हरे कृष्ण हरे कृष्ण कृष्ण कृष्ण हरे हरे ।
हरे राम हरे राम राम राम हरे हरे ।।

Most mantra have a sentence structure, making their meaning relatively specific and simple to express. The Hare Krishna mantra, however, is not a sentence at all. It has only nouns, no verbs, and these nouns have identical grammatical form  (all of them are in the “invocative” case), thus neither indicating nor implying any subject, object or action. This in itself is meaningful and reflects the underlying nature of spirit itself (brahman), but the more practical immediate ramification is that the Hare Krishna mantra will not submit to conventional translation.

Some of the mantra’s meaning comes from understanding the meanings of its three nouns; some comes from understanding the patterns formed by these nouns; some comes from comprehending the grammatical and symmetrical uniformity; and some comes not from the words but from the act of invoking the words.

The Pattern

The mantra is a beautiful symmetrical pattern created from three nouns coupled in two pairs. “Krishna” couples with “Hare” to form the first half of the mantra. “Rāma” couples with “Hare” to form the second half. In each half, first the nouns are repeated as a couple, then they are uncoupled and repeated separately. Thus, after repeating “Hare Krishna,” the couple is separated into “Krishna” and “Hare” and each is repeated on its own.

Hare Kṛṣṇa, Hare Kṛṣṇa,
Kṛṣṇa Kṛṣṇa, Hare Hare.

The second half mirrors this pattern, using Rāma in place of Krishna:

Hare Rāma, Hare Rāma,
Rāma Rāma, Hare Hare.

A great deal of meaning exists in this pattern, but before exploring it we must acquaint ourselves with the primary meanings of the nouns it uses.

Krishna

Nāma Kaumudī’s fundamental definition of the word krishna is, “The supreme spiritual substance.” This harkens to Gopāla-tāpanī Upaniṣad, which explains (in pūrva.1.1) that krish- means “existence.” and –ṇa means “carefree.” The word krishna therefore indicates an entity whose existence is effortless, self-establishing, causeless, without defects, and blissful. That entity is brahman, the supreme spiritual substance — consciousness itself in its pure, original, wholesome form.

But Nāma Kaumudī further specifies that krishna refers not merely to the latent potential state of brahman as a homogenous, effortless state of undifferentiated consciousness, it also and especially refers to the kinetic source of brahman: a specific carefree and effortlessly self-manifest, blissful and flawless person. “Krishna” the Nāma Kaumundī continues, “denotes the one whose complexion is as black as a tamāla tree.”

The word krishna indicates the color black because that color pulls in (krish-) all light (-na). Viṣṇu’s complexion is as black as a tamāla tree. Indeed, the Amara-kośa Sanskrit dictionary states, “Viṣṇu, Krishna, Vaikuṇṭha, and Nārāyaṇa are synonyms.” I will explain why.

Viṣṇu literally means “all-pervasive,” denoting the substance which is the essence of everything: consciousness itself. Viṣṇu and krishna are synonyms because they both indicate the effortlessly self-manifest all-pervading substance of reality, consciousness — especially in it’s kinetic, specific fountainhead as a blissful and flawless personality.

Vaikuṇṭha literally means “carefree,” again denoting consciousness, and especially the realm of unfettered consciousness and the fountainhead of consciousness. It is therefore synonymous with viṣṇu and krishna.

Nārāyaṇa literally means “the reservoir of personhood” and denotes the fountainhead of consciousness. Therefore it is another synonym.

Krishna denotes all manifestations of Bhagavān Viṣṇu — the carefree and effortlessly self-manifest personality who is the fountainhead of all-pervasive consciousness. But Nāma Kaumudī finishes its definition by stating that the word krishna specifically refers to someone who was “raised on Yaśodā’s breast.” So, although krishna refers to consciousness itself (brahman) and although it refers to Viṣṇu as the source of all consciousness (paramātmā) and the epitome of all personality (bhagavān), in the ultimate focus this word denotes a very specific form of Bhagavān: the one who is raised by the loving breast-milk of the queen of Vraja, Śrī Yaśodā Devī. Ultimately, the word krishna refers to the famous Gopa of Vṛndāvana whom the Bhāgavata Purāṇa lauds as the fountainhead of all Viṣṇus, who are themselves the fountainheads of all consciousness, which is the very substance of reality itself.

The most literal, basic meaning of krish- is simply, “pull.” Earlier I quoted Gopāla-tāpanī Upaniṣad stating that krish- means “existence.” It has this meaning because existence is the tangible coagulation of consciousness, a structure pulled into place by consciousness’ gravity. The primary trait of Krishna is that he “pulls,” like a magnet, like gravity.

What does he pull? He pulls upon -ṇa. Gopāla-tāpanī Upaniṣad said -ṇa means “carefree.” What is carefree? Pure consciousness. Therefore Monier’s Sanskrit dictionary states that native Sanskrit lexicographers also define -ṇa as knowledge, the power of knowledge, consciousness.

Krish-na: he who pulls on consciousness.

What does it mean to “pull on consciousness”? It means to attract, fascinate, delight, and enthrall. Krishna emits all consciousness, like a star emitting light, and then, like a black hole, he attracts, fascinates, and enthralls the emitted consciousness – forming a circuit, a loop.

Loops amplify. What does Krishna amplify? Carefree existence, bliss – which attains its thickest reality in the form of love, prema.

Krishna: the all-attractive amplifier of prema.

Rāma 

The word rama literally means “pleasure.” With a long initial “a,” rāma, it means “pleaser and enjoyer” – a “lover” in the romantic and erotic sense. It is a name for the god of eros, kāma-deva, and is used amongst commoners to denote any extremely seductive and attractive man or woman.

The words rāma and krishna form a natural pair, because krishna indicates the attraction of consciousness, and rāma indicates the thing consciousness is attracted to: pleasure! It also indicates the result of being attracted to krishna: pleasure.

If krishna refers to Brahman – the self-sustaining, effortlessly manifest effortless consciousness – then rāma refers to the bliss of that carefree existence: brahmānanda nirvāṇa.

If krishna refers to Paramātmā – the effortless manifestor of all consciousness – then rāma refers to śānta-rasa the joyful experience of seeing all things as equally divine and thus feeling effortlessly peaceful and satisfied.

If krishna refers to Bhagavān – the epitome of effortlessly joyful personal consciousness –  then rāma refers to devotional sentiment, bhakti-rasa, the feeling of affection and admiration for that Supreme Person.

Some say that the entire mahāmantra is about Bhagavān and the word krishna refers to one manifestation of Bhagavān, the Gopa of Vṛndāvana, but Rāma refers to a different manifestation, either Paraśū-rāma, Rāma-chandra, or Bala-rāma. There is nothing incorrect in this view, but it does not allow the deepest understanding of the mahāmantra to unfold. It is not wrong, but it is not the best understanding either.

The best understanding is that the three nouns of the mantra name and describe the same entity – the being who is the origin of all manifestations of Bhagavān, Paramātmā, and Brahman. That entity is the primeval erotic principle in person – the transcendent, self-manifest Kāma-deva at the root of all existence

By the name krishna he “pulls” and “attracts” us. Then, by the name rāma he enjoys us… and thus delights us.

Hare

The word hare is the invocative form of both hari, and hara. The difference is simply of grammatical gender. Hari and hara are the same word, but hari is the grammatically masculine form, and hara is the grammatically feminine form.

The two forms have the same fundamental meaning. I’ll describe these fundamental meanings by considering hare with masculine grammar. Later, I’ll consider it with feminine grammar.

The word hari literally means: “take, carry, hold.” Things that are “ravishing, captivating, and enthralling” are called hari because they carry away and hold on to our hearts.

Brahman can be called hari because Brahman is consciousness, and consciousness carries and holds all of reality. Paramātmā can be called hari because all individual jīvātmā emanate from Paramātmā like rays emanating from the sun; thus Paramātmā carries all living entities into existence and holds us by maintaining our existence – like the sun carrying and holding its rays. Bhagavān Śiva can be called hari because he has the power to end the universe, taking away and carrying off everything. Bhagavān Viṣṇu can be called hari because he maintains the universe, carrying it by holding its substance together. These and other divinities can also be called hari because they wish to take away our suffering and impurity.

But the fullest meaning of the word hari — ravishing, captivating, and enthralling — shows itself most fully when we consider the word as a reference to the primeval Kāma-deva who is the source of Brahman, Paramātmā, and all divinity.

Meaning of the Mantra

The entire mahāmantra is an invocation – a call to manifest the divine. It invokes  the divine in a form that corresponds with the conception of the invoker. If chanted with the deepest conception, the mantra invokes the divine as the primeval Kāmadeva – the captivating, ravishingly attractive and delightful Supreme Person.  Such a conception might be expressed in words somewhat like these:

Oh Hari – take me, carry me away and hold me captive!”

“What are you? What exactly should I take?” He may ask.

Oh Krishna – take the deepest part, the very essence that is the source of everything I am, ever was, or ever will be: take my heart, my soul, my very consciousness itself!”

“How should I accomplish this?” He may ask.

“Oh Krishna, it will be effortless for you – you are all-attractive! You are my root, and you are my ultimate fruit, so it is effortless and proper for you to claim me!”

“Why should I take you? What for?” He may ask.

Oh Rāma – because you are the ravisher, the enjoyer, the lover. You desire lovers to ravish and enjoy!”

“Selfishness is not enjoyable.
I won’t take you for my selfish pleasure.” He may protest.

“Oh Rāma, when you enjoy me, I enjoy!”

“All right,” He will finally say. “Come here!”

The Trans-meaningful Reality of the Mantra

The mahāmantra is not merely a set of words that point towards meanings. It also transcends “meaning” and becomes a direct manifestation of spiritual reality itself. The mantra’s words reveal themselves to the sincere chanter as a trans-meaningful experiential reality, in accord with the chanter’s conception of those words.

If we consider krishna as Brahman, rāma as brahmānanda and hari as the pure, effulgent consciousness itself, devoid of distinction between subject and object – then the mahāmantra reveals itself as brahmajyoti and dissolves the chanter into absolute, undifferentiated oneness with it.

If we consider krishna as Paramātma, rāma as the blissful vision of absolute equality, and hari as the removal of ignorant separatism and distinction – then the mahāmantra reveals itself as Paramātmā and removes our ignorance of the peaceful unified substrata pervading the diverse manifestations of existence.

If we consider krishna as Bhagavān, rāma as the bliss of divine love, and hari as the attractive power of that all-lovable Supreme Person – then the mahāmantra reveals itself as Bhagavān, attracts us, and manifests the bonds of love by establishing a direct personal relationship with the Supreme Person.

If we consider krishna as the primeval entity, the root of Brahman, Paramātmā and Bhagavān, the original erotic principle of bliss, Kāmadeva. Then the mantra cries to him, “Take my heart! Attract and enthrall me! Delight in me, love me!” and he manifests himself with all his playful beauty and charms, to do exactly what we have requested.

Certainly there could be no more amazing mantra than this! Therefore we rightly call it the “Greatest Mantra” – mahā-mantra. Yet there is treasure in this mantra still hidden from the above descriptions. Access to this treasure begins by considering hare with feminine grammar – as hara. This word denotes Kāmadeva’s śakti – the Supreme Energy of the Supreme Energetic.

Śakti, by definition, is “the agency through which one fulfills a desire.” The word hara denotes Kāmadeva’s śakti because hara means “to carry away, ravish, enthrall, and captivate,” and Kāmadeva-Krishna’s supreme desire is to be “ravished, captivated, enthralled, and carried away” (hara). His śakti, Rati-Rādhā, is the entity who fulfills this desire.

Energy disappears without an energetic source, and an energetic source is not really an “energetic source” unless it can emit energy. Therefore comprehension of the Supreme Energetic is incomplete if divorced from comprehension of the Supreme Energy. When we consider hare in feminine form, the mahāmantra reveals a perfect, complete conception of the ultimate reality as the Energy-Energetic Rati-Kāmadeva from whom (and for whom) Bhagavān, Paramātmā, and Brahman emanate.

The Supreme Energetic is an intrinsically masculine principle, and the Supreme Energy is intrinsically feminine. When we see hare as a feminine word, the mantra attains a wonderful balance of energy and energetic, feminine and masculine – with 8 repetitions of the feminine words, and 8 repetitions of the masculine words.

When we understand the mantra as an invocation of Kāmadeva-Krishna, we see hara as Rati-Rādhā. When we hear “Hare Krishna” we experience Śrī Rādhā’s captivation of all-attractive Śrī Krishna. When we hear “Hare Rāma” we experience Śrī Krishna’s delightful ardor to love and be loved by Śrī Rādhā. In “Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna” and “Hare Rāma, Hare Rāma” we hear Rādhā and Krishna’s embrace of one another. In “Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare” and “Rāma Rāma, Hare Hare” we hear their longing to embrace one another.

As the mantra dances, we experience Rādhā and Krishna dancing delightfully. Sometimes arm in arm (“Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna”), sometimes at a short distance (“Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare”).

“Oh HareCaptivate and enthrall all-attractive Krishna, and thus captivate and enthrall my consciousness. Delight and thrill your lover, Rāma, and thus delight and thrill my consciousness.”

Closing

To think deeply about the mahāmantra is certainly a step in the right direction. If we take that step with humility and affection, under the guidance of someone who realizes in the mantra what we aspire to realize in it, then certainly our steps will fast become strides.

If this article is of service to souls, especially those who aspire to serve the delight of Rādhā and Krishna’s rāsa-līlā festival, then I can hold on to some confidence that Śrī Śrī Rādhā and Krishna are happy with it, and might bless me with a slight realization of what I have written, though I have done nothing to merit it.

– Vraja Kishor dās

7 thoughts on “Meaning of the “Hare Krishna” Mantra

  1. Hare Krsna Prabhu. Thanks for the excellent article. Here the distinction between Brahman and Paramatma realization is not clear to me:

    “If we consider krishna as Brahman, rāma as brahmānanda and hari as the pure, effulgent consciousness itself, devoid of distinction between subject and object – then the mahāmantra reveals itself as brahmajyoti and dissolves the chanter into absolute, undifferentiated oneness with it.

    If we consider krishna as Paramātma, rāma as the blissful vision of absolute equality, and hari as the removal of ignorant separatism and distinction – then the mahāmantra reveals itself as Paramātmā and removes our ignorance of the peaceful unified substrata pervading the diverse manifestations of existence. “

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    1. Thank you for your sharp, good question.

      When one realizes Paramātmā one realizes that ātmā is everywhere in everything. When one realizes Brahman one realizes that Brahman is everywhere in everything. So, yes, there is great similarity. The difference is that Brahman is a consciousness without object, consciousness dissolving the objects into itself so that there is nothing but consciousness and nothing to be conscious of. Ātmā is a distinct entity of consciousness, conscious of other entities. So, in Brahman realization one dissolves into pure latent consciousness. In Paramātmā realization one does not dissolve but sees all entities as rays of a single “Param” ātmā, this erases “ignorant separatism and distinction” and “reveals the peaceful unified substrata pervading the diverse manifestations of existence.”

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