The greatest help for an aspiring devotee comes in the form of chanting God’s names, forms, pastimes, attributes and abodes. Sing in a loud voice the bhajans and keertans that glorify God. Numerous saints have composed extremely sweet devotional songs that have been set to haunting melodies. Choose the best from these songs and sing them as you like. Some people ask whether it is not just as effective to do a mental repetition of God's name as it is to chant in a loud voice. Whether you repeat God's names in your mind or repeat them loudly, it is one and the same thing. However, loud chanting will enrich you in ways that silent meditation cannot. There are four main advantages of sankeertan, i.e. loud chanting.
The first advantage of chanting is that it contains a lot of matter within it. Devotional songs composed by saints such as Meera, Soordas and Tulsidas describe God's names, forms, pastimes and glories. On the other hand, when you engage in mental repetition, you are more or less restricted to only the name, and that too, only one name You cannot do a mental repetition of God's pastimes, attributes and so on. Repeating the same name over and over again will lead to boredom since the mind is at present not very attached to God. You cannot experience bliss by mentally repeating only one name of Shri Krishna, and as long as you are not feeling blissful, your practice of devotion will not be considered effective. Loud chanting provides the mind with much variety. If you get bored chanting His name, you may move on to chanting His attributes. Then you can chant His pastimes, which are unlimited. There is no question of getting bored. If you get bored with one pastime, you can move on to the next. When you get bored with even that, you can think of still another. There are pastimes to suit every relationship and depict every mood of the devotee.
The second advantage of loud chanting is that you are getting help from music and musical instruments. You sing God's glories, His names and pastimes. When you do jap (mental repetition) there is no music. You have the prayer beads, or just your mind. On the other hand, the word sankeertan itself denotes music. Music is pleasing to the ears. Beyond the ears is the mind that experiences happiness and sorrow. The mind likes music. Through the medium of music, you can engage the mind in the thoughts of Shri Krishna for a longer period of time. If you take the help of some musical instrument to accompany the chanting, it’s all the better for you.
The third advantage of sankeertan is that when you are mentally repeating the name of God, there is no sound. Because of this silence, you will be able to hear every little sound. The clock goes tick tock-tick tock, and you will hear it. Because the mind is so wild and impetuous, it runs to the world immediately. It leaves God to go to the world. There are so many distractions around. A child starts crying and you are disturbed. Someone drops something, and the mind is again disturbed. One family member is scolding another, and you are distracted. When you do sankeertan, you're singing. You are creating a sound. Moreover, you have some sort of a musical instrument, which provides additional sound. In such a situation, the mind concentrates on God much more easily. All the senses will be involved in sankeertan, and therefore you will not even hear the other sounds. As a result, the mind will stay put and will not be as tempted to run to the world.
The fourth advantage is that many people fall asleep due to the quiet atmosphere created by mental repetition. Sleep comes very easily. This does not happen in sankeertan, since you are singing with your mouth and clapping with your hands. Moreover, your ears are listening to the music, and the mind is meditating on God. In other words just about every sense-organ is involved in the chanting process.
Thus, all these advantages are yours to benefit from in chanting, which are not present in mental repetition of the name. Moreover, the chanting process purifies the atmosphere, and anyone who hears the chanting benefits from it. Loud chanting is much more beneficial for us than silent repetition of God's name, especially in the beginning stages of devotional practice.
On the spiritual path those who are the most inclined to lead a peaceful existence that respects the value of all life often adopt the vegetarian lifestyle. For some people this is a very big step. This is in accordance with the yogic principle of ahimsa, which is to observe nonviolence and abstain from injuring any being in any way. However, many people ask what about the plants that are killed in the process of cooking vegetarian foods. Don’t they suffer? And don't we get reactions for that?
The basic law of nature is that every living being lives off the weaker living entities. But there is a way of living so that we all can benefit, that we all make spiritual development. And this spiritual lifestyle is a way in which that can happen. The way this works is in the process of bhakti-yoga, wherein devotion goes beyond simple vegetarianism, and food becomes a method of spiritual progress for both those who prepare and eat the food, and those living beings that are used in the preparations.
For example, in the Krishna temples, food is offered to the Deities in a special sacrament, after which it becomes prasadam. This means the mercy of the Lord. Thus, the food we eat after it is offered to the Lord becomes a means for our purification and spiritual development.
In the Bhagavad-gita Lord Krishna says, “All that you do, all that you eat, all that you offer and give away, as well as all austerities that you may perform, should be done as an offering to Me.” So, offering what we eat to the Lord is an integral part of bhakti-yoga and makes the food blessed with spiritual potencies.
The Lord also describes what He accepts: “If one offers Me with love and devotion a leaf, a flower, fruit or water, I will accept it.” Thus, we can see that the Lord does not need anything, but if one offers fruits, grains, and vegetarian foods, He will accept it. The Lord does not accept foods like meat, fish, or eggs, but only those that are pure and naturally available without harming others. So, we offer what Lord Krishna likes, not those items which are distasteful to Him. We also do not use garlic, onions, or mushrooms when we prepare food for Krishna, for these are considered to invoke passion or are from impure sources, which similarly affect our consciousness. Foods for Krishna should be in the mode of goodness, sattvic foods which when we accept as prasadam also elevate our own consciousness.
So, on the spiritual path, eating food that is first offered to God is the ultimate perfection of a vegetarian diet. The Vedic literature explains that the purpose of human life is reawakening the soul’s original relationship with God, and accepting prasadam is one of the ways to help us reach that goal.
The food is meant to be cooked with the consciousness of love, knowing that it will be offered to Lord Krishna first, and only after that distributed to ourselves or guests to take. The ingredients are selected with great care and must be fresh, clean and pure vegetarian. Also, in cooking for Krishna we do not taste the preparations while cooking. We leave the first taste for Krishna when it is offered to Him.
After all the preparations are ready, we take a portion of each one and place it in bowls on a special plate that is used for this purpose only and take it to the altar to offer it to the Deities or pictures of Krishna.
Then the preparations are presented with special prayers as we ask that God accept our humble offering. The most important part of the offering is the love with which it is given, and then the Lord accepts it. God does not need to eat, but it is our love for God which attracts Him to us and to accept our offering. Even if the most sumptuous banquet is offered to God but without devotion and love, Krishna will not be hungry to accept it. It is our love, our devotion and bhakti, which catches the attention of Lord Krishna who is then inclined to accept our service.
After He glances over and tastes the loving offering of vegetarian preparations, He leaves the remnants of the food offerings for us to honor and relish. Krishna’s potency is absorbed in that food. In this way, material substance becomes spiritualized, which then affects our body and mind in a similar and most positive and elevating way. This is His special mercy for us. Thus, the devotional process becomes an exchange of love between us and God, which includes food. And that food not only nourishes our body, but also spiritualizes our mind and consciousness.
By relishing the sacred food of Krishna prasadam, it purifies our heart and protects us from falling into illusion. In this way, the devotee imbibes the spiritual potency of Lord Krishna and becomes cleansed of sinful reactions by eating food that is first offered in sacrifice to God. We thus also become free from reincarnation, the continued cycle of birth and death. This process prepares us for entering the spiritual world since the devotees there also relish eating in the company of Lord Krishna.
However, what does this do for the plants that are offered? They are also living beings. In this process, not only do we make advancement, but all of the plants that are used in the preparations as an offering to God are also purified and reap spiritual benefit. They are used and offered to God and thus make progress in the same way we do. That is why this is beyond mere vegetarianism in which we may live more simply and nonviolently, but in this process, everything we use in the service of the Lord becomes spiritualized.
If we merely cook for ourselves, we become implicated in karma or the reactions if we cause the harm of any living being, even plants. The vegetarian lifestyle surely causes less karma than the unnecessary slaughtering of innocent animals. However, the system of first offering food to the Lord and then taking prasadam becomes the perfect yoga diet and frees us from such karma.
Therefore, the cooking, the offering, and then the respectful eating or honoring of this spiritualized food all become a part of the joyful process of devotional service to the Lord. Anyone can learn to do this and enjoy the happiness of experiencing the potency of Krishna prasadam.