The Maha-Mantra Research Project by Dhira Govinda Dasa

Source: Back To Godhead magazine

Jan 1, 2000 | Dhira Govinda Dasa, Holy Name, Volume-34 Number-01

Dhira Govinda dasa

Dhira Govinda dasa

ALTHOUGH I HAD done some preliminary theoretical work on researching the effects of chanting the Hare Krsna maha-mantra, I wasn’t sure I wanted to pursue the research for my doctoral dissertation. I thought it would be too difficult to gather subjects and perform the study. I considered doing something easier for my dissertation, and then, after obtaining my Ph.D., I’d research Krsna conscious topics. But my academic advisor, Dr. Neil Abell, encouraged me challenged me to research the maha-mantra. He is a yoga teacher, and throughout my Ph.D. studies he guided my efforts to incorporate spirituality into my scholarly pursuits.

A first step in planning research is to review the literature on the topic. I found that although hundreds of studies had been done on spirituality and spiritual practices, including yoga techniques such as chanting mantras, there had been no research on the Hare Krsna maha-mantra, even though it is the mantra most recommended in the Vedas for spiritual realization in this age:

harer nama harer nama
harer namaiva kevalam
kalau nasty eva nasty eva
nasty eva gatir anyatha

“In this age of quarrel and hypocrisy the only means of deliverance is chanting of the holy name of the Lord. There is no other way. There is no other way. There is no other way.” (Brhan-naradiya Purana)

I felt encouraged to break ground in researching the effects of chanting the Hare Krsna maha-mantra. During the spring of 1998, I conducted a pilot study on the effects of the maha-mantra on stress, depression, the three modes of nature (goodness, passion, and ignorance), and some other mental-health indicators, such as verbal aggressiveness and life satisfaction. The study involved five participants, and the results were encouraging; they were largely consistent with Vedic theory. But the study had shortcomings. One was the small number of subjects. Another was the lack of a control group. So the design of the research was insufficient to conclude scientifically that the changes in the subjects were due to chanting. The weather, the passage of time, or any of innumerable factors unrelated to chanting Hare Krsna could have caused the changes.

Three Test Groups

Still, the results of the pilot study justified a more rigorous investigation. So I formed an experiment involving three groups: a maha-mantra group, an alternate mantra group, and a control group. The control group merely completed the packet of questionnaires and did not chant.

Though including a control group increased the validity of the research design, it still left open the explanation that any mantra, or any combination of sounds, would produce the same effect as the maha-mantra. Srila Prabhupada often emphasized that the vibration of the Hare Krsna maha-mantra is not a material sound. So the experiment had to compare the maha-mantra with another combination of sounds. I contrived a combination of sixteen Sanskrit syllables to serve as an alternate mantra. The syllables were arranged in the same pattern as the maha-mantra, to preclude the explanation that the effects of the maha-mantra were merely due to such things as regularity of breathing or the symmetry of the syllables.

Participants in both chanting groups chanted three rounds each day for 28 days. (One “round” is 108 mantras counted on beads.) All groups completed the surveys three times: on the first day of the experiment (pre-test), after the last day of chanting (post-test), and 28 days after the final chanting day (follow-up). The survey packet included the Vedic Personality Inventory (to measure the three modes of nature) and standardized measures for stress and depression. Two research assistants and I kept in touch with all subjects to ensure they adhered to the guidelines of the experiment.

The subjects volunteered in response to newspaper ads. Though the three groups started with an equal number of subjects, 24 from the maha-mantra group completed the study, as did 19 from the alternate mantra group, and 19 from the control group. (The greater number in the maha-mantra group is some indication that those who chanted the maha-mantra derived greater benefit from the practice than those who chanted the alternate mantra.)

For the period from pre-test to post-test, statistical analyses revealed for the maha-mantra group compared with the other groups a significant decrease in stress, depression, and the mode of ignorance, and a significant increase in the mode of goodness. These results held even after considering the variables of age and gender. The analyses of the period from pre-test to follow-up for the maha-mantra group showed a significant decrease in depression and increase in the mode of goodness, though the other variables were not statistically significant.

The results were consistent with the teachings of the Vedic literature, which states that chanting the maha-mantra will increase one’s qualities in the mode of goodness and diminish the effects of the mode of ignorance, such as depression, and the mode of passion, such as stress. Why didn’t the mode of passion change significantly in the period from pretest to follow-up? Vedic theory describes the mode of passion as the intermediate mode between goodness and ignorance. So I hypothesized that for the maha-mantra chanters some of the passion converted into goodness, and some of the ignorance became passion, and thus the overall passion level did not change. We can also understand from the Vedas that the positive effects of the maha-mantra would diminish when the maha-mantra group had not chanted for 28 days. That explains the less significant results at follow-up.

Appreciation from Students and Teachers

During the oral defense of my dissertation, a lively discussion about the study and its implications for integrating spirituality and social science ensued. After the defense, several professors and graduate students told me they felt inspired by my presentation. They said that spiritual practices are important to them and they’ve wanted to incorporate them into their academic endeavors. They found encouragement in the boldness of my dissertation.

One member of my dissertation committee was Dr. Walter Hudson. A renowned empiricist in the field of social work research, he helped me enormously in designing the Vedic Personality Inventory and in formulating the design and analysis aspects for the maha-mantra study. Dr. Hudson passed away a few weeks after the defense. During his final months he spent long hours reviewing drafts of my dissertation, including descriptions of the philosophy and glories of Krsna’s holy name, and thus he received eternal spiritual benefit.

Dr. Abell, my academic advisor, described the project as very innovative. He said that the study is of a sufficiently high standard that he can show it with confidence to any colleague in academia. He was particularly impressed with the “intellectual courage to take a personal, spiritual inspiration and translate it into research and practice that adheres to the best principles of practice research.” He also commended the tenacity required to challenge my spiritual beliefs by “running them through the mill of Western science.”

Of What Value for Devotees?

One may ask whether such research has any relevance for devotees of Krsna in their own spiritual lives. Do we need science to convince us to chant?

Science involves logic and experimentation. Krsnadasa Kaviraja Gosvami wrote, “If you are indeed interested in logic and argument, kindly apply it to the mercy of Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu. If you do so, you will find it to be strikingly wonderful.” We receive the maha-mantra through the mercy of Lord Caitanya, and its efficacy is not dependent on any logical process. Still, if we honestly apply tools of analysis to the chanting of Hare Krsna, our faith in Krsna’s names and appreciation for them can increase.

Krsna says that we can directly experience the effects of the practices of bhakti-yoga, including the chanting of the maha-mantra. So applying techniques of logic and experimentation (experience) to the study of devotional life is consistent with Vedic injunction. Further, such application, in accord with Srila Rupa Gosvami’s principle of yukta-vairagya (using everything in Krsna’s service), can serve as an effective means to present Krsna consciousness to today’s educated people, who place their faith in the methodologies of science.

For devotees of Krsna, effects such as decreased stress and depression are merely tangential to the main goals of chanting Hare Krsna, which are to please Krsna and develop love for Him. Still, by demonstrating the benefits of chanting Hare Krsna in areas most people consider important, we can attract many people to Krsna, who is all-attractive.

This study is only a beginning in establishing the efficacy of the maha-mantra in terms of modern research. For instance, a future study could be conducted with mental-health patients, using the maha-mantra as part of their therapy. Much further research awaits the Vaisnava social scientist, not only in examining the maha-mantra, but in investigating all facets of the Vaisnava way of life.

Thoughts from a few participants of the maha-mantra chanters group…

“Although I’m not really a religious person, I was always intrigued when I saw the Hare Krsnas singing and giving out food on the campus. It was very interesting for me to participate in this study and to chant the Hare Krsna maha-mantra, because I developed a deeper understanding of the culture and practices of the Hare Krsna devotees.”

– Jeremy Deleplane

“I felt the chanting was a way to really get centered. Also, I would do my chanting at the end of the day to help me get relaxed. If I had chanted in the morning, I think it would have helped me focus.”

– Shawn Stokemer

 “The chanting reminds me of people who do the rosary, like my grandmother. I’d never understood the whole idea of rosary beads, but this helped me to understand. It’s the same sort of chanting. I got a set of beads for my brother and taught him to chant too.”

– Wendy Zilkowski