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3. About the Technique of Chanting
In the following passage from the Sri Caitanya-caritamrta, Sola Prabhupada explains how he instructs his disciples:
In our krishna consciousness movement we are teaching our follow¬ers to chant the Hare krishna mantra continuously on beads. Even those who are not accustomed to this practice are advised to chant at least sixteen rounds on their beads so that they may be trained. Otherwise, Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu recommended:
trnad api snicena taror api sahisnuna
amanina manadena kirtaniyah sada harih
One should chant the holy name of the Lord in a humble state of mind, thinking oneself lower than the straw in the street. One should be more tolerant than a tree, devoid of all sense of false prestige, and ready to offer all respect to others. In such a state of mind one can chant the holy name of the Lord constantly.
Sada means "always." Haridasa Thakura says, nirantara nama lao: "Chant the Hare krishna mantra without stopping."1
Srila Prabhupada explains that there are no limitations for the chanting of the holy name: Even when you are walking, you can softly chant Hare krishna, Hare krishna, or even when you are on the bus going to somewhere you can also chant. When you are working with your hands you can also chant and when you are resting or going to take rest you can also chant. Even in your toilet room while taking bath you can also chant. In this way there is no limitation or restriction for chanting this holy name of God, krishna, and His Energy, Hara. In doing this business there is no loss, but there is very great gain which is transcendental realization.2
However, it is also recommended to chant a certain amount of rounds on beads—since this will help one's concentration greatly. In order to count the number of holy names properly, one can make one's own meditation string, called japa-mala, by stringing the beads (best from Tulasi or Nlm wood) on a cotton thread and tying a nod between each of them. If one is more inclined to use a readymade japa-mala, one can obtain one from the nearest temple. There are 108 beads, plus one additional, slightly bigger one which marks the beginning and end of each round. It is called krishna or Meru and should not be crossed over when counting the mantras. Rather, one reverses the direction of counting after having finished one round. On one side, between the eighth and the ninth bead starting from the Meru-bead, a short plaited thread should be fas¬tened to mark the first eight beads. They represent the eight main gopis.
After having strung the beads, one can perform mala-samskara, a purifying ceremony, by washing the japa-mala in panca-gavya. This is a mixture of five products from the cow, namely milk, yogurt, ghee, cow dung and cow urine. Afterwards, the mala should be offered to the Deities. Gaudlya Vaisnavas hold the mala between thumb and middle finger of the right hand. One should avoid touching the string with the left hand or with the right index finger. The japa-mala and the right hand should be placed in the bead-bag. One should prevent the mala from slipping of the fingers and falling down, which is mostly the consequence of inattention or sleepiness.On each bead, the Hare krishna maha-mantra is chanted completely, and then the fingers proceed to the next bead. In this way, one round consising of 108 maha-mantras is completed. Devotees of the International Society for krishna consciousness initiated by a bona fide spiritual master have made the vow to chant at least sixteen rounds daily on the japa-mala. Srila Prabhupada explains this in several cases:
If one cannot complete the fixed number of rounds he is assigned, he should be considered to be in a diseased condition of spiritual life.' Everyone should strictly follow the regulations of sixteen rounds daily. If one is busy for other krishna Consciousness activities and cannot fulfil the regular routine of chanting, he must compensate it the next day, curtailing his activities in the matter of sleeping or eating or any other sense gratificatory process.1
The sixteen rounds is just a minimum I set for my disciples so they will chant at least that much. Actually chanting should always be going on.2
Since chanting of the holy names offers direct association of the Lord, one should wear a clean and suitable dress. One should carry a kanthi-mala around the neck and vaisnava-tilaka3 on the body, and the bead bag should be washed regularly. The japa-mala should always be treated respectfully and kept clean. The beads should not be touched with unclean hands, i.e. with hands which have not been washed after eating or after going to the toilet. If the mala had accidentally not been treated properly, it should be put respectfully to the forehead to ask for forgiveness.
Bodily Posture, Place and Time
Srila Prabhupada diligently observed the posture of the devotees while they were chanting. On one occasion, when he was chanting japa with a group of devotees, he requested one of them to "sit properly" We should sit with a straight back and crossed legs. It is also recommended to sit on an asana, a slightly elevated seat, but one should not lie down while chanting. We should chant in front of a Deity of krishna or Visnu, in a temple of the Lord, in front of the holy Tulasi plant or at a holy river like the Gariga. Please read more on the best time for chanting in Section Four of this chapter.
It is better to chant at a well-illuminated place. The favorable time for chanting is the morning. If at that time some other work has to be urgently attended to, then one should start chanting immediately after having finished the work. Srila Prabhupada writes:
Chanting japa should be done early in the morning with full concentration preferably during the brahma-muhurta time. Concentrate fully on the sound vibration of the mantra, pronouncing each name distinctly, and gradually your speed in chanting will increase naturally. Do not worry so much about chanting fast, most important is the hearing.1
Try to withdraw your mind from the sense objects and concentrate exclusively on the sound of the mantra, as described above. Meditate on the meaning of the mantra and do not allow other thoughts or external influences to distract you. Through devotional concentration on the syllables of the holy name, you will realize step by step the form, the qualities and pastimes of God.
Clearly Pronouncing the Holy Name
Another advice from Srila Prabhupada is to clearly pronounce the Hare krishna maha-mantra: Chanting involves the activities of the upper and lower lips as well as the tongue. All three must be engaged in chanting the Hare krishna maha-mantra. The words "Hare krishna" should be very distinctly pronounced and heard. Sometimes one mechanically produces a hissing sound instead of chanting with the proper pronunciation with the help of the lips and tongue. Chanting is very simple, but one must practice it seriously.2
How fast should one chant? According to Srila Prabhupada, the rounds should be chanted "swiftly", so that a constant flow of the holy name can flood the consciousness and stop the mental process of incessant accepting and rejecting. "Swiftly" means: neither too slow—then the mind drifts away—nor too fast, because then the pronunciation becomes indistinct. If one chants properly, he needs around seven minutes for one round. This may vary more or less between individuals by one minute. Neophytes especially often tend to chant as fast as possible. But in the beginning it is better to chant slowly and distinctly, instead of fast and unclearly. By constant practice, chanting will be swifter by itself. On the other hand, it is a sign of missing concentration and experience if one needs more than eight minutes. The slower chanter, however, should not consider the fast chanting of the experienced devotees as mechanical, emotionless recitation. They know the art.
Basically, chanting is very simple, but it must be seriously practiced. We should not forget that also to chant distinctly is an essential service for krishna, not something that steals our time we need for other services. As long as the body is healthy, one should chant the holy name of the Lord loudly and distinctly. Then at the time of death, it is most likely that one would chant the holy name properly, with love and faith, and go back home, back to the spiritual world.
One should also try to overcome one's cultural condition when chanting. Once on a padayatra1, I heard the Japanese and Chinese devotees chant, "Hale Lama, Hale Lama". In their language, the letter r does not exist. English natives also tend to pronounce the r undistinctly. Germans, on the other hand, like to chant "Krrrsna", producing the r deep in the throat. Both should be avoided.
When Srlla Prabhupada came with his first Western disciples to India, he was criticized by some brahmanas. "SwamijI, your disciples cannot even properly pronounce the maha-mantra." Prabhupada replied, "Yes! Therefore, I have brought them to India: That they learn it from you."
Sanskrit pronunciation is exactly defined. Unlike the English language, where a certain letter can be pronouned in different ways (like the a in "have" and "hard"), the different letters of the Sanskrit alphabet are always pronounced in the same way. The consonants, for example, are divided into five groups, according to where the sound is produced in the mouth. There are sounds (1) uttered in the throat, (2) at the rear'of the palate, (3) at the top of the palate, (4) at the teeth, and (5) with the lips. The different con¬sonants are thus arranged in a systematical order, as illustrated on the next page. One who understands this system can easily learn the proper Sanskrit pronunciation.
We can see that all consonants in the Hare krishna maha-mantra which are produced by the tongue—namely Ha-re, Kr-sna, Ra-ma—belong to the middle group: The tongue is slightly bent backwards and vibrates at the topmost part of the palate. The letter r in krishna, although a vowel, is uttered in the same way—more clearly: the tongue produces the sound r, but it is pronounced like "ri".
The Western tongue is quite unaccustomed to these sounds, especially the ra and r. They don't exist in any Western language. However, with a little practice they can be learnt. This has, besides proper pronunciation, a great advantage: The tongue does not move to and fro in the mouth while chanting Hare krishna; it stays almost at one place (as illustrated by Image 3) and just vibrates there. Thus, chanting is easier, with less effort and energy. The holy name appears more "swiftly", as Srlla Prabhupada wanted. The mantra can flow in an undisturbed way, so to say.
The different pronunciation of the vowels a and a is also important. The short a (in Ha-re, Kr-sna and Ra-ma) is closed, like in "but". The long a (in Ra-ma) is open, like in "far". This contrast should be clearly heard. The e in Ha-re is pronounced like in "red", but longer (not "ei" like in "they", as it is sometimes heard). The consonants ha and ma are spoken like in English ("hut" and "mud").
If you go through all the letters of the Hare krishna maha-mantra, examining them by the above rules, you will quickly get aquainted with their pronunciation and your chanting will increase in quality.
The Proper Meter and Rhythm
One of the most important features in speaking Sanskrit mantras is the proper rhythm. Like the pronunciation, it is exactly defined, without any exceptions, and thus easy to learn. There are only two kinds of syllables: They are either short or long. Long syllables are twice as long than short ones.
Syllables are short if
1. They contain a short vowel, namely a, i, u, r;
2. And if they are followed by only one consonant (or if they are at the end of a line).
Thus, the following syllables are short in the Hare krishna maha-mantra. They all have a short a and are followed by only one consonant:
All other syllables are long, that is if
1. They contain a long vowel, namely: a, I, u, f, e, ai, o, au;
2. Or if they are followed by more than one consonant.
Thus, the following syllables are long in the maha-mantra:
• Ha-re: long vowel e;
• Kr-sna: short vowel r, but ensued by two consonants (s and n);
• Ra-ma: long vowel a.
With this information, the maha-mantra can be chanted in the proper meter (u is a short and — a long syllable):
Ha-re Kr- sna Ha-re Kr- sna Kr- sna Kr- sna Ha-re Ha-re
u — — uu — — u — u — uu — u — Ha-re Ra-ma Ha-re Ra-ma Ra-ma Ra-ma Ha-re Ha-re
If, due to unfamiliarity with Sanskrit pronunciation you find this section a little difficult, please do not worry. You can learn the ideal pronunciation by obtaining a japa tape of Srlla Prabhupada's chanting. (Ask for the 1967 version). You can also obtain introduc-tionary study material for the Sanskrit language from the Gayatri Publishers.