22.13 NAAMA-SMARANA (RECALL OF NAMES OF GOD)
The most well-known expression of devotion in the Hindu religious ethos is therefore the nAma-sankIrtana, recitation of (God's) names, collective or individual. The repetitive musical recitation (called bhajan) of God's names can be very rewarding in terms of an elevation of the mood and the spiritual awakening of the mind In the latter half of the 20th century the practice of these bhajans in a congregational form has increased enormously due to the influence of godmen like Sathya Sai Baba and many other Swamis who have all contributed to the phenomenon becoming almost an inter-communal, inter-religious community routine. It looks as if a great revolution is happening, at the international level, to turn the people of the world spiritually inward. In this context it is necessary to mention Shrila Prabhupada (1896-1977 C.E.) who has remarkably transformed thousands of materialistic youth of modern times into pious personalities with the loftiest of spiritual and ethical ideals. The unceasing chanting of the Hare Krishna Mantra by this ocean of devotees singly and collectively, in the Chaitanya tradition, has now made the Mantra the most popular Mantra the world over. In Sanskrit one finds that every proper name has a meaning, not always the obvious one. It is usually a meaning that is derived from the root syllables that go into the name. To chant the names of God is to be immersed in the ecstasy of identity with the glories of God as encompassed by the name we chant. The mind is always riddled with desire and hate, lust and greed, and so is as unsteady as a sailboat in an ocean and as such, needs a symbol, a prop, upon which the Lord can be superimposed for the purpose of single-minded concentration. The Lord's name serves as this symbol. Reciting God's names, repeating them in a certain rhythmic pattern, recalling God's majesty and splendour, His immanence and Transcendence, His omnipresence, omniscience and omnipotence, His perfection - these are the ways in which one uses this prop of God's names for turning the mind inward. Such a prop of God's names is used in every religion. But in Hinduism it is the central cord that unmistakably vibrates throughout its vast tradition, literature and culture. The eloquence with which this literature is extolled by Sage Narada to Vyasa in a dramatic revelation about his own life must be enjoyed in the original. (bhAgavatam I – 5-11):
Only that literature is worthwhile, says Narada which is replete with the transcendental glories of the name, fame and miracles of the Infinite Supreme Lord. Only such a literature will bring about a revolution in the impious ways of our misdirected civilization. Even if that literature is imperfectly composed, goes on Narada, it will be heard, sung and accepted by honest people all over the world.:
tad-vAg-visargo janatAgha-viplavo yasmin prati-shlokam-abaddhavatyapi /
nAmAnyanantasya yaSonkitAni yat shRNvanti gAyanti gRHNanti sAdhavaH //
According to Narada, Vyasa, in his several purANas, did not emphasize this aspect sufficiently and that was why Vyasa, even after so many scriptural texts, felt dissatisfied, unfulfilled, almost desolate. It was on the prompting by Narada that Vyasa created the bhAgavatam which is out and out, a work of bhakti in which the glories of the Lord are sung throughout, exquisitely blended with metaphysical exposition.
However, despite Narada's criticism, we of the kali-yuga must be thankful to Vyasa for interpolating in the narrative part of all his purANas, innumerable stotras (poems of praise) which have served over the centuries as texts for recitations and repetitions of God's names and glories. Some of them contain as many as one thousand and eight names of the Lord. These are called sahasra-namas (sahasra = thousand, namas = names; and so these are litanies of thousand names). There is probably at least one for each divinity. The most well-known are the Vishnu Sahasra-nAma and the Shiva-sahasranAma (both occurring in the Mahabharata) and the LalitA-SahasranAma (occurring in the BrahmaNDa-purANa). Nowhere in world literature are we likely to find something that matches these long 'streamlined' poems densely packed with meaning and seemingly endless recitals of the Lord's names, glories and splendour with no sacrifice of poetic elegance or grace. The rhythmic sound effects and the elevating moods that these poems of praise (and community bhajans) can produce even in the ears of those who don’t understand the language must be heard and experienced to be believed. Each one of them describes the infinite qualities of the God or Goddess in several ways and each description is only a fragmentary rendering of the Almighty's infinite number of auspicious attributes. It does not matter which sahasra-nama we are looking at, whether of Vishnu or Shiva or Goddess Lalita, everywhere we meet with the same majesty of encyclopaedic exhaustiveness. We shall give just a sample of the depth of the meanings involved in these names.
He is Shiva because He is the auspicious among the auspicious. He is Shankara because He gives you the ultimate auspiciousness. He makes you happy. He is Vishnu because He pervades everywhere. The root syllable for Vishnu is 'to pervade'. He is Kesava because, kah means Brahma, ah means Vishnu and Isah means Shiva and so kah + ah + Isah gives the meaning: The One of whom all the three Gods of the Trinity are only subtle manifestations. He is Krishna because He attracts everybody; also because 'krs' stands for existence and 'na' stands for bliss and so Krishna stands for the union of the two. The names Narayana and Rama have already been mentioned in Section 7.
Each name of God has been interpreted as indicative of certain qualities of His, or perhaps the name itself has arisen because of that quality or attribute. For a sample we take some names from LalitA-sahasranAma. Lalita, the Mother Goddess, is dear to devotees because of their devotion, so She is bhakti-priyA. She is also bhakti-gamyA, because she is attainable through bhakti alone. She is bayApahA since She removes all fears. She is bhakti-vaSyA, since She is bound by bhakti. She is niranjanA, faultless; nirlepA, attachmentless; nirmalA, blemishless; nityA, permanent; nirAkArA, formless; nirAkulA, delusionless and therefore not reachable by those who are deluded. She is nirbhavA, one without birth and death, and for this very reason, She is bhava-nASinI, one who destroys the disease of birth and death. To understand the profound significance of many of these epithets of the Almighty, one has to get acquainted with the deeper parts of Hinduism, namely the wisdom taught by the Upanishads. She is antar-mukha-samArAdhyA, one who is to be worshipped by turning inward. She is bahir-mukha-sudurlabhA, unattainable, if you search for Her outside. She is devoid of name and form, so nAma-rUpa-vivarjitA. She is pleased by the recitation of Her names, so nAma-pArAyaNa-prItA. She is the One Person to be known by all the vedas, therefore veda-vedyA. She is the original source of the vedas, therefore veda-jananI. She is the one who is pointed out by the word 'that' in all the scriptures, so She is tat-pada-lakshyArthA. She is the original Energy that first sprouted from the formless Brahman, therefore, Adi-Shakti. She is immeasurable, either by the senses or the mind, therefore, ameyA. Finally, She is avyAja-karuNA-mUrti , the personification of (boundless motherly) Grace, without any reason whatsoever. VyAja also means ‘gain’ or ‘interest’. She does not expect any gain in return!
For those who are not in a positition to read or recite a stotra, Hindu tradition has provided innumerable bhajans, devotional songs with a refrain, set to captivating tunes, particularly suitable for being sung in a chorus by a congregation. In these bhajans, a variety of God's several names are repetitively strung together in a melody and rhythm that are so delightfully musical that one is carried into ecstasy even by simply listening to them. This tradition of musical devotion came into prominence all over India mainly after the revival of the Bhakti movement in the 15th and 16th centuries. That the name of God itself constitutes a mantra is the grand principle of the nAma-smarana (remembering of God's names) and nAma-sankirtana (musical singing of God's names) This has been most dramatically confirmed by the modern International Krishna Consciousness Movement by the meteoric popularity generated by them for the hare krishna' mantra :
hare krishna hare krishna krishna krishna hare hare /
hare rama hare rama rama rama hare hare //
The ecstasy with which the Krishna Consciousness devotees dance and jump at the musical chanting of this mantra, accompanied by cymbals, singly and collectively, for hours together, is a sight to be seen to be believed. God is harih, because the root word har means to destroy; He destroys samsAra (the cycle of births and deaths) as well as sins of man. He carries away (harati) the sins of even evil-minded people. He attracts everything by His charm, therefore He is Krishna. He is Krishna, also because the root Kr indicates Existence and the syllable na indicates Bliss. By His very existence He gives bliss, therefore Krishna. From this meaning several traditions about the word Krishna have arisen. Whatever ritualistic purifications are prescribed in the form of penances and sacrifices, they are all superseded by the very remembrance of Krishna the Lord -- says an age-old verse. Says another such verse: The only medicine to cure the one bitten sharply by the serpent of samsAra is the great mantra glorifying the Lord Vishnu, namely 'Krishna'. The sanctity of the hare krishna mantra goes back to one of the Upanishads, known as kali-santarana-Upanishad.
One might have wondered how these devotees could even dance in ecstasy singing this bhajan. In fact they maintain that the worship of the Lord with song and dance must be done by the devotees as a daily duty. The modern Krishna Consciousness movement has made this tradition come alive on an international scale. The schools of various Godmen, particularly the Sai movement which has roots in all the countries now across the world, have also popularised this bhajan tradition to such an extent and so innovatively that it is no more a congregation professing just one religion and has thus become the greatest integrating phenomenon of all humanity who believe in the existence of a Divinity Which is immanent, transcendent and perfect.
QUESTION: When the vedas prescribe costly, elaborate and difficult sacrifices and rituals for man's salvation, how can mere praise of the Lord, which costs no money, substitute for them?
The very ease with which one can practise this singing of God's names is a factor in its favour. It is highly recommended by every Hindu scripture for many reasons. It is the only mode open to all, irrespective of caste, creed, sex, status of enlightenment, state of mind or any other distinction. It does no harm to others. It is not conditioned by time; any time is good enough. It is not conditioned by place; there is no rule which says, you have to do kirtana here and not there. There is no ritualistic requiremment. Since the recalling of the names of God is of the purest of the pure (pavitrANAm pavitram) whether one is personally impure or pure, whatever may be one's physical or mental state, one who seeks punDarIkAksha (the lotus-eyed Lord) with his heart becomes pure both externally and internally:
apavitraH pavitro vA sarvA-vasthAm gato'pi vA /
yas-smaret-punDarIkAksham sa bAhyAbhyantaraH SuciH //
Sins of action, sins of the mind and sins of the tongue - are all eradicated, without doubt, by just the remembrance of the name SrI-rAma. :
mAnasaM vAcikaM pApam karmaNA samupArjitaM /
SrIrAma-smaraNenaiva vyapohati na samSayaH //
These two verses are invariably recalled at the beginning of every Hindu religious rite.
Question: How can mere words and repetition of words have so much power?
The names of God have been given great sanctity by the Vedas themselves in which we find the basic mantras such as Om namaH ShivAya and Om namo nArAyaNAya. Om itself (-- to emphasize the three components in the vocalisation of the word OM, the English spelling AUM is very often used -) is a mystic word most important for the religious and spiritual pursuit of a Hindu. It is spoken of as the primeval word that stands for the entire universe permeated by Brahman and therefore it is Brahman itself. The three sounds that go to make up Om constitute symbolically the entire universe of words. For A is the sound with which the human mouth is oipened to speakany word and U is the sound which allows the tongue all positions from the palate to the lips and M is the vocal movement one makes to close the lips. Every sound which man can produce is between the extremes of A and M and so, together with the intermediate stage of U, it represents everything words can represent.
In fact a whole Upanishad though a very small one, namely MANDUkyopanishad devotes itself entirely to the explanation of the word OM. It explains the symbolism underlying the repeated insistence of all the Upanishads that the word OM is the supreme Alambana (prop) to reach Brahman, it is the one thing which is talked about by all the Vedas and it is for this alone that sages do pen ance and undergo countless austerities. It represents both the Brahman with attributes and the Brahman without attributes. It is a reminder of the true state of our being. Hence it is that OM is repeated at the beginning and conclusion of everything. Ithe JIva which leaves the body in the midst of conscious OM recitation is said to merge in Brahman itself that is, attain moksha. Hence it is that all mantras begin with OM. Meditation on the word OM is recommended as a direct path to Self-realization.
QUESTION: Is not all this too much of an abstraction and haven’t we strayed too far from our discussion of bhakti and nAma-smaraNa?
Yes. Om is certainly an abstract symbol and for that very reason it is not usually the first attraction for a not-very-evolved person. For such a one, the names Rama, Shiva, Narayana, Krishna etc. are more full of imagery, because each of these names has a massive body of mythology woven round it. Popular opinion therefore tends to prefer recitation of these names of God. It is in this spirit as we have noted already, that the many stotras and sahasranamas have been composed. The extracts from these ‘catalogues’ of names of God are not meant to overwhelm the reader; they are given only to show that the stotras are not just directories or name lists compiled for the benefit of expectant mothers though they are often used for this purpose by parents. Each name has a profound significance in terms of the entire gamut of Hindu religion and philosophy. To recite these names is to be immersed in the wealth of their meanings and this is the surest and smoothest way to concentrate on God and delight in ecstatic states of experience in his remembrance.
There are thousands and thousands of names in the various sahasranAmas. But there is one name of God which has been termed tAraka-nAma, that is, the name which helpa one transcend the plurality of the universe. This name is Rama, as we have seen in Section 7. Certainly the name is that of the famous son of Dasaratha, King of ayodhya; but the greatness of that name is not just because the son of Dasaratha did what he did. The word ‘Rama’ has several esoteric meanings and when sage Vasishta hit upon it for the first son of Dasaratha, it was already a tAraka-mantra, as Valmiki’s story of redemption from his previous life of a robber will confirm. The word has two syllables rA and ma. The syllable rA erases all impurities of the mind whereas the syllablme ma insulates the mind from any further impurities. Brahman itself is indicated by the word Rama, says the Padma-PurANa; because it shows that yogis revel in the permanent bliss of the cidAtman, the Atman that is nothing but Consciousness.
The derivation of words from their root syllables is, in the Sanskrit language a very instructive exercise and Hindu religious literature is replete with such derivations for almost every word that it uses. Each of the names, Rama, Shiva, Narayana (in fact, each one of the names in the sahasranama lists) has been assigned several derivations from their root syllables. Sometimes one uses them also as code words indicated by the numerical values associated with them by the kaTapayA sankhyA notation systematically used by ancient Hindu mathematics, astronomy and astrology. According to this notation Rama would correspond to the number 52 and therefore would stand for the entire substratum of all that is in the universe, because the universe consists only fifty ‘fundamental principles’ (tattvas). Instead of getting into these technicalities, let it suffice to say that the names of God are not just words; each is immersed iun a plethora of symb olism, imagery and content packed into it by tradition, language, scholarship and the scriptures. The name Rama in addition has a special significance in that while there are rules and regulations specifying the time and place for chanting several other names and mantras, no such injunctions apply to the uttering of this single divine name. RamakarnAmRta says:
That single name which alone is equivalent to the thousand names of God, that Name which is equivalent to all the Vedas, that Name which in a sentence spells such terror unto the Rakshasa women as to cause them miscarriage (total destruction to the seeds of evil) that Name which is the ever-readydonor of moksha equally to the lowly and the highest born – that Name is th delightful name of Rama of the Raghuclan, that Name is the nectarian Rama nAma.
Bhakti yoga requires that the uttering of the Lord’s name must become second nature to a devotee. We must learn to invoke God’s name ‘more often than we breathe’ always and everywhere! The pre-eminent Rama-bhakta Saint Tyagaraja, in his composition’Shri Raghuvara’ in the Deva-gandhari raga prays for nothing more than that his tongue should be given to continuous repetition of the Lord’s name:
mA rAma rasanamuna ni nAmamu mari balkanu dayA cheyumu.
In the same way the Tamil Saint Appar prays to the Lord that if he forgets the Lord, his tongue should go on repeating the name of Shiva:
naRRavA unnai nAn maRakkinum sollu nA namasshivAyave
Nama-japa or Nama-sankIrtana is only a means to an end – the end being to obtain God’s Grace. Without His Grace nothing can be achieved. But this does not mean that God is a capricious monster sitting in the heavens above and dispensing His Grace at His whim and fancy. No. He is in the heart of our hearts. He is the innermost self of each one of us. Therefore He knows us more than we know ourselves. We cannot hide even a fragment of our thought from Him. He knows whether or not we are sincere. He knows who is paying lip service to bhakti and who has bhakti truly in his heart. And Grace depends on this.
GO TO 22.14