Japa (repetition of the name of God) is considered to be one of the easiest and most effective means of attaining spiritual illumination. Lord Krishna identifies himself with it and calls it a yajna or sacrifice. While performing Japa, not only the significance is to be known but its spiritual meaning also must be deeply contemplated.
The Mantra or divine names must be received in a ceremonial way from a competent spiritual guru. This is ceremony is known as Mantra Diksha or initiation. The repetition of the mantra done as per the instructions of the guru can give any desired result.
The Japa of a Mantra can be practiced in three different ways –
- Vacika or Vaikhari – loud uttering. (Generally, the Ishta mantra obtained from a guru at the time of Diksha should not be uttered loudly in the presence of others).
- Upamsu – inaudible uttering or whispering
- Manasika – mental repetition
Before beginning Japa of a mantra, the disciple is advised to remember gratefully the Rishi (the original sage to whom the mantra was revealed), the chandas (the meter) and the Devata (the deity). This must be followed by nyasas (ceremonial purification of the hands and the limbs) and the dhyanasloka (a verse that describes the form of the deity). After the Japa is over, there must be Japasamarpana (offering the fruits of the Japa to the deity itself).
Japa must be practiced, keeping the count, either on the fingers or with a Japamala (a rosary). Hindu scriptural works prescribe many rules for its preparation and use.
The beads can be from rudraksa (for Sakti and Siva mantra), dried sticks of tulasi plant (for Vishnu, Krishna, Rama Mantras) dried wood of Bilva, gold, certain precious stones, beads of bhasma or dried holy ash. For stringing the beads, cotton or silk thread, wire of copper or silver are used.
The number of beads should be 32, 54, 64 or 108, or 54.
Japamalas made of different materials are prescribed for different Mantras. The rudraksa beads are used by the Saivas and Saktas who repeat mantras connected with Siva or Devi. The Vaishnavaites use the Tulasi mala. One should not wear the Japamala on the body.
Generally, one bead will be extra in a mala and that will be strung separately so as to stand like a crown. This is called ‘meru’. While counting, this meru should not be crossed. And, for counting on the mala, the thumb should be used, supporting the mala on the middle finger. During the process of counting, the mala should not touch any parts of the body below the navel.
The Rudraksha Jabala Upanishad makes a special mention that one who wears the rudrakshas must avoid eating meat, onion, garlic and avoid drinking liquor.
Mantra is not a simple prayer but actually the form of the God. In the Yogic tradition the mantras are regarded as the special self-manifestations of the Supreme Power and every letter of every mantra is presided over by a Sakti. The repetition of the Divine Name with every breath is the essence of Yogic mantra-yoga.
Of all kinds of prayers in the Hindu scriptures, none are so attractive and impressive as the mantras or prayers in the Vedas. They have a direct appeal to the heart. What is the reason for it? These prayers are not mere compositions or writings of any sages. When the sages were meditating, these prayers appeared before their mind’s eyes in glowing golden letters. So these prayers are God-given. Proper utterance of these mantras brings whatever result one asks for.
Om Tat Savitur verenyam Bhargo devasya dheemahi Dhiyo yo nah prachodayaat. Om
Om. We meditate upon the adorable effulgence of the glowing Sun. May He illumine our intellect.
The particular forms of the deities and their mantras (mystical formulae) to be used in meditation have been handed over to us by a galaxy of saints and seers. They have been well-tested over the centuries. They are very much in vogue even today.
For more reading: The Mantra: Om: Word And Wisdom
When a respected or a beloved guest arrives in a house, the master of the house received him warmly and offers him all that makes him comfortable and happy. This is the spirit behind puja where the guest is God Himself.
In any puja, the preliminary processes include sankalpa or religious resolve and ceremonial purification of all the items involved in it as the asana or seat, the vessels and the flowers. Bhutapasarana or driving away all the evil spirits that may obstruct the puja is another important item. Pranayama or regulation of the mind through the control of breath, bhutasuddhi or purifying the elements that compose the body of the worshipper, nyasas or placement of the fingers of the hand on the different parts of the body with a view to purifying them, dhyana or meditation are the other important steps.
Nirajana or waving of a lighted lamp is a must during Puja. It may be of burning karpura (camphor) or cotton wicks dipped in ghee or oil, their number being 3 or 5 or 7. Some agamas declare that by such waving of light, one’s life and happiness increase and all evil beings are driven out.
Vrata (religious vow) indicated a set of rules and discipline with which one voluntarily binds oneself over a particular period of time, during which period he undertakes the performance of certain rituals in order to propitiate the deity and secure from it what he wants.
This whole process should be undertaken with a Sankalpa or religious resolve, on an auspicious day and time. Anyone (without distinction of caste or gender) who has faith in it and wishes to perform it as per the rules, are eligible to perform a vrata. There are several types of vratas like fasting (Upavasa) and observing vigils.
Fasting or Upavasa as a spiritual discipline – whether as an expiation for sins committed or for gaining self-control has been an age old practice. When fasting reduces the sway of the fresh over the mind, it is much easier to control it and direct it towards God, so that it can ‘live near Him’. In fact, this is the literal meaning of the word ‘upavasa’ (upa = near, vasa = living).
There are several general rules which have to be followed during the period Vrata:
- One should keep the body clean and pure
- Observe celibacy
- Speak the truth
- Practice forbearance
- Avoid non-vegetarian food.
- Once a vrata is undertaken, it should never be left unfinished.
- A new vrata should not be started before completing an old vrata.
- Generally, all the vrata starts in the early morning. One has to get up at Brahmamuhurta (an hour before sunrise), have bath, and complete the usual daily rituals and then start the vrata.
- The essential and compulsory part of the Vrata is the Sankalpa. Without Sankalpa, the whole Vrata gets nullified.
Now, we can look at some of the popular vratas.
- Mahasivaratri falls on the 14th day of the dark half in the month of Magha (February – March). Keeping vigil, fasting and bathing the Sivalinga in water, will confer great spiritual merit and takes on to Sivaloka.
- Of all the Hindu festivals, Mahasivaratri is unique that the austerity part is predominant rather than festivity and gaiety. This is but natural since Siva is the god of the ascetics, the very incarnation of vairgagya or renunciation!
- Mahasivaratri Vrata is open to all human beings. The basic disciplines to be kept up on this day are:
- ahimsa (non-injury)
- satya (speaking the truth)
- brahmacharya (continence)
- daya (compassion)
- ksama (forgiveness)
- anasuyata (absence of jealousy)
- Fasting is the one of the most essential aspects of this vrata. So also keeping vigil in the night. Worship of Siva throughout the night, bathing the Sivalinga with pancamrta (five tasty things – milks, curds, ghee, sugar and honey), homa, hapa of the mulamantra (Om Namassivaya) and prayer for forgiveness – are the other items involved. At the end of the vrata, one can break fasting by partaking of the Prasada (offerings).
- A person can take a vow to observe the Mahasivaratri vrata for 24 or 14 or 12 years. At the end of this period, one has to perform the udyapana, a concluding rite indicating the completion of the vow by giving gifts to the needy.
- The Amavasya during the month of Magha (January) is called ‘Mauni Amavasya’. On this day people are advised to keep mauna (silence) or behave like munis or sages, observing spiritual disciplines like satya or speaking the truth, brahmacharya, and so on.
- This day is held to be extremely auspicious to have a dip in the Triveni Sangama situated in Prayaga. On this day, the Maghamela (every year) and the Kumbhamela (once in 12 years) is held here.
- Akshayya Trtiya which falls on the 3rd day of Suklapaksha (April-May) is said to be the day on which the Krtayuga began. The religious merit acquired on this day becomes inexhaustible (akshaya).
- Fasting, worship of Lord Vishnu with whole grains of rice, study of Vedas, recitation of mantras, performance of homa, offerings to the departed ancestors, charity – these are some of the observances recommended on this day.
- As this is one of the extremely auspicious days during the year, many tradesmen begin their new year’s business on this day.
- Fasting on Ekadashi days (the eleventh day on the fortnight as per the lunar calendar) is an important religious discipline.
- Ekadasi fasting is a compulsory for the Vaishnavas. Along with fasting, sankalpa (resolve), worship of Vishnu and keeping vigil in the night must be observed together. It is of four types:
- Ekabhukta – it permits a person who is observing Ekadashi, to eat only once in 24 hours during noon.
- Nakta – if food is taken only in the night
- Ayacita – a person observing this fast is pemitted to eat food got without asking. But even this can be accepted and eaten only once. (This seems to apply only to prayascittas).
Stotras & Kirtana
- Kirtana is singing the names of God or devotional songs, generally to the accompaniment of musical instruments. Group singing is sometimes called ‘Sankirtana’.
- The Bhakti movements pioneered and developed by the poet-mystics and mystical philosophers made religion very easy of access to the masses. They laid great stress on Nama-Japa and Kirtana (singing the names and glories of God) and taught that these two were enough to wash off one’s sins and obtain the grace of God.
- According to the Bhakti school of Vedanta, God and His name are identical. Hence, importance is given to the chanting of divine names. The names when strung together became hymns or Stotras. There are varieties of Stotras considered as very powerful like Mantras. Chanting of this Stotras, either ceremonially or even simply – but with faith and devotion – is said to fulfill a person’s desires.
- The recitation of such hymns is considered superior to the performance of Vedic sacrifices and is as good as a ritualistic worship of God due to the following reasons:
- It does not need the help of other human beings or money and materials.
- The rules of desa (place of performance) and kala (auspicious times) do not apply to its chanting. Irrespective of case or creed all are free to chant it provided they have faith. It does not involve violence to living beings.
- The Sahasranama (one thousand names) stotras belong to this group. The two popular and powerful Sahasrama stotras are:
- Sri Lalita Sahasranama – This One Thousand Names of Divine Mother Lalita was composed by the Vagdevatas or the goddesses presiding over the power of speech after being commanded by the Devi herself.
- Vishnu Sahasranama – One Thousand Names of Vishnu. It is an integral part of the Mahabharata (Anusasana parva 149.1-142).
Special Instructions for Bhakti Sadhakas
Spiritual illumination resulting in Mukti or Moksha is the final goal of life. This is possible only when a sinless life is led and efforts are made to purify the mind. Hindus scriptures prescribe several disciplines which can bring purity of mind.
Besides the general dos and don’ts, the devotees or Bhaktas who follow the Bhakti marga are required to follow certain acts which will be conducive to their religious life. These instructions are given here.
Viveka, vimoka (desirelessness), abhyasa (regular practice of disciplines) kriya (doing good to others), truthfulness, straightforwardness, compassion and non-violence, cheerfulness and absence of hilarity.
Study of the scriptures
The study of scriptures is also one of the daily duties that one has to perform. The study of religious scriptures, especially the devotional scriptures must be given importance. As the scriptures have originated from the Rishis and great men, a devotee must study them and reflect on their meaning. He should perform those duties preached in them which will help devotion to grow. A devotee also should not engage in dispute or arguments with anyone on the scriptures. If as devotee failed to give importance to the scriptures, there is possibility of his slipping off the track of practice.
A devotee should renounce those duties – whether worldly or scriptural duties – which come in the way of his practice and perform the rest with the conviction that they are an offering to God. A devotee also must renounce the company of atheist and wicked people. In the company of the wicked, there is every possibility of bad samskaras (mental proclivities) like desire and anger in the devotee’s mind rising up. Wicked company also includes the sense objects that help stimulate the mind and give rise to desire, greed, atheism, enmity and anger. The devotee should not even listen to such things.
All the philosophical systems of India and also the various religions which accept the authority of the Vedas are unanimous that indriya-nigraha or the control of the sense-organs is absolutely necessary to attain to moksha.
Moksha can be attained either through Jnana (direct esperience of one’s Atman-nature) or through Bhakti (devotion that leads one to God). For either of these paths, mind is the chief instrument of sadhana or spiritual practice. Since the indriyas or the sense-organs, is allowed to go towards the sense-objects, there is great need to reign them in. This is the meaning of Indriyanigraha.
It means ‘non-stealing’. All actions of appropriation of others’ things, not sanctioned by the Sastras, fall under this category. For persons who have totally dedicated themselves for spiritual enlightment, it is a ‘mahavrata’.
Acceptance of other faiths
Hinduism is a universal religion. Hinduism includes the religious experiences and the religious consciousness of the whole world throughout all times. This is declared by the Vedas, “Truth is One, sages call it variously”. So many different paths, whether straight or crooked, all lead to the same God.
Sri Krishna also declared in the Bhagavadgita that, “Whoever seeks to realize Me in whatever manner, I enable him to realize Me in that manner.”
Hence, by honouring all religions only we can be true Hindus. Bhakti-Yoga especially lays on the devotees the imperative command not to hate or deny any one of the various paths that lead to God.
This of course, does not mean that one should change religion. As Sri Ramakrishna says, “Whoever is true to his own religion will ultimately reach God.” It means that keeping firm faith in one’s own religion; one must also respect other religions.
The Dharmasastras consider even eating as a religious act and give several rules concerning it. Food nourishes not only the body but also the mind. Since purity of food is conducive to the purity of mind, great attention has to be paid to what we eat. The regulation of food concerns four aspects: quality, quantity, time and place.
- Quality – the Sattvic food should be preferred as it is conducive to physical health and purity of mind. Certain food like garlic and onion, are jatidusta or defective by their very nature and hence unfit for consumption.
- Kriya dusta – Food also gets polluted due to the touch of unclean hands or animals or morally depraved persons of food from the houses of those observing ceremonial purity due to birth or death in that house. Such food is also prohibited.
- Quantity – depends on a person’s lifestyle and work
- Time – generally, one should eat only when hungry. Eating or drinking during the eclipses of the sun or the moon is strictly prohibited.
- Place – clean and pleasing place, facing east or north at the time of eating.
- Observing silence and repeating the name of God in between two morsels, showing due respect to the food when served are some of the practices to observed while eating.
Before the performance of any ritualistic act, taking snana or a bath is compulsory. However, sometimes, due to some valid reasons like illness, decrepitude, or non-availability of facilities to take bath, it is not possible to take bath. Therefore, the dharmasastras have provided some alternatives like mantra snana and manasa snana.
- Mantra Snana – one has to spinkle a little water on the head with the repetition of the mantra ‘Apo hi stha mayo bhuvah…” (Rgveda 10.9.1-3)
- Manasa Snana – one has to repeat in the mind any name of Lord Vishnu and feel that he has been purified by that divine name.