“Since Krishna is the cause of all causes, He is worshiped by all kinds of sages and saints by observance of the regulative principles. When there is a necessity for meditation, great personalities meditate on the transcendental form of Krishna within the heart. In this way the minds of great personalities are always engaged in Krishna.” (Shrila Prabhupada, Krishna, The Supreme Personality of Godhead, Vol 2, Ch 32)
A devotee will do whatever is necessary to maintain their connection with the Supreme Personality of Godhead, Lord Krishna. The bond to the master of the transcendental world is the source of all pleasure, so any deviation from the purified thought processes or any temporary disconnection in the most important link will lead to trouble. If the electricity should go out in our home for a few hours, the resultant situation borders on an emergency, where great panic and havoc ensue. In a similar manner, for the bhakta, if there is any loss of signal as it relates to the spiritually stimulating sound vibrations and thoughts and mental images pertaining to the Supreme Lord, His countless non-different forms, or His eternal associates, the forces of illusion known as maya take hold and lead the otherwise focused mind astray into a situation of constant tumult, despair and panic. To this end, a true yogi, one who understands that the unmanifest aspect of the Supreme Lord and the localized form residing within the heart are both non-different from the original Personality of Godhead, will always take whatever steps are necessary, including meditation, to keep their consciousness purified.
The present yuga-dharma is the chanting of the holy names of the Lord. In the Vedic tradition there are thousands of mantras, but the one considered the most effective at purifying consciousness in the present age is the maha-mantra, “Hare Krishna Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare, Hare Rama Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare”. There are certainly other mantras, but this specific sequence of words best encapsulates the most powerful names of the Divine which speak to His all-attractive nature and His ability to provide supreme transcendental pleasure. Some will argue that both Krishna and Rama refer to the Personality of Godhead in His form as Krishna, while others will say that these two words address the two most notable incarnations of the Supreme Lord Vishnu. In either viewpoint the conclusion can be considered valid because the name of the Lord is absolute. If one person chooses to worship God in His Vishnu form in lieu of the Rama and Krishna forms there is no loss in benefit. The key is to remain connected to the holy name in a bond of love and affection, as that is the method recommended in the authorized Vedic texts like the Shrimad Bhagavatam and Mahabharata.
When chanting is not an option, i.e. when there is no opportunity to explicitly recite the sacred mantras on beads or together with friends, then other methods that fall under the umbrella of the sublime engagement of devotional service can take precedent. One of the more popular quasi-spiritual activities of the modern age is meditation. When not on the highest platform of consciousness the individual will suffer chronic distress, wherein seeds of desire result in frustration when defeat and loss occur. When the tumultuous situations lead to repeated pains that become more and more acute, the frustrated individual may take shelter of the meditation process to remove stress. “I just want to be more at peace. I think meditation will help me, but I don’t know how to practice it.” As described in the Vedas, which serve as the origin for all bona fide methods of religion, meditation can be of two varieties, smaranam and dhyana. Smaranam is basic remembrance while dhyana is a key aspect of mystic yoga that involves stern concentration. In reality there is no difference between the two practices when they are focused on the proper entity.
If we meditate on nothingness, there is no bliss derived, and neither is there an exchange of emotion, as an object can only be classified as such if it has names, forms, attributes and qualities. Meditating on a void can possibly keep us from performing sinful activities, or those actions which lead to further distress, but aside from the basic retraction in movement, both physical and mental, there is no tangible benefit derived. Once the meditation breaks, the performer is again cast into the ocean of ignorance, where they must fend off the tempting forces of envy, pride, greed and lust. Moreover, other conditioned souls already find themselves swimming in this ocean, so there is stiff competition for temporary gains and rewards, none of which come close to securing eternal felicity, which is indeed the only fruit that brings a permanent elimination to distress.
“I am seated in everyone's heart, and from Me come remembrance, knowledge and forgetfulness. By all the Vedas am I to be known; indeed I am the compiler of Vedanta, and I am the knower of the Vedas.” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 15.15)
Dhyana, which is a more standardized form of meditation, must also focus on something tangible. The meditational yogis typically focus their minds on the Supersoul residing within the heart. According to the Bhagavad-gita, the most popular, concise and complete treatise on Vedic philosophy to ever be expounded, the Supreme Lord, who is originally a personality, kindly expands Himself as the Supersoul to reside within the hearts of every living being. Since this form is not manifested to the conditioned eye, it is often described as nirguna, or that form of the Lord not having attributes. But since the Supersoul, or Paramatma, is a non-different expansion of God, it most certainly has features. When the yogi practices dhyana without knowledge of the Supersoul’s qualitative makeup, the practice isn’t much different than simple meditation on void.
Therefore the key ingredient in proper meditation is to know who and what we are focusing our mind on. The primary source of distress in conditioned life is the frustration resulting from repeated attempts at sense gratification. The Supreme Lord is the Truth, and anything not directly relating to Him, i.e. anything that is not Truth, is known as maya, or illusion. One who breaks the link between the individual consciousness and the Supreme Consciousness thus becomes a victim to maya. The chanting of the holy name is the most advocated process for spiritual salvation, which automatically brings palatable conditions in other areas of life, because it leads to a shift in consciousness. Meditation in the form of yoga is certainly nice, but once the explicit concentration practices are completed, the mind continues to work and will inevitably focus again on objects of maya. The chanting process is sublime because it keeps one always in yoga, thereby allowing for a peaceful condition in all types of situations. Moreover, the name of the Lord automatically evokes thoughts and memories of His forms, qualities and pastimes. No other feature, including the impersonal aspect known as Brahman, can bring about such images to the mind simply through invocation.
There is inward meditation, wherein one either remembers someone or something or performs dhyana on the Supreme Spirit, but there is also outward meditation. This involves worshiping the visually manifested form of the Lord, which is described as saguna, or “with attributes”. Irrespective of the viewpoint of the conditioned soul, God’s position as a divine entity possessing spiritually enriched attributes of an incomprehensible magnitude never changes. Just as we sometimes say that the sun is not out on a particular day when it is cloudy, the conditioned entities unable to perceive of Krishna’s presence in every aspect of life describe the unmanifest form of the Lord as nirguna. But this doesn’t mean that God has somehow lost His attributes. The saguna forms are typically the deity representations, wherein wood and stone are crafted into figures that match the transcendental features of the Lord as described by the great Vedic seers who got to personally witness Krishna’s innumerable, pleasurable pastimes enacted on this earth many times in the past.
Goswami Tulsidas, a Rama devotee who spent twenty-four hours a day engaged in bhakti-yoga without even knowing it, mentions in his poetry that while meditating on the unmanifested aspect of Supreme Truth is certainly beneficial and so is focusing the mind on the deity representation, or saguna, chanting is the true gem of spiritual practice. The opinion of the bhaktas is that any aspect of devotional service performed in the Kali Yuga, the present age, can bring about perfection in consciousness, but reciting the name of Hari, harinama, is, in addition to being the most effective spiritual practice, the most relishable activity. Not only is chanting the most effective tool at changing consciousness for the better, but it also can be practiced in the most number of unique situations. For meditational yoga, which can involve dhyana, to be practiced perfectly, a secluded atmosphere and a steady sitting posture are required, with all outside thoughts prohibited from entering into the mind. Since it is constantly overflowing with desires, the mind is the most formidable force for the aspiring transcendentalist to overcome. Therefore dhyana is not very easy to practice, especially in today’s circumstances where life is very busy and many external noise elements are present.
Worship of the deity is similarly difficult today because one must have a murti or picture of the Lord in front of them to focus their attention on. The deity, though made of wood or stone, is non-different from the Lord because it has been authorized as a worshipable object by the spiritual masters of the Vedic line. Indeed, Lord Krishna Himself summarizes the efficacy of deity worship in the eleventh canto of the Shrimad Bhagavatam. His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada very nicely describes how worshiping the archa-vigraha works by comparing the practice to the dropping off of letters in the mail. The mailbox is just an ordinary box made up of the same elements that are used in the construction of any other type of enclosure. But we can’t just drop our mail off in any old box and expect it to reach the proper destination. The mailbox has been authorized by the higher authorities to accept letters and packages, which, when accompanied by the proper postage, can be delivered to the intended target. In a similar manner, the deity is the authorized form of worship even though it is made of seemingly material elements. When the worshiper is purified at heart and offers their obeisances in a kind and loving way, the sentiments are transferred directly to the Supreme Lord.
But the worshipable statues and pictures found in temples and homes of devotees are not available everywhere, especially if one has to work all day at a particular office. This makes even the outward type of meditation difficult to practice perfectly in this age. Therefore Tulsidas kindly shares his revelation that he derives the most wonderful spiritual taste from chanting the holy names of his beloved Rama. Chanting Krishna and Rama can go on within the mind even while falling asleep. Generally the time of laying to rest at night is filled with concerns of the next day’s priorities and laments over events of the current day that didn’t end well. But if while falling asleep recitation of the names of the Lord continues over and over again within the mind, thoughts can immediately be transferred to the spiritual sky, where Krishna and His various liberated associates enjoy activities, transcendentally stimulating conversations and exchanges of emotions. Through simple chanting, one can fly faster than the speed of light to a far, far away universe.
Though regularly hearing and producing the sound vibration representations of the Supreme Lord is most effective at purifying consciousness, the devotee will not ignore the other aspects of devotional service if needed. The person who best illustrates the resourcefulness of the dedicated soul is Sita Devi, the wife of Lord Rama. Many thousands of years ago, Shri Hari, out of His desire to exercise His sportive tendencies, appeared on earth in the guise of a seemingly ordinary warrior having extraordinary capabilities. The wonder of the form of the avatara, or incarnation, captivates the hearts and minds of everyone, including the non-devotees. Krishna’s avataras are so popular and celebrated for their activities that even the non-believers, those who take gross matter to be paramount in importance, become enamored and pay close attention. Sita Devi, the princess of Videha and wife of Lord Rama, got to personally associate with her husband a great deal, offering Him service, reciting His name and giving Him tremendous satisfaction in the process. But due to the nature of events as they were ordained by the divine forces, Sita had to be separated from Rama on several occasions. The first period of separation was by no means a peaceful or pleasant one. Forced to live in the ashoka garden in the kingdom of a Rakshasa named Ravana, Sita was not sure whether she would ever see Rama again.
Sita is described as being like Rama’s shadow, for that was how Maharaja Janaka, her father, advised her to behave when she was given away to Rama during the couple’s marriage ceremony. Sita wholeheartedly lived up to this request by always following her husband, even when He was exiled to the forest for fourteen years. It is indeed a wonder how she was able to remain in her body while being apart from Rama for so long after being taken away by Ravana. Just as a fish cannot survive when taken out of water, Sita can never live without being in Rama’s company. Yet she kept herself alive by always meditating on the Supreme Lord and His limitless transcendental qualities. Sita’s situation was quite an unpleasant one, for she was harassed by female ogres all day and night, wicked servants who tried to mentally torture her into submitting to Ravana’s advances.
In Sita’s situation there was no opportunity for deity worship or the dhyana of meditational yoga. Nevertheless, she was able to maintain a steady link in consciousness to the king of the spiritual world by remembering Rama’s form, activities and the time she spent in His company. When the devotee is in trouble, they will always make use of whatever tools are available to keep the link with God active. To the outsider, it may appear that Sita was engaged in meditation on nirguna or the practice of dhyana-yoga, but in actuality her behavior was in pure bhakti, or transcendental love. Exalted figures like Sita Devi are incapable of any behavior outside the scope of bhakti. In the transcendental realm all actions are considered purified because their intended beneficiary is the Supreme Loveable Object, the sweet and blissful Personality of Godhead. As such, the steady mental focus of the devotee is much different than the meditation performed by anyone outside the realm of devotional life. If we follow Sita’s nice formula for always keeping our connection with the spiritual world intact, we will never fall victim to the influences of the material world, which constantly work to divert our attention elsewhere.