Sunday, February 18, 2007

the holy names

Hindu cosmology views time in vast cycles lasting hundreds of thousands of years, with phases of light and darkness corresponding to the level of spiritual awareness on the planet. According to the scriptures, men and women in previous ages were endowed with heroic and godly qualities. The supernatural was commonplace and miraculous events were ordinary.

In his lucid translation and commentary of the Bhagavata Purana (1:17:6-8), A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami writes that people in ancient times were godly. They enjoyed thousand-year lifespans, and the earth was ruled by saintly kings (“rajarishis”), who were annointed by God. These noble rulers cared for both their human and nonhuman subjects: “men and animals were equally protected as far as life was concerned. That is the way in God’s kingdom.”

According to A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami, such moral concern is required of today’s leaders: “The protection of the lives of both the human beings and the animals is the first and foremost duty of a government. A government must not discriminate in such principles.”

The Hindu scriptures warn against atheism, licentiousness, and unnecessary violence. The sages teach that gradual forgetfulness of God and religious principles will only lead to moral degeneration and greater human suffering.

According to the Hindu scriptures, our current age, known as Kali Yuga, the iron age, is one of spiritual darkness, violence and hypocrisy. The Bhagavata Purana 12:2:31 records Kali Yuga as having begun when the constellation of the seven sages (Saptarishi) passed through the lunar mansion of Magha.

Vedic astrologers have calculated this to have been 2:27 a.m. on February 20, 3102 B.C. The beginning of Kali Yuga took place 36 years after Lord Krishna, an incarnation of God, spoke Bhagavad-gita (the Lord's Song) to His disciple Arjuna.

The scriptures teach that during the 432,000 year age of Kali, humanity deteriorates and falls into barbarism. Humans begin to indiscriminately butcher innocent animals for food. They fall under the spell of intoxication. They lose all sexual restraint. Families break up. Women and children are abused and abandoned. Increasingly degraded generations, conceived accidentally in lust and growing up wild, swarm all over the world.

Political leadership falls into the hands of unprincipled rogues, criminals and terrorists, who use their power to exploit the people. Entire populations are enslaved and put to death. The world teems with fanatics, extremists and spiritual con artists, who win huge followings among a people completely dazed by hedonism, as well as by cultural and moral relativism. “Religion, truthfulness, cleanliness, tolerance, mercy, physical strength and memory diminish with each passing day.” (Bhagavata Purana 12:2:1)

The saints and sages of ancient India describe the people of this age as greedy, ill-behaved, and merciless. In this age, states the Bhagavata Purana, merely possessing wealth is considered a sign of good birth, proper behavior, and fine qualities. Law and justice are determined by one’s prestige and power.

Marriage ceases to exist as a holy union—men and women simply live together on the basis of bodily attraction and verbal agreement, and only for sexual pleasure. Women wander from one man to another. Men no longer look after their parents in their old age, and fail to provide for their own children. One’s beauty is thought to depend on one’s hairstyle. Filling the belly is said to be the only purpose in life. Cows are killed once their milk production drops. Religious observances are performed solely for the sake of reputation.

The Linga Purana (Ch. 40) describes the human race in Kali Yuga as a vain and stupid people “spurred on by the lowest instincts.” They prefer false ideas and do not hesitate to persecute sages. They are tormented by bodily desires. Severe droughts and plagues are everywhere. Slovenliness, illness, hunger and fear spread. Nations are continually at war with one another. The number of princes and farmers decline. Heroes are assassinated. The working classes want to claim regal power and enjoy royal wealth. Kings become thieves. They take to seizing property, rather than protecting the citizenry.

The new leaders emerge from the laborer class and begin to persecute religious people, saints, teachers, intellectuals, and philosophers. Civilization lacks any kind of divine guidance. The sacred books are no longer revered. False doctrines and misleading religions spread across the globe. Children are killed in the wombs of their mothers. Women who have relations with several men are numerous. The number of cows diminishes.

The Linga Purana says that in Kali Yuga, young women freely abandon their virginity. Women, children, and cows—always protected in an enlightened society—are abused and killed during the iron age. Thieves are numerous and rapes are frequent. There are many beggars and widespread unemployment. Merchants operate corrupt businesses. Diseases, rats, and foul substances plague the populace. Water is lacking. Fruits are scarce. Everyone uses vulgar language.

The men of Kali Yuga only seek money. Only the rich have power. People without money are their slaves. The leaders of the state no longer protect the people, but plunder the citizenry through excessive taxation. Farmers abandon living close to nature. They become unskilled laborers in congested cities. Many dress in rags, or are unemployed, and sleep on the streets. Through the fault of the government, infant mortality rates are high. False gods are worshipped in false ashrams, in which pilgrimages, penances, charities and austerities are all concocted.

People in this age eat their food without washing beforehand. Monks break their vows of celibacy. Cows are kept alive only for their milk. Water is scarce. Many people watch the skies, praying for rain. No rain comes. The fields become barren. Suffering from famine and poverty, many attempt to migrate to countries where food is more readily available. People are without joy and pleasure. Many commit suicide. Men of small intelligence are influenced by atheistic doctrines. Family, clan and caste are all meaningless. Men are without virtues, purity or decency. (Vishnu Purana 6.1)

This age of Kali lasts 432,000 years. It will be followed by a return to Satya Yuga, a golden age of light. This will be brought about by Lord Kalki, the next incarnation of God. Religious life and devotion to God are virtually impossible during Kali Yuga. This is a cruel, savage, bloodthirsty, licentious age, where “God is dead,” and religion is a dirty word. The saints and sages of ages past enjoyed a very exalted state of devotion by constant prayer and meditation upon the Lord: saturating the mind with God consciousness.

In Kali Yuga, the masses are incapable of practicing severe austerities, subjecting themselves to strict mental and physical discipline, and then mediating upon God for years on end. As part of the “TV generation,” our attention span and ability to focus are limited, and we demand instant gratification. Moreover, we tend to live in congested urban metropolises, rather than on farms and in forests, which promote a more tranquil state of mind. Classical forms of yoga and meditation are impractical in this age.

Those prepared to devote themselves to the Lord, center their lives around Him, learn to love Him with all their heart, soul, and mind, forsaking the pleasures of the world and the flesh, need not despair. The Bhagavata Purana describes the Kali Yuga as a time of sorrow, strife and irreligion, but concludes (12:3:51) that it has one redeeming aspect—the saving grace of God is in His holy name:

“My dear King, although Kali Yuga is an ocean
of faults, there is still one good quality about
this age. Simply by glorifying Lord Krishna
one can become liberated and promoted to
the transcendental kingdom.

“When people properly glorify the Supreme
Lord or simply hear about His power, the
Lord personally enters their hearts and
cleanses away every trace of misfortune,
just as the sun removes the darkness or
as a powerful wind drives away the clouds.”

We are spiritual beings, meant to dwell eternally in God’s presence in the spiritual kingdom. We are not meant to be embodied and re-embodied in fragile vehicles of flesh. The spiritual pleasures and ecstasies which the liberated souls experience in their personal relationships with God are infinitely greater than anything this transitory world or a body of decaying flesh can ever provide.

God is personally present within the sound of His holy name. To chant to Lord’s name is to associate directly with God Himself. By the grace of the holy name, the soul is awakened and put directly in touch with God. Chanting the holy names actually revives one’s original, spiritual consciousness. The worshipper gradually becomes absorbed in things of the spirit rather than the flesh or the mundane world. Eventually, one realizes his or her real identity as a soul—a pure spiritual being, full of knowledge, eternity, and bliss—always enjoying the association of the Lord.

The name of the Lord is thus praised as salvation—giving the faithful the gift of eternal life beyond repeated birth and death and the changing cycles of time in this material world. The Mahabharata, ancient India’s epic poem of heroism, tragedy and divine intervention, contains the Vishnu-Sahasranama, or the “One Thousand Names of Lord Vishnu.” The names of God are set down in mantras, or divine hymns.

The Sanskrit literatures are diverse and contain a vast body of knowledge. The one hundred eight principle Upanishads tend to focus primarily on spiritual wisdom, while the eighteen Puranas contain historical narrations from the distant past, when humans were pious, civilizations were more enlightened and the miraculous was ordinary. The Kali-santarana Upanishad emphasizes chanting:

“Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna
Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare
Hare Rama, Hare Rama
Rama Rama, Hare Hare”

to counteract the ill effects of this present age of spiritual darkness, while the Brihan-naradiya Purana emphatically states three times that there is no alternative for spiritual deliverance in this age other than chanting God’s holy names. Traditionally, the Lord is glorified congregationally, with drums, cymbals and dance, or He may be praised individually, in silent prayer, upon rosary beads.

Every genuine religious tradition in the world teaches that God’s names are holy and meant to be glorified. The Bible contains numerous references to glorifying God and His holy name. (Exodus 15:3; Deuteronomy 32:2-3; I Chronicles 16:8-36; Psalms 29:2, 47:1, 86:11, 91:14, 96:1-3, 97:12, 98:4-6, 113:3, 116:1-17, 146:1, 148:1-5, 13)

The Lord and His name are praised throughout the Psalms. “I will praise the name of God with a song,” says King David. (Psalm 69:30) In other places we read: “All nations whom Thou hast made shall come and worship before Thee, O Lord: and shall glorify Thy name.” (Psalm 86:9)

“O give thanks unto the Lord; call upon His name; make known His deeds among the people. Sing unto Him, sing psalms unto Him: talk ye of all His wondrous works. Glory ye in His holy name.” (Psalms 105:1-4) “...Praise Him with the timbrel and the dance; praise Him upon the loud cymbals.” (Psalm 150:4-5)

Israel Baal Shem Tov (1699-1761), the great Jewish mystic, founded Hasidism, a popular pietist movement within Judaism, in which members dance and chant in glorification of God. The Hasidism were especially influenced by verses in Psalms calling for the joyful worship of the Lord through song. (Psalms 100:1,2, 104:33)

According to The Jewish Almanac:

“In the Jewish tradition the name actually partakes of the essence of God. Thus, knowledge of the name is a vehicle to God, a conveyor of divine energy, an interface between the Infinite and the finite...

"It is curious that a tradition that places such a strong emphasis on the one God possesses such a large number of names for the divine. Each name, however, actually represents a different quality or aspect of God.”

When teaching his disciples how to pray, Jesus Christ glorified God’s holy name: “Our Father, who art in Heaven, hallowed be Thy name.” (Matthew 6:9) Jesus also approved of his disciples’ singing joyfully in praise of God. (Luke 19:36-40) Of his own name, Jesus said: “For where two or three are gathered together in my name, I am there with them.” (Matthew 18:20)

The apostle Paul told his gentile followers to speak to one another in psalms and hymns, to sing heartily and make music to the Lord. (Ephesians 5:19) He further taught them to instruct and admonish one another with psalms, hymns and spiritual songs. (Colossians 3:16)

Paul wrote to his gentile congregation in Rome: “For whosoever shall call upon the name of the Lord shall be saved.” (Romans 10:13) According to the historian Eusebius, there was “one common consent in chanting forth the praises of God,” in the early Christian churches. The Gregorian chants, popularized in the sixth century by Pope Gregory and later by works like Handel’s masterpiece the Messiah, with its resounding choruses of “hallelujah” (which means “praised be the name of God” in Hebrew), are still performed and appreciated all over the world.

In addition to praising the Lord’s name and glories through music, song, and dance, there has also emerged the practice of meditating upon God by chanting upon beads of prayer. St. John Chrysostom of the Greek Orthodox church, recommended the “prayerful invocation of the name of God,” which he said should be “uninterrupted.”

The repetition of the Jesus prayer (“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me”) became a regular practice among members of the Eastern Church. In The Way of a Pilgrim, a Russian monk describes this form of meditation:

“The continuous interior prayer of Jesus is a constant, uninterrupted calling upon the divine name of Jesus with the lips, in the spirit, in the heart...One who accustoms himself to this appeal deep a consolation and so great a need to offer the prayer always, that he can no longer live without it.”

“Perhaps you’ve heard about Hesychasm, a technique of mantra meditation that was employed by Christians as far back as the third century after Christ,” says the Reverend Alvin Hart, an Episcopalian priest in New York. “The method was the simple chanting of ‘the Jesus prayer,’ which runs like this: ‘Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy upon me.’ I personally have found great comfort in this mantra.”

According to Reverend Hart, “Although it was recently popularized by the New Age movement...’the Jesus Prayer’ has a long and venerable tradition in the Philokalia, an important book on Christian mysticism. The word Philokalia literally means ‘the love of spiritual beauty,’ and I can say that the book definitely brings its readers to that level of appreciation...

“The Philokalia also emphasizes the importance of accepting a spiritual master. The Greek words used are starets and geront, but they basically mean the same thing. The result of chanting under a proper master is theosis, or the ‘respiritualization of the personality.’”

Reverend Hart says, “When we call on God—and we should learn how to do this at every moment, even in the midst of our day-to-day work—we should be conscious of Him, and then our prayer will have deeper effects, deeper meaning. This, I know, is the basic idea of Krishna Consciousness. In the Christian tradition, too, we are told to ALWAYS pray ceaselessly. This is a biblical command. (I Thessalonians 5:17)

“In a sense, this could also be considered the heart of the Christian process as well. For instance, in the Latin Mass, before the Gospel is read, there is a prayer spoken by the priest: dominus sit in corde meo et in labiis meis, which means, ‘May the Lord be in my heart and on my lips.’ What better way is there to have God on one’s lips than by chanting the holy name?

"Therefore, the Psalms tell us that from ‘the rising of the sun to its setting’ the Lord’s name is to be praised. And Paul echoes this idea by telling us that ‘whoever calls upon the name of the Lord will be saved.’ (Romans 10:13)”

Dr. Klaus Klostermaier notes that meditation and prayer are “important in the Christian tradition, at least for certain sects and monastic orders...In the Philokalia and in the path recommended by The Pilgrim, you find the...’Jesus Prayer,’ which may be unknown to most Christians today, but was very powerful in its time.

So people are aware of the potency of ‘the name’ and the importance of focusing on it as a mantra...But it must be done with devotion...The idea of logos, or ‘the Word,’ has elaborate theological meaning that is intimately tied to the nature of Jesus and, indeed, to the nature of God.”

“All the basic principles of bhakti yoga are richly exemplified in Christianity,” writes Dr. Houston Smith in The Religions of Man. Dr. Smith is a Professor of Philosophy at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. His 1958 book is used as a standard text in major universities. Dr. Smith explains the fundamental principle of bhakti or devotion:

“All we have to do in this yoga is to love God dearly—not just say we love Him but love Him in fact, love Him only (loving other things because of Him), and love Him for no ulterior reason (not even from the desire for liberation) but for love’s sake alone...

“...every strengthening of our affections toward God will weaken the world’s grip. The saint may, indeed will, love the world far more than the addict, but he will love it in a very different way, seeing in it the reflected glory of the God he adores.

“How is this love of God to be developed?” asks Dr. Smith. “Japam is the practice of repeating the names of God. It finds a close Christian parallel in one of the classics of Russian Orthodoxy, The Way of a Pilgrim. This book is the story of an unnamed peasant whose first concern is to fulfill the Biblical injunction to ‘Pray without ceasing.’

“He wanders through Russia and Siberia with a knapsack of dried bread for food and the charity of men for shelter, consulting many authorities only to come away empty-hearted until at last he meets a holy man who teaches him ‘a constant, uninterrupted calling upon the divine Name of Jesus with the lips, in the spirit, in the all times, in all places, even during sleep.’

“The peasant’s teacher trains him until he can repeat the name of Jesus more than 12,000 times a day without strain. ‘This frequent service of the lips imperceptibly becomes a genuine appeal of the heart.’ The prayer becomes a constant warming presence within him...a ‘bubbling joy.’ ‘Keep the name of the Lord spinning in the midst of all your activities’ is the Hindu statement of the same point.”

Dr. Guy Beck’s Ph.D. thesis, Sonic Theology: Hinduism and the Soteriological Function of Sacred Sound examines the doctrine that the Word or divine sounds can have a “salvific” effect. Examining the Vaishnava (orthodox Hindu) practice of chanting God’s names upon beads of prayer, he observes: “...a work from the sixth century A.D., entitled the Jayakhya-Samhita, contains...many early references to the practice of japa.

“It says that there are three considerations in doing japa repetitions—employing the rosary (the akshamala), saying the words aloud (vachika) or repeating them in a low voice (upamshu). There are quite a few details in this text, garnered from early sources, and so a case can be made for a pre-Islamic, and even pre-Christian, use of beads or rosary in the Vaishnava tradition.”

Because the Roman Catholics did not begin using rosary or japa beads until the era of St. Dominic, or the 12th century, Dr. Beck concludes, “the Vaishnavas were chanting japa from very early on.”

In Islam, the names of God are held sacred and meditated upon. According to tradition, there are ninety-nine names of Allah, found inscribed upon monuments such as the Taj Mahal and on the walls of mosques. These names are chanted on an Islamic rosary, which consists of three sets of thirty-three beads.

The Sikh religion is a blend of Hinduism and Islam. The Sikhs emphasize the name of God, calling Him “Nama,” or “the Name.” Guru Nanak, the founder of the Sikh religion, prayed, “In the ambrosial hours of the morn I meditate on the grace of the true Name,” and says that he was instructed by God in a vision to “Go and repeat My Name, and cause others to do likewise.”

Rosaries are used in Buddhism. Members of Japan’s largest Buddhist order, the Pure Land sect, practice repetition of the name of the compassionate Buddha (“namu amida butsu”). Founder, Shinran Shonin says, “The virtue of the Holy Name, the gift of him that is enlightened, is spread throughout the world.” Followers believe that through the name of Buddha a worshipper is liberated from repeated birth and death and joins the Buddha in the “Pure Land.”

Religions all over the world teach that God’s name is holy and meant to be glorified. The saving grace of a personal God is our only real shelter in Kali Yuga. As this age continues, human piety diminishes. Animal slavery. Human slavery. AIDS. Abortion. The Nazi Holocaust. The annihilation of the Native Americans. The “killing fields” of Cambodia. Drug abuse. These are merely the tip of the iceberg—a preview of things to come.

At the end of this age (427,000 years from now), the human race will have turned the earth into a wasteland. Humans will be cannibalizing their own children, and the life expectancy will be around 20 to 30 years.

It is at this point in time that Lord Kalki, the next predicted incarnation of God, will appear. The scriptures say He will appear as the son of a brahmana (priest) whose name is Vishnu-yasa, in a village called Shambhala. There is a place in India with that name, so perhaps it is there that the Lord will appear.

Kalki is depicted riding a horse and carrying a sword. Humanity is so fallen at this point that there is no other remedy, apart from total destruction of the human population, to save the world. Kalki judges the world.

The Linga Purana describes “mlecchas” (barbarians) killed by the thousands by Lord Kalki, along with the thieves who have seized royal power. The Lord then re-establishes pure civilization and annoints a God-conscious king to rule on His behalf. The earth re-enters a phase of enlightenment, and the cycle of time continues.

The prophecies given in these Sanskrit texts are consistent with Western apocalyptic literature such as the Book of Revelations. The Western traditions of a coming or a returning “messiah” presiding over the end of the world, judgement day and the restoration of paradise on earth, however, are seen in Hindu cosmology as cyclical events.

The coming “Satya Yuga,” or golden age, has been expressed in the American popular culture as the dawning of the Aquarian or “New Age.” However, one need not wait 427,000 years for enlightenment. One can be saved immediately by taking shelter of the Lord’s holy names:

“Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna
Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare
Hare Rama, Hare Rama
Rama Rama, Hare Hare”

Chanting “Hare Krishna” liberates one’s consciousness from the physical world by placing the self directly in contact with the Lord. Individually and collectively, chanting counteracts the ill effects of Kali Yuga. Chanting cleanses the dust from the mirror of the mind and reawakens one’s relationship with God. It is the Lord’s mercy, and it is meant for everyone.

A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami’s humble request to the confused and alienated American youth of the late 1960s is especially relevant today, as Kali Yuga continues and civilization declines:

“...don’t commit suicide. Take to chanting this Hare Krishna mantra, and all real knowledge will be revealed...We are not charging anything...No. It is open for everyone. Please take it...That is our request. We are begging you—don’t spoil your life. Please take this mantra and chant it wherever you like...chant, and you’ll feel ecstasy.”

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