We were seated in a restaurant waiting for our dinner to be served, when my six-year old daughter Meenakshi began to play her ‘favorites’ game. She asked everyone present what their favorite animal, place, person, fruit, flower, food and so on were. Finally she came to me and asked, “Ma! What is your favorite thing?” Hungry and tired, I replied, “Meenu, I don’t have any thing called my favorite thing!” She excitedly replied, “Shall I tell you my favorite thing?” Glad of the respite, I nodded my head. “GOD!” she said with a broad grin of satisfaction. Curious, I asked her “Is God a thing?” She immediately replied, “You told me God is everywhere and in everything. If He is in everything, then He is a thing, right? Why can’t He be my favorite thing?” Bowled by a six-year-old’s logic, I smiled and remained silent.
Several months later, Meenakshi ran to me as I was settling down for my prayers and asked, “Ma! If God is everywhere and in everything, why should we pray?”
I remember the two-year-old Meenakshi coming into the kitchen and asking me to play with her. I had replied then that I would play only after my evening prayers. The toddler had quickly run to the puja area and had returned a few moments later, to smilingly declare to me – “Ma, I have sorted it out with God. He says he doesn’t mind if you postpone your prayers for later. He has asked you to first play with me. So shall we begin?” I was deeply touched by my daughter’s faith and had of course postponed my prayers for that evening.
Many years ago, Swami Vivekananda visited a great sage, a very holy man. They talked of the Vedas, the Bible, the Koran, and of revealed books in general. At the close of their talk, the sage asked Swami Vivekananda to go to the table and pick up a book. It was a book that, among other things, contained a forecast of the rainfall during the year. The sage said, “Read that” and Swami Vivekananda read out the quantity of rain that was to fall. The sage then said, “Now take the book and squeeze it.” As Swami Vivekananda did so the sage said, “Why, my boy, not a drop of water comes out. Until the water comes out, it is all book, book. So until your religion makes you realize God, it is useless. He who only studies books for religion reminds one of the fable of the ass which carried a heavy load of sugar on its back, but did not know the sweetness of it.” Of what use is prayer if it doesn’t translate into experiencing divinity in life? Sri Paramahansa Yogananda writes, “Whatever conception we have of God, if it does not influence our daily conduct, if everyday life does not find an inspiration from it, and if it is not found universally necessary, then that conception is useless…. God may be Infinite, Omnipresent, Omniscient, Personal, and Merciful, but these conceptions are not sufficiently compelling to make us try to know Him…. The very conception of God should stir us to seek Him in the midst of our daily lives… We should take religion and God out of the sphere of belief into that of daily life”
It is imperative to answer the question “What is prayer” before we attempt to comprehend “Why should we pray?” Prayer is not a begging bowl of unlimited demands nor is it the consideration for trading with an Automatic Vending Machine called ‘God’. Prayer is not an unconscious repetition of unknown syllables nor is it the arduous rituals performed without true understanding or incline. Perhaps the Sanskrit term “YOGA” fully describes the concept of prayer. “Yoga” means “to unite”. Yoga is that which unites our individual consciousness to cosmic consciousness. If someone has experienced that unison through music, he might swear that music is his prayer; while another could have experienced it while sitting silently in a meditative process. Patanjali, the foremost exponent of Yoga, out-lined eight distinct steps adhering to which would lead us to experience unison. Yama (social discipline) and Niyama (Individual discipline) require observance of five proscriptive moralities and five positive prescriptions – the dos and don’ts of right living. Asana (right posture) enumerates how the body should be held firm with the spinal column held straight for meditation. Then comes Pranayama – the control of Prana or subtle life currents. While human beings distinctly operate with voluntary (hands, legs, etc.) and involuntary (heart, lungs, etc.) actions, breath is the chord that connects our life to this body and is the only action that is normally involuntary but can become voluntary under our conscious control. The ancient seers realised that by controlling the breath, they could gain control of inner organs as well. Though normally translated as ‘Breath control”, Pranayama is actually conscious control of the life currents operating in our body. Prana (Crystallization), Vyana (Circulation), Samana (Assimilation), Udana (Metabolism) and Apana (Elimination) are the five aspects of the universal Prana, by controlling which the yogis learnt to operate from a higher level of consciousness.
The fifth stage described by Patanjali is Pratyahara or interiorizing the sense organs – that is, withdrawal of the senses from external objects and becoming engrossed within, undisturbed by sensations and restless thoughts. Once this is achieved, Dharana or concentration to hold the mind on one thought becomes feasible. When one sustains and maintains the focus of attention through Dharana unbound by time and space, it becomes Dhyana (Meditation), which in turn leads to the final stage of Yoga – Samadhi or Self-Realisation. These eight steps are not merely for Yogis, but may be followed by everyone in all aspect of life.
Based on these eight principles, many methods of yoga have been formulated. Hatha Yoga is a system of physical exercises that render the body fit to receive the greater voltage of God’s cosmic energy. Laya Yoga signifies complete absorption in any mental concept of the divine, such as the vibration of ‘AUM’. Karma Yoga signifies union through good works and right activity. Mantra Yoga consists of chanting, either loudly, softly or mentally on the root word sounds. Raja Yoga or the ‘Royal Highway’ combines all that is best in the highest forms of yoga. The followers of Bhakti Yoga or devotion to God claim that ‘the devotee of God wants to eat sugar and not to become sugar!’ Some people want to be the perfect cup to hold the sugar (Hatha Yoga); some others wish to harvest sugar in all their activities (Karma Yoga); few probe to find the structure of sugar (Gnana Yoga); many just long to taste its divine flavour (Bhakti Yoga); rare are those who strive to become that sugar (the Advaitist). But the one common thing to all of them is the desire for ‘sugar’ in one form or another.
‘Meditation is an adventure, an adventure into the unknown, the greatest adventure the human mind can take’ – says Osho. If prayer is born out of a desire for escape, the result will only be disappointment for there is no place to flee. But when adventure, not escapism is the prime motive, meditation opens up vistas of rich experiences, deeply personal and absolutely inspiring. Why miss on such an adventure? Yes! It takes courage to embark on the inward journey.
Sri Ramakrishna Paramahansa said, “Satchidananda alone is the Guru. The true Guru is the self within. The external teacher is simply a projection of it.” All we need to ensure is that our flame of need for the divine sugar ‘God’ is always burning. Then our inner self will guide us beyond. Without that yearning, no form of unison is possible. When there is total intensity and dynamic unity, the processor no longer exists, only the process remains. When there is absolute craving for that sugar called ‘God’, the object, subject and the process unite into conscious bliss. There is one point while the queen of Indian music, M.S.Subbulakshmi sings, when the singer is lost, only the song remains. But the song is conscious – M.S.Subbulakshmi does not have to ask her audience about her experience. She just transforms into a conscious song herself. Similarly, whatever our method of prayer, if it is done with total dynamic unity, there will be a point when neither the one praying nor the prayer remains – just a conscious ‘sugar’ remains. Teaching a method of prayer might be intruding into ones creative space; but increasing their desire for the sugar called ‘God’ would only increase their chances to achieve Self-Realisation.
“Ma! Why should we pray?”, my daughter repeated her question. I pulled her onto my lap and hugged her in gratitude for teaching me with her questions. “Meenu, do you know that Appa and I love you?” – I asked. She pulled herself away – “Of course Ma!” I smiled. “You too love both of us, right?”, I asked with mock anxiety. She gave an impatient smile – “Of course I do Ma!” she replied. “Why do you then insist on hugging us, cuddling us, telling us ‘I love you’, and expect us to demonstrate our love for you all the time?” She looked at me straight in the eye and said – “Because it is fun!” “Exactly”, I said, “Though we know that we love each other we still wish to experience this love. Similarly, though God is everywhere, life is to experience Him, in every possible way. Prayer is nothing but that activity which you do conscious of God’s presence. So the reason one should pray all the time, is to remain conscious of God’s presence all the time.”
I dug into my handbag to pick out a booklet printed by the Divine Life Society to read out a poem titled ‘THE DIFFERENCE’. As I read it Meenakshi leaned onto my shoulders with absolute peace and surrender – an action that children do in the arms of their parents in confidence that they would be looked after always. I realised she had understood the true essence of prayer, for in my arms she was actually experiencing His divine promise to be with her always.
I got up early one morning
And rushed right into the day
I had so much to accomplish
That I didn’t have time to pray.
Problems just tumbled about me
And heavier came each task
“Why doesn’t God help me?” I wondered
He answered, “You didn’t ask”.
I wanted to see joy and beauty,
But the day toiled gray and bleak;
I wondered why God didn’t show me.
He said, “But you didn’t seek”.
I tried to come into God’s presence
I used all my keys in the lock.
God gently and lovingly chided,
“My child, you didn’t knock”.
I woke up early this morning,
And paused before entering the day;
I had so much to accomplish
That I had to take time to pray.
Written by Gita Krishna Raj | Published in infinithoughts in February 2004