By Swami Harshananda
Japa is considered to be one of the easiest and most efficacious means of attaining spiritual illumination. Lord Kṛṣṇa goes to the extent of identifying himself with it and calls it a yajña or sacrifice. When japa is practiced constantly and practically with every breath, it gets merged as it were with the process of breathing itself. Such an unconscious and automatic japa is referred to as ‘ajapā-japa.’
Any mantra pertaining to any deity can be chosen for this purpose and different groups typically have specific mantras that they initiative their followers into. For example, members of the Ram Krishna Mission typically use the ‘hamsamantra.’ ‘Haṃsaḥ’ is the abbreviation of ‘ahaṃ saḥ’ (‘I am He’) or its more well-known form “so’ham” (‘He, I am’). With every inhalation the syllable ‘ham’ is repeated and with every exhalation the syllable saḥ is repeated. Deliberate and conscious practice of this will gradually result in automatic and unconscious repetition coeval with breathing. It only then that becomes ‘ajapājapa.’
“Haṃ-saḥ” or “so’ham” is actually the same as the mahāvākyas, the great dicta of the Upanishads. Aham brahma asmi (‘I am Brahman’) or tat tvam asi (‘You are That’). In these statements ‘aham’ or ‘tvam’ represents the jīva or the individual soul; ‘brahma’ or ‘tat’ stands for the Supreme Soul or the Absolute. Since the two are apparently poles apart, they can never be identical. However, when only their essential characteristic, viz., chaitanya or pure consciousness is considered, they can be considered identical or as the same.
Literally hansa means a swan. Swan is the vehicle of Brahmā the creator. Haṃ and saḥ represent the inspired and expired breath. Everything movable and immovable “breathes” or vibrates and hence can be denoted by ‘haṃsa.’ Therefore it is meet that Brahmā the creative aspect of the Supreme Self is represented as seated thereon.
The Haṃsopaniṣad describes the cosmic form of God using the haṃsa imagery to facilitate meditation. The same Upanishads also relate the experiences that arise as a result of the ajapājapa of haṃsa-mantra. Repetition of the harṃsa-mantra or ajapājapa is also known as Ajapāhamsa-vidyā.
- The Concise Encyclopedia of Hinduism, Swami Harshananda, Ram Krishna Math, Bangalore