QUESTION: Why is nama-japa so highly stressed for bhaktas – even for the most beginning yogis?
ISKCON (and most of its branches, I suppose) places this stress on doing a copious amount of nāma-japa even from the beginning, but so far as I have seen, that is not traditional. Even in ISKCON, though, the greater stress is on nāma-kīrtan (which is in line with the traditional Gauḍīya-Vaiṣṇava approach).
The real ideal is to do nāma-kīrtan and learn the bhakti-jñāna by studying Gītā initially, and Śrīmad Bhāgavatam after that. Without the jñāna from these sources, we only have sentiment to fuel our interest in Krishna bhakti. So, comprehending the essential points presented in Gītā (and more elaborately in Bhāgavatam) is absolutely essential for the beginner. Kīrtan and japa are less important and fruitful then. Once Gītā and Bhāgavatam are well understood and internalized, kīrtan and japa become more fruitful and can be given more focus.
Beginners should also be engaged in a significant amount of seva, as a facsimile of karma-yoga, to give some vent and outlet to our necessity for action.
QUESTION: Can I safely conclude that the holy name is so potent in this age that it is still worth chanting and meditating on without steadiness of mind?
Yes, but that doesn’t mean that bad nāma-japa is advisable or can be allowed to persist.
I have known dozens and dozens and dozens of people, including myself, who chanted copious amounts of nāma-japa for years without any significant progress. Nāma-japa should be done attentively and carefully. Period.
As for the amount, that should be increased naturally as the taste for it increases.
To even chant one māla of attentive, careful nāma-japa is immensely powerful (and significantly advanced – relative to our modern minds). Even to do ten mantras of very attentive, careful nāma-japa is extremely powerful, more powerful than 64 rounds of inattentive japa.
Some people have a different opinion here, but personally I haven’t seen it work. The only one I’ve really seen it work well with was the 24-hour kīrtaniyā, Aindra das of ISKCON Vṛndāvana – but who can match his intensity of dedication and passion for Krishna? Very few if anyone at all. He was a very rare, unique bhakta – though he tried to present himself as a rank-and-file person.
In my opinion, what I am suggesting is the safer path for the majority. And even in Aindra’s case, you’ll find he didn’t “just chant.” He dedicated immense amounts of effort to seva and study.
In any case, we should note here that the 8th Anga of Śrī Rūpa Goswami’s advice for bhakti-sādhana is “yavad arthānuvartita” – to approach life (including sādhana) in a moderate, realistic, appropriate manner.
QUESTION: Especially for those who aren’t completely dedicated to the meditation (who still have a lot of karma-yoga/worldly duties to perform), trying to meditate/practice japa can sometimes feel like a constant battle. Do we just continue to ‘bring our mind back to the mantra’? What other things can be applied to make it more effective in this situation?
Disciplining the mind will never be a stroll amongst the roses. It will always be difficult. It’s always going to be a battle, but that doesn’t mean we should throw ourselves into battles we can win.
For example, first become steady in being able to chant 10 mantras without distraction and with full attention to each syllable. That’s a battle most people can win in some time with some effort, enthusiasm and dedication. Then advance to something more, like 24. If and when you can do that consistently, then try for a māla. Once you can steadily do a complete māla, say for example everyday for a week or a month at a stretch, you are really quite advanced already, and very likely ready to move onto more extensive meditation-based bhakti-sādhana, without the need for significant activity and material considerations. Then you could start to consider the advanced advice about nāma-japa, and doing it for significant amounts of time every day.