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The most well-known expression of devotion in the Hindu religious ethos is the nama-sankirtana, recitation of (God's) names, collective or individual. The repetitive musical recitation (called bhajan) of God's names can be very rewarding in terms of an elevation of the mood and the spiritual awakening of the mind. In the latter half of the 20th century the practice of these bhajans in a congregational form has increased enormously due to the influence of godmen like Sathya Sai Baba (born 1926) and many other Swamis who have all contributed to the phenomenon becoming almost an inter-communal, inter-religious community routine. It looks as if a great revolution is happening, at the international level, to turn the people of the world spiritually inward In this context it is necessary to mention Shrila Prabhupada (1896-1977 C.E.) who has remarkably transformed thousands of materialistic youth of modern times into pious personalities with the loftiest of spiritual and ethical ideals. The unceasing chanting of the Hare Krishna Mantra by this ocean of devotees singly and collectively, in the Chaitanya tradition, has now made the Mantra the most popular Mantra the world over. In Sanskrit one finds that every proper name has a meaning, not always the obvious one. It is usually a meaning that is derived from the root syllables that go into the name. To chant the names of God is to be immersed in the ecstasy of identity with the glories of God as encompassed by the name we chant. The mind is always riddled with desire and hate, lust and greed, and so is as unsteady as a sailboat in an ocean and as such, needs a symbol, a prop, upon which the Lord can be superimposed for the purpose of single-minded concentration. The Lord's name serves as this symbol. Reciting God's names, repeating them in a certain rhythmic pattern, recalling God's majesty and splendour, His immanence and Transcendence, His omnipresence, omniscience and omnipotence, His perfection - these are the ways in which one uses this prop of God's names for turning the mind inward. Such a prop of God's names is used in every religion. But in Hinduism it is the central cord that unmistakably vibrates throughout its vast tradition, literature and culture. Vyasa, the author of the 18 Puranas and the Mahabharata has included among his works, a number of poems of praise which have served over the centuries as texts for recitations and repetitions of God's names and glories. Some of them contain as many as one thousand and eight names of the Lord. These are called sahasra-namas ( sahasra = thousand, namas = names; and so these are litanies of thousand names). There is probably at least one for each divinity. Nowhere in world literature we are likely to find something that matches these long 'streamlined' poems densely packed with meaning and seemingly endless recitals of the Lord's names, glories and splendour with no sacrifice of poetic elegance or grace. The rhythmic sound effects and the elevating moods that these poems of praise (and community bhajans) can produce must be experienced to be believed. Each one of them describes the infinite qualities of the God or Goddess in several ways and each description is only a fragmentary rendering of the Almighty's infinite number of auspicious attributes. It does not matter which sahasra-nama we are looking at, whether of Vishnu or Siva or Goddess Lalita, everywhere we meet with the same majesty of encyclopaedic exhaustiveness. We shall give just a sample of the profundity of the meanings involved in these names: (May be skipped on a first reading):

He is Siva because He is the auspicious among the auspicious. He is Sankara because He gives you the ultimate auspiciousness. He makes you happy. He is Vishnu because He pervades everywhere. The root syllable for Vishnu is 'to pervade'. He is Kesava because, kah means Brahma, ah means Vishnu and Isah means Siva and so kah + ah + Isah gives the meaning: The One of whom all the three Gods of the Trinity are only subtle manifestations. He is Krishna because He attracts everybody; also because 'krs' stands for existence and 'na' stands for bliss and so Krishna stands for the union of the two. He is Narayana because He pervades all appearances that come out of the five elements. He abides in them and they in Him. Nara is the Self and from it arose all the five elements, the effects. These are naaras. He pervades them as their cause, both the efficient cause and the material cause; because He is the One who brought them into existence and He is also the one who Himself became the effects or appears as the effects. Therefore He is Narayana. He is Rama because the two syllables 'ra' and 'ma' together indicate one in whose memory men revel in joy and happiness, because Brahman itself is indicated by the word Rama and Brahman is the source for all bliss. The syllable 'ra' erases all impurities of the mind whereas the syllable 'ma' insulates the mind from any further impurities.

When we are on the subject of recitation of God's names and Mantra-chanting it is necessary not to miss the most important Mantra of Hinduism - the mystic word Om. Without an explanation of its importance for the religious and spiritual pursuit of a Hindu no study of Hinduism can be complete. The word consists of a triad of three sounds, namely, A (as the 'u' in 'but'), U (as the 'u' in 'put') and M. This is why many texts referring to this word use the spelling AUM thus emphasizing the three sounds which make up the word. The Upanishad speaks of this word as the primeval word which stands for the entire universe permeated by Brahman and therefore Brahman itself. The three sounds constitute symbolically the entire universe of words. For 'A' is the sound with which the human mouth is opened to speak any word and 'U' is the sound which allows the tongue all positions from the palate to the lips and 'M,' is the vocal movement one makes to close the lips. Every sound which humans can produce is between the extremes of 'A' and 'M' and so, together with the intermediate stage of 'U' it represents everything words represent. AUM represents therefore both the Brahman with attributes and the Brahman without attributes. By repeating it at the beginning and at the conclusion of everything we affirm that as part of the universe we emanate from Brahman and finally dissolve into Brahman. Hence it is that all Mantras begin with AUM. Spiritual seekers greet one another with AUM. It is said to be the taraka Mantra, meaning it is the Mantra which will enable us to cross the ocean of our transmigratory cycle of births and deaths.

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Copyright. V. Krishnamurthy October 12, 2000