Meditation and Imagination (nāma-bhajan)

Q: There are many tips and instructions, such as “just hear the mantra” and “listen to yourself chant sincerely”, as well as “the name reveals everything – but to let it do so you need to arrive without own made-up concepts!”. However, there are also recommendations to  actively focus on the meaning, maybe even “imagining” it.  Could you help me reconcile these different teachings? 

I ask because when I try to really just focus on the sound and feeling of the names on my tongue it feels kind of dry and void often and my mind slides into contemplation of the named persons – but I am not sure if this is just a psychological thing going on, because of something I recently read, a picture I saw etc. or, I almost don’t dare to write it, the slight beginning of spiritual revelation?

Mantras are made of very special words.

Words are sounds that have meaning. A word without a meaning is not a “word” – it is a sound. If I listen to Mandarin Chinese, for example, it sounds like music, not like words – because I don’t know the meaning within the sounds. Thus if you listen to a mantra without comprehending the meaning, you are not listening to the mantra fully.

Often people argue that a mantra is magical. All you have to do is hear the words, and poof, something happens.

It is true that mantra are magical, but even magic operates according to principles. You’ll notice that mantras are not melodies or whistles and claps. They are words. This means they are more than “vibrations” and “frequencies” – they are vibrations and frequencies with meaning. To truly hear the vibration requires comprehending the meaning.

This is why dīkṣā and śikṣā are always coupled together. Dīkṣā bestows us with a mantra. If the sound of the mantra itself is all we need, then what is the need for anything further? What is the need for sambandha if the abhideya is completely “magical” and works by its own power, with nothing from our side? Dīkṣā is always accompianied by śikṣā because to use the mantra correctly requires learning what the words mean. To do the abhideya properly requires sambandha.

If you listen to a mantra without comprehending the meaning you are barely listening to it. There will still be an effect: the effect is that you will eventually inquire about the meaning, receive proper śikṣā and then start to meditate on the mantra much more effectively. Thus even simply hearing a mantra does lead eventually to the full fruit of the mantra, but only after it leads to the stage of meditating on the mantra correctly.

Now, contemplate how “comprehending the meaning of a word” happens.

It is a function of buddhi, intellect. Buddhi recognizes patterns of sounds, and associates them with meaning. Then it presents an image of that meaning to the manas. The ahankara establishes how the manas reacts to those images. And the whole affair is observed by the ātmā (consciousness) via the citta. 

Think about it carefully. What buddhi does is translate a pattern of sound into an “image” with meaning.

Therefore intelligence works through imagination. And you will notice that the most intelligent people are excellent at visualizing and imagining abstract things, even things they have not seen before with their eyes.

It is not “imagination” in the sense of making something up. But it is “imagination” because the word produces an image of its meaning in the intellect.

 So, hearing a mantra should produce an image in the mind, then the mind should react to that image. This is how the mantra changes the citta (ceto darpana marjanaand soon the ātmā can see into the mantra directly, without clouds of saṁskāra in the citta. Then there is direct samādhī of the mantra and one immediately attains the full effect of the mantra.

In the case of a Krishna nāma-mantra. The words should produce vivid images in the buddhi, which are not “imagined” according to the saṁskāra of the individual, but are informed by the “dictionary” of śāstra. The sambandha-jñāna gained by study of śāstra allows the sound of Krishna’s name to produce a reasonably accurate manifestation of itself in the buddhi. The manas should then react to this with affection. This causes the ahaṁkāra and citta to develop saṁskāra positive to bhakti. Which allows the ātmā to perceive the complete presence of Krishna within the sound of his name.

The image produced by the nāma in the sambandha-jñāna-yukta-buddhi will contain in it the guṇa and rūpa (particular qualities and specific beauties) of the named. Later, when still more clarified and powerfully manifest, those guṇa and rūpa will “animate” – revealing the other entities they interact with (parikāra) and the way they all play together (līlā).

Thus the full dhāma of Krishna exists in the name “Krishna” but we require dīkṣā and śikṣā to develop buddhi that can host those names and thus clarify the sentience/citta so that the ātmā can directly contact them.

Simply trying to chant the nāma-mantra without any image in the mind is ineffective, as you yourself have noticed. People without proper sambandha may want to err on the conservative side by avoiding “imagination” of the meaning of the mantra but that is a very short-term solution at best. We actually need proper śikṣā from śāstra immediately following dīkṣā, then nāma-smaraṇa can be truly done.

When japa is done with perfect sambandha the entire dhāma manifests to our perception.

Vraja Kishor das (

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  1. I was initiated long ago by a mystic yogi and given a mantra, but anyways, he instructed me that BEFORE meditation, to spend 5-10 mins doing slow deep breathing while visualizing a setting.

    Although he was mayavadi, I still practice this part of his instruction. For instance, I could imagine myself in Vrindavan for 10 mins, and then immediately afterwards, meditate on the Maha Mantra. Usually though, I let go of the visualization and fix on the mantra, but I feel the preliminary visualizations helps set a stage.

    What you talk about in your article is an advanced stage that I have not yet experienced, but I hope to. I’ve read about it different places and it does sound like a good goal to reach for. Thank you.


  2. Another good piece. One query: you write that, ‘If you listen to a mantra without comprehending the meaning you are barely listening to it’- how does one reconcile this with traditional practices of veda-parayanam. The Brahmins clearly don’t understand the mantras of the Vedic samhitas and yet their practices are said to be effective since the efficacy of the mantras lies in their proper pronunciation and not their comprehension.


    1. Where is it said that proper pronunciation is more important than comprehension of meaning?

      On the contrary there are six Vedāngas. The first few – śikṣā, chanda, etc – teach how to pronounce and recite the words, because this comes first. (You can’t contemplate a word you can’t even say). The next angas – nirukti, vyakarana – deal with the meaning. All of the angas are required for the Veda to be effective.


      1. Bhartrhari in his Vyakyapadiya is quite at pains to point out that proper pronunciation is critical to the efficacy of the Vedas- more so, than comprehension. It is one of the reasons why even though the tradition of Vedic recitation continues, the meaning of many Vedic hymns has been lost to us. In fact, even Sabara, writing as early as the 2nd Century, struggles defining many Vedic words.


        1. Of course, a teacher of skiing says that skiing is indispensibly important for attaining peace of mind and health of the body. Naturally a teacher of pronunciation praises and glorifies the importance of pronunciation.


  3. Very comprehensive and intellectual article.

    Prabhuji could you please elaborate on how do we develop “sambandh gyan” in order to facilitate formation of mental image.
    Isn’t the acquired “sambandh gyan” subject to the source we read. For example, if I have to get “sambandha gyan” about Krishna, I should understand his position and should try to comprehend his pastimes. But that depends on the literature I read about Krishna.

    So how do we know which literatures are bonafide and are revealed to us by Krishna?

    Thank you so much for the great articles you share. They have really inspired me.
    Thank you prabhuji.


    1. I agree, its dependent on the information we receive. So take shelter of a guru who is genuine and deep in bhakti, then you will get sambandha jñāna that isn’t problematic.


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