From times immemorial, prayers have formed an integral part of all religious traditions. Even in a period of atheism or materialism, the number of persons saying their prayers in one form or another has never dwindled. Words and forms may differ, places and times for saying prayers may vary, but the importance of prayers has always been high in an individual’s life. And, the reasons are far to seek.
Recitation of the Divine attributes only enables us to dwell on elevating ideals and approximate ourselves more and more of the divinity that is our nature. We become what we contemplate. – Sri Sathya Sai (Vol. X Pp. 157)
Gandhiji had said, ‘Prayer is a definitive need of the soul. And constant repetition of God’s name carries you nearer and nearer to him. ‘Prayer is a direct communion between man and God. It establishes the link between human aspiration and Divine Response. It aims at realization of the truth that sets man free. In this sense, the urge to pray is more than a psychological necessity. Just as food is essential to the body, prayer is a necessity for the soul.
Many people associate prayers with rituals and religious traditions. Therefore, in their endeavor to be modern, they shun the need for prayers. It is true that all religions recommend learning of prayers from the infant stage, and their recitation at certain specified occasions. It should be of interest to know that learning theories are now coming in close agreement to those who advocate prayers for employing this powerful method to train the sub-conscious mind.
However, prayer is to be seen not as mere ritual or tradition but as a vehicle whereby one can open the heart, purify the mind, and release noble emotions like forgiveness, spiritual yearnings , humility, etc. ‘We have to touch the good in ourselves in order to recognize the good in others.’ The impact of prayers is a personal experience, uniquely experienced by each individual; hence the impact is deep. Therefore, in order to achieve a significant impact, it is necessary to understand the purpose and techniques of prayers
Whatever we see, hear or experience through our other senses, that information is stored in our memory, which is in the sub-conscious. Over the years, a lot of information gets stored. Thus, the mind is programmed to respond or react in a particular pattern, which has become its habit. Our response or reaction to any new input (or stimulus) is largely governed by this well worn out pattern of habit. When much of this previously stored information is of a negative nature, our behavior also becomes negative – cynical or critical. Thus, the mind follows a vicious circle.
In order to create a new thought pattern in our mind, the sub-conscious has to be programmed according to the new wisdom. To achieve this, we have to repeat over and over again the positive, heart- chosen thoughts. Prayers provide this required impetus for a shift in our thought pattern. In due course of time, such thoughts and the consequent behavior pattern become consistent and more enduring. Thus, the mind is made to follow a virtuous circle.
There are normally two ways to achieve this transformation. First, we could maintain a constant vigil over what stimulus is allowed into the mind. In other words, we have to filter the stimulus received through senses, and ensure that we –See no evil, see only good
Hear no evil, hear only good
Speak no evil, speak only good
Think no evil, think only goody
Do not evil, do only good.’- Sri Sathya Sai
This process is similar to pulling out the weeds one by one from a flowerbed. Left to itself, more weeds will grow in the flowerbed as we pull out old ones. The second, and more effective way, is to develop thinking. When the mind is full of good Godly thought. They will automatically result in good actions and habits. This is similar to a flower garden free from weeds but full of flowers.
The weight of good actions and thoughts will bury the seeds of bad actions and thoughts. Both good and bad thoughts are like seeds in the mind. If buried too deeply in the earth, seeds rot and waste away. Good acts and thoughts bury bad seeds so deeply that they rot and pass away, and are no longer ready to spring forth- Sri Sathya Sai (Vol. IV Pp. 251)
Some people go to a church, Gurudwara, Masjid or a temple to pray. Many others pray at home; they would clean the place, sometimes cover it with a cloth, and wash their hands and feet, before saying their prayers. Some will fold their hands, lower their head in submission, bend their knees and close their eyes. Thus, methods and places may vary superficially; however, one thing is common to all of them. They adopt a reverential attitude for praying.
The prime purpose of saying prayers is self-transformation leading to self- revelation. It awakens intuition and the value of Truth, and releases Love energy. Praying with understanding inculcates Peace, inner harmony and equanimity. Regular prayers instill discipline and righteousness in our actions. It is said that ‘Work is the body’s prayer to the Divine.’ Shri Sathya Sai has said that ‘Hands that serve are holier than lips that pray.’
Love is a very potent form of energy. A prayer does not bring down God to the level of Human beings, but raises the human being to the level of acceptability by the Divinity. A prayer has an expanding frontier of Love energy, and a holistic approach lead one to the inculcation of the value of Non-violence. When we live in constant integrated awareness, the time we spent in prayers or any other work is no different than the time spent in prayers.
All prayers are an expression of human values. When Jesus Christ spoke on the cross ‘Forgive them for they know not what they do’, it was an expression of highest virtue, forgiveness. Gandhiji had said, ‘A prayer is never fruitless but we cannot know what the fruit of it is. We may pray for something, and yet remain free from attachment. Even if the result is just the opposite of what we had asked for, there is no reason for the conclusion that the prayer has been fruitless.’
How Prayers Help
- A prayer helps in giving shape to our problems. What appeals as abstract and vague becomes clear when put in words.
- A prayer gives a sense of sharing. We often hesitate to share many of our thoughts and feelings with another person; a prayer achieves just that without embarrassment. It is said that’s a joy doubled; sorrow shared is a sorrow halved.’
- A prayer acts as a healing and strengthening thought by clearing the mind of its preconceived notions and negative thoughts.
- A prayer is a step towards action. It provides motivation, self confidence and clarity of purpose to act, and the courage to forbear the consequences that follow the action.
- A prayer releases the person from the shackles of external pressures- pressures to live up to others’ expectations. Thus, it lowers stress and prepares the person to achieve one’s aspirations at one’s own pace.
- A prayer is articulation of Faith, which fills one with a sense of strength and security, providing comfort. It provides reassurance that there is a higher power , knowing and loving which is perfect and just.
- A prayer reduces our psychological and physical isolation, thus action as a divine support system in a lonely or hostile environment.
- A prayer relaxes the mind by lowering our heartbeat and breathing rate, slowing down intensity of brain waves, and stimulating healing waves from the brain.
- Prayers from various religions show the unity of Faiths, and help develop tolerance towards other religions.
- An obvious advantage is that recitation of prayers increases concentration of mind, span of attention and memory.
- It is said that ‘a family that prays together, stays together. ‘Thus, it establishes a bond of love among the members.
Types of Prayers
‘There is only language, the language of the heart’ says Sri Sathya Sai. People from all communities and religions, young and old, educated or illiterate pray. Therefore, what is important is the feeling with which the prayer is expressed.
Prayers must originate from the heart, where God resides, and not from the head, where doctrines and doubts clash. – Sri Sathya Sai (Vol. VII Pp. 39)
Some lose faith when they find no immediate results. It is just like sowing a seed in the ground. And then digging it every now and then to see whether it is growing. In this way the seed will never sprout. For every prayer, we should not look for a sign that God has granted our wish.
It should also be remembered that a prayer must be backed by our own effort ( Purusharthas) in order that its purpose is fulfilled. Moreover, a prayer should be realistic, depending upon our perception of our ability and effort. Various types of prayers are given below. Generally all prayers are a combination of two or more types.
A prayer can be a prose; it can be lyrical as poetry or can have a meter, which can be sung to a tune. Quotations and sayings can also be used as prayers. The prayer can be taken from scriptures, like the Vedas or the Bible; or it can also be made up on our own. Sometimes, the deepest feelings of a child come to the surface when the child composes the prayer.
Different people pray in their own language; when a prayer is taken from an ancient text, like the Vedas or the Geeta, it could be in Sanskrit language; what matters in the feeling behind it, not the language.
A prayer could be an expression of noble or elevating thoughts or feelings, which inspire us to imbibe human values. A prayer could also be more generalized, expressing love and well being of the entire world . Some prayers are said in praise of the Lord without expectation of anything in return. It is important to remember that selfish prayers, seeking some material gain, or favour , should be shunned.
God gives you whatever you pray for, so take care ; ask for the right things.- Sri Sathya Sai (16th May 1964)
Sometimes a prayer is said to express the importance of a particular occasion. Some prayers are said before undertaking any task, including study. Special prayers are said before partaking meals, or first thing in the morning when we get up, or before retiring to bed.
In a class for infants, a new prayer to be taught should be written boldly on the board; for older students, it can be read out from a text book. Each word or phrase , or a line, should be read clearly and the children may repeat after them.
A picture or an illustration on the significance of the prayer will help students to understand the meaning of the prayer. ‘ A picture is worth a thousand words .’ Sometimes, there are related stories, which can be narrated to enhance the effect of the prayer. At times the story or even a song can be introduced first in the class, and the prayer used to summarize the inner significance. The inner significance of the story or the explanation should highlight the human values inherent in the prayer.
I suggest that you should have prayers as an important item in the timetable of classes, for through prayers you can draw down into yourselves the Grace of God.- Sri Sathya Sai(13 May 1970)
For example, the prayer ‘ Loka Samastha Sukhino Bhavantu’ emphasizes Universal Love and Non- Violence. A Sarasvati Stotra brings out the importance of purity in thought, word and deed. A prayer before taking a meal expresses gratefulness, peace and Truth.
Some prayers should be repeated in the class each morning for many days so that they are memorized, and remembered in years to come.
The Morning Assembly is an important occasion in the day’s programme in school. The programme should include a prayer, a Thought For the Day, Silent Sitting and Group Singing. News Reading can be avoided because most of it has a negative effect. The entire staff should join in saying the prayers in a congregation. It underlines the management’s Faith in the system, and sets an example of ‘leading from the front.’
[Adapted from : Towards Human Excellence, Book 3 – The Five Teaching Techniques]