The Spiritual Practice of Repeating Mantras and Divine Names
Japa is a simple yet profound spiritual practice stemming from the Indian spiritual tradition. It is practiced in both Hinduism and Sikhism. Japa signifies the continuous recitation of a Mantra or Divine Name. If a Mantra is chosen, it is called Mantra Japa. If a Divine Name is chosen, it is Nama Japa.
The repetition can be either verbally, whispered or mentally. The Sanskrit word japa is derived from the root jap-, meaning “to utter in a low voice, repeat internally, mutter” (A Practical Sanskrit Dictionary. p. 447). While the silent form of mental repetition is generally regarded as superior, the other forms can be helpful as a start or when feeling drowsy or distracted.
Aims of Japa
Japa can be practiced throughout the day and is not restricted to formal sitting meditation. The aim of Japa, just like that of all other Yoga practices, is Self- or God-realization. Japa is regarded as a means to attain complete self-identification with the object of meditation, which, in this case, is the spiritual Reality or God. Through constant repetition and concentration, the mind ultimately gets transcended, just like a magnifying glass may bundle the sunlight and thus burn through paper. Thus, higher levels of reality may be experienced.
How to Practice Japa
As mentioned before, Japa simply means repetition or remembrance of a Mantra or Divine Name. The technique in itself is quite simple: The Mantra or Name is being constantly repeated, either saying it aloud or in one’s mind. Whenever the mind gets distracted, it has to be brought back to thinking or saying the Mantra. However, no force should be used as this will only make the mind rigid and tense. Rather, the mind should be trained to rest on the Mantra. Japa should be enjoyable. Although it may seem mechanical in the beginning, the aim is to develop strong feelings such as love, devotion, beauty, grace and power. Although Japa is repetitive and monotonous, it should not dull the mind but rather deepen concentration and intensify devotion.
More Practical Hints on Japa
It may be suitable to link the recital to one’s breathing. For example, when doing Japa with the Mantra “Om Namah Shivaya”, one may repeat “Om” while breathing in and “Namah Shivaya” when breathing out. What can also be helpful is using a Japamala for recitation. A Japamala is a garland of beads used for counting the Mantras by turning the thumb clockwise around the bead. This rythmical, physical movement aids concentration.
While Japa can be done throughout the day, it can also be practiced as a sitting meditation. Sitting down in formal meditation with eyes closed or gazing at a picture, Japa can be practiced just like any other meditation technique.
Although Japa can be practiced all day long, it should not interfere with one’s daily activities and work. It can ideally be practiced during practical physical activities such as cooking, cleaning, walking, running and driving, but not so much when the mind needs to concentrate on reading, talking etcetera.
Benefits of Japa
Japa calms the mind and aids concentration: It is said that after intense, continuous practice, the repetition goes on in one’s mind without conscious effort, even during work and sleep, as a sort of constant spiritual awareness. Ultimately, this may result in the state of Samadhi or oneness with the Divine Self.
Japa awakens and kindles devotion: Through the mystic power believed to be contained in the Mantra or Divine Name, Japa is also said to confer Divine shakti (energy), bliss and grace and burn negative Karma. Many spiritual authorities such as Swami Sivananda, Swami Ramdas and Ramakrishna Paramahamsa praised the power of Japa and recommended it especially for our present age.