What’s In A Name?

imagesBy Swami B.V. Tripurari

In the Hindu sacred texts, time is often thought of in terms of its quality rather than a strict, linear chronology. The Indian history from these sacred texts is a chronicle of all things with spiritual significance, which naturally speak about the quality of the time. Kali is thought to be the personification of a particularly inauspicious quality of time. According to the sacred texts, sankirtana, the congregational chanting of God’s name in call and response, is the recommended spiritual practice to overcome the influence of Kali-yuga.

Sri Caitanya, the greatest proponent of nama-kirtana, teaches that the initial effect of Sri Krishna nama sankirtan is ceto darpana marjanam—cleansing of the citta. The citta is like a psychic mirror of perception and when focused on the physical world it clouds one’s perception the atma, the eternal self. As a unit of self-luminous consciousness, we are active by nature and our presence in connection with matter animates the psychic and physical worlds of subtle and gross matter. But when we extend ourselves into matter and give it meaning, we lose sight of the fact that it is consciousness that matters. Without consciousness, nothing matters. Sankirtana cleanses the mirror of the citta, allowing us to focus on our actual selves—the inner atma—as opposed to the false self that arises out of material identification. But again, this is but the initial effect of nama-sankirtana. Ultimately it leads us beyond a religious life of material acquisition and also beyond a spiritual experiential path aimed at ending the cycle of birth and death—samsara

Within samsara, we try to acquire things and we also try to get free from things. Material acquisition affords us things but fosters the attachment that blinds us to the knowledge of the self. Renunciation of the tendency to acquire on the other hand, gives rise to illuminating self-knowledge. The Hindu religious discipline, karma-marga, is the path of material acquisition. The Hindu spiritual experiential discipline, jnana-marga, is the path of self knowledge, which aim is release from samsara. Acquisition is at the cost of self illumination and renunciation is at the cost of acquisition. Furthermore, both paths unto themselves are at the cost of love. Let me explain.

The karma-marga provides guidelines on how to systematically fulfill material desires by understanding the subtleties of the world and connecting with them to acquire things such that the givers—gods and goddesses—are honored. But as one looks deeper into the texts that provide these guidelines, one comes to know that the things in this world aren’t the best things life has to offer. The best things in life are not things, but rather that which gives things meaning—the self, the soul, the atma—consciousness proper. However, both of these paths are centered on the world, one for exploiting it and the other for escaping it.

Sri Caitanya’s path of nama sankirtana is central to the path of dedication to God, the bhakti-marga. It is the middle path because it is neither directly in pursuit of material acquisition nor renunciation, but rather dedication. But note that if in the context of bhakti acquisition is required, such acquisition is embraced, and if in the context of bhakti something needs to be renounced, it is left behind. Thus karma and jnana are alive and well within the context of love, and when these tendencies are harmonized through the culture of divine love their most wholesome expression as maidservants of the bride of bhakti is realized. Love ruled by the desire for acquisition is hardly love at all, and love ruled by the desire for emancipation is not the full face of love. Acquisition and renunciation must be subordinate to love, if love is to rule the day as it should.

The full face of divine love does not derive from acquisition (karma-marga) nor by the power of acquiring knowledge. It arises in the humble heart from acknowledgement of our source and the desire to serve that source. By acquisition and knowledge we try to control the world, however nama-sankirtana is about acknowledging the actual controller and raising one’s hands in supplication, one’s voice in glorification.

And the nama sankirtana of Sri Caitanya is centered on Krishna nama, the name of Krishna. Indeed, kirtana is for Krishna, the loving heart of the Godhead. And kirtana fosters meditation. By the power and force of kirtana, meditation will come about naturally and powerfully. In this regard, the sacred texts of the Hindus teach us that yogis try to fix their mind on some manifestation of Krishna with great difficulty, while the young and fair maiden Radha, Krishna’s divine consort—bhakti personified—tries to get Krishna off of her mind! Such is the nature of lila, the divine play of God, wherein Krishna at times appears to be an unfaithful lover only for the sake of drawing love out of his devotees.

Such lila is the aim of nama-sankirtana—to follow the lead of Radha. Nama-sankirtana cleanses the citta and self illumination is obtained as the desire for acquisition is retired. But it does not end there as the jnana-marga does. It does not end in the stillness of a life devoid of acquisition and the meaningless movement such a life involves. It is active in pursuit of positive spiritual attachment to Krishna, in the context of which self knowledge is attained as a byproduct and active life in the meditative subjective world of lila is attained. From noise (karma) to silence (jnana) to song (bhakti)—kali-kale nama-rupe krsna-avatara! What’s in a name?

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