By Narayan Murthy
Prayers are not for striving to make the divine power subservient to our wishes, but an endeavour to align one with the divine will
One day there passed by a company of cats, a wise dog. As he came near and saw that they were very intent and heeded him not, he stopped. Then there arose in the midst of the company a large, grave cat and it looked upon them and said, “Brethren, pray ye; and when ye have prayed again and yet again, nothing doubting, verily then it shall rain mice.”
When the dog heard this he laughed in his heart and turned from them saying, “Oh blind and foolish cats, has it not been written and have I not known and my fathers before me, that, that which raineth for prayer and faith and supplication is not mice, but bones.” This is a fable from The Madman by Kahlil Gibran. The theme is prayer. The dog condemns the prayer of the cats and calls them blind and foolish.
What about prayer, for what do we actually pray? When we pray, we ask – mostly for material things. We pray for money, the house, the car, success in business, success in exams, happiness in marriage, freedom from illness, for children, for power, and for fame. We are praying for mice or bones, and thinking ‘my religion is better than yours’! If we are harsh with ourselves, we will find that all our prayers turn out to be nothing but begging. That too for material things. Sometimes we also undertake fasts, go on pilgrimages to fulfil some material with – a child for the childless or a respite from a deadly disease. This kind of supplication is the lowest form of prayer. It is an indication that we are still too tied up in the matter, to think of higher possibilities. Even the disciples of Jesus had expressed their doubts about the lofty vision that he was presenting to them. Though this new prophet radiating holiness enchanted them, the ‘kingdom of heaven’ of which he talked about seemed too far-fetched and remote. How will they get their bread and butter, what would they eat and wear?
Jesus admonished them with the words, “Look at the faith of the birds of the air. They neither sow nor reap, and yet the Father feeds them. Consider the flowers of the earth. They do not spin or weave, but what king could ever dress in such magnificence? Do not be concerned about your body, what it will eat, what it will drink or wear? Your body was dust and it will return to dust. Let your concern be for the kingdom of heaven and for your immortal soul.” Even Jesus had to contend with this concern for material wealth while praying. Without judging it, without condemning it, we should accept it as the first rung of the ladder of prayer. As we grow in our being and in our consciousness, our prayer also rises to higher realms.
There was a time in Vivekananda’s life when he was going through major financial difficulties. His father had died, and as he was the eldest son the entire responsibility of the family fell on his young shoulders. In spite of his best efforts, he could do nothing to ease the suffering of his mother and his brothers, who went without two square meals on most of the days. Vivekananda went to Ramakrishna and pleaded for help. Ramakrishna advised him to pray to Mother Kali and to ask of her whatever he needed and assured him that he would not be refused. Vivekananda went and said: “Mother, please give me knowledge and devotion. I want nothing else.” He went back to his Master and reported what had happened. Ramakrishna sent him back and again the same prayer was repeated. The same thing happened for the third time. In spite of being desperately in need of money, every time Vivekananda approached the Mother all he could ask for was knowledge and devotion. He was incapable of asking for money. When we rise in our awareness, our prayer takes on a different meaning. The next stage in prayer comes when we still ask, but our asking is of a higher order, like Vivekananda. We ask for an expansion of our being; for an increase in our capacities to contain the divine. We ask in the following manner:
Lead me from the unreal to the Real
Lead me from darkness to Light
Lead me from death to Life Eternal
The Spirit has knocked at the door of our consciousness, and we find that we are lacking in our capacity to receive it. Our soul has awakened from a long night of sleep under the spell of tamas, of darkness and of inertia. Now dawn has come. The first light has appeared on our mental horizon. However, we do not know how to conduct our day. So we ask for guidance. We pray for more light. One of the most beautiful prayers of this kind of asking has been uttered by St Francis of Assissi:
Lord, make me an instrument of Thy peace
Where there is hatred, let me sow love
Where there is injury, pardon
Where there is doubt, faith
Where there is despair, hope
Where there is darkness, light
Where there is sadness, joy
All the lives we have fought for our own place, and for our own aspirations. We had sought divine intervention for our base desires. We came first. Now for the first time, we have accorded ourselves the second place. Now we have uttered: “Make me an instrument of Thy work.” After suffering countless wounds, after taking innumerable beatings from the world, at last, our bruised and shattered ego has started learning to surrender. Now we strive not to make the Divine power subservient to our wishes but endeavour to align our will to the Divine will. Now we have come to a stage where we have developed the capacity to say: “Not mine Father, but let Thy will be done.”
The Divine grace is endless, infinite. All limitations belong to us only. If the Divine is not flooding our lives with its light, it is because of our limited capacities. Rumi has written: “Moonlight floods the whole sky from horizon to horizon. How much it can fill your room depends on its windows.” All prayers of this kind are a plea to expand our windows because on our own, we do not even know how to do it. Expansion of the windows means breaking down of our limitations, of our ignorance, of our small vision and imperfect knowledge.
The silent prayer
The third stage of prayer is silence. It happens after the awakening that comes when we realise that we cannot possibly ask anything of God because he cannot be unaware of our true needs. We say after Francois Fenelon: “Lord, I know not what to ask of Thee. Thou only knowest what I need. Father, give to thy child that he himself knows not how to ask. Smite or heal, depress me or raise me up; I adore all thy purposes; without knowing them, I am silent.”
What to ask, does he not know? The Book of Psalms in the Old Testament puts it eloquently: “He that planted the ear, shall he not hear? He that formed the eye, shall he not see? He that teacheth man knowledge, shall he not know?” The dialogue ends. And there is silence. In that silence, there is seeing that this creation is a manifestation of the Divine. The Divine energy expresses itself in myriad forms. Nanak’s poetry bursts forth in this vision: In the forest Thou art green In the rivers, Thou art restless In the ocean, Thou art grave O God beautiful, at Thy feet I do bow This is what is meant by the Indian term ‘darshan’. It has been translated as philosophy but I think that it is a gross error. Darshan Shastra could be translated as philosophy but not darshan itself. This luminous seeing is darshan when all is seen as the manifestation of the Divine. Then we find ourselves in a state of passivity. We try to see and listen to God instead of talking to him. We realise that he is present as much in the deadly storm, which uproots the trees as in the gentle spring breeze, which kisses the barren trees to life. We see him in the gentle spring breeze and hear him in the song of the cuckoo and in the laughter of a child; also in the rumbling thunder. In this passivity and surrender grows our spirit. Bliss is showered on us. Joy and celebration enter our lives. Paradise is regained. Then we slowly begin to understand the meaning of the Zen saying: “This very earth, the Paradise. This very body, the Buddha.”
And so to gratitude Then only one thing remains, gratitude. We have come to the fourth and final stage of prayer. From doing, we have come at last to a state of being. There is nothing to be done. We have been cast in the midst of this vast existence where everything is perfect, the trees, the mountains, the seas, the flowing rivers, birds on the wing and in their midst, man. We realise that this life is a gift. The breath flowing in and out, the blood running in our veins and the heart beating to the tune of life. All of it is given to us, unasked. Can we stop them if we want? Can we start them again when they do stop? Do we have the right to say, “it’s my life”, as we often do? We have received this invaluable gift from God, and we haven’t even thanked Him. To breathe and being able to see, to hear, to touch, aren’t they all gifts in themselves? And all is so perfect! Robert Browning writes:
The year’s at the spring And day’s at the morn
Morning’s at seven The hillside’s dew pearled
The lark’s on the wing The snail’s on the thorn
God’s in His heaven All’s right with the world
Many would say, “All is right with the world? Are you blind to the misery and the suffering of the world?” But Browning knows all is right with the world. God’s world is always perfect, even the storms and the forest fires. Much of the misery of the world is man-made. Think of the miseries that are tormenting us – from terrorism to global warming, you would find them to be man-made. But when in gratitude, we are in prayer. To live a life of gratitude means being in prayer all the time. Now we remember God all the time in our thankfulness, in deep gratitude. Words and rituals become superfluous. We had started our prayers with wanting. Now we have made a long journey and arrived at gratitude. From lack and wanting to plenitude and thanking. For what we are, for what we already have. Tagore has written: Day by day, thou art making me worthy of the simple, great gifts That thou gavest to me unasked This sky and the light, this body and the life and the mind Saving me from the perils of overmuch desire This is a song of gratitude. This is the highest prayer. No rituals, no temples, no flowers. We become flowers ourselves to be offered to the Divine. The fragrance of our grateful heart spreads all around and brings solace to the suffering people around us because everywhere there is a complaint, bitterness and rancour. Our song of gratitude brings harmony and creates music in the midst of discord. We fulfil the prayer of St. Francis: “Where there is despair, let me sow hope”. Then as the fragrance of our grateful heart rises to the heavens, God smiles.
Narayan Murthy works as an Administrative Officer in LIC. Study of different religions and philosophies has been his life long passion
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If the divine is not flooding our lives with its light, it is because of our limited capacities We welcome your comments and suggestions on this article. Mail us at firstname.lastname@example.org
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