The Significance of Prayer

Prayer is one of the most potent yet most underestimated practices. 

Almost everyone has prayed sometime or the other in life. We associate prayer with a house of worship, whether temple, church or mosque, and think of it as a religious practice. Few are aware of its significance in yoga. Prayer is a complementary practice to Vichara, Systematic Meditation and Mantra japa. 

Most of us have prayed naturally or spontaneously as children or were taught how to pray by our parents or other family members. Even though everyone knows of prayer, we often have different ideas about how to pray and to whom we should pray. This article provides a comprehensive understanding of prayer and answers some questions asked by practitioners.

The Four Layers of Prayer

Like most yogic practices, prayer too is a deep practice and has different layers.

  • Most of us have been introduced to prayer as an outward form of worship. This outward prayer to deities and gods takes the form of ritual worship. It may be accompanied by loud ritual chanting or singing. The one praying may go regularly to a house of worship or have an altar at home with idols of gods and goddesses, photos of teachers and saints or sacred objects of symbolic value such as AUM or a cross. External prayer is useful for those who are unable to focus their minds on subtler and deeper layers of reality and need an external form to focus the mind. Most people pray only in times of trouble or need such as existential anxiety or in the face of incurable disease or death. More often than not, this kind of prayer is a request for material wealth, a job, a life partner, a child, a promotion and fulfillment of various other desires. Such a prayer makes you a beggar. In the Samaya tradition we want to use prayer to make oneself bigger, that is, to evolve and transform out of one's limited mind patterns.
  • Often people repeat mentally prayers out of a religious text mechanically. This prayer is neither entirely internal prayer nor is it completely external. It is mixed because it may still be directed to celestial beings and may involve fulfillment of worldly desires. Some repeat healing mantras seeking relief from disease or worship particular deities to fulfill certain desires like attaining wealth and success. This mixed form of prayer though not for fulfillment of worldly desires may involve mere internal repetition of religious prayers without understanding of their meaning. For instance, it may be a selection of well known chants such as the Gayatri mantra and Mahamrityunjaya mantra among others. The Pavamana Abhyaroha mantra is one such mantra that is repeated without full understanding of its meaning. 

Asato maa sadgamaya |

Tamaso maa jyotirgamaya |

Mrtyor ma' amrtam gamaya |

Aum shaantih shaantih shaantih ||

Brihadaranyaka Upanishad I.iii.28

Others repeat the Pavamana Abhyaroha mantra having understood its meaning, which makes it more potent. This form of prayer is more powerful since it is not repeated merely for fulfillment of worldly desires.

Lead me from ignorance to Truth.

Lead me from darkness to Light.

Lead me from death to Immortality.

Aum shanti, shanti, shanti.

  • Yet, there is another prayer that is more potent. In the Samaya Tradition we are taught to pray in our own words. So instead of repeating prayers in dead languages out of scriptures or translations of the same, you can have a conversation with the Divine in your mother tongue or your primary language. This Samaya prayer is form of internal dialogue. You can use internal dialogue to converse with the Divine in your own language, in your own words. Since the Divinity within is subtler than the subtlest, it is hard for most of us to have a conversation with it. Therefore, you can relate to the Divinity in yourself as mother, father, master, friend or lover. Some prefer to relate to the Divinity within as a teacher or guiding light. To use the example of the Pavamana Abhyaroha Mantra, you would ask in your own words and language for guidance, truth, light, knowledge. This would be in the spirit of the mantra. 
  • The fourth and finest prayer is the prayer that arises spontaneously from the heart with the full force and power of emotion called bhava. It is not part of a religious or yogic routine. It just happens. This is the best prayer. Using the example of the Pavamana Abhyaroha Mantra, it is not just repeated in Sanskrit or a translation in your own language or even in your own words. Now it arises within as a deep driving desire called Mahabhava. It is with you all the time. 

Many of the hymns or prayers that are recorded in the scriptures were "revealed" to the sages in meditation or communion with God. These hymns rose to them spontaneously and naturally with the full force of bhava, and religious traditions recommend that these prayers be repeated by those who have not developed the sensitivity for the subtle Samaya way.

While an outward oriented prayer can bring up feelings of humility and surrender, it does not have the transformative power of the inward oriented prayer. This inward turning attention toward the Self, or if you want to call it God or Pure Consciousness is a great shift in consciousness. It cannot be forced. It rises once you have used internal dialogue to develop a relationship with the Divine in you over a long unbroken period of time.

Four kinds of Prayers

While there may be many different kinds of prayers asking for fulfillment of worldly desires, the kinds of prayers described here are those recommended by the Samaya tradition.

  • A prayer of petition: This is the most important prayer for those who start systematic meditation. Pray four times daily before practice asking for internal strength, guidance and healing on this inner journey. Ask the Divinity within you for courage to continue on the path of truth. Remember, when you practice with full commitment you are always protected. Even if you do not do any systematic meditation practice, you can still pray four times a day.
  • A prayer of thanksgiving: The second kind of prayer is an expression of gratitude for all the good and beautiful gifts you have, including your body. To have a human body and live out desires on this plane of existence is a privilege. We all tend to get gloomy in the face of troubles and problems, but instead of becoming negative you learn to focus on the good and beautiful in your life by counting your blessings. Express your gratitude for the good and beautiful in your life after your systematic meditation practice four times daily. If you do not practice, you can still express gratitude to the Divinity within at least once a day.
  • A prayer for the welfare of all: As the sadhaka or practitioner continues on the path of truth, he is purified. A wonderful prayer arises spontaneously in the one-pointed mind. This is a prayer for the welfare of all humanity. The rising of such a prayer is a sign of utter selflessness.
  • A prayer for Self-Realization: The highest of all prayers is a call for Self-Realization. A deep driving desire from a purified mind for self-realization fulfills the purpose of life. This desire swallows all other desires.

How to pray

  • When should I pray? Most of us only pray when we are anxious and in trouble. However, best practice is to pray daily, even four times a day, as many religions prescribe. The timings of prayer should not conflict with your general routine. Meal times are anchors in everyone's day, so you can pray in the morning before breakfast, at midday before lunch, at dusk before an early evening meal and a fourth time before bedtime. Those who practice systematic meditation four times a day, can add a short prayer before and after the meditation practice.
  • To whom shall I pray? If you are unable to develop a relationship with the Divinity within you, then you can pray to a deity that you are drawn to. You can also pray to saints, sages and enlightened ones. In the Samaya tradition, internal prayer is preferred. The Divinity within is God without attributes (nirguna brahman). Sages, saints and deities are God with attributes (saguna brahman). The choice between the two depends on the nature of your mind and what you feel drawn to. 
  • Where shall I pray? While it is common to pray in a house of worship or in front of an altar at home, you can pray anywhere. According to the Samaya tradition there is no inauspicious place and if you believe a place to be inauspicious, prayer will surely purify it and make it auspicious. It is recommended to have a fixed area or space at home for prayer. An altar is not necessary, but useful if you want to do external worship. 
  • What is the best posture for prayer? You can pray in any posture you like, standing, seated or even lying down. While the supine position is only recommended if you are unwell or have a physical disability, the standing and seated positions are a matter of preference. If you chose to have a seated position you can sit on a chair with your back straight or on a meditation mat.

Teaching prayer to children

If you have children one of the best things you can do is teach your children to pray. 

Many parents force their children to go to a house of worship or pray before an altar. They also force their children to learn difficult prayers in dead languages by heart. This is generally counterproductive. 

Instead, one should establish simple rituals like praying for a few minutes before bedtime. The child should be encouraged to talk to his favorite personalized form. This could be the clever elephant god Ganesh, who rides a cute mouse and loves sweets. It could be the naughty little Krishna who steals butter from the cowherds wives, plays enchanting melodies on the flute and dances through the night with the village damsels at the banks of the river. All the traditions of the world have such stories, such as the birth of baby Jesus. Narrating playful tales helps children develop positive images that their minds can focus on. Stories are the best way to prepare children for a personalized form (saguna) of worship and eventually graduate to formless, internal worship when the mind has developed.s