Chanting the Hare Kṛṣṇa mahā-mantra is the main sādhānā in the Caitanya tradition. Incredibly, the vast majority of chanters get the mantra hopelessly wrong.
Here is one example of the popular version, sung by Shankar Mahadevan. Shankar Mahadevan is a famous, classically trained Indian musician!
Now, Indians, in general, know how to pronounce this mahā-mantra largely correctly. The mahā-mantra is a traditional mantra straight from the scriptures that has been chanted for many hundreds of years throughout India. But it has become identified with the so called Hare Rāmā Hare Kṛṣṇa chant, which was popularized in a Bollywood movie by the Indian actor, Dev Anand in 1971. More information can be found at wikipedia.
The movie was popular, and the song in it, “dum maro dum”, which shows hippies doing drugs and crying out Hare Rāmā Hare Kṛṣṇa, became even more popular (the song is available on youtube). The cry itself came to be identified with those who chant the mahā-mantra and so it is, that 50 years later, Shankar Mahadevan and many others sing it the incorrect way. This is my interpretation of the history, and I know of additional factors that contributed, but a complete analysis is not the purpose of this article.
Correct pronunciation of the word Rāma
The word Rāma is frequently incorrectly pronounced in two ways which I list below.
1. Rāma (राम) is not the same as Rāmā (रामा)
The letter ‘a’ at the end of Rāma is not the same as the letter ā. In Sanskrit, the words Rāma and Rāmā are totally different. There is no such declined word as Rāmā to my knowledge. There is a word Ramā, which is the name of Viṣṇu’s consort, and Rāmā, meaning ‘beautiful one’ which is a name of Gauri, but none of these words would take the form ‘Rāmā’ in vocative case.
2. Rāma (राम) is not the same as Rām (राम्)
See this to hear the correct pronunciation of the word Rāma-
Correct pronunciation of the word Kṛṣṇa
The word Kṛṣṇa is more difficult to pronounce for many. This is because of the letters ṛ,ṣ and ṇ, which many people just can’t get right even if they tried.
1. Kṛṣṇa (कृष्ण) is not the same as Krīśnā (क्रीश्ना).
Shankar Mahadevan does it wrong above, and so does Jagjit Singh, a famous Indian ghazal singer. Hear it here
Note how he pronounces Rāma incorrectly also as Rāmā. It is sad, because he knows how to pronounce it correctly but does not do so, I believe, due to the strange notion that this mantra is somehow meant be pronounced like this.
Both Mahadevan and Singh above incorrectly replace ṣ (ष्) with ś (श्) and ṛ (ऋ्) with rī (री).
Hear the correct pronunciation here by one of the great scholars and devotees of our times, Sri Chinna Jeeyar Swamiji from the Śrī Vaiṣṇava tradition –
There is a difference between the ṣ (ष्) and ś (श्) sounds
This is worth paying attention to, if we want to get it right. A reasonable description is here:
There is also a difference between ‘n’ (न्) and ‘ṇ’ (ण्)
Finally, another common mistake which is more difficult to correct is:
ṛ (ऋ्)is pronounced as ‘ri’ (रि), but it isn’t exactly that. It is more of a ‘ru’ (रु) sound than a ‘ri’ (रि) sound.
Now, it is frequently argued that Kṛṣṇa doesn’t care about pronunciation because He accepts the bhāva of the chanter. If one tries and just can’t get it right because one can’t distinguish between the sounds, then this argument is certainly valid. But if one has the capacity to say it right, then why not?