“For spiritual progress in this age of Kali, there is no alternative, no alternative, no alternative to the holy name, the holy name, the holy name of the Lord.” (Brihan-naradiya Purana)
“Just tell me what to do. I’m in great despair at the moment; I feel like I’m sinking. I’m going down fast and I don’t know how to get up. Give me something that I can hold on to, some sign of an eventual rescue. Not just philosophy mumbo jumbo either; some tangible exercises, something I can use right now.”
Instances like these highlight the need for a guru, or spiritual master. They also reinforce the fact that there cannot be a singular method that is implemented universally. The properties of the creation and its origin support the same conclusion. If someone creates everything, then how can any aspect of it be off-limits for use in finding the highest pleasure? Therefore when you read Vedic texts, there aren’t many specific recommendations; just guiding principles. If there are specific practices mentioned for people in the various walks of life, they are presented so that the respective people can eventually reach the platform of consciousness where the entire creation turns into their canvas, where they can apply gentle strokes to paint a picture that depicts their unbreakable connection to the divine.
“There is no possibility of one's becoming a yogi, O Arjuna, if one eats too much, or eats too little, sleeps too much or does not sleep enough.” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 6.16)
As an example of a guiding principle lacking specifics, in the Bhagavad-gita, Lord Krishna says that a yogi neither eats too much nor eats too little. A yogi also doesn’t oversleep or sleep too little. A yogi is a transcendentalist, distinguished from a non-transcendentalist, who can be likened to a gross materialist. A materialist works solely off of their personal vision, and the immediate one at that. The subtle changes that turn more stark in between larger gaps in time go unnoticed, and instant gratification is the steadily sought after goal. The yogi goes beyond this, seeking higher truths and also a higher taste. They transcend the effects of the material senses, learning to separate spirit from matter.
This is a rather difficult accomplishment when there is so much association with matter already. The association is so commonplace that attachments form. We think that we can’t survive without a certain food or drink, when in reality we most certainly can. To help in achieving their goals, the yogi follows certain regulations, with the primary among them relating to eating and sleeping. If you eat too much, you will get tired and you will also be more prone to sex life, which is a “no no”. Sex exists for a reason; for procreation. Otherwise it just leads to more pain. Sex life devoid of religious principles is also based solely on the illusion that the body is the identifying agent, a mindset the yogi wants to eliminate.
Sleeping too much leads to a greater attachment to the body. Yet both sleep and food are required, so it is not that they should be eliminated altogether. Krishna is another name for God, and as a word it means all-attractive. God gave us food and sleep after all, so they can’t be all bad or all good. The advice for the yogi is likely the same advice we’ve heard from our elders growing up. “Don’t spend too much time playing video games. Don’t eat too much. Don’t worry about the same thing all the time; branch out a little. Keep everything in moderation.”
Notice, however, that Krishna doesn’t say “eat bananas” or “eat blueberries”. He also doesn’t say “sleep eight hours” or “sleep just two hours.” Generally, there is nothing wrong with bananas or blueberries, and sleeping six hours is likely sufficient for most of us, but the specifics are left out because no single practice eliminates one from candidacy for devotional service, which is also known as bhakti-yoga. By the same token, no single behavior automatically makes one a perfect yogi in devotion. Rather, it is the consciousness which determines the connection to the divine. And the principles are set in place to help us shape the proper consciousness.
“Okay, so these principles are nice, but what if I need more specifics? What if I can’t figure out everything on my own?”
This is where the help of the saints is required. They tailor the recommendations to the time and circumstance. Sometimes the immediate purpose isn’t even to bring about full God consciousness in devotion, as the people might be too mired in sinful behavior. For instance, during Lord Buddha’s time, the brahmana community was using the Vedas as an excuse to kill animals and eat their flesh. Thus the pressing need was to stop this animal killing, for as long as the mind is attached to unnecessary violence, there is no question of progressing in consciousness. Lord Buddha’s primary teaching was nonviolence, which is actually just a smaller issue that doesn’t fully address the needs of the soul.
In more recent times, Krishna Himself came to deliver the much needed message with specifics. As Lord Chaitanya, God gave the recommendation that everyone simply chant the holy names, “Hare Krishna Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare, Hare Rama Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare”. “Make this your meditation. The name of God is not different from Him, and so through transcendental chanting one meditates on God, connecting with Him directly.” The validity of the recommendation is supported by the countless devotees who were first introduced to bhakti-yoga through only chanting, not knowing anything of the higher truths presented in the Bhagavad-gita and Shrimad Bhagavatam, which are the primary bhakti-shastras, or scriptures.
“But what if we don’t chant? Isn’t chanting a specific recommendation that ignores the nuance and variety of the world around us?”
The effect of chanting is hearing, and in hearing there are no specifics. For instance, Krishna and Rama are just different names for God. One can also hear names like Narasimha, Vishnu, Jagannatha, Janardana, Keshava, Achyuta, Madhava, and so many more listed in the Vedic texts. Each of these names has a specific meaning, and even the word “God” is a sort of name, though it is more of an abstract concept in its present use. Krishna and Rama are considered more complete names because they reference distinct personalities, as God has many different expansions. Lord Buddha is also an incarnation of Krishna, and in each personality there is a purpose to fulfill. Krishna is the reservoir of pleasure; He is all-attractive and so worship of Him satisfies the desire for attractiveness in all of us.
Though the exalted teachers following in Lord Chaitanya’s line established the baseline of chanting the maha-mantra for sixteen rounds a day on a set of japa beads, there are no hard and fast rules for chanting. This should make sense, because God is everywhere. How can we say that He only lives in the temple or that He is only the property of those born in a specific country? Matter and spirit are of the same quality everywhere. In some places the proportion of the material elements may be different, but the underlying spiritual force is always of the same quality. The dharma of the individual soul is to serve God, and since each individual soul is identical in quality, it is every person’s inherent occupational duty to take up bhakti-yoga. Bhakti finds all the missing pieces in life; it plugs all the holes in philosophy and sentiment. Nationalism, patriotism, communism, capitalism, environmentalism, and all the other “isms” lack the required component of service to the divine. Even in many spiritual circles the aim is missed. God is declared to be impersonal, or worse, it is said that everyone is God. Then service to man becomes the motto, except that no one knows how to properly serve their fellow man. A thief’s service in this case is on par with the welfare worker’s.
“One who is not envious but who is a kind friend to all living entities, who does not think himself a proprietor, who is free from false ego and equal both in happiness and distress, who is always satisfied and engaged in devotional service with determination and whose mind and intelligence are in agreement with Me-he is very dear to Me.” (Lord Krishna, Bg. 12.13-14)
Practicing bhakti-yoga is the highest service to man because a Krishna conscious soul is a friend to all. This is confirmed in the Bhagavad-gita by the Lord Himself. And who doesn’t like having friends? The best friend is the one who is there for you when times are tough, when you really need help. As the root cause of our struggles is the forgetfulness of God, the Krishna conscious soul turns out to be the best friend, as through the sounds vibrating from their lips, the path to the spiritual kingdom enters minds and changes consciousness for the better.
Specifics in worship please tell me,
Through delusion properly I cannot see.
Principles of philosophy very nice in theory,
But they don’t answer many a present day query.
To stay along proper path I need guidance,
Been scorned too much by mind’s reliance.
Shastras the specifics certainly do lack,
So spiritual master there to lay right track.
In this age always chant so that you can hear,
Let sounds of the holy name remove your fear.