Japa is repetition of a mantra, holy word or words, according to prescribed rules, with concentration, devotion, and the sole intention of realizing the truth embodied in the mantra. Sri Ramakrishna says: Japa means silently repeating God’s name in solitude. When you chant His name with single minded devotion you can see God’s form and realize Him. Suppose there is a piece of timber sunk in the water of the Ganges and fastened with a chain to the bank. You proceed link by link,holding to the chain, and you dive into the water and follow the chain. Finally, you are able to reach the timber. In the same way, by repeating God’s name you become absorbed in Him and finally realize Him.
The mantra is a mass of effulgent energy, the sound body symbolizing the supreme Truth.
Om is shabda-brahman, ‘Brahman in the form 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: ‘Tasya vācakah pranavah, His manifesting word is Om.’
Swami Vivekananda says: ‘Ishvara is the Atman as seen or grasped by the mind. His highest name is Om; so repeat it, meditate on it, and think of all its wonderful nature and attributes. Repeating the Om continually is the only true worship. It is not a word, it is God Himself.’
Japa is a means to Self-realization: Repetition of the mantra awakens the potency contained within the mantra. According to Patanjali, regular repetition of Om leads to the awakening of the Self: ‘Tajjapas-tad-artha-bhāvanam; The repetition of this (Om) and meditating on its meaning (is the way).’ Therefore, the mental and emotional components of japa are equally significant. Japa gradually advances to meditation, which unfolds deeper layers of consciousness. The emphasis is on bhāvanam, ‘dwelling upon in the mind’. When the mind dwells upon God with devotion, japa draws the individual soul to the Paramatman naturally.
The power of the mantra manifests when the guru is competent, when the mantra is correctly articulated, and when the aspirant reflects deeply on its meaning. Swami Vivekananda says: ‘Mantra is a special word, or sacred text, or name of God chosen by the Guru for repetition and reflection by the disciple. The disciple must concentrate on a personality for prayer and praise, and that is his Ishta. These words are not sounds of words but God Himself, and we have them within us. Think of Him, speak of Him. No desire for the world! Buddha’s Sermon on the Mount was, “As thou thinkest, so art thou.”’
The spiritual vibrations generated by repeating the holy name whole heartedly with faith evoke spiritual emotion that purifies the mind and heart. They reveal to us the vision of our ishta devatā and our indivisible unity with God and his name. Vivekananda says, ‘Each Ishta has a Mantra. The Ishta is the ideal peculiar to the individual worshipper; the Mantra is the external word to express it. Constant repetition of the word helps to fix the ideal firmly in the mind’.
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 trāyate iti, 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 is done on a mālā, or rosary, which is often made of sacred rudraksha or tulasi beads.
Japa is prescribed as a valuable spiritual practice. In the Bhagavadgita, Sri Krishna says to Arjuna, ‘Yajnānāh japayajño’smi; Among all the yajnas or sacrifices, I am the yajna of japa, the repetition of the Holy names.’
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.
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 to the 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 practiced 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.’
Holy Mother Sri Sarada Devi placed the greatest emphasis on daily japa and meditation: ‘The mind will be steadied of itself if aspirants repeat God’s name fifteen or twenty thousand times a day. I myself have experienced it.’ She conveyed the efficacy of japa through her own austere practice of it, which she did for the good of her disciples. Remembering this gives us great encouragement and faith in the guru who transmits the holy name.
Mahatma Gandhi, a votary of Ramanama, realized the 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.’ Gandhiji made the mantra the verification of his life.
Without any intellectual knowledge about the mantra and its potentiality, millions of people over the centuries in all countries have been repeating the 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
The Practice of Japa
Without divine help there is no spiritual progress. Therefore, before beginning japa, spiritual aspirants should invoke the aid of the ista devatā of the mantra to elevate their spiritual mood and open themselves to receiving divine help. Thinking of the beauty and grace of the ista devatā’s form while doing japa increases concentration and spiritual discrimination.
Sharada Devi says: ‘While performing japa take the name of God with the utmost love, sincerity and self-surrender. Before commencing your daily meditation, first think of your utter helplessness in this world and then slowly begin the practice of sadhana (spiritual discipline) as directed by your Guru.’
Japa can be practiced in various ways with the rosary or mālā, which facilitates counting and concentrates the mind in the early stages of meditation. Counting can also be done using the fingers. Holy Mother says, ‘God has given us fingers that they may be blessed by repeating His name with them.’
One can utter the holy name clearly with proper pronunciation in an audible voice (vācika), or fix the mind on God and move the lips inaudibly(upāmśu), or ponder the meaning and practice silently with no movement of the lips (mānasika), which is preferred.
The scriptures say that mānasika japa can be practiced at all times and in all places. Swami Vivekananda says, ‘The inaudible repetition of the Mantra, accompanied with the thinking of its meaning, is called the “mental repetition,” and is the highest.’ Sometimes silent japa does not clear away mental disturbances. Therefore, aspirants must hold on to the center of consciousness despite any restlessness in the mind during japa.
To avoid fatigue, it is important to be vigilant and alert; for this the rosary is very helpful. It encourages continuity 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, upāmśu, and mānasika methods sustains japa whenever a lack of interest or monotony manifests.
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 nothing and 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, for your mind will be unable to grasp him, and your heart will not relish the delight of his love. But learn to be at home in this darkness. Return to it as often as you can, letting your spirit cry out to him whom you love. For if, in this life, you hope to feel and see God as he is in himself, it must be within this darkness and this cloud.
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, allowing aspirants to rise to higher spiritual planes of consciousness in meditation. Tension, restless outgoing tendencies, and drowsiness—dangerous when linked to japa and meditation—can be defeated by walking about doing japa loudly. As a drowning person clings to a floating object, aspirants should 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 of time. Holy Mother reminds us: ‘By japa and austerity is cut asunder the bondage of Karma (past action). But God can’t be realized except through love and devotion. As for japa and such other things, do you know what they stand for? Through them the senses etc., become subdued.’
Sharada Devi used to say that it was more arduous to concentrate the mind on the Chosen Ideal than to dig the earth with a spade. She recommended diligence: ‘One has to be up and doing; can anything be achieved without diligence? One should find some time even in the midst of domestic duties.What to speak of myself, my child! I used to begin my japa in those days at Dakshineswar after leaving the bed at three in the morning, and lose all consciousness’ 
Try diligently to check the mad outgoing tendency of your mind. Never begin your meditation immediately after sitting on your asana. By discrimination first draw the mind back from its external pursuits and lock it up within, at the sacred feet of your Ishta. Then begin Japa and meditation. If you do this for some time, the mind will naturally cease to wander. The easiest way in this Kaliyuga is the path of Japa. By constantly performing Japa, the mind can easily be made calm and steady and finally it will lose itself in the Ishta. … So, I ask you to perform Japa frequently and along with it think of the Ishta. … This dual method brings quicker success. --Swami Brahmananda
When a devotee wanted to know the secret of japa, Holy Mother pointed to a small clock and said, ‘As that timepiece is ticking, so also go on repeating God’s name; that will bring you everything. Nothing more need be done’ (407). ‘When a pure soul performs Japa,’ she said on another occasion,‘he feels as if the holy Name bubbles up spontaneously from within himself. He does not make an effort to repeat the Name.’
Even mechanical repetition of the mantra successfully keeps the mind engaged in japa. Faith in japa purifies the mind and heart, and japa, in turn, 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 to a million repetitions when the mind is away from God. You may repeat the name for the whole day, but if the mind is elsewhere it does not produce much of a result. The repetition must be accompanied by concentration. Only then does one obtain God’s grace.’
Faith and patience overcome dryness in japa. Swami Brahmananda loved japa and meditation: 'You progress a little [in both], then comes a period of 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; by so 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 be crossed.’ 
When the period of japa is over, aspirants should continue to sit quietly contemplating the ishta devatā, reflecting on the infinite love of God or praying silently for ten or fifteen minutes. Devout prostration or salutation to the Lord helps aspirants retain the spiritual vibrations awakened by japa and meditation. These observances make it easier to keep the mind on God during all worldly activities.
Japa Leads to Deeper Meditation
From external prayer and worship, aspirants progress to the practice of japa and then to dhyana, deeper meditation on the form and attributes of God. Increased physical and mental purity in thought, word, and deed along with correct, faithful practice of japa and meditation ultimately guides aspirants to experience the personal and impersonal aspects of God through the continuous flow of one idea of God in the mind
Japa is meditation with breaks, as it were. Meditation is the natural, spontaneous expansion of japa in the heart—the result of japa correctly practiced with devotion and dedication. In other words, japa certainly strengthens devotion, but it is only when japa occurs together with true dhyana, or meditation, that the mind spontaneously turns inward, away from outer things. After practicing japa along with meditation for some time, japa ceases by itself and the aspirant becomes established in meditation alone. Holy Mother says: ‘The mind naturally dwells on one’s daily activities. If you don’t succeed in meditation, practice Japa. … If a meditative mood sets in, well and good. If not, don’t force your mind to meditate.’ Real meditation is spontaneous.
True meditation is never forced or artificial; it is a natural consequence of intense attraction or love for the object of meditation. This idea is easily grasped when we consider that our intense longing for someone or something far away inevitably brings it clearly to our mind and we are delighted to think about it. Even so, Holy Mother says: ‘If you cannot meditate, repeat the Name. “Japāt Siddhih—Realization will come through Japa.”’
Spiritual practices open the physical centers of power, which increases energy and restlessness. The attempt to control lower urges results in some nervous symptoms. There are reasons for this phenomenon. Japa and meditation awaken the kundalini, the spiritual energy that is ‘coiled up’ like a snake in a dormant state at the base of the spine. The awakened kundalini, passing through the centers of consciousness in the body, manifests in the form of mystical experiences culminating in illumination. Swami Brahmananda says: ‘According to some yogis, there are special forms of meditation and practices which awaken it [the kundalini], but I believe it can best be 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 of the mantra.’
Regular japa is a very important aspect of deeper meditation. Correct practice with self-control and self-discipline gradually brings all mental activity under control. The subtle, silent vibrations of japa pacify gross vibrations in the mind. When a little experience of the mantra comes, an aspirant becomes calm and peaceful, elevated by a concentrated mind, and gradually convinced about the efficacy of the holy name of God.
Japa of the Sacred Scriptures
Svādhyāya or study of the scriptures 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 to God to open our heart, we should open the scripture calmly and reverently. After reading the verse several times and committing it to memory, we should slowly and reverently lay aside the scripture and begin reflecting on the verse with closed eyes. The idea is to discover what God is saying to us personally through the verse, which suggests the spirit in which we are to call upon his name or repeat the verse.
Mental reflection precedes japa. Correct repetition of 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 them in the silence of thy soul, and then in freedom do thy will.’ Real japa engages our heart, wherein God is found. The devotee’s heart is God’s parlour. A single step towards God impels him to take one hundred towards the devotee. No effort, however small, is lost.
Devotional japa of scripture fires up our heart with love for God. Silent, loving contemplation upon the chosen verse without reasoning constitutes nididhyāsana, in which the name or word of the scripture goes from the mind to the heart, wherein its transforming power is realized. Mental devotion, the knowledge of God through reasoning (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 or scriptures. The Gita is eminently suited for this practice. It offers inspiration, justification, and support for all devotees, on whatever spiritual path they tread.
Devotional japa of the name and meditation on the sacred texts bestow the same experience: ‘Reciting the name of the Lord has also the very same effect [as the exclusive reading of the sacred texts]. The name is the nearest expressive symbol of the experience of the Divine, and it is believed that constant repetition of the name together with meditation (bhavanā) may result in yielding the very same experience. … The name … is the spontaneous expression in sounds of the deepest spiritual experience, and forms the vibrational symbol of the same.’
The saints are a living scripture. Their exemplary lives inspire us to meditate on them. They have left us sayings, teachings, poems, songs, and anecdotes of their lives, which we cherish over the centuries. Relying utterly on the name of God, they overcame all obstacles, even death, and attained to God. Japa of their teachings about the name of God is an excellent form of spiritual practice that enables us to inherit their legacy.
Repeating the Holy Name in the Kaliyuga
Humanity is in a profound state of spiritual ignorance and consequent suffering in the present age. The humble practice of repeating the divine name is the way to reach the goal of God-realization. Sri Ramakrishna gave a general instruction to all: ‘Devotion according to Narada is the only path in the Kaliyuga; people will be saved if they but sing loudly the name of God. People of the Kaliyuga depend on food for their life; they are short-lived and of meager powers; that is why such an easy path for the realization of God has been prescribed for them.’ When properly reflected upon, the mantra snaps the bondage of worldliness. True devotees are convinced that japa dispels all difficulties; they remember and repeat the holy name with joy even at the moment of death. This should encourage all seekers to utter the holy name or mantra unceasingly in every condition of life.
- M, The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna, trans. Swami Nikhilananda (Chennai: Ramakrishna Math, 2002),878–9.
- Yoga Sutra, 1.27.
- The Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda, 9 vols. (Calcutta: Advaita Ashrama, 1–8, 1989; 9, 1997),7.62.
- Yoga Sutra, 1.28.
- Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda, 6.90.
- Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda, 7.63
- Bhagavadgita, 10.25.
- Swami Saradananda, Sri Ramakrishna the Great Master, trans. Swami Jagadananda (Madras: Ramakrishna Math, 1995), 643–4.
- Swami Nikhilananda, Holy Mother (New York: Ramakrishna-Vivekananda Center, 1997), 220.
- The Mind of Mahatma Gandhi, comp. R K Prabhu and U R Rao (Madras: Oxford, 1946), 20.
- Teachings of Sri Sarada Devi the Holy Mother (Chennai: Ramakrishna Math, 2001), 46.
- Her Devotee Children, The Gospel of the Holy Mother Sri Sarada Devi (Chennai: Ramakrishna Math,2000), 91.
- Complete Works, 1.190.
- Swami Gambhirananda, Holy Mother Sri Sarada Devi (Madras: Ramakrishna Math, 1986), 406–7.
- Swami Gambhirananda, Holy Mother Sri Sarada Devi (Madras: Ramakrishna Math, 1986), 110.
- Gospel of Holy Mother, 176.
- Teachings of Sri Sarada Devi, 50–1.
- Swami Prabhavananda, The Eternal Companion: Brahmananda, His Life and Teachings (Hollywood: Vedanta Press, 1970), 162.
- Gospel of Holy Mother, 213.
- Eternal Companion (Chennai:Ramakrishna Math, 2001), 276.
- Gita, 18.63.
- Nalini Kanta Brahma, Philosophy of Hindu Sadhana (London: Kegan Paul, 1932), 272.
- Great Master, 2.938.
- Originally published as "Japa: Instrument of Love for God’s Name" by Prabhuddha Bharata January 2007 edition. Reprinted with permission.