Japa or Japam in Hinduism
Japa is repeating the holy name; through this, one rises to the infinite. Swami Vivekananda
Japa, is the constant repetition of a sacred word, syllable, name, phrase, prayer, or mantra to bring the mind into a state of heightened concentration, stability, and devotion. It is a popular, ancient practice which is mentioned in several Hindu scriptures as the best sacrifice, and which is believed to be purifying and transformative. We do not know its exact origin, but we know that it was practiced by almost every tradition of India since the earliest times.
It seems that the word was originally associated with a sacred utterance in a ritual worship or religious observance, rather than to denote a separate practice. For example, the word “japathi” appears in Chandogya Upanishad (5.2.6) and in Kausitaki Upanishad (2.11) in a casual sense as sacred utterance rather than a spiritual technique. It is also possible that in the beginning the word might have been used to denote secret utterance, or what one whispered into another person’s ear (upa japa), before it became distinguished as a separate practice.
However, Hindu scriptures recognize its significance as a sacrifice. Manu declared that through japa only a spiritual person could attain his goal of liberation. In the Bhagavadgita, Lord Krishna stated that among the words he was Aum, and among the sacrifices he was japa. The Bhagavatam considers japa the best purifier and healer, and declares that when one repeats the name of God without even knowing its meaning one becomes purified and healed.
Patanjali stated that the constant repetition of the syllable Aum and contemplation upon its meaning would lead to self-realization and freedom from all disturbances. The Mahabharata affirms that japa is the foremost among the practices and has the potential to cleanse away the sins of a lifetime. No wonder, japa is practiced by many devout Hindus to stabilize their minds in devotion or to invoke the blessing of the deities whose names they repeat.
The efficacy and spiritual importance of japa can be tested by anyone. With the help of japa you can purify your mind and body, seek the protection of God against enemies and evil powers, and increase your chances of success, peace and prosperity by awakening your hidden potentials and divine powers. You may practice Japa by repeating the name loudly, or you may practice it silently with or without any lip and tongue movements. Some people also practice Japa by writing down the name of God hundreds and thousands of times, or drawing Yantras and Mandalas while they keep repeating the name.
Significance of japa
The repetition of God’s name is a common practice among many religions. It is common to all the religions that originated in India. It is considered a shortened and heightened form of personal prayer or sacrifice. Words have the power to change your thinking and state of mind. They can distract your mind from problems and worries and offer you a temporary relief from stress and anxiety. If you constantly remember or repeat a word or a phrase, it can greatly influence your thinking and change your behavior and attitude. Modern psychology recognizes the importance of positive affirmations. Japa is an ancient practice, which is based upon a similar principle. Both acknowledge the importance of faith in their application.
Japa brings to the fore the significance of God as a name and word. In ritual worship we use images and symbols. In Japa we rely upon words and names and the vibrations they generate to establish a personal connection with ourselves, or with the deities we worship. God has many gross and subtle forms. He is hidden not only in objects and elements but also in words and thoughts. The Vedas are significant because they are believed to embody the power of Brahman in sounds. When you utter those sounds, the power of Brahman manifests and makes the worship effective and fulfilling.
The same is true with Japa. When you constantly utter the name of God, you bring to life the power that is hidden in the name and manifest it in your life, mind and body or in the desired direction. It is believed that each mantra or sacred name contains a hidden deity, who is awakened when it is uttered several times with devotion, loyalty, and concentration. “Ja” means that which is inside, born from or caused by, and pa mean protector. Literally speaking japa means that which protects the life breath, mind and body, actions, and the embodied Self.
Ancient Hindus combined the power of mantras and of Japa to fulfill their desires or to overcome their impurities in their quest for liberation. According to Hindu scriptures, Japa is higher than ritual worship, but lower than meditation and concentrated meditation. If you are not inclined to practice the ritual worship of your personal deities, or if you cannot easily concentrate or meditate, the practice of japa is best suited to you. Compared to the other methods, japa is easier to practice, less cumbersome, and less ceremonial. It is very convenient to practice, irrespective of your lifestyle. When you practice the mental japa, people may not even notice that you are practicing it.
How to practice japa
For the Japa you can choose any name, mantra, or a short phrase. For example, in your japa you can use any of the following, Aum, Aum Namah, Maha Ganapathaye Namah, Sachidekam Brahma, Hari Aum, Aum Namo Bhagavate Vasudevaya, Aum Namahshivayah, Aum Devi Namah, Aum Aim Hreem Klim Shree Mathre Namah, Aum Jaya Ram Shree Ram, Hare Rama Hare Krishna, etc. You can also use Mahavakyas, or the great sayings from the Upanishads and Tantras such as Aham Brahmasmi, Prajnanam Brahma, So ham, Tat-Tvam-Asi, etc.
Whatever names you choose, make sure that you utter it with concentration and resolve. For your practice of japa, it is better to obtain the word from a spiritual teacher, because when a true guru gives you the word he infuses it with his own spirituality and awakening power. That word becomes your guide and purifier. If you do not have a personal guru, use the name of your favorite deity (ishta devata), or your family deity (kula devata). Sometimes prayers help you to find the right word. If you pray for guidance, the word may manifest in your thought or in your dreams. Since the word is God in word form (akshara brahma), you can trust your intuition and your devotion to find the right word. Besides, if your intention is pure and your purpose is self-transformation, no harm will come when you choose a sacred word on your own since it is a righteous practice for a right purpose.
Some people may practice japa for evil reasons, or to hurt and harm others or out of anger, delusion, greed, and envy. It is dangerous to practice japa with evil intentions, and should be avoided by all means. Tradition suggests that you should be careful when and how you practice japa. You should be still more careful when you choose the fierce forms of God who are known for their retribution and punitive nature. Avoid any action, which may incur the displeasure of the deity or attract negative consequences. When you repeat a sacred name, you invoke the power associated with it. You should let that power do the work rather you directing and trying to control it. Surrender to that word, let that word manifest in your consciousness on its own, and let it do the work for you according to its will and judgment. Japa awakens the deity in your mind and body. Hence, you must maintain utmost purity.
Traditional methods of japa involve strict observance of certain prescribed rules and procedures to practice them. It is especially true with regard to the methods and procedures, which are mentioned in several Tantras. They demand that the worshippers follow a strict code of conduct and practice Japa with utmost care to avoid the negative and evil consequences of invoking the wrath of the deities. Several Tantric texts lay down specific instructions about how one should practice Japa and avoid attracting the displeasure of the deities. They suggest how one should observe rules and restraints to keep the mind and body pure, how the deity should be propitiated before starting the repetition, how many times one should repeat the sacred word or the mantra, at what time and place it should be done, and how to conduct oneself in daily life.
The duration and the method of japa depend upon several factors. Some methods suggest a daily, weekly or monthly limit for the repetitions until the prescribed limit is reached. Some prescribe the incremental japa, in which the worshipper begins by repeating the name for a specific number of times and gradually increases it by day until the target is reached. There are also japas, which can be practiced only on specific days in a year or in month. They may also require prior preparation and right conditions for the practice to succeed. You cannot practice all types of japas. Some are age, caste, or gender specific and should be conducted under the strict guidance of a priest or a spiritual teacher. In most cases, the rules are meant to inculcate discipline and ensure that the practice is in harmony with the purpose or objective for which they are intended.
Various schools of Hinduism prescribe rules pertaining to Japa mainly with regard to the following. 1. Surroundings, 2. Posture, 3. Place, 4. Time, 5. Pronunciation, 6. Number of repetitions and how to keep the count of it, 7. Seat, 8. Pace, 9. State of mind, 10. Reflection on the meaning, 11. Faith, loyalty and devotion to the name and instruction, 12. Concentration, 13. Geographical direction, 14. Intention, and 15. Conduct and purity. When the rules pertaining to these are strictly observed one attains success in the practice, which may be fulfillment, perfection in practice, spiritual purity, the grace of the deity, removal of sins, protection from harm, awakening of chakras, supernatural power (siddhi), or inner awakening.
It is however not necessary that you have to observe all rules unless you are a Tantric worshipper. You can follow your methods and decide how you may practice japa as long as you keep it simple and avoid sinful behavior, irreverence, and disrespect to the teacher or the deity. If you want to practice it for a specific purpose, you may consult the scriptures, a priest, or a spiritual teacher, but if you want to do it solely for spiritual purpose to cleanse yourself and stabilize your mind, you can practice it according to your discretion and best judgment. It is always beneficial to practice Japa with a clean mind and body and for right ends. Many people do it to stabilize their minds and absorb them in the silence that comes at the end of constant repetition. The Puranas caution people who practice Japa without moral purity or disregard the basic rules while practicing it.
Types of Japa
Based upon how it is practiced and for what ends, the practice of japa can be classified into Sattvic, Rajasic, and tamasic. The purpose of Sattvic japa is to experience peace, happiness and divine grace, that of Rajasic japa is to fulfill one’s desires and achieve worldly ends such as name, fame, and power, and that of tamasic japa is to practice sorcery and magic to hurt and harm others or delude them. In his book, Meditation and Its Practices, Swami Adiswarananda identified the following types of Japa 1.
Vachka japa. In this method the worshipper loudly repeats the chosen word.
Upamsu japa. In this method the worshipper moves his lips and tongue only while doing japa, but does not utter any loud sounds. At the most they are inaudible or semi-audible.
Manasa japa. This is a purely mental japa in which neither sounds are uttered nor are the lip and tongue moved. Because it is a purely mental practice, it is considered to be superior to the previous two, suitable to those who are good at concentration and do not fall asleep while practicing it.
Likhitha japa: In this method the worshipper writes down the name of the deity either continuously or for a certain number of times, each day, until the fixed number is reached. This practice is common in many parts of rural India, especially in the South. For example, devotees write the name of Lord Rama at least 10 million times (Ramakoti) in notebooks or papers and leave them in a temple as an offering to him.
Akhanda japa: As the name suggests, this japa has to be performed continuously without a break for a specific number of hours, days or times. Usually it is practiced loudly and rhythmically in a congregation by a group of people who assemble for the specific purpose. In India many gods and goddesses are worshipped in this manner on auspicious occasions.
Ajapa japa: This method is used to practice silent and continuous repetition of a sacred name with each breath. It is a kind of pranayama japa, in which the power of the word is joined with the power of breath for effective spiritual transformation of the mind and body.
Chakra Japa: In this method the worshipper concentrates on the six chakras in succession while repeating the name. He starts with the lowest chakra and with each repetition moves upward until he reaches the sixth. Then he starts again with the first.
Purascharana: This is a ritualistic japa, which is already mentioned before. The worshipper practices japa as part of a vow or ritual and strictly follows all the rules and restraints prescribed for it until he completes it. During its practice, he adheres to strict code of conduct, and practices virtue and charity as recommended. In some cases, the practice may continue for months and years.
Japa as a manifestation of thought and sound
Sound has a great significance in Hinduism. The Vedas are essentially books of sounds. Sounds are primordial. Even animals and birds recognize sounds or respond to them. They are the source of all words, syllables and languages. Creation theories indicate that God is the source of all sounds. The highest of them is the sound of life (Pranava nada), which is symbolized as Aum, the sound of breath. Existence began with the emergence of sounds. They play a vital role in the preservation of life upon earth. Eventually, all sounds resolve into eternal silence. Thus, sound has all the highest aspects of Manifested (Saguna) Brahman. One can also use sounds to manifests thoughts as well as to achieve liberation and return to the source.
However, words can be a great source of distraction and delusion. Words can hurt and harm people. Words can destabilize the minds and disrupt the order and regularity of the worlds. The Vedas declare that speech is divine and the medium of speech is space, which is Brahman. Through speech, human can communicate with gods and establish rapport. Through speech, they can accomplish supernatural tasks and transcend their limitations. However, as the Upanishads affirm, speech can be pierced by evil and corrupted, which in turn lead to evil actions and consequences.
Hinduism prescribes various ways in which speech can be divinized and how the power of words can be harnessed for individual as well as common good. The practice of Japa is one proven technique to cleanse all the organs in the body, the senses, the speech, the breath, the mind, the ego, and the intellect. The beauty of japa is that it is very easy to practice, and it is a great purifier. You can also use it to reinforce positive thinking and improve your behavior, actions, and attitude. With discretion, you can use it for both worldly and spiritual purposes and achieve the four chief aims of human life.
Suggestions for Further Reading
- The Concept of Atman or Eternal Soul in Hinduism
- The Problem of Maya Or Illusion and How To Deal With It
- Belief In Atman, The Eternal Soul Or The Inner Self
- Brahman, The Highest God Of Hinduism
- The Bhagavad Gita Original Translations
- The Bhagavadgita, Philosophy and Concepts
- Bhakti yoga or the Yoga of Devotion
- Hinduism And The Evolution of Life And Consciousness
- Why to Study the Bhagavadgita Parts 1 to 4
- Origin, Definition and Introduction to Hinduism
- Symbolic Significance of Numbers in Hinduism
- The Belief of Reincarnation of Soul in Hinduism
- The True Meaning Of Renunciation According To Hinduism
- The Symbolic Significance of Puja Or Worship In Hinduism
- Introduction to the Upanishads of Hinduism
- Origin, Principles, Practice and Types of Yoga
There is no better presentation on the subject than the Chapter, Japa or Repetition of a Sacred Word, from the book Meditation and Its Practices, A Definitive Guide to Techniques and Traditions of Meditation in Yoga and Vedanta by Swami Adiswaranananda. If you are interested in Indian spiritual practices, this book is worth reading.