When Srila Rupa Goswami talked about chanting the holy name of Krishna he said that he wished he had hundreds of tongues to sing it, and thousands of ears to hear it. Not for nothing is his book named the Bhakti-Rasa-Amrita-Sindhu or the Nectar Ocean of Devotion.
Strangely enough, he also said that the five primary items in the life of bhakti all had to do with taking shelter of a guru and accepting initiation from a guru. Why strange? Because the very name of Krishna, that sound vibration which made him ecstatic, was the same that had been given away freely by Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu – without the need for initiation.
The giving of a – normally secret – mantra is one of the components of traditional initiation into any of the streams of Vedic philosophy and practise. So why is initiation required when the mantra is no longer secret, and when it has been already given to the prospective chanter, perhaps even in the street?
Because there is much more than the mantra: by modelling our life on the behaviour of a devotee of the Lord we can internalise a set of devotional attitudes that will find expression in behaviours. By being guided by a compassionate devotee we can avoid common mistakes; by hearing his messages we can grow in conviction; and by his prayers for us we can move closer to the all-compassionate Personality of Godhead.
The declaration of affiliation with such a devotee, and one’s promise to help and serve him, to study with him and learn from him, is the other important component of initiation. If initiation means ‘the beginning.’ then what begins is that declaration of dedication.
Lord Krishna speaks to his old friend Uddhava, many years after the Kurukshetra battle:
“One who has obtained pure devotional service by association with my devotees always engages in worshipping Me. Thus he very easily goes to my abode, which is revealed by My pure devotees.”
When Uddhava enquiries as to the characteristics of such a devotee, so that he can properly identify a person to learn from, the Lord replies by explaining 28 qualities of a saintly person, chief of which is: “mam bhajeta sa tu sattamah,” that ‘one who worships me alone is the best of all saints.’ (11.11 32)
Entering the ocean of devotion, the ocean of nectar, must therefore involve meeting the devotee of the Lord on the beach of life, at least at some point.