By Br. Shankara
(See Part II for the second half of this article.)
Chaitanya’s Prayer, as interpreted by Swami Prabhavananda and Christopher Isherwood, is recited every morning in the temples, convents and monasteries of the Vedanta Society of Southern California, at Ridgely, and in other Vedanta centers in the U.S.
The Prayer brings Bhakti — devotional spiritual practice — and its goal or result into sharp focus in about three minutes. Its tone and language are intense; it can be thought of as one of the most beautiful love songs ever written.
The Prayer calls forth the heart’s bliss, instructs the mind in how to overcome obstacles, and, in the voice of the spiritually awakening heart and mind, speaks lovingly and directly to the Divine within.
Who Is Chaitanya?
Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu (mahaprabhu means mighty king or Great Lord) is regarded by millions in India and elsewhere as an Incarnation of God — a reincarnation of Sri Krishna. Many disciples and followers of Sri Ramakrishna also think of Chaitanya as a previous Incarnation of the Great Master. Sri Chaitanya was born in West Bengal, India in 1485 — 525 years ago.
Swami Vivekananda — after this the Swami will be referred to simply as Swamiji — had this to say about Chaitanya:
“The brightest of (India’s) prophets of comparatively modern times in the North was Chaitanya… This one great Northern sage, Chaitanya, represented the mad love of the Gopis (for Sri Krishna).
(Chaitanya was) a Brahmin, born of one of the most rationalistic families of the day, himself a professor of logic fighting and gaining a word-victory — for, this he had learnt from his childhood as the highest ideal of life — and yet through the mercy of some sage the whole life of that man became changed; he gave up his fight, his quarrels, his professorship of logic and became one of the greatest teachers of Bhakti the world has ever known—mad Chaitanya.
His Bhakti rolled over the whole land of Bengal, bringing solace to every one. His love knew no bounds. The saint or the sinner, the Hindu or the Mohammedan, the pure or the impure, the prostitute, the streetwalker — all had a share in his love, all had a share in his mercy…”
So here we have a respected Brahmin, a famous pundit of his time and place, a great success in the world as we usually think of success — and Chaitanya renounces it all to become a wandering monk, dancing madly along the roads and pathways of Bengal, chanting the name of Hari over and again in ecstatic bliss.
How could this happen?
What happened to Chaitanya? Listen to Swami Ranganathananda, from his book Divine Grace:
“That is the way in spiritual life. First (you) strengthen yourself, assert yourself, and then sacrifice yourself, deny yourself in surrender to God, through super strength. That is the correct attitude and way. First comes manliness, then comes saintliness or godliness. Erect your saintliness on your manliness; that will be a powerful saintliness. So work hard, build up your individuality; and then, when you are strong and spiritually mature… you look up and see a greater courage and a greater strength beckoning you, which makes you experience and say: ‘Not I, but Thou; Thy will be done!”
Ranganathananda goes on to develop those thoughts beautifully in his book. He refers to the Bhagavad Gita, the works of Shankaracharya, and many other sources as he writes about how to move from a high state of worldly achievement to a great spiritual awakening. Yet, even though his book is pocket size, it would be quite a challenge to memorize all of the Swami’s observations and instructions.
Not so Sri Chaitanya’s lesson plan. His primer on how to progress from a confession that one is utterly without devotion to the Lord, to saying “Do with me what Thou wilt — for Thou are my heart’s beloved, Thou and Thou alone” — is only 44 lines long. We can legitimately call that a Primer: It is a short tutorial that covers the basic elements of a subject, and it is memorable. (It’s interesting to note that in Middle English, primer actually meant devotional manual.)
“Unpacking” the Prayer
(See Sri Chaitanya’s Prayer for the complete text of the poem.)
So, let’s begin to “unpack” the profoundly poetic images of the Prayer. The first line is, in the vernacular, a “flat out call to action”:
CHANT THE NAME OF
THE LORD AND HIS
That’s a bit strong, isn’t it? Unceasingly? Why should we go to all that trouble? Well, according to the New Testament, The Way of a Pilgrim, and Vedanta’s own “Foursquare Gospel” — Sri Ramakrishna, Sarada Devi, Swamiji, and Brahmananda (Raja Maharaj) — the effects are worth the effort.
First, from the New Testament (this was found on the website of The Community of the Beatitudes):
“We are all called to pray without ceasing, says St. Paul in 1 Thessalonians 5:17. The real questions is, how. The Jesus Prayer provides one good way to pray constantly… Our task is to draw nearer to God. St. Isaac of Syria says that it is impossible to draw near to God by any means other than increasing prayer.”
Next, from the book, The Way of a Pilgrim (these quotes are on the website hermitary.com):
“The pilgrim recalls how he heard (St. Paul’s) admonition to ‘pray ceaselessly’… and has set out to discover how… (He finds an Eastern Orthodox teacher), a starets… it is the simple advice of the starets that falls like a revelation upon his ears.” (The teacher said to him:)
“Sit down in silence. Lower your head, shut your eyes, breathe out gently, and imagine yourself looking into your own heart. Carry your mind, that is, your thoughts, from your head to your heart. As you breathe out, say, “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me.” Say it moving your lips gently, or simply say it in your mind. Try to put all other thoughts aside. Be calm, be patient, and repeat the process very frequently.”
And that is all… Soon, as the starets had suggested, the pilgrim found the prayer at his lips and in his mind every waking hour, as spontaneous and effortless as his breath itself.”
Finally, some quotes from our Foursquare Gospel:
Sri Ramakrishna… said to a devotee: “Japa means silently repeating God’s name in solitude. When you chant his name with single-minded devotion you can see God’s form and realize Him. Suppose there is a piece of timber sunk in the waters of the Ganges and fastened with a chain to the bank. You proceed link by link, holding to the chain, and you dive into the water and follow the chain. Finally you are able to reach the timber. In the same way, by repeating God’s name you become absorbed in Him and finally realize Him.”
Sri Sarada Devi: “The Mantra purifies the body. Man becomes pure by repeating the name of God. So repeat His name always… The name of God is more powerful than the senses… Prayer to God makes your heart as pure as the star. As a result of sincere and regular Japa and meditation you will find that God will speak to you. All your desires will be fulfilled and you will experience pure Bliss… Even the injunctions of destiny are cancelled if one takes refuge in God. Destiny strikes off with her own hands what she has written about such a person… ”
Swamiji: “Prayer and praise are the first means of growth. Repeating the names of God has wonderful power. Mantra is a special word, or sacred text, or name of God chosen by the Guru for repetition and reflection by the disciple. The disciple must concentrate on a personality for prayer and praise… These words (Mantras) are not sounds of words but God Himself, and we have them within us. Think of Him, speak of Him. No desire for the world! Buddha’s Sermon on the Mount was, ‘As thou thinkest, so art thou.’”
Raja Maharaj: “Practice japam and meditation regularly. Do not miss even one day. Try repeatedly to steady (the mind) by fixing it on (a Name or Form of God), and at last you will become absorbed in Him. If you continue your practice for two or three years, you will begin to feel an unspeakable joy and the mind will become steady… (At first) You must forcibly pour the thought of God into your mind, then as you persist, you will be flooded with joy…”
As a TV journalist might say, turning to face the camera for the wrapup: “Well, it seems all the Great Teachers we interviewed agree, the effects of chanting the Lord’s Name unceasingly do indeed justify the effort.”
What does Chaitanya say?
So, what does Chaitanya himself say are the effects of unceasingly chanting the Lord’s name?
He starts with two “summary” assertions:
… THE MIRROR OF THE HEART MAY BE WIPED CLEAN
AND QUENCHED THAT MIGHTY FOREST FIRE,
WORLDLY LUST, RAGING FURIOUSLY WITHIN…
First assertion. The mirror of the heart will be wiped clean…
A senior swami of the Rama-krishna Order was asked about this image; he said:
“Repetition of the Name (your mantra) is like a very soft cloth, slowly and slowly, very naturally wiping away layer after layer of accumulated dust — until at last is revealed an ancient mirror, and an image in that mirror, of unimaginable, incomparable beauty.
“That mirror both is, and reflects, the Self, your inmost being, your true original nature.”
Breathtaking. That which we yearn and yearn for as we run after this and that, that and this — as we chase the Divine, the Truth, in its limited forms, distorted and diluted by Maya — it is, always has been, right here, waiting for us.
Second assertion: That mighty forest fire, worldly lust, raging furiously within, will be quenched — extinguished. In the immortal words of Monty Python, it will be a “dead parrot”…
Sri Chaitanya promises that, if we indeed chant the Name of the Lord and His glory unceasingly, the forest fire of lust for the world raging furiously within will be dead!
Can any of us pretend we don’t know what that “mighty forest fire” is? Cartoonists have our number, don’t they? Think of an animated film that features some young guy cruising along in a convertible. He passes an attractive young lady strolling down the street, and “boinnnggg!” — his cartoon eyes pop right out of his head — right out of his head as he ogles that woman!
What the artist is showing us is that our senses don’t just quietly lie in wait for sensations. Oh no, they reach out for stimulus; they “rage” after what they desire. And they argue with us vehemently when we try to restrain them.
Maybe you’re driving down the avenue when you spot a sign that says, “If its something sweet, cold & creamy you crave, come to McDonald’s for an ice cream cone — only 69 cents!” Good ad copy, huh? Gotcha!
But you think to yourself, reasonably, “Yes, but I know perfectly well I don’t need that cone, those extra, empty calories.” And the mind right away talks back: “But it’s low fat, and it’s only 69 cents!” Unless you yield to that voice of temptation as you drive by the McDonald’s in the next block, the senses that crave that “sweet, cold & creamy” treat will probably chatter at you all the way home.
And when you get there, they will remind you there’s a Fudgesicle in the freezer!
Swamiji, in his commentary on Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, and elsewhere, offers detailed explanations of how Chaitanya’s promise is actually kept. For here and now, suffice it to say that Swamiji affirms chanting the Name — japa nama — actually does calm the mind so deeply that lust for the things of the world loses its grip on your consciousness and your actions.
Okay, let’s hit subtotal. In four poetically charged lines, Chaitanya has made his case for what you are to do — chant the Lord’s name and glory unceasingly — and the results you can expect to achieve if you do as he asks:
- Your true original nature will be revealed in all its splendor.
- Your experience of that splendor will no longer be fragmented, lost among ever-self-
renewing, unsatisfiable cravings.
Chaitanya starts his instructions
Now, Sri Chaitanya begins his instructions. First, he says, ask the Lord directly for what you need to begin and start to move ahead:
O NAME, STREAM DOWN
IN MOONLIGHT ON THE LOTUS HEART, OPENING ITS CUP TO KNOWLEDGE OF THYSELF…
NAME — Notice he doesn’t say which Name, just O Name. As you say the Prayer, you don’t need to replace that word with any particular name of the Lord — Chaitanya explains why a few lines later.
MOONLIGHT — First, a suggestion that the calm of night is a good time for spiritual practice. Second, perhaps a nod in the direction of Chaitanya’s Beloved, Sri Krishna. In the Gita, Krishna says, “Among the stars of night, I am the moon.”
LOTUS HEART — From the Mundaka Upanishad: “The Self exists in man, within the lotus of the heart, and is the master of his life and of his body. With mind illumined by the power of meditation, the wise know him, the blissful, the immortal.”
Swami Yatiswarananda, who was a disciple of Brahmananda and served as a vice-president of the Ramakrishna Math, commented: “…(T)he spiritual aspirant… feels there is a lotus at the level of the heart, the petals of which are directed downwards. When this centre is reached (by the mind), the bud of the lotus opens and the petals get directed upward—the lotus blooms.”
And so it becomes the cup, ready to receive the Knowledge of God for which you are praying.
KNOWLEDGE OF THYSELF — What is this Knowledge?
Let’s reprise some quotes from our Foursquare Gospel about the nature of this Knowledge:
- Ramakrishna — When you chant his name with single-minded devotion you can see God’s form and realize Him.
- Sarada Devi — As a result of sincere and regular Japa and meditation you will find that God will speak to you.
- Swamiji — The disciple must concentrate on a personality for prayer and praise… These words (Mantras) are not sounds of words but God Himself, and we have them within us.
- Raja Maharaj — If you continue your practice for two or three years, you will begin to feel an unspeakable joy and the mind will become steady…
This knowledge is not book learning, not theoretical musings, not something heard from a speaker on Sunday morning. It is direct experiential knowledge of God, your Self, found within.
Chaitanya then speaks directly to that Self:
O SELF, DROWN DEEP IN THE WAVES OF HIS BLISS,
CHANTING HIS NAME
TASTING HIS NECTAR
AT EVERY STEP…
Ramakrishna said, ““Dive deep, O mind, dive deep in the Ocean of God’s Beauty: If you can plunge to the uttermost depths, There you can find the gem of Love.”
Like OM, Love is a single word that “says” what God is. Another Name for God, a more complex word, is Satchidananda. That Bliss Chaitanya speaks of is, so to speak, one-third of that term; yet Satchidananda cannot be separated. So, when you dive deep, when your mind is “drowned” in the continual chanting of the Name, you are immersed not just in Bliss, but in the totality of inseparable Existence-Knowledge-Bliss Absolute.
Therefore, when you truly are chanting His Name continually, when your entire consciousness is suffused with the Nectar of His Being, Satchidananda itself transforms you! Your actions (karma) will change, and as Holy Mother said, “Even the injunctions of destiny are cancelled… Destiny strikes off with her own hands what she has written about such a person…”
A few words about Bliss, one of the first tangible results of regular spiritual practice — Swamiji was asked about that.
“Q. Sometimes sitting at Japa one gets joy at first, but then one seems to be disinclined to continue the Japa owing to that joy. Should it be continued then?
A. Yes, that joy is a hindrance to spiritual practice, its name being Rasasvadana (tasting of the sweetness). One must rise above that.”
Rise above it, and in Swamiji’s immortal phrase, “Stop not till the Goal is reached!”
Chaitanya continues, still speaking to the Self within:
BATHING IN HIS NAME, THAT BATH FOR WEARY SOULS…
If your soul is NOT weary, Chaitanya’s bath probably is not of much interest. If it is, then as Holy Mother said, “Man becomes pure by repeating the name of God. So repeat His name always… (this will make) your heart as pure as the star.”
Chaitanya now turns again to praise that almighty God whose Knowledge streams down in moonlight on the Lotus Heart:
VARIOUS ARE THY NAMES, O LORD, IN EACH AND EVERY NAME THY POWER RESIDES.
NO TIMES ARE SET, NO RITES ARE NEEDFUL,
FOR CHANTING OF THY NAME, SO VAST IS THY MERCY…
This is the subject for another article, really, but Chaitanya the mad devotee also was a rebel against religious bigotry — that fanatical devotion to one Form or Name of God, denouncing all others — and the encrustation of priest-craft — the insistence that a schedule of esoteric rites, rituals and ceremonies performed by others is necessary to attract God’s compassion and grace. Chaitanya was another of India’s great reformers, restoring eternal Vedic truths and traditions and forthrightly denouncing both religious bigots and greedy priests.
Not surprisingly, Swamiji clearly echoes these thoughts: “Japa is repeating the Holy Name; through this the devotee rises to the Infinite. This boat of sacrifice and ceremonies is very frail; we need more than that to know (God)… It is not necessary to go through all these ceremonials to reach the meaning of the Vedanta…”
So, having celebrated the Lord’s omnipotence, liberality, and compassion, Chaitanya now speaks for the first time in the voice of the devotee. In three stunning lines the aspirant confesses —
HOW HUGE, THEN IS MY WRETCHEDNESS,
WHO FIND, IN THIS EMPTY LIFE AND HEART,
NO DEVOTION TO THY NAME…
This is the crux, the turning point, of Chaitanya’s Prayer — this recognition that, though the Lord offers to take the yoke from his heavy-laden shoulders, the devotee is as yet unbending and cannot kneel so that the yoke can be removed.
What courage it takes to make such a statement! This is not the mea culpa of a weakling; it is a powerful, honest recognition of bitter truth — the aspirant’s wretchedness is of his own making. As Swami Ranganathananda said, “(You) deny yourself in surrender to God, through super strength. That is the correct attitude and way… when you are strong and spiritually mature… you look up and see a greater courage and a greater strength beckoning you, which makes you experience and say: ‘Not I, but Thou; Thy will be done!”
For Part II see Chaitanya’s Prayer: A Perfect Primer – Part II
BR. SHANKARA is Resident Minister at the Vedanta Center of Atlanta.