The Holy Name and Personalist Mysticism
Nabadwip can be a noisy town, as many places in India are; regulations are weak and people celebrating weddings or other special occasions often tie a loudspeaker to the longest piece of bamboo they can find and spread the gift of cinema music, often crackling with static, to all and sundry throughout the day and night.
If such a party was taking place close to my home, the din would often be unbearable for someone like myself, who eagerly sought silence, especially in the final hours of darkness. However, out of a sense of fair play, I always felt reluctant to protest, for some of my most joyful moments came in those same dead hours, when the lonely sound of a small group of kirtaniyas engaged in a 24-hour marathon of chanting the Holy Name would waft over the sleeping town like a baby’s blanket spread by its tired mother.
I used to go to the kirtans, big and small. I went to the seven-day Harinam at the Nabadwip Cloth Market (Kapurer Hat) building, which was in my neigborhood. Nabadwip, if you did not know it, is a fairly big center for handloom cloth. Many East Bengal refugees were handloom workers who after fleeing their homes chose Nabadwip and Swaroop Ganj as their place of residence because of the deep attachment they had for Mahaprabhu and his Holy Name. Thus handloom is the town's main industry and as a way of annually showing thanks, the managers of the Kapur Hat make a point of having the biggest and most ostentatious kirtan with the best professional groups from Calcutta.
It took me a few years outside of the Iskcon orbit before I overcame my prejudices against the Holy Name in some of the forms it takes in Bengal—sometimes crass and commercial, sometimes vulgar and sentimental, it is everything they say it is. Sometimes the singers of these kirtans have teeth red with betel nut condiments; they often have long hair that is shiny with mustard oil. They smoke bidis and, who knows, quite possibly engage in all kinds of debauchery. Their credentials as sadhus are suspect in the eyes of those for whom spiritual life is condensed into four regulative principles. It took some time before I discovered other dimensions of the Holy Name.
The Gaudiya Math often criticizes listening to such kirtans. Not only do they insist that unless one is morally perfect, the Holy Name is really namaparadh, but they challenge the very form of the public kirtan. They argue that participation is essential and simply listening to kirtan is insufficient. Sravanam alone is an inadequate response to the Holy Name, and one must also engage in kirtanam; after all kirtan is the yuga-dharma. Besides which, there has long been a line of criticism (found in Islam also) that the music itself can serve as a distraction that takes away from absorption in the Holy Names; the goal of entertainment takes priority over religious communion. Over the course of time, I found these criticisms to be weak and hollow.
I developed a great respect for these musicians because I felt that they worshiped the Holy Name with their God-given talents. One must worship the Ganges with Ganges water. The talents we have were meant to be used in the service of God, so one who uses his talents for chanting the Holy Name, whatever else he does with his life, must be given a certain amount of credit. Why should I, with my unmusical, untrained voice, be asked to sing with these great musicians, who have practiced their craft for so long? When alone or with my peers, no doubt one can take pleasure in singing the Holy Name, but one does not ask a cripple to run with Jesse Owens.
Life is full of choices and fateful accidents. One who ends up making his living by chanting the Holy Name in public is a fortunate creature. I am not playing the innocent--corruption and hypocrisy in the name of religion is as all-pervading as the material nature, but I am in favor of accentuating the positive.
Besides which, I observed on many occasions that the audience made a great difference to the kirtan. Numbers certainly enhanced the electricity of a performance. But the principal difference I observed came from the quality. When there were advanced sadhakas or nama-rasikas in the audience, this naturally elicited a certain reaction from the chanters, namely veneration and humility. Humility is the single most important mental framework necessary to chanting the Holy Name. This would open the heart of the singer and let the Holy Name enter it. That way he would transcend personal ego and the Holy Name would truly become incarnate on the pathway of the music.
karNa-kroda-kaDambini ghaTayate karNArbudebhyaH spRhAm
cetaH-prAGgaNa-saGgini vijayate sarvendriyAnAM kRtiM
no jAne janitA kiyabdhir amRtaiH kRSNeti varNa-dvayi
“I do not know out of how much nectar
has gone into the making of the two syllables of Krishna’s name--
dancing madly on my tongue,
they awaken in me the desire to possess many mouths;
as they sprout in my ears, they give me the hope
that I may one day have millions of ears;
and as they enter into the garden of my heart
they overcome the activities of every one of my senses,
and leave me inert!” (Vidagdha-madhava 1.15)
At the same time, in some cases, it was definitely the kirtaniyas who were the masters and the audience the disciples. The former were distributing mercy, the latter receiving. Perhaps I was proud, I don't know, but I had become so accustomed to seeing singers in small groups buckle up and get serious when I came into an audience that I was rather surprised the first time I first encountered the opposite.
This took place somewhere else, I can’t remember exactly where. Somewhere else in Nadia, but not a big center, a Harinam at somebody’s house marking a special occasion. I was sitting in the audience, in a small group, certainly less than a hundred. As I was a foreigner and dressed as a sadhu, I had immediately been given a front row seat in the very intimate arena. The sheer closeness of the people did not bother me that much, even though it was not something I relished that much.
My status won me special attention from the singers, who on this occasion included a prominent middle-aged man who had obvious presence and was the leader of the group. He was classically Sahajiya in appearance—long shoulder-length hair, solidly stout in build, dark skinned, swarthy enough to be clearly a member of one of the lower classes of Bengali society. Thin, finely painted tilak on his brow. His teeth were sufficiently red to indicate a pan habit. Nevertheless, it was fully clear that he enjoyed considerable stature amongst his fellows.
When it came his turn to sing, he followed a customary ritual of directing his singing to one person--me. He began by paying obeisances, which I returned. He then looked me directly in the eyes. It was as though we were entering another world. It was magnificent--the Holy Name was a contentless prayer that nevertheless contained everything. It went beyond words to encapsulate everything that was in the depths of the heart--the pain, the misery, the hopelessness of the conditioned state in this world. It was a shared emotion--not just his, indeed more mine than his--that he explored for me in the presence of God in his Holy Name.
One full Maha Mantra took several minutes to complete, filling a cycle of emotional prayer. As it came to a conclusion with one last "Hare", the singer took me in his arms and embraced me while the mridangas and other instruments crested. In that moment I felt -- please don't laugh -- the kundalini shakti rising in a way that I had never felt before. An explosion of light rising up my spine and crashing in my brain. It was not emotion, but light.
The singer then paid his obeisances again and the next singer then took over.
This incident really whetted my appetite for this kind of experience. Certainly it opened my eyes to a new way of looking at the Holy Name and what is meant by "congregational" chanting.
The experience that I had had previously emphasized the individual and his relation with God through calling the Holy Name. The Holy Name is essentially contentless. It is the cry of the soul to God. Though the chanting certainly goes through a variety of modes and attitudes, its essence is the stark nakedness of the soul before God.
But Maya and the ego are complex cheaters, and no doubt there is no field of human endeavor in which they do not come to play their dirty tricks. But we have two eyes to give us perspective, and anyone who stays comfortable in a single mode of acting or understanding is easier prey for Maya than one who subjects himself to other modes, or human contact.
Later on, when I came to university I read Martin Buber and was moved by his personalist theology, which he called "I – Thou." It seemed that this reflected in part my Harinam experience, indeed, that this was what the Harinam experience I had had encapsulated.
A very brief summary of my interpretation of "I-Thou" is this: God is a person. Therefore the essence of religious experience is that of personality, the highest aspect of the creation. God's presence is found in consciousness everywhere; indeed, the direct experience of personality is a kind of mystic communion with God. Generally speaking, it is the human tendency to objectify people in "I-it" relations. This makes all evil possible. An awareness of God's presence in the "Other" is the essence of theistic mystic experience--and not a kind of "I-it" relationship, where God is objectified and reduced to a commodity.
Prior to the above experience, congregational chanting had taken the form of a fortifying parallel experience rather than a face to face encounter. We were soldiers marching side by side in battalions, rather than looking into the eyes of the Other and encountering the Divine.
This is the how music and the word join together to transcend each other in the Holy Name. Music carries emotion; words carry content. But the content of words can block as much as they open doorways. I remember as a teenager at the Catholic mass rebelling at the Credo--"the resurrection of the flesh." I could not believe that this body would rise again after it has become old and decayed. The words of this prayer bogged me down. In the Holy Name, there is no credo. It is the soul before God in his nakedness. The only obstacle is the reluctance to look another person in the eyes.