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 (ii): nAma-smarana

Part I Part II Part III Part IV Part V Part VI Part VII Part VIII Part IX Part X Part XI (i)

QUESTION: How can mere words and repetition of words have so much power?

Yes, mere words and repetitions of words do have great power. First, let us consider a simple explanation. Those who rely totally on the limited laws of science and reason may argue that words are, after all, just sound and cannot be expected to cleanse or correct the mind of man. But a word is not just a sound. Kalidasa, in the very first shloka of his Raghuvamsam, very expressively brings out the identity between vAk (word uttered) and artha (its meaning, significance) by comparing it to the intertwining between the male and female forms in the ardha-nArISvara representation of Shiva. When we say �table� the four-legged piece of furniture instantaneously appears as a mental picture. You cannot think of one without the other. People are sitting quietly in, say, a meeting. Somebody calls, �Snake!� Will calm continue? Just the word �snake� magically destroys it. One might be sitting before a plateful of delicacies, but if somebody nearby speaks of something dirty or disgusting, one is repelled by the food. The mere sound of words creates so strong a reaction.

Sri Sathya Sai Baba tells an unforgettable story that illustrates this. A certain officer was inspecting the work of a teacher in a school. The officer who had a hearty contempt for �mere talk� asked the teacher, 'How can you ever hope to transform the nature of these children by the words you utter? Show them by deeds: act, don�t speak!' The teacher protested and argued that words do have a profound effect on the mind. The argument continued for some time and the teacher was desperately looking for some way of carrying home his point. At last he resolved on a plan. He said to one of his pupils: �Look here, catch hold of this officer by the neck and push him out of the room.� Hearing this, the inspector flew into a rage and started berating the teacher. The teacher said, �Sir, I only made some sounds shaped into a few words. No one pushed you or hit you or even touched you. It was all mere sound. But see how it has enraged you. It was all mere sound. Words, sir, do help in modifying character and shaping nature. They have vast power.� And Sathya Sai Baba continues to explain:

When words referring to worldly situations have such an electric transforming effect on the mind of man, certainly words conveying spiritual and elevated meaning will help in cleansing and correcting the mind of man. When we filter the air with harshness, we become harsh in nature, when we fill the atmosphere with hatred, we too have perforce to breathe that air and we are hated in return. When we saturate the air with sounds full of reverence, humilty, love, courage, self-confidence and tolerance, we benefit from those qualities ourselves. The heart is the film and the mind is the lens. Turn the lens toward the world and a worldly picture will fall on the heart. Turn it towards God and it will transmit pictures of the Divine.

There is another explanation, an esoteric one, for the efficacy of nAma-sankIrtana. It is a natural outpouring of sentiments from the heart and leads to a communion between God and Man. During nAma-sankIrtanas a charmed circle of sound is produced and a strange sense of the greatness of God and the essential unity of man creeps into the soul. With the successive awakening of each of the six yogic chakras in the human body, there are corresponding changes in one�s body, emotions, mind and degree of consciousness. The progressive expansion of consciousness yields an increase of knowledge about oneself and a deepening awareness of the self-luminant Resident of the body, namely, the Atman. The Kundalini shakti, which sleeps as it were at the MulAdhAra chakra can be made by yoga practices to wake up, evolve and travel upwards through the sushumnA nADi. While it does so it is imperceptible to the senses. But every day it expresses itself, in every one of us, in all our activities. Particularly the expression of it in the form of the human voice is known as the manifestation of nAda-brahman, the Sound Absolute.

Thus in the perfection of the human voice the primeval energy comes to prominence through the words, sentences, and mantras we utter. We do not realise, in our ignorance, that it is the Absolute Supreme that is expressing itself through our voice and that the satisfaction we derive in saying whatever we say is only an iota of that Infinite Bliss which is in us. If only we could recite the names of God unendingly, it would take us towards an identity with the nAda brahman at every step. A bhajan of the several names of the Infinite Being (like the Hare Krishna mantra) creates the necessary vibrations, starting from the MulAdhAra-chakra. An unceasing nAma-sankIrtan cleanses the crust of vAsanA-s that has accumulated over several births, and thus paves the way for the stored up Kundalini energy to get tuned to the frequency of the Infinite Energy in the Cosmos.

The recitation of the names should come from the heart, not just from the lips or the tongue. It must be a spontaneous manifestation of inner conviction and ecstasy. Such intense yearning for God purifies oneself as well as those around. Life is full of sorrow, beset with fear and despair. The only way one strengthens oneself to meet hard times is to contact the source of all strength and bliss, namely the Infinite God. This is the way to overcome the evil in us, lay low the �pashu� (beast) in us and instal the �pashu-pati� (Lord of all beings) in our hearts. In reciting the names, however, one should not be guilty of offences to the Name. Such offences will more than offset the benefits of nAma-smaraNa. One should not insult or speak ill of others, since every one is Divine. No distinction should be made between different names or forms of God, though one may have some tastes in the matter �which, mostly is because of one�s background of evolution, not only in this birth, but in all previous births. The Divine Name should be looked upon as supreme truth and not as mere eulogy.

It is true that the repetition of God�s names will absolve one of all sins, but on that account one should not use the name as a cloak for the commission of sins. The cultivation of the five basic virtues, namely, Purity, Self-Control, Detachment, Truth and Non-violence, should not be neglected. One should not behave in a way which is devoid of love; one should not be governed by the conceits of �I� and �Mine�. The fundamental principle of nAma-smaraNa and nAma-sankIrtana is shraddhA (faith and conviction). Love of, and exclusive devotion to, the Lord, is necessary. When one does such a nAma-smaraNa it becomes a yajna in itself. The Lord Himself says in the Gita: �Of all yajnas I am the japa-yajna.� The theme of nAma-smaraNa or a bhajan or a japa should be that the one Supreme Almighty, who is spoken of by different names, is the subtlest of things ever experienced, though hard to analyse or apprehend by ordinary commonsense and, therefore, every name of His should take us to Him, if we realise the intrinsic value thereof.

The names of God have been given great sanctity by the veda-s 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 opened to speak any word; 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 mANDUkya upaniShad devotes itself entirely to the explanation of the word OM. It explains the symbolism underlying the repeated insistence of all the upaniShad-s that the word OM is the supreme Alambana (prop) to reach brahman, it is the one thing which is talked about by all the veda-s and it is for this alone that sages do penance 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 sahasranAma-s 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 sahasranAma-s. 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 Part VII. 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 syllable '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 chitAtman, 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 in a plethora of symbolism, 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 of the seeds of evil), that Name which is the ever-ready donor of moksha equally to the lowly and the highest born � that Name is the 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.

Part XII

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Page last updated: 10-Jul-2012