Vedic Concept of Prayer by T.K. Sribhashyam
The Vedas speak of three spheres, or three worlds. The celestial (dyu), the terrestrial (pṛthvī) and the intermediary (antarikṣa) spheres. There is a correspondence between the celestial and terrestrial spheres, also called the sphere of the Gods and the ethereal sphere. Between these two, there is a third or intermediary sphere. This is the region between heaven (dyu) and earth (pṛthvī) and is man’s realm as he is the mediator between the two. Here ‘man’ is not the biological entity we conceive, but his soul. The souls are the connecting links between the two spheres. This is the intermediary sphere. Within the intermediate sphere there is an inner shrine. The heart, where we believe the soul resides is this core. It is the realm of prayer, of meditation and of contemplation. It is from here that we contemplate, that is to say, we evoke our soul in the core of the intermediary sphere before meditating or praying.
Prayers can take many forms and we may pray for many reasons. However, the implicit belief is that in the act of prayer we live in the central dynamism of the Supreme.
In the Vedic scheme, prayers are linked to saṁdhyā which refers to the two privileged moments of sunrise and of sunset. Saṁdhyā represents the third sphere which encompasses our life and destiny. The heart (hṛdaya) where the soul resides is also called saṁdhyā because we concentrate and bring our mind into hṛdaya before and during our prayers. Our prayers are human acts by which we transcend both time and space to discover that within our own heart a part of the destiny of the whole universe is being played.
Saṁdhyā is also the encounter between the human and the divine. On the time scale, saṁdhyā has three moments of encounter (early morning before sunrise, midday and late evening before sunset). Yet, early morning at sun rise and late evening before sunset are the two main transitions considered as the most important time for prayers. In these two moments, man represents the whole universe; the Gods are with him and the material world is gathered around him. It is the time of prayer; time of meditation and of concentration. When we are at prayer, we are not performing a mechanical individual act. We are performing a divine act in the name of the whole of reality. Through the prayer, we create a connecting link with the sun, the moon, the stars and the Gods. This is also the soul’s path to the celestial sphere.
The Vedic prayers (of morning and evening) are built of praise and spring from hope, devotion and a thrust towards action. These prayers are human and concrete. They integrate all aspects of human life on earth. Here God is our partner, we ask Him to collaborate with us in all our undertakings. These prayers are composed of incantations and charms to draw His attention towards us and to please Him with our charming language.
Vedic prayer is not a dialectical assumption; it has a dialogical pattern. God or the deities are not over there but well in us. We can say that in this type of prayer, there are no rules of “yes” and “no” whereby each follows his own nature and simply discovers some possible relationship. In the dialogical type of prayers, neither man nor God is bound by a dialectical law. God is not the “other”, but the “I” (not to be confused with our egocentric “I”) that lives in us. In other words, Vedic prayers are dialogues with the superior powers; a dialogue in which the other is really open to us and open to being convinced and won over to our side because He is not bound or committed to His own nature.
Prayers are not simply to satisfy our desire for material riches, and welfare, but for the “riches” of the celestial sphere without which the material riches and welfare would be meaningless.
When we talk of prayer, we cannot avoid linking it to Iṣṭa devatā, even if it is not of Vedic origin. Iṣṭa devatā as we normally understand is the deity we choose for our personal worship and devotional practices. This expresses the existential attitude of the worshipper. Iṣṭa devatā is not simply the choice of a deity to our whims and individual tastes. Iṣṭa devatā springs from the insight that the act of worship, even if it is addressed to an infinite eternal Being, is performed by a finite being at a finite time and in a particular state of mind. We cannot embrace the whole of the Supreme nor can we insert the whole of our being in one act of worship. So prayers are repeated actions and to be as near the perfection as possible, we should pray at a fixed time (the two main saṁdhyā).
The notion of iṣṭa devatā gives us the right human perspective and clothes the infinite God in a finite harmonious manifestation (dhāraṇa). An act of worship is complete by itself only if it takes into account our constitutive limitations, in space and time, of our imagination and intellect. In order to worship God, we have to have an ardent desire to know Him and the conviction in the representation we make of Him (dhyāna).
God has to take some form, even if He is formless; we have to give a name, even if He is nameless; He has to be somewhere, even if He is omnipresent and all pervading; and He has to be present at a particular time of our prayer, even if He is timeless and eternal. This is the fundamental frame of Iṣṭa devatā.
When we rise in the morning and proceed to pray or when we utter some prayers before retiring at night, we should not pray out of a sense of duty or because we are impelled by an urgent love or devotion, we should pray for the same “reason” that the waters flow, the sun shines, the planets move around the sun, iron filings are attracted towards a magnet, flowers blossom at the sun rise, the lotus flower bud opens at the sight of the moon…