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Japa literally means muttering, or whispering.   In this context, it is the continuous muttering of mantras, usually with the aid of a mala.   A mala is similar to the rosary in form and function: it is a string of beads, usually numbering 108 (though you can find some in 54, or 27), which is used to count the number of repetitions you do of a mantra - one repetition per bead.   Thus, if you complete one round on a standard mala of 108 beads (1 mala), you have completed 108 repetitions, although you only count 100 repetitions   Practically speaking, it is because we acknowledge that we do not have perfectly one-pointed minds, and we assume that (approximately) 8 out of the 108 repetitions, the mind is not focused on the mantra, but somewhere else; mystically speaking, the first 8 repetitions are always offered to Ganesha - the force that removes all obstacles in our spiritual practice.  

Actually, the mala with 108 beads has 109 beads (108 + 1), the 1 extra is usually tasseled, and it is called the meru bead.   This bead represents pure divine consciousness in the form of God / Guru.   We never count the meru bead when we use a mala, we start on the bead right next to it, and when we complete one round, we return to the bead next to meru bead but on the other side.   Traditionally, if you desire to do more than 1 mala, you flip the mala around to begin the next mala, returning to whence you started.   Remember that when doing japa with a mala, the mantra leads the mala and not the other way round.

According to the Tantrasāra, there are 3 ways to do japa:

Vācika Japa (voiced) - physical
Vacika japa is performed out loud - vocal chords vibrate, tongue moves, lips mouth, sound comes out of the mouth. Every syllable is articulated audibly.   This is the simplest form of japa and suitable for everybody.   It is particularly helpful for beginners and for people with disturbed minds.   Because there is a whole host of things for the mind to attend to - the whole articulation process and the actual sound of the mantra, you are not demanding that your mind focus solely and silently on a series of (possibly) foreign sounding syllables.   Therefore, you are occupying your mind with a task to perform, instead of giving it space to wander and be distracted.   The gross vibrations of the mantra also create a very pleasing atmosphere, making it more delightful to dwell and delve in(to) the practice of japa.   Practicing vācika japa in a group is a very powerful experience, and the easiest way to experience the vibrations of mantra.   Vacika japa can be performed with the eyes closed or open.

Upamshu Japa (whispered) - emotional, energetic
This is done with the lips and tongue moving but you are not making any clearly audible sounds.   Sometimes, the lips move but there is no sound, at other time the mantra is just loud enough to be heard ONLY by the practitioner.   This is more refined practice, and can be done when it is not practical to perform vacika japa but preferably when the mind is more settled and concentrated.

Manasa Japa (mental) - causal, spiritual
This is the most subtle form of japa - done in 'silence' - the lips and tongue do not move, and no sound emanates.   Manasa japa is the hardest to perform - not recommended for one with a disturbed, stupefied or distracted mind, for the risk of running wild and off track on the train of thought, falling asleep, or daydreaming is high.   Manasa japa is always performed mentally and with the eyes closed.   When practicing this form of japa, it is almost as if you are listening to the mantra repeat itself, rather than repeating the mantra.

A fourth method of japa may be considered, it is:

Likhita Japa (written)
Likhita japa is repeating a mantra in any of the above ways, but at the same time writing it down (although, traditionally, it is performed with manasic japa).   It would be best to learn the Sanskrit, but writing the English transliteration is fine too.   By tradition, the writing is done with red, blue or green ink.   The writing is always accompanied by a sense of sacredness and not hurriedness - thus, penmanship is important - we try to write as neatly and beautifully as possible (after all, you are writing down the name of the Beloved).   Remember a time when you were infatuated / newly in love and would doodle the name of your beloved over and over again?   Likhita japa is performed in a similar fashion, with love, great care and total absorption.   Also, the smaller you write, the greater concentration is required.

Vacika, Upamshu & Manasa Japa are can be done with or without a mala, these 3 methods of japa are not mutually exclusive.   You can start out with vacika japa, move onto upamshu japa when you feel more centered and calm and onto manasa japa.   Conversely, you can move from manasa japa to upamshu japa if you feel yourself getting distracted.

When you perform japa with the eyes closed, you can focus your attention at the ajna, or anahata chakra; allow the mantra to draw your attention naturally to either of these points of focus.   If you are practicing the Maha Mrityunjaya Mantra for personal healing, allow your attention to rest at the manipura chakra.   Closing the eyes results naturally in pratyahara, making it conducive to do japa, but it is not advisable while driving, operating heavy machinery and / or attending to other tasks that require vision.

Japa is best done with a mala, and 108 repetitions are best.   Although, 54, 36, 27, 18, 11, or 1 done sincerely and with full concentration are better than a million mindless repetitions.   It is a wonderful habit to allow the mind to rest in a mantra whenever it is not engaged in world duty (with or without the use of a mala).

Japa Mudra (see photo on the top of this page)
Japa mala is normally held with the right hand:

  • drape the mala over the right finger, where it will rest
  • grab each bead with the middle finger and the thumb and pull the mala over the ring finger as you count the mantra repetitions
  • the index finger does nothing, and normally does not come into contact with the mala
You can place the mala in a bag while doing japa. Traditionally, we do not allow the mala to touch the floor, for similar reasons as to why we generally do not eat off the floor. It is good to treat the mala with reverence since it is an official tool with which we use to 'contact' God. The japa mala is so important to a sadhaka that there are even mantras that praise, thank and sanctify it.

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