Question: Is there a difference between the Gaudiya Vaishnava conception of the maha-mantra and the conception of the maha-mantra found in other sampradayas, such as the Ramanujas, Madhvas, Nimbarkas and Vallabhas?

Swami Narasingha: Yes. In fact the Gaudiya conception of the maha-mantra is exclusive and stands distinct from all other sampradayas. The Gaudiya conception is exclusive in that it surpasses even the greatest expectations of the Vedas (liberation) and affords one the highest fulfillment of the ultimate goal of life. This is not simply party spirit propaganda or sampradaya jingoism, but an ontological fact.

The conception of the maha-mantra as a whole, as well as each of its constituent parts (Hare, Krishna and Rama), are uniquely different in Gaudiya Vaishnavism than in any other spiritual tradition of India.

The maha-mantra appears in the Kali-santarana Upanishad of the Krishna Yajur Veda wherein Lord Brahma is answering a question by Narada Muni:
(1)
harih om
dvaparante narado brahmanam jagam katham
bhagavan gam paryatan-kalim santare-yamiti

sa hovaca brahma –
sadhu prishto’smi sarva shruti-rahasyam gopayam
tacchrnu yena kali-samsaram tarishyasi bhagavata
adi-purushasya narayanasya namoccharana-matrena nirdhuta-kalir bhavati

At the end of Dvapara-Yuga, Narada, who had traversed the whole world, went to Brahma and addressed him thus, ‘O Lord, how shall I be able to ward off the effects of Kali?’ Brahma thus replied, ‘You have asked an excellent question. Listen to that secret which all the Vedas keep hidden, through which one may cross over material existence during the age of Kali. One becomes free from the influence of Kali by merely uttering the Names of Lord Narayana, who is the original Supreme Person.

(2)
naradah punah papraccha tananam kimiti
sa hovacha hiranyagarbah –

hare krishna hare krishna krishna krishna hare
hare rama hare rama rama rama hare hare

iti sodashakam namnam
kali-kalmasha-nashanam
natah parataropayah
sarva-vedeshu drishyate
Thus again Narada asked Brahma, ‘What are those Names?’
Lord Brahma replied, ‘Hare Krishna Hare Krishna Krishna Krishna Hare Hare, Hare Rama Hare Rama Rama Rama Hare Hare. These sixteen Holy Names will destroy the sinful influences of the age of Kali. I do not see any other method

The Kali-santarana Upanishad is one of the 108 Upanishads listed in the Muktika Upanishad, yet in some academic circles, scholars are of the opinion that the Kali-santarana Upanishad was written either by Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu or one of His followers. Such scholars have no evidence for their claim other than their own opinion and that is generally not accepted amongst learned circles in India.

One enigma surrounding the maha-mantra is whether it begins with ‘Hare Krishna’ or ‘Hare Rama’. In the oldest surviving copy of the Kali-santarana Upanishad, dated circa 1740 CE with the commentary by the Advaitin scholar Brahmayogin Ramachandrendra Sarasvati of Kanchipuram, the maha-mantra is written as:

hare rama hare rama rama rama hare hare
hare krishna hare krishna krishna krishna hare hare

However, in numerous other editions of the Kali-santarana Upanishad the maha-mantra is written:
hare krishna hare krishna krishna krishna hare hare
hare rama hare rama rama rama hare hare

Presented below is a statement by Srila Sridhara Deva Gosvami Maharaja from which we might conclude that the 1740 edition of the Kali-santarana Upanishad quoted above was interpolated by Mayavadis. Since the Name of Krishna is superior to the Name of Rama, as stated by Srila Sridhara Maharaja, it stands to reason that the Vedas would present the sequence of the mantra ontologically, thus the Advaitin edition is suspect.

Commenting on this enigma, Srila Sridhara Deva Gosvami Maharaja has stated as follows:
The real importance of the Name is not to be found merely in the arrangement of its syllables, but in the deep meaning within that divine sound. Some scholars argue that in the Kali-santarana Upanishad, Lord Brahma says that the Hare Krishna maha-mantra is properly pronounced only when the Name of Rama precedes the Name of Krishna:
hare rama hare rama rama rama hare hare
hare krishna hare krishna krishna krishna hare hare
In the Kali-santarana Upanishad, the Hare Krishna maha-mantra is given in that way. But to say that the Name of Rama must precede the Name of Krishna in the mantra is a superficial understanding.
It is said that because it comes from the Upanishads, the Hare Krishna mantra is a Vedic mantra, and therefore, because the ordinary people may not have any entrance into Vedic mantras, Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu readjusted this mantra by reversing the order of the words. In that way, it is said, the concern that it is a Vedic mantra is thereby canceled, and so Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu gave it to all without breaching the injunctions of the Vedas. Some devotees in Uttar Pradesh who have great affection for Sri Chaitanyadeva like to give this opinion. But our faith is that the mentioning of ‘Hare Rama’ first is only superficial. It concerns the idea that since the Rama avatara appeared first and the Krishna avatara afterwards, the Name of Rama, ‘Hare Rama,’ should come first in the maha-mantra.

A deeper reading will consider that when two similar things are connected together, the priority will be ordered not on the basis of historical precedent, but in consideration of the most highly developed conception. The Holy Name of Krishna is higher than the Holy Name of Rama. This is mentioned in the Puranas: three Names of Rama equal one Name of Krishna.

The Name of Krishna is superior to the Name of Rama. Where the two are connected together, the first position should be given to the one that is superior. Therefore, the Name of Krishna must come first in the maha-mantra. This is one point.

Another point is that within the eternal plane, everything is moving in a cyclic order. In an eternal cycle, which is first and which is next cannot be ascertained, and so, in the eternal plane of lila, it cannot be determined whether Krishna is before Rama or Rama is before Krishna. So from that consideration also, since the Names of Krishna and Rama are eternal and unrelated to any historical event, we may begin the mantra from any place.
But above these considerations, our sampradaya has given another, higher consideration. A deeper understanding will reveal that the Hare Krishna mantra is not at all concerned with rama-lila.

In the Name of Rama within the Hare Krishna mantra, the Gaudiya Vaishnavas will find Radha-ramana Rama. That means, ‘Krishna, who gives pleasure (raman) to Srimati Radharani.’ In our conception, the Hare Krishna mantra is wholesale Krishna consciousness, not Rama consciousness.

Sri Chaitanya’s highest conception of things is always svayam bhagavan, krsna-lila, radha-govinda-lila. That is the real purpose of Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu’s advent and teachings. In that consideration, the Hare Krishna mantra does not mention the rama-lila of Ayodhya at all. There is no connection with that in the highest conception of the Hare Krishna mantra.

And the inner conception of the mantra is responsible for our spiritual attainment. When one pronounces the Name of Rama, if he means Dasarathi Rama, his attraction will take him there, to Ayodhya; if he means Parasurama, he will be attracted to another place. And if Rama means Radha-ramana Rama, he will go to Goloka. The inner conception of the devotee will guide him to his destination. (Loving Search For The Lost Servant)
The Names in the maha-mantra are Hare, Krishna and Rama. The followers of the Shankaracharya school, as well as those of the Ramanuja and Madhva schools, conceive the Name of Hare to be the vocative case of Hari. Thus for them ‘Hare’ means Narayana, ‘Rama’ means Ramachandra and ‘Krishna’ means the avatar of Narayana (not Krishna the avatari, or source of Narayana).

The followers of Shankaracharya have adopted this version of the maha-mantra and the Vaishnava sampradayas of South India have also adopted the same. ‘Hare’ in all these sampradayas means Hari, or Narayana. In all circumstances their way of thinking is about liberation (mukti) and not actually about bhakti (devotion). Moreover, the followers of Shankaracharya are sometimes found to chant the maha-mantra and give more attention to the maha-mantra than the Ramanuja sampradaya or the Madhva sampradaya. The Kali-santarana Upanishad and the maha-mantra are accepted by all these sampradayas, yet the maha-mantra is of little importance to them. Only the Gaudiya Vaishnavas stake everything on the maha-mantra.

Actually, according to one Madhva website, it appears that at least a certain section of their sampradaya has ‘lost the plot’ so to speak. The following is a contemporary Madhva quote:
And it is known that the Hare Krishna mantra is recited without proper procedure, without dhyana, sankalpa, etc., in the approved Vedic fashion. It has been arbitrarily picked out of a book and practiced in mutilated form, and is thus a false initiation (as the originators of the tradition were themselves unqualified to recite the mantra). Worst of all, it is recited ‘as’ Krishna Himself, and not as a symbol or tool for his worship...as such, it stands to reason that the ‘Hare Krishna maha-mantra’ is best avoided by everybody.

The most obvious mistake in the above quote is that the Kali-santarana Upanishad clearly states ‘nashya vidhiriti’ – ‘there are no rules (vidhi) involved in chanting the maha-mantra.’ In fact the Upanishad guarantees liberation to anyone who chants the maha-mantra. Thus, one begins to wonder what’s been happening in the Madhva sampradaya over the past seven hundred years?
punah-naradah papriccha bhagavan ko’sya vidhiriti
tam hovacha – nasya vidhiriti
sarvada suchirasuchirva pathan-brahmanah
salokatam samipatam sarupatam sayujyatameti
Again Narada enquired: ‘O Lord, what are the rules to be observed with reference to it (chanting the maha-mantra)?” Brahma replied, “There are no rules. Whoever, in a pure or an impure state, utters these always, attains the same world of the Lord (salokya), proximity with the Lord (samipya), the same form as the Lord (sarupya), or absorption into Brahman (sayujya). (Kali-santarana Upanishad 3)
For the followers of Shankaracharya, the Name ‘Hare’ means Hari – He who takes away one’s karma, material desire and illusion (maya). For Ramanujas and most Madhvas, Hari is He who takes away all inauspiciousness and bestows all good fortune. But for Gaudiya Vaishnavas the conception of Hare is altogether different.
For the Gaudiyas, Hare is the vocative case of Hara, the internal pleasure potency of Krishna. Thus Hare means Srimati Radharani.

It should not be misunderstood that we are arguing or fighting over the proper meaning of the names in the maha-mantra. There is certainly room for different bona fide conceptions within the maha-mantra. Each with his conception may attain that particular destination.
yei yei rupe jane, sei taha kahe
sakala sambhave krishne, kichu mithya nahe
In whatever form one knows the Lord, one speaks of Him in that way. In this there is no falsity, since everything is possible in Krishna. (Cc. Adi 5.132)

In this regard Srila A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada writes in his purport to this verse:

If someone calls Lord Ramachandra by the vibration Hare Rama, understanding it to mean “O Lord Ramachandra!” he is quite right. Similarly, if one says that Hare Rama means “O Sri Balarama!” he is also right. Those who are aware of the vishnu-tattva do not fight over all these details.

However, one must also remember that all realities are not the same, nor do all conceptions lead to the same destination.

It is often said as a reference that the maha-mantra first appears or manifests in the Kali-santarana Upanishad portion of the Vedas, but such a statement is not actually correct according to Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati Thakura, who has stated:

Lord Hari’s Name is Lord Hari Himself. The maha-mantra was present before the scriptures manifested. The catuh-shloki of the Bhagavatam beginning with ‘aham evasam evagre’ is proof of this. The supremely independent Holy Name is not under the jurisdiction of scriptural control. Actually, the scriptures have appeared by the supreme will of the Holy Name. It is not a fact that the scriptures manifested first and then the Holy Name appeared after. The Brahma-samhita says that the Holy Name appeared first in Brahma’s heart. (Sri Srila Prabhupader Upadeshamrita)

The maha-mantra chanted by Gaudiyas is always chanted as:

hare krishna hare krishna krishna krishna hare hare
hare rama hare rama rama rama hare hare

Whereas other sampradayas might chant the maha-mantra for liberation, the Gaudiyas chant the maha-mantra out of devotion to please Krishna. Hari takes away material desires, maya, etc, but Hare, the internal potency (hladini-shakti/Radharani) captures or takes away the mind and heart of Krishna. Hara is the energy by which one can serve Krishna, and the only energy that can please Krishna. Krishna Himself is the reservoir of pleasure and Rama, or Radha-ramana, is the one who gives pleasure to Srimati Radharani.

The Gaudiya conception of Rama in the maha-mantra meaning Krishna, the giver of pleasure to Sri Radha, is also collaborated by Sri Bhaktisiddhanta as follows:

According to the mood of aishvarya, ‘Rama’ refers to Ramachandra, the son of Dasharatha. According to the mood of madhurya, ‘Rama’ refers to Krishna, the relisher of Sri Radha’s association. Whenever the Name ‘Rama’ indicates service to Radha-ramana Krishna, then the word ‘Hare’ which is the vocative form of Hara, refers to Sri Radharani, who is the origin of all spiritual potencies. Sri Radha is known as Hara because She attracts the mind of Krishna. Hari means ‘attracter’. Hare is the vocative form of the word ‘Hara’. There are three Ramas – Rama, the husband of Sita-devi, Rama the husband of Revati and Rama, the lover of Radha. (Sri Srila Prabhupader Upadeshamrita)

The Gaudiya conception of the maha-mantra is not something whimsical. It is authorized by bona fide acharyas and supported by guru, sadhu and shastra. It was also the preferred conception of chanting by Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu. Furthermore,

the Gaudiya conception of hearing and chanting of the maha-mantra transcends all types of liberation and ultimately reaches the lotus feet of the Supreme Lord.

mali hana kare sei bija aropana
shravana-kirtana-jale karaye sechana

When one receives the seed of devotion, he should take care of it by becoming a gardener and sowing the seed in his heart. By watering the seed gradually by the process of sravana and kirtana (hearing and chanting), the seed will start to sprout.
upajiya bade lata ‘brahmanda’ bhedi’ yaya
‘viraja’, ‘brahma-loka’ bhedi’ ‘para-vyoma’ paya

The creeper of devotion is manifest and grows to pierce through the wall of the material universe. It crosses over the Viraja river and the plane of Brahman and then reaches to Vaikuntha.

tabe yaya tad-upari ‘goloka vrindavana’
‘krishna-charana’-kalpa-vrikshe kare arohana

It continues to grow further up to Goloka Vrndavana, where it finally embraces the wish-fulfilling tree of Sri Krishna’s lotus feet.

tahan vistarita hana phale prema-phala
ihan mali seche nitya shravanadi jala

There in Goloka, the creeper expands and produces the fruit of love for Krishna. Although remaining in the material plane, the gardener continuously sprinkles the creeper with the water of hearing and chanting. (Cc. Madhya 19.152-155)

Commenting on the maha-mantra in his Maha-mantrartha Dipika, Sri Jiva Goswami reveals the meaning of each of the sixteen Names in the maha-mantra in consecutive order as follows:

hare krishna hare krishna krishna krishna hare hare
hare rama hare rama rama rama hare hare

(1-Hare)
sarva-cheta-harah krishnas tasya chittam haratyasau
vaidagdhi-sara-vistarair ato radha hara mata
Krishna steals the minds of everyone, yet Radha steals even His mind by Her divine expertise. Thus She is known as Hara.
(2-Krishna)
karsati sviyalavanya-murali-kala-nihsvanaih
sri radham mohana-gunalankritah krishna iryate
He forcibly attracts Sri Radha with the sweet sound of His flute, therefore that Lord of all enchanting qualities is known as Krishna.

(3-Hare)
shruyate niyate rase harina harinekshana
ekakini rahah-kunje hareyam tena kathyate
It has been heard that during the rasa-lila, doe-eyed Radha was stolen away by Krishna to be alone with Him in a secret forest bower. She is therefore known as Hara.

(4-Krishna)
anga-shyamalima-stomaih shyamalikirta-kanchanah
ramate radhaya sardham krishno nigadyate
When Krishna sports with Radha, Her golden hue takes on the dark complexion of Krishna’s skin. He is thus known as Krishna.

(5-Krishna)
kritvaranye sarah-srestham kantayanumatas-taya
akrishya sarva-tirthani taj-jnanat krishna iryate
In order to please Sri Radha, Krishna manifested the most wonderful lake (Shyama-kunda) in Vrindavana. He then called all the holy rivers to fill it. He is thus known as Krishna.

(6-Krishna)
krishyate radhaya premna yamuna-tata-kananam
lilaya lalitas-chapi dhiraih krishna udahritah

By Her unsurpassed love, Radha charms He who performs wonderful lilas on the banks of the Yamuna. Therefore, those who are sober know Him as Krishna.

(7-Hare)
hritavan gokule tisthann-arishtam pushta-pungavam
sri haris tam rasad ucchai rayatiti hara mata
While in Gokula, Sri Hari (Krishna) killed the demon known as Arishtasura. During that time, Radha cried out to Him with great feeling and by doing so, She stole His mind. She is thus known as Hara.

(8-Hare)
hyasphutam rayati priti-bharena hari-chestam
gayatiti mata dhirair hara rasa-vichakshanaih
Filled with ecstatic love, Radha sometimes sings the glories of Hari’s exploits quietly, and sometimes She sings them aloud. Those who are expert in the secrets of divine sentiments call Her Hara.

(9-Hare)
rasavesha-parishrastam jahara muralim hareh
hareti kirtita devi vipine keli-lampata
Due to the intense love of Sri Radha, Sri Hari becomes so captivated that His flute falls from His hand. With the desire to enjoy in the forest bowers with Krishna, Radha steals His flute. That goddess is thus famous as Hara.

(10-Rama)
govardhana-dari-kunje parirambha-vichakshanah
sri radham ramayamasa ramastena mato harih
Krishna, who is expert at embracing, sports with Radha in the forest groves or in the caves of Govardhana. Thus He is known as Rama.

(11-Hare)
hanti duhkhani bhaktanam rati saukhyani chanvaham
hara devi nigadita maha-karunya-shalini

That most merciful Radha destroys the miseries of Her devotees and gives them great happiness every day. Therefore that goddess is known as Hara.

(12-Rama)
ramate bhajato chetah paramananda-varidhau
atreti kathito ramah shyamasundara-vigrahah
The minds of the devotees are continuously drowned in an ocean of supreme joy by seeing the beautiful dark form of Krishna. Therefore He is known by the Name Rama.

(13-Rama)
ramayaty-achyutam premna nikunja-vana-mandire
rama nigadita radha ramo yutas taya punah
Radharani is known as Rama because She enjoys loving pastimes with Acyuta (Krishna) in a secret forest pavilion. Since He is always by Her side, He is known as Rama.

(14-Rama)
rodanair gokule davanalam asayati hyasau
vishosayati tenokto ramo bhakta-sukhavahah
When the residents of Gokula were crying due to fear of the forest fire, Krishna immediately swallowed it and gave His devotees great joy. In this way, He is known as Rama.
(15-Hare)
nihantum asuran yato mathura-puram ity-asau
tadagamad-rahah-kamo yasyah sa’sau hareti ca
Sri Krishna went to Mathurapuri in order to destroy the demons. However, due to being captivated by the love of Radha, He later returned. Therefore She is known as Hara.

(16-Hare)
agatya duhkha-harta yo sarvesham vraja-vasinam
sri radha-hari-charito harih sri nandanandanah
When the son of Maharaja Nanda returned to Vraja, He took away the suffering of all the Vrajavasis. By His wonderful exploits, He steals the heart of Sri Radha. Thus He is known as Hari.

Throughout his Maha-mantrartha Dipika, Sri Jiva Goswami reveals the meaning of ‘Hare’ as Hara until the final verse wherein he says that ‘Hare’ means Hari – He who has stolen the heart of Srimati Radharani. In the first verse Radha steals the mind of Krishna, and in the last verse Krishna steals the heart of Radha. Indeed, Radha wears a locket with a picture of Krishna around Her neck, and Krishna wears a locket with a picture of Radha around His neck. These Two have stolen each other’s hearts and minds, thus one might suspect that Sri Jiva is alluding to the appearance of Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu in his Maha-mantrartha Dipika as the combined form of both Radha and Krishna. In any case, according to Jiva Goswami, the divine pastimes of Radha and Krishna are written throughout the maha-mantra.

As for the other Vaishnava sampradayas, namely the Nimbarka sampradaya and the Vallabha sampradya, they too – like the Ramanujas and the Madhvas – do not follow the line of thinking of the Gaudiyas. Actually the Nimbarka sampradaya does not chant the maha-mantra of the Kali-santarana Upanishad at all. The Nimbarkas chant what they call the yugala-mantra:
radhe krishna radhe krishna krishna krishna radhe radhe
radhe shyama radhe shyama shyama shyama radhe radhe

In some learned circles it is thought that the Nimbarkas plagiarized Sri Chaitanya and the Gaudiyas. Indeed, some scholars are even of the opinion that Keshava Kashmiri, who had been defeated by Sri Chaitanya, fabricated the Nimbarka parampara and placed himself at its head.

According to verifiable sources, it appears that the yugala-mantra of the Nimbarkas was actually only introduced into their sampradaya in the 14th century by Harivyasa Devacharya (the third aharya in the Nimbarka line after Keshava Kashmiri) as it does not appear in any of their literature prior to that period.

The idea that the Nimbarka sampradaya is authorized to neglect the chanting of the maha-mantra in preference to the yugala-mantra is further suspect by the fact that Sanat-kumara, one of the original founders of that sampradaya, has said the following:

hare-krishnau dvir avrittau
krishna tadrik tatha hare
hare rama tatha rama
tatha tadrig ghare manuh

hare krishna hare krsna
krishna krishna hare hare
hare rama hare rama
rama rama hare hare

The words ‘Hare Krishna’ are to be repeated twice, then ‘Krishna’ and ‘Hare’ are to be repeated separately twice. Similarly, ‘Hare Rama’, ‘Rama’ and ‘Hare’ are also repeated twice. The mantra will thus be – Hare Krishna Hare Krishna Krishna Krishna Hare Hare, Hare Rama Hare Rama Rama Rama Hare Hare. (Sanat-kumara Samhita, as quoted by Dhyanachandra Goswami in his Gaura Govindarchana Smarana Paddhati, verses, 132-133)

As for the Vallabha-sampradaya, they too do not chant the maha-mantra as part of their tradition, which seems rather ironic, knowing that Vallabhacharya took diksha-mantras from Sri Gadadhara Pandita and that he was also associated for sometime with Sri Chaitanya directly. One cannot help but think that something very serious has gone amiss in that sampradaya. Currently the Vallabha sampradaya neglects the maha-mantra in preference of the ashtakshara-mantra, namely ‘sri krishna sharanam mama.’ This mantra, not being found in the Vedas or in any authorized shastra, was purportedly invented by Vallabhacharya.

Our conclusion is that there are indeed differences between the Gaudiya Vaishnava conception of the maha-mantra and the conception of the maha-mantra found in other sampradayas. With the exception of those sampradayas that have deviated from the path of previous acharyas, (Madhvas, Nimbarkas and Vallabhas), these differences are primarily based on higher and lower conceptions in rasa (referring to the Ramanuja sampradaya) and not simply on who is right and who is wrong. Nonetheless, it should go without saying that any intelligent and pious person regardless of their professed sampradaya affiliation should accept the direction of Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu to chant the maha-mantra, if they want to make substantial spiritual advancement toward the ultimate goal of life.