by Jayaram V
The meaning of Prarthana (Prayer)
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 grace or 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 come to their rescue. In
extreme testing conditions when too many pure souls make a
distress call, He even incarnates upon earth to destroy evil
and restore order. Some of the well knows 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 approach, 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 "dhanya" 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,
meaning prarthana is something that comes out of suffering.
to this view artha means either suffering or distress or calamity or adversity or affliction. "Pra" means that which
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. Sound has a special significance in Hinduism, because
space, which is also identified with ether or the essence of God, is
considered to be the medium for the sound. So from this perspective,
the ancient Indians believed that the best way to communicate with
God is through the use of sound or sound vibrations.
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
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.
Suggested Further Reading
1. Pronounced as praardhana, dha as in