What is Japa ?
Japa is the attentive repetition of a sacred mantra oftentimes done alone and in private, though it can be done in the same place with others. The mantra is whispered, repeated aloud, or recited in the mind.
The Sanskrit root jap means “to repeat quietly.”
Japa is an ancient meditation technique. Frequently the practitioner keeps count of the number of mantras chanted by using a mala (prayer beads) of 108 beads. The world mala literally means “garland,” and refers to a string of beads. Malas have at least a 3,000-year-old history in the Far East and their use continues today because of their efficacy in aiding meditation. Mala isn’t a foreign concept to Westerners. We find their counterpart, rosaries, in Christianity.
The Purpose of Japa
Malas and mantras are used in Buddhism, various Hindu sects, Jainism, Sikhism, Islam, and others. But the goal of the practitioner and the mantras differ significantly.
For instance, in Buddhism the goal is to extinguish the self and enter into a void of nothingness (certainly not an opportunity to develop love, is it?). In Bhakti the goal is to exalt the self and allow it to reach its fullest individual expression in transcendence.
Some people do japa without a spiritual goal but use it as the powerful tool it is to control the mind and bring concentration and peace. Some people feel that japa is a way to raise their vibration. In general, japa is found to have transformative effects.
What happens when you do japa?
Mantra japa is a meditation practice that offers the same physical and psychological benefits of silent meditation. It reduces stress, increases attention span, focuses and quiets the mind, improve immune system function, etc. But japa is meant to offer spiritual benefits.
Bhakti’s answer to the question What is Japa?, then, is that it is a method for knowing the self, who sits in the heart. When we come to know something about the self, we can transcend human frailties because we’re not human, we’re superhuman.
But even more realization than this occurs. As we approach the self, we discover the self is not alone. We are accompanied in the heart by the Oversoul, or the Supreme Self, who is our friend and constant companion.
A japa practice cleanses the mirror of awareness (the mind, intelligence, and ego known as the subtle body) and awards spiritual eyes so that we can come to see that which is real. Maha-mantra japa awakens our spiritual faculties of perception, which is the only way to spirit.
In technical terms, japa of the maha-mantra removes material impressions, or samskaras, and replaces them with spiritual impressions. Material impressions are the cause of our material embodiment. When they are replaced with spiritual impressions, we begin to glimpse our true spiritual nature and identity.
We tend to live superficial lives, or lives lived largely out of touch with the superhuman self. For this reason, we think that we die, when in fact the self is immortal. This mistaken perception causes us distress and anxiety, which secretly seeps into all aspects of our lives.
A japa practice illuminates us and its spiritual light relieves us of the illusion and ignorance about the self-consciousness. When we can directly perceive our true self, we’re ushered into the world of consciousness, which is free of the limits of time and space.
Mantra meditation takes us to the inner world of consciousness, which is spacious, peaceful, and loving. The mirror of our awareness turns away from the externals to the internal world where we find our self and our Source. As we turn inward and continue a japa practice our relationship with our Source makes it appearance. We discover that we have an inherent loving bond with our Source and the pure loving affection of that relationship is the well spring of all types of love. In other words, we find a higher expression of love, or divine love. Further, through an experience of divine love we develop the means to elevate and spiritualize mundane love, which positively impacts all our relationships.
Japa of the maha-mantra is unique because the mantra is composed of names of the Supreme. By chanting the names of our Divine Friend, we’re brought close to the Beloved in growing affection. Remember when I spoke about direct and indirect names and how direct names will get our attention better than indirect ones? The maha-mantra is composed of three names. Krishna, Rama, and Hare and they are invested with the full power of spirit because the names are nondifferent from the Named.
Hare is a form of address of the feminine feature of the Absolute. Krishna and Rama are names of the masculine feature.
Japa meditation of the Bhakti yoga path uses the maha-mantra for the same reason this mantra is used for kirtan. Not all mantras as created equal and this is the mantra for this current cosmic age. And importantly, it is a mantra that specifically cultivates and nourishes the development of divine love.
The maha-mantra is easy to learn, easy to remember, and easy to chant.
Anyone, anywhere, at any time, and without cost can chant it. Shouldn’t a universal method for spiritual realization be free and available to everyone?
Though it’s the most potent of all sacred mantras and the most accessible form of meditation in all the yoga systems, its reach is high. Japa of these names delivers us from the limitations of mind and intellect, which are vehicles incapable of taking us beyond the realm that created them, to our sacred home as our true self. By chanting the maha-mantra we can know what’s beyond thought, beyond matter.
How do you perform japa?
Japa is part of a Bhakti yoga practice and is done daily. The chanting is best done during a quiet time to avoid interruptions and in a place that’s free of distractions. A good posture helps meditation so that’s encouraged. The practitioner focuses their mind on the sound of the mantra. If the mind wanders, it is to be brought back to the sacred sound.
The main principle of chanting is to listen attentively to the sound. The mantra is chanted by the tongue and immediately caught by the ear. If any distracting thoughts come into the mind, then focus is directed back on the sound of the Hare Krishna mantra, and those thoughts eventually leave.
In this way, the chanter receives the spiritual benefits of the mantra along with the multiple physical and psychological side benefits of meditation.
Many yoga meditation systems require that you empty the mind, and with nothing to focus on, that can feel almost impossible. With meditation on the maha-mantra, we have a rich, variegated spiritual reality to immerse ourselves in.
As with any meditation, one should apply themselves earnestly, because controlling the mind takes effort. Generally a set number of beads are chanted, or a set period of time established.
The chanting process itself, however, is simple: just concentrate on the sound vibration. Using a mala while chanting assists meditation by engaging the sense of touch. To chant we use the tongue to vibrate the sound and the ears to hear. By adding the use of a mala, we use the sense of touch and thereby engage three of our five senses, which further assists our ability to focus on the mantra and thus experience the effects of proper meditation. Some practitioners look at a picture of their Divine Friend or the words of the mantra written on paper. In that way they engage four of the five senses in the meditation practice.
By making a daily commitment to the process of japa meditation, we gradually free the mind, cleanse the heart, and come into direct contact with the Supreme Person.
Sometimes we experience a sweet pleasure that comes from the simple and rhythmic repetition of the maha-mantra. Other days our chanting may feel mechanical, monotonous, or uninspiring. It can become a struggle when thousands of thoughts whizz through the mind and disturb our focus.
But take heart and remember: Japa is a practice. It is a spiritual discipline.
Great teachers attest that diligent and determined practice will reawaken the innate spiritual joy that comes from conversing with our Divine Friend.
How Do you Use Malas?
Holding one of the beads (to the right or left of the largest bead on the mala) in your right hand, between the thumb and middle finger, say the mantra. You can also gently rotate the bead between the thumb and middle finger as you say the mantra. Chant the mantra softly but distinctly, pronouncing it in such a way that you can hear it clearly.
Then move on to the next bead – moving away from the large bead – and repeat the mantra.
By the time you get back to the large bead, you will have chanted the Hare Krishna mantra 108 times. This is called one round.
Don’t chant on the large bead, which is known as Meru. Coming to this bead signifies it’s time to pivot and turn your mala around. Mount Meru is considered a sacred mountain around which the sun revolves. It is the axis of the universe in Vedic cosmography.
Then turn the beads around and start the second round without crossing over the big bead.
In the beginning, one round may take you fifteen minutes or so, but as one gets used to chanting one will usually speed up to between five and eight minutes to chant one round of the mala.
Malas are to be treated with respect and kept carefully and in a clean place. For instance, they aren’t taken the bathroom or put on the floor.
To learn more about the self, download the free eBook Your Inner Loving Self.