Holy Name is central to our lives, we might see this world as full of wonderful phenomena and billions of people hacking through their lives but that is all just an illusion. Living through it makes us appreciate and value all kinds of things and all kinds of relationships as well as our entire human history but if we take Śrimad Bhāgavatam’s point of view none of it has any value, only the Holy Name does.
Well, if we take Bhāgavatam view of history then there have been numerous incarnations of the Lord and there lived numerous devotees whose footsteps we should follow but since none of that happens to be in our history books we might consider them as non-existent, leaving us only with the Holy Name as an empirically observable manifestation of the Lord.
Every other incarnation – Lord Nṛsiṃha or Vāmana-deva or Matsya or Lord Rāmacandra, they are all no more than myths to the modern man. We can’t find traces of their existence anywhere, our empirical arms simply don’t stretch that far in time, and they didn’t leave us any fossils so here we are, living in the world full of all kinds of things of absolutely no spiritual value.
Even Lord Caitanya’s divinity is a matter of interpretation because I’m not aware of any non-religious documents of his life. In that sense He is more like Jesus – there might have been a historical personality living under that name but there’s absolutely nothing but the word of his religious followers to suggest he was God Himself. Of course Lord Caitanya’s life is much better documented but still there is no proof He was Kṛṣṇa and no one seriously considers Him to be Kṛṣṇa outside of our Gauḍīyā tradition.
Holy Name is solid, though. You open your mouth, you say the syllables – and the Lord is there in all His glory. We don’t perceive it as such yet but that’s what we are working on now – our perception, our relationship with the Lord. We accept the Holy Name on the authority of our ācāryas just as most people living in Bengal and Orissa five hundred years ago didn’t personally see Lord Caitanya’s divine powers.
Just as five hundred years ago these divine powers CAN manifest at any moment but normally it doesn’t happen. Just as five hundred years ago everyone could receive his personal confirmation of Lord Caitanya’s divinity one can receive his personal confirmation of the power of the Holy Name now.
Anyway, the Holy Name is our present day incarnation, it’s spiritually real even though our perception of it as such is elusive. We don’t have anything else, it’s our only shelter. Well, it’s our principal shelter while everything else – Śrila Prabhupāda, guru, ISCKON, our books – are external, dependent manifestations of the Holy Name.
In that sense we can speak of the Holy Name as our anchor – whatever we do in this world, wherever we go, we should always return to the Holy Name – it anchors us to the spiritual reality. In the conditioned state we are like balloons, always in danger of being carried away by the slightest of winds, and the Holy Name is our only tether.
Forces of material nature come in waves, tossing us up and down, left and right and everyone around us tells us to go with the flow or try to navigate these waves to our own advantage but, as devotees, we remains anchored by the Holy Name.
Actually, if we consider the world as an ocean of material existence then what we need is not an anchor but a boat, we need a better analogy.
I propose another one – Holy Name as a goalpost. It stands there, we can see it, and we try to reach it. Imagine some Arctic explorer making his way through the snow and wind, slowly, step by step, completely exhausting himself in the process. He can’t look up, he can’t look left or right – the wind will get him, he has to keep his eyes firmly on the goal or he’ll get lost. Even looking down on the ground before him can easily lead him astray because snow is white in all directions – only the goalpost, say a lighthouse, can serve as a beacon.
And so we make our way to the realization of the Holy Name, we see it within our grasp, as close as our own breath, yet we can’t catch it yet.
Lord Caitanya’s life was all about the Holy Name. He was born during the eclipse when everyone was spontaneously calling the names of Lord Hari. All through His childhood only chanting of the Holy Name could pacify Him and put Him to rest. Everyone knew about it – if Nimāi was in trouble, crying or being sick, only the sound of the Holy Name could fix Him. No one knew exactly why but it worked, empirically. I think even Nimāi Himself didn’t know why until He was properly initiated into chanting.
Initiation completely transformed Him and visibly turned His life around. Now He knew what the Holy Name was – we can say He had reached His goal just as we are trying to reach ours – make the Holy Name “real” for us, too.
Lord Caitanya then started His saṇkīrtana movement, spreading chanting of the Holy Name all throughout India. He traveled for six years and preached for many more. During this time He and the sound of the Holy Name were inseparable. I would say that during this time He was moving around His goalpost because later then He just went past it.
It’s not that He stopped chanting in His later life but His spiritual practices had changed again. Later chapters of Caitanya Caritāmṛita describe many incidents of Him being in complete trance, totally locked out of the observable world.
He would see a hill, think of it as Govardhana, and take off, completely forgetting who He was, where He was – everything. He would break out of His room and run away somewhere in the middle of the night and when He was found He’d be completely unconscious. He could have been lying on the steps of the Jagannātha temple or among the cows in the cowshed or even fished out of the sea – He’d be totally oblivious to the outside world.
In these moments, just as in His childhood, it was only the sound of the Holy Name that could fix Him. Devotees had to chant very loudly directly into His ear to bring Him out of His trance.
Do you see the evolution now? At first the Holy Name was an “unknown” and it was used to solve material problems (at least that’s what it looked like). Then the Holy Name took the center stage of His life, then He moved somewhere else, past the post, and into spiritual realms. At this point the Holy Name could again bring Him back but now it was taking Him from pure spiritual plane and back into the external, material one.
The Holy Name was used to break His spiritual trance. It was, therefore, “lower” and “external”, and sometimes He even complained when He was called back to the “real” world.
What should we make of it?
Does it mean that the Holy Name is separate from Kṛṣṇa? Does it mean that Lord Caitanya could see Kṛṣṇa and His pastimes but then He’d be woken up by the sound of the Holy Name and that vision would break? Why couldn’t He have such “spiritual” relationships with the Holy Name itself but went directly into Kṛṣṇa’s pastimes as if they were a separate thing?
What I think about it, and it’s just my speculation, is that the Holy Name is the material manifestation, when we hear the Holy Name we hear sound waves moving through air, we can record them with material instruments. As such we can’t have purely spiritual relationship with a sound like that. Compare it to a deity – it’s the Lord Himself standing on the altar but we can’t engage in any kind of pastimes with this manifestation, we can only serve according to the instructions of our ācāryas. We offer pūjā, food, change clothes, and that’s it.
Even if we are pure enough to be able to participate in actual, spiritual pastimes, it’s not how we relate to deities. We cannot imitate spiritual pastimes with external, “material” manifestations.
Same with the Holy Name – it’s the Lord Himself, it’s non-different from the Lord, but the only way we can worship this sound is by chanting.
So, looking at the example of Lord Caitanya, first we should learn to see the spiritual power of the Holy Name but eventually we should also move past this goalpost, so to speak, and as our relationships with the Lord grow, Holy Name will become available to us as one of the myriad of Lord’s manifestations and we should relate to it accordingly – we chant, in full consciousness and with full concentration.
Pure devotees CAN delve directly into the spiritual pastimes but when they chant their minds are here, in this world, and so is their consciousness.
Two years ago I wrote a short post about Mother Isa, she had left this world since, but her last years illustrate my description here. Internally she was always with the Lord but when she heard the Holy Name on the material plane she would switch her consciousness back here and treat th audible Holy Name with utmost love and respect. Holy Name is here to preach and to be glorified and that’s what she did when her material mind was awakened.
Perhaps all I mean to say is that we should not expect magic from our chanting. We might develop spiritual vision, mostly likely not, but even if we do develop it our chanting will still be done with our consciousness firmly concentrated on the “material” activity of chanting just as we are trying to do now. Mind, voice cords, lips, fingers – everything we engage in chanting now will be engaged in exactly the same way. We just have to learn to appreciate it more.
ATM we are in the possession of this treasure but we haven’t realized its real value yet. That’s the sad reality of our situation