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What is Prayer?

By M. K. Gandhi

Prayer means asking God for something in a reverent attitude. But the word is used also to denote any devotional act…. But definition apart, what is it that millions of Hindus, Musalmans, Christians and Jews and others do every day during the time set apart for the adoration of the Maker? It seems to me that is a yearning of the heart to be one with the Maker, an invocation for His blessings. It is in this case the attitude that matters, not words uttered or muttered.

And often the association of words that have been handed down from ancient times has an effect which in their rendering into one’s mother-tongue they will lose altogether. Thus the Gayatri translated and recited in, say, Gujarati, will not have the same effect as the original. The utterance of the word Rama will instantaneously affect millions of Hindus, when the word God, although they may understand the meaning, will leave them untouched. Words after all acquire a power by long usage and sacredness associated with their use. There is much, therefore, to be said for the retention of old Sanskrit formulae for the most prevalent mantras or verses. That the meaning of them should be properly understood goes without saying.

There can be no fixed rule laid down as to the time these devotional acts should take. It depends upon the individual temperament. These are precious moments in one’s daily life. The exercises are intended to sober and humble us and enable us to realized that nothing happens without His will and that we are but ‘clay in the hands of the Potter’. These are moments when one reviews one’s immediate past, confesses one’s weaknesses, asks for forgiveness and strength to be and do better. One minute may be enough for some, twenty-four hours may be too little for others.

For those who are filled with the presence of God in them, to labour is to pray. Their life is one continuous prayer or act of worship. For those others who act only to sin, to indulge themselves, and life for self, no time is too much. If they had patience and faith and the will to be pure, they would pray till they feel the definite purifying presence of God within them.

For us, ordinary mortals, there must be a middle path between these two extremes. We are not so exalted as to be able to say that all our acts are a dedication, nor perhaps are we so far gone as to be living purely for self. Hence have all religions set apart times for general devotion. Unfortunately these have nowadays become merely mechanical and formal, where they are not hypocritical. What is necessary, therefore, is the correct attitude to accompany these devotions.

For definite personal prayer in the sense of asking God for something, it should certainly be in one’s own tongue. Nothing can be grander than to ask God to make us act justly towards everything that lives.

Source: Young India,1926