A prarthana (prayer) is one form of communication with a personal God. A prarthana may be an anguished plea to banish what torments us; or an offering of thanks for all that we have received: family, health and material prosperity. When we perceive the beautiful Universe around us, we adore the divine in prayer for this gift too.
The prarthanas presented in this book have been known to Hindus in India for thousands of years. Some of these hymns are from the Rig Veda that was compiled nearly 4,000 years ago (around 1,900 BCE). The 1,028 Sanskrit mantras (or hymns) of the Rig Veda were composed and collated by scores of rishis (wise and enlightened sages) over several millennia prior to that, and passed down through generations by oral traditions. These enlightened compositions were used during religious services of the Sanatana Dharma (Hindu faith) practiced in the Sapta Sindhu Civilization in Northwestern regions of the Indian subcontinent, and often referred to as the Indus Valley Civilization.
Other hymns in this book are selected from the Upanishads, which present philosophical treatises on the nature of the divine; and Puranas narrating in simple language the exploits of the Gods, kings and heroes, as well as detailing prevailing customs.
After the 5th century of the current era, the bhakti tradition prescribing a passionate devotion to God has resulted in a renaissance of devotional literature and contributed immensely to our repertoire of hymns and psalms. I have presented here a tiny sliver of this vast and rich treasure of inspired compositions so that you may cherish their beauty and enjoy divine grace.
Whichever God you bow before, prayers are good for the soul. When we are torn by self-doubt, reciting a prayer soothes our mind and develops trust in our own judgments. Particularly in children, knowing that they have worked hard and additionally appealed to their favorite God to remove obstacles in their path to success, prayers can give them the self-confidence in their capabilities. This in turn makes it easier for them to assert their individuality. By understanding and dwelling on noble thoughts composed by our sages, children and adults alike develop a reverence for our cultural heritage and grow with nobility and pride. At the very least, prayers allow us a few moments of silence and calm in a seemingly chaotic world. Scientific studies repeatedly point out the beneficial effects of prayer on one’s health. Science finally is catching up to what our enlightened sages knew 5,000 years ago.
I am often asked: what is a good time for prarthana?
While there is no wrong time to turn your mind to the Supreme One, prarthanas are best recited early in the morning, after we have freshened up. At that time our mind is still clear, and the challenges of the day have not yet crept into our consciousness. It would be a perfect time to dwell on the glory of God, and pay her our respects.
Our scriptures repeatedly remind us that the Supreme God is formless: neither male nor female. Yet societal stereotypes imprint a gender on our perception of the divine. In this book I have frequently referred to a feminine divine, to remind us of the Supreme that transcends gender.
Following our Indian traditions, I learned my first prarthana from my mother in the kitchen while she prepared dinner, and these formed part of my daily prayers. For many years, not knowing the meaning of these Sanskrit verses, I recited them simply from memory. It was only during my college years that I began to lookup the meaning and significance of prarthanas. From then on I was even more in awe at the wisdom of our early poet sages, who led simple lifestyles, yet compiled these sublimely beautiful gems of our civilizational heritage. If you understand the meaning of these verses, and feel the beauty of the composition deep within you, that experience is akin to darshan – catching a glimpse of the divine in a temple. By reciting these prarthanas with sincerity, you recreate a temple-like environment wherever you are, and you may even feel the gentle brush with the divine in your heart!
Another aspect of these prarthanas which is astonishing and even miraculous, is that our forefathers, thousands of generations of devotees all over India, faithfully passed these beautifully penned hymns on to the next generation. That these mantras survived several millennia is itself a miracle. Consider the earthquakes in the Himalayas, which diverted the waters from the primary river Sarasvati, and caused inhabitants of the Sapta Sindhu Civilization to migrate east to the valleys of the Ganga and Yamuna rivers. Their cultural traditions merged with those of the local inhabitants and evolved along the way.
Our culture has survived repeated attacks from the Mongols and Turks; and all attempts from Mughal invaders determined to eradicate our faith. It survived four centuries of British colonial rule and the not so subtle attempts at westernizing Indian thought and taste. And survived too the brutal inquisition by the Portugese in Goa over several centuries. Thousands of temples were razed to the ground and in an ultimate insult, mosques or churches were built over them, and in many cases using the same stones. Our sacred murtis were defaced and destroyed. Our people were tortured and killed, and lands were confiscated. Many conversions took place and many more abandoned their homes and migrated to safer regions. Through it all our faith and these hymns not only survived and withstood the test of time, but also became more refined as symbols of a resilient people and dharma.
Read these hymns, thrill in the beauty of poetry and magnanimity of thought, and you will realize why many parents willingly uprooted their children, packed their belongings, abandoned their homes and lands, and moved to newer locales: to safeguard this heritage. To them all, and the countless devotees who made the ultimate sacrifice, through so many generations, we are ever indebted.
Our faith is more than 5,000 years old, but our thinking should be fresh and new. Our heritage of mantras and shlokas has evolved over thousands of years to become the refined psalms you see here. Our understanding and interpretation of these hymns also needs to be constantly renewed, to communicate with successive generations, and to re-convey the essence of our culture and faith. As our lifestyle constantly adapts to new technologies, so should our culture be dynamic. And at the core of our culture and dharma, our spiritual and religious practices should be living, breathing and constantly evolving. If any aspect of our culture disappoints you, modify and improve on them! Don’t expect someone else to do it for you. As my father often reminds me, “if you want to see heaven, you have to die yourself.” So keep trying, and even the biggest obstacles will eventually yield. And our Sanatana Dharma will be better for it!
As this compilation took over 5 years, you will notice a marked difference in the style and composition of the commentaries as you progress through the book. Commentaries for the earlier prayers are simpler, while the latter commentaries appear more philosophical. This evolution reflects my own spiritual search and inquiry during this time. I have resisted the urge to normalize the entire text, in a sense to share with you my spiritual journey. Another perspective is that many readers may be satisfied with a basic commentary, or firm in their own spiritual grounding, and don’t need my lengthy sermons.
I invite you to join me through the entire book, and share in this magnificently blessed journey.
Please accept this tiny offering as a humble gift and a passing glimpse of our boundless dharma. Your quest for inner peace and recognizing the divine in your own heart begins here. The Universe awaits you. Come on in!
Chitrigi Arun Sudhakar Shanbhag
(first published, April 2007)