If you remember me always, by my grace you will overcome all obstacles and difficulties.
Bhagavad Gita (18.66)
All paths of yoga are essentially about being in constant remembrance of and thus communion with the Divine. Whether we do seva (selfless service), dhyana (meditation) or any other sadhana, the aim is chitta shuddhi that is to tame the intractable mind, purify it and engage it in remembering our highest Self. A relatively easy tool for this is japa. Still the practice of japa requires discipline and effort. A still easier and softer way is kirtan or bhajan.
What is Japa?
Japa is the repetition of mantra or holy names. Mantras are powerful arrangements of sounds based on vibrations perceived by the rishis in very elevated states of consciousness. These sounds were ‘revelations’ from the cosmos, as opposed to thoughts or creations of human beings (Read about the Power of Mantras: Science & Spirituality). Japa renders the mind quiet, gradually pulling it into Silence.
There are essentially 3 types of Mantras used in Japa Yoga:
Beej Mantras: Beej is Sanskrit for ‘seed’. These seed mantras are single-syllable mantras that are cosmic vibrations of particular energy forms. Because of their great power, they are to be used with great care – with the correct pronunciation and upon taking diksha or initiation from a spiritual teacher. They are used to invoke the different deities which are in themselves also energy forms. For instance AIM (ऎं ) is the beej mantra of Goddess Saraswati (knowledge), Shreem (श्रीं), of Goddess Lakshmi (abundance) and Hreem (ह्रीं), of Goddess Parvati (Shakti).
Nirguna Mantra: Nirguna means without (nir) quality (guna). These are universal mantras that point to the Absolute (Brahman) which is without any quality or form. They are generally used by more advance spiritual aspirants. Examples include:
Aham Brahmasmi (I am Brahman)
Soham (That I am)
Saguna Mantra: Saguna means with (sa) qualities (guna). These mantras are most commonly used and are associated with particular divine forms or deities. Generally one chooses a mantra that one most loves or resonates with. Anyone, regardless of religion or prior knowledge or practice can take up these mantras for practice. Examples of these mantras include:
Hare Rama Hare Rama
Rama Rama Hare Hare
Hare Krishna Hare Krishna
Krishna Krishna Hare Hare
Om Namah ShivAya
Om Namo Bhagavate VAsudevaaya
Japa yoga is the practice of repeating one’s chosen mantra several times a day. Generally the sattvik hours of the day – before sunrise and around sunset – are considered the best for sadhana because at these times nature is itself in transformation and this facilitates our own inner transformation.
The aid of a japa mala is often recommended. The mantra or sacred names should be repeated with full faith and devotion. Generally 108 repetitions or multiples thereof are done. Alternatively one may choose to practice for a set time of say 15 – 30 minutes, twice a day.
While chanting out loud is the most common practice, a more advanced practice is mental chanting (Manasika japa) that goes on constantly within one’s being.
Some saints have been known to verily embody the mantra where the mantra appeared to be emanating or resounding from their body.
Kirtan and Bhajan
Kirtan is singing of God’s name, with feeling. Such singing has a benign effect on both the physical and subtle bodies. It is an excellent method of soothing the nerves and directing the emotions to a positive goal. Kirtan melts the heart, fills the mind with purity and generates harmony and divine love. The chanting of Sanskrit kirtan, even when mechanically done, produces certain effects. When done with devotion, and awareness of the meaning, its benefits are immeasureable.
– Swami Sivananda
If japa is hard devotion, kirtan and bhajan are soft devotion. Human beings today appear to be very weak in their spiritual disposition. The mind is too attached to sensory pleasures and attention spans are very short. It is for this reason that saints and gurus have recommended bhakti or devotion in our age as a simple and quick way to free ourselves from the tyranny of our ego dominated minds. Of course, like all paths of yoga, one must have a suitable temperament for this way too.
Kirtan, the musical singing of divine names and Bhajan, devotional songs, are easy and enjoyable yet powerful ways of purifying the mind and heart by holding the vision and love for God within.
Several saints like Mira bai, Bhadrachala Ramadasu or Tulsidas sang their way to the Divine and this means of yoga remains the one that touches the heart, no matter the particular age/times or circumstance. Sadly many people in India today think these are a pastime of the elderly. Yet in many Western countries, kirtan and bhajan have become quite popular (for instance in yoga centres) with Western singers like Krishna Das playing a big part in bringing kirtan to the West.
There is a tangible power of singing the names of God with a group of people. In my stay at the Sivananda ashram in Kerala, the kirtan sessions were my favourite parts of the day. Unlike asanas, there is no exertion required. Unlike meditation, no control or application of the mind is called for. All that’s needed is an openness and willingness to surrender. A simple heart full of love goes further than all practices and knowledge. It can seem naive that such a simple way can take one to the Divine and this doubt itself keeps us from experiencing the sublime joy of surrender.
As Lord Krishna’s message in the Bhagavad Gita goes (as told by Sri Mooji):
Try to understand me with all your intellect and you will fail.
But love me, and I am yours.
For further reading, I highly recommend this article of a talk on the Science of Mantras by Swami Satyananda Saraswati, a disciple of Swami Sivananda and Founder of the Bihar School of Yoga.
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