What I Learned About Religion and Spirituality-as a Practising Monk

The French Catholic writer Charles Péguy said, “Everything begins in mysticism and ends in politics.”

I’ve always harboured the greatest mistrust and suspicion towards all forms of organised religion.

I’ve also forever been seeking – “truth” and “meaning” and “purpose”. Today, I’m a monk in the International Society for Krishna Consciousness.

It has been a long journey. Here’s what I’ve learned along the way.

Institutions are a necessary evil

Institutions are slow, bureaucratic, corrupt and frustrating. They can at times not only protect but actually enable wrongdoers who know how to manipulate the “system”. They can become preoccupied with money, power, and politics. Religious institutions are not immune to these pitfalls.

Yet, institutions are necessary if something lasting has to be achieved in this world. We need them to perpetuate ideologies, organise resources and mobilise men to action.

As soon as any spiritual revelation grows beyond an individual’s fleeting sentiment and is shared amongst individuals, seeking to affect lasting transformation in a large number of people’s lives, an institution is born.

Ignorance, prejudice and bigotry are universal human problems

Terrible atrocities have been committed in the name of religion. Religious terrorism, persecution of minority groups, marginalisation of women to name a few.

Yet, extreme or fundamentalist beliefs, either deliberate or misguided, which result in antisocial behavior by becoming blind to evidence in the service of ideology, are not religion-specific phenomena.

Secular ideologies have similarly been taken to an extreme with negative consequences. The wars and genocide resulting from fascist nationalism is a case in point.

Religious practitioners are not perfect, neither should we expect them to be

Many a time, the actions of people who claim to be very religious are completely at odds with what they supposedly believe in and so vehemently preach others should do. Religious people are rightly expected to be far better and exemplary in their actions.

To see them fail to live authentic religious lives in accordance to their espoused values and ideals is difficult indeed. How can one genuinely believe in certain principles yet struggle to abide by them?

While it is tempting to demand perfection from people, it is ultimately naïve. We need to reconcile our trust in people with the reality that people are flawed. Balancing the ability to know right and wrong with the capacity to forgive when someone doesn’t live up to the standards set for them requires immense maturity.

“Religion” is misunderstood, misused and abused. So is “Spirituality”.

“Religion” is thought of as external and formal. A mere social convention. A stifling set of rigid rules and archaic rituals with no place for curiosity, independence, critical thought or freedom of expression.

It conjures an image of a box, labeled Hindu, Muslim, Christian or Jew with cult-like uniformity of practice and belief inside.

“Spirituality”, in contrast, has become “anything that you want it to be”.

Alternative medicine, self-help, long walks on the beach, yoga retreats, mindfulness, detox diets, just being a good person, caring for the environment, traveling, trying an eclectic mix of customs and rituals from exotic traditions, tarot cards, crystals, aromatic oils, psychedelics… The list is endless.

Both these perceptions are partial and problematic.

Real religion and authentic spirituality go hand in hand

There is no denying the importance of spiritual intuition. It is indeed the beginning of any transcendental pursuit. However, it has to be balanced by a considerable amount of self-discipline, rational enquiry and practical guidance.

So called “spirituality” which makes no such demands and leaves me free to do whatever I prefer in the moment, without any obligation or accountability, is meaningless and unfulfilling.

We need a clear spiritual goal and a clear path to attain it.. This is the meaning of spiritual science and it is universal. Real religion provides entrance to this science. It provides a coherent and well-structured belief system which built on a solid moral and ethical foundation, necessary for pursuit of transcendental knowledge. It prescribes practices which have stood the test of time and proven themselves effective.

In a religious community, there are checks and balances. There are guides who have walked the path before, know the pitfalls. They can show us the way and help us not fall into the traps that our own mind lays for us. It holds us accountable. It demands humility and surrender. It deflates our ego.

To truly make spiritual progress, you have to declare what you believe and behave accordingly. You have to let someone other than yourself scrutinize whether your spirituality is coherent and integrated in your life.

Genuine spirituality needs to be informed by genuine religion.

“D-I-Y, Lone-Wolf” spirituality can be psychologically & emotionally damaging

If someone claims to have spiritual intuition of the existence of something greater than the self, but insists that it is a purely personal truth, divorced from the broader community, it is solipsism masquerading as spirituality.

A spirituality which is about my self-realization, my liberation, my emancipation, and my salvation, and makes no demands to co-operate and work together to realize its potential in the world, is narcissism in disguise.

Trying to separate our individual inner spiritual life and communal, outer, material life creates a dichotomy which can be damaging.

According to a study published in the British Journal of Psychiatry, “People who have a spiritual understanding of life in the absence of a religious framework are vulnerable to mental disorder [dependence on drugs, abnormal eating attitudes, anxiety, phobias, and neuroses].”

Concluding thoughts

The spiritual impulse and longing is inherent in the human psyche. To tread on this path is difficult. The road is narrow and bumpy. We all have our weaknesses, obsessions and neuroses which can quickly spin out of control without the support of others.

Why try and walk it alone?

Religious traditions have debated, wrestled with, and tested their belief systems, practices, and rituals since antiquity. They continue to scrutinize and refine their teachings. They analyze its philosophical, psychological, socio-political, cultural, and economic impact. Such traditions form an integrated whole.

Why reinvent the wheel and try to piece everything together by yourself?

Being spiritual but not religious is like saying I am a scholar, but I don’t read. Or to give another example, it is like wanting to learn an extreme sport without the help of an instructor, refusing a safety net, and no one around to take you to the hospital if you meet an accident.

Why take the risk when you don’t have to?

Not all religions and religious institutions are rigid and fanatical, or numb and comatose. There are thriving, vibrant and supportive communities where members take care of each other’s spiritual and material growth. They strive collectively to make a positive impact on the whole universe.

Why not be a part of something greater than yourself?

Belonging to a community, any community, not just a religious one, does not equal having to agree with their worldview in its entirety. The idea that we should or even can find a group with whom we agree on everything needs to be given up. We are all individuals, with personalities, and that’s what makes life interesting–not just material life, but our religious lives as well.

In truly religious communities, individual personalities are not stifled but encouraged. Variety is not just tolerated but celebrated. Diversity is not seen as a threat but an axiomatic truth.

How do I know? I know because I am part of such a community! Is it perfect? No. Not by a long shot. But it is my spiritual home and I belong here.

A (Very Brief) Introduction to Bhakti Yoga

I am a practicing bhakti yogi. Bhakti-yoga has been taught and practiced for millennia within a tradition commonly associated with what people call Hinduism.

But, as people connected to Hinduism will tell you, bhakti-yoga is not constrained by any sectarian ideas. Rather it is founded on a universal spiritual science that can be accommodated within any religious tradition.

Mantra meditation and bhakti yoga do not require adopting any specific religion in the external sense. There are even instances of people adapting mantra meditation to names of God in other traditions.

At its core bhakti-yoga transcends all religious differences, going to the heart of all religion which is – To know and to love God!

Be a Rebel With a Cause – Chant Hare Krishna

I considered myself to be quite the rebel in my teens and early twenties, and I was proud of that label.

I thought I was so cool – smoking cigarettes behind the art building at the strict, all-girls school I attended in the dull, conservative city of Pretoria. [Never heard of Pretoria? Don’t worry about it]. It’s true that I had very little respect for authority, but more than anything else, I was deeply dissatisfied with what life was offering me.

The Oxford English dictionary defines rebellion as: “the action or process of resisting authority, control, or convention.”

Actually, rebellion is in all of us. We naturally resist authority, control and convention – that is the nature of our ego. None of us want to be another brick in the wall because, in fact, we are all utterly unique.

But we’re not who we think we are.

There is a Sanskrit word ahankara, which literally translates as “I am the doer.” It is used to describe the false ego – the false identity of being the physical body and the ultimate controller of our lives. And so, when others tell us what to do, we rebel, thinking that we alone know what’s best for us. Really?

Our false ego makes us proud, our pride interferes with our higher intelligence by preventing us from accepting good advice, and therefore we can’t access knowledge beyond ourselves because we have no faith in any authority.

Faith is the precursor of knowledge. If you don’t have faith, which is assisted by the culture of genuine respect, your ability to understand things is limited to your own frame of reference.” – Dhanurdhara Swami

The problem is, where do we point our rebellious faces once we’ve recognized that we should turn our backs on the uninspiring authorities and ill-considered conventions of modern society? Well, some of us are intelligent and humble enough to seek out inspiring mentors and higher truths… But not me.


Unfortunately, if you don’t know where to find a constructive alternative to what you’re rebelling against, the only clear way forward is to tear it all down. So I, like many others, not knowing any better and convinced of my superiority over all the sheep out there, embarked on a path that, looking back, I can only describe as hedonistic self-destruction.

It took me years to realize that my rebellion for individualism was just the same as everyone else’s. Sex, drugs and rock ‘n roll… What I considered to be rebellion was in fact just a jaded pattern of behavior that led to an overstimulation of the senses. It was nothing special, but nonetheless, it made me proud. My pride then stripped me of my intelligence and fuelled the dissatisfaction that I was trying to escape from in the first place.

To make a long story short, it all came crashing down and I had a proverbial wake-up call. Thankfully.

Naturally, the Bhagavad-gita has something to say about this:

What is night for all beings is the time of awakening for the self-controlled; and the time of awakening for all beings is night for the introspective sage. – BG 2.69

Is self-control and introspection the rebellion of the future?

Yes. And here’s why…

The ultimate rebellion is to turn your back on your false conception of yourself. It is to take the humble position and allow yourself to be guided by a worthy teacher. The alternative is simply ignorance. If we can’t understand our true nature as eternal spiritual beings, we can’t make sense of what we’re meant to do with this crazy world, and nothing will ever truly satisfy us. We’ll keep rebelling at every new situation that’s not quite right. There’s no peace in a life like that.

Rebel once more, but do it right this time.

One of the many gifts of Hare Krishna mantra meditation is that it allows us to see our existential condition more clearly. Many great personalities have composed songs and prayers to glorify this type of meditation because it is so uniquely powerful. Sometimes I recite a particularly potent prayer, called the Sri Siksastakam, before starting my daily meditation. The first line translates as follows:

Glory to the Sri Krishna Sankirtana, which cleanses the heart of all the dust accumulated for years and extinguishes the fire of conditional life.

Sri Krishna Sankirtana refers to the chanting of the Hare Krishna maha-mantra. The dust is our false conception of ourselves as material beings, and the fire of conditional life is the uneasiness we feel that impels us towards acts of rebellion and seeking.

These days, my day begins at 3:30 am. I rise, wash, dress and spend 2-3 hours meditating on the mantra that came crashing into my life 14 years ago with a rebellious message: swallow your pride and chant Hare Krishna. All it takes is a little bit of initial faith.

After careful consideration (nearly 8 years of it), I wholeheartedly embraced the practice of chanting Hare Krishna. My parents didn’t like it much (a sure sign of a truly worthy rebellion)… At least not initially… But now, almost 6 years later, they can’t deny the integrity and benefit of my personal transformation. And transformation is exactly what a solid rebellion should yield. All it took was a mantra, some meditation beads, a qualified teacher and a calculated leap of faith.

I don’t think I need to convince anyone that the world needs a lot of rebelling right now. But don’t put too much faith in the rebellion of the modern world, which is focused on material issues and generally just encourages satisfaction of the senses. If you’re gonna do it, do it right, and uncover your true spiritual individuality along the way.

Bhakti Tirtha Swami says it best:

“We must resist the temptation to be ‘normal,’ because those who are now considered normal accept the values and practices of an insane world.”[1]

Rebel, dear ones… but don’t leave your intelligence behind, and take the maha-mantra with you.

Hare Krishna Hare Krishna Krishna Krishna Hare Hare Hare Rama Hare Rama Rama Rama Hare Hare

[1] Spiritual Warrior III: Solace for the Heart in Difficult Times, Chapter 8 – How To Strengthen Ourselves –  by HH Bhakti Tirtha Swami

How To Practice Mantra Meditation Using Beads

Mantra recitation also called ‘Japa’, consists of repetition of a single syllable (e.g., om) or a string of mantric sounds (e.g., Hare Krishna Hare Krishna Krishna Krishna Hare Hare, Hare Rama Hare Rama Rama Rama Hare Hare). These sound vibrations have a profound effect on our consciousness, elevating it from the mundane to the transcendental. They help us to gradually overcome our spiritual ignorance – the forgetfulness of our real spiritual identity. It is the most powerful technique for self-discovery and true transformation.


Japa can be practiced aloud, by whispering, or mentally. The most effective method taught by japa masters, is for practitioners to audibly voice the mantra as they do not yet have complete control over their wandering mind and will easily lose focus while trying to recite mantras mentally. As well as this, to chant aloud not only benefits oneself, but also has a positive impact on the surrounding environment and uplifts any other living beings that may contact that vibration.

Hearing the sound of the mantra helps the practitioner stay mindful and focused. It is very important to be fully concentrated on the mantra as mechanical recitation of the mantra without being mindful is not very effective.

Our spiritual teacher Srila Prabhupada, said in this regard:
“This chanting of Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare/ Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare is directly enacted from the spiritual platform, surpassing all lower states of consciousness — namely sensual, mental and intellectual. There is no need of understanding the language of the mantra, nor is there any need of mental speculation nor any intellectual adjustment for chanting this maha-mantra. It springs automatically from the spiritual platform, and as such, anyone can take part in this transcendental sound vibration, without any previous qualification, and dance in ecstasy.”

Mantra japa is traditionally practiced with the aid of a string of beads also known as ‘malas.’ Such devices have been employed in Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, Sikhism, and also in spiritual traditions outside India, notably Christianity and Islam.

Using a mala for chanting japa has several benefits. When we touch the mala we are engaging the sense of touch, and with our lips and tongue we chant, and with our ears we hear. In this way we are engaging our senses themselves in the meditation. This increases out attention and reduces distraction. With beads, we can also fix a daily number of “rounds” where we count how many times we go around the mala. In this way, we can keep track of our daily practice. Also, there is a culture in Bhakti of “receiving” beads from ones Guru. In this way one can chant with a deep feeling of connection to the saints and teachers who have so kindly given this wisdom.

Malas can be composed of a variety of materials, but ’ tulsi’ wood (holy basil) is most widely used with the Hare Krishna maha-mantra. Usually, a mala consists of 108 beads. The beads can be of different sizes depending on individual preferences and ease of handling. In addition, every mala has what is called a guru or Krishna bead, which is larger than the other beads. Often a decorative tassel is attached to this head bead.

The mala is treated with respect. Generally, it is kept carefully in its own special bag to keep it clean and preserve its sanctity. Malas are never placed on the floor or on seating surfaces or taken inside bathrooms/toilets etc. It is best to take a bath or at least wash hands before chanting on beads.

While chanting, the mala is held in one’s right hand, with the beads draped either over the middle finger or the ring finger, and the counting is done with the thumb. The index finger (also known as the “pointing” finger) is not used in mala japa. However, the important thing is to hold the mala in a comfortable manner so that the practice does not become a distraction, thereby defeating its purpose/

Counting or telling of beads starts with the bead right next to the 'Krishna’ bead and proceeds forward.

After each repetition of the mantra, one moves to the next bead. When the ‘Krishna’ bead is reached again, it is not counted or crossed over; instead, the mala is turned around and the new round is begun with the same bead that ended the preceding round, again moving forward along the mala.
For more clarity you can refer to the video at the top of the page.

Thus, in this article we tried to cover the basics of chanting japa using beads and address the common questions that beginners usually have. We hope it will help you in your spiritual journey.

The work of self-transformation requires our focused strength and energy. Mantra japa has long been recognized for its transformative power by the accomplished yogis. Vedic authorities (experts in the ancient wisdom texts of India) regard regular repetition of the Hare Krishna mantra (Hare Krishna Hare Krishna Krishna Krishna Hare Hare, Hare Rama Hare Rama Rama Rama Hare Hare) as the easiest and most effective approach, which is especially beneficial in our present times, described as the dark age characterised by hypocrisy and quarrel.

We are continuing to freely teach and guide all sincere seekers about this practice and the philosophy and lifestyle behind it. Our only interest is that every individual benefit from it. If this article was helpful to you, please do give us a shout out. We’d love to hear from you. If you have any questions, we’d be more than happy to answer them.
We have mentioned before, so you aware that we conduct regular one on one and group meditation classes online (link here). We would to encourage you to connect with us for a session to boost your chanting practice!
Please do spread the word to your friends and family and anyone else you know who might benefit from this. And if anyone wishes to get beads, they are available on our website click here >>

Happy chanting! Hare Krishna!

5 Methods to Improve Chanting

In this article, we share some basic but fundamentally important things you can do to see immediate improvement in your chanting practice. The key to using this article is not to try to do everything all at once, or to try and make drastic improvements in every aspect of your lifestyle and chanting, because this might not be sustainable in the long run. Focus on one or two things to begin with and take baby steps. Small incremental improvements. which you can sustain, will take you a long way toward chanting better. So, with that said, let’s start!  

woman holding prayer beads
  1. No Multitasking – Our minds are always distracted and running here and there. As soon as we start to chant, it seems that there are suddenly a hundred things we can think of which require our attention. Allowing our chanting to get interrupted by these thoughts, and worse yet, trying to sneak in some other work while chanting is a very bad habit we must carefully guard against. No checking the phone for notifications, e-mails etc., no planning, no carrying out a conversation or driving etc. while chanting. There should be a minimum number of rounds we commit to chant without any interruptions whatsoever.
  2. Consistency – For those who use japa mala (chanting beads) to meditate, it is better to chant fewer rounds consistently than to chant more one day and less on the other.  Figure out a number that you can commit to and stick to it no matter what. If such steadiness is a challenge, it is the number one thing that you should work on and aim to develop. For those who are not using beads, fix a set time that you chant for daily, and gradually increase over time. It might be 5 minutes or 50 minutes! Set boundaries for your mind and then amaze yourself as your practice expands. 
  3. Early morning chanting – This tip is connected to the one above. Typically, as the day progresses, we get caught up more and more with things to do and think about. Getting ready for work, cooking breakfast, preparing the kids for school, deadlines, office politics, phone calls, e-mails, meetings, chores, friends, family all start to make demands on our time and attention. Thus, we can wake up really early in the morning, preferably a little earlier than sunrise (or if that’s too much, simply an hour or so before our day usually ‘begins’), and use the peace and quiet to focus on our chanting, it is extremely beneficial. It is in fact the best way to chant and do so free of distractions and interruptions. However, we do want to acknowledge that there are some night owls out there that operate better in the night time, the reverse is true. But for most of us, early to bed, early to rise – this will be a huge boost for our chanting meditation.
  4. Accountability. This talk of going to bed early leads us to the concept of accountability and priorities. Going to bed on time – This is it! Really, do this one thing and it’s almost a guarantee that everything else will fall in place. Most issues arise when we are up too late. If you are in the former category, put hard limits on the time spent online. Another good idea is to find an accountability partner to help each other rise early and chant.  
    On the other hand, if you find that you have actually so much to do almost everyday that you are working till late in the night, it might be wise to give yourself some fixed time to pause and chant. The truth is, even if your lifestyle doesn’t allow you to rise early and chant, at least some part of your day should be put aside for your spiritual practice.  
  5. Last, but most important. Are you convinced that chanting is important? Are you determined to improve your chanting? That you can and should be chanting better? Because if not, then all the other tips and tricks and techniques will not take you far. You might do them half-heartedly for some time but will eventually fall back to old rhythms and patterns of behavior.  Read more about chanting, its benefits, its importance. And more importantly, find out your own ‘why’ for chanting. 
woman sitting on brown rock

At the end of the day, no matter what anyone else tells you, having your own deep inner conviction and reason to chant and improve the quality of your chanting is the way to truly make progress. 

For those who are determined to improve their chanting, we are excited to let you know about our new, completely free online Meditation Classes. To join a session, please go here: https://www.chantnow.com/learn-to-meditate?ref=blog 

Happy chanting! Hare Krishna!

Struggling to Chant? Do This to Make the Mantra Come Alive!

What you do outside your meditation session affects your practice while meditating. If you struggle to chant or go as deep into the practice as you’d like, this article is for you. Often, while we do our best to concentrate when we sit to chant, but it’s actually what we have done or not done outside that time, which has a great impact on our experience. I want to share five of the most common challenges faced by practitioners and their solutions below. If you find something relevant to you, focus on that one aspect and work on it, instead of trying to do everything at once.

  1. Routine - Do you go to sleep and wake up at odd hours every day? No fixed time set aside for work, family, chores, study, exercise, meditation etc? If you are not organised, it leads to instability. Instability in life, instability in the mind and instability in meditation. So, try to organise your time, set a routine and stick to it as much as possible. It is best to mediate early in the morning (even better before sunrise!) before all the activity and hustle of the day begins. Make it a priority. It sets the tone for your entire day. As they say, well begun is half done. That is why we teach the chanting of the Hare Krishna maha mantra to provide a solid foundation for the otherwise unstable mind to stand on. It’s an anchor for it to hold on to and steady itself.
  1. Restraint – Ever let a person, or situation or object get the better of you? Given in to a temptation? Did something you knew you shouldn’t have? You know what happens afterwards. There are consequences. You feel guilty. You feel disappointed. You fail to achieve your goal. And most importantly, you reinforce the belief that you are incapable of discipline. Our senses, desires, emotions are all pulling us in a hundred different directions all the time. Distracting us. Looking for quick fixes, instant gratification, an immediate hit of pleasurable feelings. The more we give in, the more we allow our mid to dictate our choices and actions and behaviour, the more we become a salve to our impulses. Break this pattern. We take strength and find shelter in our chanting.
  1. Respect – Our busy lives leave us little time for respect. We rush about trying to do this, that and the other like programmed robots. We forget to respect ourselves, our real nature. We forget to respect people for who they are. We forget to respect nature. As a result, our whole being becomes offensive. Abrasive. At odds with the world. There is no scope for higher truths like trust, faith, gratitude and devotion to manifest themselves in our life and in our consciousness. This life, this world, people, are all sacred gifts to us. Meant to remind us of the existence of divinity in our lives. Meant to fill us with wonder, and respect and humility and gratitude. Live in a way that there is acknowledgment and respect for the sacred in us and all around us.

So, there you go. The Three R’s which will help you in chanting Hare Krishna. Follow these and I am sure you will see an improvement. Do let me know in the comments if this was helpful. If there are specific areas of improvement or challenges you wish to discuss, please feel free to write to me. Happy chanting! Hare Krishna Hare Krishna Krishna Krishna Hare Hare Hare Rama Hare Rama Rama Rama Hare Hare.
- Venu Gayak das