The Meaning And Significance of Prarthana or Prayer in Hinduism

Prayer, Prarthana

by Jayaram V

In Sanskrit and most vernacular languages of India, the word prarthana1 means a prayer or seeking. While the word has a deep religious connotation and peculiarly Hindu in its origin, in course of time it acquired a secular and generic meaning and became part of regular usage to convey the meaning of "to request, ask or politely seek something with a feeling of reverence or submissiveness." In official usage prarthana means a petition (as a noun or adjective) or petitioning (as a verb) to a ruler, higher authority or official to resolve a problem or address a grievance.

The purpose of prayers

In the Vedic parlance, prayer was synonymous with mantra, a religious chant or incantation, used to communicate with gods and seek some kind of material benefit or favor from them. Vedic Indians performed elaborate rituals, chanting mantras or prayers to please gods and seek their assistance in the fulfillment of individual desires or realize any potentially important goal either for themselves or for others or for the community in general. They used prayers for one or more of the following.

  1. To obtain powers, fulfill desires and seek protection
  2. To nourish gods and ensure their favors and protection.
  3. To cure diseases and overcome death and adversity.
  4. To ensure victory in wars and against enemies.
  5. To destroy enemies or weaken their resolve.
  6. To make things auspicious and pure.
  7. To invite peace and prosperity.
  8. To ensure name, fame and success.
  9. To overcome sinful karma and forgiveness for mistakes and evil deeds
  10. To engage the mind in devotion and contemplation of God.

For example, one of the most frequently found prayers in the Vedas (peace mantra) wishes for peace everywhere: peace in the worshipper's mind, body and environment or peace in the world, in the middle region of the celestial beings and in the highest world of the gods. Another prayer seeks perfection and wholeness of oneself and the world by becoming complete to reach out to That (God) which is complete and perfect in every way.

Types of prayers

In Hinduism prayer, or prarthana, takes on many forms. Their purpose, however, is essentially the same which is seeking communion with God or gods, expressing one's love and devotion to them to obtain their blessings and favors or fulfill one’s desires. The Hindu Puranas and epics such as the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, emphasize through many examples that God never fails to respond to the sincere calls of His devotees and comes to their rescue. In extraordinary circumstances when too many pure souls pray to him and make a distress call, He even incarnates upon earth to destroy evil and restore order.

Some of the well-known forms of prayers are mantras (Riks, Samans, Yajus, Udgita), japas, kirtans, and bhajans (devotional songs). Mantras are incantations or chants, which are believed to be endowed with magical powers and powerful vibrations capable of manifesting reality or desired results through the intervention of gods. Japa is a continuous repetition of one or more names of God or some phrase from the scripture or given by a guru to calm the senses and control the mind or purify it. Kirtans and Bhajans are devotional songs, usually sung in groups to the accompaniment of music in front of the image of a deity or a guru. All prayers are meant to absorb the mind in the contemplation of God, which can lead to either purification or self-absorption or both.

Meaning of prarthana

Etymologically the word "prarthana" can be parsed and interpreted in different ways. Pra is used in Sanskrit as a prefix to a verb. It has several meanings. One of them is to wish or request. Another meaning is adoration or respect (as in pranjali). Accordingly we may parse the word as either “prar + dhana” or “pra + ardha + na,” meaning to ask or seek wealth. "Pra" means source, “dhan” or "ardha" means wealth and na is the sound that comes out of the openings of the body as in "nada"." The word "dhana" is closely associated with the word "dhaanya" meaning grains, which was the most notable form of wealth in the ancient world.

Closely linked to these two words is the word "daan," meaning charity. It was from the practice of giving food (grains) as charity to the needy people, probably the word "daan" came into usage. Interestingly, the corresponding word for "daan" is "donation" in English, "donat" in French and "donatio" in Latin, all of which along with Sanskrit belong to the Indo European group of languages. The underlying concept is that it is by praying one gains an entry into the source of all forms of wealth, which is God Himself.

However, the word can also be parsed in a different way, and perhaps more appropriately, to point to its true origin as the means or the technique to overcome suffering or adversity. According to it, prarthana means a distress call or paying adoration or respect. As stated before, “pra” means a wish, request, adoration or respect (as in pranjali). Arthra means distress, suffering, pain or agony. Thus, prarthana (pra+arthra+na) means either a wish or a request made by a person in distress or suffering or an adoration or respect shown to another person or a deity. Prayers are usually made by people in suffering, seeking the grace or mercy of God. Hence, one construe it as making a wish or request, seeking piety or mercy (ardra). Both meanings are appropriate. A prarthak is one who begs, solicits or wishes.

Prayer as a manifestation of speech

Thus, a prayer is a way of expressing grief, concern, fear, or want, seeking a possible solution. All prayers are but sounds or manifestations of speech (vac). Speech and sounds have a special significance in Hinduism. Speech is considered a deity in the Vedas and equated in several Upanishads to Brahman himself. Space (akasa) is one of the five great elements (mahabhutas). Space is the support for the deity speech. Speech which is filled with the purity and effulgence of God has the power to manifest through sacred sounds (mantras). The breath in the throat is considered to be the source of speech.

Space is the personification of Brahman in the objective plane. It is considered to be the medium of sound, while space itself is considered a subtle body of Brahman. Space is filled with vital air (Vayu) who according to the Vedas travels in all directions, riding upon innumerable horses and purifies everything. In the body it is called breath or prana, the overlord of all the organs who nourishes and sustains the body and without whom life is not possible.

Therefore, from this perspective, prayer is the means to communicate with God through the immediately available mediums of space, speech, sounds, and sacrifices. Our prayers travel from the earthly plane to the heavenly plane through space, propelled by the power of Brahman who is hidden in all sounds, especially the sacred chants of the Vedas. Sounds can reach what the eyes cannot reach. What the eyes and sounds cannot reach thoughts can reach. Since a prayer is a combination of thoughts and sound, it is a very powerful way to communicate with the subtle gods of both the mind and the worlds above.

Prayers in Vedic tradition

The Vedic people used various combinations of sounds in the form of mantras to pray to gods on various occasions. They chanted them for the protection of their kings before going to war, on the occasion of marriage, the birth of a child, initiation ceremony or death, at the time of the acquisition of some property or change of one's residence. They also prayed for good harvest and favorable climate. Through prayers, sacrificial offerings and invocations, they aimed to purify things and people or appease the gods to seek their blessings for prosperity, peace and happiness for themselves and for their patrons. They believed in the efficacy of prayers and their ability to cleanse one's sins, drive away evil, ward off diseases and change the course of human lives.

The early Vedic Indians were pastoral people, who lived in open grasslands, near major rivers and trade routes and usually surrounded by dense forests. Groups of families bound by common ancestry or professional dependency, lived together as small communities in villages, surrounded by a wooden wall, fence or moat serving as a protection against prying animals and hostile tribes. Not all of them practiced Vedic religion or lived in open or honored the caste divisions. Some lived deep in the forests and worshipped nature gods. There were some who worshipped different deities and did not acknowledge the supremacy of the Vedas.

However, one practice which was common to them was that they used ritual prayers, chants, spells and sacrifices as a part of their worship. Life must have been difficult for the people who lived in India at a time when the land was mostly covered by dense forests, filled with abundant wildlife, hostile tribes and dangerous animals. They were not yet brought under full control or made safer by Agni the fire god or Indra the storm god or Varuna the god of law. Abundant rains and frequent flooding of the plains by overflowing rivers made life difficult for the people who lived in small settlements along the rivers and the animals they domesticated such as goats, rams, bulls, cows, buffaloes, horses and elephants. Whether they practiced Vedic religion or not, prayers gave them hope and security against the vulnerabilities to which they were susceptible.

For the ancient people the overwhelming power of nature was too difficult to ignore. So in their prayers they aimed to protect themselves from the destructive acts of nature and from the mysterious diseases and calamities that struck them from time to time. Through prayers they also sought material wealth, peace and prosperity from the divinities whom the believed wielded enormous power over the elements and the vagaries of nature. They prayed for material wealth, such as cattle, good harvest, victory in war, health, progeny, success in some venture and so on. We know a little about the people who followed the Vedas, but much less about the rest, except for a few vague references about them found in the Vedic literature of the time.

The Vedic people believed in the four aims of human life, known as the Purusharthas, namely dharma or religion, artha or material wealth, kama or sensual pleasures and moksha or salvation. The structure and purpose of prayers in Hinduism are still connected with these aims. If prayer is an expression of one's faith in the Dharma or religion and a means to know it and master it, it is also the means to achieve the other three. It is also the means by which a devout Hindu can find a way to come into contact with his inmost self and become aware of its sacredness and true identity.

It is however not true that the Vedic Indians used prayers to seek only wealth or happiness from various gods. While they aimed to enjoy good life and sought riches and expensive gifts from their patrons and donors, they were aware of the ultimate aim of human life, which was to find a safe passage to the higher worlds. The study of the scriptures and application of religious values in their day to day lives gave them a spiritual bent of mind and a deeper need to integrate and harmonize their spiritual yearnings and material cravings in a very religious and harmonious way. Through their prayers they sought wealth of all kinds, spiritual wealth, physical wealth, personal wealth, universal wealth, wealth of character, wealth of power and prestige, wealth of name and fame, wealth of happiness and joy and so on. They sought to fulfill their desires, without losing their focus on the larger aims of human life, that would enrich their lives and bring them knowledge, peace and prosperity. As a part of this grand scheme of life, they looked beyond themselves, praying not only for the welfare of themselves, but of the entire community to which they belonged.

The Vedas are essentially prayer books. In them we find different types of prayers: ritual prayers, spiritual prayers, prayers to reach out to gods, cure diseases, beget children, expiate sins, gain wealth, caste off evil, harm the enemies, seek protection from evil and so on. The early Vedic people used ritual prayers to perform elaborate sacrificial ceremonies to appease gods and seek their favors, according to well-established procedures and a strict code of conduct. Some of the rituals, such as the agnichayana rituals, lasted for months or years, as the priests had to build huge altars according to specific geometric shapes and patterns, while chanting the mantras or prayers. In the later Vedic period we see a definite shift towards spiritual prayers as the ritual was internalized and the human body itself was identified as the ritual place, the inner soul as an aspect of Brahman or Brahman itself and various divinities representing various organs or energies of the body. The emergence of devotional Hinduism through Vaishnavism and Saivism also contributed to this development.

Suggestions for Further Reading


1. Pronounced as praardhana, dha as in dhamma

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