Difference between saying a prayer and praying
It was purely by chance that I happened to come across a talk delivered by the Pope Francis in October 2013. In his talk, he dilated on the reasons for people turning arrogant and hostile. According to him, the root cause for such behaviour was the lack of prayer. He explained his stance stating that faith somehow degrades into an ideology and that frightens and chases away people from the ‘faith’ in its true sense. He also said that it creates a distance between people. It was in that context that he made a statement that struck my heart:
“There is a difference between praying and simply saying prayers”, he said, “people get carried away by ideology and repeat prayers instead of actually praying.”
That set me thinking and in that deep thought, my memory brought up an episode from the life of a lady which highlights this difference between praying and saying a prayer. The episode is special in another sense also - it gave birth to a bhajan that is often sung in the presence of my Master and best friend, Bhagawan Sri Sathya Sai Baba. But before I delve into that episode, it would only be apt to recollect a little story.
Leo Tolstoy's adaptation of a Russian folktale
The Three Hermits
The great Russian thinker, philosopher and writer, Leo Tolstoy has written a beautiful short story on prayer. He titled the story as The Three Hermits. For those who are unaware about it, the story is about the lesson learnt by a bishop aboard a fishing boat. Being a devout Christian, he gets very curious when he overhears a conversation centering on three hermits living in isolation on an island. These hermits are apparently working for their ultimate salvation. The bishop expresses a strong desire to meet the hermits.
Coming face to face with them, he asks them what they do for their salvation. They shake their heads in humility and say that they just keep repeating a prayer - “Three are ye, three are we, have mercy upon us.” Hearing this, the bishop feels that he should help them out. He teaches them the meaning of the doctrine of the Trinity and how to pray correctly. He teaches them the Lord’s Prayer, ‘Our Father Thou Art in Heaven...’. Make them repeat late into the night, the bishop leaves the island only after satisfying himself that he had helped the hermits.
A couple of hours later, the bishop sees bright lights headed straight towards the boat. He mistakes it for a bigger boat. As the lights draw nearer, to his utter amazement, the bishop sees the three hermits, RUNNING across the waters hand-in-hand towards the boat. They shout out,
“We have forgotten your teaching, servant of God. As long as we kept repeating it we remembered, but when we stopped saying it for a time, a word dropped out, and now it has all gone to pieces. We can remember nothing of it. Teach us again."
The bishop humbled and wise now, replies to the hermits: "Your own prayer will reach the Lord, men of God. It is not for me to teach you. Please include me in your prayers. " The hermits just turn around and walk back to their island. They never learn any prayer in their life and yet spend it completely in prayer.
Links to download a few bhajans composed by Mrs. Parvati Mahadevan
Please copy and paste the links in the browser to download the bhajans.
The story of Parvati and her Shiva
Mrs. Parvati Mahadevan was a regular in the Brindavan Ladies’ bhajan group that had the unique privilege of singing for its Lord, Bhagawan Baba, whenever He was at the Bangalore ashram. The chance was unique because elsewhere, it would always be the students of the Sri Sathya Sai Institute of Higher Learning that got the chance of singing for Swami. Mrs. Parvati Mahadevan had another special blessing from her Lord too - The ability to compose bhajans with beautiful tunes and profound lyrics.
As they say, talents and skills take one up to a certain level. Geniuses, however, are created from inspiration deep within which goes beyond the realms of skills and talents. Though a septuagenarian, Parvati aunty was one such genius because inspiration from within does not seek age! In fact, she had composed several of the bhajans that were sung regularly in Swami’s presence. Examples of her composition include the heartrending “Tum Ho Shyam Ram Rahim”, and the awe-filled “Nandishwara Hey Nataraja”.
Swami had blessed her with a Shivalinga, the globular representation of Lord Shiva which she would religiously worship every day. On several occasions, even when Swami was at His Bangalore ashram in Whitefield, Parvati aunty would be a bit late for the bhajan sessions because she would not move out of her house till she had completed the worship. At such times, she would rush after her worship in her characteristic Fiat car. On one such occasion, Swami had remarked jocularly,
“I wonder why on earth I gave her that linga! She is not coming even for my darshan!”
But that was her devotion and dedication to the linga. After the separation from her husband, Parvati aunty seemed to have decided that her life was meant ‘only for Shiva’. (For those that are unaware, Goddess Parvati is the consort of Lord Shiva.) She would even tell Swami that since He had gifted her with the materialized linga, she had a responsibility to ensure its proper worship. Swami would only smile at this.
The burglary bhajan
One evening, as she sat silent and deep in her worship, the sky turned overcast and it began to rain cats and dogs. As is common in Bangalore during such days, there was also a power cut and everything went dark around the lady who lived alone in her home. But that did not deter her worship. She nonchalantly continued with her routine of praying before the linga. Unknown to her, a burglar had got into the house and was silently rummaging among things to make a good steal.
When he did not find anything of great value in the house, his eyes fell on the Mangalsutra that adorned the neck of Parvati aunty. The Mangalsutra is an Indian woman’s symbol of marriage and is almost always made of gold. This gold necklace was visible because of the light from the lamp in the altar. Seeing the lady silently absorbed in her worship, he stealthily moved to her and made a bid to snatch the Mangalsutra away from her neck. Even as he tugged at it hard, Parvati aunty was awakened from her meditations. She realized what was happening and became very angry.
Her anger, however, was not directed at the burglar – it was directed against Swami!
“When am here engaged in your worship, why am I being disturbed thus? This is not right. Lord, You are my Shiva, my Rudra. It is your duty to ensure that my worship can be completed.”
Her ire was not because of the fact that she was being robbed. It was the expression of her pain at being disturbed in her worship! That pain and anger manifested as a powerfully tuned bhajan. The seventy-year old aunty burst out with a brand new composition,
Karuna Sindho Shiva Shambho
Kamala Nayana Sai Shiva Shambho
Kali Yuga Deva Deena Bandho
Kalimala Bhanjana Sai Shambho
( Click here to download this bhajan being rendered)
It is indeed a sad thing that the author cannot produce that powerful tune in writing. However, the spontaneous outburst which happened without her conscious knowledge carried this meaning:
“Oh! Ocean of compassion, my Lord Shiva, my lotus-eyed Lord Sai Shiva! You are the Lord of this Kali Yuga; the one who is the friend of the downtrodden. And therefore, it is your duty to destroy the dirt and defects of the Kali Yuga.”
Then, she looked straight into the eyes of her assailant and proclaimed,
“Don’t think that I am alone. You will have to contend with His anger if you attempt anything.”
The burglar seemed shell-shocked. It was as if the old woman whom he thought he could easily overpower was being guarded by an unimaginable force. His clasp on her Mangalsutra loosened and slipped. The body of the burglar seemed to quiver and quake, shiver and shake. He seemed to be in a daze and, in that state, he just turned and left, silently slithering away! Parvati aunty was safe and the world was richer by another beautiful bhajan!
A note on prayer
Prayer is not about doing something extraordinary. It is about doing something ordinary in an extraordinary manner. Every one of us are subject to our emotions - happiness, anger, jealousy, excitement. The difference between me and a beautiful devotee like Parvati aunty is that while I direct my emotions to whoever/whatever is causing it, a devotee directs the same towards God and God alone. Two things are achieved by this:
1. The devotee is in constant touch with God and God becomes the center of his/her life.
2. The devotee is able to see God in all situations and conditions - the first step towards realizing the Ultimate Reality that everything is ONE.
When one is in such a state, it does not matter what prayer one says, what mantras one chants, what hymns one sings or what Azaan one cries out. Whatever one says becomes a prayer! And that clearly brings out the difference between saying a prayer and praying.
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© 2013 Aravind Balasubramanya