Sunday, April 11, 2010

On Prayer

Man prayingNo! This is not a rant about those who pray or those who exhort others to pray or even about the one(s) to whom people pray to. These are my thoughts about prayer, how they have evolved over time, what prayer means to me and why I pray sometimes. That's right, I am an atheist and I do pray sometimes.

I grew up in a moderately religious family. My parents taught me to pray. We had a very beautiful 'Devaghar' (देवघर), a traditional altar where all the idols and photos of idols of gods are kept, one made out of sandalwood, which if I remember correctly was later mistakenly painted over with oil paint by an uncle. Every evening after dark and before dinner, mother lights the oil lamp and incense sticks in the Devaghar. Then she would make us (me and my sister) sit there and pray. It was during these evening prayers that I learned the most commonly known Sankrit shlokas (श्लोक), mantras (मंत्र) and stotras (स्तोत्र). I learned to recite by heart the Ramrakshaa (रामरक्षा), the adhyayas from Bhagwad Geeta, the Atharvasheersha (अथर्वशीर्ष) and the Maruti (Hanuman) stotra. We also learned to recite "Shubham Karoti Kalyanam" (शुभं करोति कल्याणं) a hymn to the lamp and the Manache Shloka (मनाचे श्लोक) composed by Sant Ramdas. We learned to recite all the Aartis - devotional songs sung after the pooja ritual.

We prayed in the school too. Before the classes started, everyone would gather on the school grounds. We would stand in a line, ranked by height, an arms length behind each other. I was one of the shorter guys and would always be near the front of the line. One of the teachers in our school played the harmonium beautifully and would lead the prayers. We had a prayer assigned for every day of the week and they were all printed in our individual 'diary' (a small book to record exam results and other progress) for reference. Even though the official language of instruction in our school was English, all the prayers were in Sanskrit or Marathi. The only English prayer, a little one that we recited at the end of the school day everyday before rushing out of the class, went something like:
"We give thee thanks, almighty God, for all the gifts, we have received, this day."
After my Upanayan Sanskar or Munja (मुंज) ceremony as it is commonly known in Marathi, my grandfather taught me the Sandhya Vandana ritual. The Gayatri mantra, one of the oldest of all mantras is taught during the Upanayan. I used to perform the Sandhya ritual until the 10th grade. For some reason I gave it up later on but I still used to pray every evening. I used to visit the local temple fairly regularly too.

During my undergraduate studies in Pune, I read a lot about Indian philosophy. I read "Geeta Pravachanay" (गीता प्रवचने) a commentary on Bhagwad Geeta by Vinoba Bhave. I read Swami Vivekanand's writings on Raj Yoga (The Patanjali Sutras) and Karma Yoga. I read the "Geetai" (गीताई) - Vinoba's beautiful rendering of the Bhagwad Geeta into Marathi. I read an anthology of Vedic hymns. I read some of the Upanishads and their translation. I read parts of the Bhagwad Geeta in Sanskrit. I still have my copy of Bhagwad Geeta with Marathi translation published by the Ramkrishna Math. My mother bought it in a book fair for me. In those days too, I regularly recited my prayers in the evening, though not quite everyday .

So what did all this mean to me. Well, earlier on it was a ritual drilled into me though not a boring one by any measure. The stotras and mantras are quite melodious and it is fair bit of a delight to recite them in the right tone and rhythm. The Bhagwad Geeta is supremely mellifluous and a joy to recite once you learn to read and split the words at the right places and use the right 'chanda' (Vedic meter) for each shloka. Later on as I read more of the philosophy behind it all I was more inclined towards the Bhagwad Geeta and the Upanishads and used to recite them instead of the prayers. Over the course of time my outlook has changed. I really used to believe that there is someone or something out there that you can pray to, that can respond. I don't anymore. But I still pray sometimes and I wish to explain why and to what (if anything) do I pray.

Prayers come in many different flavors. The stotras are typically poems expounding the qualities of and singing the praises of a particular deity. They also are often full of exhortations such as "one who recites this stotra everyday is bestowed with knowledge and wealth". Then there are some prayers which are sort of a direct demand to a particular deity (often Lord Vishnu or Goddess Laxmi) for health, wealth and happiness. The prayers from the Bhakti tradition are more or less devotional songs praising the deity. The shlokas from Bhagwad Geeta or the Updanishads expound their particular philosophies. The Vedic hymns come in a lot of different varieties too, falling in one or the other categories above.

In my opinion, in its most basic form, a prayer is a way of wish-thinking and thanks-giving. Life is a random draw. Everything around us (including our own body and mind) is governed by a complex web of causes and conditions. I don't mean to say that nothing is predictable. We have certainly come a long way in understanding natural phenomena and the functioning of our own bodies in accordance with the natural laws. However, in the course of each individual life there is enough randomness, sufficient unpredictability, a fair number of 'chance' events that can have significant influence on the course of that life. Compound this with the fact that we have evolved as agency seeking organisms. We are constantly looking for a causal agent behind events, even when there is none. This is reflected in the fact that most cultures have deities associated with natural forces of wind, water, air etc.

I think prayer is a mechanism to cope with this dual reality of the seemingly random courses of individual lives on the one hand and our desire to seek out someone or something as the 'cause' of events in our lives. Most commonly that something or someone is supposed to be a god or gods. But does it have to be that way? Do we really need to pray 'to' someone? I think prayer serves to fulfill one of our basic needs. We are social beings. When we a friend, relative, companion or a complete stranger provides us aid and comfort in times of need, we thank them. It is a bonding mechanism. The need to express gratitude or seek help is a result of our evolution as organism living in family groups. When 'life' deals you a tough hand, you wish for a better one. When you suddenly draw a winning ticket out of the blue, you wish to thank someone. But think of what 'life' means here. There is no single entity called 'life' out there which is determining the course of individual lives, although a lot of us wish and believe there is. 'Life' is a metaphor for the complex web of causes and conditions that lead to a particular event. There is no single 'agent' called 'life' there that can accept our thanks or fulfill our wishes. It is an artifact of language, a convenient label for the thousands of unseen causes. Nevertheless our desire for expressing our thanks or wishes for whatever 'life' deals us is a fact our existence, our humanity.

For me, reciting a prayer is an outlet for this desire. It is solution for a completely natural and human condition. I am fully aware and convinced that there is no one on the other end of the line. I do not, therefore, want to sing praises of a deity or demand fulfillment of my wishes and desires from a deity. I do however wish to express my thanks for the small and large gifts of life. I also wish to express my desire that things get better for my loved ones and for everyone else. I am not expressing my gratitude 'to' someone but I am expressing it quite sincerely nevertheless. I am not demanding a better deal 'from' someone, I am simply making a wish that things be better - an empty one if you will, but a heart-felt one just the same. I expect no returns other than the solace that this bring to my own self. I harbor no delusions that someone is recording my prayer in a universal database and will reward me if I am good and punish me if I am bad.

That is why some of my favorite prayers now are the simple ones. They are the ones which don't overtly appeal to a deity or if they do it is in a playful jolly spirit rather than a beseeching tone. I don't pray everyday, partly out of a fear that a daily treatment may end up reducing the remedial effect I seek from it. I may be wrong on that count, who knows!

So there it is! That is why I pray. In due course I will post some of my favorite prayers most of which are Sanskrit shlokas. I posted two of them earlier which are one of the playful ones. Share your prayers with me if you will.


gawker said...

Beautiful post. Many a times I've felt like praying but always stifled the urge because it always leads to the same question, who's listening? I just can't seem to get past that question.

Patrix said...

A delightful read. I identified with learning and reciting shlokas growing up but as gawker said, the motivation to pray has diminished simply because it doesn't really change the outcomes. And then you realize you've stumbled upon the greatest con job ever.

Transmogrifier said...

@Gawker and Patrix: I agree, I simply don't like to recite some of the Shloka's and Stotras mainly because I know what they mean now and the meaning doesn't appeal to me. I guess each of us can find their own way to vent the desire to express gratitude. Some may prefer a more active way of doing it. For me, in some ways, good poetry and music too are taking the place of prayer.

Harmanjit Singh said...

An amount of unquestioning is required for affective pleasures such as this. Beware of thinking too much that it is an "empty wish" or "make believe" and your prayer will lose its sweetness. You are a willing believer for the time when you pray, at that time you are living "from the heart", as it were. I look askance at this article itself, since this is intellect intruding where it should not, but I know you are authentic individual, who wishes to live consistently. Not a good idea. I am entirely serious.

Kusum Rohra said...

Thanks to Gawker for tweeting this link, really enjoyed reading this post. Growing up the only prayers I ever learnt were the ones we said in school but studying in a convent prayers were part of daily life just like eating our meals were and yes they were delightful and melodious to sing. Currently even if I am sure there is no one out there who can change things or grant wishes there are times when praying comes so naturally, something that I don’t have to stifle or question now :)

Kannan said...

Your approach is called *nirguna aradhana* .But bhagavat gita says that is impossible for normal people. and *bhakti* is required.
I havent been to a temple or prayed for like 10-12 years now..
BUt I do follow Bhagavat Gita and other commentries and
an Advaita short

Prabha Mohan said...

While I feel like you do, I couldn't have expressed it as well.

I don't know if there is a recipient to my prayer, but I find that it is meditative and forces me to inculcate a sense of gratitude, and perhaps contemplate the idea of the infinite. (I don't know if I believe in god. But, the "infinite" is a universal concept that I think the atheists and theists can both appreciate. It makes for good contemplation)

There's also something powerful about chanting that puts you in a different frame of mind, which I find hard to experience in any other way. It's uplifting.

I read a book recently that said the profundity of chanting is best experienced by not understanding. I think I agree, even though there are times when I wish I understood!

Thanks for this post. It was stimulating.

Logician said...

A genuine and simple interpretation about Prayer. This post gives me a great satisfaction while reading as it expresses a lot of thoughts that I have and believe in. Prayer should only be a medium to express one's gratitude and to build a strong sense of force which helps to avoid all kinds of evil. The force may come from within ourselves, it does not have to be an external source(God). I do not follow rigorous prayer rituals but I have my faith.I believe that anything which gives immense satisfaction and peace of mind which would also lead to a better balance and approach in life can certainly be followed for the self but not out of any societal obligations. Hours of prayers will do no good if it cannot drill any sense of morality or goodness in an individual.People must attain a sense of the purpose in doing things rather than follow a trend.

Transmogrifier said...

@Harmanjit: If I understand your comment correctly, you are saying don't analyze it too much or the prayer will lose it efficacy. If that is indeed your argument that I think it is incorrect. What I am trying to say is that prayer - which I believe is a form of expressing gratitude to the gifts of life - is an innate human need. The rational understanding that there is no "outside agent" who is going to answer my prayer has nothing to do with the efficacy of the prayer.

We have evolved with a sweet tooth too. Rational understanding that we should control the intake of sugar now that we consume it in a more concentrated form doesn't quite help most of us. We indulge in it anyway. Same goes with emotional needs too.

Anonymous said...

Nice post! It is interesting that you mention the Sandhyavandanam in a blog post about the few of your favorite prayers. Sandhyavandanam, is a kind of anti-thesis of the simple prayer. You worship not just Gayatri and the sun, but at least a few dozen other entities.

Btw, it is interesting that even in Kannada we call Upanayanam as 'munji'. I've been noticing several such similarities in rituals, food, and language between Marathi and Kannada, in spite of the two languages being from different branches, and the geographical divide between the farthest points of the two states.