Prayer and Worship
In essence prayer means asking or expecting something from the higher authority, while worship means offering or giving something to it. In this article we take God or Self as the higher authority, and thus our write-up concerns with the religious or spiritual aspects of prayer and worship.
Everyone has had prayed to God in difficulty; when all the avenues appear to have closed one tries to seek the escape from the suffering through God. Thus, prayer originates from our helplessness and want. Prayer is the outcome of our ignorance or lack of knowledge about our true nature. And helplessness, in turn, is the product of our false identification with body and mind. The content or nature of prayer points to the grossness (crudeness) or refinement (subtlety) of this identification. 'O God, please relieve me from this pain,' such a prayer points to the attachment with the body, while, 'O God, please help me complete this novel, or picture, or sculpture,' is a kind of more refined attachment with the mind. As can be seen, the second prayer is a bit superior to the first. However, in both the cases the person is seeking something for his individual self, and as such, such prayers find their place at the lower rungs of spiritual ladder (secular prayers).
As ethics and morality grow, as the person progresses spiritually, the content of prayer changes to that extent. For instance, 'O God, please save my son; he is still very young,' prays a father for his son injured in ghastly accident, or, 'O God, my neighbor is a good fellow, he is honest; save him from the ignominy of police custody,' prays a person when his neighbor is implicated in a false case of financial embezzlement. If we widen the scope still further, we encounter mass prayers in times of war or natural calamities. Thus prayers have their gradations and evolution that exhibit progress from selfishness to selflessness. Naturally those prayers that seek betterment of all are good prayers.
Thirdly, an individual can himself progress from lower rung to higher rung. Instead of praying for the relief of pain, he would go a physician (doctor) and get treated. He does not find it necessary to invoke God's intervention when other escape routes are available. Fourthly, as the quality of discrimination starts evolving in his heart, the person finds it ridiculous to pray and ask for heath, wealth, or power in this world that is transient and for the body that is going to perish one day. Such discriminatory knowledge opens up new vistas in the heart of the aspirant who now starts praying for something permanent. 'O Lord, I do not want riches, give me your love and devotion'. Such a prayer indeed becomes a true (spiritual) prayer. Here it would be worthwhile to give one example from the life of Swami Vivekananda.
A real life event of a magnitude of a 'disaster' occurred in the early age of Narendranath (Swami Vivekananda). His father suddenly passed away leaving the family in debt and disarray. The relatives and friends, instead of helping Narendranath, took away their dues leaving the family almost pauper. Moreover, Narendranath could not get any job to support his family. In such a situation, Swami Vivekananda said to Sri Ramakrishna, 'O Sir, please pray to the Mother so that my family is supplied with coarse grain and clothes at least. I know the Mother listens to you and definitely grants your prayers.'
But the Master had different plans, if we can say so. Sri Ramakrishna said, 'Look my boy, I have given everything to the Mother; how can I ask back anything from her now? But one thing I can tell you, why don't you go and pray to the Mother to fulfill your wish? My Mother is very kind and gracious, and I am sure she will not disappoint you.'
Thus, Swami Vivekananda was forced to pray to the Mother to fulfill his wants. That night he and the Master were alone in the Kali Temple, and Swami Vivekananda went to the Mother's shrine to pray and ask for material things of urgent necessity. However, as Swami Vivekananda entered the shrine, all that he could say was, 'O Mother, please give me Jnana and Bhakti.' Thus praying, he returned to where Sri Ramakrishna was waiting for him. The Master inquired, "Naren, have you asked for food and money required for your family?" Swami Vivekananda, surprised as he was as well, replied, 'Why, no sir! I asked for Jnana and Bhakti.'
'You naïve!' said the Master, 'Go and ask for wealth and the things you actually need now.' Thrice Swami Vivekananda went to Ma Kali, but could not utter the word about money, clothes, food, and grains; but instead all the three times he prayed to the Mother for Jnana and Bhakti!
As soon as Swami Vivekananda used to enter the temple, he was elevated to such a wonderful state of consciousness that the whole world including the money, material comfort, and the food lost all their value, and in its place there shone forth the face of divine and blissful Mother gracious enough to grant highest Jnana and Bhakti! Who fool would ask for transient and useless things when in fact the Mother was willing to grant Jnana! Who would ask for pebbles when someone was ready to give the gems! Who would ask for vegetables to the king, when he was willing to grant his whole kingdom!
Evolution of Prayer
Sri Krishna in the Gita says: Four types of persons pray to me: 1) Those who are in distress, 2) those who are in need, 3) those who are curious, and 4) those who are wise (Jnani). Out of these the first one can be excused for he prays out of panic and helplessness, and the second one remembers the Lord only when his needs cannot be fulfilled. 'O God, I do not have sufficient money to feed my family, would you not give me higher scale or a better Job?' The third and the fourth categories are of selfless aspirants. The third devotee - the curious one, like a scientist, tries to know the secrets of this mind-boggling universe of name and forms, of joys and sorrows, etc. He says: 'O Lord, I do not understand the intricacies of this universal order (or disorder); pray, tell me the secrets of this Sun and the Moon, the Earth and all your creation!' But the fourth, the Jnani, prays because he has had realized the glory of the Self. He prays: 'O Lord, I have understood your glory as the substratum of all beings; you are great, for nothing is impossible for you. O Lord, I pray to you for the welfare of all.' 'Lead me from darkness to Light, lead me from ignorance to Knowledge, lead me from mortality to Immortality,' is one such true spiritual prayer.
The Lord naturally loves His fourth devotee who prays Him through Knowledge and whose prayer transforms automatically into the highest form of worship. In Jnana one finds the true and esthetic synthesis of prayer and worship; in Jnana we find beauty of simultaneous complaint and reverence of a sadhaka towards God. However, the highest prayer comes from the highest Knowledge of Advaita. When one realizes the truth about himself, that he is none other than the Atman, all his prayers come to a standstill. He is dumfounded, for how can the Self ask anything form the Self! In such a situation of identity with the Absolute, speech stops and no words come out to form a prayer. Albeit, when such a person comes down to ordinary level of human consciousness his knowledge of universal solidarity stays with him and his prayer becomes universal in appeal and compassionate in content. The highest Advaita prayer according to Swami Vivekananda is:
"Rise thou effulgent one, rise thou who art always pure, rise thou birthless and deathless, rise almighty, and manifest thy true nature. These little manifestations do not befit thee." (C. W. vol.2, Practical Vedanta, page 357)
A word about worship
The natural human tendency to pay for the services one receives, or asks for, prompts the person to 'give' something to God in return for granting the prayers. Most of the persons promise something in advance. 'O Lord, if you would do this for me I would give you this in return!' Thus, prayer automatically brings in the concept and element of worship. As Sri Ramakrishna said, 'O Mother, I promise to offer you jaggery and coconut if you would cure Keshab.' Gradually, in anticipation of bad time, the person starts offering something to God even while he needs nothing right then. Thus, daily worship can be seen as an insurance premium, which a person pays for the needy days! "O Lord, I have done so much for you, all these days, won't you do this much for me now that I'm in difficulty!" This is not to belittle worship, for as with prayers the contents of worship also change to a higher level in course of time and with the progress of knowledge in the heart and mind of the sadhaka.
No prayer should ever be ridiculed or despised, howsoever crude it might be, and howsoever selfish it might appear; for, in every prayer one finds the acceptance of higher authority of God. Every person who prays accepts the higher Self and his ego takes a secondary place at least for that period of time. Gradually, with some inexplicable factors, his power of discrimination leads him to selfless prayer in course of time.
How do the prayers have their effect? This is a tricky question, and the answer may be that the mind that prays is but a part of cosmic or universal mind, and the cosmic mind is one. Every mind is interconnected at this cosmic level, and hence when one prays a few other persons connected with that aspect of the prayer also get some vibrations in their subconscious minds. They in turn become helpful in realization of the prayer. For instance, if one were sincerely praying for the recovery of his son from the injuries in an accident, the concerned doctor treating the patient would get affected by such vibrations and would put extra efforts in the care of the injured. Or, similarly, some wealthy person would come forward to bear the cost of treatment etc.
When the prayers are not granted, the person might curse the Lord for His 'failure', but this is a temporary phase. All the Sadhakas soon accept the grace of God and do not blame Him for the 'failures' in fulfilling their wishes. Such a state augurs well for the well being of the person in long run, as happened in case of Swami Vivekananda. Had he asked for a few rupees for his family, and had the Mother granted such a prayer we would have not seen the great spiritual leader in the form of Swami Vivekananda!
c s shah