chanting Hare Krsna faithfully, without offenses, can soon realize the full moon of ecstatic love of God. As Lord Caitanya says, “Chanting the name of God increases the ocean of transcendental bliss and gives us a taste of the nectar for which we are always anxious.”—SDG