For the past couple of days I’ve been writing about ways to improve japa but there’s a question that still bugs me there – what is japa’s relative value compared to other forms of devotional service. Usually I say that chanting beats everything but chanting is an English word that encompasses many forms and methods. Which one is the best? Can we survive solely on japa, for example?
The answer is yes and no. Yes, because as long as we chant the Hare Kṛṣṇa mahāmantra we can survive anything, and no because we have plenty of instructions requiring us to use different forms of chanting instead.
Take Śrīmad Bhāgavatam, for example. Simply sitting and listening to it, and asking appropriate questions, is enough to achieve perfection in devotional service. In some ways it’s even more effective that chanting the mantra because it engages our intelligence and fills us with awe and wonder, something we can’t easily experience by simply repeating the names. Just think of it, we can easily sit through an hour long class being fully absorbed and not losing concentration once. That doesn’t happen with japa, as I now clearly see from my logger.
We can’t repeat Mahārāja Parīkṣit’s feat of listening to Bhāgavatam for seven days non-stop without sleep or food but, if not for physical inconvenience of sitting on the floor, we can easily go for hours and hours, and with food and toilet breaks can easily listen to Lord’s pastimes for a whole day. The quality of our concentration would also be much better than during our japa.
More importantly, though, prescription for this day and age is hari-nāma saṇkīrtana, not japa. Japa is supposed to be a practically silent meditation, at most a practitioner might pronounce the mantras just loud enough to hear them himself. In this aspect japa is different from kīrtana and so we should remember that while kīrtana is a legitimate process of devotional service, japa is not. Why do we even use it, then?
Mostly because of Haridāsa Ṭhākura, our nāma-ācārya. He was chanting japa loudly all day long and it was accepted by Lord Caitanya as fully legitimate form of service. We are not to imitate but follow in the footsteps, and so our recent ācāryas set a daily minimum of japa for us all.
Contrary to the tradition we chant loudly, usually loud enough for others to hear, too. Haridāsa Ṭhākura argued that there’s always someone listening, if only insects on the ground, and even if the dead matter resonates to the sound of the Holy Name it still gets purified. Loud chanting purifies everything, the place, the atmosphere, everything and everyone within the reach of the sound.
ISKCON devotees were often laughed at by “experienced” vaiṣṇavas for their loud japa but that’s how we do it, we want it to be counted as kīrtana and in that there’s little difference between loud chanting on beads or singing or recitation or any other way of chanting.
Our japa satisfies “hari”, “nāma”, and “kīrtana” requirements but I’m not so sure about “saṃ” part, which is essential to our success. Lord Caitanya inaugurated the saṇkīrtana movement, not just kīrtana alone. We are in saṇkīrtana movement, and saṇkīrtana is understood to be different from japa.
There are many forms of saṇkīrtana, listening to Śrīmad Bhāgavatam is saṇkīrtana, too, and there are different interpretations of what “saṃ” prefix mean there exactly. Usually we say it’s congregational chanting, that people come together and get united in chanting. Japa doesn’t provide that, we chant japa for ourselves and the whole point is to shut out all other sounds when we chant. It can’t be called saṇkīrtana in this sense at all, so why do we do it?
Is it only because our ācāryas told us to do so? What is their reason, however? Maybe they realized that getting people to chant collectively is very hard while some form of chanting must go on every day regardless. That’s why our japa is the absolute minimum we should do, and it can’t be silent, it has to be like kīrtana, not mental meditation.
Regardless of the instructions for Kali Yuga, chanting of the Holy Name is universal. It always works and it’s the best method of service at all times. We chant a lot because we have a concession on offenses, if people tried it in previous ages they would be slaughtered by the reactions while ours do not count, karmically speaking. Mental ones do not count at all, for example, even if the Lord takes notice of our attitude and withdraws His mercy for a while. For some of our thoughts people in Satya Yuga would go straight to hell, we don’t get even a slap on the wrist.
Still, there’s another meaning of “saṃ” in saṇkīrtana – perfect and complete. In this sense it means pure, offenseless chanting coming from a heart filled with loving devotion. This kind of chanting is beyond the material platform, beyond the Kali Yuga, beyond minimum japa requirements, it reaches the Lord directly and so is perfect in every way. It’s chanting done by true paramahaṃsas who do not even see the material world anymore, only Kṛṣṇa Himself.
Can our japa qualify? Obviously not, but that’s how Haridāsa Ṭhākura chanted, if we want to follow his footsteps it’s how we should chant, too, otherwise it would also be imitation. Hmm, following is a thin line here – can’t chant too much and can’t chant sloppily either. Forget sloppily, we should chant on a transcendental platform if only for sixteen rounds instead of one hundred ninety two (about three lakhs).
So, can we justify our japa by saying that we are following Haridāsa Ṭhākura? Not really, not if we do not do it absolutely right. Perhaps more appropriate justification for us is that śāstra tells to chant Hare Kṛṣṇa mantra and so we are doing it one way or another, better than no chanting at all.
There’s the next step in interpreting “saṃ” in saṇkīrtana, too. When one chants perfectly, on a pure spiritual platform, his chanting can still be improved if he does so in the company of like minded pure devotees. If it can be improved than it’s not really “saṃ”, the argument goes.
It’s not quite the same congregational chanting that we do on the streets filled with non-devotees. That chanting is sublime in its own way, but this saṇkīrtana is like the talks between Lord Caitanya and Rāmānanda Rāya, not meant for the general public, except we don’t say anything provocative, just the Holy Names.
This is really the best kind of chanting, it’s like our Bhāgavatam classes on steroids, the advantage being that we are not attracted by presentation, it’s not meant to please our minds and intelligence, as often happens in our classes. It’s just pure exchange of love for Kṛṣṇa.
The key to this chanting is perfect company. Perfect here means not in absolute terms but relative to other participants. It’s chanting between devotees who are just right for each other, no one is an obvious neophyte and no one is too far advanced for his chanting to be unappreciated by others. Every instance of the Holy Name in this company would spark love and devotion in each participant without fail and the feedback would melt chanter’s heart on the spot, too.
This kind of chanting is a real blessing, very rare to come, and it certainly beats murmuring japa to ourselves while our minds wonder off to far reaches of the material world.
If it’s not available, however, then we are perfectly within our rights to pray for this blessing when we chant our daily rounds. In any case, whatever service the Lord allows us to do is perfect in its own way, we can’t think of it as deficient, it’s meant for our gradual upliftment and therefore should be cherished.