For what should we pray?15 min read

When a youth scoffed at prayer in the assembly of Shri Dada, the Teacher affectionately spoke to him in the following words:

My son, there is an element in man which is always prompting him to love and admire one higher than himself. You hold Western civilization to be superior, and so you want to adopt it. The poor want to become rich; the mediocre go to listen to the wise.

Prayer is an attempt by the limited mind of man to come into contact with the Omnipotent Mind which has decreed the laws of nature, which has set the limits to the orbit of the earth and tides of the sea. My son, you imbibe the qualities of a person with whom you keep company and whom you respect and love. Prayer involves an attitude of reverence and affection towards the Universal Mind who controls the beat of our pulse, the cells of our eyes, the motion of our thought and everything else in the universe.”

Petition is not considered in Yoga to be prayer. “Asking for individual favours”, said Dr. Shastri, “is not prayer. When one prays the aim should be to forget all worldly affairs and fill the heart with love, compassion, purity and beauty rising to God- consciousness.”

Swami Rama Tirtha, in his essay Upasana (Devotion), says that the solicitation which is based on the little egoity, when the objects are desired for pleasure or for intellect, is tantamount to reducing God to insignificance. “You call on God for your individual interest, what absurdity!” he says.

The Prophet, Mahommed, described prayers in Islam as praises, giving thanks and asking for forgiveness. Petitions, he taught, are considered impertinence. As if God does not know how to run the Universe! Praying for personal favours can be a very dangerous business because they are quite likely to be fulfilled, but if based on selfishness the fulfilment may not come in the glorious way imagined but prove to be very painful.

In the words of Rama Tirtha: “If the desire is based on nescience, contrary to the law of righteousness, or selfish, then it will rise like the thorns of a poisonous plant and will cause great suffering to you. To bring before God for fulfilment any request based on egoity or desire to possess an object of enjoyment, is like pouring pure milk into an unclean vessel made of copper.” And he concludes with the plea, “Why not learn the dangerous character of such a procedure before it causes you suffering?”

It is wise to remember that our personal view is very limited and our knowledge of the future non-existent so that what is asked for now may become a very unwelcome hindrance later, even painful. This applies not only to asking for specific things for ourselves but for others also. Should we not pray for others? Indeed, yes. At the end of our daily practices our Teacher would advise asking the blessings of the Lord on all mankind.

If we wish to pray for a particular person, it is best to mentally offer the person and their problem to the Lord and ask for His blessing and what is best for them, without conditions, rather than stating what we wish for them, such as success in an examination, better health and so on. We have no idea either what the Lord’s plan is for them or what is for their ultimate good.

The important question to consider now is for what should we pray?

It is shown that asking for individual requests should not be termed prayer, but should we not pray for our daily bread, etc. ? When Dr. Shastri was asked this question he said that it was good to associate our daily wants, like children, with the ever adorable Lord, Omniscient and Omnipresent. A child who sits serenely and fearlessly in the arm of its parent confidently asks for everything—even for the moon. Safe in the love of the parent he feels protected and cared for. Such faith and confidence in a Divine Power based on love is not wrong. He identifies himself with the strength of the parent and sits, encircled with protection, like a king.

The question arises ‘What is the difference? Surely this is the same as soliciting for personal needs?’ There is quite a difference.

The basis of the asking is entirely different. Like a child, the devotee has complete faith and trust in the Divine Giver. His devotion is based on love and surrender, and his world is entirely dependent on the love and compassion of the Lord.

Whereas the worldly minded man’s prayer, if it can be called such, is in fits and starts. His real interest is not in following the dictates of a divine law but in satisfying his ambition and greed. In one, God is uppermost and pleasure-seeking below, and, in the other, worldly ambition is on the top and devotion under it.

Swami Rama Tirtha explains this point in these words:

When in the course of devotion love and renunciation are higher than devotion, then whatever is asked has the same value as giving. The truth is that begging is no part of real Upasana . Liberality is Upasana. If I serve you for my self-interest, then I am not devoted to you. It is shop-keeping or deceit. Few people throw a copper to a beggar. God is the King of Kings; if you approach Him as a poverty-stricken beggar, then you will be kept away from Him. If you want to meet the King, then throw away your dirty, untidy, worn-out clothes.”

Real prayer then is not asking but giving, and child-like trust and love is termed liberality, for the heart is surrendered to the Lord. Christ taught that unless the people became as little children they could not enter the Kingdom of Heaven. To accept such a doctrine requires humility of spirit, as the saints have said. It is not always easy to bend the knee and bow the head even physically, let alone mentally and spiritually.

In addition we are reminded by Dr. Shastri that the performing of good deeds in daily life is essential to prayer. We cannot say that we pray daily if we gossip, retaliate and are vengeful. When Christ was asked how many times one should forgive, He replied, ‘Seven times seven and again seventy times seven’. Can we call ourselves His followers if we turn against those who do not agree with us? Prayer is a part of devotion but not the whole of it.

“The daily needs”, said our Teacher, “are governed by the law of karma, the law of cause and effect. The Lord is above the law. It is operated by Him. He is ever merciful and grants the prayers of His devotees.” If you go to buy a house you know its purchase covers a kitchen, bathroom, cupboards and all the incidentals. All the smaller things are included in the larger. In the same way, he who is wise prays for incessant devotion to the Lord and purity of the heart with which to sustain it.

In that one request all possible needs are contained. So in answer to the question for what should we pray it is this, incessant devotion to the Lord and the removal of any obstacle to that realization.

Give up petty considerations”, said Dr. Shastri,

and pray for a steady mind, a devoted heart, a knowledge-full soul to whom Shri Hari is all”. This saying of his all would be wise to remember:

We are out to reduce our wants, not to pray for them. The chief ornament of a Yogi is the paucity of his wants.”

Prayer, in Yoga, has three stages. They can be called Adoration, Love and Absorption.

Here is the classical definition.

Devotion to God is first expressed in the third person. The devotee says: “He is my Maker and sole Lord and Master.”

In the second phase of devotion God is worshipped in the second person: “Thou art my Lord and I am Thy servant. In Thee I take refuge.”

In the third stage he worships God in the first person: “God is my own Self.”

In this stage all duality comes to an end. There is no longer I or ‘my’; ‘thou’ or ‘thine’ but only cosmic Consciousness in which universes rise and fall like bubbles in the sea. This is the consummation of devotion.

The first stage is adoration and glorification of God. What do we mean by the word ‘God’? The conception of a Supreme Being varies not only from creed to creed but in every individual. Some worship God through nature, the sun, an incarnation such a Christ, Rama, Krishna or Buddha, some as abstract Truth, but as long as the desire to seek Him is sincere and the heart pure and selfless, we are told, in the Bhagavadgita, that it does not matter what form we give Him or by what name we call Him.

He will always respond to the call of His devotees. What matters is the sincerity of the devotee’s heart. God answers to any name with which He is called in love and surrender. But the sages do say that spiritual growth is retarded if the conception of God is narrow. The many are to be considered in the One and the One in the many. Whichever form of the Lord is chosen for worship it is recommended that as vivid a picture as possible should be made of Him in the mind.

It helps the mind to know as much about His incarnation as possible—to read about His life daily—to picture incidents from His life and try to live them with Him. There are many related incidents from the lives of the great incarnations which have great potential teaching value if dwelt upon reverently .

The adoration and glorification of God can take various forms—by singing His praises, by vocal prayers, by repetition of His name. In this first stage of prayer the mind is consciously lifted up but it takes effort and concentration. There is the effort to raise the mind from its normal level, to detach it from all external pulls and attachment and focus it on the Lord. Unless there is love and longing for God as well as will power this can be a very difficult period.

St. Theresa of Avila gives a telling illustration of the stages of prayer. She likens the soul to a garden which has to be tended and watered in order to make it beautiful to delight the Lord Himself. She describes the methods of watering this garden through prayer.

The first, which is most laborious and backbreaking, is to draw buckets of water from a well. The water can also be drawn by a water wheel and buckets operated by a windlass which is easier than the first and less laborious. Another way to water is from a stream or spring. This way is better still because it waters the ground better, the soil retains more moisture and needs watering less often. The final way and by far the best method is when the Lord waters the garden Himself by heavy rain and there is no labour needed by the gardener.

During the early stages of prayer when, as we said, the mind has to be concentrated and one-pointed it finds great difficulty in keeping the distractions at bay. It becomes worn out with trying to control the irrelevant thoughts and the roving senses. These labours are like the efforts to draw up water from a well in a bucket. In fact we have to work very hard sometimes to get any water at all. If we stop turning the wheel or let it go the bucket falls to the bottom and we have to start all over again. There are times when strive as we will and the bucket is heaved to the top it is found to be empty—we have not let it go deeply enough.

With perseverance in praising the Lord and asking for His grace in order to know Him better the effort involved lessens and is like the second method of drawing water. Love grows and deepens, prayer becomes a delight and rises more easily and the second stage is entered which is a deep love and longing for God. Instead of set times of prayer each day, the devotee now wishes to have remembrance continuously. He lives in contemplation as much as possible, and during the day the remembrance of the Lord goes on in his heart like the tick of a clock.

The Teachers of Yoga recommend taking a name of the Lord and repeating it over and over again in the heart. It is not necessary to say the name aloud. It can continue silently even when with other people. This practice is spoken of by the Russian Pilgrim in ‘The Way of a Pilgrim’. He said that the company of others never interrupted his internal prayer. After much practice it seemed to come alive—to have a life of its own and to continue no matter what he was doing—eating, speaking and even sleeping. As he went to sleep the Name was on his lips and when he awoke he found it still continuing.

He said: “If I am working on anything the Prayer goes on by itself in my heart, and the work goes on faster. If I am listening carefully to anything, or reading, the Prayer never stops. At one and the same time I am aware of both, just as if I were made into two people, as if there were two souls in my one body”. In this stage of prayer the saints have tried to describe the joy which wells up from within. It is not like anything experienced from external things. If the mind tries to grasp it or analyse it it slips away. It seems to be part of the very nature of the one to whom it is revealed and which can never be viewed objectively because it is always the witness.

In the yogic tradition the explanation is that it is actually the nature of the Divine Self in all which is able to be revealed because of the purification of the mind. The Pilgrim noted that interior prayer bears fruit in three ways. In the first, sweetness of the love of God, inward peace, gladness of mind. Secondly pleasant warmth and joyous bubbling in the heart, lightness and courage, joy of living, power not to feel sickness and sorrow. Lastly, light given to the mind, understanding of the Holy Scripture, knowledge of the joy of inner life and certainty of the nearness of God and of His love for us.

Another effect of this second stage of prayer is the love felt for all creatures because God is not only felt but known to be everywhere. The theoretical statement that ‘God is all’ begins to be experienced.

Dr. Shastri said that the prayer should be carried into the daily life and the Presence of God felt all day.

St. Theresa found that the mind delighting in this prayer of quiet, which is almost effortless, at first does not want to move at all, like Mary, but wishes to sit idle, absorbed in it. But later she found that it could be both Martha and Mary—working and communicating with others while the inner communication and delight never stops.

Once the inner prayer is established there is not so much effort for the individual to put into it. This is where the illustration of the garden now watered by the stream or spring is so helpful. The earth, like the mind, becomes saturated and does not dry up so quickly as when it is laboriously watered by single bucketfuls. The individual mind begins to recognise the force of the Spirit which guides it and in complete confidence and trust reduces its own activity by allowing the Divine Spirit to act through it.

The final stage of prayer in the Yoga tradition is “Absorption in God”. St. Theresa wondered what happened to the individual soul in this high state and wrote: “Then the Lord said to me: ‘It dissolves utterly, my daughter, to rest more and more in Me. It is no longer itself that lives: It is I. As it cannot comprehend what it understands, it understands by not understanding.’”

Here the garden of the soul is watered entirely by the rain of Divine Grace. There is no need any more for individual action because it is realized that all belongs to— nay, is the Lord Himself.

Our Teacher said, “When the heart has been purified the devotee sees God. By careful self-analysis in this exalted state he finds that he is neither the body nor the mind but God and God only. His prayer now is ‘I am God. I am all. Shivo Hum. I am OM.’ He sees freedom in his own Self and in that of others. This becomes a perpetual prayer.”

The oldest known Scriptures, the Vedas, give examples of the right kind of prayer.

Here is one, with which to end, taken from the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad:

From the unreal lead me to the real.

From darkness lead me to light.

From death lead me to immortality.”