Mantras and the Holy Name.

The third week’s readings were four in number, and shorter than the previous week. I have listed them at the end of this text.

I have to admit that I was surprised and pleased by the direction my readings took me this week. In the seminar on the Holy Name, one of the questions that came up was about the difference between mantra and the Holy Name. My students have been somewhat influenced by Devesh Soneji, the bright young professor who currently teaches most of the courses on Hinduism in the department. He specializes in a number of fields, including Bharatanatyam and Tantra, especially Sri Vidya, so he has given them a good background in the Tantric theory of mantras, yantras and so on.

The explanation I gave in class was based on the distinctions that I have admittedly acquired from Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati and Bhakti Rakshaka Sridhar Maharaj about the difference between the Bhagavata and Pancharatra approaches to spiritual practice. The former is far less ritualistic and more spontaneous than the latter. Nevertheless, we have seen that Jiva Goswami in the Bhakti-sandarbha (sections 283-286) defends the necessity of diksha and the rest of the Pancharatra practices as an intermediate step for self-purification. He says there that the rishis like Narada have seen the necessity for a purificatory process for the jivas and so they have added the bija, put the Name into the dative case and added certain ritually functional words like namaḥ, svāhā, etc. The function of these mantras might be said to create a certain formal distance between the sadhaka and his ishta and ritualize the primitive bhakti relationship of subordination and self-surrender, as disclosed in the esoteric meanings of the words such as namaḥ and svāhā.

In The Guru and His Grace, a diagram is given that nicely illustrates that the Holy Name precedes mantra [here misleadingly labelled as gāyatrī-mantra; I would prefer dīkṣā-mantra], accompanies it as a companion practice during the sadhana stage, but is jettisoned in favor of the Holy Name when one attains mantra-siddhi ("liberation" in the diagram). Besides the above reference to the Bhakti-sandarbha, the main evidence is the following couplet from Chaitanya Charitamrita:

kṛṣṇa mantra haite habe saṁsāra mocana
kṛṣṇa nāma haite pābe kṛṣṇera caraṇa
By chanting the Krishna-mantra one will be liberated from material existence. And by chanting Krishna’s Name, one will attain his lotus feet. (CC 1.7.73)
[Note: In the context in which this text is found, it is hard to argue that there is any distinction whatsoever being drawn between Krishna-mantra and Krishna-nama. Both words mean the mantra of the Holy Names and the repetition is rhetorical.]

When we speak of the Holy Name, we mean the names of Krishna in their most simple form, as found in the vocative case. They represent a primordial calling out directly to Krishna, without any formality whatsoever. Unlike the mantras, which require certain ritually appropriate context, the Holy Name can be chanted anywhere and at any time. It is the purest action of the soul and brings about the purest experience of an unmediated relationship with God.

Since this in itself is the most purifying of all acts, it may be asked why other mantras are needed. In reference to the previous discussion of the ecstatic experience, we may analyze this as follows:

I have stated before that the Holy Name (like the concept of God itself) has “no content.” This is what I mean by “unmediated.” It engenders a primitive state beyond language, like the cry of a baby for its mother. It is pure emotion and pure relation; unlike a prayer, it is without specific content. Nevertheless, it accumulates content, like any relationship, in the course of being used as a sadhana. Though a bhakti-sadhaka hearkens back again and again to the purity of the original, primordial experience as a kind of transcendent base for faith, he does not seek to annihilate the accumulated meaning that grows out of his practice. In fact, that is considered to be enriching. The distinction between the two is that of “being” and “becoming.” Bhakti implies a priori a bias towards eternal “becoming.” But when we say that the Holy Name is both the sadhana and the sadhya, we mean that we hold onto that primordial experience of the Divine coming from the Holy Name as a constant throughout our spiritual life, it is the seed out of which all meanings arise.

One of the things discussed previously in relationship to the ecstatic experience was that the similarity ecstatics of one tradition show to those of other traditions is greater than that shown to the orthodox of their very own tradition. The problem with this position, though Shiva nicely highlighted the validity of the observation, is that it implies that all mystic experiences are fundamentally the same and that the theological superstructure built around these experiences is simply a cultural artefact that needs to be deconstructed. This objection usually comes from theists (like R.C. Zaehner), who argue that this philosophy of the unicity of experience comes from nature mystics and pantheists who do not recognize the ultimacy or even distinctness of the theistic experience. In one, there is One; in the other, there is both One and another, i.e., one’s own distinct self who is conscious of the One and exists in relation to Him/Her/It. No doubt similarities between the two are there, but the difference is fundamental.

Now orthodoxies generally emphasize content—the symbolic superstructure and language, ritual and tradition that grows out of an awareness of the mystical relationship as had by seers, prophets, and acharyas, and is mediated by them to the spiritually less gifted. In the case of Harinam, the Holy Name brings about a preliminary shock of awareness in the predisposed soul of the existence of the transcendental Presence, and the divine and eternal relationship that exists between him and God. What I called the conversion experience can also be called the birth of śraddhā, ādau śraddhā.

What follows, however, is a progressive filling out of that experience with content through the association with devotees. Of course, there may be some hearing that precedes this birth of śraddhā, which might provide nourishment for the original faith experience, but the essence of that experience is mediated by the Holy Name itself. I would distinguish the primitive experience of the Holy Name from the mature experience as parallel to the understandings of sphota and rasa. Indeed, this same distinction can be found in the Chaitanya of Vrindavan Das and that of Krishnadas Kaviraj.

Frits Staal, one of the West's leading researchers into Vedic mantra and ritual, has theorized that mantra is a relic of archaic pre-linguistic sound patterns. From him, the meaning of mantras is for all intents and purposes irrelevant. For instance, Tantric mantras are known almost always by the number of syllables they are in length. Vedic mantras often use meaningless sounds called stobhas in order to fill out metric requirements or some other obscure purpose. Similarly, Tantric bija mantras have no lexical function. Staal compares mantras to the sounds a child makes before learning to speak, or to the songs of birds. "They are a remnant, a vestige, a rudiment of something that existed before language..." (in Mantra, pp.80-81)

They are comparable, says Staal, to the wings of a penguin which are used as flippers. That is, just as the wings of a bird evolved out of the fish's fins to become a tool for flight, in the case of the penguin they are used once again as fins. Similarly, language evolved out of mantra, but the mantras that use language perform the same kind of non-communicative, non-linguistic functions of the proto-mantra sounds.

As further evidence for his argument, Staal refers to the customarily stated purpose of mantras--namely to attain an ineffable mystic state beyond language. This state is likened to an archaic, pre-linguistic condition, a state that exists deep beneath the state of awareness steeped in language. Staal here finds confirmation in the Buddhist Madhyamika and Advaita Vedanta theories that find the liberated state deep within the actually existing psyche--it is not something that is not already existing. He cites the Buddhist text of Nagarjuna:

baddho na mucyate tāvad abaddho naiva mucyate
syātāṁ baddhe mucyamāne yugapad bandha-mokṣaṇe
No one in bondage is released, just as no one who is free is released; if someone in bondage were to be released, bondage and release would be simultaneous. (Mūla-mādhyamika-kārikā, 16.8)
Or Gaudapada's Agama-sastra (2.32):

na nirodho na cotpattir na baddho na ca sādhakaḥ
na mumukṣur na vai mukta ity eṣā paramārthatā
There is no destruction, no origination, no one in bondage, no one seeking perfection, no one desirous of release, no one really released. This is the highest truth.
And, of course, to this theories of the Satya Yuga and the ageless disciplic successions professing to the ancientness of the mantras can be added as further proof of the archaic origins of mantra.

Whatever the veracity of this fascinating theory, it resonates with what was stated above. In the Third Book of the Bhagavata, Kapila Deva, in his teachings to Devahuti, speaks about the child in the womb as having an awakening of God consciousness. Fascinatingly, Chaitanya Mahaprabhu's first sermon in Nabadwip after attaining "enlightenment" in Gaya, as described by Vrindavan Das, follows this exact theme.

How can we relate this particular theme in the Vaishnava understanding of human development and Staal's theory, or Freud's theory of mystical or religious experience as an expression of the yearning to return to the womb, where one supposes (as opposed to the Bhagavata) that one was in a state of blissful suspension. For Freud, this was clearly a regressive state, one of immaturity. Christian theologians struggled with this for quite a while, and there is still a general opinion amongst secularists that religion is a sign of infantilism or regression--a reluctance to throw off the psychological shackles of psychological dependence, an “escape from freedom” (in the words of Erich Fromm), or simply a refusal to “face reality.” For them, religion is just a more sophisticated version of magical or wishful thinking and in this way a throwback to a simpler, more primitive time.

No doubt, there are elements of truth in all this, especially in what the Bhagavata would call the kanishtha stage of religious life, when one coccoons oneself into a hermetically sealed ideological universe. Philosophers like Nietzsche and, later, even theologians like Bornhoeffer thought they could solve the problem by "killing God," as it were--at least that fantastic, fairy-tale, knight-on-a-white-horse savior God. For Nietzsche, one needed to become free from the God idea in order to become fully human; for Bornhoeffer, God wants to set us free in order that we may become fully human, i.e., fully like Him.

In our own tradition, it might be said that this very idea of psychologically mature religiosity is represented by the hierarchy of relationships; the idea of "independence from God" symbolically represented by this Padyavali verse:

śrutim apare smṛtim itare
bhārataṁ anye bhajantu bhava-bhītāḥ
aham iha nandaṁ vande
yasyālinde paraṁ brahma
Some may worship the God of the Upanishads,
some the One described in the Smritis, and
yet others may bow down to the God glorified
in the Mahabharata, shaking with the fears
of life and death in this material world.

But I will place my head at the feet
of Nanda Maharaj in whose back yard
the Supreme Brahman is crawling about
in the form of a baby boy.
(Raghupati Upadhyaya, Padyavali 126)
We agree with the Brahmavadis that the jiva is one with Brahman and always has been one with Brahman. But this inchoate state of oneness with Brahman, of mukti, is the warmth of the womb, a return to that primitive state of safety. It is not the maturity of true liberation which is expressed in love and everything that entails, the first principle of which is jagat satyam, the world is real. We don't want to escape from our human condition--after all, the whole point of saying that God took human form is to affirm its glories.

The mystic experience is at its very basis divided into two: in one the sense of unity is dominant, in the other the sense of relationship in unity is dominant. Both are pre-linguistic states, in the mood of Staal. It may even be said that the division into two is artificial, and that for whatever reason, one psychologically or philosophically becomes emotionally incapacitated and unable to accept the existence of the primordial Other. Even so, at the very best, the embryo-like state of liberation is one in which the "being" aspect of the soul is alone experienced, with consciousness itself being reduced to its most embryonic state (despite the use of terms like cit or cit-sattva). Bliss is there, for sure, but again, only in proportion to the degree of conscious awareness, which without relationship is minimal.

The push to evolve, the sense of becoming, for which being is only the backdrop, comes out of the sense of difference, the embracing of the world as real (jagat satyam) and not as false. It comes out of the dynamism of the dialectic of unity and separation. This is why the Holy Name is a mantra of an entirely different sort.

The implications of this for the controversy about whether the jiva fell from the spiritual world is evident: Assuming that the individual lifetime of a jiva is a microcosm of his endless cycle of repeated births and deaths, the condition in the womb is one of unmediated Krishna consciousness, but without content. In order for content to accrue, it is necessary to live. Hence, the necessity for creation.

This is also borne out in the visceral response to Staal’s theories as given by other theorists of Vedic mantra and language. Indeed, the various indigenous theories of mantra, like those of the Mimamsa philosophers and of the grammatician Bhatrihari, in whose Vakpadiya the highly influential sphota-vada is delineated. In the Nirukta, Yaska says,

yad gṛhītam avijñātaṁ nigadenaiva śabdyate
anagnāv iva śuṣkaidho na taj jvalati karhicit
What is merely vocalized without being understood, like dry wood without fire, never ignites. Nirukta 1.18)
Staal considers statements like these to be rationalizations arising out of a linguistic consciousness, but the desire for meaning is, for many, the essence of the religious impulse. A ritual that simply hearkened to a primitive state would not, on its own, provide satisfactory meaning.

All Indian theories of creation identify the Vedic sound with the creative act. Bhartrihari states that the mantra AUM is the root mantra out of which all other mantras arise. “This sacred syllable is held to have flashed forth into the heart of Brahman, while absorbed in deep meditation, and to have given birth to the Vedas, which contain all knowledge.” (Coward, in Mantra, p. 167)

Bhartrihari’s sphota theory begins from the point of identifying God as Shabda Brahman, or the totality of meaning. Each sentence we speak accumulates meaning, morpheme by morpheme, word by word, until it explodes into a flash of meaning. This flash is called sphota. A single sentence (vakya) contains a single flash of varying degrees of brightness, a maha-vakya accumulates a totality of meaning that is even weightier. The accumulation of all meanings through all time and space is God.

As much as God can be reduced to a syllable, it is AUM. AUM in itself may be meaningless lexically, but that is precisely the point: it is the nexus of all meanings. All mantras, to some degree or another, similarly profess to somehow or another be a channel to this totality of meaning.

I would say that the Holy Name opens the door to this same nexus of meaning as it is viewed personally, or relationally. The Name itself is infused with a power to access that meaning in a kind of spontaneous, unmediated sphoṭa. However, the accumulation of meanings that comes from life experience, association with saintly persons, from śravaṇa, manana and nididhyāsana of matters related to spiritual life, one comes to the experience of rasa, which I guess will be a subject of a later blog.

Hein, Norvin J. “Chaitanya’s Ecstasies and the Theology of the Holy Name.” JVS 2.2, Spring 1994.

Acyutänanda Däsa. “The Descent of the Holy Name: A Gaudiya Vaishnava Perspective,” JVS 2.2, Spring 1994. 27-34.

My article on “Sri Chaitanya’s Sikshastakam.” in JVS and my translation of the Mahamantra-vyakhya, easily available on the internet.

Alper, Harvey P. (ed.) Mantra. SUNY Press, 1988.

Coward, Harold and Goa, David. Mantra: Hearing the Divine in India. Anima Books, 1991.

Gonda, Jan. "The Indian Mantra," Oriens 16:244-297.

Sridhar, Bhakti Rakshaka. The Guru and His Grace.


Anonymous said…
This is a lot to digest.

Can it be emphasized, that the Mahamantra is the mantra of being AND becoming ? 'Becoming' meaning the evolution of consciouness leading to the full development of a personal relationship with God ?
And normal mantra directs the consciousness to a spititual state of just 'being' (sad). Something that is already there but out of our direct experience because covered by illusion/distractions.

I think I like your choice words but I am not sure I really get it yet. I link it with Shridar Maharajas terminology used in his popular book The Subjective Evolution of Consciousness. It seems very similar to me.

Is it ?
Jagadananda Das said…
The Mahamantra is, of course, everything--being, becoming and whatever is neither. That is why I was saying that "being" or the hearkening back to the most primitive sense of union with God, is the nourishing fountain of faith. It is the fall back position: the "Ground of Being" (in relationship).

The "impersonalist" experiences something similar, but without the sense of relationship. Throughout life, he or she may also have a great sense of "becoming." After all, the Advaita-vadin conception is that The One becomes many in order to undergo the exciting adventures of lila, the variegatedness of the phenomenal experience. However, at a certain point, the game becomes tiresome. For some reason, the Sac-chit-ananda vastu has decided to include birth, old age, disease and death into the experience, and so one seeks liberation by returning to that primal state of being.

The theist starts from the same place, but recognizes the relationality of his primal intuition. They also sets out on the adventure of lila, but holding the treasure of that relationship in the heart. So the adventure has the _personal_ element of returning to Someone. The nature of that Someone becomes clearer as we get closer.

I suppose that in the final analysis, the real difference is that we believe in an eternal afterlife for the individual consciousness, with form, activities, and relations--one of the hardest things if not impossible to defend rationally.

The Gita says--

nAsato vidyate bhAvo
nAbhAvo vidyate sataH
ubhayor api dRSTo'ntas
tv anayos tattva-darzibhiH

That which does not exist cannot become. That which exists does never not become. This is what the seers of truth have concluded after seeing into both of these.
Jagadananda Das said…
A better translation might have been: "That which exists never stops becoming."
Jagadananda Das said…
But sat also means "true." So it could be "That which is untrue has no becoming. And that which is true never stops becoming."

So since consciousness is true, the living entity is true, and goes on becoming eternally.
The sacredness of "aum" is only a belief.
DKM said…

Jaya SRee-rAdhA-Kr^shNa!

Have you translated Lakshmeedhara's BhagavannAma-kaumudi into English?

Is a Hindi translation available?

Here is a link to a PhD dissertation on the text if you like: › download › contentPDF
Mīmāṃsā, Vedānta, and the Bhakti Movement. Anand Venkatkrishnan. Submitted in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of. Doctor of Philosophy.

DKM Kartha

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