Most of us have wrong conceptions about prayer. The Judeo-Christian faith has taught us that God would be angry if we do not pray; if we do not attend church and so on. But in the Indian way of things, God doesn’t get angry if we do not pray. In fact, atheism is also accepted as a part of the Indian thought process. In the east, prayer is a tool to uplift oneself. It isn’t the ‘be-all’ and ‘end-all’ of life. We are not here to please God and to seek a berth in heaven on judgement day. No. In the Indian tradition, the purpose of life is to be free. Free from what? Free from the unending chatter of the mind that binds us to this world. Moksha is a Sanskrit word that means liberation. This is the one of the principal goals of the Indian life (the others being Dharma – doing what one must do OR morality, Artha – material wealth and Kama – desire which is both sexual and non-sexual). Moksha is the final goal – to liberate oneself from the limitations of one’s own mind.
So what role does prayer play in this path? Prayer is synonymous with surrender. Prayer to seek material well being or other desires is considered as a sub-optimal prayer. The highest form of Prayer is Bhakti. Bhakti is often wrongly understood as devotion to god (which is also true to a limited extent). The word Bhakti comes from the root Bhaj which means to share. And this is where the secret lies. Prayer (Bhakti) is to share. Share what? Share all the innermost troubles, secrets, longings, lusts, anger, jealousy – pretty much all that we might not want to share with most people around us. Prayer is an intimate sharing with something that we cannot see, feel, hear or touch – but we sense it within our hearts. Prayer is form of connection to something that we don’t know exists. To the rationalist this sounds absurd. How can one connect to something you cannot see, hear or touch? But let’s look at our own lives. Don’t we feel connected to a particular character in a movie? As teenagers (and even as adults) don’t we fall head over heels with a handsome actor or actress – knowing it is only a movie? But the emotion that we experience is real. It is perceptible and strong. When this strong emotion is projected on something much larger than ourselves – God, Guru, Nature, Universe – that is prayer.
In prayer one shares everything with one’s chosen object of prayer. The object is secondary. The act is critical. Narada in the Bhakti Sutra says “Always and in all emotions, constantly share with the divine without any worry”. What this does is that it unburdens our minds from our psychological burdens – worries about our job or the future, stress due to a bad relationship, failing health, financial issues and so on. Whatever emotions wells up in us – we offer it to the greater and say “You manage this. Help me”. This earnest offering liberates the anxiety in the mind and helps us stay free. Prayer liberates us.
Some of us have never prayed. Many of us feel it is below our dignity to pray and others just scoff at the idea. But before we form conclusions, we must have an open mind to try it. As with anything, it takes time to develop and we get better over time. Remember prayer is not a form of escapism. No! You do what needs to be done. We need to try our best to change the situation. And when it is beyond our capabilities, we surrender and say “Now this is beyond me. Help me out please”.
In Europe and the west, religion diverged from practical life – especially since the industrial revolution. Today being religious is seen as being backward. Politically it is associated with being right wing. Such identifications deeply divide us and drives many of us further away from the essence of all religion, which is the upliftment of man. Yes, there have been multiple atrocities committed in the name of religion. But this is true even in science – look at how humans have destroyed the earth through the tools of the industrial revolution. Many chemicals continue to be used, despite knowing them to be hazardous to the environment and humans at large. Just as science and technology are tools to embetter humans, so too is religion. The essence of religion is to fix your mind to something greater than yourself. In fact the root of the word religion comes from the Latin word – Ligare which means to bind. Bind – not in a negative sense of bondage, but in the sense of fixing the mind to something.
In today’s modern materialistic world, this is crucial. The world and its forms are always changing – fads change, trends fade as fast as they came. But we humans are yearning for some constancy in life. Prayer directs this yearning to a deep imagination in the mind – a symbol (cross, Om) – a person (guru) – a form (an idol). When we surrender to this mental image, the ego dissolves and we become free. No longer is the world’s burden on this tiny human shoulder. We surrender to that form and say “help me”. This frees our mind of worries and helps us stay humble, mentally unburdened and makes us far more compassionate.
Prayer is an important way in which we can keep mental afflictions at bay – depression, anxiety, delusion, coming to wrong conclusions, hatred – all emotions that destroy us. Just look around at all those people who have led independent lives based on aggrandizing their egos – look closely – and you see that their mental faculties have diminished. You see they are deeply insecure, constantly needing reaffirmation. Protecting and nurturing one’s ego traps us in a false world of praise and accomplishment. Prayer releases us from that bondage of our own ego. Prayer is that tool that helps keep the mind child-like, simple, supple and in a state of acceptance and compassion. Such a mind brings us love, light and knowledge.
Pray. And see if it makes a difference to your mind, to your lives.