I recently started chanting one more round every day – which brings me to a grand, glittering total of 3. Not so impressive considering I have been told about the benefits of chanting since my first day at the Bhaktivedanta Manor Nursery – some eighteen years ago now. I’ve had a funny relationship with chanting rounds over the years. In school (Bhaktivedanta Manor Gurukula) we had to try and finish one round in the morning. We all normally did, but despite our teacher’s frequent reminders that what counted was ‘quality not quantity’, we would rush through the mantras, probably thinking about our imminent breakfast, or even better – breaktime! At home, I would wake up every morning to the sound of my parents chanting but I didn’t really see it as something I should do. Chanting rounds was for adults and wouldn’t do it unless made to.
My parents never forced me to chant, but as I got older, and went to a normal secondary school, they did ask me to sometimes, probably hoping that a few obligatory rounds would awaken my natural desire to chant Krsna’s names in the morning. But it didn’t really work like that. Aged thirteen, if my parents asked me to do something, (even if I actually wouldn’t mind doing it) that instantly made me want to do the exact opposite. I didn’t want to do what they wanted me to do. The thought was mortifying. Needless to say, my bead bag remained untouched for a few years.
Then somewhere, something began to change. I went through some difficult times in school, and I realised that if I wanted to pray to Krsna, this was the best way to do it. I still didn’t feel the need to chant regularly, but I was no longer embarrassed if I did. Gradually, gradually, my attitude took a turn. But I still felt frustrated. Now I wanted to chant at least one round a day, but with no one forcing me to and only my own weak desire to push me on, I started and stopped countless times. I would chant everyday for two weeks, only to miss a few days and give up.
In 2005, I went with my family to India for the first time in ten years. At the Siddha Bakul tree in Jagannath Puri, where Haridas Thakur would chant 300,000 names of Krsna daily, I prayed to become attached to chanting. I prayed for his mercy, our ‘Namacharya’, who showed us all how to chant with devotion to Krsna through his extraordinary and exemplary life. So what happened next? Well, though we often hear amazing accounts by devotees, whose spiritual lives have taken an astonishing turn for the better, my story has no dramatic turning point. Two years on, and I’m still struggling to chant a few rounds. But I still feel blessed. Around me, I see those of my generation becoming enthused to chant Krsna’s names. This year my dearest friend Nadiya, who I’ve known since we were babies, took initiation and committed to chanting sixteen rounds daily.
Nadiya Mani (new name!), receiving her beads from her guru Sivarama Swami -photo by Bimala
As the year progresses, other dear friends have taken the same step, or have increased their commitment to chanting and Krsna Consciousness in a significant way. I was thinking about this recently in my violin lesson, as my violin guru taught me a new composition – ‘Vinayaka Ninnu’ in Ragam Hamsadhwani.
My violin guru, Sri AGA Gnanasundaram
In Carnatic music there is a principle known as sangati (Sanskrit – ‘sam’ – together, ‘gati’ – movement). In practice, this principle is the traditional method of melodic development in a composition. The way it is normally applied, is that the simplest form of the melody will be played first; often several times. Next, a small variation will be made, an ornament on the main melody or a slight difference in notes. Each variation is called a sangati, and as the piece continues, each sangati builds on the previous one, becoming more and more complex, but still progressing in a very logical way. This steady and sequential progression is vital to drawing out the beauty of the melody.
As I played the other day, I realised that whilst thinking about sangati I had been reminded of a vital principle of spiritual development. The evolution of the tune; the way it grows, each theme building on the previous one, whilst essentially retaining the basic melody, mirrors our spiritual journey in many ways.
I think so often, spiritual endeavours can fall flat because we take on commitments that we are not ready to fulfil. This inevitably leads to discouragement and even sometimes a significant decrease in spiritual practice. In the story of the tortoise and the hare, the swift hare tried to cheat, taking short cuts to win the race, only to be beaten by the tortoise who advanced slowly and steadily. It seems to me that being honest about where we stand; striving to build a strong foundation, and first becoming steady in our basic practice, before moving ahead, will hopefully result in much greater success.
In the Naradiya Purana it is directed, ‘One should not accept more than necessary if he is serious about discharging devotional service.’ The purport is that one should not neglect following the principles of devotional service, nor should one accept the rulings of devotional service which are more than what he can easily perform. For example, it may be said that one should chant the Hare Krsna mantra at least one hundred thousand times daily on his beads. But if this is not possible then one must minimize his chanting according to his own capacity. Generally, we recommend our disciples to chant at least sixteen rounds on their japa beads daily, and this should be completed. But if one is not even able to chant sixteen rounds, then he must make it up the next day. He must be sure to keep his vow. If he does not strictly follow this out, then he is sure to be negligent. That is offensive in the service of the Lord. If we encourage offenses, we shall not be able to make progress in devotional service. It is better if one fixes up a regulative principle according to his own ability and then follows that vow without fail. That will make him advanced in spiritual life.
– from The Nectar of Devotion, by A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada
Whilst it takes humility to admit that we aren’t quite ready for the next step, humility doesn’t mean complacency. To maintain spiritual momentum we must always be striving for a higher goal. Of course, more often than not, we are not the greatest judge of what is best for us, which is why it’s so important to take the shelter and guidance of those who are.
To accept such a spiritual master is the crucial point for advancement in spiritual life. One who is fortunate enough to come under the shelter of a bona fide spiritual master is sure to traverse the path of spiritual salvation without any doubt.
– Nectar of Devotion
Just as my violin teacher taught me each sangati in succession, only moving on to one of greater complexity when he was confident I could understand, and (shakily) play the current one, I pray now for the intelligence to recognise and receive this guidance in my spiritual life. I think often we want something earth shaking to happen – for the guiding hands of a spiritual master to come crashing into our lives and jump start us with an almighty lighting bolt of practical instruction. But if our eyes and ears are open we can see that we are being quietly guided all the time.
I see the wonderful younger devotees around me, gradually increasing their commitment, and those who have been steadily doing so for decades, through the many inevitable trials and tests of faith. I see those in a similar position to me, slowly becoming attached to chanting the holy name and it gives me such encouragement. These people guide me by showing me that it is possible. I only hope that I can follow in their footsteps; playing the basic melody with conviction; and that at the right time I can take formally take shelter of a spiritual master who will guide me further.
Under a sacred tree I prayed
If I am a tortoise
As I am slow
make me steady
Let my heavy shell
be my shield, on this treacherous path
As my eyes are small
let them only see the goal ahead
And allow my stiff limbs
to never stray from your lotus feet