“Chaitanya Mahaprabhu recommends, kirtaniyah sada harih: one should go on chanting the glories of the Lord twenty-four hours a day. There is no question of becoming mauna, or silent.” (Shrila Prabhupada, Shrimad Bhagavatam, 7.9.46 Purport)
The prescription given by Lord Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, the preacher incarnation of Godhead who kindly roamed the sacred land of Bharatavarsha around five hundred years ago, is that everyone should chant the maha-mantra, “Hare Krishna Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare, Hare Rama Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare”, as often as possible and with as many accompanying people as possible, to gain spiritual enlightenment and salvation. The benefits derived from fruitive activity with detachment, study of Vedanta philosophy, disengagement from any type of work, and mystic yoga come more easily through the chanting process. Yet there was more to this recommendation than just finding a way back to God. The sankirtana-yajna, the most recommended sacrifice for the people living in the dark age of Kali, is the best way to keep the individual occupied throughout the day. Other methods of religion may come close, but they don’t carry the same property. An active person stays away from the mode of ignorance and has an easier time coping with life. Moreover, an active person who can steadily ascend the planes of consciousness to the spiritual level will be even better situated. The secret in sankirtana is that there is simultaneous elevation, detachment and happiness, with the individual not remaining idle for even a second.
Why is it harmful to remain inactive? Don’t we need our rest? To gain a better understanding, let’s work through a hypothetical scenario that most of us have dreamed about at one time or another. If an off-day is approaching, one free of obligations pertaining to school or work, where we don’t have to wake up at a certain time, falling asleep at night becomes a more involved task. After all, if it is “fun time”, what need is there for stopping? The relief from pressure results in a late night of having fun, whatever that “fun” may be. The next morning is where things get interesting. As Newton famously said, “a body at rest stays at rest”, after sleeping for so long during the night, it’s very difficult to break out of the comfortable state and get out of bed in the morning. On a typical day, there is a certain time that one must arise; otherwise they will not meet their obligations for the day. But what if we don’t have anywhere to go and nothing to do? This lack of pressure would be viewed as a good thing, no?
So, we end up staying in bed a lot longer in the morning. Maybe we just lie there or we turn on the television to watch some of our favorite prerecorded programs. Let’s extend the example out for the entire day. There is no responsibility whatsoever; we can do whatever we want. The body is telling us to remain in bed, so let’s go with that. The body in this case is simply the messenger for the senses, which constantly pull us in every which direction. Let’s say that we spend the entire day in bed watching television. Will this be beneficial or harmful to us in the long run? Will our state of mind be better at the end of the day or worse?
This pattern of behavior is almost never beneficial to the psyche. Why? Even minus the pressures and obligations, the individual soul, the instigator for activity, has a desire to perform work. The soul has an active propensity, which must manifest in one way or another. The consciousness indicates the primary desires of the soul, and since consciousness is even active while we sleep, we see that the soul and its active propensity always have an influence.
What’s interesting is that on days where we have to work or study for long hours, we probably feel much better at night. The ego is buoyed by a sense of accomplishment, thus the resting period at night is considered well-deserved. A day of silence and inactivity, on the other hand, doesn’t really lead to anything. At best, the body and mind get some rest, but the soul is left wandering for an active engagement, something to fill its time and meet its desire for service.
Precisely because of these concerns, good parents try to keep their children as active as possible. Children have much more energy than adults, so if that enthusiasm can be guided in the proper direction, the levels of productivity can be very high. Adults would have great difficulty attending classes during the same hours that children do, but since they are young, kids can handle the rigors of school placed upon them. Even when they leave school to go home, children are given homework to complete and extracurricular activities to take part in. A lazy child sitting in front of the television all day will not mature very well. Moreover, they will be more prone to despondency, lack of motivation, and depression.
These same principles carry over to the realm of spirituality, where the spirit soul seeks a higher engagement, one that transcends the temporary enjoyments and pursuits already encountered in material life. Interestingly enough, the superiority of an active lifestyle over a sedentary one can be scientifically explained. The Vedas, the ancient scriptures of India, reveal that material life is governed by three modes: goodness, passion and ignorance. Every body type assumed by a soul is made up of a specific combination of these modes, and hence the resulting activities also fall into these three categories. Laziness and inactivity belong to the mode of ignorance, which is also known as the mode of darkness. Not surprisingly, this is considered the lowest of the three modes and thus one that should be avoided. Ignorance is never beneficial towards advancement, so in spiritual life it leads to degradation of the consciousness.
“O son of Bharata, the mode of ignorance causes the delusion of all living entities. The result of this mode is madness, indolence and sleep, which bind the conditioned soul.” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 14.8)
Lord Krishna, the Supreme Personality of Godhead and origin of Vedic wisdom, kindly reveals in the Bhagavad-gita that a person’s future destination is determined by their consciousness at the time of death. We see that young children are not uniform in their behavioral characteristics. Some are naturally drawn towards music, while others are quick to pick up talking and socializing. These inherent qualities are determined by past karma, or fruitive activity. With every action performed on the material plane comes a commensurate reaction. Karma can be stopped when the activities adopted are of the purely spiritual variety, wherein the soul tries to understand its constitutional position and what type of behavior that encompasses. With respect to karma, the mode of ignorance is the most detrimental. The development of consciousness ceases when one is constantly sleeping and drawn towards inactivity. Moreover, at the time of death, the gift awaiting the departing soul is demotion to a lower species, one more conducive to the types of activities the lazy person wants.
Fervent activity seeking a fruitive gain belongs to the mode of passion. Therefore passion is considered better than ignorance, for at least there will not be demotion to a lower species. Moreover, the individual remains fully engaged and thus avoids permanent depression. The harm with activity in passion, however, is that it results in a neutral state. One of the reasons why people take to spirituality is that they grow tired of the same things repeatedly occurring in life. After securing a nice job and family, the bewildered spirit soul may ask, “Is this all there is to life? Is there not anything else?” With young children, deciphering the repeating patterns in behavior and enjoyment is difficult. A child’s life is constantly changing; nothing remains steady. Each new year is always different from the previous. But in adulthood, not only can the days repeat, but so can the years. A mature adult can live the exact same year over and over again. This is what results with life in the mode of passion. Even at the time of death, the body awarded for the next life is of the same type; thus causing the cycle to repeat again.
“That knowledge by which one undivided spiritual nature is seen in all existences, undivided in the divided, is knowledge in the mode of goodness.” (Lord Krishna, Bg. 18.20)
When there is interest in getting out of the cycle of passion, enjoyment, pain and further pleasure seeking, the mode of goodness is accepted. The mode of goodness represents the most basic level of spirituality, wherein one understands that they are not their body. The soul exists eternally, and it has an active propensity. When the spark of energy finds activities aimed at understanding the equality shared amongst all life forms, the resulting behavior falls into the mode of goodness. There is still action in goodness, but everything follows the guidelines of scripture. For instance, instead of giving in charity for a specific purpose or to gain acclaim in society, money is donated to worthy persons and without any expectation of reciprocation. Instead of ignoring the existence of God and just going about your life, regular sacrifices are performed which help increase one’s God consciousness. By following the mode of goodness, the spirit soul can ascend to a heavenly planet in the afterlife, where the level of material enjoyment is much higher.
To fully transcend karma, one has to rise above even the mode of goodness. To accomplish this there are many recommended activities, all of which fall into the spiritual category. As consciousness is the main factor in determining an individual’s future, if it can remain tied to something non-material, something fully spiritual, the future reward will bear the same properties. Since material life is fully binding and fuels the engine of reincarnation, there may be the temptation to simply renounce activity. In this respect, one can chant the sacred syllable om, which is an impersonal representation of the Absolute Truth, go off to a distant mountain and not talk to anyone. Just meditate all day, live on next to nothing, and have hardly any interaction with the outside world. If one can think of Brahman, or the Supreme Absolute Truth, at the time of death, they can merge into a light of transcendence, wherein individuality is lost, but so is the chance at rebirth.
The Vaishnavas, devotees of Lord Vishnu, who is the personal form of the Supreme Lord, do not recommend this path of maunam, or complete silence. For starters, taking to mystic yoga, meditation, or secluded chanting of om is especially difficult in this age. In the Bhagavad-gita, Lord Krishna details some of the requirements necessary for successfully practicing mystic yoga. The yogi has to find a secluded place, sit in a proper posture for a long time, and remain completely celibate. Nowhere does Krishna say that one should follow this yoga system for an hour a day and then do whatever they want the rest of the time. Rather, yoga is always a way of life, a way to link the individual soul with the Supersoul, or God’s expansion residing within the heart next to the individual soul.
The sankirtana path recommended by Lord Chaitanya falls into the category of bhakti-yoga, or devotional service. In this engagement, the soul remains fully active, never once settling for complete silence as a way of life. This doesn’t mean that one flies around from city to city to see the sites and catch the latest shows. Rather, the aim is to always glorify Krishna and His names. This is the main business of the soul anyway. In the absence of God consciousness, people will take to praising others they deem to be extraordinary or talented. And when there is no one to praise, the propensity gets flipped and results in hatred. One day the news media is praising someone and the next they are tar-and-feathering the same person.
With Krishna, the divine qualities are always present and so is the worthiness of worship. Therefore the living entity’s original position is that of servant of God. Since bhakti-yoga matches the natural propensity for service to the Lord, it is the highest engagement one can take up. With chanting the holy names of the Lord, the consciousness remains tied to God for a considerable period of time. Afterwards, the devotional mentality remains, as the consciousness becomes altered through the process. Therefore in bhakti one can be singing, dancing, cooking, eating, sitting silently, travelling, talking, or doing so many other things, while remaining in yoga the entire time. The same can’t be said of any other discipline of spirituality.
If we are supposed to love God, we might as well do it all the time. From the rising and setting of the sun comes the tendency to divide up the different responsibilities each day and assign a specific time for them. “Okay, this time is set aside for enjoyment, this time for work, and this time for religion.” Since Krishna is our best friend, it is ideal if we set aside the entire day for enjoying His association. As the holy name is not different from the person it addresses, simply reciting the word “Krishna” at any time can bring us the association of the beautiful darling of Vrindavana, who always holds a flute in His hands and wears a peacock feather in His hair. Through sankirtana, others get to hear the holy name as well. Thus the Vaishnava ensures that through their own dedication to self-realization other sincere souls can also find their true calling in life. Even if there is nothing to do on a certain day, one can chant for hours on end. If there are friends around, a small sankirtana party can be formed. The maha-mantra is very powerful in this regard. It can be recited over and over again, sung in many different tunes, and remembered repeatedly within the mind without any exhaustion whatsoever.
The chanting recommendation passed down by Lord Chaitanya and His followers is not meant to be a punishment. If a student acts up during class, the teacher may ask them to write a specific statement of contrition over and over again on the blackboard. The punishment is meant to act as a deterrent for future deviant behavior. The words of the sentence written out many times will hopefully sink in with the student and keep them from repeating the same behavior in the future. Though sitting in front of a deity and chanting the names of Krishna and Rama may seem like a forced punishment, a way to keep the soul away from the dangerous behavior of the mode of ignorance and the futile efforts of the mode of passion, the activity is actually the most beneficial in steering us in the right direction. The active propensity of the soul gets used for the proper purpose, and what results is full enlightenment and a desire to love so powerful that no one can stop it. For giving us this most potent method of spiritual practice we are forever indebted to Lord Chaitanya. He is Krishna Himself, so anyone who remembers Him before, during and after their chanting will gain His divine favor.