Pronouncing the Hare Kṛṣṇa mahā-mantra

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?

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8 replies »

  1. Haribol! Thank you for the interesting read and the clear examples!

    I would have one comment regarding the pronunciation of “rāma”.

    It seems to me that singing “rāmā” and “kṛṣnā” instead of “rāma” and “kṛṣṇa” would be also correct because the last vowel can be stretched (Pāṇinī’s “pluta” or Jīva Gosvāmī’s “mahāpuruṣa”) while singing, crying, calling someone from a distance, etc. The sūtra in harināmāmṛta-vyākaraṇam would be “dūrāhvānādav antyasarveśvarasya mahāpuruṣatvaṁ matam”.

    One objection can be raised: unlike “ī” etc. which is just a longer version of “i”, the sound “ā” is pronounced differently than its shorter version “a”.

    To this, we reply that Jīva Gosvāmī has also described that when a short vowel (vāmana), such as a, i, u, becomes a mahāpuruṣa, it is written and also pronounced like the respective long vowel (trivikrama) corresponding to that short vowel, such as ā, ī, ū. It is also written like the trivikrama. He writes in the vṛtti to the sūtra “trimātro mahāpuruṣaḥ”: “atra mahāpuruṣe vāmanam api trivikramam uccārayanti likhanti ca tajjñāḥ”.

    Therefore, the “a” of “kṛṣṇa” or “rāma” can be sung longer and would be pronounced then as “ā”, and thus we get “hare kṛṣṇā”.

    Hare Kṛṣṇa! 🙂

    • Thanks for the note. If the sound of rāma or kṛṣṇa is ‘stretched’ – pluta- because of the meter or the style of the song, then sure, it can be pronounced like rāmā or kṛṣnā. If it is not stretched, however, as happens in most medium-paced singing of the mantra, I dont see how this would apply. It is not a rule that in singing, it must be pluta. The sutra is dūrāhvānādav antyasarveśvarasya mahāpuruṣatvaṁ matam, not gāyane antyasarveśvarasya mahāpuruṣatvaṁ matam.
      The examples of youtube songs shown here are not pluta pronounciations- they are sung as standard trivikramas, which is incorrect.

      A pluta pronounciation where vāmana is pronounced like vāmana would be also not be necessarily incorrect in singing. It would be wrong when calling from far, because then you are really not using your lungs to call out, and the purpose of calling from afar would be defeated!

    • Yes, surely the ‘a’ of “kṛṣṇa” and “rāma” can be streched to a mahāpuruṣa… But there are certain conditions for anyone to do so..

      There are mentioned in sūtra 74 onwards in Hari nāmāmṛta vyākaraṇa… One such very important condition is mentioned by śrī jīva in vṛtti to sūtra 74.

      “dūrāhvānādau yatna viśeṣe vākyasyānte sambodhana padasya saṁsāro mahāpuruṣaḥ”

      I will skip the description of the part that is not required for now…

      In vṛtti of sūtra 75 he mentions the opinion of Sārasvata vyākaraṇa and Kāśikā on ‘ādi’ in “dūrāhvānādau”(calling from afar and so on) as

      “gāne rodane vicāre ca”(singing, crying, deliberation)

      “sambodhana mātre ca” (adressing) respectively.

      And most important of these is the “vākyasyānte” (at the end of a vākya). Although there are some exceptions to this as mentioned in sūtra 76 etc but this rule is mostly followed as indicated by śrī jīva himself in vṛtti to sūtra 82… where he writes “vākyādhikārāt” (The word vākya has been caried forward in these sūtras)

      He defines vākya as “kriyānvayāvacchinnaḥ pada samūho” (vṛtti 74)

      “A vākya is a group of words characterised by their connection to a verb”

      In the pāṇini’s equivalent sūtras of this part also the word vākya comes… And it is an adhikāra sūtra… Aṣṭādhyāyī 8.2.82 (vākyasya ṭeḥ pluta udāttaḥ) and it is carried forward into all the subsequent sūtras of becoming pluta etc

      So considering all these… “Hare Kṛṣṇa” or the mahāmantra is not a vākya because it doesn’t have a verb as such… so the saṁsāra of ‘Hare’ or ‘Kṛṣṇa’ or ‘Rāma’ doesn’t become a mahāpuruṣa.

      Hare Kṛṣṇa 🙂🙏🏻

  2. Hare Kṛṣṇa, wonderful insight initiated by Shri Kṛṣṇa dasa, with further insights by Shri Vilasa dasa and Shri Suprit.
    Yes, our education system should include differentiation of sounds
    a) श् and ष् ( both are distinct.. श् tongue points to the beginning of roof bordering teeth, in ष् the tongue points to roof, more away from teeth towards
    b) ऋ् and र ( the ऋ् is a vowel itself, र being a consonant). The tendency in the North is to add another vowel – i to ऋ्, tendency in South to add- u.

  3. Hello. Thank you for your article. But I couldn’t find an answer to my question. I would like to ask one-on-one. I don’t understand how to pronounce hare. Some pronounce it hare, some pronounce it hari, and some pronounce it harey. What is the truth? When I recite a mantra as a hari, my energy becomes heavy, and when I recite it as a hare, it brings relaxation and calmness. I don’t know why I react this way.

    • It is not Hari. Hare is the vocative form of Hari. It’s an address to Hari.
      The correct way to pronounce it is in the video of the kids chanting which is posted in the article.

      • I sincerely thank you for your reply. May Lord Krishna’s love, compassion, blessings be with you.🙏🏻🙏🏻⚘⚘⚘

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