How to Conduct Japa Sadhana
by Swami Krishnananda

(Spoken on January 2, 1983.)

The mantra is not a manufactured sentence. It is not an intellectual concept. It is not something that someone imagined by way of a fancy. It is a vision of a seer. Thus, mantras are sacred. They are highly potentised forms of divine energy concentrated in a few letters, in a few words or phrases. The sanctity of the mantra and effect it produces cannot be explained in words. One has to do this practice and see the result of it. The taste of the pudding cannot be described in words. You have to eat it and then you will know what it is.

Great care is taken in communicating the mantra to a disciple by a Guru or a Master because the transferring of the spiritual potency in the form of the mantra to another by means of what is known as initiation is something like the administering of a medicine to a patient. Immense care is taken in this work. Mantras can be either Veda mantras or non-Veda mantras, which are sometimes called tantrika mantras, avaranika mantras, etc. The idea behind this distinction of two types of mantras is that a special qualification is necessary for the recitation of a Veda mantra, and this particular qualification is not necessary in the chanting of mantras which are not Vedic, though many other things are, of course, necessary.

The special feature of the recitation of a Veda mantra is the intonation thereof, which is not emphasised in the case of other mantras. But there are also other things which are very important: the correct pronunciation of the mantra with the proper stress laid on the syllables, and the intention for which it is recited, which also decides to some extent the preparations necessary for carrying on this japa sadhana.

There are some mantras which require us to discipline ourselves in a particular manner before we receive them and begin to practise sadhana through them – mantras which belong to peculiar specialised forms of deity known in India particularly. Deities such as Hanuman or Devi or Narasimha or such other divinities have mantras whose recitation requires a particular type of internal discipline. A discipline is necessary for every kind of reception of a holy mantra no doubt, but the particular specification of the discipline under given conditions depends upon the type of mantra that is received or practised as a sadhana.

Veda mantras are said to be supremely powerful. We need not enter into the glory of the Veda mantras here. They are apaurusheya, superhuman manifestations, not written words, and there is no known author of the Vedas. They are said to be eternal verities embodied in word vibration communicated in deep meditation, or samadhi, to seers who are called the mantra drashtas, and the word ‘rishi’ simply means one who has seen Reality through the mantra. Such rishis are mentioned at the commencement of the recitation of a particular hymn or a passage in the Veda. In some of the editions of the Veda the rishi’s name, the metre, the deity, etc., are mentioned.

We have to compose ourselves adequately before we enter into the sadhana. It is a great adventure we are embarking upon, and in this age of Kali Yuga it may seem that the highest reaches possible for us under the existing conditions of life here are just japa sadhana alone because nothing else can be attempted, for obvious reasons. But, as I mentioned, the speciality of japa is that it is also a conducting medium for inducing a state of meditation in our minds because the recitation or the chanting of a mantra is not merely a verbal act but also a mental preoccupation.

Here we have the combination of a triple act, as it were: the holy recitation combined with deep contemplation on the significance, the meaning and the deity of the mantra and, at the same time, the creation of a new type of healthy vibration within ourselves due to the entry of factors such as the grace of the rishi who saw the mantra, whose grace cannot be isolated from the mantra. Wherever the mantra is, the rishi also is. The rishi is not dead, not just some person who lived in the ancient past. The rishi is a power that is inseparable from this eternal secret which he has left as a legacy in the form of the mantra, and wherever the mantra is and as long as the mantra is, the rishi is also there, not as a person but as a potency and a possibility.

The divinity of the mantra is said to be within the mantra itself. This is a peculiarity in mantra shastra, a great secret which is unravelled at the time of initiation. As the body and the soul cannot be separated in an individual, the mantra and the devata cannot be separated. The mantra is supposed to be the body of the divinity, and the divinity is the soul of the mantra. They are inseparables. There is a radiant spark that is hidden in the conjunction of the letters of the mantra, and they ignite into action when the recitation is done. Just as a spark is hidden in a matchstick and ejects forth when we strike the match, so the mantra is a potential spark of divine radiance which is the devata spoken of, but we have to strike the match, which is the endeavour in the form of mantra japa.

The effect of japa sadhana gets enhanced if it is conducted or done in a disciplined manner, just as the purpose of eating a meal, a lunch or a dinner, is properly served if we take the food with respect, with a holy attitude and regard for the food that we take, seated in a posture which is wholly engaged in the assimilation of the food, and not eating it as if it is one of the activities of life, a kind of burden that has come in the midst of our daily business, or by eating while walking. These are disrespectful attitudes towards the diet that we take, and it will not be consumed; it will consume us. In the Upanishad we are told food that is not respectfully taken cannot be eaten. It will eat you. Food is eaten, but it is also the eater, in a different sense.

In a similar manner is japa. While you can eat even while you walk, it is better to be respectfully seated and eat the food; then the effect produced is much better, and it is that which you expect. The holy atmosphere that you generate around yourself by being seated only for japa sadhana is an additional factor that contributes to the enhancement of its power and the quickness of the effect that it produces.

Now, a very important thing in japa sadhana is that the mantra has to be received from a Guru or teacher. It is very important, in the same way that medicine should be taken only from the hand of a doctor. It should not be purchased from a chemist by oneself and be taken. Though this can also be done, it is highly objectionable to treat oneself for a particular disease, as you know very well. You cannot be your own doctor and diagnose yourself. The Guru is like a physician of the soul who can by his insight, by his understanding, by his observation, know what specific panacea is necessary for the present condition of the body-mind complex of the student or the disciple concerned. It is absolutely essential, therefore, to receive a mantra of a specific nature suited to one’s present condition and many other things which make up oneself, which is not easily understood under emotional stresses and excessive enthusiasms of the psyche.

Guru upadesa or mantra upadesa, which is called initiation, is considered as very important. It is important in another sense also because the initiation is not merely an external act performed either by the Guru or the disciple in the form of giving or taking, but it is a communication of a power, and the one who initiates you or gives you the mantra is not supposed to be an ordinary person. There is something superior about that individual, and the mantra is received only from a person who has not only achieved a status of spiritual experience and understanding in his own life, but who is also capable of communicating it to you by his power, thought, feeling and will. In a broad sense this is what people call shaktipada. The entry of a power into oneself is known as shaktipada, the descent of power.

A Guru takes some sort of responsibility over the disciple. In some cases, the entire responsibility is taken wholly forever, in every sense of the term, though in most cases, partial responsibility is taken. Nevertheless, some sort of responsibility is always there on the part of the teacher or the Guru who communicates the mantra to the disciple, and it is very significant indeed because a superior power is guarding you. It is a protective shield, an armour that you put on. The grace, the blessing, the power, the will force, whatever you may call it, of the Guru or superior is there as a guardian angel always behind you. It is, as it were, that you are thinking through the mind of the Guru, inasmuch as a percentage or fraction of that energy has already been injected into you by the Guru himself at the time of initiation. Thus, initiation is necessary. You should not choose a mantra from a book and chant it. This is not the usual accepted traditional practice, as you do not read a Materia Medica and then swallow a pill.

Now, a holy atmosphere has to be created around ourselves. We have to be respectful in our attitude. A temple has to be built in our own minds, as it were. When we are seated in a holy mood we are in a temple, though the temple is not visible to the eyes. In our devotion, in our aspiration, we have constructed a temple in our own minds, and we are in the presence of the deity. The mantra devata, the divinity, the deity of the mantra whom we adore through japa, is subtly present as a potential chemical action in the juxtaposition of the letters of the mantra, as ingredients in an apothecary’s mixture may produce a chemical act when they are proportionately mixed in a compound.

We cannot easily understand what this divinity is, how it is embedded in the mantra. It is embedded in the mantra in the same sense perhaps as a terrible force is hidden in an atom, though it is not perceptible to our tactile sense or to our vision. The great potency is present in the mantra, and the chanting of the mantra, the recitation in the proper accent and intonation is the striking of the match or the bursting of the atom, we may call it. The spark is unleashed immediately when the intonation and the pronunciation go together. Otherwise, it lies there like a potential bomb which can be activated by proper manipulation and operation.

The chanting of the mantra, therefore, is a scientific action. It is not a hodgepodge utterance because it is like handling a great potency and a power, and to wield a power you must have also enough capacity. That capacity is what will be told to you at the time of the initiation. That is the discipline, so-called.

The seatedness of the posture in a particular way prepares the ground for creating a holy atmosphere around you. Don’t you feel in your own self that when you decide to sit for a prayer you create an atmosphere, an air of holiness around you? You might not have prayed, you might not have said anything, you may not have even thought much, but you have put a seat on the ground and you have sat. This very act is the first rung in the ladder of your ascent in the progressive movement by means of japa. It is always good to do japa in one place, though itinerate people, travelling train inspectors, etc., cannot stick to this program. That is a different matter altogether. But wherever it is possible, especially in the case of sadhakas who are fulltime devotees, they can be seated in one place.

Sometimes you will find that sticking to one place is not practicable in the case of people who have occupations of different types, while in most cases it is not a difficult thing. But at least you may sit at the same time because there is a cyclic effect produced in nature in every event that takes place. You feel hungry at a particular time every day, not throughout the day. If it is a habit of the stomach to receive food at a particular time, it will be always creating a sensation of hunger at that time. If you do not give it food at that time, after two hours it will not create that effect. Similarly, habits are formed. The habit of the mind to sit for prayer or japa or meditation will be also a contributory factor. If you do japa at different times, this effect will not be produced, in the same way as it is not good to eat at different times on different days. So if possible, being seated in a single posture you continue your japa in the same place every day, at the same time. If not at the same place, at least sit at the same time. This suggestion is especially for sadhakas who are fulltime seekers who devote at least the major portion of their time for this purpose.

It is also interesting to note that a prescription of the direction we have to face also is mentioned in the mantra shastras. There are many things like this, apart from the direction, the particular posture, etc. Facing the east, facing the north, are supposed to be good. Facing the south is not recommended, but for special areas like the bank of the holy river Ganga, this particular restriction may be waived. You may face the south if the Ganga is in front of you because the Ganga will counteract the effect of the southern direction. But otherwise, the southern direction is not prescribed. Facing the sun is good, which means to say, facing the east. Facing the north is good because it is believed that electromagnetic force is communicated from the northern pole, which is confirmed by astronomers, geographers, geologists, etc., and this also may be taken advantage of.

But the most important aspect of carrying on japa sadhana is the purpose for which it is done. The intention or the motive is very important. It is desirable, as far as possible, to free our intention from any mood of self-centredness. Mantras are like double-edged swords. They can be used for cutting either way, for positive purposes or negative purposes. They are energies, and energy can be utilised for any purpose, as you know. So a holy, unselfish mood of invoking God’s grace or expecting the vision of the deity of the mantra would be the most desirable attitude. It should not be done for material gains or empirical ends because we do not ask for the proper things, as we do not know what is good for ourselves. Our desires are not reliable guides because what we desire now as something worth the while may not be a desirable thing and not something worthwhile after some time. It may be a hindrance or an impediment to us. It is not wisdom on the part of the seeker to ask for any ulterior end from the deity of the mantra, God Himself, because God is greater than any other objective in life. The devata is superior to anything the devata can give, so why should you ask anything from it? The devata is complete in itself. This is something we have to reconcile ourselves with. Many of us will find it hard to free ourselves from incentives of some particular emphasis in the form of a longing, desire, etc.

The mantras assume a tremendous force and power of action when they are recited in a disciplined manner as mentioned, at a particular place and a particular time, with a particular number of recitations combined to a cumulative total of so many hundred thousands as the letters in the mantra, which process is known as purascharana in Indian parlance. A purascharana is one round of disciplined japa. It is one complete cycle of spiritual sacrifice in the form of mantra sadhana by way of reciting it so many hundred thousand times, or lakhs, as there are letters in the mantra. This is called a purascharana.

Due to the tamas or the dross that is in the mind of the human being these days, a single purascharana may not produce a visible effect, though it cannot go without producing some effect. Even scratching a rock with a little needle makes a scratch, though it is not visible. We have done practically nothing by scratching a rock with a pin, yet we have scratched it, and we cannot ignore that aspect. One purascharana or a few minutes of chanting every day may not produce immediate visible results; nevertheless, it does produce some effect. We may have to conduct several purascharanas to rid ourselves of past deeds which have produced this body and all the circumstances of life we are passing through.

We cannot feel the visible result of sadhana in actual experience unless sattva dawns in us. Rajas and tamas should be obviated. If rajas and tamas have an upper hand and sattva is submerged, we will not feel the effect of the mantra sadhana at all, though it does produce some hidden effect, as I mentioned.

Inasmuch as our minds are not strong enough these days and our wills are poor, it is difficult to understand the mystery of things by philosophical analysis, spiritual study or Vedanta sadhana in the form of cosmic contemplations of the Upanishads, etc. We will be more realistic in our approach and do something substantial and worthwhile if we do not attempt to hide things and climb to the skies. Nothing can promise us such visible and immediate benefit as properly conducted discipline in japa sadhana.

But here we have also to note that we have to devote sufficient time to the work. We should not do it in a hurry as a sort of mechanised routine. When anything becomes a routine it loses its soul and becomes a sort of machine. Japa sadhana should not become the movement of a machine. It should be the soul in action, which is possible only if our feelings are combined at the time of the mantra japa. Even during mantra japa, as it happens in abstract meditation, the mind will wander. It will not concentrate. You will be rolling the beads and find that you have completed one round of rolling without knowing that it has rolled. You have come to the end of the mala without knowing that it has gone so. The fingers have moved but the mind has thought nothing. This can often happen. This is dullness, torpidity, sleepiness of the mind which is like a truant boy refusing to go to school, a naughty child refusing to obey orders, instructions. When you do japa, the mind will sleep. It will say, “I will not do this. It is not meant for me. If you force me, I will sleep; that is all.” Then what do you do at the time? Chant the mantra loudly. Swami Sivanandaji Maharaj used to suggest some unusual method sometimes to people who have a choti or kudumi. If sit leaning against a wall, you are likely to doze off during the japa. He says to drive a nail on the wall above your head, tie the kudumi or choti with a rope or a thread to the nail, and when the head droops down it will pull you; then you will wake up.  

Splash your face with cold water when you feel drowsy and sleepy. Stand up, walk a few minutes hither and thither, wash the face with cold water, and then be seated again, chanting the mantra loudly so that the ears may hear, at least for a few minutes. When you hear your own sound, the mind comes back. Then once again begin the same process that you started with.

The mantra is chanted in three ways: loudly, inaudibly or mentally. Mental japa is said to be the most powerful method that you can employ here. You do not recite it verbally, but mentally conceive the utterance. It is the most powerful because the mind is directly engaged here. The mind cannot sleep because if it sleeps there is no japa, so it has to be awake. As the mind, which is the principal motive force here, is directly active, mental japa is supposed to be preeminent and most potent in its effect.

Next comes inaudible chanting. Only your lips will be moving. You may hear it a little bit, but others cannot hear it or know what you are reciting. That is inaudible lisping of the mantra through the lips.  When chanting the mantra out loud, as we sometimes chant mantras here, everybody can hear. Loud chanting of the mantra may be necessary when the mind is turbulent and unyielding and will not listen at all. Then chant loudly because, naturally, you have to hear it. How can you plug your ears? And when you go on listening to the mantra again and again by the loud chanting, the mind comes around after a few minutes. Then you can reduce the volume of the japa, and recite it inaudibly. If you are advanced enough, you can also do it mentally. Vaikari japa is loud chanting of the mantra, upamsu is chanting inaudibly by just moving the lips, and manisika is mental japa.

When mantras are chanted they produce an electrical shock-like sensation in your body, just as when you take an allopathic mixture you will find a sensation creeping through your nerves, especially if the mixture is strong enough. I mentioned that the letters of the mantra are like ingredients in a chemical mixture, but the ingredients do not act independently. They have to be mixed in a particular proportion, and then only can they become a medicine.

Now, the rishi is the physician who has prepared this mixture. He has understood what type of illness of the mind requires what type of medicine, and he has manufactured this particular admixture called the mantra by the selection of a particular syllable or letter or phrase, as the case may be, and has placed it in the context of the proximity of another in such a way that when they are joined together they produce a chain reaction like the firecrackers children light during Dipavali. If you set fire to one, the whole thing is caught and it makes a terrible noise because of the interconnection of these little pieces which are strung together in the firecracker string. Likewise, these mantras are strings of letters acting like firecrackers if they are properly ignited by the recitation. Thus the mantra is an admixture which, when it is consumed, produces this electric energy force, but a proper recitation of it is important; otherwise, it will not produce the effect. And also the rishi’s grace is there, as I mentioned.

The proper composition of the mantra is called the chandas, a metre, which is the art of combining things. The chandas has its own effect, the rishi has his own effect, and the devata, of course, is there above all things. So the rishi, the chandas and the devata of the mantra are remembered at the commencement of the chanting of the mantra. We pray to the great ones, the powers, invoking their blessing, and also to bring to our memories that we have to keep before our mental eye the particular form of the deity after obeisance is paid to the rishi, and the chanting should be according to the chandas or the metrical composition.

These are some of the interesting features of japa sadhana, and you will find that if you are successful in streamlining your personality for this purpose it will be like touching a live wire. You will feel the sensation of it.

It is not for nothing that Bhagavan Sri Krishna tells us in the Bhagavadgita yajñānāṃ japayajñosmi (Gita 10.25): Of all the sacrifices that one can conceive, japa of the holy mantra should be considered as most potent and most divine. It is veritable meditation itself.