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Prayer as protection

Evidence that prayer existed since we began is found in pre- historic Earth Mother images.

india Updated: Jul 22, 2006 19:04 IST

Why do people persist with prayer when things go wrong anyway?

Every cynic asks that question and believers tend to ask it most intensely after ‘bad luck’ hits them. Answers to this existential angst seem to vary according to which belief system we're conditioned in or have chosen. Most people end up saying it's ‘the will of God’. We add the coda that ‘it was for a reason that we don't see just yet’.

Hindus have the blood-curdling explanation that it was past karma and define karma in gory detail. For starters, karma itself simply means ‘action’. It denotes both good and bad action. We're told one has to overcome both types to attain liberation from the cycle of lives.

Further, karma is threefold: sanchita (accumulated over previous births); agami (to accrue in future lives) and praarabdha (already working out in this life). Focusing totally on God in the spirit of surrender (praapatti) is said to wipe out the first two types of karma. But praarabdha has to be worked out by enduring it or enjoying it, as the case may be. So help us, God?

That's where the prayer key seems to come in. Regarding which, the head of an important religious institution once known for its extreme asceticism snapped at me not very long ago, “What do you mean by ‘religion’? Is there any left today? All a person can hope to do is shut his eyes, think of Mathura-Vrindavan and pray for mercy.” Now this gives to think (I know, I know, New Age spiel is all about ‘to feel’ and decries ‘to think’ as a cold, sterile exercise, but face it, it really happens between the ears, doesn’t it?). So here we are with this proposition, no, conclusion, that our fates are more or less decided and the only recourse for relief from present suffering is through abdication, through supplication for making it better. Sounds clean, we’ve been doing it forever, haven’t we?

In fact, the evidence that prayer existed since we began is found in pre-historic Earth Mother images discovered all over Europe (the Lascaux Caves in France for example) and elsewhere too: big, fat mammas with huge bellies and breasts like the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, sort of a proto-jagatjanani model.

So how did this superfe cund, powerful mother become a pure virgin goddess in the violent male religions that hold sway and attack each other with depressing regularity? ‘Spousification!’ and ‘Desexualisation!’ scream feminists and by God, they’re right.

Mother Saraswati is just one teensy example: she's made to do a kayapalat from the wild, clever Vaak of the Rig Veda, who roams where she pleases and with whom she pleases and “bends the bow of Rudra” to a bovine beauty with a heavy lute thrust into her arms, a hamsa to spy on her every action and a speckless white sari. A shwetaambari, no less, whose very name means a weak and watery ‘sweetly flowing’.

But wait, we have to try and solve another disturbing puzzle first: the bit about overcoming even ‘good’ action. Like in any good detective story, let’s look for motive and for once it's not cherchez la femme (‘find the woman who's behind it’). Even ‘good’ action, if we think about it, often has a selfish motive: We’re nice to people we love and/or like. We’re writing cheques for charity because we want to feel good or get a tax rebate.

Hear Yajnavalkya, that terrifying old Hindu lawgiver, author of the Shukla Yajur Veda. In the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad he says we don’t love another person for the sake of that person, but because of the Self. You can interpret this philosophically to mean that the Self he's talking about is God and God is in each being and therefore even if you say you love your wife, what you really love is that spark of Divinity in her. So it's not really ‘your wife’ you love, but God. Shabash! Deny humanity, deny this sweet, foolish, pull of attraction and affection between people’s manas (mind-heart). Or make it completely pheromonal, as incomplete a notion as icy transcendence. Brain-at-work, but flawed thought,surely?

At the end of the day, it’s a load of theory. What is manifestly real though is our frail humanity. We are an inter-dependent species and the Mothers are why there IS a species. Prayers are definitely needed for emotional courage through life’s mystery, to get from one day to another. And perhaps it’s time everyone went back to a Mother Prayer since Father Prayers only seem to make us go kill each other?