Differences between meditation and bhakti

What is the difference between Dhyana (meditational yoga) and Bhakti-yoga?

Our Answer:

Dhyana, meditation, is just one way to practice bhakti, devotional service to the Supreme Person.

Hearing about Vishnu (or His incarnations), chanting about Them, remembering Them (dhyana), offering prayers, worshipping, etc. are all different practices of bhakti, devotional service.

Meditation on the Lord is one way; however, in this age of Kali, the chanting of the holy name is considered to be a much better alternative.

In the Bhagavad-gita, Krishna explains to Arjuna the whole process of meditation, especially in the sixth chapter. He concludes the chapter by saying that of all yogis, the one who is always thinking of Krishna and worshiping Him with great faith is the highest of all. The most direct and practical means of thinking of Krishna in the current day and age is to chant Hare Krishna.

The Phenomenon of Sankirtana


“Praise ye the Lord. Praise ye the name of the Lord; praise Him, O ye servants of the Lord… . Let everything that hath breath praise the Lord.” (Psalms, 135, 150)

Among all the practices of the Hare Krishna movement, the most prominent is the public chanting of God’s names, ecstatic dancing, and playing of musical instruments—a spontaneous street liturgy common in most major cities throughout the world. Yet upon first seeing devotees chanting and dancing on a busy downtown street of a modern Western city, many people understandably experience a kind of culture shock. Perhaps it’s the devotees’ uncommon appearance, or the unfamiliar music, or the mere presence of a group of people celebrating something right on the street. In any case, the spectacle of ecstatic dancing, chanting, and music-making certainly warrants an explanation, and we can begin with some historical background.

One day, in early sixteenth-century India, Sri Krishna Chaitanya requested the people of the Bengali town of Navadvipa to chant the Hare Krishna mantra in every one of their homes. Before long, these devotees became so overwhelmed and intoxicated by the chanting of the holy names of God that they burst out of their homes into the streets. One of Sri Chaitanya’s biographers says, “No one in Navadvipa could hear any sound other than the words ‘Hare Krishna! Hare Rama!’ and the beating of mridanga drums and the clashing of hand cymbals.” Accompanied by these musical instruments, Sri Chaitanya would chant with such devotional ecstasy that huge crowds of people would gather to chant and dance through the streets of Navadvipa and into the nearby villages.

Thus Sri Chaitanya, who is accepted by devotees as an incarnation of Godhead and by historians as one of the greatest devotional mystics in the history of the world’s religions, introduced this most dramatic expression of devotion, known as sankirtana. Although we can trace the idea of sankirtana back thousands of years, not until Sri Chaitanya was its full potential realized, for it was He who first demonstrated its universal attraction. For six years He traveled widely in India by foot, and wherever He went He introduced the practice of sankirtana. Thereafter, it was accepted by saints of various religious traditions and sects across the Indian subcontinent.

Nearly five centuries later, in 1966, sankirtana was introduced in the West by its foremost modern exponent. His Divine Grace A..C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada (the founder and spiritual guide of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness). Since then, its practice has spread throughout the world. It is precisely this ancient practice of sankirtana that the devotees of the Hare Krishna movement are presenting before the world’s plurality of cultures today. Now let us examine more closely the phenomenon of sankirtana.

We can understand what sankirtana is through a brief analysis of the word. The word sankirtana has a twofold meaning, indicated by two distinct translations of its root. The Sanskrit verb kirt, from which the word kirtana derives, means on the one hand “to praise” or “to glorify” and on the other “to tell” or “to call.” Thus the act of kirtana is meant to praise or glorify God while telling or calling man to participate in this glorification. Kirtana always takes place in a congregation of saintly people, as indicated by the prefix sam, meaning “all together,” or “congregationally.” The prefix sam may also act as an intensive, connoting “perfect” or “complete” kirtana. Therefore sankirtana carries the sense that when kirtana is performed congregationally, the glorification of God and the calling of man is perfect or complete.

Sankirtana is the performance of activities that in some way glorify God. There are various forms of sankirtana, such as chanting God’s holy names, offering and accepting sanctified food, and producing and distributing sacred literature. Each of these is a primary way a pure devotee may glorify God.

Glorifying God pleases Him, purifies the glorifier, develops one’s spiritual qualities, and attracts others to this glorification (thus pleasing God even more). How can one please the Supreme Being, upon whom everything is absolutely dependent? We can do this by giving Him the only thing He lacks—our love and devotion to Him. Sankirtana is the most complete and perfect way of giving God man’s devotion.

As chanting God’s name in glorification pleases God, so also do offering food to God and writing and publishing literature about God. When devotees offer food to the Supreme in worship, the food is spiritually transformed, and devotees gladly distribute it to all, for just by tasting such sanctified food one is purified and begins pleasing God. Furthermore, a book that glorifies the Supreme Lord, His name. His form, His qualities, and His manifestations is itself an embodiment of the divinity. Devotees therefore distribute such literature for the spiritual education of others. Sri Chaitanya advocated all three of these forms of sankirtana.

The chanting of the holy names of God is a religious principle that genuine prophets and saints of widely varied traditions have tried to promulgate, and therefore it should not be a practice completely foreign to the West. Countless verses in the Old Testament express the importance of the names of God: “So I will sing praise unto Thy name forever,” “Sing praises to His name,” “Blessed be the name of the Lord,” and so on. Many verses even ask us to sing the holy name of God with music and dance: “Let them praise His name in the dance, let them sing praises unto Him with the timbrel and harp.” And sankirtana should absorb one constantly: “From the rising of the sun unto the going down of the same, the Lord’s name is to be praised.” These examples illustrate that God’s name must not be ordinary; otherwise, why should a devotee of God occupy himself constantly with praising it?

There is something special about the relationship between God and His name that we don’t find between ordinary persons or things and their names. We should note that these passages from the Old Testament don’t directly mention God as the one being praised. Rather, it is His name. The praising of God takes place through the praising of His holy names, because they actually represent God in a form that enables one to associate with Him while in limited human life. Because God is the supreme absolute being, He is fully present in any one of His names. Therefore, by sounding God’s names one associates with the transcendent Lord Himself. Sankirtana, then, means to associate with God through the chanting of His sacred names in order to realize our eternal relationship with Him.

Describing the power of God’s names, Lord Chaitanya says that God has invested all His transcendental potencies in His names and that chanting these names enables anyone to easily approach Him. Although there are many names of God that one may chant, the especially potent formula given by Sri Chaitanya and His followers is the chanting of Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare/ Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare. This formula is known as the “greatest chant,” or the maha-mantra, because it contains the most powerful names of God for the process of sankirtana. Anyone may benefit from chanting these names, regardless of sex, race, nationality, religious belief, or social status.

One cannot overestimate the potency of sankirtana, for in each of its forms it brings about a permanent spiritual effect. But sankirtana with sacred literature has a special quality. We have mentioned that devotees recognize sacred literature as an embodiment of the divinity, as they recognize the holy names and sanctified food. Such sacred literature is very dear to the devotees because it conveys the message of God and thus invokes His very presence. But although chanting God’s names and partaking of sanctified food have a powerful, permanent effect and these methods have their own special applications, they provide the purifying presence of God only during the time they are performed. The special quality of sacred literature, therefore, is that it provides continuous access to the Deity and association with Him, The Padma Purana says that if one just keeps such literature in one’s home, the Lord resides there. The devotee understands that sacred literature is the greatest gift, so he naturally tries to distribute this gift profusely for everyone’s benefit. *

Sacred literature plays an essential role in the Vaishnava tradition, from which the sankirtana movement emerges. For example, among the tradition’s many texts is the Mahabharata, the longest epic poem in the world (eight times the length of the lliad and the Odyssey combined). One section of the Mahabharata is the Bhagavad-gita, the most loved sacred text of India. And many thousands of other works belong to this same rich literary heritage.

The distribution of sacred literature is not a new form of sankirtana. It was highly regarded even during Lord Chaitanya’s time, when literature was not mass- produced. Lord Chaitanya ordered His immediate disciples the Six Gosvamis of Vrindavana to write copious works on the spiritual science. And later, as printing technology developed, the importance of literary sankirtana increased. In the early twentieth century one great Vaishnava teacher called the distribution of sacred literature the “great drum,” or brihat mridanga; the sound of a drum may be heard for half a mile, but books can be heard around the world.

The process of sankirtana is so complete and powerful that while it glorifies God through its various forms, it spiritually uplifts all who participate or have even remote contact with it. Thus, as Lord Chaitanya states, it is “the prime benediction for humanity at large.” It is the direct and genuine experience of the soul proper. It is the outpouring of the most natural tendency of the human heart in its lasting relation with the Supreme Being. It is that for which man ultimately hankers in his higher self, after realizing the futility of trying to satisfy worldly appetites and passions. Sankirtana “enables us to fully taste the nectar for which we are always anxious.”

As demonstrated by the Hare Krishna movement, the worldwide spread of this powerful religious force can spiritually transform people from all cultures. This fact, along with evidence about sankirtana from other scriptural texts, points to the universality of sankirtana: sankirtana brings forth the ultimate religious dimension of human existence. Because sankirtana so thoroughly arouses man’s spiritual potential in his relation to the Supreme Person, it brings forth love of God par excellence. Indeed, in our materialistic society, which pushes us toward utter forgetfulness of God, sankirtana powerfully reasserts the genuine spiritual character of man.

Nothing that a Goat Won’t Eat


According to an Indian proverb, there’s nothing that a goat won’t eat and nothing that a madman won’t say. Madmen? Sometimes it seems like we’re living in a world of them, or at least a world of fools. The human impulse is to say something—anything. Something stupid, something contentious, something sweet, deceitful, smart, ridiculous, or empty. Big strings of words, amounting to nothing. It’s astonishing.

Nearly as surprising: You can speak the most outrageous foolishness, and someone out there—most likely many someones—will for sure take it as sensible, even as urgently important.

People babble on like sea waves, other people babble back. And soon you’ve got a tumultuous roar, of no significance at all. Babble on, Babylon.

Behind those babbling tongues churn babbling minds, full of everything, empty of substance.

For which the Vedic remedy is the chanting of the maha- mantra: Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare/ Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare.

The purpose of the chanting is to pull the mind out of the din and fix it on one point: Krishna.

That point—Krishna—is not merely a point, but the ultimate substance. The word Krishna indicates the supreme reality, the Absolute, the original source of everything.

More precisely, the word Krishna is Krishna. On the material platform, a word and what it stands for are different. On the spiritual platform, Krishna and Krishna’s name are the same.

So by chanting Hare Krishna, we leave behind the clatter of illusion and come in touch with Krishna, the Absolute Truth.

In the early stages of spiritual understanding, one realizes that Absolute Truth as an impersonal, all-pervading oneness. Further along, one perceives that Absolute Truth as the Supersoul, the source of all intelligence, the unseen guide within the heart. And when that unseen guide fully reveals Himself, one can see the Absolute Truth as the transcendent Personality of Godhead, free from all the grossness of matter yet tangibly real and specific in His unlimited names, forms, qualities, and pastimes.

It is when we come to Krishna that real talking begins. That talking is done by the greatest self-realized souls. And by those who accept, repeat, and relish the words of those realized souls and thus become realized themselves.

Of course, those who babble on about nothing will think that whatever they’re buzzing about is of great consequence and that Hare Krishna is for fools.

Let them.

Following in the footsteps of the Vedic sages, we’ll go on talking about Krishna and chanting the maha-mantra: Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare/ Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare.

Does it matter what mantra I chant?


"The guru does not manufacture a new process to instruct the disciple. The disciple receives from the guru an authorized process received by the guru from his guru. This is called the system of disciplic succession (evaḿ paramparā-prāptaḿ imaḿ rājarṣayo viduḥ [Bg. 4.2]). This is the bona fide Vedic system of receiving the process of devotional service, by which the Supreme Personality of Godhead is pleased.

Therefore, to approach a bona fide guru, or spiritual master, is essential. The bona fide spiritual master is he who has received the mercy of his guru, who in turn is bona fide because he has received the mercy of his guru. This is called the parampara system.

Unless one follows this parampara system, the mantra one receives will be chanted for no purpose. Nowadays there are so many rascal gurus who manufacture their mantras as a process for material advancement, not spiritual advancement. Still, the mantra cannot be successful if it is manufactured.

Mantras and the process of devotional service have special power, provided they are received from the authorized person."

- from the Srimad-Bhagavatam (8.16.24, purport)

What is a Mantra?


In Sanskrit, man means “mind” and tra means “freeing.” So a mantra is a combination of transcendental, spiritual sounds meant to liberate the mind from the anxieties of life in the material world.

Ancient India’s Vedic literatures single out one mantra as the maha (great) mantra. The Kali-santarana Upanishad explains, “These sixteen words— Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare/ Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare—are especially meant for counteracting the ill effects of the present age of quarrel and anxiety.”

The Narada-pancharatra adds, “All mantras and all processes for self-realization are compressed into the Hare Krishna maha-mantra.” Five centuries ago, while spreading the maha-mantra throughout the Indian subcontinent, Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu prayed, “O Supreme Personality of Godhead, in Your holy name You have invested all Your transcendental energies.”

The name Krishna means “the all-attractive one,” the name Rama means “the all- pleasing one,” and the name Hare is an address to the Lord’s devotional energy. So the maha-mantra means, “O all-attractive, all-pleasing Lord, O energy of the Lord, please engage me in Your devotional service.”

Chant the Hare Krishna maha-mantra, and your life will be sublime. We guarantee it. You'll never know if you never try.

Have any experiences, realizations, or stories about chanting the maha-mantra you'd like to share? Contact us.

How to chant on beads


Bhakti yoga practice includes chanting the Hare Krishna mantra softly to oneself. This is called japa.

While chanting, you'll keep the sacred japa beads in a bead bag to keep them clean and off the floor. One side of the bag is large enough to insert your hand. Your index finger comes out of the smaller hole on the other side, to help you hold on to the bag. Place your beads in the bag, and you’re ready to go.

Chanting “Rounds”

Bhakti yoga practitioners decide on a minimum number of mantras they want to chant each day. The main purpose of the beads is to keep track of the number of mantras chanted. Fingering the beads also engages your sense of touch and helps to focus your mind on the activity of chanting.

There are 108 beads and one larger bead, known as the head bead, or Krishna bead. Begin with the bead next to the Krishna bead. Gently roll the bead between the thumb and middle finger of your right hand while chanting:

Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare
Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare

Then move forward to the next bead (pulling the bead towards you, into your hand) and repeat the mantra.

In this way, continue chanting on each of the 108 beads in the strand until you again reach the Krishna bead. This is known as one round of japa and usually takes from six to ten minutes.

Bhagavad-gita courseIt is beneficial to chant the Pancha-tattva mantra before beginning your japa meditation. Many people like to chant it before each round. This is a prayer to Krishna's most merciful avatar, Lord Chaitanya and His associates, to help us become ecstatic and avoid offenses while chanting.

sri-krishna-chaitanya prabhu-nityananda
sri-advaita gadadhara

"I offer my obeisances to Sri Krishna Chaitanya, Prabhu Nityananda, Sri Advaita, Gadadhara, Srivasa and all others in the line of devotion."

If you are going to chant more than one round of japa, then, without chanting on the Krishna bead, turn the strand around and begin the next round. (Continue pulling beads towards you, as before. Watch our helpful demonstration video: How to Practice Japa Mantra Meditation.)

If you have a string of counter beads tied to your bead bag, you can keep track of the number of rounds you have chanted by moving one counter bead for each round.

Chant clearly and try to hear the holy names with attention. Some chanters find that looking at the mantra or a picture of Krishna helps them concentrate. If that works for you, that’s fine. But remember that the goal is attentive hearing.

Where can I get the beads and bead bag?

You'll find a good selection in our store: japa beads | bead bags

More on this topic

What inspired you to start chanting the Hare Krishna mantra?


Musician and sustainability enthusiast Mitrasena dasa tells why he first decided to try chanting the Hare Krishna mantra, and what happened as a result.

Meditation—While Watching Children?


It’s 5:20 in the morning. For twenty minutes I’ve been chanting the maha-mantra on my beads: Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare/ Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare. A group of children aged five through twelve had been sitting around me in a circle, also chanting. Forty minutes remain for my personal mantra meditation.

I lean over and unlock a wooden cabinet with my left hand.

“Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna …”

Please, Lord, let me realize that You are fully present in Your holy name. Let me try to hear Your name—without my mind wandering—for at least a minute.

“… Rama Rama, Hare Hare.”

Jahnu, my grandson, sees the cabinet open and shuffles over in his funny, awkward run. From out of the cabinet, Arjuna and Nimai grab the pictures of Krishna they’ve been coloring.

“… Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare …”

Lord, let me be Your servant.

Balarama walks over to get the picture of Lord Vishnu he’s been coloring (so far, in one solid color), speaking to Cintamani in his jumbled English-Spanish with intensity. I close my eyes.

“… Hare Hare …”

Jahnu has sat down by the markers with his picture of demons taunting the saint Prahlada. I open my eyes. For each marker he opens, I have to make sure he closes the lid tightly and puts the marker back. This I do with my left hand around his tiny palms. I am trying to teach him how to do this himself, as I did with Balarama two years ago.

My right hand continues to go from bead to bead.

“Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna …”

Please remove my envy so I can serve You nicely. Help me to fix my mind on the sound.

“… Rama Rama …”

Lalita Madhava and Sitarani are throwing markers instead of coloring, distracting some of the adults who surround us, chanting with an intense desire for purification and love of God. I must not let the children disturb them. If I can get the girls’ attention and then slightly shake my head “No” while bending my eyebrows, I can continue to hear—pray to deeply hear—the Lord’s names.

For years I wondered whether caring for children during much of my chanting time would greatly impede my spiritual progress. Finally I understood: If we serve Lord Krishna’s devotees, Krishna is more pleased than when we just serve Him directly.

With an awkward tilt like a wooden puppet on strings, Jahnu now runs across the room to Subhadra, who has a bag of stuffed- animal toys. No longer having to help him close pens, I chance shutting my eyes and hope for a long, uninterrupted time to hear.

“… Hare Hare; Hare Krishna …”

Unfortunately, in my inner playground my mind jumps down slides, and swings into the sky. I think about what I need to do today. I think about how this morning’s chanting session would be a good inspiration for this column.

No—away flickering thoughts! Just hear.

“… Rama Rama, Hare Hare.”

Arjuna and Nimai are fighting because Nimai started to color Arjuna’s picture. They’ve had enough of coloring and are now taking copies of Srila Prabhupada’s books and looking at the pictures. Both can read, and Arjuna can read well enough to understand most of what’s in the book in his hand. Still, right now they just look at pictures, one book after another. Balarama also stops coloring and gets his own book. He’s now old enough to know not to put the book on his feet or the floor.

“… Krishna Krishna …”

The sound of Your holy name is so sweet. When will I become fully absorbed, fully meditating on the sound of Your name?

“Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna …”

Now Jahnu has toddled back to the cabinet. On the way, he has babbled to several of the adults in the temple room, smiling, and nodding his blond curls. Following with her pull- hands/drag-legs crawl, Subhadra also approaches the cabinet. We must watch her closely; if she takes the tops off the markers, she will put the ink into her mouth. She may also crumble the other children’s pictures.

This time, Jahnu points to a book. We get out a children’s version of the story of Krishna killing Aghasura. There’s a color picture on every page. The book goes on top of a mat so as not to be on the floor, and I turn the pages with my left hand while Jahnu and Subhadra look, enthralled.

“… Krishna, Krishna …”

Krishna is so beautiful. Someday may I enter into His pastimes.