Mantra Meditation – An Overview
In a fast paced world of increasing distraction and rampant materialism, where life is wound up to break neck speed, it is becoming harder and harder to find peace of mind, to practise meditation and cultivate inner focus. Fortunately, the ancient yogic tradition of mantra meditation, practised for thousands of years by the yogis and mystics of India, has arrived on the western horizon to “save the day.” This form of meditation, originating in the bhakti yoga tradition (the yoga of devotion) is easy and sublime and is available to anyone and everyone and can be practised by all, anywhere, at any time, without any pre-requisites or prior qualification. Mantras are sacred sound vibrations composed of transcendental syllables containing great spiritual power or Shakti (energy). The proper vibration of these mantras has amazing transformational effects on all aspects of our lives.
Mantras are travelling down to us through time from the Vedic Age over 5,000 years ago, although one cannot place a time frame on mantras as they are eternal sound vibrations which have always existed and shall always continue to exist. They “live” in the spiritual dimension beyond time and material space…..pure transcendental vibrations manifested in sanskrit which is the language of Vaikuntha, the Spiritual World, “where every word is a song and every movement, a dance.” And mantras act as transporters…they will take us there.
Body Mind Spirit Balance
Through the regular practice of mantra meditation we balance and harmonize the body, mind and spirit, a prerequisite for physical, emotional and spiritual health and well-being. The five life airs (prana) and seven cakras within the body are automatically and seamlessly adjusted and bought into perfect balance and harmony even without us being aware of it and with no extraneous endeavour. This harmonizing effect energises and vitalizes the body and has a profound transformational effect on our well-being, both physically, mentally and spiritually, leading to good health, peace of mind and happiness.
Mantra Meditation-A Portrait
Mantra is a sanskrit word comprising two syllables, man and atra
Man refers to the mind and atra means to deliver, free or liberate, so literally the word mantra means to free or liberate the mind from materialistic conditioning…..transporting the mind from the physical plane to the non-physical, transcendental stratum.
When a mantra is chanted softly on meditation beads as a personal meditation it is called japa.
When a mantra is chanted melodiously in a call and response fashion in a group or congregational setting accompanied by musical instruments and often by “yogic dance” it is called kīrtana.
When a mantra is chanted in the street or other public forums accompanied by musical instruments and joyful dancing it is called harinam-sankirtan.
In the contemporary kirtan landscape there are no hard and fast rules as to what musical instruments are engaged to accompany the chanting although the harmonium, mrdanga drum and caratels (hand symbols) are the traditional instruments used and today still form the basis for most kirtans upon which other instruments such as guitars, violins and flutes are layered.
Controlling The Mind
Mantra meditation enables us to rise above the mind’s chatter, uplifting our consciousness from the material to the spiritual dimension. In the preliminary stages of chanting, the practitioner experiences a clearing of consciousness, inner peace of mind, and relief from unwanted drives and habits. Anxiety, stress and worry fades away and vanishes from the mind leaving our consciousness calm, pure and peaceful. By mantra we can control the mind, instead of letting it control us, the inner spiritual self. “For one who has controlled his mind, his mind becomes his greatest friend. But for one who has failed to do so, his mind becomes his greatest enemy”. Bhagavad-gita (6.6) By controlling our minds we can regain control of our lives instead of being dragged hither and thither by the restless and oscillating mind which can quite easily lead us down the proverbial garden path and over the “precipice”. When we control the mind by focusing it on the purely spiritual sound vibration of the mantra, the mind becomes calm. The spiritual sound of the mantra soothes the restless mind. Bhagavad-gita (6.24)
Seeing The Inner Self Within
As one develops more realization by chanting, one perceives the original, spiritual existence of the self. According to the Bhagavad-gita (6.21), the enlightened state is characterized by “one's ability to see the self by the pure mind and to relish and rejoice in the self. In that joyous state one is situated in boundless transcendental happiness, realized through transcendental senses.”
Pure Clear Consciousness
The mantra, being imbued with powerful spiritual energies, has the power to subdue all kinds of mental disturbance. Just as a reservoir of water is transparent when unagitated, our mental perceptions become clear and pure when the mind is no longer agitated by the waves of material desires. The mind in its pure state, like a mirror cleansed of dust, will then reflect undistorted images of reality, allowing us to go beneath the surface and perceive the essential spiritual quality of all life's experiences. As chanting cleanses the mirror of the heart one fully awakens to spiritual reality.
When we identify with the physical body and lose awareness of our real, spiritual self, we experience countless anxieties, stress, worry and numerous negative emotions relating to the temporary body. We go through a myriad of temporary, fleeting sensory experiences, which create numerous impressions of the phenomenal world upon our heart and consciousness. In this way, our original, pure consciousness becomes covered by layer after layer of material “contamination”. Because the real self is purely spiritual, no variety or amount of physical or mental gratification can give us real satisfaction. Under the illusion of bodily identification, therefore, we perpetually suffer the unnatural and frustrating condition of material existence. But by chanting, even in the early stages, we realize ourselves to be pure and changeless spirit souls, completely distinct from the material body. Because the mantra is a completely pure spiritual sound vibration, it has the power to restore our consciousness to its original, uncontaminated condition. As our false bodily identification dissolves and we perceive our true transcendental existence, we automatically transcend all the fears and anxieties of material existence.
Attaining real self-awareness also gives us the ability to see the spiritual nature of all living beings. When our natural, spiritual feelings are awakened through meditation, we experience the ultimate unity of all life. This is explained in the Bhagavad-gita where it is elucidated that one who is actually on the transcendental platform becomes a lover of the universe and all the “residents” thereof and experiences true universal brotherhood. One sees the spiritual being within, beyond the external manifestation of innumerable bodily forms. Thus on the spiritual platform one sees the true equality of all beings and thus with love treats all as “brothers and sisters” and does not occasion hurt or harm to any living being.
Mind games & the search for happiness
Everyone is thirsting for true and lasting happiness but because material pleasures are limited, transitory and temporary, they do not give us complete satisfaction or completely satiate our desires and aspirations. The mind always promises so much, but when we act out our dreams and aspirations in real time, the reality never lives up to or matches our mental imaging. Invariably we are always short changed; once again cheated by our deceptive minds. All pleasures on offer in this world give us no permanent relief or satisfaction because material sensations and relationships lack the potency to satiate the constitutional nature of the soul which is always yearning for spiritual connection and fulfilment. As spiritual being we are always searching out perfect, complete and everlasting happiness, the Pleasure Supreme, because this is our original, natural state. The chanting of sacred mantras delivers this because it places us in direct contact with the Supreme Divine and His spiritual pleasure potency. The Supreme Person, in the highest manifestation is revealed through the Bhagavad-gita and the ancient Vedic texts to be Sri Krishna. He is full of all bliss, and when we connect with Him through transcendental sound vibration, we can an also experience the same transcendental happiness and bliss.
Enmeshed in a labyrinth, karmic web of actions and reactions, we are forced to accept one material body after another (reincarnation or transmigration of the soul) to experience our karmic destiny. But we can achieve freedom from karma by the sincere chanting of the transcendental names of the Supreme which are filled with powerful transcendental energies. By freeing our consciousness from material desires, this sacred sound meditation frees us from the never-ending cycle of karma and liberates us from samsara, the endless wheel of birth and death. By this simple change in consciousness, we can transcend the cycle of reincarnation. "Living beings entangled in the complicated meshes of birth and death can be freed immediately by even unconsciously chanting the divine names." Srimad−Bhagavatam (1.1.14)
The maha mantra
Mantra meditation is what the Vedas prescribe as the most effective form of meditation. Compiled over 5,000 years ago by the great sages and self-realized souls, the Vedas contain the timeless spiritual knowledge and wisdom of ancient India and throughout these powerful transcendental texts the single most highly recommended mantra with the greatest ability to uplift our consciousness from the mundane, material plane to the spiritual plane, is the powerful maha-mantra, called “The great mantra for Deliverance” -
The transcendental potency necessary for developing complete psychological and spiritual fulfillment is already present within everyone. It must, however, be uncovered, revived, by a genuine spiritual process. Of all such authentic processes, India's timeless Vedas proclaim that meditation on the Hare Krishna maha-mantra is the most powerful.
Kali yuga & the maha mantra
This mantra is considered as the maha, great mantra of “The Dark Age (Kaliyuga).” Kaliyuga refers to the present era of the machine, where truth, the level of consciousness, and morality are at their lowest level making spiritual advancement extremely difficult due to an atmosphere surcharged with “unbridled materialism”. People of the world forget their souls, identify with their gross bodies, and become mad competitors for the world's stock of material goods and pleasures. As stated in Srimad−Bhagavatam (1.1.10), the unfortunate inhabitants of the Kali age are "quarrelsome, lazy, misguided, unlucky, and, above all, always disturbed." Because such unfortunate persons have little or no inclination toward spiritual advancement, there is a compelling need for a simple method by which they can wake up from their slumber and receive the opportunity for spiritual emancipation. That opportunity is afforded for all through meditation on the sacred maha-mantra. "Although Kali−yuga is full of faults, there is still one good quality about this age. It is that simply by chanting the holy name of Krishna one can become free from material bondage and be promoted to the transcendental platform." Srimad-Bhagavatam (12.3.51).
By repeating daily this amazing, extremely potent mantra with devotion and faith, we can achieve inner peace, dissolving our bad habits and negative emotions. By chanting the maha-mantra, we become free from all anxieties and inner fears. As soon as we start to recite this soothing mantra we can feel the healing and mending effect immediately on our mind and body and we revive the natural spiritual desires of the soul. Just as the nature of the body is to be attracted to sensual pursuits, the nature of the soul is to be attracted to the Supreme Divine Person, Sri Krishna. Chanting revives our original, pure spiritual consciousness and awakens our desire to return to our “real home” in the spiritual world to be with Him in a divine relationship of perfect eternal love.
Pure love for Krishna elicits the most sublime and lofty emotions of the soul. Spiritual perfection implies not the absence of cognition or emotion, but their ultimate perfection. Within the soul are profound transcendental emotions, which lie dormant as long as the soul sleeps in maya (material illusion) but such sublime emotions awaken with the awakening of pure, spiritual consciousness. The entire range of loving emotions that we experience in our lives are merely dim and perverted reflections of their spiritual counterparts, which exist in absolute purity and perfection and are experienced by fully realized souls in their eternal relationship with Krishna. When one has awakens to pure love of Krishna, one tastes the infinitely sweet flavours of an unlimited variety of transcendental emotions, emotions that are variegated manifestations of spiritual bliss and ecstasy.
Mantra - The sound incarnation
The spiritual qualities of Krishna's Divine names are described throughout the Vedic literatures. The Padma Purana states, "The holy name of Krishna is transcendentally blissful. It bestows all spiritual benedictions, for it is Krishna Himself, the reservoir of all pleasure.... It is not a material name under any condition, and it is no less powerful than Krishna Himself. Since Krishna's name is not contaminated by the material qualities, there is no question of its being involved with maya [illusion]. Krishna's name is always liberated and spiritual; it is never conditioned by the laws of material nature. This is because the name of Krishna and Krishna Himself are identical." Mantras are the sound incarnation of the Supreme. He has entered into the sound vibration so that when we chant we are directly connecting with him personally. In effect we are being touched by God…..not just an energy or force, but the Person Himself. This is the highest and most esoteric understanding and answer to the questions….what is a mantra and why do they have such amazing transformational powers and force? Thus Krishna and his names are non-different from each other, they are absolute, and to chant a sacred mantra is consequently to be in the personal presence of the Divine. In the material sense, name is different from form. Language is merely representative, symbolic; it does not itself embody the reality it seeks to represent. Recitation of the sound water does not quench our thirst, nor does calling the name of our beloved family member invoke the full presence of them. In the divine realm, however, symbol embodies reality. Krishna self-manifests within His "sound incarnation," His divine names.
Receiving transcendental sound transmissions
One cannot understand the amazing effects of mantras merely by logic and argument. Mantra meditation is understood and experienced only by those who have renounced all conceit and pretension and directly embraced the process of chanting with humility, faith, and devotion. As sound transmitted from afar can be heard when received by an appropriate electronic device, so transcendent, spiritual sound transmitted from the spiritual dimension can be properly heard and assimilated by one equipped with the proper “devise” to receive it: a humble heart full of love and yearning. The chanter must absorb his consciousness deeply within the divine sound of the mantra, vigilantly protecting the mind from the distraction of trivial or directionless thought.
Awakening the love supreme
As one’s consciousness becomes increasingly purified, the eternal, loving relationship between Sri Krishna and the living being is revived. Before entering the material world, each soul had a unique spiritual relationship with Krishna. This all-perfect, eternal loving relationship is infinitely greater and more intense than any love experienced in relationships in the material world. This is described in the Caitanya-caritamrta (a commentary on the life and teachings of the 15th Century Avatar, Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu and founder of the modern-day Krishna Consciousness movement) "Pure love for Krishna is eternally established in the heart of all living entities. When the heart is purified by the chanting of the divine names this love is awakened and one achieves Krishna prema, the highest and final goal, perfect, pure spiritual love of the Supreme Divine Person, Sri Krishna. One then becomes qualified to return to the Spiritual World.”
In the Caitanya-caritamrta, the ultimate benefit of chanting is further described. "The result of chanting is that one awakens love for Krishna and tastes transcendental ecstasy and bliss. Ultimately, one attains the association of Krishna and engages in His devotional service (bhakti yoga) and immerses himself in a great ocean of divine love".
Srila Prabhupada illuminations
Srila Prabhupada enshrines the wisdom of the Vedic texts regarding mantra meditation in his famous soliloquy – “Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare, Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare…....is the sublime method for reviving our Krishna consciousness.
As living spiritual souls we are all originally Krishna conscious entities, but due to our association with matter from time immemorial, our consciousness is now polluted by the material atmosphere. In this polluted concept of life, we are all trying to exploit the resources of material nature, but actually we are becoming more and more entangled in her complexities. This illusion is called maya, or the hard struggle for existence for winning over the stringent laws of material nature. This illusory struggle against the material nature can at once be stopped by revival of our Krishna consciousness.
Krishna consciousness is not an artificial imposition on the mind. This consciousness is the original energy of the living entity. When we hear the transcendental vibration, this consciousness is revived and this process is recommended by the Vedic authorities for this age. By practical experience also, we can perceive that by chanting this maha-mantra, or the great chanting for deliverance, one can at once feel transcendental ecstasy from the spiritual stratum.
When one is factually on the plane of spiritual understanding, surpassing the stages of sense, mind and intelligence, one is situated on the transcendental plane. This chanting of Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare, Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare is directly enacted from the spiritual platform, surpassing all lower stratums of consciousness, namely sensual, mental, and intellectual. There is no need therefore, to understand the language of the mantra, nor is there any need for mental speculation, nor any intellectual adjustment for chanting this maha-mantra. It springs automatically from the spiritual platform, and as such, anyone can take part in the chanting without any previous qualification. No other means of spiritual realization is as effective in this age of quarrel and hypocrisy (Kali yuga) as the chanting of the maha-mantra: Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare / Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare.”
A short history of mantra meditation/kirtan in India
According to historically reliable literary accounts, in the 16th century India witnessed a massive spiritual renaissance centred largely on the popular mysticism of the congregational chanting and singing of the names of the Supreme Divine (kirtan and Harinam-sankirtan). This litany primarily took the form of the maha−mantra: Hare Krsna, Hare Krsna, Krsna Krsna, Hare Hare/ Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare. The great sixteenth century saint Sri Caitanya, known as the Golden Avatar, and considered an incarnation of Lord Krishna, first turned this public congregational chanting into a mass movement in Bengal. It then spread to over much of North India and then on to South India, where, according to His biographers, He travelled on foot for six years and converted millions to the chanting of the sacred names. The chanting of the divine name was no longer to be confined to the retreats of solitary yogis, mystics and hermits, as it had been for thousands of years prior, but was now to spread itself widely and assume a central role in the spiritual lives of the people in general. Exuberant chanting processions, accompanied by drums and cymbals, swept through the streets of the cities, towns, and villages, inundating countless people in a tidal wave of ecstatic emotion. Not only the common people but many of the most prominent intellectuals of the day, having first been inspired by the brilliance and clarity of His teachings, succumbed to the devotional ecstasy of Sri Caitanya's revivalist movement. Not meant to remain confined even to India, Caitanya−style harinam-sankirtan has in recent decades now appeared on Western shores and is spreading throughout the world.
A short history of mantra meditation/kirtan in the West
In 1965 Srila Prabhupada, a 70-year old Indian swami, hitches a ride on a cargo ship (the Jaladuta) out of Bombay and arrives in America in the midst of the turbulent 60’s. With 40 rupees ($7) in his pocket, he has no visible means of support. Without contacts, friends or money, he takes up residence in a squat in the Bowery, the skid row of New York, surrounded by drunks, drug addicts, derelics, pick pockets and the homeless. He’s all alone on the snow driven streets of New York in the midst of the coldest winter in 50 years. Yet, he is on a mission. A mission to fulfil the order of his spiritual master, to transplant India’s ancient spiritual heritage of bhakti yoga centred on mantra meditation and kirtan on to the stage of the Western World. After a year of lone struggle, without any success, he goes to New York’s Tomkins Square Park and playing a pair of hand cymbals (caratals) stands under a tree and chants the Hare Krishna mantra, previously heard and chanted only in India. New Yorkers were intrigued and crowds of curious onlookers began to surround him…“who was this strange looking Indian man in robes, and what is he doing and what is that song he is singing?” From such humble beginnings gradually, one by one, a small band of spiritual seekers began to take interest in the chanting and the philosophy behind it and thus the kirtan “Movement” in the Western World was born. By the end of ’66, with just a few boys and girls dressed in robes taking the chanting (harinam-sankirtan) onto the streets of Manhattan, New Yorker’s were beginning to become familiar with the kirtan experience. This chanting and dancing in the streets was, by the end of the 70’s, a familiar site in every major city throughout the “free world” and was, more than anything else, instrumental in the world wide introduction and assimilation of kirtan into popular culture. In 1967 the kirtan phenomenon spreads to San Francisco, to the heartland of the “hippy movement” during the “summer of love”, where Hare Krishna becomes the “hippy religion” with the hippies taking to kirtan and the chanting of mantras with enthusiasm. The chanting of the Hare Krishna maha-mantra becomes firmly embedded in the counter culture with Allan Ginsberg and many of the alternate rock bands of the time, like Jefferson Airplane, the Grateful Dead, Moby Grape, Janis Joplin and the Holding Company helping “spread the word”. A poster of the time promoting mantra meditation was reflective of the times “The Age of Aquarius” – “STAY HIGH FOREVER – No More Coming Down – Expand your consciousness by practising the TRANSCENDENTAL SOUND VIBRATION – HARE KRISHNA HARE KRISHNA, KRISHNA KRISHNA, HARE HARE, HARE RAMA, HARE RAMA, RAMA RAMA, HARE HARE. At the same time, the internationally hugely successful "hippie" musical, Hair, containing the whole Hare Krishna chant as a song (where Krishna followers are depicted dancing about at a “be-in”), was very influential in exposing the chanting of the maha-mantra to young people throughout the world.
In 1968 a few “devotees” arrive in London to take kirtan to Europe and with the support and help of the Beatles, especially George Harrison, kirtan was spreading throughout England, Europe and the rest of the world. Within four short years, seemingly from virtually nothing, Hare Krishna was becoming a household word and mantra meditation/kirtan was sweeping the globe…..a worldwide spiritual revolution was in the making and by the end of the decade was becoming a reality. Mantra meditation and kirtan was becoming an unstoppable force, a force that continued to grow throughout the 70,s and 80’s and on through to the present day as kirtan and the chanting of mantras continued to infiltrate the mainstream of society and feature widely in the “new age” yoga world and the music and film scene. Mantra meditation in its various forms was spiritually transforming the planet through the agency of pure, transcendental sound vibrations and is at the centre of Prabhupada’s vision for the “re-spiritualization of the human race.”
George Harrison and The Beatles – a very interesting story
“Before meeting Prabhupada and all of you Krishna devotees, I had bought that kirtan album Prabhupada did in New York and John and I listened to it. I remember we sang it for days, John and I, with ukulele banjos, sailing through the Greek Islands on a yacht chanting Hare Krishna. Like six hours we sang, because we couldn’t stop once we got going. As soon as we stopped, it was like the lights went out. It went on to the point where our jaws were aching, singing the mantra over and over and over and over and over. We felt exalted; it was a very happy time for us. You know, I used to sing the mantra long before I met any of the devotees or long before I met Prabhupada, because I had his first record then for at least two years. When you’re open to something it’s like being a beacon, and you attract it. From the first time I heard the chanting, it was like a door opened somewhere in my subconscious, maybe from some previous life. Bob Dylan also said that he enjoyed chanting the maha mantra and being with devotees, and Stevie Wonder chanted mantras…. it was a great song that he put the chanting in –“Pastimes Paradise.”
“Once I was on an airplane that was in an electric storm. It was hit by lightning three times, and a Boeing 707 went over the top of us, missing us by inches. I thought the back end of the plane had blown off. I was on my way from Los Angeles to New York to organize the Bangladesh concert. As soon as the plane began bouncing around, I started chanting Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna Hare Hare/ Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare. The whole thing went on for about an hour and a half or two hours, the plane dropping hundreds of feet and bouncing all over in the storm, all the lights out and all these explosions, and everybody terrified. I ended up with my feet pressed against the seat in front, my seat belt as tight as it could be, gripping on the thing, and yelling Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna Hare Hare at the top of my voice. I know for me, the difference between making it and not making it was actually chanting the mantra. Peter Sellers also swore that chanting Hare Krishna saved him from a plane crash once”.
“When I can really get going at it, and the more I do it, I find the harder it is to stop, and I don’t want to lose the feeling it gives me. For example, once I chanted the Hare Krishna mantra all the way from France to Portugal, nonstop. I drove for about twenty-three hours and chanted all the way. It gets you feeling a bit invincible. The funny thing was that I didn’t even know where I was going. I mean I had bought a map, and I knew basically which way I was aiming, but I couldn’t speak French, Spanish, or Portuguese. But none of that seemed to matter. You know, once you get chanting, then things start to happen transcendentally”.
In the summer of 1969, the Beatles, the most popular music group of all time, produced a hit single on the “Apple” label, The Hare Krishna Mantra, performed by George and the devotees of the London Radha-Krishna Temple. Soon after rising to the Top 10 best-selling record charts throughout England, Europe, Australia and parts of Asia, the Hare Krishna chant was gradually becoming a household word, with dozens of TV channels around the world featuring the Hare Krishna Chanters, as they were then called, who, on the back of the albums success, had embarked on a 6 months European kirtan concert tour performing at music venues and concert halls throughout England and the sub-continent.
At about the same time, five thousand miles away, several shaven-headed, saffron-robed men and sari-clad women sang the Hare Krishna mantra along with John Lennon and Yoko Ono as they recorded the hit song “Give Peace a Chance” in their room at Montreal’s Queen Elizabeth Hotel.
And then George releases “My sweet Lord” from the album “All things must pass”…..welcome the world, to the Hare Krishna maha-mantra.
“A mantra a day, keeps maya (illusion) away” – John Lennon
“At the end of the day, I can end up just totally wacky, because I have made mountains out of molehills. With meditation I keep them as molehills. I hope the fans will take up meditation instead of drugs” – Ringo Starr
“Meditation is a lifelong gift. It’s something you can call on at any time” – Paul McCartney
“Imagine all the workers on the Ford assembly line in Detroit, all of them chanting Hare Krishna Hare Krishna while bolting on the wheels. Now that would be wonderful. It might help out the auto industry, and probably there would be more decent cars too. Everybody is looking for Krishna. Some don’t realize that they are, but they are - George Harrison
Montreal Star, June, 1969:
Reporter: “Where do you get your strength?”
John Lennon: “From Hare Krishna”.
Yoko: “That's where we get it from, you know. We're not denying it”.