Japa: Instrument of Love for God’s Name Swami Tathagatananda January 2007 Page No: 50
Japa is repetition of the mantra, holy word or words, according to prescribed rules, with concentration,devotion, and the sole intention ofrealizing the truth embodied in the mantra. Sri Ramakrishna says: Japa means silently repeating God’s name insolitude. When you chant His name with singleminded devotion you can see God’s form andrealize Him. Suppose there is a piece of timbersunk in the waterof the Ganges and fastened witha chain to the bank. You proceed link by link,holding to the chain, and you dive into the waterand follow the chain. Finally, you are able to reachthe timber. In the same way, by repeating God’sname you become absorbed in Him and finallyrealize Him.1 The mantra is a mass of effulgent energy, the soundbodysymbolizing the supreme Truth. Om is shabda-brahman, ‘Brahman in theform of sound’: The Veda says, ‘Creation is out of the Supreme Sound.’ Om is the Supreme Sound,the sound-symbol of God. Patanjali refers to Om as the symbol of Ishvara or personal God: ‘Tasyavācakaḥ praṇavaḥ, His manifesting word is Om.’2 Swami Vivekananda says: ‘Ishvara is the Atmanas seen or grasped by the mind. His highest name is Om; so repeat it, meditate on it, and think of allits wonderful nature and attributes. Repeating theOm continually is the only true worship. It is not aword, it is God Himself.’3 Japa is a means to Self-realization: Repetitionof the mantra awakens the potency contained within the mantra. According to Patanjali, regularrepetition of Om leads to the awakening of the Self: ‘Tajjapas-tad-artha-bhāvanam; The repetitionof this (Om) and meditating on its meaning (is the way).’4 Therefore, the mental and emotional components of japa are equally significant. Japa gradually advances to meditation, which unfoldsdeeper layers of consciousness. The emphasisis on bhāvanam, ‘dwelling upon in the mind’.When the mind dwells upon God with devotion,japa draws the individual soul to the Paramatmannaturally. The power of the mantra manifests when theguru is competent, when the mantra is correctly articulated, and when the aspirant reflects deeplyon its meaning. Swami Vivekananda says: ‘Mantrais a special word, or sacred text, or name of Godchosen by the Guru for repetition and reflectionby the disciple. The disciple must concentrate on apersonality for prayer and praise, and that is his Ishta.These words are not sounds of words but GodHimself, and we have them within us. Think ofHim, speak of Him. No desire for the world! Buddha’sSermon on the Mount was, “As thou thinkest,so art thou.”’5 The spiritual vibrations generated by repeatingthe holy name wholeheartedly with faith evoke spiritual emotion that purifies the mind and heart.They reveal to us the vision of our iṣṭa devatā andour indivisible unity with God and his name. Vivekanandasays, ‘Each Ishta has a Mantra. The Ishtais the ideal peculiar to the particular worshipper;the Mantra is the external word to express it. Constantrepetition of the word helps to fix the idealfirmly in the mind’(7.63). Mantra-śakti, the liberating power of the mantra: When sincerely reflected upon, the mantra has the sacred power, the mantra-śakti, to liberate. The literal meaning of ‘mantra’ is ‘mananāt trāyateiti, that which frees the soul when reflected upon.’The mantra protects us from psychophysical, moral, and spiritual dangers. Salvation is certain for one who meditates on the mantra with burning faith in mantra-śakti. Japa in the Lives of the Holy Ones Many saints and sages of India and other countries attained God by repeating his holy name. If they did not claim God-realization, they testified tothe efficacy of God’s name to illumine their understanding. Swami Vivekananda says: ‘We can now understand what is meant by repetition. It is the greatest stimulus that can be given to the spiritual Samskaras [sum total of impressions in the mind].“One moment of company with the holy makes a ship to cross this ocean of life”’ (1.220). A spiritual environment is very important, especially for beginners. Sri Ramakrishna taught his disciples: ‘There is God’s manifestation where people have practised for a long time austerities, Japa, meditation, steady abstraction of mind, prayer, and worship in order to have His vision. Their thoughts of God have become solidified there, so to speak, on account of their devotion; that is why holy thoughts and visions are so easily attained there.’6 Holy Mother Sri Sarada Devi placed the greatestemphasis on daily japa and meditation: ‘The mind will be steadied of itself if aspirants repeatGod’s name fifteen or twenty thousand times aday. I myself have experienced it.’7 She conveyedthe efficacy of japa through her own austere practice of it, which she did for the good of her disciples.Remembering this gives us great encouragementand faith in the guru who transmits theholy name. Mahatma Gandhi, a votary of Ramanama, realizedthe spiritual benefit of japa in his life and dying breath. Rama was enthroned in his heart as‘the Absolute Truth, the Eternal Principle, that is God.’8 Gandhiji made the mantra the verificationof his life. Without any intellectual knowledge about themantra and its potentiality, millions of people over the centuries in all countries have been repeatingthe divine name in their inner heart and experiencing peace and enlightenment.
One must be completely absorbed in whatever mantra one selects. One should not mind if other thoughts disturb one during the japa (recitation). I am confident that one who still goes on with the japa in faith will conquer in the end. The mantra becomes one’s staff of life and carries one through every ordeal. One should not seek worldly profit from such sacred mantras. The characteristic power of these mantras lies in their standing guard over personal purity, and every diligent seeker will realize this at once. Each repetition … has a new meaning, each repetition carries you nearer and nearer to God. This is a concrete fact, and I may tell you that you are here talking to no theorist, but to one who has experienced what he says every minute of his life, so much so that it is easier for the life to stop than for this incessant process to stop. It is a definite need of the soul. —Mahatma Gandhi
Japa in Hinduism and Buddhism Though all religions prescribe some variation of japa of the holy name using various types of rosaries (seeds, wooden beads, crystals, and the like), this practice is predominant in Hinduism and Buddhism, where the mālā is often made of sacred rudraksha or tulasi beads. Tibetan Buddhists practice revolving the wheel of japa and repeating the mantra Om mani padme hum. Japanese Buddhists of the Nichiren sect study and repeat the mantra of Nichiren’s sutra of the ‘Lotus of Truth’, Namu myoho renge kyo, as the sole means to liberation. Householders of that tradition repeat the mantra alone. Japa is prescribed by nearly every Hindu sect as a valuable spiritual practice. In the Bhagavadgita, Sri Krishna says to Arjuna, ‘Yajnānāṁ japayajño’smi; Among all the yajnas or sacrifices, I am the yajna of japa, the repetition of the Lord’s name.’9 The holy name enshrined in the divinely-charged mantra, when uttered with devotion, brings forth spiritual sensitivity through its calming influence With the lower nature subdued and the higher consciousness reached, all nature is seen as Divine Consciousness. The Holy Name in Judaism and Christianity Hebrew prophets recognize the omnipresence, omniscience,and omnipotence of God bydeclaring, ‘The Lord is His Name.’10 ‘Shema Yisrael, Adonaielohaynu, Adonai echad; Hear O Israel, the Lordour God, the Lord is One,’ is a traditional Hebrewprayer. Hebrews and Christians adore God withmany descriptive metaphors—holy, everlasting, almighty,excellent. The namesLord,Beloved, Shepherd,Shield, Horn of my Salvation, High Tower,Refuge, Saviour, Rock,Sanctuary,Counsellor, andFather are found throughout the Old and New Testaments, particularly in the Psalms. The Psalmistsays, ‘Let them also that love thy name be joyful in thee’; ‘For our heart shall rejoice in him becausewe have trusted in his holy name’; ‘O magnify theLord with me, and let us exalt his name together’;‘I will praise thy name, O Lord, for it is good’;and ‘So will not we go back from thee: quicken usand we will call upon thy name’.11 Jesus says: ‘Forwhere two or three are gathered together in myname, there am I in the midst of them.’12 Christians practise prayers of praise inspired byverses from the Bible, and Roman Catholics recite the Hail Mary and Our Father prayers on the rosary.In the well-known book The Way of a Pilgrim,the Russian monk began earnestly repeating theprayer ‘Lord Jesus, have mercy on me’ three thousand,then six thousand, and then twelve thousandtimes a day. He became immensely fulfilled inwardlyby reaching the ‘unceasing activity of the heart’,and thus achieved success in spiritual life. Japa in Islam, Sufism, Zoroastrianism, and Sikhism Sufi mystics have always regarded the repetition ofthe name of Allah as the highest form of worship.Some say that intoning the dhikr, ‘la ilaha illallah;There is no God but God, there is none save He’, is superior to observing the five daily prayers of Islam. Al Ghazali (1058–1111 ) says: ‘The devotee begins by repeating the name. Then the tongueshould cease moving and the name be repeated inthe mind only. Finally, all forms should go and onlythe idea remain. At this point the devotee shouldlay himself open to God’s mercy. The highest ecstasyis produced by dhikr. The ultimate stage is tobe completely absorbed in God forgetting even theact of thinking of God.’ Sufis repeat the holy name until they perceiveGod and attain to ecstasy: ‘O Lord, I ever rememberThy Name, I offer my life to Thee, teach me Thysecret mystery’, says Bullah Shah (1680–175 2). Hecontinues, ‘Very sweet is the Name of the Lord, andlikewise does it offer me shelter. To speak the truth,I [have] got no better abode of rest and safety thanIt. So omnipotent is Thy Name!’ Muslims glorifyGod by reciting his ninety-nine beautiful names.Zoroastrians praise him in one hundred and oneholy names; they call the ultimate source of thelight found in the human heart, Ashem Vohu. Sikhs prescribe japa of God’s name in the firstchapter of theirscripture, the Guru Granth Sahib: ‘Let us repeat His name. As He was in the beginningthe Truth, as He was through the ages the Truth, so is He now the Truth, O Nanak, so will Hebe for ever and ever.’13 The Sikhs pray by repeatingthe name of God and singing his praises.Om is the holiest name of the Divine in every religion that developed in India. The Guru GranthSahib begins with the oṁkāra. Om is sacred to Jains,Buddhists, Sikhs, and Zoroastrians as well as Hindus.India’s Christians are also gradually acceptingOm. Worldwide, Christians with a mystical tendencyaccept Om (‘the Word’) as their symbol forthe highest supreme Reality, as Saint John’s Gospelshows. Eminent western Indologists and Sanskritscholars have also noted the universality of Om asthe supreme name and symbol of the Divine. The Practice of Japa Without divine help there is no spiritual progress.Therefore, before beginning japa, spiritual aspirantsshould invoke the aid of the iṣṭa devatā of the mantra to elevate their spiritual mood and openthemselves to receiving divine help. Thinking of thebeauty and grace of the iṣṭa devatā’s form while doingjapa increases concentration and spiritual discrimination. Holy Mother says: ‘While performingjapa take the name of God with the utmost love,sincerityand self-surrender. Before commencingyour daily meditation, first think of your utter helplessnessin this world and then slowly begin thepractice of sadhana (spiritual discipline) as directedby your Guru.’14 Japa can be practisedin various ways with therosary or mala, whichfacilitates counting and concentrates the mindin the early stages of meditation. Countingcan also be done using the fingers. Holy Mothersays, ‘God has given us fingers that they may beblessed by repeating His name with them.’15 One can utter the holy name clearly with properpronunciation in an audible voice (vācika), or fix the mind on God and move the lips inaudibly(upāṁśu), or ponder the meaning and practise silentlywith no movement of the lips (mānasika),which is preferred. The scriptures say that mānasika japa can bepractised at all times and in all places. Swami Vivekanandasays, ‘The inaudible repetition of the Mantra,accompanied with the thinking of its meaning,is called the “mental repetition,” and is the highest.’16Sometimes silent japa does not clear away mentaldisturbances. Therefore, aspirants must hold on to the centre of consciousness despite any restlessnessin the mind during japa. To avoid fatigue, it is important to be vigilantand alert; for this the rosary is very helpful. It encouragescontinuity in japa, and one can resolve to complete a certain number of rounds of the rosary without any break in the thought of God. In the beginning, using a variety of vācika, upāṁśu, and mānasika methods sustains japa whenever a lack of interest or monotony manifests.
A Christian contemplative wrote: In the beginning it is usual to feel nothing but a kind of darkness about your mind, or as it were, a cloud of unknowing. You will seem to know nothingand to feel nothing except a naked intent toward God in the depths of your being. Try as you might,this darkness and this cloud will remain between you and your God. You will feel frustrated, foryour mind will be unable to grasp him, and your heart will not relish the delight of his love. Butlearn to be at home in this darkness. Return to it as often as you can, letting your spirit cry out tohim whom you love. For if, in this life, you hope to feel and see God as he is in himself, it must bewithin this darkness and this cloud.17
With faith and devotion, aspirants will feel a genuine need for the practice of japa and will cultivate a dedicated taste for it.
Vigorous japa neutralizes lower thoughts, allowingaspirants to rise to higher spiritual planes of consciousness in meditation. Tension, restlessoutgoing tendencies, and drowsiness—dangerous when linked to japa and meditation—can be defeatedby walking about doing japa loudly. As a drowning person clings to a floating object, aspirantsshould cling to the purifying practice of japa. Of course, without absolute detachment and deep absorption in divine consciousness, we cannot have true realization. We must proceed systematically,firmly grasping the chain of the repeated sound, whatever be the difficulty confronting us.We will come in touch with the Divine in course oftime. Holy Mother reminds us: ‘By japa and austerityis cut asunder the bondage of Karma (past action).But God can’t be realized except through loveand devotion. As for japa and such other things, doyou know what they stand for? Through them thesenses etc., become subdued.’18 Holy Mother used to say that it was more arduousto concentrate the mind on the Chosen Ideal than to dig the earth with a spade. She recommendeddiligence: ‘One has to be up and doing; can anythingbe achieved without diligence? One shouldfind some time even in the midst of domestic duties.What to speak of myself, my child! I used to
Try diligently to check the mad outgoingtendency of your mind. Never begin yourmeditation immediately after sitting on yourasana. By discrimination first draw the mind backfrom its external pursuits and lock it up within,at the sacred feet of your Ishta. Then begin Japaand meditation. If you do this for some time, the mind will naturally cease to wander.The easiest way in this Kaliyuga is the path ofJapa. By constantly performing Japa, the mindcan easily be made calm and steady and finallyit will lose itself in the Ishta. … So, I ask you toperform Japa frequently and along with it thinkof the Ishta. … This dual method brings quicker success. —Swami Brahmananda begin my japa in those days at Dakshineswar afterleaving the bed at three in the morning, andlose allconsciousness’ (11 0). When a devotee wanted to know the secret ofjapa, Holy Mother pointed to a small clock and said, ‘As that timepiece is ticking, so also go on repeatingGod’s name; that will bring you everything.Nothing more need be done’ (407). ‘When a puresoul performs Japa,’ she said on another occasion,‘he feels as if the holy Name bubbles up spontaneouslyfrom within himself. He does not make aneffort to repeat the Name.’19 Even mechanical repetition of the mantra successfullykeeps the mind engaged in japa. Faith in japa purifies the mind and heart, and japa, inturn, strengthens faith. However, the mind turns inward only when meditation accompanies japa.Holy Mother says: ‘Repeating the name of God once, when the mind is controlled, is equivalent toa million repetitions when the mind is away fromGod. You may repeat the name for the whole day,but if the mind is elsewhere it does not producemuch of a result. The repetition must be accompaniedby concentration. Only then does one obtainGod’s grace.’20 Faith and patience overcome dryness in japa.Swami Brahmananda loved japa and meditation: You progress a little [in both], then comes a periodof dryness. It seems that the doors are entirely closed. At that time it is necessary that you stick to your spiritual practices with infinite patience; byso doing you will find one day that all of a sudden the doors are opened. What a great joy it is then!In spiritual life many such thresholds have to becrossed.’ 21 When the period of japa is over, aspirantsshould continue to sit quietly contemplating the iṣṭa devatā, reflecting on the infinite love of Godor praying silently for ten or fifteen minutes. Devout prostration or salutation to the Lord helpsaspirants retain the spiritual vibrations awakenedby japa and meditation. These observances make iteasier to keep the mind on God during all worldly activities. Japa Leads to Deeper Meditation From external prayer and worship, aspirantsprogress to the practice of japa and then to dhyana,deeper meditation on the form and attributesof God. Increased physical and mental purity inthought, word, and deed along with correct, faithfulpractice of japa and meditation ultimately guides aspirants to experience the personal andimpersonal aspects of God through the continuousflow of one idea of God in the mind Japa is meditation with breaks, as it were. Meditationis the natural, spontaneous expansion of japa in the heart—the result of japa correctly practisedwith devotion and dedication. In other words, japacertainly strengthens devotion, but it is only whenjapa occurs together with true dhyana, or meditation,that the mind spontaneously turns inward,away from outer things. After practising japa alongwith meditation for some time, japa ceases by itselfand the aspirant becomes established in meditationalone. Holy Mother says: ‘The mind naturallydwells on one’s daily activities. If you don’tsucceed in meditation, practise Japa. … If a meditativemood sets in, well and good. If not, don’tforce your mind to meditate.’22 Real meditation is spontaneous.
True meditation is never forced or artificial; itis a natural consequence of intense attraction or love for the object of meditation. This idea is easilygrasped when we consider that our intense longingfor someone or something far away inevitablybrings it clearly to our mind and we are delightedto think about it. Even so, Holy Mother says:‘If you cannot meditate, repeat the Name. “JapātSiddhiḥ—Realization will come through Japa.”’
Spiritual practices open the physical centres ofpower, which increases energy and restlessness. Theattempt to control lower urges results in some nervoussymptoms. There are reasons for this phenomenon.Japa and meditation awaken the kundalini,the spiritual energy that is ‘coiled up’ like a snakein a dormant state at the base of the spine. Theawakened kundalini, passing through the centresof consciousness in the body, manifests in the formof mystical experiences culminating in illumination.Swami Brahmananda says: ‘According to some yogis,there are special forms of meditation and practiceswhich awaken it [the kundalini], but I believeit can be best done through Japa and meditation.The practice of Japa is specially suited to Kaliyuga.There is no other spiritual practice easier than this.But meditation must accompany the repetition ofthe mantra.’23 Regular japa is a very important aspect of deepermeditation. Correct practice with self-control and self-discipline gradually brings all mental activityunder control. The subtle, silent vibrations of japa pacify gross vibrationsin the mind. Whena little experience of themantra comes, an aspirantbecomes calm and peaceful,elevated by a concentratedmind, and gradually convinced about the efficacy ofthe holy name of God.
Japa of the Sacred Scriptures Svādhyāya or study of thescriptures leads us to God. Scripture can be uttered aloud, chanted, repeated, or pondered upon in silence.Certain scriptural verses on the holy name are particularly meaningful or inspiring. Praying toGod to open our heart, we should open the scripturecalmly and reverently. After reading the verseseveral times and committing it to memory, weshould slowly and reverently lay aside the scriptureand begin reflecting on the verse with closedeyes. The idea is to discover what God is saying tous personally through the verse,which suggeststhe spirit in which we are to call upon his name orrepeat the verse. Mental reflection precedes japa. Correct repetitionof the holy name or mantra actively engages the spiritual heart, which has become one with the intellect or buddhi. Sri Krishna teaches Arjuna:‘I have given thee words of vision and wisdom more secret than hidden mysteries. Ponder themin the silence of thy soul, and then in freedom dothy will.’24 Real japa engages our heart, whereinGod is found. The devotee’s heart is God’s parlour.A single step towards God impels him to take onehundred towards the devotee. No effort, howeversmall, is lost. Devotional japa of scripture fires up our heartwith love for God. Silent, loving contemplation upon the chosen verse without reasoning constitutesnididhyāsana, in which the name or word of the scripture goes from the mind to the heart,wherein its transforming power is realized. Men-tal devotion, the knowledge of God throughreasoning (jnana), becomes transformed into affirmative knowledge of God in the heart (vijnana),which prepares us for his vision. This is the correct practice of japa of the divine name orscriptures. The Gita is eminently suited for this practice. It offers inspiration, justification, andsupport for all devotees, on whatever spiritual path they tread.
Devotional japa of the name and meditationon the sacred texts bestow the same experience: ‘Reciting the name of the Lord has also the verysame effect [as the exclusive reading of the sacredtexts]. The name is the nearest expressive symbolof the experience of the Divine, and it is believedthat constant repetition of the name together withmeditation (bhavanā) may result in yielding thevery same experience. … The name … is the spontaneousexpression in sounds of the deepest spiritualexperience, and forms the vibrational symbol ofthe same.’25 The saints are a living scripture. Their exemplarylives inspire us to meditate on them. They have leftus sayings, teachings, poems, songs, and anecdotesof their lives, which we cherish over the centuries.Relying utterly on the name of God, they overcameall obstacles, even death, and attained to God. Japaof their teachings about the name of God is an excellentform of spiritualpractice that enables us toinherit their legacy. Repeating the Holy Name in the Kaliyuga Humanity is in a profound state of spiritual ignoranceand consequent suffering in the present age. The humble practice of repeating the divine nameis the way to reach the goal of God-realization. SriRamakrishna gave a general instruction to all: ‘Devotionaccording to Narada is the only path in theKaliyuga; people will be saved if they but sing loudlythe name of God. People of the Kaliyuga depend onfood for their life; they are short-lived and of meagrepowers; that is why such an easy path for the realizationof God has been prescribed for them.’26When properly reflected upon, the mantra snaps the bondage of worldliness. True devoteesare convinced that japa dispels all difficulties; theyremember and repeat the holy name with joy evenat the moment of death. This should encourage allseekers to utter the holy name or mantra unceasinglyin every condition of life.
References 1. M, The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna, trans. Swami Nikhilananda (Chennai: Ramakrishna Math, 2002), 878–9. 2. Yoga Sutra, 1.27. 3. The Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda, 9 vols. (Calcutta: Advaita Ashrama, 1–8, 1989; 9, 1997), 7.62. 4. Yoga Sutra, 1.28. 5. Complete Works, 6.90. 6. Swami Saradananda, Sri Ramakrishna the Great Master, trans. Swami Jagadananda (Madras: Ramakrishna Math, 1995), 643–4. 7. Swami Nikhilananda, Holy Mother (New York: Ramakrishna- Vivekananda Center, 1997), 220. 8. The Mind of Mahatma Gandhi, comp. R K Prabhu and U R Rao (Madras: Oxford, 1946), 20. 9. Bhagavadgita, 10.25. 10. Jeremiah, 33.2; Isaiah, 48.2; Amos, 4.13. 11. Psalms, 5.11; 33.21; 34.3; 54.6; 80.18. 12. Matthew, 18.20. 13. Guru Granth Sahib, 1.3–4. 14. Teachings of Sri Sarada Devi the Holy Mother (Chennai: Ramakrishna Math, 2001), 46. 15. Her Devotee Children, The Gospel of the Holy Mother Sri Sarada Devi (Chennai: Ramakrishna Math, 2000), 91. 16. Complete Works, 1.190. 17. The Cloud of Unknowing, ed. William Johnston (New York: Image, 1973), 48–9. 18. Swami Gambhirananda, Holy Mother Sri Sarada Devi (Madras: Ramakrishna Math, 1986), 406–7. 19. Gospel of Holy Mother, 176. 20. Teachings of Sri Sarada Devi, 50–1. 21. Swami Prabhavananda, The Eternal Companion: Brahmananda, His Life and Teachings (Hollywood: Vedanta Press, 1970), 162. 22. Gospel of Holy Mother, 213. 23. Eternal Companion (Chennai:Ramakrishna Math, 2001), 276. 24. Gita, 18.63. 25. Nalini Kanta Brahma, Philosophy of Hindu Sadhana (London: Kegan Paul, 1932), 272. 26. Great Master, 2.938.