'It matters not how oft you kneel in attitude of prayer so true,
unless inside, where no man sees, your very soul is kneeling too.'
Why does man pray?
From the earliest recorded times till date, human beings have communicated with what they have regarded as the force of all forces. Praying to forms, elements, mythological characters, great human beings, ancestors, spirits, concepts etc has given them a sense of solace and courage; the prayer of the animist offers the same comfort that the prayer of a non-animist does; the prayer of a Muslim is as powerful as the prayer of a Hindu; the prayer of a rich man is on par with that of a poor one. Prayer appears to be a great leveler of mankind: all are equally rewarded, all are equally treated.
At the bedside of a dying dear one while the believer might kneel in prayer or count beads, visit temples etc, the grieving atheist 'hopes' that all will be well, and instead of chanting, 'Hare Krishna' or 'Hail Mary' he repeats 'I hope he recovers'.
Prayer is hope with a difference
It is hope focused towards a specific super-powerful force while hope, alone, is untargeted energy. Both energies, apparently alike, are really different: with 'prayer' there is an acceptance of the possibility of miracles while with hope doubts remain; because of its innate limitlessness, psycho-analysts from Dr Ann Kaiser Stearns( author of 'Living Through Personal Crisis' and 'coming Back') to Erich Fromm (author of 'The Heart of Man') have found prayer extremely efficacious in dealing with personal trauma or crisis. Prayer, as a verbalization of faith, picks up where hope gives up.
While some might agree that prayer changes results, others hotly dispute their claims with their own examples and experiences. The real question then arises: if sometimes prayers don't get the desired results, why then do people pray?
The power of prayer lies not in its ability to change things for us but in its ability to change us for things. The person praying becomes at once small and humble, which helps him to deal better with his helpless condition much more effectively than his arrogant and cocksure attitude does. The erosion of ego, the recognition of one's limitations, the focusing of one's priorities towards an almighty and powerful, omniscient force, all these create an atmosphere of acceptance of what is beyond one's grasp and what is in the cosmic order of things. It is irrelevant whether one prays out of fear or love; it is the attitude, the position of prayer that immediately establishes one's smallness in a large, mysterious universe. The ego-ridden, 'I-Know-It-All' attitude is destroyed and what is left is one small helpless mass of body, mind and heart. The very acknowledgement that God and not oneself is in the driver's seat helps one to accept the inevitable.
And yet there are prayers and prayers. Gandhiji observed, 'Those who bring only their bodies to the prayer, leaving their minds behind, violate truth.' As long as superficiality and false pride accompany prayer, the power of prayer remains an impossible dream. It is a paradoxical situation: by dipping down like a giant-wheel one gets to rise up to enjoy the bliss and joy. The more one accepts one's limitations the higher one soars.
Once a devout farmer realized when he was too far from his home that he had, for the first time, forgotten to carry with him his prayer-book. The wheel of his cart fell off in the dense forest, he was forced to pass the night in the wilderness without praying. Disturbed and distressed he thought seriously for a while. Finally he decided that he would still pray but this time he would pray with his own prayer and not with the prayer-book prayer he had till then been using. He closed his eyes and said, 'I have done something very foolish, God. I left home this morning without the prayer-book and my memory is so weak that I cannot recite a single prayer without its help. Here's what I will do: I shall recite the alphabet five times very slowly and you, to whom all the prayers are known, can put the letters together to form the prayers I can't remember.' The farmer did just that and slept content. The story goes on; the Lord, after hearing his prayer said to his angels, 'of all the prayers I have heard today this one is undoubtedly the best because it came from a heart that was simple and sincere.'
The sage, Ramana Maharshi, often told his disciples that prayer was best if it was a manifestation of surrender to Him; he explained that by offering oneself to the Lord, one dropped one's individuality, and once that was done one was ready to abide by His Will which was the highest of all achievements. On his part, Gandhiji wrote, 'Silent prayer is the best prayer. It is only through peace and calm that we can establish communion with God.'
Prayer is often as comforting as the wearing of a warm coat on a chilly night. Additionally, the prayer triumphs in doing what man would otherwise consider impossible: it gives strength to the weak, courage to the faint-hearted, solace to those in trouble, and love to the bereft. For that moment when there is a prayerful heart, a prayer creates conditions where problems can be tackled with a calm mind. Prayer thus provides the individual with the condition that are necessary for a better life.
Prayer, at best, succeeds in doing the impossible: while it has in no way eliminated our troubles, it has, however, certainly changed our state of mind enough for us to tackle the problems with renewed vigor. And that is no small task.