Q: How does one perform japa? Which method is the best?
A: Mainly there are three types of japa: (1) Vachik japa - One that can be performed by speaking or reading the holy name (2) Upanshu japa - One that can be performed by uttering the holy name in such a way that no one but oneself is able to hear the words and (3) Manasik japa - One that can be done internally without any external expressions.
Each method described above is best and gives results. Initially, when it is difficult to focus the mind an aspirant should take help of Vachik japa. After a period of time when external thoughts subside, an aspirant should take recourse of Upanshu japa. After regular practice of Upanshu japa an aspirant would find Manasik japa more beneficial. Thus, all the three types are useful.
Q: If one performs japa mechanically, does it help?
A: Try to perform japa with love and affection. Initially it may happen that japa is performed mechanically, this will not cause any harm. Once you continue doing japa on a regular basis, your mind will begin to concentrate. Divine love and affection will follow automatically.
Q: Can one meditate while performing japa? Is this beneficial?
A: japa can be performed in two ways: 1) only reciting the holy name or 2) recitation and contemplation upon some divine form or figure.
The advantage of the second method is that one part of the mind remains engrossed in visualizing the divine form while another part is performing japa thereby preventing the mind from wavering and thus allowing it to be focused with lesser efforts.
Q: Which objects should one contemplate upon while doing japa?
A: There is no fixed rule for that. One should select the object depending upon one’s interest and choice. If it is difficult for one to decide which object to contemplate upon, then one should take guidance from any realized saints or an experienced person.
One can contemplate upon any God or Goddess, any realized saint or sage or any external objects such as light or a lotus flower. In the case where one does not wish to focus upon external objects, one can concentrate upon one’s own heart center or in the middle of the two eyebrows.
In the end, it’s important that one should not often change the subject of contemplation . Once selected, one should adhere to it otherwise it will take longer to benefit from japa.
Q: Is it mandatory to take mantra only from a Guru?
A: No, It’s not mandatory. Those who have a Guru can take a mantra from him. If one doesn't have a Guru, he/she shouldn’t sit idle. One has to start reciting any mantra of one's choice.
It is not advisable to waste the invaluable time of human life in waiting for a Guru to provide a mantra. Whatever mantra one deems fit, he/she should immediately start reciting it with utmost love and faith. For those who haven’t encountered a Guru in physical form can always follow his/her own soul - an internal Guru. One should march forward without waiting for an external Guru.
Q: If one recites a mantra which has not been given by a Guru, does it help in any way?
A: There is no reason to doubt the benefit of a mantra. Believe that your mantra is given by the Guru of all Gurus – the Almighty Lord, and recite it with much love and affection. Remember that one day you will achieve the grace of God.
Q: Are there any means by which one can easily focus one’s mind?
A: If you are asking about the methods or techniques for focusing the mind, I would suggest the following:
The first method is to recite the holy name in tune with your breathing. Slowly inhale while reciting the mantra once and exhale while reciting it again. If your mantra is short then you can recite it many times during this process and if your mantra is long, you can divide it between your inhalation and exhalation.
The second method is to meditate upon any form of God. When you recite the holy name of that God while concentrating upon his form, half of your mind will be engaged in recitation while the other half will be engaged in visualizing the form. Thereby, your mind will be easily focused.
You can also make a habit of constant recitation thereby causing your mind to be constantly engaged in reciting the mantra. Thus, your mind will concentrate easily.
Q: It has been said in our scriptures to perform a fixed number of japas in order to accomplish certain goals. Do you think such ‘anusthans’ can be helpful in spiritual advancement?
A: Anusthans can or can not be helpful. Most of the anusthans are performed for the achievement of worldly or material things. Some perform it for wealth, status, position, cure of diseases, long life, favorable solution of court cases, to have a baby boy, to marry with a loved one or to defeat enemies etc. Some even perform them for their political motives or to gain some extraordinary powers.
Rarely does one perform anusthan with the sole aim of spiritual advancement. So how can such anusthans be helpful? If one has spiritual advancement in mind then such anusthans definitely helps. There is no doubt about it. In fact the sole motive behind such anusthans should be to achieve control over one’s senses, to solidify the love for the Almighty and ultimately to realize the eternal power of the God.
Q: On average how many japa does one need to perform to focus one's mind and to experience peace and tranquility?
A: There is no such universal number. It all depends upon an individual and his qualifications. If a person is taking recourse of japa in order to establish divine love for the Supreme Self then his/her minds will become focused comparatively easily. On the other hand if one’s japa are not aimed at establishing love for the Divine it will take longer for the mind to focus.
I would advise that instead of having interest in the number of japa one should direct all the efforts towards the purity of mind and try to do as much japa as possible. One should think that until the mind becomes focused or feels peace, the number of japa performed are not adequate and therefore one should continue this practice. With the correct state of mind, even one japa will suffice while in absence of it even millions of japa would be fruitless. It all depends upon one’s sadhana. So in answer to your question it would be unfair to tell you any definite number.
Q: How does one measure one's progress while performing japa?
A: The simplest measure is the ability of the mind to concentrate. One becomes so engrossed in japa that one forgets the external environment, his/her whereabouts, time and place etc. When such a state is achieved without much effort, it can be said that one has made considerable progress.
Another measure is the love for the Divine. The heart becomes pure and is filled with boundless love for the figure upon which he is contemplating. A divine joy is experienced. Sometimes japa ceases automatically and mind remains engrossed in deep emotions. Such a state is different from sleep, dreaminess or laziness. This is also an important sign of progress.