In this age of conflict and anxiety chanting the holy name of God is the cure to all our problems and worries.
A few years back a rich man was impressed when he saw Pramukh Swami Maharaj absorbed in chanting the Lord's name with a pair of 'kartals' (cymbals) in hand. He had never witnessed a person so happy in his entire life. He felt no amount of money could buy the bliss Swamiji was experiencing. He asked Swamiji: "How can we ever attain the happiness you so abundantly possess?" The reply was short and to the point. "Absorb yourself in chanting God's name. This will forge an armour that will make you invincible to all miseries."
While reading this article you are probably aware or unaware of an orchestra of sounds and visions around you; the next door neighbor's blaring radio or Hi-Fi system, the screaming television in the next room, a simmering row across the street or a catchy poster on your way to office or college. All these and a lot more infiltrate and influence your character, mode of thoughts and health.
When anyone shouts, "Scorpion! Scorpion!", "Snake! Snake!", you reflexively jump in fright. When someone calls you names or heaps insult you find it excruciating to bear. You become inflamed and uneasy. When someone praises you, you feel happy. The spectrum of human reactions to the words and things around us is endless. If such situations can arouse feelings of fear, anger, joy, then what of chanting or hearing God's name -- the purest and greatest of all names? The mere saying of the word 'apple' conjures an image of it and a lot more. Similarly, chanting God's name creates an image or awareness of God. We become "apple-conscious" on saying the word apple, similarly we become "God-conscious" on chanting the Lord's name (nama japa).
During the two World Wars soldiers marching to the front chorused or whistled patriotic songs. This bolstered their fighting spirit and numbed their anxieties. The slaves in the cotton fields of America sang songs to kill the monotony of work and the brunt of persecutions from their masters. In this age of conflict and anxiety chanting the holy name of God is the panacea to all our problems and worries. A popular verse pointed out by Chaitanya Mahaprabhu says:
Harer Nama Harer Nama Harer Namaiva Kevalam!
Kalau Naste Eva Naste Eva Naste Eva gatir Anyatha!
The above verse means that in Kaliyuga there is no other means to moksha than chanting the name of God. The words 'harer nama' (i.e. the Lord's name) are mentioned three times to emphasize the importance of singing the Lord's name.
All our sufferings stem from the delusion that "I am the body." Our true identity is atma (or soul). Believing what you are not (i.e. a case of mistaken identity) incurs misery and frustration. You'll find misery coming your way when you believe you are a leader or you know about lots of things, when in reality you don't. Living in false identity stifles your peace and happiness. To support this consider the example of a thief who is about to do his work. He is never at ease. He is always vigilant lest he gets caught. But if he behaves normally, his true self, he is free from the fear of getting caught. To realize who we really are, our true identity, and extricate ourselves from the delusion that "I am the body" and all the reactions that go with it we need to chant the name of God. "Nama-Japa" ultimately strikes a spiritual dialogue between the chanter and God.
Pingala, a woman of loose morals, underwent a miraculous change through hearing God's name. The story says a thief presented a parrot to her. The parrot kept singing the name of "Rama, Rama." Out of her fondness for the parrot her conscience began to ring with the Lord's name. Though she was unaware of Lord Ram's glory, the holy name induced a union with God. By virtue of the Lord's name she became free from sin.
The story of Ajamila in the Shrimad Bhagwat is another testament to the power of God's name. Ajamila was initially a pure, disciplined Brahmin. The genesis of his downfall was accounted for inhaling a fragrant flower from a prostitute. Out of this was born an affection for her that later ballooned into infatuation. He slipped from his daily routine of worship and lapsed in his morals. He left his lawful wife and married the low born prostitute. He had several children out of which the youngest, Narayan, was very dear to him. Years later the servant of Yama (Death) came to claim his soul. Ajamila was destined to damnation if he hadn't uttered Narayan -- his son's name. In calling his son (Narayan) the Lord forgave all his sins because 'Narayan' is also the Lord's name that redeems who ever utters it.
The Lord's name chanted knowingly or unknowingly, correctly or incorrectly (as was the case for Valmiki who chanted "Mara, Mara' instead of "Rama, Rama") plays its purifying role. Gunatitanand Swami says, "I shall redeem anyone who knowingly or unknowingly chants the name of "Swaminarayan." Just as fire or acid burns anyone ignorant of its burning property, similarly, the Lord's name destroys sins regardless of one's ignorance. It would however be pertinent to note that one who chants with faith and understanding supercedes the former.
When the valiant Ram returned to Ayodhya he was given a hero's welcome. A grand coronation was arranged. Guests from all corners were invited. Vibhishan (brother of Ravan) and his followers were also invited. After the occasion the guests returned to their kingdoms. Vibhishan decided to stay behind. His followers, however, wished to return to Lanka. But there was a major problem stopping them from going. The stone bridge to Lanka was no more. It was submerged in water leaving them with no hope of returning home. Vibhishan solved their dilemma.
He took a leaf and without their knowledge wrote the name of 'Ram' and wrapped it in a cloth. "Take this cloth," Vibhishan said "and a way shall be opened to you." The followers did as their new king had instructed. They entered the waters and to their surprise the ocean waters became knee-deep. They waded towards Lanka. Midway one of them opened the cloth to see its contents. Seeing only a dry leaf, he laughed. On closer inspection he saw the name of 'Ram' written on it. This made him laugh all the more. "How could the name of Ram make the ocean knee-deep!" And with this thought his faith subsided. The ocean waters rose and they all perished in the deluge.
As mentioned in the opening paragraph 'japa' has a marked effect on health. Dr. Benson of Harvard University cited an interesting aspect of 'japa'. In an issue of Span magazine, 1976, he says that experiments show that the metabolism in a human changes when he retires for the night. Blood pressure and other body processes operate without any fluctuations. The individual awakens fresh and invigorated. This particular situation is attained through 20 minutes of 'japa', twice during the day. Chanting the Lord's name corrects all erratic body processes and thus enabling good health.
In the Skand Puranas (written by Sage Vyasji) we find a verse that reads: "I pray to the infinitely powerful Lord whose holy name and remembrance relieves me of all mental and physical afflictions."
Bhagwan Swaminarayan emphasizes the importance of 'japa' by questioning an assembly of sadhus and devotees. "How can the mind be retrieved from the waves of unwholesome thoughts that often inundate it during meditation?" No one could answer the question so Bhagwan Swaminarayan replied: "When repulsive thoughts flood the mind, one should abandon meditation and resort to chanting the Swaminarayan mantra aloud...." (Vachanamrut Loya 6).
In Vachanamrut Gadhada Sec. I.56 Bhagwan Swaminarayan says one who has a firm practicing faith in God (upasana) believes that when a sinful man chants the name of 'Swaminarayan' even during his dying moments, he becomes pure, free from all sins and attains the highest abode of god -- 'Akshardham'.
The Swaminarayan mahamantra was introduced by Sahajanand Swami on the thirteenth day after the demise of Ramanand Swami. He called an assembly of sadhus and devotees and revealed the Swaminarayan mantra. The traditional 'Ramkrishna Govind' mantra was replaced by Swaminarayan. In the Swaminarayan Mantra, Swami means Gunatitanand Swami and Narayan refers to Sahajanand Swami. After this new mantra the Lord became popularly known as Swaminarayan.
An incident in Aksharanand Swami ni Vato ('The Talks of Aksharanand Swami') describes the potency of the Swaminarayan mantra. It describes the story of Jehalo, a servant who tilled the land for Allaiya Khachar. Both were faithful disciples of Bhagwan Swaminarayan. On one occasion, Allaiya Khachar having returned from a trip, found that Jehalo had died. His body had been taken for cremation. Allaiya Khachar rushed to the cremation grounds and halted the lighting of the funeral pyre. He wanted the town's people to witness the power of the Swaminarayan mantra. He called to the dead man, "Jehalo! Jai Swaminarayan." To everyone's surprise Jehalo opened his eyes. He enquired why he had been called back from God's proximity in Akshardham. A few minutes later he said "Jai Swaminarayan" to everyone and lay down. The funeral pyre was then lighted to cremate the mortal body of Jehalo. The whole village was stunned by this miracle. The mere name of Swaminarayan had brought Jehalo back to life!
Gunatitanand Swami explains that the Swaminarayan mantra is powerful enough to neutralise the poison of a black cobra. The incident of how Yogiji Maharaj was saved from the venom of a cobra bite bears testimony to the words of Gunatitanand Swami.
In his talks, Gunatitanand Swami prescribes chanting God's name as one of several means to realizing God. He says: "Prahlad was fiercely battling against the Lord but he failed to vanquish Him. The Lord then stopped him and told him that if he wanted to win Him he would have to abandon his weapons and resort to chanting His name and remembering Him mentally. Prahlad accepted the Lord's proposal and six month's later he won the Lord's eternal blessings." (Swami ni Vato' Ch.1.3).
Even today the efficacy of the Swaminarayan mantra is a reality. A few months ago a devotee, saddled with a heap of problems, came to Pramukh Swami Maharaj and emptied his woes. Swami blessed him and consoled him. "Chant the Swaminarayan mantra. Have faith in God and chant His holy name. The storm shall pass and you'll soon be faring through calm waters. You shall be happy." A few days back the devotee said, "The grueling events that led to my misery are yet to recede but I can say that chanting the name of Swaminarayan has brought untold peace to my heart."
Even though God's holy name chanted knowingly or unknowingly has its effect on the devotee yet the effect is more pronounced when it is chanted consciously, correctly and with an awareness of its glory. Our ancient teachers have shown certain requisites for observing nama japa. They are as follows:
1. Fix the hours for nama japa. The most effective time is before dawn when 'sattva' (goodness) is predominant.
2. Select a definite place. It is advantageous to sit in the same place each day.
3. Be seated in a steady pose because this helps to steady the mind and aids concentration.
4. Always sit facing North or East. This enhances the efficacy of 'Japa' (chanting).
5. Pronounce the mantra properly without any mistakes.
6. Keep a vigilant and alert attitude to check the mind from wandering or slipping into drowsiness.
7. Use a rosary as an aid to 'japa'. Use the middle finger to rest the rosary and the thumb for rolling the beads. The index finger should not be used.
8. Whilst doing 'japa' visualise the beautiful murti of Bhagwan Swaminarayan and the guru parampara. This will give thrust to this spiritual exercise.
9. Do not cross the main bead or crown of the rosary. Turn back when you reach the head.
10. Do not beg of any worldly objects while doing nama japa.
11. Abstain from faultfinding while doing nama japa.