By Susmita Saha
At a time when religion has largely been reduced to rituals, it is worthwhile to look at the meditative aspects of some of these practices
Religious meditation can be a tool for abating antagonism, tension and other corrosive feelings that are detrimental to spiritual growth
The dawn sky is splashed in vermilion. Boatmen awakened from deep slumber are ferrying their boats to distant shores. Bells toll in the distant horizon. Devotees carry brass pots on their way to take the sacred plunge in the Ganga. This is followed by the ritual of surya pranam, the incantation of mantras ushering the dawn on the ghats of Varanasi. The day has begun on a note of meditative reverence.
In every religion, meditation has been a tool for abating antagonism, tension and other corrosive feelings that are detrimental to spiritual growth. Thus, Sikhism promotes a kind of meditation involving the supplication to the supreme being, recalling the sacrifices of those true to faith. The Sikh ardaas is an invocation to the Almighty and requires devotees to stand up with bowed heads and hands clasped in prayer at sunset. There are no conditions laid down for elaborate functions. A meditative introspection at the culmination of each day is what is desired of an individual. The Sikh concept of meditation also includes shabads and Gurbani kirtans, which play an integral part in aligning the distressed mind to the tune of soulful music.
Similarly, Islamic meditation lays stress on creating an understanding rather than performing ritualistic functions. Islamic meditation comprises two schools. The first involves the practice described in the Quran and Sunnah, the other was later developed by the Sufis. The original concept of meditation is based on contemplation described as tafakkur in Quran. It means reflection upon the universe to gain food for thought.
“According to my knowledge, Islamic meditation is based on At-tafakkur wat tadabbur, implying its association with thinking or intellectual awakening,” opines Maulana Wahiduddin Khan, Islamic scholar. He cites the example of Abu Darda, a companion to the Prophet. After his death a man came to his wife and asked her about the kind of worship Darda performed. She replied that he would spend the entire day thinking.
Contemplation is also fundamental to Christian meditation. Karen Armstrong points out in her work, A History Of God: “If Jesus was not a human being, there would be no hope for us. It was by contemplating Christ’s life of perfectly obedient sonship that Christians will become divine themselves.”
Prayers constitute an integral part of Christian meditation. Sunday masses are an occasion to introspect on the sins and blessings of life. Practices of saying the rosary comprising beads variously strung together, according to the kind, order, and number of prayers in certain forms of devotion, are common among Catholics. Concentration is the essence of Christian prayer.
Buddhism emphasises right conduct and meditation, and analyses them in what is known as the Eight Fold Path. The Buddha illustrates the Eight Fold Path in The Foundations of the Kingdom of Righteousness as: “That path which opens the eyes and bestows understanding… to the higher wisdom, to full enlightenment, to nirvana.”
Sufi meditation regards dhikr or remembrance of God as its most important element. It involves the practice of repeatedly invoking the name of God with intense concentration. The next stage of dhikr is muraqaba or meditation. It is a form of self-concentration often equated with dhyana and samadhi. In his work Awariful Maarif, Shababuddin Suhrawardi describes the exercises of muraqaba as followed by dervishes: “On the heels, with elbows touching, the dervishes sit in a circle and make slight movements of the head and body… Seated, they begin these motions in measured cadence with a sober countenance, eyes closed or fixed upon the ground.”
The Vedic traditions speak of a form of meditation called dig-bandhana (tying up the directions, tying up the 10 quarters around an individual) as the first act before one begins meditation. Vedantic meditation also recognises ‘the hour of God’ or brahmamuhurta as the ideal time for meditation. It refers to the fourth quarter of the night, when the ‘elixir of humanity’ is believed to pour forth from the heaven on the crown of the head.
The Upanishads liken meditation to a state of transcendental or mystic experience which corresponds to different views of reality at different stages. The primary step towards this mystical experience is the negation or denial of all external things. Brahman or atman is described as neither this nor that—“Neti, neti, atman”.
Sufism too promotes the idea of moral freedom since its origin itself is representative of a reaction against the intellectualism, cold formalism and ritualism of the Muslim orthodoxy. Farida Khanam, lecturer at the department of Islamic Studies in Jamia Milia Islamia, says: “To tread this path (the path of repentance or tawabah), a Sufi must abstain from even those things which are held lawful in Islam. According to the Sufi ideal of poverty, true poverty is not merely lack of wealth, but lack of desire for wealth: the empty heart as well as the empty hand… Dhikr or remembrance of God is regarded as the most important element of Sufi meditation.”
Apart from promoting tolerance and harmony among individuals, religious meditation alleviates the spiritual and physical well being. According to Jainism, the physical body is the medium and not the root cause of suffering. The cause lies in the karma-sarira, the coded record of ones’s past deeds. Kayotsarg meditation, the core technique of Preksha Dhyan, helps primarily in identifying the cause of this suffering and subsequently eliminating the suffering from both the physical body and karma-sarira by harmonising body, mind and spirit. Acharya Mahaprajna, head of the Terapanth Jain Sect (Shwetambar) says: “The principle here is that this physical body is not mine and I am not just this physical body.”
The practices of religious meditation involve rituals that help in the proper coordination of the mind and body. The postures of meditation require complete preoccupation with the act, thereby ensuring exercise of muscle and bones. Kayotsarg meditation of Jains is associated with adopting a comfortable posture by sitting, standing or lying down. It also comprises inhalation, exhalation and relaxing the muscles of the calf, knees, thighs, abdomen, hip, waist and spine. Chapter 96 of the Quran says: “Do Sajdah and come nearer to God.” The Quranic term Sajdah means prostration, which is considered to be the highest form of meditation, it is a form of unification of the body and mind. Namaaz requires the devotee to get down on his knees, and place his hands on them. It also includes repeating ‘Allah hu Akbar’, in which is implicit the feeling of utmost humility.
Here lies the essence of religion as it should be. For meditation, as part of a ritual, can be a purifying, as well as a unifying practice, bridging the gaps of society, status and temperaments.
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