We have all heard that kirtana—singing the names of God—is very efficacious for Kali-yuga. This is not merely a sectarian statement from our particular sect, but rather Caitanya Mahaprabhu’s emphasis on universal principles regarding the efficacy of sound and the divinity of God’s name, principles acknowledged in both the religious and secular worlds. If we look at how the name of God is thought of in all religious traditions and how sound is important to us in everyday life, then we can better appreciate the universality of the precept that Caitanya Mahaprabhu sought to drive home and make the central focus of his mission, and if we look deeply into Mahaprabhu’s emphasis, we will also find another universal principle, love’s power to conquer all. In Mahaprabhu’s teaching, this includes even God Himself.
Sound is something that the modern technological world hasn’t exploited to a large extent in comparison to the extent that it has exploited for its purposes fire, water, and earth. Perhaps this is yet to come, because it should be obvious that the power potential of sound in tremendous. Our mind, for example, in a very basic sense functions in terms of acceptance and rejection—sankalpa-vikalpa—and each of these is driven by sound. Sound helps our mind to put thoughts into ideas as well as to dismantle them. So the entire mental system of every individual is very much affected by what one hears and what one speaks. Everyone knows that in a military campaign if we can take over the sound waves we can control the masses. When the invaders come, one of their main objectives is to capture the communications systems, the sound waves. In many practical ways we can understand the importance of sound in our lives, although we probably do not think about this very much.
Caitanya Mahaprabhu, however, understood the reach of the influence of sound very well. The Vedic rsis also thought about it deeply. The Vaisnavas say that seeing is really about hearing. Darsana, seeing, is related to hearing. It is said that the Vaisnava sees with his ears because his vision is guided by the sounds of the scripture. According to the Vedic scripture’s metaphysic, the entire material world is a product of sound.
The rsis considered that the world comes from sound, and that material existence can also be retired by sound. Vedanta-sutra concludes with the words anavrittih sabda anavrittih sabda. This means that going beyond material existence, one never returns. Why is this so? Because of the word, because of the sabda, the sound, the sruti pramana or scriptural evidence which says as much.
This sound, the scriptural evidence, is difficult to understand. It works on four levels. In Srimad Bhagavatam it is stated:
“The spiritual sound of the Vedas is very difficult to comprehend. It manifests within the life air, the senses, and the mind. This Vedic sound is unlimited and unfathomable, just like the ocean.” (SB 11.21.36)
The Vedic sound is divided into four phases, three of which are situated within the living entity. Only the fourth division is externally manifested as speech. Even this fourth phase of Vedic sound is very difficult to understand. Srila Visvanätha Cakravarti Thakura explains these divisions as follows. The prana phase of Vedic sound, known as para, is situated in the adhara-cakra; the mental phase, known as pasyanti, is situated in the area of the navel, on the manipuraka-cakra; the intellectual phase, known as madhyama, is situated in the heart area, in the anahata-cakra. The manifest sensory phase of Vedic sound is called vaikhari. Such Vedic sound comprehends all vital energies within the universe and beyond and is thus undivided by time or space.
We can only hope to understand the scope of Vedic wisdom through submissive hearing of its sounds, and we must hear repeatedly from the proper source. Hearing and chanting the Vedic sounds repeatedly will create a spiritual impression on our consciousness leading to comprehensive understanding of the nature of reality.
We are all moving in the world based on certain impressions. These impressions are called samskaras. If I take a stone and I rub a rope across it, you won’t see anything at first, but if I do that for a long time, then the rope will start to make an impression on the stone. Over time repeated impressions make us prone towards one thing or the other. Impressions from previous lives cause us to move in a particular way, to have a particular tendency, to appreciate a particular type of music, and so forth.
By the influence of Vedic sound gradually two things happen: our previous samskaras are cleared, and a certain impression is created whereby we can see clearly. At the time of spiritual initiation an impression—a samskara—for bhakti is created. Then to nourish that impression, instruction is given with considerable emphasis on repetition of the name of God.
Among Vedic sounds the name of God has been given emphasis. Rupa Goswami has stated this in the first verse of his Namastakam, nikhila-sruti-mauli-ratna-mala. The root of the sruti, the core that comprises the essential Upanisads, has been compared to a garland of gems, and these gems are giving off light. Where are they shining that light? On the name of Holy Name of Krsna. The Vedas are very broad in their scope of knowledge and comprised of a jungle of sounds. On which sounds shall we focus our attention? Of all sounds, the sound consisting of the name of God is most efficacious, and according to Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu, of all God’s names Krsna-nama is most glorious.
The religious world is not unfamiliar with the idea that the name of God has power. The Greek term “theology” was originally intertwined with the divinity in the names of God. In our times, theology has come to mean a kind of divine science, the logic (logica) of divinity (theo). But previously it was used in relation to names of gods. The Greeks had many gods, and they had a particular type of person who was designated for calling the names of the gods. This person was called a theologian. He would call specific names at specific times to invoke the influences of specific gods for specific purposes. In many respects this was the sum and substance of what religion involved for the Greeks.
Even in the secular world, names have power. In previous times, people wouldn’t give out their name very easily. Nowadays this is also true, but names have been replaced in the United States with Social Security Numbers. No one gives out his or her Social Security Number very easily. Why? Because you can be controlled by those who know it. If someone knows your Social Security Number, they can get find out everything about you. So, numbers have replaced names, but the principle is the same: By knowing the name of a person, you can know everything about him. This is what Caitanya Mahaprabhu taught with regard to the Holy Name of Krsna and Krsna Himself. The two, name and named, are one. Truly knowing His name, one knows Him.
In the Jewish tradition the name of God is considered so sacred that you cannot utter it. In the Bible there is considerable emphasis on the name of Jesus. It is said that by his name you will be saved. Amongst the various saints in the fifteenth and sixteenth century in India there was a reaction to the so called smarta monopoly on salvation that mandated one must first take birth in a brahmana family and then accept sannyasa before one could attain salvation. There was a kind of a rebellion to this, with the idea behind it that God was more accessible to the people. The bhakti movements championed this. They voiced this with emphasis on God’s name. Nanak, Kabir, and others placed great emphasis on the name of God as a means to salvation. They saw the names of God—Hari, Rama, Krsna—to be a means to attain the name-less status of Brahman. Nothing was more important to Kabir in terms of spiritual practice than the name of Rama. Guru Nanak emphasized sat-nama, an his scripture is filed with glorification of the names Rama and Krsna.
Above all of these religious traditions we find Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu’s conception of the name of God. Caitanya Mahaprabhu was the most prominent advocate of bhakti and nama at the time. He made a dharma, a religion out of the name of God. His followers developed this idea in great detail, and thus we have a theology of the name, nama-dharma. The significance of this nama dharma and the ontological position of Krsna nama was revealed over time the devotees of Mahaprabhu churned their realization as to the significance of Mahaprabhu’s descent.
At first the nama was considered to be nama-avatara, the avatara of God in syllables. This insight was one in which it was considered that the syllables krs na were empowered (avesa) with the potency of God, making Krsna nama an avesa-avatara. But gradually this insight was surpassed by the realization that Krsna and His name were one and the same, bhinnatvan nama-naminoh, nama–naminoh abheda.
How much further can we go in glorifying the position of the name of Krsna? If we exalt the name of God to the extent that we theologize and philosophize and demonstrate from scripture that the name of God is non-different from God, then how can we go any further than this? Rupa Goswami has gone even further. The Name and Named are non-different, but if we look more closely we find that there is also a difference. What is that difference? The Name is more merciful than the Named. There is no tradition that takes this universal principle about sound and name further than Gaudiya Vaisnavism, giving more deference to the Name than the Named.
Kali-kale nama-rupe krsna-avatara. Sometimes we hear devotees say “Oh, Caitanya Mahaprabhu came five hundred years ago; Krsna came five thousand years ago. If only I was there then, how fortunate I would be!” But they have not understood Caitanya Mahaprabhu’s teaching: nama prabhu is here now! And Krsna-nama has been given to us. If we take advantage and pay attention then what will our fortune be?
Jayadeva Goswami said something wonderful. “Oh, hari-nama!” from a sadhu you enter my ears and heart, and as my tears pour down on the ground they soften the clay, so that others can know to follow my way!” So, hari-nama prabhu has an agenda.
Nama prabhu, krsna-nama has an agenda of His own. It is said that we should not maintain material attachment while chanting. If we take the name of Krsna sincerely our material attachments will become apparent to us. As they become known, they should be retired. It is not easy to retire them, but they must be retired. Otherwise they will haunt us even in our next life. If we deal with them in this life, then in our next life spiritual culture will be much easier. We must meet our attachments head on. Not that we are shall to do battle with them trying to conquer them like a Zen Buddhist with a big head, or a big jnani, studying the Upanisad. No, not like that, but by crying helplessly while chanting the name of Krsna.
The soul can awaken. It can do more than philosophize. And that awakening comes from good association. We know from sadhu sanga that Nama prabhu is the most merciful manifestation of Krsna. Therefore we shall put all of our hopes in Him. Without any pride in ourselves, but with great regard for Hari Nama crying like Jayadeva we should remember what Mahaprabhu has said
trnad api sunicena
taror api sahisnuna
kirtaniyah sada harih
This kind of chanting will be effective. This is nistha. When one sees no prospect in life, but this … kirtaniyah sada harih, fixed, then tears will come. The Name will dance in the courtyard of our heart, and make the ground beneath your feet soft through the tears He brings to your eyes so that others can follow in your footprints. Through your tears he will guide others and make His agenda known.
We are accustomed to making things part of our agenda, pulling them out of our pocket to support our mentally conceived cause. We should not try to do this with Sri Nama prabhu. We gather knowledge to further our agenda, but Krsna nama embodies a different kind of knowledge. It is of a different nature altogether. It has its own very high agenda, and our soul is on it.
Mahaprabhu said srotam api upanisadam dure hari-kathamrta. The mantras of the Upanisads are very far from hari-katha. What can happen from saying “aham brahmasmi,” “tat tvam asi“? What kind of change in our life can come from that? There will be some transformation, but that will not be as comprehensive that which hari-nama can bring about. By the grace of Hari Nama we can not only exit the world of birth and death, we can enter the world of ecstasy, kampasru pulakadayah. Mahaprabhu teaches that not only is the transformation resulting from Krsna-nama far reaching, but moreover there are no rules attached chanting the holy name of Krsna. So many rules are attached to the chanting Vedic mantras, but Krsna-nama is distributing Himself freely proportionate to our faith in Him, faith that He Himself has awakened.
Rupa Goswami has described Caitanya Mahaprabhu walking to Puri holding a string with knots on it, counting on the knots as he loudly chants the Hare Krsna maha mantra, “hare krsna hare krsna krsna krsna hare hare hare rama hare rama rama rama hare hare.” This nama mantra is also mentioned in the Upanisads.
iti sodasakam namnam
hare krsna hare krsna
krsna krsna hare hare
hare rama hare rama
rama rama hare hare
This arrangement of God’s names is most efficacious for Kali-yuga. Sarva-vedesu drsyate, all the Vedas say this. So, we are stressing this. Let anyone chant this maha mantra, anywhere and under any circumstances.
What is the secret behind this mantra? The Hare Krsna maha mantra speaks indirectly, secretly, of something very sweet. Hare Krsna Rama! Hare means Hari in the vocative. “Oh Hari, Oh Krsna, Oh Rama”. But the Gaudiya sampradaya has analyzed this further, and they have concluded that Hare also means Hara, a name for Radha in the vocative. Indirectly the divine union of Radha and Krsna is the subject of this sambhoga mantra. In this mantra, the names Rama and Krsna are surrounded by Hare, Radha, on all sides. Krsna means Krsna, and Rama is another name for Krsna, Ramana. Radha is Hare, who steals away Krsna’s mind.
This hare krsna mantra is so pleasing to Krsna because it speaks not only of His dearmost, Sri Radha, but of Her power to subjugate Him. The name Hare announces this. When Krsna, the Supreme Godhead, hears us chant this He will say, “You know that about Me, that I am subjugated by Her influence? I am the Supreme God, yet She can turn me into a dancing madman! You know that She is My guru?” Krsna will want to silence if he hears us sing this secret mantra loudly us by taking us to his abode.
Such is the glory of the Hare Krsna maha mantra and the precept of Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu. It speaks to us of the power in sound, of the divinity in God’s name, and of love’s power to conquer all.