The Nectar of the Name- A Story about Kirtan, Lila, and the Hanuman Chalisa
“People don’t know- every line of the Hanuman Chalisa is a Maha Mantra”
–Neem Karoli Baba
Many of us have come to kirtan and felt inspired, felt our sorrows lifted, or even experienced a deep healing or surrender. These are beautiful experiences that are meant to be cherished, but they are also ultimately just initial doorways into a rich and satisfying journey to God. Kirtan is more than just a temporary experience or emotional high. It is an opportunity to gain a taste of the nectar of devotion.
Just like in any worldly relationship, we first feel an attraction to someone, and some “high” in our body tells us we like them. If this initial attraction turns into a relationship, then over the years it has the opportunity to deepen into something even more satisfying than we could initially imagine. It has the possibility of offering an incredible healing and deeper sense of safety in the world. If this is true for a worldly relationship, then what to say of a Divine one?
What if our Lover was Perfect? What if They had no desires of Their own, save maybe for us to attain our own liberation? What if this Lover lived in our own heart as our True Nature? What if falling in Love with Them meant falling in Love with everyone, including ourselves? What if this Love affair fostered a sense of safety that stayed with us? Even through our most difficult times? Even through sickness, old age, and death? This is what kirtan can offer us- a chance to gain a taste of this nectar and to deepen this Holy Relationship.
I remember when Krishna Das recommended that I chant 108 Hanuman Chalisas. I had only been living at Ram Dass’s house for a few months, and I had only been singing the Chalisa as a practice for about a year. I was obsessed with chanting. I would go to every kirtan I could and would often volunteer to help set up at kirtan events. I had built a make-shift temple out of tarps at the edge of Ram Dass’s property so I could chant whenever my duties permitted and not disturb anyone. When I chanted, it was like the heavens parted. All of my daily worries floated away as an upwelling of joy permeated my being.
“You do it on a Tuesday… you light a candle…you don’t have to sing all of ’em; you can read some.. And you can take bathroom and coffee breaks.”
That was the extent of my instruction.
I was given one day off a week from my duties at the house, so I decided to make my next break on a Tuesday (Hanuman’s day). I sang (and read) my 108 Chalisas, taking a few breaks as I had been instructed. It took about 10 hours total. The experience was not exactly what I had imagined, though. Somehow I thought that, because a 2-hour kirtan blasted me to the moon, chanting all day would annihilate me in the Sun. Instead, I found myself battling boredom, exhaustion and fatigue.
The next day Krishna Das called the house to talk to Ram Dass. It was not common for him to call, and it was not common for me to pick up the phone. When DassiMa was home, she usually answered it. So, when I answered the phone to hear Krishna Das, it was obvious the phone call was meant for me, even if I was not his intended audience. In the 2+ years I lived at the house, I believe that was the only time I picked up the phone to find Krishna Das on the line.
“I sang 108 Hanuman Chalisas yesterday.”
“Oh… How did it go?” He asked.
“It was good… I started to get tired… and kind of bored at parts,” I sheepishly admitted.
“Good,” he said. “It’s not about feeling some way or another. It’s just about doing the practice. These practices work in the background. We want the immediate hit, but this is a system that works on us throughout lifetimes.”
I was caught, and I knew it. Although theoretically I understood that the practice was not about achieving a “high,” my day-long chanting ritual showed me where I was still attached.
“It doesn’t seem like an accident that you are calling right now,” I said. “It’s kind of weird that you are calling the day after I sang 108 Chalisas for the first time.”
“It’s not an accident at all. And it is not strange either. This is how Maharajji works.”
It was clear that I needed to spend more time with this practice. I decided to continue it on the next 3 Tuesdays, watching my mind go through the ups and downs of ecstasy, impatience, frustration, and boredom. I had also strengthened my resolve towards my daily practice and had recently begun reading the Ramcharitmanas, or the Tulsi Das Ramayana, at the instructions of K.K. Sah, an elder devotee who had grown up knowing Maharajji, and I recommitted myself to reading it daily. The Ramayana is the sacred story of Sita, Ram, and Hanuman- God in the form of queen, king and perfect servant. It is the epic tale that the Hanuman Chalisa draws from. When we sing the Chalisa, we are tuning our consciousness to this great Lila, the Divine play of God.
During this month, I saw the truth of this first hand. Hanuman permeated my mind, and I began to see him everywhere. Little miracles and synchronicities were sprinkled throughout the day, offering reminders of this deeper Reality I was dipping into. In the final days of that month, I picked up a hitchhiker as I was driving home with the weekly groceries. He noticed the picture of Hanuman on my dashboard and began talking about how much he loved him. It seemed quite serendipitous that he was there, and I took great delight in our conversation. As I dropped him off on the side of the road, he leaned over and looked me directly in the eyes. His voice was intense as he delivered one last parting wisdom.
“You know, they say that when demons see Ram, all they can see is DEATH.”
This strange comment, completely out of context from anything else we had discussed, floated awkwardly in the space between us as if not knowing where to land. I was caught off guard and didn’t know how to respond, so I simply smiled. But, as I drove away, the comment stayed with me. The moment felt both profound and strange.
Out of all the things he could have said… I thought.
That night I opened up the Ramayana for my nightly bedtime story. I would only read a few pages at a time. Each page was drenched in devotion, and I wanted to ensure I savored every word. Ram and Lakshman were entering the pavilion in Mithila for the bow sacrifice where Ram would prove his worth to marry Sita. The day prior, Ram and Sita saw each other for the first time on earth and fell instantly in love. In truth, They have known each other for eternity. Sita and Rama are not two separate beings. They are the One True Underlying Essence of Reality, known as Lakshmi-Narayana or Sita-Rama. They incarnated on this physical plane in two separate bodies so They could enact their Lila, or the Divine Play of God.
As Ram walked into the pavilion, it’s almost as if time stopped. The townspeople were in complete awe as they watched the perfect manifestation of God walk by in His attractive, blue-hued body in perfect proportions. Each person saw in Him the highest manifestation of their own personal desires and ideals “according to the attitude of mind each had towards Him.” The citizens saw Him as the pinnacle of humanity. Warriors saw the best warrior. The saints saw His cosmic form with His “many faces, hands, feet, eyes and heads,” and the devotees saw Him as “the fountain of all joy.”
This list continues, my eyes soaking the wisdom from the page until I was struck with a line I will remember for the rest of my life, right there on page 235 out of 1101. It read, “The DEMONS, who were cunningly disguised as princes, beheld the Lord as DEATH in visible form.” (Sri Ramcharitmanas, Gita Press).
A satisfying exhale, the kind that softens every muscle and leaves a shimmering wake in every cell, and my mind opened in awe and wonder. This wasn’t just a story from some ancient or mythological time. This was a portal into a Reality that I may never understand, but that I have grown to see as more real and more satisfying than anything else I will ever know.
These practices are so much more than any temporal experience. It’s not about a high or a particular feeling. Of course, this was a miracle, and just as temporal as any emotional high. But, it was pointing me to something deeper than even the excitement of having my mind blown. It hints at the power of the practice and the truth of relationship, inviting us into the Lila view, “a realm where everything is God and nothing but God” (Shyam Das).
God has shown me, as She has with generations of devotees from all traditions across the globe, that He is real, that these practices work, and that the lifetimes of sadhana are worth it.