Prayer or Worship – A Powerful Ritual Of The Hindus

Dr. Sethu Raju and Pt. Pramod Sharma Shastri

Historical. Many millennia ago the early nomadic peoples witnessed numerous miracles and other strange happenings in nature. As such events, at the time, were beyond any rational explanation, they ascribed them as supernatural and accordingly created many iconographic gods. With complete belief and faith, they carefully guarded and worshipped them, in their own way, with utmost care and devotion. This trait or ritual to pray to or worship gods of their choice, originating in the primitive peoples, was continued and later sustained among the human civilizations of the world.

The Hindu sages of the past stood on the banks of the sacred rivers of ancient India and sang in ecstasy their first exalting songs in praise of gods. Out of such prayers or chants and out of the profound wisdom and spirituality of the sages in many centuries has developed Hinduism, the oldest and also the dominant religion of India. Such prayers or prarthanas are preserved in the most ancient Hindu scriptures, such as the Upanishads and the Vedas. They still form the most formidable and enduring rituals in the non-proselytizing Hindu-liturgy, and have guided and sustained millions of Hindus in the world with moral comfort and spiritual democracy.

Terminology. Etymologically, the English word prayer (praarthana) seems more akin to Sanskrit than the word worship (pooja), which is rather foreign. The two terms, however, overlap in their definition, and are interchangeable. From a Hindu or Vedantin perspective, the term prayer is more specific and personal with fewer minor rituals associated with it than the term worship which is more general and broad, possibly with more minor rituals in it. The latter is usually conducted in greater grandeur and larger congregations.
Definition and method. The term prayer is essentially one’s spiritual communion with the Supreme Being, often represented by many selected objects or icons. It could be petitional or just participatory. One could pray individually to gods for oneself or for other individual or a group of individuals. Similarly, a group of individuals could pray for itself or for an individual or another group.

Prayer, with dedication, may be conducted vocally by songs or chants, or by musical instruments or by bodily gestures (dances) or in any of their combination. It may also be done quietly in complete silence.
Who prays and where? Children pray instinctively or according to suggestion or advice of their elders. The adults, on the other hand, pray with some reasonable motive, possibly, by petition expecting positive blessings. People may pray to gods in any place where appropriate religious ambience exists. Two abodes of worship are most common among Hindus. Both adults and children pray at the consecrated altars in their own homes, or they may pray in congregation in temples.

Late in their life, the Hindus may pray for themselves to their own Consciousness (Chit) when it can be called meditation (Dhyaanam) or self-evaluation, with the hope of reaching Self-realization or Moksha. In general, the extent and quality of praying may change progressively, corresponding to four life-stages (Jeevita-Aashramas), which, in sequence, are – the celibate youth or student (Brahmachaaryaashrama), the house-holder (Grihasthaashrama), the retired (Vaanaprasthaashrama) and the ascetic (Sanyaasaashrama).
Language. In the ritual of praying, language is important, especially in India where many state languages, some of which have long history of their own, thrive and are spoken independently. In ancient India, however, when Hinduism was the only religion known, Sanskrit was the academic and aristocratic language; it was also the language of the Hindu liturgy, and, therefore, remained sacred. The Hindu sages have vividly described in Sanskrit the formal rules and protocols of prayer and of other religious rituals which are embedded in the ancient Upanishads and the Vedas. To interpret and perform prayers and other obsequious rituals, only certain classes of the peoples, who knew well the sacred language and the rituals, were qualified. They were the brahmanical priests who, even now, very faithfully and appropriately perform in Sanskrit the prayers and rituals in religious functions, including those in temples.

The general populace at the time was not well versed in the Sanskrit language, and so the learned priests ordinarily helped the people in conducting their prayers and other religious ceremonies. There were also some minor languages flourishing well among the peoples in different parts of India. During this period, many academicians and the common people wrote prayers and devotional songs unconventionally in languages, other than Sanskrit. Also, they translated and/or transliterated many religious scriptures and other literature from Sanskrit to other local languages, bringing about a sort of ‘reformation’ in Hinduism. Among them, two names stand out in reference to religious prayers and in the retelling (rewriting) of some ancient Sanskrit scriptures for the use of the common people of India. They were the Kavi Kamban (of 9-12th century AD) in Southern India and Goswami Tulasidas of the 16th century AD in the North. Kamban retold (rewrote) in Tamil, an ancient and probably the oldest language of India, the original Sanskrit epic of Valmiki’s Ramayana, in the lyrical form for the benefit of the Tamil-speaking peoples of South India. The resulting monumental compendium was the Raamaavataaram or Kamban Ramayana. Subsequently, many sages and the followers of Kamban wrote more devotional songs and poems in Tamil and other South Indian languages for the use of the common people. Similarly, Tulasidas also retold (rewrote) in Avadhi, often considered a precursor of the Hindi language, the original Valmiki’s Ramayana, and titled it the ever-popular Ramacharitamanas or Tulasi Ramayana, which quickly and firmly appealed to the common people of Northern India and also later to the people in other parts of the country. In addition, Tulasidas wrote many more songs and poems in the form of bhajans, kirthans, etc. so that the people, at all levels, would enjoy singing and using them in individual or group prayers and worships in temples and elsewhere. These, by Tulasidas and such by many of his followers, are being used popularly in the everyday prayers and worships by Hindus all over the world, including India. They are all, of course, devotional, and often sung in praise of god or for one’s own joy and happiness. The religious services, including prayer, however, are still performed in the sacred Sanskrit or in its transliterated form of other languages.

Why do Hindus pray? Yes, there are, of course, many reasons, and a few can be narrated to show the importance of praying. Hindus believe in three postulates, which include the Existence of God, the Immortality of the soul, and the Moksha or freedom of the will or self-realization. Every Hindu is, therefore, expected to pray to God to realize fully the above postulates. Generally, Hindus tend to pray for themselves and also for others.
The human life is full of ‘emotions’ brought about by one’s own actions; some are good and others or not so good. Hindus believe that these emotions would, while praying, identify the immortal human soul and the ephemeral body. Fortunately, our ancestors have left for us a large treasure of religious songs, lyrics and chants, besides our own frequently customized songs or prayers that we can use to comfort the human soul.

Hindus believe in the inescapable doctrine of Karma which is basically the universal law of cause and effect. One cannot escape the effects of one’s own actions. Ordinarily, every Hindu hopes to attain Moksha or freedom of the will or human liberation and to free from the unending chain of births and deaths or Samsaara by sincerely praying and indulging oneself in good thoughts, words and deeds. Some, however, may fail to justify their actions by not providing appropriate results, thus committing sin. If Karma is inescapable and the sinful must go through what they have earned, then is there no room for grace? Yes, there is, say the Vedanta! Grace comes through true penitence and sincere prayer by the sinful. Vedanta does allow penitence accompanied by prayer, and therefore, for grace. True penitence with sincere prayer, is the active triumph of the better over the worse, and, therefore, Moksha or liberation has automatically prevailed. This is soul’s (aatman) positive victory, through prayer, in becoming one with the Paramaatman similar to the disappearance or merging of many little reflections of sun on rippling water into one when water is taken away or un-rippled.

With some great humans or sages, the enduring and sincere praying to realize the universal identity may even take them to a higher level of joy or ecstasy (trance or overpowering emotion or exaltation), not a mere temporary abnormality, but a sustained joy and happiness arising out of unshakable detachment and wide sweeping identification with all life and all creation in nature. This phenomenon may occur in any one of our mundane four-life-stages if one remains devoutly faithful to the Supreme Being with sincere praying.
“Whether one is praying sincerely, practicing yoga, or enjoying some comforts, whether one is with dear friends or alone by oneself, if one has learnt to find joy in the contemplation of God, one is happy and one’s happiness knows no interruption” (Shankara).

Summary. Prayer is, indeed, ancient but a powerful ritual, and forms a passage in one’s own inner Consciousness (Chit) to reach higher levels of thought or bliss (Ananda). It can also identify the complementary nature of the immortal soul (aatman) and the body-cloak (shareeram) in every living being. Prayer does have an effect on the divinity of the immortal soul but not on the body, which is ephemeral. Most Hindus pray to or worship God to see that the Aatman (soul) in every living being is finally merged with the Paramaatman (Supreme Being), thus breaking the bondage of Samsaara which ideology is, in fact, the life-long yearning of every adult Hindu!

A Universal Hindu Prayer –
Oh God,
From appearance lead me (us) to reality.
From darkness lead me (us) to light.
From death lead me (us) to immortality.
Peace, Peace, Peace.
(Brihadaranyaka Upanishad)