Puṣṭa Kṛṣṇa: Next question, Śrīla Prabhupāda? "What is the role of rituals in religion? Are they to be discouraged, as is being advocated by some reformists, or are they to be encouraged? If so, in what form?"
Śrīla Prabhupāda: A ritual is a practice based on tapasya, or austerity. Generally, unless one undergoes the ritualistic ceremonies for purification, he remains unclean. But in this age, because it is practically impossible to induce people to take up all these ritualistic processes, both the scripture and Caitanya Mahāprabhu recommend, "Chant the Hare Kṛṣṇa mahā-mantra." This is the special advantage of this age—that by constant chanting of the Hare Kṛṣṇa mahā-mantra, one automatically becomes purified.
In His Śikṣāṣṭaka, Lord Caitanya describes the progressive benefits of chanting Hare Kṛṣṇa. First, ceto-darpaṇa-mārjanam [Cc. Antya 20.12]. The beginning is cleansing the heart, because we are impure on account of dirty things within our heart, accumulated lifetime after lifetime in the animalistic way of life. So everything—advancement of spiritual life, culture, tapasya—is meant to cleanse the heart. And in this process of chanting the mahā-mantra, the first installment of benefit is the cleansing of the heart. Ceto-darpaṇa-mārjanam.
And when the heart is cleansed, then a person becomes eligible for being freed from the clutches of māyā, or the materialistic way of life. He understands that he is not this body—that he's a spirit soul, and that his business is therefore different from merely material concerns. He thinks, "Now I am engaged only in seeking these bodily comforts of life. These are not at all essential, because my body will change. Today, since I am in an American body, I think I have so many duties as an American man. Tomorrow I may be in an American dog body, and immediately my duty would change. So I can understand that these bodily concerns are not my real business. My real business is how to elevate myself—as a spirit soul—to the spiritual world, back to home, back to Godhead."
In this way the person who chants Hare Kṛṣṇa purifies his consciousness. Then his materialistic activity is stopped. He knows, "This is simply a waste of time. I must act spiritually." That is knowledge, which comes from cleansing the heart (ceto-darpaṇa-mārjanam [Cc. Antya 20.12]). The illusion of wrongly working on the basis of the bodily concept of life is overcome simply by the chanting of the Hare Kṛṣṇa mahā-mantra. This is the first installment of benefit from chanting.
And then there is bhava-mahā-dāvāgni-nirvāpaṇam: the process of stopping the blazing fire of material existence. Next, śreyaḥ-kairava-candrikā-vitaraṇam: his life becomes completely auspicious; and vidyā-vadhū-jīvanam: he becomes filled with transcendental knowledge. The next benefit is ānandāmbudhi-vardanam: the ocean of transcendental bliss increases; and pūrṇāmṛtāsvādanam: he tastes the nectar of Kṛṣṇa consciousness at every step of life. In other words, his life becomes totally blissful. Finally, sarvātma-snapanaṁ paraṁ vijāyate śrī-kṛṣṇa-saṅkīrtanam: all glories to this saṅkīrtana movement, the chanting of the Hare Kṛṣṇa mahā-mantra!
So this saṅkīrtana movement is Caitanya Mahāprabhu's gift, and by taking up this chanting one attains kevala-bhakti, unalloyed devotion to the Lord. All the benefits of practicing austerities, penances, mystic yoga, and so on will be totally achieved simply by the chanting of the Hare Kṛṣṇa mantra. This is stated in the Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam [6.1.15]:
kecit kevalayā bhaktyā
aghaṁ dhunvanti kārtsnyena
nīhāram iva bhāskaraḥ
Just as when the sun rises the all-pervading fog immediately disappears, so in this Kali-yuga, by the process of bhakti-yoga—especially by chanting the Hare Kṛṣṇa mahā-mantra—all one's sins are eradicated and one becomes fully reformed. In other words, one comes to the spiritual platform, and that is success in life.