The swaminarayan mahamantra japa: chanting of the manta Part 4
For the last three months, we've been running a series of articles on mantras: what they are, what they do, and in particular, the story and glory behind the Swaminarayan Mahamantra. In this final article of the series, we'll be learning about what a mala is and how exactly to chant the mantra in order to reap its greatest rewards.The legendary baseball coach Yogi Berra, renowned as much for his wit as for his coaching successes, often used to tell his players, "Boys, never forget: baseball is 90% mental. The other half is physical."
What Yogi Berra was trying to get across to his players was that much more than a 100% effort was required of them and that, too, should comprise of both physical effort and mental effort.
Baseball aside, focussing on God is something far, far more challenging. Lord Swaminarayan calls it the hardest thing in the world. And also the greatest! (Vachanamrut Gadhada I-1) For that, too, a physical, mental, and spiritual effort is required.
But mental processes can be hard work. And spiritual processes even harder. It doesn't take a lot for a mind to get bored, tired, and restless. Before 'you' know it, it's either wandered off, or switched off. What the mind really needs is something active to keep it involved. Thankfully, Shriji Maharaj has given our 'nomadic' mind a helping hand. Several helping hands in fact. There are many tangible aids that can help our minds settle on God, and keep it settled on God. One of easiest and most powerful is called japa.
What Is Japa
Japa literally means 'chanting'. It is derived from the Sanskrit verb-root jap - which means 'to chant'. Another word for japa is 'mantra-yoga'. This means the practice of chanting a mantra in order to come closer to God. In essence, then, japa simply means the concentrated and continuous repeating of God's holy name.
Japa is much more than just a physical process, though. When performed properly, japa can become a perfect tool in helping to quieten the mind, harmonize the inner bodies, and stimulate latent spiritual qualities.
How To Practice Japa
Japa, too, can take several forms. Most common are:
l singing aloud in a musical format (usually in chorus with others)
l clapping continuously while chanting in a single tone (either alone or with others)
l turning a mala (alone) All these are verbal forms of chanting. Some include writing the name of God as a type of japa as well. We'll be focussing more on the personal form of japa: chanting the name of God while using a mala; and as mentioned earlier, how a physical effort (the hands), a mental effort (the head) and a spiritual effort (the 'heart') must all come together in order to really succeed in concentrating on God.
Hands: Why Use A Mala
During japa, the untrained mind can wander off into thoughts and daydreams. The mala is a potent tool for keeping an unruly mind on the task at hand. With the mala, the mind falls into a rhythm of repetition. The physical turning of the beads one after the other follows the beat of this rhythm. Usually, when the rhythm is broken, the hand stops moving, and it is easy to catch the mind losing concentration. Moving the mala beads is also an effective way of channeling the restless energy that keeps surfacing when sitting in a totally still posture.
"Mala and mind form a partnership," notes Rajmani Trigunait (Ph.D.), eminent yoga scholar and author of Inner Quest, "they help and motivate each other. The result is that you remember your mantra with fewer distractions and disturbances."
How To Use A Mala
There are only a few basic rules for using a mala respectfully and effectively.
Holding a Mala: Only use the right hand for turning the mala. (Left-handed people will soon get the hang of it with a little practice.) To use the mala, pick it up with your thumb and middle finger. Allow it to rest freely on the side of your middle finger, if necessary, supporting your middle finger with the ring and little finger. Then use the thumb to turn each bead individually - that means one by one! - towards oneself while uttering the 'Swaminarayan' mantra. The middle finger is used because it is connected to the heart by a subtle meridian, and the heart is where the scriptures state the seat of God is. The scriptures also advise against touching the mala with the index finger because it is used to point at things, which is rude and makes the finger unholy.
Respecting a Mala: Because a mala is a tool for worship, it, too, must be duly respected. Your mala should not be allowed to touch the floor or your feet. People use a gau-mukhi to ensure this. A gau-mukhi is a small L-shaped cloth bag that can store your mala and also allow you to turn your mala within it. If you don't have a gau-mukhi, then you can use a loose end of a piece of clothing, or a clean handkerchief. Or simply raise your hand so that the mala does not touch the floor at all.
Positioning a Mala: A mala can be held in different positions while doing japa. One position is at the chest, over the heart. Others include near the throat, at the mouth, or even between the eyebrows. With these methods, the palm of the left hand is usually placed facing upward at the navel or above to catch the bottom of the mala. But if you find your hand and arms getting tired, then you can always rest your hand on your knee. When sitting cross-legged or in padmasana, remember not to let the mala touch the floor or your feet.
The 108 Beads of a Mala & The Meru Bead: A mala has 108 beads. The significance of this lies in the number of breaths a person takes during his waking hours. Ancient rishis calculated that a person takes on average 15 breaths a minute. That works out to be 21,600 breaths throughout the day. In times when electric light bulbs and tube lights were fittings of the future, people had 12-hour days and 12-hour nights. Ideally, an ardent devotee would like to take the name of God with every breath. During his waking hours, that would mean he would have to chant the name of God 10,800 times. Using a special arrangement, prescribed in the Manu Smruti, called upanshu, the fruit of 100 chants is given each time the name of God is taken. And so, one turning of a mala with 108 beads can amount to taking the name of God with every breath! That's why 108 beads have been assigned to a mala.
Now the last bead, the 108th bead, is called the 'meru' bead, or guru bead. Just as the sun is thought not to cross the mountain named Meru, similarly, we, too, must not cross the 'meru' bead. When you reach the 'meru' bead, touch it and then 'about-turn' the mala to resume turning the beads in the opposite direction; but do not go past the 'meru' bead. This also symbolizes deference to God and guru who reign supreme in our lives.
When to Use a Mala: Again, there really are no hard and fast rules to this. Ideally, though, people tend to prefer either early mornings - before the humdrum of the day has begun, so giving one a fresh, spiritual start to the day. Others prefer to use it last thing at night - after thay have finished all the day's activities, and are ready to unwind with memories of God and Swamiji before retiring to a night of sound sleep.
But besides this, you can keep your mala with you all the time. (It's best to get a personal mala, and keep yours with you.) Some people like to get out their malas while waiting at the bus stop, while traveling on trains or buses, and of course, during sabhas at home and the mandir.
A strongly advised tip is that japa must be practiced daily and regularly. Preferably at the same time and in the same place. This trains the mind to 'log on' at the appointed hour and location. And if possible, choose a clean, quiet place - where you can be alone with God, undisturbed.
Head: Pride & Glory
First and foremost, there should be a sense of pride, a sense of glory around the name of God. This is what we call mahima - contemplating upon the power and glory of japa:
"Japa is one of the best offerings I can make to God.
It is another form of God Himself."
When Shri Krishna describes himself in the Bhagwad Gita as the best of whatever there is in the world, he says:
"Of all offerings, I am the offering of japa." - X/20
In other words, japa is one of the best offerings one can make to God, and is in fact another form of God Himself.
"Japa can help wash away my sins, and redeem me from the cycle of births and deaths."
Explains the Agni Puran:
"Ja-kãro janma-vichchhedaha, pa-kãraha pãpa-nãshakaha;
Tasmãj-japa iti prokto janma-pãpa-vinãshakaha."
In the word japa, 'ja' stands for destroyer of 'janma' (births, and therefore also deaths) and 'pa' stands for destroyer of 'papa' (sins)
Thus, japa can wash away sins, and redeem one from births and deaths.
The Swaminarayan Mahamantra holds the power and essence of all the scriptures in the world.
There was once a lady devotee from the village of Kariyani. From the day she gave birth to a baby boy, she would chant 'Swaminarayan' in his ear. As the boy grew older, the lady began urging her son to repeat after her, 'Swaminarayan, Swaminarayan,....' One day, when the baby boy spoke a broken uttering of 'Swaminarayan' the mother was so elated, she began jumping around the house, and then on to the streets, shouting, ""My son has mastered the Vedas... He has mastered the Purans and all the Scriptures in the world. He has said 'Swaminarayan'!"
The devotee had the pride and glory that the holy name of Swaminarayan holds the essence of all scriptures.
With Feelings: If a thing's worth doing, it's worth doing whole-heartedly. Only when the mantra resonates, not just from the lips, but from every pore of one's body can one truly have said to have taken God's name. This, no doubt, takes persistent effort and unflinching patience. But the point is that one should be careful that the chanting does not merely become a mechanical procedure.
Enthusiasm, zeal, or the basic feeling of 'wanting to do it' are the root cause behind all efforts that bear fruit.
With Faith: Along with feelings, there also has to be at least some degree of faith in the practice of japa - faith that the glory described of the Swaminarayan Mahamantra is true; and faith that it can, and will bring me closer to God.
There is a very famous incident in the Satsang Fellowship of faith in the Swaminarayan mantra's power.
When one night in Gondal, a poisonous snake bit Yogiji Maharaj on his left-hand index finger, Shastriji Maharaj recalled the words of Gunatitanand Swami in the Swamini Vato: "The Swaminarayan Mahamantra is extremely powerful; it can suppress even the venom of a deadly cobra."
Both Shastriji Maharaj and Yogiji Maharaj had faith in the words of Gunatitanand Swami. And so when Yogiji Maharaj was brought to the Akshar Deri, and chanting of the Swaminarayan mantra began, the deadly effects of the poison soon subsided. To the great astonishment of even doctors, the venom literally vanished leaving behind nothing more than a small defect on the tip of Yogiji Maharaj's index finger. Yogiji Maharaj often showed the snake-bitten finger and recalled the incident himself.
With such faith supporting our japa, one will undoubtedly experience the greatest rewards of japa.
Above all, the central objective - and thus the final reward - of chanting the name of God is to experience the proximity of God.
Hothiyo Patgar, of the village Kundal, had a habit of saying 'Swaminarayan, Swaminarayan' during his daily activities. Early one morning, well before sunrise, as he got out of his bed, he naturally remembered the Lord and chanted the name 'Swaminarayan'.
He suddenly heard someone call from behind. At first, Hothiyo just ignored it. "It's far too early in the morning," he thought to himself, "I must be hearing things."
But when Hothiyo Patgar chanted 'Swaminarayan' again, he heard another 'reply' to his chant. This time it was a clear "Yes?"
"Surely, there has to be someone there. But at this odd hour in the morning! It's not even daybreak yet."
Hothiyo Patgar went to investigate and when he opened the door, to his utter amazement, stood Shriji Maharaj.
"Maharaj!" Hothiyo screamed in astonishment, "What are you doing here at this time of day?"
"Were you not calling me just now?" Maharaj asked innocently in His tender, loving voice.
"Me? Calling you? Now?" Hothiyo Patgar wondered aloud.
"Yes." Shriji Maharaj contended sweetly. "Did you not call my name, 'Swaminarayan'?"
"But dear Maharaj," Hothiyo began explaining, "that's just a habit of mine. I say it all the time. I didn't mean for you to come here."
Maharaj, with utmost love and compassion, placed His hand on Hothiyo's shoulder, and said, "Hothiyo, just as you have a habit of calling my name, I, too, have a habit of answering to my name. Wherever, and whoever calls my name, I make sure I am present there."
Hothiyo Patgar was overwhelmed. How compassionate of Maharaj. But then a small doubt seeped into Hothiyo's mind. "Maharaj?" he asked inquisitively. "I call your name everyday, throughout the day. How is it that I have never seen you before?"
Shriji Maharaj explained, "I know. I come every time you say my name. It's just that this time I wanted to bless you personally. Nevertheless, even when you cannot see me, never think that I am not present. I am. And always will be."