Hearing of the holy name of the Lord (śravaṇam) is the beginning of devotional service. Although any one of the nine processes is sufficient, in chronological order the hearing of the holy name of the Lord is the beginning. Indeed, it is essential. As enunciated by Lord Śrī Caitanya Mahāprabhu, Ceto-darpaṇa-mārjanam: [Cc. Antya 20.12] by chanting the holy name of the Lord, one is cleansed of the material conception of life, which is due to the dirty modes of material nature. When the dirt is cleansed from the core of one’s heart, one can realize the form of the Supreme Personality of Godhead—īśvaraḥ paramaḥ kṛṣṇaḥ sac-cid-ānanda-vigrahaḥ [Bs. 5.1]. Thus by hearing the holy name of the Lord, one comes to the platform of understanding the personal form of the Lord. After realizing the Lord’s form, one can realize the transcendental qualities of the Lord, and when one can understand His transcendental qualities one can understand the Lord’s associates. In this way a devotee advances further and further toward complete understanding of the Lord as he awakens in realization of the Lord’s holy name, transcendental form and qualities, His paraphernalia, and everything pertaining to Him. Therefore the chronological process is śravaṇaṁ kīrtanaṁ viṣṇoḥ [SB 7.5.23]. This same process of chronological understanding holds true in chanting and remembering. When the chanting of the holy name, form, qualities and paraphernalia is heard from the mouth of a pure devotee, his hearing and chanting are very pleasing. Śrīla Sanātana Gosvāmī has forbidden us to hear the chanting of an artificial devotee or nondevotee.
Hearing from the text of Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam is considered the most important process of hearing. Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam is full of transcendental chanting of the holy name, and therefore the chanting and hearing of Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam are transcendentally full of mellows. The transcendental holy name of the Lord may be heard and chanted accordingly to the attraction of the devotee. One may chant the holy name of Lord Kṛṣṇa, or one may chant the holy name of Lord Rāma or Nṛsiṁhadeva (rāmādi-mūrtiṣu kalā-niyamena tiṣṭhan [Bs. 5.39]). The Lord has innumerable forms and names, and devotees may meditate upon a particular form and chant the holy name according to his attraction. The best course is to hear of the holy name, form and so on from a pure devotee of the same standard as oneself. In other words, one who is attached to Kṛṣṇa should chant and hear from other pure devotees who are also attached to Lord Kṛṣṇa. The same principle applies for devotees attracted by Lord Rāma, Lord Nṛsiṁha and other forms of the Lord. Because Kṛṣṇa is the ultimate form of the Lord (kṛṣṇas tu bhagavān svayam [SB 1.3.28]), it is best to hear about Lord Kṛṣṇa’s name, form and pastimes from a realized devotee who is particularly attracted by the form of Lord Kṛṣṇa. In Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam, great devotees like Śukadeva Gosvāmī have specifically described Lord Kṛṣṇa’s holy name, form and qualities. Unless one hears about the holy name, form and qualities of the Lord, one cannot clearly understand the other processes of devotional service. Therefore Śrī Caitanya Mahāprabhu recommends that one chant the holy name of Kṛṣṇa. paraṁ vijayate śrī-kṛṣṇa-saṅkīrtanam. If one is fortunate enough to hear from the mouth of realized devotees, he is very easily successful on the path of devotional service. Therefore hearing of the holy name, form and qualities of the Lord is essential.
In Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam (1.5.11) there is this verse:
yasmin prati-ślokam abaddhavaty api
nāmāny anantasya yaśo-‘ṅkitāni yat
śṛṇvanti gāyanti gṛṇanti sādhavaḥ
“Verses describing the name, form and qualities of Anantadeva, the unlimited Supreme Lord, are able to vanquish all the sinful reactions of the entire world. Therefore even if such verses are improperly composed, devotees hear them, describe them and accept them as bona fide and authorized.”
In this connection, Śrīdhara Svāmī has remarked that a pure devotee takes advantage of another pure devotee by trying to hear from him about the holy name, form and qualities of the Lord. If there is no such opportunity, he alone chants and hears the Lord’s holy name.