(Jiva.org) – Etymological breakdown of the Mahamantra
Question: I am following a Śrīmad Bhāgavata class with Professor Edwin Bryant, and after last night’s class, I asked him a question about the meaning of “Hare” and “Rāma” in the mahāmantra. Though my professor had a few insightful answers for us, he didn’t have a definite opinion on the etymological basis for their meaning and inclusion in our mahāmantra. Therefore, he directed me to ask you this question and relay your answer to him and our class.
And so I humbly ask you, Babaji: What is the meaning of “Hare” and “Rāma” in the Hare Kṛṣṇa mahāmantra? Understanding each part of this mantra would help me understand why I chant it and support my bhakti.
Answer: Prof. Bryant must have already explained the etymological meanings of the words “Hare” and “Rāma” and must have explained that they are derived from the sanskrit roots hṛ (to take away) and ramu (to play) by applying the suffixes in and ghañ respectively. They both are names of Kṛṣṇa in the vocative case. There are different understandings of their inclusion in the mahāmantra.
There is a verse regarding the name “Hari”:
hariḥ harati pāpāni duṣṭa-cittair api smṛtaḥ
anicchayāpi saṁspṛṣṭo dahatyeva pāvakaḥ
“Even if remembered by people of impure hearts, Hari takes away the sins of such a person. Even if one touches fire unintentionally, it certainly burns.” (Nārada Purāṇa 1.11.100)
A sādhaka has difficulty concentrating on the mantra, yet the name “Hari” will purify such a sādhaka. This is understood from the above statement of Nārada Purāṇa. Therefore, the word “Hari” is included and appears eight times in the mahāmantra.
About “Rāma” it is said:
ramante yogino anante nityānande cidātmani
iti rāma-padenāsau para-brahmābhidhīyate
“The great yogis take pleasure in meditating on the unlimited, eternally blissful, and conscious Self (ātmani). Therefore the Supreme Brahman (para-brahman) is called by the word “Rāma.” (CC 2.9.29)
Yogīs here refers to those whose hearts are clean. Hari cleans the heart; then, one can fix it on Rāma, the abode of pleasure. That is the significance.
The etymological meaning of the word Kṛṣṇa is given as:
kṛṣir bhū-vācakaḥ sśabdo ṇśca nirvṛtti-vācakaḥ
viṣṇustad-bhāva-yogācca kṛṣṇo bhavati sātvataḥ
“The root √ kṛṣ means “existence” and the word ṇa means bliss. Because of being endowed with these two meanings, Viṣṇu who has appeared in the Sātvata dynasty is called Kṛṣṇa.” (Mahābhārata, Udyoga Parva 70.5)
The three names used in the mahāmantra are in the vocative case. The usage of invocatory names is to draw Bhagavān’s attention, as is said:
sarveṣām apy aghavatām idam eva suniṣkṛtam
nāma-vyāharaṇaṁ viṣṇor yatas tad-viṣayā matiḥ
“Indeed, this alone is the atonement prescribed for all wrongdoers—that one chants the name of Viṣṇu because it draws His attention to the chanter or the chanter’s attention is drawn to Him.” (SB. 6.2.10)
For a sādhaka, the chanting is meant to turn his awareness toward Bhagavān. According to Śrī Jīva Gosvāmī (Bhakti Sandarbha, Anuccheda 1), the root cause of all problems of a living being is his vaimukhyatā—or his regard being turned away from Bhagavān. Therefore the solution is to turn it towards Bhagavān (sāmukhyatā). The direct means for doing so is to chant the name, as stated in the verse above. Therefore, all the names in the mahāmantra are in the vocative case.
For perfected bhaktas, the chanting is a call to their beloved. So the mahāmantra applies to both practicing as well as perfected bhaktas.
This is the most basic explanation of the mahāmantra. There can be other explanations of it based upon one’s devotional mood. According to Śrī Madhvācārya, there are 100 meanings of each name listed in the “Thousand Names of Viṣṇu”, Viṣṇu-sahasra-nāma. Based on this, there can be thousands of meanings of the mahāmantra because all the three names are found in the Viṣṇu-sahasra-nāma.