he Meaning And Significance of Prarthana or Prayer in Hinduism

Prayer, Prarthana

by Jayaram V

In Sanskrit and most of the native Indian languages, the word prarthana1 means prayer or seeking. While the word has a deep religious connotation and peculiarly Hindu in its origin, in course of time it acquired a secular and generic sense and used to convey the meaning of "to request, or ask or seek something politely with a feeling of reverence or submissiveness."

In the Vedic parlance, prayer was more or less synonymous with mantra, a religious chant or incantation, used to communicate with gods and seek some kind of wealth or favor from them. The Vedic Indians performed elaborate rituals, chanting mantras or prayers to please the gods and seek their assistance in the fulfillment of individual desires or realize some potentially important goal either for themselves or for others or for the community in general. For example, one of the most frequently found prayers in the Vedas wishes for peace everywhere: peace in the worshipper's mind, body and environment or peace in the world, in the middle region of the celestial beings and in the highest world of the gods. Another prayer seeks perfection and wholeness of oneself and the world by becoming complete to reach out to That which is complete and perfect in everyway.

In Hinduism prayer or prarthana takes on many forms. Their purpose, however, is essentially the same which is seeking communion with God or gods, expressing one's love and devotion to them and obtaining their blessings and favors. The Hindu Puranas and epics such as the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, emphasize through many examples that God never fails to respond to the sincere calls of His devotees and comes to their rescue. We understand that in extraordinary circumstances when too many pure souls pray to him and make a distress call, He even incarnates upon earth to destroy evil and restore order.

Some of the well known forms of prayers are mantras, japas, bhajans. Mantras are incantations or chants, which are believed to be endowed with magical powers and powerful vibrations capable of manifesting reality or desired results through the intervention of gods. Japa is a continuous repetition of one or more names of God or some phrase from the scripture or given by a guru to calm the senses and control the mind or purify it. Bhajans are devotional songs, usually sung in groups to the accompaniment of music in front of the image of a deity or a guru.

Etymologically the word "prayer" can be interpreted in different ways. According to one interpretation we can view it as a combination of two root words, "prar" and "dhana" meaning to ask or to seek "dhana" or wealth. The word "dhana" is closely associated with the word "dhaanya" meaning grains, which was the most notable form of wealth in the ancient world. Closely linked to these two words is the word "daan", meaning charity. It was from the practice of giving food (grains) as charity to the needy people, probably the word "daan" came into usage. Interestingly, the corresponding word for "daan" is "donation" in English, "donat" in French and "donatio" in Latin, all of which along with Sanskrit belong to the Indo European group of languages.

According to another interpretation, the word "prarthana" may be split into "pra", "ardha" and na. "Pra" means source, "ardha" means wealth and na is the sound that comes out of the openings of the body as in "nada". The underlying concept is that it is by praying one gains an entry into the source of all forms of wealth, which is God Himself. A third interpretation associates the word prarthana with suffering, or aarthra. In this context, prarthana means any prayer or distress call one makes in times of great suffering seeking divine help. According to this view aarthra means either suffering or distress or calamity or adversity or affliction. "Pra" means that which defines or gives expression to suffering and "na" is the sound which is made while giving expression to it. In this context prarthana means to give expression to one's suffering or affliction through sound, seeking a possible solution. All prayers are but sounds or expressions of speech. Speech and sounds have a special significance in Hinduism, because space, which is also identified with ether or the essence of God, is considered to be the medium of the sound, while space itself is considered the physical manifestation of Brahman. It is filled with air, breath or prana, without which life is not possible. Therefore, from this perspective, prayer is the means to communicate with God through the immediately available mediums of space, speech, sounds, and sacrifices.

The Vedic people used various combinations of sounds in the form of mantras to pray to gods on various occasions. They chanted them for the protection of their kings before going to war, on the occasion of marriage, birth of a child, initiation ceremony or death, at the time of the acquisition of some property or change of one's residence. They also prayed for good harvest and favorable climate. Through prayers sacrificial offerings and invocations, they aimed to purify things and people or appease the gods to seek their blessings for prosperity, peace and happiness for themselves and for their patrons. They believed in the efficacy of prayers and their ability to cleanse one's sins, drive away evil, ward off diseases and change the course of human lives.

The early Vedic Indians were pastoral people, who lived in open grasslands, near major rivers and trade routes and usually surrounded by dense forests. Groups of families bound by common ancestry or professional dependency, lived together as small communities in villages, surrounded by a wooden wall, fence or moat serving as a protection against prying animals and hostile tribes. Not all of them practiced Vedic religion or lived in open or honored the caste divisions. Some lived deep in the forests and worshipped nature gods. There were some who worshipped different deities and did not acknowledge the supremacy of the Vedas. But one practice which was common to them was that they used ritual prayers, chants, spells and sacrifices as a part of their worship. Life must have been difficult for the people who lived in India at a time when the land was mostly covered by dense forests, filled with abundant wildlife, hostile tribes and dangerous animals. They were not yet brought under full control or made safer by Agni the fire god or Indra the storm god or Varuna the god of law. Abundant rains and frequent flooding of the plains by overflowing rivers made life difficult for the people who lived in small settlements along the rivers and the animals they domesticated such as goats, rams, bulls, cows, buffaloes, horses and elephants. Whether they practiced Vedic religion or not, prayers gave them hope and security against the vulnerabilities to which they were susceptible.

For the ancient people the overwhelming power of nature was too difficult to ignore. So in their prayers they aimed to protect themselves from the destructive acts of nature and from the mysterious diseases and calamities that struck them from time to time. Through prayers they also sought material wealth, peace and prosperity from the divinities whom the believed wielded enormous power over the elements and the vagaries of nature. They prayed for material wealth, such as cattle, good harvest, victory in war, health, progeny, success in some venture and so on. We know a little about the people who followed the Vedas, but much less about the rest, except for a few vague references about them found in the Vedic literature of the time.

The Vedic people believed in the four aims of human life, known as the purusharthas, namely dharma or religion, artha or material wealth, kama or sensual pleasures and moksha or salvation. The structure and purpose of prayers in Hinduism are still connected with these aims. If prayer is an expression of one's faith in the Dharma or religion and a means to know it and master it, it is also the means to achieve the other three. It is also the means by which a devout Hindu can find a way to contact with his inmost self and become aware of its sacredness and true identity.

It is however not true that the Vedic Indians used prayers to seek only wealth or happiness from various gods. While they aimed to enjoy good life and sought riches and expensive gifts from their patrons and donors, they were aware of the ultimate aim of human life, which was to find a safe passage to the higher worlds. The study of the scriptures and application of religious values in their day to day lives, gave them a spiritual bent of mind and a deeper need to integrate and harmonize their spiritual yearnings and material cravings in a very religious and harmonious way. Through their prayers they sought wealth of all kinds, spiritual wealth, physical wealth, personal wealth, universal wealth, wealth of character, wealth of power and prestige, wealth of name and fame, wealth of happiness and joy and so on. They sought to fulfill their desires, without losing their focus on the larger aims of human life, that would enrich their lives and bring them knowledge, peace and prosperity. As a part of this grand scheme of life, they looked beyond themselves, praying not only for the welfare of themselves, but of the entire community to which they belonged.

The Vedas are essentially prayer books. In them we find different types of prayers: ritual prayers, spiritual prayers, prayers to reach out to gods, cure diseases, beget children, expiate sins, gain wealth, caste off evil, harm the enemies, seek protection from evil and so on. The early Vedic people used ritual prayers to perform elaborate sacrificial ceremonies to appease gods and seek their favors, according to well established procedures and a strict code of conduct. Some of the rituals, such as the agnichayana rituals, lasted for months or years, as the priests had to build huge altars according to specific geometric shapes and patterns, while chanting the mantras or prayers. In the later Vedic period we see a definite shift towards spiritual prayers as the ritual was internalized and the human body itself was identified as the ritual place, the inner soul as an aspect of Brahman or Brahman itself and various divinities representing various organs or energies of the body. The emergence of devotional Hinduism through Vaishnavism and Saivism also contributed to this development.

Suggestions for Further Reading


1. Pronounced as praardhana, dha as in dhamma

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