Last night I was with one of our forty local groups here in London. This particular sanga, as we call our groups, was at a suburban home in the shadow of the massive arch of the new Wembley Stadium, which dominates the skyline around here. The group members were preparing for a ‘Japa Marathon’ – an event they hold every time an ekadasi coincides with a Sunday.
The idea is very simple. Sunday is the day off in Britain, ekadasi is the day for extra rounds of maha-mantra japa. So when ekadasi falls on a Sunday it’s a perfect day for committing oneself to extra chanting of the holy names. And doing it together with friends – and prasadam on tap – makes it a more enjoyable occasion.
I was handed a sheet of paper on which had been written the results from the last such event. Around twenty members had taken part, and the numbers were impressive. The youngest members had chanted one, two or three rounds, their first attempts; then many others had completed 20, 32, 40 and at least one had finished up at 64 – a full eight hours of chanting.
I commended all the members for their determined efforts, and wished them well for the following day. By committing themselves to a certain degree of numerical strength, they are more likely to experience something which will cause them to develop their faith in the process of chanting itself.
Japa, the sacred recitation of the names of God, is not the ‘vain repetition’ that Jesus warned of. It is not a dry, mechanical exercise. Rather, it is the constant prayer to God to allow us to become restored to divine service. When commenting on Saint Paul’s words in 1 Thessalonians 5:17, the great Christian preacher CH Spurgeon said that when a person ‘prays without ceasing’ then ‘streams of sacred delight pour into the heart.’ Furthermore, when such prayer and delight combine, ‘their first child is gratitude’. And that child of gratitude gives rise to more prayer.
Years ago I read the account of the Russian pilgrim who goes in search of a teacher who will explain to him the way of ceaseless prayer. He meets his guru, or the Russian equivalent, the starets, who ushers him into the world of the hesychast, the contemplative who restrains the senses, turns inwards, recites his prayer, mantra-like, and opens himself up to the grace of God. While the Church may have largely abandoned such seemingly ritualistic practises, they are, of course, very much present in the traditions of the East.
The great mediaeval Vaishnava saint, Rupa Goswami, would say that during his own chanting, he would have the overpowering desire to have thousands of tongues and thousands of ears, so that he could fill his mind with the sweet reverberation of the names of God. The tradition he created was brought west by A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, who made it the basis of his spiritual teaching.
It is a good principle when chanting – or praying without ceasing – to fix one’s mind on a numeric goal. This is known as making a sankalpa, or a willed determination. The act of determination generates sufficient resolve to reach the goal. Counting prayer, on the joints of one’s fingers, on knots of rope or a string of beads, may seem to be counter-intuitive. It would seem that meditation or prayer is about the intensity of absorption or strength of devotional feeling, not the methodical counting of repetitions. And yet fixing the restless mind on a chosen number of recitations determines the period of time spent in such absorption, minimises the tendency for distraction, and sets an expectation of regular or occasional commitment.
And when the recitation – the prayer without ceasing – is composed of the names of God, then the chanter lives in the presence of God at each moment.