Prayer as a Spiritual Discipline

By Swami Bhajanananda

Swami Bhajanananda was the editor of Prabuddha Bharata from 1979 through 1986, and has contributed many articles to various Vedanta journals. This article first appeared in Prabuddha Bharata and was later reprinted in Living Wisdom: Vedanta in the West (Vedanta Press). Swami Bhajanananda is an Assistant-Secretary and Trustee of the Ramakrishna Order.

There is hardly anyone who has not prayed at some time or other in his life. When a baby feels hungry or discomfort it cries. To its mother at least, it is an unarticulated prayer, and she runs to it and attends to its needs. In a way, every wish may be regarded as an unuttered prayer. In this sense even an atheist or a materialist prays; only in his case he prays to himself.

Prayers may be grouped into two main divisions: secular and spiritual. Secular prayers are for the fulfillment of worldly desires and needs. Life is full of uncertainties, and in the life of every person come times when he finds himself in the grip of forces which are beyond his control. Confronted with fear and despair, buffeted by sorrows and difficulties, millions of people turn to God in prayer.

There is no need to go deep into the question whether such prayers are answered and, if so, how it can be reconciled with the law of karma, for our purpose here is only to study the second type of prayer, namely, spiritual prayer—prayer practiced as a spiritual discipline.

The main purpose of spiritual prayer is to seek divine assistance in attaining moral purity and spiritual progress. A true devotee of God prays not for material things, which are after all transitory, but for spiritual enlightenment. Prayer represents the first stage in the aspirant’s struggle for higher consciousness.

Even those who do not believe in a personal God or in the efficacy of prayer are advised to pray for others in order to free themselves from thoughts of hatred, jealousy, and selfishness which are inimical to their own spiritual progress. Prayer in this sense is only a way of purifying oneself by sending good thoughts to others. Since all individual minds are parts of a cosmic mind, this kind of prayerful thinking may help others. One may thus render service to others in silence—a form of mental karma yoga.

Another point to be kept in mind here is that, although spiritual prayer may also be petitionary, it is not so much the fulfillment of the petition that is important as the act of praying itself. The act of praying is in itself a technique of concentration. Through prayer the scattered powers of the will converge upon the object of prayer. The concentration thus achieved may not be total as in true contemplation or meditation, but it is a great help for its attainment. The fulfillment of a spiritual need such as purity or devotion may be the primary motivation to pray, but the act of praying serves as a technique of concentration and takes the aspirant nearer to God.

A true spiritual aspirant prays not only for the fulfillment of his inner needs, but also because he knows that the very act of praying will take him closer to God. And, as he advances on the path of prayer, this aspect of concentration becomes more important than fulfillment of needs.

All the great religions of the world teach prayer. Among them Christianity gives the greatest importance to it. Christ himself prayed long hours and taught his followers to “watch and pray.” His apostle St. Paul’s exhortation to “pray without ceasing” is famous. Origen, a great third-century Christian theologian of Alexandria, says that to pray for earthly things is disobedience to God. St. Augustine points out that the purpose of prayer is not to instruct God, but to elevate man, to bring man round to what he ought to desire—desire for God. Prayer for St. Thomas Aquinas is concerned only with man’s faith and contemplation of God’s love. Meister Eckhart regards each prayer as a part of the eternal foresight of God. To St. Teresa of Avila prayer is the only door to those mystical graces that the Lord bestows upon the soul.

In Hinduism prayer once dominated the life of the people during the Vedic period. But later on worship, meditation, and self-inquiry almost completely replaced it. Though the common people still prayed, prayer as a spiritual discipline was seldom stressed by the great teachers. It may be said that in modern times Sri Ramakrishna has revived it. In the Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna one finds the Master recommending prayer on several occasions. Once a devotee asked him, “Then what is the way, sir?” Sri Ramakrishna answered, “Prayer and the company of holy men.” After explaining the benefits of holy company, the Master continued, “There is another way: earnestly praying to God. God is our very own. We should say to Him: ‘O God, what is Thy nature? Reveal Thyself to me. Thou must reveal Thyself to me; for why else hast Thou created me?'”

Another day M, the author of the book, told him, “God gives to some full spiritual consciousness, and others He keeps in ignorance.” Immediately the Master corrected him: “No, that is not so. One should pray to God with a longing heart. God certainly listens to prayer if it is sincere. There is no doubt about it.” What Sri Ramakrishna meant was that through sincere prayer everyone could overcome his inherent limitations and gain spiritual experience by God’s grace.

Sri Ramakrishna’s divine consort Sri Sarada Devi also emphasizes the importance of prayer very much in her teachings. Among the direct disciples of Sri Ramakrishna, Swami Brahmananda and Swami Shivananda teach constant prayer to God as an important spiritual practice.

A unique feature of Hinduism is that it offers to humanity two great highways, or margas, to liberation: the path of knowledge, jnana marga, and the path of devotion, bhakti marga. From time immemorial these two seemingly contradictory paths have coexisted within its fold, giving to it great dynamism and adaptability.These two highways represent two fundamentally different orientations of the human soul to the ultimate Reality. In jnana marga the ultimate Reality is regarded as impersonal and without attributes, whereas in the path of bhakti, it is regarded as personal with or without a human form. Secondly, jnana marga emphasizes self-effort while bhakti marga is the path of divine grace. Thirdly, the path of jnana is subject-oriented; it is an inquiry into the true nature of Reality as the subject. The path of bhakti is object-oriented; it is an attempt to realize the true nature of God as the highest object and establish a true relationship with him. The path of bhakti involves what Martin Buber calls an “I and Thou” relationship between the soul and God. The path of jnana involves an “I-That” relationship, as the Advaitic interpretation of tat tvam asi clearly shows; but even this relationship is illusory, and what jnana marga establishes is not a relationship, but the real nature of the transcendent Self.

The “I-Thou” relationship can be expressed in three ways: prayer, worship, and meditation. These are the three most important disciplines of the path of bhakti and represent three successive stages in it.

In Hinduism, prarthana, the Sanskrit word for prayer, always means petitionary prayer and has been given only limited importance. It means asking God for help to free oneself from the hold of the senses and turn away from the darkness of ignorance to the light of truth. It is the first stage in the struggle for higher consciousness in which the aspirant, realizing his limitations, opens his heart to divine power and light. It is in effect a movement from God to the soul.

Worship is offering something to God—it may be a material object or one’s own body, mind, and soul. The Vedic yajna or sacrifice meant “sacrificing things for the sake of the Deity.” Worship shifts the focus of man’s activities from the ego to the divine and detaches the soul from external objects. It is primarily a movement from the soul to God.

As a result of these two movements, the soul draws closer to God. This act of approaching God is what dhyana or meditation means. The Vedantic term for meditation is upasana which literally means “sitting near”—sitting near God.

So then, prayer, worship, and meditation represent three degrees of the development of intimacy between the soul and God. One begins spiritual life by asking God for favors, then starts offering things to him, and finally succeeds in going nearer to him. These three steps also represent three stages in the progressive transformation of the aspirant’s consciousness. When Christ in the Sermon on the Mount speaks about asking, seeking, and knocking at the door, he is referring to these three stages—prayer, worship, and meditation respectively.

In the history of Vedic Hinduism we can clearly see the development of these three attitudes or steps. The Vedas are divided into four parts: Mantra, Brahmana, Aranyaka, and Upanishad, which according to modern scholars were composed at four successive periods. The Mantra portion mostly contains hymns and prayers. The Brahmana portion deals with rituals and rites of worship. The Aranyakas mostly discuss various types of meditation. The Upanishads also contain meditations, but they are chiefly a record of the direct experiences of the sages.

With the decline of Vedic culture, the Mantra portion lost its hold on the people, and prayer gradually lost its importance as a spiritual discipline. The Gayatri is practically the only prayer that now remains of what was once an important and widespread spiritual practice in ancient India. Vedic rituals were replaced by new rituals. The meditations of the Aranyakas were forgotten, and new types of meditation on various deities and the yoga of Patanjali took their place. Gradually concentration became the most important test and form of spiritual practice. Even the Bhakti schools could not escape the influence of contemplation.

If Hinduism neglected prayer, Christianity raised it above all other disciplines. During the Middle Ages, Christian spirituality recognized three disciplines: meditation (meditatio), prayer (oratio), and contemplation (contemplatio). Christian meditation corresponds, not to what is called dhyana in Hinduism (which is nowadays translated as “meditation”), but to manana or reflection which follows reading. Prayer during the early centuries did not have any definite method, and each individual was free to pray in his own way. This kind of prayer later on came to be called affective prayer (which corresponds to prarthana in Hinduism) and, when simplified and reduced to a single formula or a “silent interior gaze,” came to be called “prayer of simplicity” or “prayer of the heart” (which corresponds to dhyana in Hinduism). Contemplation was regarded more as an experience resulting from meditation and prayer than as a discipline. It meant an intimate knowledge of God which was God’s free and loving gift to the soul. In this sense it corresponds to samadhi of Hinduism.

However, owing to the influence of the great Spanish mystics of the sixteenth century and the French mystics of the seventeenth century, all spiritual disciplines came to be included under the blanket term “prayer,” a distinction being made between “vocal prayer” (meaning the chanting of hymns in choir and private recitations) and “mental prayer.” Mental prayer came to be divided into two: active prayer and passive prayer, also called infused prayer. Of these, active prayer is a state in which prayer is done with self-effort, and consists of three progressive stages or degrees: meditation (or discursive prayer), affective prayer, and prayer of simplicity.

Passive or infused prayer is contemplation. It is a state of transcendence free from self-effort in which the soul experiences union with God, which according to St. Teresa consists of four stages or degrees. By including all these different disciplines under one common term “prayer,” what is really implied is that a prayerful attitude, an attitude of submission to God, is maintained throughout one’s spiritual life. It is important to keep in mind that it is only affective prayer, meaning a free and informal personal prayer to God, that corresponds to the prarthana of Hinduism. For the remaining types of Christian “prayer,” Hinduism uses different technical terms like manana, dhyana, samadhi, etc.

In Christian spirituality there are two definitions of prayer which have come down from very ancient times. One is that of Clement of Alexandria: “Prayer is a conversation with God.” The other is that of John Damascene and Evagrius of Pontus: “Prayer is the raising of the soul to God.” It is the first definition that corresponds to the Hindu concept of prarthana. (The second definition is more general and can be applied to all the different forms of Christian “prayer,” but specially to Christian mysticism.)

Prarthana or prayer is “speaking to God.” It represents the first attempt of the ordinary human soul to approach God. Just as our meeting with our fellowmen takes the form of a dialogue, so also the first meeting of the soul with God takes the form of an inner dialogue. It is the first effort of the soul to express its spiritual aspiration, for that is the only way the infant soul can orientate itself to the supreme Reality.

Just as a child speaks about its needs to its parents or a student seeks guidance from a teacher or a servant places his problems before his master, so does the soul speak frankly to the Lord about its difficulties, needs, and wishes. It is by expressing its needs that the child goes closer to its parents and understands its relationship to them. In the same way, prayer takes the soul closer to God and reveals its relationship with him. It is this “speaking” to God and dependence on his grace that distinguish prayer from other disciplines.

Though God is unseen, prayer is not a monologue. It is a mystic interior exchange with the unseen divine Partner going on through the medium of faith. A true devotee does not feel that God is unknown or does not respond. His burning faith makes God a living presence. It is this continual exercise of faith that makes prayer a spiritual discipline.

The next question is, how to pray?

Talks with those whom we love are always personal and informal. The interior conversation with God, or prayer, too must be intensely personal, natural, spontaneous. Each individual must be free to pray in his or her own way. Let him begin praying in any way that is possible for him. Prayer itself will guide him about how to proceed further, and will perfect his prayer.

Nevertheless, all people do not have equal capacity to pray, and may not be clear about what to pray for. Even those who habitually pray may not always be in a mood to pray. To help such people, formal prayers have been composed by illumined seers. In Hinduism the most famous and popular of these formal prayers are the Gayatri and the Abhyaroha Mantra: “Lead me from the unreal to the real, from darkness to light, and from death to immortality.” One may make use of these prayers now and then as guidelines, but true prayer is something welling up from the depths of one’s heart naturally according to the soul’s extreme needs.

Prayer can be done in two ways: externally and internally. In external prayer one stands or sits before an image or picture of the Lord, preferably in a temple or one’s own private shrine, and gazing at the image pours forth one’s heart in a fervent appeal. In internal prayer one sits with closed eyes, visualizes the Lord’s image in the heart, and appeals to him mentally.

Some people seem to think that prayer would reduce them to the position of a beggar, which is beneath their dignity. Ignorance and egoism lie at the root of such thinking. In begging there is no relationship between the beggar and the begged. But spiritual prayer is addressed not to a total stranger, but to a Being who is the Soul of one’s soul, the Ruler of the universe, one’s eternal and inseparable Beloved. When a child expresses his needs, his parents do not think it to be begging; they only give him what really belongs to him. Similarly, prayer is only a way of preparing ourselves to receive what is really ours by divine right. When a student approaches a teacher for instruction, it is not considered begging. Prayer is only seeking guidance from the eternal guru, the teacher of all teachers.

Another wrong notion about prayer is that it is only a form of aspiration. But, as St. Teresa has pointed out, “It is one thing to desire the grace of devotion, and quite another thing to ask God for it.” Aspiration becomes effective only when converted into a spiritual discipline. This can be done in several ways, and among these prayer is one of the simplest. Prayer is not mere aspiration; it is the soul’s dialogue with God.

Another notion, though not wrong, is that prayer is only a lower form of spiritual practice meant for beginners. This is indeed true, for prayer may be regarded as the kindergarten of spiritual life. But when it comes to spiritual life, most people are mere babies and need a kindergarten. In these days yoga and meditation are becoming very popular, and millions of people in the East and the West are practicing them. But not many people seem to understand that dhyana or true meditation is a fairly advanced stage of concentration. A large number of people seem to spend their whole life trying to meditate. For many, meditation itself acts as a trap preventing them from moving forward.

Attempting higher degrees of concentration without fulfilling the primary conditions is one of the main causes for failure in spiritual life. Unreal things cannot change one’s life. It is always good to remember that a simple prayer which an aspirant can do, which is real to him, can transform his life far more than a higher spiritual technique which is unreal to him because it is beyond his capacity.

“This divine maya of Mine is difficult to overcome; those who take refuge in Me alone cross over this illusion,” says Sri Krishna. Spiritual power is necessary in order to overcome the obstacles and gain spiritual experience. Just as physical strength comes from the food provided by the physical universe, and knowledge comes from ideas originating in the mental universe, so also spiritual power comes from God. At the unseen touch of the golden rays of God’s grace the lotus of the heart bursts into bloom.

The main purpose of prayer is to seek divine power. Says Sri Ramakrishna, “Through prayer all individual souls can be united to the Supreme Soul. Every house has a connection for gas, and gas can be obtained from the main storage-tank of the Gas Company. Apply to the Company, and it will arrange for your supply of gas. Then your house will be lighted.” There is an inner resistance in all of us to the free flow of divine power. This resistance is offered by the ego. Sri Ramakrishna used to say, “Rain water does not collect on a mound.” Prayer reduces the inner resistance and opens the heart to grace.

True meditation is a state of relaxation, calmness. The mind becomes relaxed and calm only when it feels security and is detached from desires. Life is full of uncertainties and difficulties, and modern conditions of living have increased mankind’s anxiety and feeling of insecurity. The best way to overcome fear and insecurity is to constantly pray to the supreme Lord, the controller of the destinies of all beings. Even those who practice japa and meditation have to pass through dark periods when they feel forlorn and hopeless. During such arid periods prayer gives great support to the soul. Says St. John of the Cross, “In all our necessities, trials, and afflictions, there is no better nor safer remedy than prayer, and hope that God will provide for us in his own way.”

Meditation is the conscious, self-directed focusing of a continuous stream of thoughts on a mental object. This becomes possible only if the mind (or, to be more precise, the will ) is free from the hold of external objects and desires. This withdrawal of the mind or the will is called pratyahara. One way to do this is repeated practice. But especially during the early stages of spiritual life most aspirants find this too difficult. Intense prayer, however, quickly accomplishes it. Prayer is the bhakta’s—the devotee’s—way of practicing pratyahara.

Every person is capable of a certain degree of concentration on external objects or even on mental images, provided he likes them. The main difficulty is in concentrating the mind at a higher center of consciousness. For this two conditions are to be fulfilled. The higher spiritual center should be developed and made active to some extent. And then the will and mental energies must be given a higher turn. Prayer accomplishes both these tasks. Prayer is the best way to stimulate the heart center. After a day’s distracting work you feel that your mental energies have become scattered in different parts of the body, and it is difficult for you to meditate. When this happens, try intense prayer. You will find prayer quickly gathers up the energies at the heart center and you feel a new access of strength. Prayer not only detaches the will but focuses it upward. If the mind is not lifted to a higher center through prayer, the spiritual aspirant who tries to meditate very often runs the risk of concentrating on lower thoughts.

Another danger is, if the mind is not lifted up, it may sink into tamas, inertia, and be overpowered by sleep. That is why meditation very often ends up in sleep. The best way to avoid drowsiness during meditation is to pray. Prayer and sleep can never go together. Prayer keeps the mind alert.

Prayer thus gives a sense of security to the soul, detaches the will from desires and objects, activates the higher centers, gives a higher direction to thoughts, keeps the mind alert, and above all, clears the way for the inflow of divine power. As the aspirant goes on praying intensely, he finds that gradually prayer merges imperceptibly into dhyana, or true meditation.

One may begin with a petitionary prayer using many words. But as prayer gains in intensity and depth, words drop away by themselves, leaving only a silent aspiration in the heart. Then the inner Image becomes still and the mind flows in silence toward it. Prayer has transformed itself naturally and spontaneously into meditation. This is the ultimate goal of prayer.

Prayer, we have pointed out, is the simplest first step on the path of bhakti, or devotion. But if it is to become an effective and powerful tool, it must fulfill certain conditions. The first condition is, of course, a prayerful temperament. All people do not have an inclination or capacity to pray. Those who find it difficult to pray may try other spiritual techniques.

The test of a prayerful temperament is spontaneity. True prayer bubbles up from the bottom of the heart spontaneously. But it is also true that through practice one gradually acquires or strengthens the capacity to pray.

The prayerful temperament must be supported by strong faith—faith in the existence of God, that God listens and responds to prayer. This faith must be so strong that there is no room for negative or contrary thoughts. If we pray for something but are deeply convinced that we are not going to get it, we only obstruct the working of God’s grace. Prayer becomes effective only when the faith that supports it is total. The prayerful man must practice the sixfold surrender to God taught in one of the devotional scriptures of India: “Thinking of what is auspicious and favorable, not thinking of what is unfavorable or inauspicious, faith in God’s saving power, always preferring God’s protection, self-surrender, and feeling of helplessness.”

Along with faith there must be reduction of egoism, and a spirit of self-surrender. Karpanya, or a feeling of helplessness, is a great aid in practicing self-surrender and prayer. In fact, it is out of sheer helplessness that many people pray to God. A person who is cocksure of everything need not pray. Sri Ramakrishna used to say that as long as there is a store-keeper looking after the storeroom, the master of the house does not go there. Speaking about self-surrender, Swami Vivekananda himself teaches in the Inspired Talks, “God helps those who do not help themselves.”

A devotee of God uses every experience of sorrow, suffering, and difficulty as an incentive to pray to God. Karpanya is, however, not a weakness. It only means that the devotee refuses to depend on matter but depends only on Spirit. Strong in the strength of God, he is not afraid even of death.

This does not mean that we should pray only when difficulties come. Prayer becomes effective as a spiritual discipline only when there is continuity and intensity in it. A true aspirant prays only for God-vision. His need is internal and does not depend on external things. So he prays continually. When difficulties come his way, he is ready to face them. Similarly, he prays with intense aspiration. Prayer without intensity has little power. Only a spiritual hero can keep up this kind of intense prayer for a long time—for several years if necessary.

The human soul is surrounded on all sides by the boundless ocean of divine power and light. And yet how few people make use of it! It is not even necessary to pray to a deity. It is enough if one opens one’s heart to the divine power and light through a strong prayerful wish, which we may call “autosuggestive prayer.” Many of the Vedic prayers still in use are not directed to any particular deity. They are mostly of the nature of autosuggestions.

Finally, it should be remembered that Hinduism does not thrust prayer upon everybody. For those who do not feel the need for it and for those who feel a constitutional dislike for it, Hinduism has opened other paths—self-inquiry, meditation, etc.

However, it is also true that, protected and supported by divine grace, the man of prayer moves faster on the spiritual path than the person who depends solely on his own limited resources. While some toil all their lives rowing their boats against the waves, others unfurl their sails and let the wind of divine grace carry them across the ocean of transmigratory existence.

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Prayer as a Spiritual Discipline