No matter which culture we may belong to, there is a practice of prayer in every culture. Some of us pray and some of us don’t. Among those who pray, not many know why they do pray. Sometimes, it’s simply that since childhood, we have seen our parents praying, and we have picked up the practice. Of course, at exam time, our faith in an unseen, unknown power gets reinforced. Then, as the saying goes, there is no atheist in a battlefield.
There is also the story about an airhostess on a flight asking, “How many of you believe in God?’ One hand goes up. She replies, “Good, we are one life-jacket less.”
A prayer can be expressed in simple words, or can be an elaborate ritual. But all prayers have a purpose.
In Hindu culture, before the start of any ritual, we make the sankalpa (promise) that “mama upätta samasta durita-kshyärtham, sri parameshwara-priti-artham,nitya-kalyäna-läbhärtham, aham idam pujäm karishye”, which means – “to neutralise all the wrong-doings, in this life or former human lives, and to please the Lord and to obtain auspiciousness, I am performing this ritual.”
Now, this sankalpa can stretch to two pages, taking into account the name of the person praying, the time, the place, and the number of wishes whose fulfillment the person is seeking through such prayer. It is an altogether different thing to be born an ästika (believer) family; then, prayer comes naturally to a person.
The Law of Karma
Karma is a huge network of laws, which operates purely mechanically. Logically speaking, if there is such a thing as surviving death by a continuing jiva, there must be laws governing the being’s next birth. Many aspects have to be arranged – the time and place of birth, parentage, besides the social, cultural and financial position of the family, the position in the pack of siblings, and so on – all of which affect, in some way, the child which is born.
Thus, each person is the result of a set of karmas, and carries with him/her a set of karmas that unfold every day. This pattern is determined by astrology, and before one attains the incarnation of a human life, a huge matrix of karma is involved.
The law of karma is, indeed, long-reaching. The scriptures say, “himsäm na kuryät”, which means “do not indulge in violence”. It says “satyam vada, dharmam cara.” Thus, any prohibited action results in päpa (not sin), and all positive actions result in punya (merits). Every human being is born with a huge cauldron comprising a mixture of päpa and punya. In fact, the life of a human being is more or less an equal measure of punya and päpa. Now, päpa and punya being adrshta (unseen), it results in many pleasant and unpleasant situations.
The morning has been good; suddenly, something happens in the evening. Some päpa fructifying, no doubt. Then, you experience some windfall gain, which you cannot attribute to any of your actions. Well, that’s some punya fructifying.The Law of Karma is subtle. We do not know our past karma. However, when we cannot match a given situation, pleasant or unpleasant, with any of our immediate actions, we know it must be because of our past karma.
Karma and Prayer
Now, what can one do to neutralise one’s papa, and enhance one’s punya? Yes, the shastras give us an answer to that as well. In fact, the shastras continuously propel us to perform good actions and diligently avoid wrong action, so that we avoid the lives of animals and plants in our next life.How can we neutralise the effects from past karmas – the immediate as well as the remote past? One way is through prayer. One of the purposes of prayer is to eliminate one’s daily wrongdoings, and the Lord extends His help when we pray. That is why prayer is prescribed throughout the day – at sunrise, at noon, at sunset. Even if one has not committed any wrongdoing that day, there is always past karma unfolding every day.
Sometimes one may find either päpa or punya coming in waves for a period – a few years, a few months, or a few weeks, one after another. There may be nothing but päpa fructifying for a period (in astrological terms, it is Shani or Mangal dasä), and then afterwards, one finds that everything going well (in astrological terms, it is Shukra or Brhaspati dasä).
The efficacy of prayer
When people ask me, does prayer work, I ask them in turn, “Can you afford not to pray, even on an experimental level?” There are people who try to reason out: “What is the use of praying when one is otherwise behaving so badly with others?’ It is like saying, “What is use of going to the gym if you are having ice-cream?” Well, the gym will do its work; and the ice cream will do its. What if the person who consumed the ice-cream did not go to the gym as well? Wouldn’t the situation be worse, healthwise?
Similarly, prayer is an action, whereas being a nice person is about values and attitudes. Neither is a substitute for the other. The nice person can enhance his/her life by adding prayer. And the prayerful person can endeavour to become nice to others. Still, it does not reduce the efficacy of prayer.
Can we pray for others?
Of course, we can pray for others. Even without knowing the shastras, people do pray for others out of sheer love and concern. When Sonia Gandhi was detected with cancer, mrutyunjaya homa was performed. When Sachin goes to bat, the whole of India prays. In the family, when we see an errant member, we pray, so that he comes back to the right path. We pray for dependent children, as we do for ailing parents. In Buddhist culture, they have a Maitri meditation, where they pray for old, diseased and hungry human beings, and also animals and birds, to get food, water and rest; for all those physically and mentally afflicted to get well; for travelers to reach their destination safely and comfortably; and for general goodwill and tolerance between people.
Prayer does work. We see services being done for many unfortunate people. Does it work? You bet, it does.
–Swämini Ätmaprajnänanda Saraswati