SC 15: Atonement

Absolute Absolution

The Viṣṇudūtas charged that the Yamadūtas did not know whom to arrest and whom not to arrest. The Yamadūtas regularly arrest sinful persons, but in this case the Yamadūtas came to arrest Ajāmila, who had been released from all sinful reactions simply by chanting "Nārāyaṇa!" The Viṣṇudūtas criticized the Yamadūtas, saying, "You do not know whom to punish and whom not to punish. Even though Ajāmila committed so many sinful activities, he is now freed from the reactions to his sins. He has completely counteracted all those sins by chanting the holy name of Nārāyaṇa. Why are you now attempting to arrest this person as if he were a criminal? Although he had no intention of chanting the holy name, still he has chanted it, and therefore he is now free of sin."

The Yamadūtas had considered only the external situation of Ajāmila. Since he was extremely sinful during his life, they thought he should be taken to Yamarāja. They did not know that he had become free from the reactions of all his sins. The Viṣṇudūtas thus instructed them that because he had chanted the name Nārāyaṇa at the time of his death—and also throughout his life—he was freed from all sinful reactions. In this regard Śrīla Viśvanātha Cakravartī Ṭhākura quotes the following verses from the scriptures:

nāmno hi yāvatī śaktiḥ
pāpa-nirharaṇe hareḥ
tāvat kartuṁ na śaknoti
pātakaṁ pātakī naraḥ

"Simply by chanting one holy name of Hari, a sinful man can counteract the reactions to more sins than he can commit." (Bṛhad-viṣṇu Purāṇa)

avaśenāpi yan-nāmni
kīrtite sarva-pātakaiḥ
pumān vimucyate sadyaḥ
siṁha-trastair mṛgair iva

"If one chants the holy name, even in a helpless condition or without desiring to do so, all of one's sinful reactions immediately depart, just as a lion's roar causes the small animals in the forest to flee in fear." (Garuḍa Purāṇa)

sakṛd uccāritaṁ yena
harir ity akṣara-dvayam
baddha-parikaras tena
mokṣāya gamanaṁ prati

"A person who once chants the holy name of the Lord, consisting of the two syllables ha-ri, guarantees his path to liberation." (Skanda Purāṇa)

These are some verses explaining why the Viṣṇudūtas stopped the Yamadūtas from taking Ajāmila to Yamarāja.

There are different kinds of sins, one of which is stealing. Thieves and burglars are very sinful. Another sinful activity is drunkenness. Those who are addicted to intoxication and stealing are condemned by the Viṣṇudūtas. Other examples of sins are being unfaithful to one's friends, killing a brāhmaṇa or Vaiṣṇava, dishonoring one's spiritual master or teacher, killing a woman, killing a king, and killing a cow. These are among the worst sins. But the Viṣṇudūtas say that even though a person has committed many such sins, if he utters the holy name of Nārāyaṇa even once, he at once becomes free from sinful reactions.

Śrīdhara Svāmī says, "Chanting the holy name of Nārāyaṇa, Lord Hari, not only counteracted all of Ajāmila's sinful reactions, but it made him eligible to become liberated, and therefore at the time of death he was transferred to the spiritual world." Chanting the holy name of Kṛṣṇa counteracts all sins—more than one can possibly commit. Because Ajāmila had chanted the holy name without offense, and because he chanted sincerely, he completely freed himself from all sinful reactions. This is why we are stressing the chanting of Hare Kṛṣṇa so much. Pious activities, austerity, sacrifice—everything is done simply by chanting the Hare Kṛṣṇa mantra. There is no need of any other process of yoga, atonement, or austerity and penance. Simply by chanting without offense one achieves the results of all other ritualistic performances prescribed in the Vedas.

Previously, when engaged in sinful activities to maintain his family, Ajāmila chanted the name of Nārāyaṇa, but he did so without offense. To chant the holy name of the Lord just to counteract one's sinful activities, or to commit sinful activities on the strength of chanting the holy name, is offensive (nāmno balād yasya hi pāpa-buddhiḥ). But although Ajāmila engaged in sinful activities, he never chanted the holy name of Nārāyaṇa to counteract them; he simply chanted the name Nārāyaṇa to call his son. Therefore his chanting was effective. Because he chanted the holy name in this way, he had already vanquished the accumulated sinful reactions of many, many lives. The conclusion is that one who always chants the holy name of the Lord without offense is always pure. As confirmed in these verses, Ajāmila was already sinless, and because he chanted the name of Nārāyaṇa he remained sinless. It did not matter that he was calling his son; the name itself was effective.

Foolish persons say that one can chant any name, even a demigod's name, and get the same result as chanting the holy name of the Lord. This is Māyāvāda philosophy. The Māyāvādīs think that everyone is God; they say, "The demigods are God, I am God, you are God." Therefore they say one can chant any name and become liberated. In Bengal it is very popular to hold a kālī-kīrtana. A party of people meet and chant, "Kālī! Kālī! Kālī!" or the names of so many so-called avatāras. One rascal added his wife's name to the chanting, and his foolish followers accepted it. In this way Māyāvādī philosophers are leading their followers straight to hell. Caitanya Mahāprabhu has therefore strongly warned against hearing from the Māyāvādī philosophers, lest one's spiritual life be spoiled and the path of devotional service blocked. We should always remember this when there is any question of chanting other names. We should chant the holy name of Viṣṇu, the holy name of Kṛṣṇa—no one else's name.

The scriptures advise us to chant only the name of the Supreme Personality of Godhead, Kṛṣṇa. There are thousands of names of Viṣṇu, and in once sense Kṛṣṇa and Viṣṇu are the same, yet the scriptures explain that chanting a thousand names of Viṣṇu gives the result of chanting the name Rāma just once, and chanting Rāma three times gives the result of chanting Kṛṣṇa once. In other words, one automatically gets all good results just by chanting the holy name of Kṛṣṇa.

Caitanya Mahāprabhu therefore recommends this chanting process, according to śāstric injunction:

harer nāma harer nāma
harer nāmaiva kevalam
kalau nāsty eva nāsty eva
nāsty eva gatir anyathā
[Cc. Ādi 17.21]

"In this age of quarrel and hypocrisy, the only means of deliverance is chanting the holy name of the Lord. There is no other way. There is no other way. There is no other way." (Bṛhan-nāradīya Purāṇa)

By taking up this chanting process, we are immediately freed from all sinful reactions. Thus we begin our spiritual life. Without being freed from sinful life, there is no possibility of becoming a pure Vaiṣṇava.

Offenses Against the Holy Name

Even a devotee may sometimes commit some sinful activity, either unknowingly or due to past sinful behavior. But if he sincerely repents, thinking, "I should not have done this, but I am so sinful that I have again committed this sin," the Supreme Lord will excuse him on the basis of his genuine repentance. However, if he intentionally commits sinful activities, expecting that the Lord will forgive him because he is chanting Hare Kṛṣṇa, that is inexcusable.

If one commits sinful activities on the strength of chanting the holy name, he commits nāma-aparādha, or an offense against the holy name. Of the ten kinds of offenses, committing sins on the strength of chanting is the most serious. If after being freed from all sinful reactions by chanting Hare Kṛṣṇa one again commits the same sins, he is guilty of a grievous crime. For an ordinary man, that sinful activity may not be regarded so seriously, but for one who is chanting Hare Kṛṣṇa, it is a dangerous offense, just as it is a serious crime for a government officer in a high post to take advantage of his position and accept a bribe. Such men are the most punishable criminals. If a policeman steals, his crime and subsequent punishment are greater than that of an ordinary man who steals. That is the law. Similarly, one who takes gross advantage of the Hare Kṛṣṇa mantra, thinking, "I am chanting Hare Kṛṣṇa, so even if I commit some sin I'll be excused," will not achieve the ultimate goal of chanting the holy name. He becomes entangled in a cycle: he is freed, then he again commits sin, then he is freed and again commits sin, freed and again commits sin. In this way he is never liberated.

Nevertheless, one should not think that one's sinful reactions will fail to be counteracted by the chanting of Hare Kṛṣṇa. One of the ten offenses against the holy name of the Lord is to think that the holy name cannot eradicate sinful reactions. Those who cultivate offenseless chanting of the Hare Kṛṣṇa mahā-mantra should have firm faith in the words of the śāstra that declare the chanting of the holy names of Kṛṣṇa to be supremely powerful. As the Viṣṇudūtas say here, "The chanting of the holy name of Lord Viṣṇu is the best process of atonement for all kinds of sinners." But very often the difficulty is that one will chant Hare Kṛṣṇa and again commit sin.

The Perfection of Chanting

The key to successful chanting, therefore, is to carefully avoid sin altogether. By chanting the Hare Kṛṣṇa mahā-mantra, a person is freed from all reactions to his previous sins, and if he avoids sinning again, he very quickly becomes an advanced devotee. His mind becomes fixed upon the lotus feet of Kṛṣṇa. If we regularly chant Hare Kṛṣṇa without offense, we shall remain free from all sinful reaction, and our attachment for the Supreme Lord in devotional service will increase.

Once there was an argument between Ṭhākura Haridāsa and an ignorant so-called brāhmaṇa concerning the power of the holy name of Kṛṣṇa. In an assembly of Vaiṣṇavas, Haridāsa Ṭhākura said, "Not only does a person become situated on the spiritual platform (brahma-bhūtaḥ) by offenselessly chanting the holy names of the Lord, but his dormant love of Godhead manifests and he becomes liberated automatically."

The brāhmaṇa protested, "Don't exaggerate the effects of chanting in this way. One becomes liberated only after performing many austerities and penances. But you say that simply by chanting Hare Kṛṣṇa one becomes liberated. If that is not the case, I shall certainly cut off your nose."

Haridāsa Ṭhākura replied, "If chanting Hare Kṛṣṇa does not produce liberation as a by-product, then I shall cut off my nose."

The members of the assembly witnessing this argument became extremely agitated upon seeing the great offense the brāhmaṇa had committed against Haridāsa Ṭhākura, and they immediately expelled the offender. Shortly thereafter, the brāhmaṇa contracted leprosy, and his beautiful nose melted away. This incident is narrated in Śrī Caitanya-caritāmṛta.

There are three stages of chanting the holy name: chanting with offense, chanting as a liberated person, and chanting with full love of God. These progressive stages of chanting are like the ripening of a mango. An unripe mango tastes sour, but when the fruit is fully ripened, it tastes very sweet. Initially we may be reluctant to chant, but when we become liberated the chanting is so sweet that we cannot give it up. In this regard, Śrīla Rūpa Gosvāmī has composed a beautiful verse describing the sweetness of the holy name of Kṛṣṇa:

tuṇḍe tāṇḍavinī ratiṁ vitanute tuṇḍāvalī-labdhaye
karṇa-kroda-kaḍambinī ghaṭayate karṇārbudebhyaḥ spṛhām
cetaḥ-prāṅgaṇa-saṅginī vijayate sarvendriyāṇāṁ kṛtiṁ
no jāne janitā kiyadbhir amṛtaiḥ kṛṣṇeti varṇa-dvayī

"I do not know how much nectar the two syllables Kṛṣ-ṇa have produced. When we chant the holy name of Kṛṣṇa, it appears to dance within the mouth, and we then desire many, many mouths. When the name of Kṛṣṇa enters the holes of the ears, we desire many millions of ears. And when the holy name dances in the courtyard of the heart, it conquers the activities of the mind, and therefore all the senses become inert."

These are the symptoms of one who is on the liberated platform of chanting. At that stage, called prema, one has a great relish for chanting Hare Kṛṣṇa, Hare Kṛṣṇa, Kṛṣṇa Kṛṣṇa, Hare Hare/ Hare Rāma, Hare Rāma, Rāma Rāma, Hare Hare. But this stage is attainable only if one follows the regulative principles. We have to be cautious. After being cured of a diseased condition, we first enter the convalescent stage. If we do something wrong, the disease may return. It is not that we become liberated and can do anything and everything. At all times we have to stick by the regulative principles of devotional life.

Accumulated Benefits from Chanting the Holy Name

Śrīla Viśvanātha Cakravartī Ṭhākura provides additional insight into the power of the holy name in his commentary to verses 9 and 10. He writes this commentary in the form a dialogue concerning how one can become free from all sinful reactions simply by chanting the holy name of the Lord:

"Someone may say, 'It may be accepted that by chanting the holy name of the Lord one becomes freed from all the reactions of sinful life. However, if a person commits sinful acts in full consciousness, not only once but many, many times, he is unable to free himself from the reactions of such sins even after atoning for them for twelve years or more. How is it possible, then, that simply by once chanting the holy name of the Lord one immediately becomes freed from the reactions of such sins?' "

Viśvanātha Cakravartī Ṭhākura replies by quoting verses 9 and 10 of this : " 'The chanting of the holy name of Lord Viṣṇu is the best process of atonement for one who steals gold or other valuables, for a drunkard, for one who betrays a friend or relative, for one who kills a brāhmaṇa, or for a person who indulges in sex with the wife of his guru or another superior. It is also the best method of atonement for a person who murders his father, the king, or women, for one who slaughters cows, and for all other sinful men. Simply by chanting the holy name of Lord Viṣṇu, such sinful persons attract the attention of the Supreme Lord, who then considers, "Because this man has chanted My holy name, My duty is to give him protection.' "

"One may atone for sinful life and vanquish all sinful reactions by chanting the holy name, and this is beyond ordinary atonement. Ordinary atonement may temporarily protect a sinful person, but it does not completely cleanse his heart of the deep-rooted desire to commit sinful acts. Therefore atonement is not as powerful as the chanting of the holy name of the Lord. In the śāstras it is said that if a person only once chants the holy name and completely surrenders unto the lotus feet of the Lord, the Lord immediately considers him His ward and is always inclined to give him protection. This is confirmed by Śrīdhara Svāmī. Thus when Ajāmila was in great danger of being carried off by the order-carriers of Yamarāja, the Lord immediately sent His personal order-carriers to protect him, and because Ajāmila was freed from all sinful reactions, the Viṣṇudūtas spoke on his behalf.

"Ajāmila had named his son Nārāyaṇa, and because he loved the boy very much, he would call him again and again. Although he was calling for his son, the name itself was powerful, because the name Nārāyaṇa is not different from Lord Nārāyaṇa. When Ajāmila named his son Nārāyaṇa, all the reactions of his sinful life were neutralized, and as he continued calling his son and thus chanting the holy name of Nārāyaṇa thousands of times, he was actually unconsciously advancing in Kṛṣṇa consciousness.

"One may argue, 'Since Ajāmila was constantly chanting the name of Nārāyaṇa, how was it possible for him to be associating with a prostitute and thinking of wine?' By his sinful actions he was bringing suffering upon himself again and again, and therefore one may say that only his chanting of the holy name of Nārāyaṇa at the time of death—and not his chanting during his lifetime—was the cause of his being freed. However, his chanting during his life would then have been a nāma-aparādha. Nāmno balād yasya hi pāpa-buddhiḥ: one who continues to act sinfully and tries to neutralize his sins by chanting the holy name of the Lord is a nāma-aparādhī, an offender to the holy name.

"In response it may be said that Ajāmila's chanting throughout his life was inoffensive because he did not chant the name of Nārāyaṇa with the purpose of counteracting his sins. He was in so much illusion that he did not realize he was addicted to sinful actions, nor did he know that his chanting of the holy name Nārāyaṇa was neutralizing them. Thus during his life he did not commit a nāma-aparādha, and his repeated chanting of the holy name of Nārāyaṇa while calling his son may be called pure chanting.

"Because of this pure chanting, Ajāmila unconsciously accumulated the results of bhakti, devotional service. Indeed, even his first utterance of the holy name was sufficient to nullify all the sinful reactions of his life. To cite a logical example, a fig tree does not immediately yield fruits, but in time the fruits are available. Similarly, Ajāmila's devotional service grew little by little, and therefore although he committed very sinful acts, the reactions did not affect him. In the śāstras it is said that if one chants the holy name of the Lord even once, the reactions of past, present, or future sinful life do not affect him. To give another example, if one extracts the poison fangs of a serpent, this saves the serpent's future victims from poisonous effects, even if the serpent bites repeatedly. Similarly, if a devotee chants the holy name even once inoffensively, this protects him eternally. He need only wait for the results of the chanting to mature in due course of time."