Published on 15th March, 2017, on www.dailyo.in.
While it is fashionable to say that all religions are the same, and so are all prayers, the fact is that Hindu prayers are very different from Christian and Muslim prayers, and also from Sikh, Buddhist and Jain. This is because prayers exist in a mythic worldview, and depending on the worldview, the nature of the prayer is different. For example, Buddhists and Jains do not have the concept of a single all-powerful God, that is found in Islam, Christianity and Sikhism, so naturally a Buddhist prayer is bound to be different from a Muslim or Sikh prayer.
Christians, Muslims and Sikhs believe in an all-powerful singular formless God. The purpose of prayer is to acknowledge this God and experience humility before God’s greatness and grandeur. Among Christians, there is an additional purpose – to ask for forgiveness for sins, a concept not found in Islam. In Islam, prayer is reinforcing the article of faith that God is great and there is no God but God (Allah in Arabic). Everything happens because of Allah.
In Sikhism, the prayer is to acknowledge that the formless singular God treats all creatures equally, thus alluding to the social inequality that is part of Hindu faith. The Sikhs also acknowledge the gurus just as Muslims acknowledge the Prophet and Christians acknowledge Jesus, as the son of God, who leads one towards God.
In these prayers, there is a sense of consistency and homogeneity, as everyone is part of a single faith, and there is one way of praying. No innovations are allowed. The church, mosque and gurdwara is a place where the faithful gather, and everyone, all together, pray in the same way, using the same prayers and same rituals. This evokes a sense of equality before God, and humility before a powerful force.
In Buddhism, prayers are not to any deity. Prayers are meant to help the mind focus and concentrate, and make the journey towards either mindlessness or mindfulness. Here, prayer is part of the meditative process that is central to Buddhism. In some Buddhist schools, one does pray to the Adi Buddha, or the eternal Buddha, who lives in the pure land of Sukhavati, and watches over all humanity as Avalokiteshvara Bodhisattva, or to the Buddha-chitta within all human beings. Thus, there is an object of prayer, who is the wise teacher, or the wisdom possibility, but not God.
In Jainism, prayers are offered to the great sages, teachers, gurus, and deities, who enable the Jain in his personal journey of purification. Every individual prays in his individual way, based on prescribed techniques and rituals. There are special prayers where the holy men of yore, such as arhats and tirthankaras, are celebrated and their glory acknowledged. There is, however, no all-powerful God here who controls one destiny or makes rules about the world. The gods and gurus enshrined in temples are those who help us negotiate our way through the world that is an impersonal infinite and eternal entity functioning with its own rules.
Hindu prayer is marked by diversity. There are Vedic prayers and Agamic prayers, prayers in Sanskrit and prayers in regional languages. There are prayers with only rituals and no words. There are communal bhajans and kirtans and there are private prayers chanted by priests in temples, not to be chanted by the uninitiated. There are prayers for Shiva, for Vishnu, for Ram and Krishna, for Durga and Saraswati. You cannot substitute one for the other.
The purpose of the Hindu prayer is to invoke the deity (avahan), praise them (aarti), and eventually ask help from them (phala stuti). The gods are addressed in very personal terms – their form is described, their attributes admired, their adventures recounted. The prayer seems like a petition, almost transactional, for the devotee, after praising the deity for helping so many in distress, asks for both psychological well-being as well as solution to one’s problems. In Hindu prayers, there is no concept of confession, though a devotee can ask for forgiveness from a deity if he wants to, to allay his guilt and shame, but that does not guarantee escape from what is written in karma. Prayers can be made to various forces like planets and directions to improve living conditions and to ward off malevolent forces.
Different gods are called upon for different purposes and different occasions – Saraswati is favoured in schools, Lakshmi in businesses, Durga by politicians. Same devotee can pray to different gods in different times, in different moods, as per need. There is no obsession with monotheism. Depending on comfort, every deity is seen as different, and every deity is seen as manifestation of the same divine. Prayers for village or family gods create a sense of community, but may not be appreciated by people from outside the village or family or clan. Prayers and rituals of Vaishnava Brahmins of Tamil Nadu may be very different from that of the Vaishnava Brahmins of Gangetic plains. Prayers that were popular in Vedic times have given way to more popular forms with the masses, like the Hanuman Chalisa in local dialect of Hindi.
Some prayers are meant for temples, some for household shrines, some can be done anywhere and anytime. Some can be long, elaborate hymns with correct pronunciation and melody. Some can be just chanting a hymn or name repeatedly. Some prayers are part of rituals, some are not. Some are meant for the deity outside. Some are meant to calms one’s mind, said to be the deity inside our body-temple. Regular household prayers have long been used by parents to educate their children in the ways of culture. Bhajans and kirtans became popular during the Indian freedom struggle to create community groups across religious sects and castes. Thus, prayers are highly customised to individual need, though strongly influenced by family and other social forces.
Some Hindus will say the act of praying is good enough. This is karma yoga. Some will say that the emotion accompanying the prayer is more important than the prayer. This is bhakti yoga. Some will say that the meaning of the words of the prayer are important and they reveal the truth of the universe. This is gyan yoga. This multi-faceted, diverse and dynamic approach to prayer is unique to Hinduism.