“In the Padma Purana there is a statement: ‘For any person who is chanting the holy name either softly or loudly, the paths to liberation and even heavenly happiness are at once open.’” (The Nectar of Devotion, Ch 9)Download this episode (right click and save)
One person practices religion by praying five times a day. They keep a rug with them, and at the appropriate time they place the rug on the floor and kneel down on it. Another person practices religion by visiting a house of worship every Sunday. They wear nice clothes, show up on time, sit in the pews and thank the Almighty for everything they have in life. They pray for His continued blessings. Another person lives in a house of worship, conducting the official ceremonies when called upon. They do funeral rites, marriages, baptisms and the like.
In this way we see there is variety in spiritual life. Not everyone does the same thing. But what if you saw someone sitting down and muttering to themselves? To keep track of how much they have said, they have one hand inside of a bag. Inside the bag is a string of 108 beads. This person is chanting a mantra over and over again. Just one set of words. They believe that not only is this religious, it is the height of spiritual practice. The words they are saying are known as the maha-mantra.
1. The literal meaning is “the great deliverer of the mind.”
The ancient Sanskrit texts give us the concept of a mantra. In the modern vernacular, a mantra is something you repeat to yourself, like a motto. You need it as a reminder. The literal definition of the original Sanskrit word is “deliverer of the mind.”
The mind needs help due to its conditioning in the present world. The living being is spirit at the core, and what covers that spirit is matter. The mind is one of the subtle material elements. We can’t see it, but we know it’s there. The threefold miseries of life give trouble to the mind. Mantras help to give peace and calm.
The maha-mantra is the great deliverer of the mind. It is not like any other mantra. You are not being delivered for the sake of gaining wealth. You are not necessarily receiving help from a short-term, distressful situation. Rather, you are being saved from the root cause of every problem: birth and death. The maha-mantra brings complete liberation, where the individual no longer feels the pangs of material miseries. Chanting the maha-mantra regularly is a form of yoga, which unites the individual spirit with the Divine. Yoga is also a way to detach from the body, to remove the inhibiting influence the material elements have on the individual.
2. It has only three distinct words.
The maha-mantra is sixteen words: Hare Krishna Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare, Hare Rama Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare. Notice that out of the sixteen, only three are distinct: Hare, Krishna and Rama. The words are so powerful that nothing else is needed. Krishna is a name for God. It means “all-attractive.” Rama is also a name for God. It means “one who holds all transcendental pleasure.”
Hare references the energy of God. That energy is always with the Supreme Lord in consciousness, and so Hare can also be thought of as a name for God. Thus you have three names, put together in a nice way, and you say them over and over again. The name is non-different from the person it addresses. This works only with the Divine. No ordinary person or object has this feature. Those three distinct words bring God’s presence. The skeptic will not understand. Only the person who has tried chanting the maha-mantra on a regular basis realizes this amazing truth.
3. It was popularized by Chaitanya Mahaprabhu.
As those three names are very important, they should not be treated with disrespect. Just as you take care to make sure the expensive vase in your living room doesn’t get broken, the keepers of the ancient science of devotion did not share the highest wisdom with just anyone. They didn’t carelessly throw out the names of the Supreme Lord to be denigrated, disrespected or misinterpreted by scoundrels who are envious of God.
The story goes that the maha-mantra is originally the other way around, with the “Hare Rama” part coming first. Shri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu wanted to give this mantra out to everyone, to let them hear it in all its glory. This goes against the tradition of giving important mantras to only deserving recipients. Lord Chaitanya decided to reverse the mantra so that there would be no violation of tradition. There is actually no difference in the way it is chanted; Hare Rama can come first and it won’t be an issue.
Lord Chaitanya knew that in the present age of Kali man is generally unfortunate. He is so preoccupied by meaningless things that he will have a difficult time taking up spiritual life in earnest. For the people to be saved, the sound of the Divine has to be brought to them. By reversing the mantra, Mahaprabhu allowed this to happen, while maintaining respect for tradition as well.
4. There are no hard and fast rules for chanting it.
Free to deliver the maha-mantra to everyone, Lord Chaitanya also blessed the process of chanting it. With other mantras, there is consideration for time and circumstance. If you don’t pronounce the words exactly right, you don’t get the benefit. We can think of it like opening a combination lock. If you are just one number off, the lock will not open. You have to be precise. The same is generally true with mantras of the Vedic tradition.
Since the maha-mantra contains only the names of the personal God, there is potency just in the effort. Any person can chant it, from any background. With the example of Valmiki, we see that even saying one of the names backwards works. In his early life, Valmiki was so sinful that he could not properly utter the name of Rama, as recommended to him by Narada Muni. The spiritual master then suggested that the name be repeated backwards. Valmiki did this, and through the trick he heard the name of Rama anyway. He became so enlightened that he went on to compose the Ramayana, a very important and famous text of the Vedic tradition.
5. It unifies people of all languages.
Sanskrit is known as the language of the gods. It is a very difficult language to understand, let alone speak and compose. Hanuman’s ability to speak perfect Sanskrit is one of the things that immediately impressed Shri Rama, an incarnation of God.
“He speaks words which are pure, well-composed, amazing, fluent, auspicious, and pleasing to the heart.” (Lord Rama speaking to Lakshmana about Hanuman, Valmiki Ramayana, Kishkindha-kanda, 3.32)
Today, who has time to learn Sanskrit? Who has time to become fully immersed in the rituals and regulations of Vedic culture? Ultimately, language is not so important to the Supreme Lord. After all, language is merely a way to communicate. God can understand any language, and He particularly judges the sentiment. He knows everything through His presence within the heart as the Supersoul.
The maha-mantra provides a way for any person to address Him. They don’t need to know Sanskrit. They don’t need to be able to read and understand texts like the Bhagavad-gita and Shrimad Bhagavatam. Of course to be familiar with Vedic teachings helps to maintain discipline in bhakti-yoga practice. It also helps in the spreading of transcendental knowledge to others, but the lone requirement for meeting life’s destiny is love and devotion to God. The maha-mantra allows everyone to practice love for God, who is the great unifier.
Through sound coming Divine sight,
From maha-mantra all people to unite.
Proficiency in Sanskrit don’t need,
Just with sixteen words proceed.
In a special sequence, at any time say,
With love towards Lord’s heart the way.
Chaitanya Mahaprabhu to everyone blessing,
Always to chant Hari’s names stressing.