God Created Human Beings, Human Beings Created Prayer
That Created the God, That Created the Human Being
- Yehuda Amichai
The above poem on initial reading may appear very acentric, but on close pondering, it is a beautiful expression sharing how we experience God through prayer.
Reader - a few weeks ago, I went on a bike ride in Fairmont Park of Philadelphia. It was a misty morning and softly penetrating the mist was the morning moon, which was looking bigger than usual. The pines in the park were sacrificing their fragrance in honor of this beautiful late September morning. It was indeed a perfect day for biking. The freshly pressurized tires of the bike were kissing the trail with exquisite vivacity. I have always loved the ride on the gravel path in the park, which is sandwiched between tall trees on both sides, and on its northeastern side is also flanked by the sparkling Wissahickon Creek. The playful water provides the magical sensation of a soothing balm. The creek would have been more enchanting had man not interfered with its meandering path. On and off, I kept on thinking about various type of prayers, why we pray, and whether prayer works. Reader, I’d like to share my collection of thoughts with you.
Rumi’s words of wisdom often allow me to stretch my thinking. I recalled this poem:
Today, like every other day, we wake up empty and frightened
Don’t open the door to the study and begin reading.
Take down a musical instrument. Let the beauty we love be what we do.
There are a hundred ways to kneel and kiss the ground
It is liberating to learn that prayer does not have to follow a structure. Actually, prayer should have the mark of originality, like our fingerprints. This originality brings us into our being and allows us to become one with our true self. A prayer with active listening leads to equanimity; otherwise, it is a collection of words which escape without their footprint.
Prayers can take so many forms.
- There are some traditions where prayers happen in a very specific rhythm for a specific purpose. In Islamic Salat, five times daily prayer is performed at specific prescribed times of the day. The tradition believes that the practice leads one to dissolving of the self (fa’na) and finding the divine within (ba’qa) thus leading to divine unity (tawhid).
- Sometimes, there are prayers that, while albeit a routine, are often individualized. The Hindu Praise of River Ganges and Aarti (a prayer with lit lamps expressing highest love toward gods) in temples are choreographed with improvisation. Each temple and person performing has some freedom. In my teen years, I with my friends used to go to a Hanuman Temple. Hanuman helped Lord Rama (a Hindu deity) recover his wife Sita from demon king Ravana, thus restoring Shakti (power) to Lord Rama. Hanuman is a very inspiring symbol of service and devotion. In the evenings during Aarti time, I recall that each priest performed aarti in his own distinct style. The captivating ambiance enhanced by cresting and ebbing rhythm of bells created during the ceremony hypnotized us.
- We might invoke prayer in times of suffering, pain, loss of dear ones. Any amount of prayer does not change the realty - it is cosmic law. However, prayer does provide therapeutic balm of healing and emotional reconfiguration. It helps us change things by changing our perspective. It gives us hope so that we do not live in fear. There are beautiful words written on this aspect by Christian Theologian Reinhold Niebuhr. It is called Serenity Prayer:
To accept the things, I cannot change
Courage to change the things I can
And wisdom to know the difference.
- Meditation and meditative prayers are in vogue these days. There are meditation retreats. While I have never been to one, I believe long-term benefits of such retreats can only be achieved if the attendee makes mediation a daily part of his/her life. But, it can often happen that, as with many practices, we lose interest or give up within a few weeks. I admire the discipline of those few who go on to a true and deep meditative path.
In prayers, we strive to have freedom from fear of heaven and hell, and free from fear of life. Religious texts talk in detail about this fear and how to get rid of it. Guru Nanak, the first Sikh Guru, gives directions in his prayerful writing, Japjee Sahib (Pauri 38), on how to develop God Consciousness in your total self – mind and body - thus releasing yourself from fear:
Jat Pahara Dheeraj Suniyar, Ahran Mat Ved Hathiyar
Bhau Khala Agan Taptau, Bhanda Bhau Amrit Tit Dhal
Karihye Sabad Sachee Taksaal, Jin Kaur Nadar Karam Tin Kar
Nanak Nadri Nadar Nihal.
(Free flowing translation: In order to find eternal bliss one needs to make himself/herself worthy of almighty’s grace. For that one needs to mint coins of “The Word.“ Such minting can be attained by strident effort which is coupled by patience, anvil like intellect, hammer like wisdom, fearful caution, firesome discipline, and with this effort you pour gold coins of virtuous teachings with love in your mind.)
Often, we invite the higher spirit into our life by performing special prayers at home, at places of worship, and at satsangs (holy gatherings), But, we may forget that God is always present in our hearts. It is we who are missing from our hearts. Therefore, a big chasm remains between our true nature and imagined self.
For me, spending time in nature and listening to its beautiful sounds is nothing short of prayer. While I have deep appreciation for ancient hymns, I find the need to ground myself in the simplicity of nature as well. The following poem resonates with me:
Every day, the priests minutely examine the law
And endlessly chant complicated Sutras
Before doing that, though, they should learn
How to read the love letters sent by the wind
And rain, the snow, and the moon
-Haiku By Ikkayu ( A Japanese Poet)
Reader, I remember when I was a child in India, we used to sleep on the roof and since the future sky of light pollution had not arrived, we could see thousands of stars. We used to name the stars. I recently came across a prayer like poem written by Lin Manual Miranda (of Hamilton fame) for the animation film, Moana - about a voyage of a child across the Pacific.
At night we name every star
We know where we are, we know who we are.
Through nature, we learn that we are whole only if we consider that surroundings are a part of us. Seeing the lifeless leaves on the ground during on my fall biking trip, I am reminded that we are all connected in death. It is said that the second law of thermodynamics is the first law of life - literally meaning that everything in this universe is moving towards a higher degree of disorder (entropy) and destruction. I was thinking that I am also slowly coming apart at the seams, with death slowly percolating through my body. I was somehow finding comfort in those dead leaves; they were my therapeutic allies.
I looked up and saw a few large birds gliding up and down with oceanic rhythm in the sky. Lost in wonder of their play with the sky, the mystery of existence was deepening. From this depth a deep sense of prayful gratitude was emerging. Around the same time, one of the birds with a big whistle like sound started soaring higher and higher. Reader, the bird’s whistle reminded me of the following poem by David Whyte titled “The Bell and the Blackbird”. It came to me like a message nothing short of a prayer.
The sound of a bell still reverberating
Or a blackbird calling from a corner of a field
Asking you to wake into this life,
Or inviting you deeper to one that waits
Either way takes courage, Either way wants you to be nothing,
but that self that is no self at all
Wants you to walk to the place
Where you already know, how to give every last thing away