What is a prayer? What is the value and place of prayers in a Hindu’s life?


Though gifted with many faculties, we are still limited in many ways. The three-fold powers -to know, to desire/ create, and to act, are given to us to live, to learn and to grow in our lives. Because they are limited, we often find ourselves inadequate and in need of a help. When we need help, the proper thing is to seek help. As Pujya Swamiji says, ”Seeking help is living intelligently.”

A prayer is an act of seeking help from the Lord. We have the faith that he listens to, and answers our prayers. It is tut that the act of prayer is based on the faith that there is a God who is all-knowing and knows how to give what}, needed. That he is all-powerful and therefore has the capacity to fulfill desires. Prayer is invoking the benevolence, kindness and compassion of the Lord.

Prayer comes from the recognition that we need grace in our life. Effort alone is not sufficient to successfully accomplish our various endeavors. There are many factors, known unknown, and out of our control, which influence the outcome. The universe functions around an order and that order alone manifests as various laws. As humans we have limited knowledge of some of the laws. We do not know all the variables-hidden and unknown. Even if they are known variables, we cannot change them. This being the case there are many uncertainties in our lives. In order that the outcome of our action is what we desire, and that our endeavors are successful, it is necessary that all the other variables favor us. Prayer is invoking the grace or favor of the Lord for our undertakings to be successful. This is one aspect of prayer.

We usually pray seeking a favor from the Lord for wealth/ prosperity or other basic needs. Until we discover that they are not the ultimate ‘ goals in life, we will value them, and associate success with their attainment.

Prayer also can be performed for spiritual resources, because negative tendencies such as anger, jealousy, temptations frustration etc., become obstacles to spiritual progress. When we cannot overcome these obstacles, we become helpless in the face of our own tendencies and we need help.

This is nicely symbolized in the Ramayana.

Lord Rama, Sita and Laksmana were living in the Dandaka forest. As the story goes, when Site was attracted to a golden deer, Rama went after it, leaving Sita under Laksmana’s protection. It turned out that the deer was a demon and so Rama killed it. While dying, the deer called out to Laksmana for help, in Rama’s voice. Sita commanded Laksmana to go to help Rama, and was kidnapped by the ten-headed demon Ravana when left alone. She was separated from Rama, the Self, and Laksmana, the sense of discrimination, by Ravana, the ten objects of our senses-five objects of perception and five objects of action. Sita, the mind was tempted by the fascination of sensory pleasures in the form of golden deer, and was kidnapped by Ravana, who symbolizes attachment and aversion. She was taken to Lanka, and kept. captive-surrounded by female demons symbolizing negative tendencies of the mind. She sought Lord’s help by chanting Lord Rama’s name, and was rescued by the Lord she prayed to.

We can, also pray to the Lord to help save us from our negative tendencies so we can gain freedom, which is our true nature. Hence, prayer can also be performed for spiritual progress and freedom from bondage.

Lord Krishna describes four kinds of devotees in the Gita, “Some remember and approach me when they are in distress, some approach me whenever they are in material need, others approach me seeking knowledge and then there are those who have gained the knowledge and discovered oneness with me” (Gita 7.16)

चतुर्विधा भजन्ते मां जना: सुकृतिनोऽर्जुन |
आर्तो जिज्ञासुरर्थार्थी ज्ञानी च भरतर्षभ

chatur-vidhā bhajante mā janā sukitino rjuna
ārto jijñāsur arthārthī jñānī cha bharatarhabha

Prayers are in four progressive stages. To begin with, a person prays when he is in difficulty. He then slowly realizes that there is a Lord who does help, so he prays when in need of material things. He may then further grow to recognize that the need for knowledge is more real, and prays for knowledge that culminates in the realization of oneness with the Lord.

Lord Krishna says in the Gita, “In whichever way the devotees approach me, in that way I bless them” (4:11).

That we invoke from blessing we receive depends on what we invoke from the Lord. Fulfillment of desire is what we seek through prayer. This is the usual understanding of prayer. There is faitth and trust that the Lord is all-knowing, all-powerful and benevolent. There is a recognition of limitation, helplessness, and. need on the part of the devotee. This recognition, and faith in the Lord establish a beautiful relationship between Lord and devotee. This is how prayer enables one to invoke the devotee from oneself and the grace of the Lord. It is also how prayer becomes a deliberate action. As every action has an appropriate reaction, each prayer yields its own result.

Prayer is karma, an action. It is three-fold: kayika कायिक, vacika वाचिक, and manasa मनसा, and is based upon the means that we employ Kayikam karma is a ritualistic: act in which the limbs are employed, vacikam karma is oral prayer such as recitation, chanting, and singing. Speech, vak, is also used in kayikam karma, and the mind is used in both kayikam and vacikam karma. Then we have third type of karma, which is purely metal, mansam karma.

Invoke the Lord ‘s grace through prayer

One needs to invoke the grace that makes a difference between success and failure: That grace needs to be there all the way. One breathes in, hoping that one will breathe out, and one breathes out hoping that one will breathe in. There is a time when one breathes one for last time! That possibility is always there Therefore, when somebody asks me where grace is, I answer that the grace is between two heartbeats, between ‘lub’ and ‘dub’. This is how it goes: lub, grace, dub, grace, lub, grace, dub, grace and so on.

One needs to recognize intimately, the limitation of oneself in terms of one’s knowledge, skill, resources, strength and capacities. Whichever way one looks at oneself, the limitation is strikingly obvious. One can say, “I am limited,” and droop or one can still walk erect, with a prayerful attitude, doing as much as one can.

Excerpts from:-

Hindu Dhrama: Basics & Beyond, Swami Viditatmananda Saraswati
Prayer Guide, Swami Dayananda Saraswati

Picture Courtsey: Chinmaya Mission, In Indian Culture Why Do We?



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