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The Secrets of a Mantra

October 8, 2011

Baba Nam Kevalam.

Sitting at my computer to write my first blog post, it seems like an obvious place to start. The “siddha mantra,” it’s sometimes called — in English, the perfect words that lead to the liberation of the mind. But why? What makes it so powerful? Why is it so important?

It’s often taught that mantras are powerful because they are incantative, pulsative and ideative (all words so long-winded, by the way, that my spellchecker insists they don’t exist). Since I can hardly guess at the “incantative” power invested in a series of words as simple as Baba Nam Kevalam, I’ll settle for the ideative aspect, and attempt to do my best.

When I first learned meditation as a five year old at the Progressive School of Long Island, we were all collectively told that Baba Nam Kevalam translated to “love is all there is.” That was fine by me, until at the age of 19 I realized that neither “Baba,” “Nam” or “Kevalam” translated to the word “love.” Suddenly feeling mistrustful, I did a little research and found that Baba Nam Kevalam actually translated to “Only the name of Baba.” Needless to say, this freaked me out. “Baba” being the way one refers to the guru, I became convinced that we were all mindlessly chanting the name of some guy whose photograph was on the wall, and got turned off. Baba Nam Kevalam, I decided, was dogma, and “love is all there is” was just a way to trick innocent kids like me.

It took me many years more to really understand the true “ideative” power of Baba Nam Kevalam. Nam is a straightforward enough word — it means “name.” Kevalam means “only that.” It was always on the “Baba” bit that I kept getting tripped up. Why was it so important to chant the name of this “Baba”? Who was he, and why was he so important? And how on earth was this not some weird religious dogma?

In meditation we try to realize the existence of the infinite and feel its presence in all persons and things. Far from being just a revelatory “experience,” this is a practice that has to be taken up anew, every day. The only problem with the infinite is that, well, it’s infinite. How are you supposed to relate to an abstract principle? To something so beyond the conception of the mind that it is beyond both is and is not?

For starters, you call it by a name.

Mysticism is the use of symbols to approach something which is ultimately beyond symbolization. Take the infinite, for example. We are taught in meditation that the ultimate reality that permeates all things stands at the rudiment of our Being; that in the deepest of all possible senses, we are all fundamentally, integrally connected as one Cosmic Consciousness experiencing Itself subjectively. Philosophically speaking, this is by definition an impersonal entity — it is as equally connected to a blade of grass as it is to you. It takes the form of your mother who loves and nurtures you and also takes the form of the virus that kills you, painfully. Beyond all attributions, it stands as an absolute. The word “God,” in this context, is almost irrelevant, as it becomes obvious that “God” must have been an idea that we as human beings created in order to talk about something that is beyond language itself.

But here’s the thing: this notion of God may be impersonal, but we’re not. We’re extremely personal! And the beauty of meditation is that when we begin to feel the existence of that one Cosmic Consciousness within ourselves, we don’t feel it as some dry philosophical, impersonal “absolute” — we feel it to be something closer to us than our own thoughts, more precious to us than our own feelings — something which has been with us from the beginning of our existence and will never, under any circumstances ever leave our sides — we feel it to be our most intimate beloved. None of this is a matter of “faith,” as religions so dearly preach to us — it is a matter of direct, unmediated experience.

In the highest state of realization, the spiritual aspirant realizes that both the Supreme Consciousness and oneself are in fact one and the same entity — once again, an experience that goes substantively above and beyond any notion of “faith” typically espoused by religions. Unless and until that merger completely occurs, however, there remains a sense of duality — a feeling of “I” and “That.” The “that” that one experiences in meditation can never an impersonal one — it is the most personal relationship that one can have. You’re a human being, after all, with personal feelings and a personal sense of self — the moment you encounter that deepest Self, it will absolutely feel like a personalized entity. Thus the power of meditation lies precisely in the power of our emotions to drive the engine of our spirituality to its final goal. Meditation isn’t dry, nor is it mechanical; it is a deeply emotional practice, whose consummation is only reached at the pinnacle of our loftiest and most intense passions.

The question still remains: why Baba? We understand that unless and until one knows oneself to be that one, limitless, endless consciousness, one thinks of it as a separate, albeit intimately connected entity — but why Baba? Why not Jesus? Jesus Nam Kevalam has a nice ring to it, doesn’t it?

Here’s the catch: Jesus, Mohammad, Krishna, Buddha — these are all names of entities — entities with particularized attributions and qualities. While they may be useful for a personal practice, they are not at all universal — especially since the true “God” hiding behind the mask of these “gods” stands as an absolute, transcending all barriers. Jesus Nam Kevalam, therefore, is by its very nature unchanging and lacking in dynamism. The “nam” we use can’t be a static one, otherwise where is the scope for growth and progress?

The beauty and simplicity of Baba Nam Kevalam is that “Baba” isn’t the name of an entity — it’s the name of a relationship. This is where the true power of the “ideative” meaning lies. Baba is a Sanskrit word whose etymological origins points to an entity that is “nearest” and “dearest” to us. It is a term of endearment, akin to “darling” or “sweetheart.” To quote a good friend of mine, “nobody signs a check as ‘honey’ or ‘sweetheart.” The same goes for “Baba.” Baba, being the name of the relationship we have with the divine, is a relationship that constantly changes with time — minute to minute and moment to moment. To repeat myself, mysticism is the use of symbols in order to approach something that is ultimately beyond symbolization. The Supreme Consciousness that stands as our true, innermost Selves is ultimately beyond the scope of even the mind — it is an absolute. Any conception we have of it, therefore, can never grasp its totality. Whether we understand that consciousness, that divinity as a lover, a friend, a guide, a guru or Jesus or Krishna, that relationship we have is ultimately just one we are able to understand and relate to in that moment — never mistake it to be the infinite fullness of Truth.

There’s a famous moment in the Bhagavad Gita in which Krishna, finally fed up with having to convince Arjuna to fight in the battle about to ensue, reveals Himself to be God. Krishna doesn’t reveal Himself as a Christ-like figure, however — there to love and guide us and ensure our salvation — but God as an absolute — as an impersonal philosophic principle that both creates and destroys us. Arjuna, naturally, becomes terrified at this “universal vision” and begs Krishna to go back to the way he was before. Krishna, consenting, returns to his typically beautiful, kingly form and tells Arjuna, “You should relate to me this way.” The rhetoric here is clear: If the universal vision is sublime, then Krishna is beautiful. The relationship is similar to “The Father” and “The Son” of Christianity — of Yaweh and Jehova — of Consciousness and Baba.

The mantra Baba Nam Kevalam, therefore, accepts the emotional reality of being a human being. Accepting the Tantric notion that the whole world can, with its proper use, become an engine for liberation rather than a cause of bondage, the chanting of Baba Nam Kevalam is a practice that is at once both universal in its theory and personal in its praxis. Baba always changes and yet never does; Baba, ultimately, is us.

Baba Nam Kevalam.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. October 8, 2011 7:20 pm

    Great post. I’m going to share this with the prison yoga class tomorrow!
    Baba Nam Kevalam!

  2. Narayan permalink
    October 8, 2011 8:50 pm

    Baba Naam Kevalam can mean so much. When i first learned it in 1971, it was explained to me as “the Father’s name is the universe.” In other words, at least the way I understood it, the whole universe, everything that you could ever see, hear and feel, the totality of creation is nothing more than the Name of the Father – how we call him, how we know him.

    30 years later, I realized that it also means ‘i surrender forever to Baba.” this is a more devotional sense. “Na’am” = do obesiance to “Kaevala’ = eternal. i like that the best of all.

    But its not just the sound or the ideation, perhaps most importantly, the thing about a Siddha Mantra, as I was taught, is that the Guru personally repeats and ideates on it is as He or She raises the KulaKundalini all the way up to the Sahasrara cakra. Having done this, maybe many times, the mantra sound/ideation then excites the devotee’s Kundalini as well.

    I don’t pretend to understand any more than that, – it was Baba’s mantra that he gave us, and the only one to be repeated aloud. It works powerfully, sometimes even for non-Margiis and total strangers. It is a pearl of great price and we are deeply blessed to have been given it.


    • October 8, 2011 8:56 pm

      Namaskar Narayan,
      The process you’re referring to by which the guru raises his/her kundalinii with the ideation of the mantra in mind is I believe what is meant by the “incantative” power of the mantra. Ultimately, I think Baba Nam Kevalam means many things to many people — Baba, after all, is not just the guru, but a relationship — by repeating that everything is only an expression in His name, I would absolutely agree that it also means “I surrender forever to Baba.” I hope you enjoyed the article, thanks for writing 🙂

  3. Didi Anudhyana permalink
    October 10, 2011 10:18 pm

    Thank you Alok for such an interesting post. Not only is it nicely written, but with lots of depth. I think you captured one of the main “tricks” of ‘Baba Nam Kevalam’ mantra – it is universal, in the sense that it fits everyone, no matter where they live, what they believe etc. It is not only for Christian, or Muslim, or Atheist, it is for everyone, as everyone can choose what is their “Baba” – their dearest, their most beloved. Finding what my most beloved is, may be a life journey. Using this universal matra, is a strong tool to help discover the missing parts of this puzzle – where do i fit in this world? what is the relation between it and myself? and ultimately – who am i really, deeply? It is, as you wrote, a dynamic process. If we are on one side of a wall, and on the other side of it is the infinite, abstract, unreachable cosmic-consciousness, then Using “Baba Nam Kevalam” mantra works just like ‘Open Sesame’ – it opens a magic door, that connects us. It has to be personal, it has to be felt, it has to be personally experience. Im sure that every one who used “Baba Nam Kevalam” mantra, can testify to the extent it touched their core, underline ‘touched’, with all the human emotions that comes when we are being touched at our core, the nearest possible contact we could wish for.

  4. October 16, 2011 1:51 am

    I thought I had left a comment but apparently not. Just wanted to say I loved this post! So right on!

  5. July 10, 2013 3:28 pm

    Great blog.
    Nama shivaya

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