To Live is to Pray: Invitation to Pray with Mystics and Philosopher

It is often suspected or believed that the stars are silent and man encounters a deaf sky. Man’s attempt to talk to the stars has, however, been the most indefatigable. Beyond the stars, man has been more desperate about news from the other side of grave while newer philosophies and exoteric theologies have claimed that man is imprisoned in the world while the other world is far off and we need to die before we can enjoy colours or smells of Paradise. Man’s attempt has been to seek freedom against the  iron walls of life of bondage. This attempt to talk to the stars and beyond and to the other side of grave and break free from the prison of self/world/mechanism is called prayer. Prayer is an adventure to the most distant or hidden or most sublime heights we can imagine and it achieves the deepest longing of all of us for union, for meeting, for talking to the Beloved – mi ’raj (ascension). The greatest gift from the night of ascension was prayer. Let us try to understand how with the help of certain insights from a philosopher whose life has been described as one of prayer – Kierkegaard – and two towering religious philosophers of the 20th century – Martin Buber and Abraham Joshua Heschel – whose explication disarms all scientific criticism of prayer.

Let us first note that prayer is not primarily petition and that God and not any object is the object of prayer. Mir, the godfather of Urdu poetry, said that it is wishes that make us who are really Godly bonded slaves. So the best prayer would be to be delivered from bondage to desires/wishes  and thus a contented heart with no wish at all that is left to be granted.

What should one ask God for? Previously our parents prayed for rains or sunny days – and organized collective prayer food (gam-i niyaz) ceremony – but today it is usually thought it is better to ask weather man. Our parents prayed for months till the baby was delivered for it to be a boy and healthy. Now tests can show both sex and any abnormalities it might come up with. Previously parents prayed for softening of the heart of feudal lord whose land they cultivated. Today, thanks to passing away of feudalism and, in case of Kashmir, courtesy Sheikh Saheb, God has been relieved of attending to that prayer as well. Previously they prayed for refuge from problems accompanying raising a girl child (kour-i malen sater) while as today they focus energy on giving her education that itself is almost a solution to the prayer . Such prayers as those for destroying other communities – especially Jews – or resolution of Palestine and Kashmir  haven’t so far been answered. It seems that most of petitionary prayers we once made no longer seem to concern either us or God. In Bedil, the sage-poet and “father of meaning,” we find rejection of those who believe or claim that all the prayers are granted. Noah’s prayer for son and Abraham’s for Azar was not accepted.

 This may help us to consider other forms of prayer or deeper understanding of prayer that is so crucial in an age when secularist critiques of prayer have become fashionable while quest for meaning/God – the object of prayer – remains as desperate as ever. Even “ancient and unrepentant agnostic” Khushwant Singh who boasted that he didn’t waste a second in prayer during his life recited Gaytri Mantra every morning and sought, like Faiz, help of special prayers from sages. What prayer means for us after encountering modernity is the question and here our mystical philosophers have much to teach us.

I don’t know of any man who can wholly dispense with prayer. Whatever meaning or joy we find in life is possible by means of resources of spirit that prayer is an instrument to access. To live is to pray. The primary purpose  of prayer is not to make requests but “to praise, to sing, to chant. Because the essence of prayer is a song and men cannot live without a song” as Heschel noted. Prayer changes the man who prays and that is granting of prayer. All prayers are answered though not all petitions and our job is not to worry about outcome of prayer as prayer means waiting, waiting to receive or be present to receive the grace that is never absent. When there is a deep desire for the object, prayer happens. It needn’t be said. 

Buber’s classic work cites Rabbi Pinhas of Korez who said:  “The people think that they pray before God. But it is not so. For the prayer itself is the essence of the Godhead.”  Buber notes that prayer in the original meaning of the yihud in its purest form is no “subjective” event, but that “it is the dynamic form of the very unity of God.” These points help us understand why the Prophet (S.A.W) said that prayer distinguishes a believer from nonbeliever and prayer is worshipping.

Kierkegaard has addressed another important problem – fight against distractions and other  struggles we are forced to take while praying. “One who prays aright struggles in prayer and is victorious.” In Buber’s Hasidism and Modern Man we read: “When man stands in prayer and desires to join himself to the Eternal, and the alien thoughts come and descend on him, these are holy sparks that have sunken and that wish to be raised and redeemed by him; and the sparks belong to him, they are kindred to the roots of his soul: it is his power that will redeem them. He redeems them when he restores each troubled thought to its pure source, allows each impulse intent on a particular thing to flow into the divine creative impulse, allows everything alien to be submerged in the divine self-identity.”

Heschel has noted that “The focus of prayer is not the self. … It is the momentary disregard of our personal concerns, the absence of self-centered thoughts, which constitute the art of prayer. Feeling becomes prayer in the moment in which we forget ourselves and become aware of God. …. Thus, in beseeching Him for bread, there is one instant, at least, in which our mind is directed neither to our hunger nor to food, but to His mercy. This instant is prayer. We start with a personal concern and live to feel the utmost.” Iqbal has explained this last mentioned point in one of his lectures in The Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam.  And furthermore, against wide spread criticisms of petitional prayer thought to involve request for bending the universe for personal interests of someone, it may be noted that petitional prayer is “only one department of prayer; and if we take the word in the wider sense as meaning every kind of inward communion or conversation with the power recognized as divine, we can easily see that scientific criticism leaves it untouched. Prayer in this wide sense is the very soul and essence of religion.”

The most influential metaphysicians/sage-philosophers from Sankara to Ibn Arabi to Eckhart have bequeathed us hymns and prayers that silence all critics of Unitarian/Wujoodi paradigm who think devotion and prayer are of no use to nondualistic thought.  Kierkegaard has also bequeathed us his own list of prayers and meditations on praying  that would be favourites of “God forsaken” moderns. “The earthly minded person thinks and imagines that when he prays, the important thing, the thing he must concentrate upon, is that God should hear what he is praying for. And yet in the true, eternal sense it is just the reverse: the true relation in prayer is not when God hears what is prayed for, but when the person praying continues to pray until he is the one who hears, who hears what God is asking for.” And “Prayer does not change God, it changes the one who offers it. If you complain of your enemies to God, he makes short work of it and opens a case against you, because before God you too are a guilty person. To complain against another is to complain against yourself. You think that God should take your side, that God and you together should turn against your enemy, against him who did you wrong. But this is a complete misunderstanding. God looks without discrimination upon all. Go ahead. If you intend to have God judge someone else, then you have

made God your judge as well. God is, like-for-like, simultaneously your judge. If, however, you refuse to accuse someone before God he will be merciful towards you. “Even if prayer does not accomplish anything here on earth, it nevertheless works in heaven.”  “In proportion as one becomes more and more earnest in prayer, one has less and less to say, and in the end one becomes

quite silent. Indeed, one becomes quite a hearer.” “The important thing is to be honest towards God, until he himself gives the explanation; which, whether it is the one you want or not, is always the best.”

For Buber prayer is “to offer God the unbroken promptings of his heart.” So whatsoever your background, consider singing your heart out and listening to the silence and music of the universe and you have participated in prayer and secured your berth in Heaven.