Take the Leap: Meditation Immersion
Transform your life and transfigure your mind with the practice of purashcharana, a time-honored approach to intensifying your meditation.
By Rolf Sovik
Like a shaft of light that dispels the shadows of a darkened room, the practice of mantra meditation illumines the space of the mind. Mantras embody higher states of consciousness. In meditation, mantras pervade awareness with their presence, influencing the mind altogether differently than the senses, memory, or imagination. Each repetition of a mantra infuses the mind with the mantra’s protective and illuminating power. With practice, the forces of mind and mantra unite. The Shiva Sutras, a tantric text of Kashmir Shaivism, says, “chittam mantrah” (through deep identification with the Self enshrined in a mantra, the mind becomes the protecting presence of the mantra). In this sense, the mind is not merely transformed in meditation—it is transfigured.
Achieving such subtle levels of awareness is a gradual process and the long-range goal of a wide array of yoga practices. One of the most powerful methods for seamlessly integrating mantra and consciousness is to undertake a purashcharana. In this systematic practice, you repeat a mantra a specific number of times each day for a set period; a single purashcharana can last months or even years. By deepening your meditation practice in this way, a purashcharana magnifies the energy of your mantra, removes the impediments obstructing spiritual progress, and profoundly purifies the mind.
Prerequisites to Practice
In order to begin a purashcharana, you should be well established in the fundamentals of mantra meditation. As a beginning student, you likely learned how to sit, breathe, and rest awareness on a single focus. You may have worked with a universal mantra such as so’ham, the restful sound of the breath, and later received a personal mantra from a qualified teacher through initiation. Or you may have selected one of the great Vedic mantras (for example, the Gayatri or the Maha Mrityunjaya mantras) for daily practice.
The process of holding a mantra in your awareness and repeating it with one-pointed focus is called japa. In regular japa practice, as well as the amplified practice of purashcharana, you can keep track of the number of mantra repetitions you have completed by using a mala. Even though a mala has 108 beads, one round is counted as 100 repetitions, making it easy to keep track of your practice.
Experience with a mantra in meditation helps it flow more smoothly. A well-practiced mantra will surface effortlessly in your mind, like an enchanting melody. It recites itself. The pace of a well-rehearsed mantra becomes more rapid—fast enough that you may no longer articulate the mantra’s syllables clearly, yet your attention rests in the pulsing of the mantra and the feeling inherent in its sound. This combination of effortless recitation and rapid pulsing is called ajapa japa.
Usually, it is best to have practiced your mantra and acquired some facility with ajapa japa before attempting a long purashcharana. But sometimes, a purashcharana is precisely the way to gain a closer relationship with your mantra. Your enthusiasm, your teacher’s counsel, or perhaps your need for a more disciplined practice can draw you to undertake a purashcharana, and similarly, your enthusiasm and determination will sustain you until you complete it.
Undertaking a Purashcharana
Purash means “next” or “forward” and charana means “step” or “course.” A purashcharana is “the next step forward” in practice—a means of taking your meditation to a new level.
The basic technique in a purashcharana is to complete a specified number of mantra repetitions each day for a predetermined period of time. Traditionally, a full purashcharana for any mantra is 100,000 repetitions multiplied by the number of syllables in the mantra. Many personal mantras have five or six syllables, yielding 500,000 or 600,000 total repetitions. The Gayatri mantra has 24 syllables, so a complete purashcharana would entail 2.4 million repetitions, allocated over as many years as you might need to complete the practice at a reasonable pace.
But even a much shorter practice can be deeply satisfying. In many world traditions, 40 days is a standard period for taking on a practice. If you have never done a purashcharana before, a 40-day practice is a manageable and satisfying step forward. If you’re feeling more ambitious, you might take on a purashcharana of 125,000 repetitions by committing to 10 rounds a day for 125 days.
With any of these practices, the number of repetitions completed each day is determined by your mental and physical capacity. The amount of time required to complete a round of your mala depends on the length of your mantra and the speed at which you recite it. If your mantra is relatively short and you have had enough experience with it that it flows quickly, then one round may take only a couple of minutes to complete. But longer mantras, such as the Maha Mrityunjaya mantra, will take more time, especially at first.
Technical details about the length of a purashcharana can sound mechanical, but the essence of the practice is both more subtle and more profound. Far from being a race to the finish, a purashcharana opens a dialogue with life. The discipline of completing each day’s practice requires constancy and planning. This creates tapas, or spiritual heat—the means for purification and transformation.
Your resolve is not just about completing a set number of mantra repetitions but about using your practice as a means for bringing your spiritual goals to life. Over the course of practice you’ll become more aware of your interests, your moods, how you spend your time, and your defenses and resistances. This will help you align with your higher aspirations. A purashcharana can be used as a means of atonement, a strategy for making amends, or for changing what you find upsetting in life. And because a purashcharana is woven into your daily schedule (“When will I eat?” “When will I meditate?”) you will find yourself making different lifestyle choices—forming helpful new habits and dismissing unproductive ones.
From Start to Finish
Each purashcharana begins with a sankalpa, or a mental resolve, to complete the practice unselfishly and without expectation. A sankalpa is an intuitive commitment which arises from a deeper part of yourself than your analytical mind. It allows you to trust that your undertaking is the right thing to do and that it is filled with the energy necessary to complete it.
When should you begin the practice? Tradition suggests that certain junctures in time—notably spring and fall, full moons, Thursdays, and early mornings—favorably support your inner resolve when embarking on a purashcharana. The most critical element, however, is the guidance of your teacher or your personal determination that a purashcharana practice is right for you. Then, either your teacher or your internal calendar will guide you to an auspicious moment, and you can set your sankalpa and begin.
When you’ve completed your total intended repetitions, you can perform a homa—the key traditional practice for concluding a purashcharana. This involves offering an additional 10 percent of your entire practice into a ritual fire (havan) or into the internal fire residing at your navel center. For example, a purashcharana of 10,000 repetitions would conclude with offering 1,000 additional repetitions into the fire. Homa offerings are an expression of love and gratitude, a recognition that the presence of your mantra surrounds you in the natural world as well as pulsing within you, and a final demonstration of selflessness that brings your practice to a meaningful close.
Patanjali, the great codifier of yoga, identifies nine impediments (antarayas) that weaken concentration and distract us from our spiritual purpose. As you examine the list, you may recognize stumbling blocks that are particularly troublesome in your practice. According to the Yoga Sutra (1.28–9), all these obstacles can eventually be eliminated through mantra repetition: “Through the practice of japa and absorption in the presence of God, inward consciousness is refined and realized, and the impediments to self-realization are removed.” This is the essence of self-purification.
During the course of your purashcharana one or more of these impediments may surface to strongly challenge and undermine your resolve. You may become frustrated or disillusioned. But if you stay the course, the power of your mantra will gradually diminish the imbalance. The antarayas are symptoms of an unsteady mind, and japa—especially in the intensified form of a purashcharana—serves as the deep-acting remedy. For instance, in order to dissolve doubt—one of the most destructive impediments—you need to strengthen the mind and supply it with direct experience. This is precisely what a purashcharana does. As mind and mantra merge, the appeal to a source of higher wisdom resolves the lower mind’s tendency to vacillate.
Earlier we noted that the term purashcharana could be defined as a step forward in one’s practice. The term also has a second, more devotional, meaning. In the traditional view of a purashcharana, it is the mantra itself that is brought forward. Just as you honor a distinguished person by seating him at the front of a gathering, you position a mantra in the forefront of your life by doing a purashcharana. The mantra then serves as a guru, an inner guide—it leads, nourishes, and protects.
Understanding a purashcharana as a devotional act helps us encounter a different dimension of ourselves—our faith. In every spiritual tradition faith is venerated as a vital component of inner life. In a penetrating verse of the Bhagavad Gita (17.3), Krishna tells Arjuna that “Persons are made of faith, and whatever is one’s faith, that indeed one is.” Both Patanjali and the Buddha placed faith at the top of a list of preconditions for enlightenment, followed by vitality, mindfulness, one-pointed concentration, and wisdom. St. Paul famously wrote of “faith, hope, and love.”
“Faith,” Krishna says in the Gita, “is in accordance with the purity (sattva) of one’s nature.” Since purification lies at the heart of a purashcharana practice, it is naturally faith-building. However, acquiring a deep level of faith takes time. We are all in training. In order to expand our faith, we need to cultivate an emotional engagement with our practice.
Here are some helpful suggestions: Meditate with a cheerful heart—with optimism that your practice will benefit you and others; this will naturally strengthen your inner resolve. Trustfully surrender to the practice you have embraced, and let life unfold naturally from that space. Cultivate a devotional relationship with your mantra—a sense that you trust the mantra and offer your shortcomings to its presence.
According to the Shiva Sutras, only “a zealous, careful, and diligent approach brings about union with the mantra.” As you meditate, grasp the mantra firmly but not rigidly in your awareness, and let the living sound of the mantra fill the space of your mind. At the same time, soften your mental grip on the mantra and recite it as if it is your own thought and not simply a random sound that you have momentarily discovered. The Tantrasadbhava Tantra describes mindless repetitions of mantras as being “as useless as autumn clouds [that bring no rain].” When you approach japa with presence and devotion, you bind your awareness with the mantra’s essence. This integration bolsters your faith.
A purashcharana will expand the dimensions of your meditation, but not because there is a record to be set or a medal to be earned. Meditation is an inward journey and a purashcharana enlarges the boundaries of that exploration. A purashcharana strengthens your spiritual resolve and immerses your mind in a search for the Divine, bringing you closer to the pure being you are.
Read more about deepening your meditation practice, including instructions for using a mala and how to work with the Gayatri and Maha Mrityunjaya mantras.
Rolf Sovik, PsyD, is the author of Moving Inward: The Journey to Meditation. He is the president of the Himalayan Institute, and serves as the director of the Institute’s branch center in Buffalo, New York.
Photo by Robert Hackett / Alamy