From Back to Godhead
God is a person, and out of His infinite kindness He allows us even in
our present condition to render Him personal service.
In the Srimad-Bhagavatam, the devotee Prahlada Maharaja, a great spiritual authority, says, “Hearing and chanting about the transcendental holy name, form, qualities, paraphernalia, and pastimes of Lord Visnu [Krsna], remembering them, serving the lotus feet of the Lord, offering the Lord respectful worship…, offering prayers to the Lord, becoming His servant, considering the Lord one’s best friend, and surrendering everything unto Him (in other words, serving Him with the body, mind, and words) these nine processes are accepted as pure devotional service. One who has dedicated his life to the service of Krsna through these nine methods should be understood to be the most learned person, for he has acquired complete knowledge.i Here we continue our series on the nine processes of bhakti-yoga, or devotional service to the Lord.
PRAYER, OR vandanam, is the sixth of the nine processes of devotional service. An intensely personal process, it may also be the most universal, for prayers fill the traditions of religions and cultures of the world, creating our most ancient ties and our most common language. Scriptures are filled with prayers that become our friends and companions for life. Nearly everyone has felt the comfort of a childhood prayer, or the companionable stir of belonging when familiar prayers are quoted.
Prayer is often the very first way children learn about God. Parents teach their children simple prayers for bedtime or mealtimes. These early prayers teach children much about the way to approach the Lord. There are simple prayers of gratitude, prayers for the welfare of loved ones, and, of course, prayers for some coveted desire to be fulfilled. Childhood prayers often express fear of the wicked or of God’s wrath. They set up theological principles, such as eternal heaven and hell, that shape the behavior of entire cultures.
While each of us has a unique encounter with the world, prayer invites communication that supersedes material circumstances. Prayer in its most lovely form reawakens our deepest, most primal sentiments and longings. Prayer articulates knowledge that seems to arise from somewhere beyond this life’s recollections; that is why the words from a prayer written centuries ago can often feel like the most sincere expression of our own spiritual longing.
Prayer Of Distress
Prayer is often prompted by suffering. According to the Bhagavad-gita, God accepts such prayers, even though they’re centered on our own pleasure rather than God’s. A delightful story from the Srimad-Bhagavatam tells why.
A magnificent elephant named Gajendra was traveling with his herd when he become tired and thirsty. They stopped at a lake, where they enjoyed playing in the water. Deep within the lake, however, lived a crocodile of great strength. The crocodile caught Gajendra’s leg in his mighty jaws, and despite Gajendra’s own massive power and the assistance of his elephant herd, Gajendra was unable to free himself.
They fought for a long time. Slowly, Gajendra’s strength began to wane, while the crocodile, a creature of the water, stayed strong in his element. As Gajendra saw his death approaching, he realized that no one could truly save him except the Supreme Lord. From deep within the elephant’s being arose the words to a prayer learned in a former life, and he sang it out with devotion. Moved by the pure-hearted song of surrender, Krsna, the Supreme Lord, appeared and killed the crocodile.
What attracted Lord Krsna to this elephant? Was it the incredible sight of an elephant reciting a prayer? Was it the prayer itself, a long catalogue of Krsna’s glories, that brought Him to the scene?
Neither of these things are truly compelling to the Supreme Lord. After all, prayers are recited in His honor always and everywhere. But the astonishing feature of Gajendra’s prayer was that it was uttered with pure realization. Gajendra could see that his triumphant reign as elephant master was just a temporary role in the world. His eternal role was in relationship to the Lord, and when Gajendra realized this, he was inspired within his heart with words of glorification. The point was not that he knew the prayer and used it to remove himself from an ugly predicament, but that he felt the prayer, and sang it with full love.
Often prayers have expectations attached. After all, what’s the point of communicating with the Lord of the universe if we can’t freely express our desires? If we live with the consciousness of God’s omnipotence, then praying for what we want can feel natural. But think of all those prayers for good weather, for money, for miraculous cures and consider how impossible it is to fulfill all of them at once. As Srila Prabhupada pointed out, during World War II the wives of the German soldiers were praying for the safe return of their husbands, and the wives of the British soldiers were praying for the safe return of their husbands. In a war, how can everyone be satisfied?
Sometimes we are blessed with the answer to our prayers, and sometimes we are blessed by the apparent rejection of our prayers. Sometimes our prayers are answered, but we cannot recognize Lord Krsna’s response. How does Krsna decide which requests to grant? How do we react when He seems to ignore our prayers, even when our situation becomes quite desperate?
On one level, the answer is complex, fraught with karmic consequences and lessons for our own good, just as a parent denies the child pleasures that could bring the child danger or pain. Think how often, in retrospect, we are grateful that God did not grant the answer to our prayers? Good thing, we later reflect, that we lost that job. Good thing the one we loved didn’t love us back. Saved from our own short-sightedness, God rescued us by ignoring our pleas.
But sometimes our losses are so tremendous that we can find no silver lining, no reason to explain Krsna’s negligence. How can it ever be okay to lose a child? How can it be okay to waste away slowly from a painful disease? When tragedies like these enter our lives, as they do in this world of unpredictable misery, we often turn to prayer with an unimagined intensity. And often there is no relief from the pain, no sign that Krsna is listening, or caring. It’s hard not to let the seeds of anger and doubt season our relationship with Krsna when He seems to be deliberately destroying all that we love.
But that may be His point. We love the people and things of this world so deeply. And while this love is natural, it must be held in perspective. Love, in its most pure and satisfying form, is meant for Krsna. We are most our true selves, most our joyous selves, when that love for God is fully awake in our beings, when we give and receive love from others in this world as part of our larger purpose of loving Him. This, of course, is not a small realization, and it is impossible to superficially adopt. But from time to time the Lord may bring it out through apparent tragedy. It certainly doesn’t feel like a blessing, but it is nothing less than the chance to turn to Him who loves us best.
Nothing I’ve ever read illustrates the relationship of prayer and suffering better than the prayers of Queen Kunti. She and her family were fortunate to be with Lord Krsna, who helped them endure death and separation of loved ones, financial ruin, and humiliation. Finally, when their trials were over, Krsna prepared to leave. Kunti prayed, “Let our sufferings come again, for when we see them, we see You, and then our birth and death are through.” Later she prayed, “Please cut the ropes of my attachment to my family so my love can flow to You alone, like the Ganges to the sea.” Most of us would be reluctant to offer such prayers, but not the fearless Queen Kunti!
Prayer, then, is a reflection of our realization and our unique relationship with Krsna. Prayer is everything from our most intimate conversations with the Lord in the heart to the universal expressions of praise and gratitude echoing through time. It is not a language of words, but a language of heart. Beautiful prayers with no feeling mean nothing to God; the beauty of a prayer, however articulated, is in its sincerity.
Find your own most beautiful prayers, and offer them with courage.
“O son of Maharaja Nanda [Krsna], I am Your eternal servitor, yet somehow or other I have fallen into the ocean of birth and death. Please pick me up from this ocean of death and place me as one of the atoms at Your lotus feet.” (Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu)
“O Lord Mukunda [Krsna], I bow down my head to Your Lordship and respect-fully ask You to fulfill this one desire of mine: that in each of my future births I will, by Your Lordship’s mercy, always remember and never forget Your lotus feet.” (King Kulasekhara)
“O Krsna, I offer my obeisances unto You because You are the original personality and are unaffected by the qualities of the material world. You are existing both within and without everything, yet You are invisible to all.” (Srimati Kunti Devi)
“O all-powerful one, I desire no boon other than service to Your lotus feet, the boon most eagerly sought by those free of material desire. O Hari [Krsna], what enlightened person who worships You, the giver of liberation, would choose a boon that causes his own bondage?” (King Mucukunda)
“O my Lord, persons who smell the aroma of Your lotus feet, carried by the air of Vedic sound through the holes of the ears, accept Your devotional service. For them You are never separated from the lotus of their hearts.” (Lord Brahma)
“O son of Vasudeva [Krsna], obeisances to You, within whom all living beings reside. O Lord of the mind and senses, again I offer You my obeisances. O master, please protect me, who am surrendered unto You.” (Akrura)