Advaita Vision

Advaita for the 21st Century

The Fundamentals of the Bhakti Tradition
in Hinduism

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by Professor V. Krishnamurthy

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Part XI (i): nAma-smarana

Part I Part II Part III Part IV Part V Part VI Part VII Part VIII Part IX Part X

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 chord 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-nAma-s (sahasra = thousand, nAma-s = names; and so these are litanies of the 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 Part VII.

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 upaniShad-s. 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 veda-s, therefore, veda-vedyA. She is the original source of the veda-s, 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,' so 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 upaniShad-s, 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 veda-s 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 requirement. 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 shrI-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.

Part XI (ii)

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Page last updated: 10-Jul-2012