By Anthony Molyneaux
Giriraja Swami, an initiating guru within the International Society for Krishna Consciousness, suggests that everyone should try mantra meditation. Swami states that a few sessions of the mantra, “accrues to ones spiritual credit and it will gradually increase in value. Any way one chants, one will derive immense benefit and pleasure from the mantra”.
After watching this short video of Swami, I decided to take on his suggestion and made my way to a local mantra meditation group on my university campus in Stellenbosch.
I arrive to a group of 20 or so cross-legged students on a warm Monday afternoon. All those assembled are in their twenties, sitting in a crude half circle around an old portable organ called a harmonium. I join the folk by taking my shoes off and sit down on the stretched out mat, trying hard to adopt the cross-legged pose that has always created major discomfort.
The mantras take place outside among the bustling students of the University, some kicking back between classes, others on their way to the busy cafeteria.
Birds are chirping their melodic song overhead as the lead, playing the haunting harmonium, begins the mantra. Around his neck is a necklace made up of small wooden beads. They are known as Tulasi japa chanting beads, and they symbolize his surrender to Krishna. It is believed the beads also protect the wearer from bad dreams and bodily harm.
His voice is serene and harmonious as he recites the mantra,
“Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare
Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare.”
As the ‘congregation’ begins to recite the verse, a man sitting directly in front of me with long blonde curly hair, resembling Shaggy from Scooby Doo, begins singing the response much louder and obtrusive than the other twenty people present. His tone is way off and it’s quite distracting, not dissimilar to my dad’s rendition of church hymns during mass.
Later on, after the mantra is over, I over-hear the shaggy haired man say that he is in the process of ‘making music’ and is preparing for an upcoming show. A tinge of sympathy came over me for those who would attend that spectacle.
I try to collect my thoughts and come back to the mantra. By this stage, the mantra has gained some momentum. The lead brings in a hip hop element – A request by the lead of ‘ladies only’ followed by ‘gentlemen, your turn’. My younger days of Christian rap groups, ‘Yo Majesty’ and ‘DC talk’ spring to mind and this reminder makes me feel like I was attending a really strange ‘Holy Hip Hop’ concert.
I retrace my steps again and hone in on the mantra melody. I close my eyes, zoning my thoughts on the repeated words and away from my trailing thoughts of migratory patterns of birds and who really killed Biggie Smalls.
The beat of the Mridanga drum focuses me and after 10 minutes of becoming absorbed in this steadily building pace of the mantra, I start to tap my feet unconsciously with the intricate drum beat. I start to sway my body and the mantra becomes easy to sing, more natural with every repetition.
The music and mantra takes over and I feel at ease, relaxed and still, my trailing thoughts seemingly out of reach. I tap into this calm – a feeling similar to the relief you get when you’ve returned home after a long day at work or school. When you can finally lie down on your bed, not think about a thing and you can absorb the quiet in the afternoon light.
My legs go numb from the awkward crossed position.. I am forced back to reality and I adjust my seating. Suddenly I remember that I am outdoors and among people during this meditation. I peek out into the world again.
Gawking students pass by, some don’t seem to notice, other’s point and frown, few stare and laugh. The Mridanga drum plays an addictive beat and the small hand held snare rings a pleasurable tone. My eyes shut again and I drift back into the meditation.
The final recital slows the mantra down to the beginning speed and we all chant in unison, symbolizing the end of the meditation. Slowly eyes open and almost everyone has a smile on their face, including myself.
Swami may have been right. It is captivating.
According to Krishna.com,
‘The Hare Krishna mantra is a chant meant for enhancing consciousness to the greatest possible degree. Chanting the Hare Krishna mantra can give peace, happiness, God realization, freedom from repeated birth and death, and total self-fulfillment.’
The Hare Krishna mantra is a repetition of three names of the Supreme Being – “Hare”, “Krishna” and “Rama”. The International Society for Krishna Consciousness’s website has uploaded mantra meditation videos from London, New York, Ireland and many other cities around the world. Large groups of people from all walks of life dance and chant in the streets to this mantra.
I too enjoyed the session but I wonder if I would be able to dance in the streets and jump around in a kind of peaceful, religious mosh pit.
Much like some of the passers-by of the meditation group, crude looks follow the people dancing and chanting in the streets. ‘Crazy’ and ‘cult’ have been used to describe Hare Krishna’s practices.
But is it really crazy? Our current society of non-stop information, multitasking and deadlines seems to separate us from what meditations like the mantra teaches.
After soaking in a short time of the day where I force myself to break away from concerns and worries, I start to understand the gains of meditation. I can maybe even rationalize that our society might be the crazy one after all and not all dancing, twirling, singing people in the streets.
Upon investigating how this religion came about, I found that Krishna consciousness had only been introduced to the western world less than 60 years ago.
Srila Prabhupada, a spiritual teacher, arrived in New York in 1965 and began to spread Krishna consciousness to the American youth. In 1970, only one recruit signed up to Hare Krishna internationally. By 1980, close to 600 were signing up every year, according to E. Burke Rochford’s book, “Hare Krishna in America”. The growth slowed in the 80’s and 90’s but has seen tremendous growth recently with ashrams, a spiritual monastery, and temples being set up all over the world.
After my experience of the mantra, I decided that I would attend Buddha’s birthday celebration on the evening of the full moon.
I’m not sure if I will be dancing in the streets rejoicing with all the Hare Krishna’s just yet but the mantra meditation holds some quality that I want to acknowledged and adhere to. If anything, it has taught me not to care about what others think of you and has made me realize that I don’t have the worst singing voice out there. Hare Krishna.