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High Speed Japa: the Math -

Madhava - Fri, 05 Nov 2004 10:37:42 +0530

[ Originally posted here by Keshava, split to a separate copy & paste thread. ]

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High Speed Japa: the Math

Ever heard of the 3-minute round? Ever seen Krishna devotees who chant relatively slow finish their 16 rounds in one and a half hour? I have, and still do, and it never fails to amaze me.

For the uninitiated (no pun intended), a "round" refers to 108 maha-mantras chanted either out loud or in a murmuring way. Devotees keep track of the number of mantras by using what is called a japa-mala, a strand of 108 wooden beads -- somewhat akin to a rosary.

The maha-mantra consists of 16 names, of 2 syllables each:

hare krishna hare krishna
krishna krishna hare hare
hare rama hare rama
rama rama hare hare

You will find that with some practice, you can chant this mantra fairly quickly and still maintain an accurate pronunciation. However, to chant 108 of these mantras in 3 minutes requires that you can't take more than 1.67 seconds per mantra and can't breathe in between mantras. Go ahead, get a stopwatch and try to chant one mantra under 1.7 seconds. You'll find that this is sheer illusion, especially if you expect to do that 108 times in a row on just one breath of air.

Let's give it a bit more time, say 2 seconds per mantra. That is still pretty fast. And let's throw in some quick breathing time, too. Say 1 second after every 3 mantras (not very liberal, but let's see where that gets us). Now a round will take 108 x 2 = 216 seconds, plus 108 / 3 = 36 seconds for breathing. That makes almost 4 and a half minutes. If you keep this pace up without fail or interruption, and without the customary panca-tattva mantra between each round, you will finish your 16 rounds in one hour and seven minutes. Hey, that is less than one and a half hour! Yes, but it is also still not realistic. In reality, most devotees can't and/or don't chant all their 16 rounds straight, without interruption, breathing only once every 3 mantras and without the panca-tattva mantra in between rounds. Also, at this pace you better concentrate like a yogi, as the margin for errors in pronunciation and the chances for skipping beads or names is substantial.

Realistically, a comfortable fast pace sets you at about 3 seconds per mantra, with a slightly more liberal 1.5 second breath after every two mantras. That makes (3 x 108) + (108 / 2 x 1.5) = 6 minutes and 45 seconds for a round. Add 3 seconds between rounds for the panca-tattva mantra and you will chant your 16 rounds in (16 x 3 x 108) + (108 / 2 x 1.5) + (15 x 3) = a bit more than 1 hour and 48 minutes. Here, too, the key is maintaining a sustained pace. Every distraction or extra breath, or other type of delay, adds to the time.

As a personal "reality check," I suggest you sit down with a stopwatch and chant how you normally chant. Once you're up to your normal speed and feel comfortable (probably somewhere after half a round), switch the stopwatch on and off to capture the time it takes you to chant a single mantra. Note that down. Now capture the time it takes you to chant 32 mantras in a row. Divide the time by 32. This is your raw chanting speed and does not take into account any extras besides your normal breathing pace. Note the difference with the speed for just a single mantra. You can use the table below to figure out how long it should take you to chant all your 16 rounds without interruption:

16 rounds

2 seconds
58 minutes
Sheer illusion.

3 seconds
1 hour, 27 minutes
Keep dreaming.

4 seconds
1 hours, 56 minutes
Realistic, fast.

5 seconds
2 hours, 25 minutes
Realistic, relaxed.

6 seconds
2 hours, 54 minutes
Realistic, slow.

7 seconds
3 hours, 23 minutes
Too slow.

8 seconds
3 hours, 52 minutes
Way too slow.

9 seconds
4 hours, 22 minutes
Spacing out to the max.

10 seconds
4 hours, 50 minutes
Anybody home?

Most chanters will fall in range between 4 and 6. If you take more than 3 hours to chant 16 rounds uninterruptedly, chances are that you are not very focused. If you range between 2 and 3, I suggest that you seriously question yourself about the quality of your chanting -- especially in regards to pronunciation and skipping of names or beads.

I have personally seen slow chanters finish a round on their beads faster than fast chanters, and then discovered that when they chant with a clicker (tally counter) that they click every half of the mantra, or twice per mantra. I have seen devotees who chant with their beads in open view do the same thing, two beads per mantra. In this way they really only chant 8 rounds, not 16. Needless to say that most do not appreciate it when you point this out. Skipping of names or beads is not uncommon at all, and is usually the result of poor chanting habits developed early on (often because the emphasis lies more on quantity than quality -- "Gotta get those 16 rounds in.").

Since it is indeed very hard to keep the mind focussed, these bad habits can go unnoticed for years on end. The good news is that they can be "unlearned". One simply has to take the time to, so to say, start over again. In the beginning, go for quality. Chant at a pace where you can clearly and fully pronounce each and every syllable. Pay attention to the number of names and the entire mantra. There's a flow and a rhythm. Do that for a couple of days and then slowly increase the speed. As soon as you find that the speed affects the quality, go slower again. As with certain martial arts, like Tai-Chi, everything that is learned slowly maintains its accuracy when executed quickly. Muscles "remember" better at slower speed. The tongue is a muscle, too. Practice.

Good luck!