Some insist on making the difference between the name and the person it refers to, between nāma and nāme. It’s a subject I feel utterly confused by. We are always told how Kṛṣṇa and His name are no different but the arguments for the difference are compelling, too.
If there was no difference then gopīs, for example, wouldn’t be able to talk about Kṛṣṇa without making Him immediately appear. Forget the years when Kṛṣṇa left Vṛndāvana, it would have been very inconvenient for making their usual secret plans. I mean they talk about Kṛṣṇa all the time but still have to go and meet Him in person, how could it be possible if there was absolutely no difference between Him and His name?
Or how about this. Gopīs meet Kṛṣṇa, somehow one of them utters His name, does it mean that the second Kṛṣṇa immediately pops up out of nowhere? Of course not. From all we know about life in Vṛndāvana, Kṛṣṇa Himself and the sound of His name are not one and the same, they act pretty much like in the material world, nāma and nāme are clearly different.
So what about the basic tenet of our philosophy then? Perhaps the difference is there but it makes no practical difference for us. In our conditioned state the name has enough power to accomplish whatever is necessary and nuances start to matter only in the spiritual world. I haven’t seen any of our ācāryas explain this matter so there might be another explanation, it’s a bit confusing, as I said.
I remembered this subject, however, when reading the currently most commented article on Dandavats. One devotee wrote about corruption of Rāma into Rāmo during kīrtanas. As far as I can see, everybody does that. There’s also the point that Śrīla Prabhupāda once interrupted such kīrtana and asked “Who is this Ramo?” There’s also the argument that while Rāmo might be a popular pronunciation in Bengal the mahāmantra is not Bengali but Sanskrit one. If it says Rāma in Sanskrit then that’s what we should sing.
Still, everybody does that, I can’t imagine we all got it wrong, including devotees who are quite strict about unauthorized mantras.
As far as I can remember, there are two counterarguments. One time Śrīla Prabhupāda said that pronunciation doesn’t really matter because Kṛṣṇa knows who we are calling.
Right, yes, He knows we are calling Rāmo, question is – does He know who that is?
This counterargument is totally unacceptable to me. It implies that we sing from the heart and our hearts are pure and so there’s no one but Kṛṣṇa there. No matter what we say, our sincerity will always evoke only Kṛṣṇa Himself.
That’s not how vaidhī bhakti works at all.
For any sincere practitioner on the stage of vaidhī bhakti it should be clear that our hearts are full of anarthas and cannot be trusted. We accept external instructions as superior, not the other way around.
“Kṛṣṇa knows” argument basically says that our hearts are pure and absolute and we can do no wrong while the instructions of guru-sādhu-śāstra are relative and subject to interpretation according to time, place, and circumstances. Quite a hellish attitude to possess.
Yesterday I mentioned that Śrīla Prabhupāda once stopped an extravagant kīrtana and said that it was simply singing for sex life, the infamous “Hari Bowl” competition in Māyāpura. I remember Śrīla Bhaktisiddhānta Sarasvatī making a similar comment, too.
Perhaps Kṛṣṇa knows who that “Rāmo” is – the god of subtle sex enjoyment! Maybe there’s no such god at all but it works – whoever sings his name gets fame and adoration as an expert kīrtanīyā and tons of female admirers.
Another argument for “Rāmo”, or at least against strict “Rāma”, is pronunciation. Śrīla Prabhupāda might not have sung Rāmo but he often pronounced only Rām, without the last “a”. As far as we, his followers are concerned, this should be accepted as legitimate. Can we explain it, however?
Hare Kṛṣṇa mahāmantra is said to have 32 syllables, if we cut the last “a” in Rāma we would also cut four syllables from the mantra and it should greatly reduce its potency. For all we know about Sanskrit, we have no freedom to mess with mantras and mistakes can lead to very unexpected and unwelcome results.
The only thing that comes to mind is that last “a” might not count as absolutely necessary to form a syllable. Unlike in English, syllables are not counted strictly by vowels in Sanskrit and a consonant might count as a syllable even if not explicitly followed by a vowel, I don’t know enough to state this with any confidence, though. “M” at the end of Rām is also last in the group of labial consonants, meaning that it can be made with lips closed, meaning you can make the sound without letting air out and thus producing a vowel anyway – looks like a syllable on its own to me.
Some say that if you listen to Prabhupāda’s chanting very carefully you’ll notice that there’s always a short “a” at the end of what initially appears as “Rām”. I don’t know, I haven’t tried myself. With these tests people tend to hear what they want to hear anyway, their brains automatically adjusting raw information coming from the senses.
Another part of the “pronunciation” argument is that everybody does it, it’s only an accent, and, in one case, someone said that Indians say “Devki” instead of “Devaki” and therefore this is correct. I beg to differ, we are not obliged to follow Indians in these matters, we are not Hindus.
Lord Caitanya made fun of East Bengali pronunciation, for example, it’s not sacred. We don’t even know His own accent because it has likely been corrupted through time, and there’s no one Bengali accent anyway, among the variations it’s impossible to say which one is authoritative as far as mantras are concerned.
As for the rest of Indians – they don’t speak Sanskrit, they have corrupted it first into Prakrit and later into Hindi. It’s safer to assume that whatever their pronunciation is, it’s NOT how the words were supposed to be pronounced originally. Hindi might be infinitely closer to Sanskrit than English but it’s still a different language so we can’t insist on accepting Hindi pronunciation of Sanskrit words just as we don’t insist on English “name” instead of Sanskrit “nāma” – clearly the same word.
By corrupted I don’t mean changing only the pronunciation but all sorts of corruption that happens when one deviates from unalloyed devotional service, which was well hidden even from Sanskrit purists. It’s not just the language they corrupted, it’s the service to the Lord, and therefore it should be unacceptable to us.
Śrīla Prabhupāda said lots of good things about Indian culture but it’s still only somewhere half way between our total degradation and Śrīla Prabhupāda himself as a pure devotee. They are better than us but not as good as our ācāryas, any lessons we take from them must be taken with a grain of salt and run against the standards set by our sampradāya.
So, is it okay to chant “Rāmo”? I think not, but as long as we are not doing it to impress others it would not be the end of the world. Is it okay to chant “Rām”? I think it should be generally acceptable, following Prabhupāda’s example is the safest way for us and he, apparently, sometimes said “Rām”.