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.