The “Yoga” of Chanting

In Kapila’s discussion with his mother, he explains that the primary inspiration for bhakti comes from realizing one’s true self as a luminous consciousness, and realizing that, like all luminous things, the true self extends from a light-source, a Super-self – “paramātmā.”

Recently I was sharing this with a fairly large audience, and someone asked me for a practical suggestion on how to realize our true self as pure consciousness.

Kapila himself answers the same question by suggesting that we trace all our perceptions to their root, thereby  separating the obersever from the observed and from the instruments of observation, and thus isolating the true self as the essence of observation – pure consciousness. For example, whenever we see anything there is an object being seen, there is the eye which sees it, there is the power of vision, and there is the intellect recognizing the visual information – but beyond them all, at the root of them all, is the actual observer – the luminosity casting light on all experiences. That luminous consciousness is the root of who we are. And when we realize this, we realize that our true self-interest lies not in external manifestations of our self, but in the ultimate root source of our luminosity, the Supreme Entity – whom we begin to realize in three stages – as brahman, paramātmā, and ultimately as Bhagavān. 

Such concepts shouldn’t be too difficult for us to grasp… unless of course we are not really chanting, but are routely checking off “rounds” muttered as we drive to work, cook supper or daydream with our legs crossed.

While explaining this I expressed that such concepts shouldn’t be too difficult for us to grasp, since after all most of us chant some significant number of Hare Krishna mantra every single day and should therefore have strong “yogic muscles” in our powers of perception – unless of course we are not really chanting, but are routely checking off “rounds” muttered as we drive to work, cook supper or daydream with our legs crossed.

Now I would like to try to share a few more thoughts about how chanting the Hare Krishna mantra as a daily meditation naturally and automatically invokes direct realization of the self as pure consciousness.


Concentration is the essence of chanting (mantra japa / nāma-japa). As the founder of the modern Hare Krishna movement famously advised in regard to chanting, “just hear.” To hear, to concentrate, first we have to agree not to “hear” or concentrate on 10,001 other thingsThis is why, in the classical eight-step approach to meditation, “giving up” (pratyāhāra) immediately proceeds “grasping” (dharana) . First we must clear a space in the room, then we can bring some new furniture in. Even to read this article, first you must decide not to read, watch, hear, or do something else with your time. Concentration on one thing necessitates letting go of other things.

So, mantra-yoga is a simple-yet-difficult thing. All you have to do is hear some words, that’s simple. But it turns out to be difficult because it’s not at all easy to stop concentrating on all the things that preoccupy or hearts and mind throughout the other 20 ~ 23 hours of the day.

In fact, the effort to let go of distractions and concentrate on the nāma-mantra is the very thing that will cause us to realize ourselves as pure consciousness!

Letting go of these other thoughts in favor of clearly hearing the words of the Hare Krishna mantra is like trying to let go of bubblegum in our hair, or tar-and-feathers. It’s practically impossible to do it consistently unless we realize that we are not really related to the things that distract us. In other words, to concentrate we have to realize that we are pure consciousness.

In fact, the effort to let go of distractions and concentrate on the nāma-mantra is the very thing that will cause us to realize ourselves as pure consciousness!

Physical Distractions

The first category of distractions comes from physical realities, like being sick, or hungry. Or, as is far more common, we may be riddled with countless anxieties related to our physical necessities – like the extremely stressful reality of needing sufficient food, clothing, shelter and so on for ourselves or for our dependents. No yoga (bhakti or otherwise) asks us to ignore these responsibilities or abruptly set them aside forever. But we do have to set them aside for a few minutes or perhaps hours while we do our nāma-japa. Yet even this proves to be so difficult!

Some people give up and cover their tracks by inventing new outlooks on chanting, as if it was supposed to be for addressing these concerns – like it is a time to “pray” to God about our worries and wants. Yes, prayer is certainly an important spiritual practice, and expressing ones worries and wants is one valid type of prayer – but nonetheless prayer is a different practice than chanting. Prayer is vandana. Chanting is śravaṇa-kīrtana-smarana.

When we sit for nāma-japa we have to set aside our physical anxieties. Yes, it is a completely exhausting effort, but this effort is the main thing that causes us to truly realize, “I am not this body.”

When we sit for nāma-japa (the most powerful and pure of all spiritual practices) we have to set aside our physical anxieties. There is no way around it. Yes, it is a completely exhausting effort to do so mantra after mantra, “round” after “round,” day after day, year after year, but this effort in itself is the main thing that causes us to truly realize, “I am not this body.”

We will not get anywhere in spiritual progress if we give up on this front-line.

Emotional Distractions

The second category of distractions come from emotional states. Feeling happy or distressed about various goings on prevents us from being able to “just hear” the divine names. In my experience, the biggest monster among these distractions is the angry and sad feelings associated with being insulted. I think this is why Mahāprabhu made a big point to say amāneṇa mānadena kīrtaniya sadā hariḥ (“we will chant ‘Hari’ constantly when don’t expect respect and always try to respect others).

When we let go of feelings associated with external goings on, we can then hope to invest our feelings into our chanting effort. Only then will we be able to more truly interact with Krishna in the form of his name. This effort itself is the main thing that grants the realization, “I am not this mind.”

Intellectual Distractions

The third category of distractions comes from our intellect. We like to figure things out and explain them to others. This includes the problems of life that we are trying to unravel, but also extends insidiously into trying to figure out and explain spiritual philosophy and practice. It is important to figure out and explain such things – but that is for our study time, not our chanting time.

For me this is a big problem, to be honest. Even while chanting, as soon as I get some rare, small realization I slip down to the intellectual level and start figuring out how to conceptualize it in words so I can explain it to others.

Our effort here must be to set aside (or at least postpone) the intellectual busy-work of trying to solve life’s mysteries, as well as our attempts to intellectualize our own interaction with the mantra. This is a difficult, subtle job, but the effort  is the primary thing that will allow us to realize, “I am not this intellect.”

Ego (Ambition) Distractions

“Ego” is a translation for the Sanskrit ahaṁkāra. Literally that word means “I do.” It is the ambition of wanting to do things. “I will understand and explain this and that” is an intellectual byproduct of ego. “I will experience and enjoy this or that feeling” is an emotional application of ego. “I will secure this or that resource” is a physical application.

All of the distractions are rooted here. And this is good news, really, because it means that despite becoming subtler and more slippery, the distractions by and large become easier to set aside as we progress up the categories. By setting aside physical distractions we have made progress towards setting aside our emotional relationship with those things, which also means we’ve made progress setting aside the distractin needs to understand and solve various problematic situations. So, by the time we get around to directly concentrating on the distraction of ego, its already lost most of its power to distract.

Without Distraction :: Pure Consciousness

When we are free from these four distractions, we can really chant. Freedom from these distractions requires freedom from physical, emotional, intellectual, and ambition-based self-concepts. The effort to chant attentively,  therefore, makes us experience ourselves as what we really are: pure consciousness. No separate endeavor is really necessary.

If I am not this body, not these feelings, not those thoughts, and not these ambitions… then what am I? The very act of chanting without distraction reveals the answer – I am concentration. I am attention. I am consciousness, pure consciousness.

If I am not this body, not these feelings, not those thoughts, and not these ambitions… then what am I? The very act of chanting without distraction reveals the answer – I am concentration. I am attention. I am consciousness, pure consciousness. 

In the Gītā (18.54), Krishna calls this realization of self, brahma-bhūta. And says that it is the foundation on which bhakti for him can truly exist. Chanting attentively, accordingly, swiftly gives rise to ruci (genuine taste for things related to Krishna), which blossoms into asakti (fervent interest in Krishna), which makes the heart capable to attract and contain the divine mercy of true, living, experiential bhakti – bhāva-bhakti.

 Vraja Kishor das

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  1. Amazing, scientific breakdown of what fetters our chanting.

    How do you reconcile the distinction between vandanam and Sravanam, kirtanam, smarnam with the other famous instruction by the founder of the Hare Krishna movement to chant with this mood “Oh Krishna, oh energy of Krishna, please engage me in your service?”

    Another question i have had for a while is “What does it mean to chant without offenses?” Does this mean that one who chants sudha naam, never criticizes anything or anyone, nor is he ever not thinking about Krishna while chanting His holy names?

    Thanks Prabhu.


    1. I want to write something else too about the name not being an object subordinate to our consciousness so the means of accessing it to call for it with emotion and a sense of need and petition. This is my understanding of what Swamiji is communicating in the quote you referenced.

      ZUDDHA nam never thinks of anything else while chanting. They never have malice towards anyone. Maybe the point a fault out but there is no malice. That’s my understanding.


  2. Dear Vraja Kisora prabhu!

    Thank you very much. Could you tell me from which part
    Of Kapiladeva teachings you quote in the beginning?


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