My earliest memories of prayer come from two places. My home and the convent school that I attended. The former was where it was formalized. The latter revealed to me that there were different ways to pray. One could pray in English, by kneeling and to a God called Jesus too.
Like in most orthodox Indian homes, we were introduced to God (Swamy as we referred to him) very early, when we were just toddlers who could put their hands together in a Namaste.
Then He was described to us as someone who must be remembered twice a day—in the morning and evening. We were given to understand that God was essentially the giver and punisher. The second attribute is what made us submit to our mother’s everyday coercions and imparted the idea of a ‘God-fearing’ person in me. The fear campaign about God ranged from ‘Do this or else’ to ‘If you err, He will..’
However, the larger meaning of prayer as we understood then was 'making entreaties to the He who had everything at His disposal'. It meant asking for everything from wisdom to long life to wealth to strength to courage to success to sundry things that I didn’t even know existed in the world at that time. He was the one with a fathomless goody bag. My mother had no role in firming that belief in me. She merely asked us to pray and seek. Seek what, no one told me, and I thought it meant the things we craved for as human beings. Small things and big.
From the time we could talk, we were trained to chant verses both in the morning and evening before a wall plastered with God pictures. Somewhere at the bottom of the huge array was a lamp that my mother said was the embodiment of the Almighty. I was so fascinated by that insight that I hold it dear even today.
Every day, at six in the evening, my sister and I would be hounded to the prayer room.
‘Wash your hands and feet and bow before God and say slokas,’ amma would instruct with a prompt.
We were literally forced to chant the mantras taught in a particular sequence. So entrenched are they in my memory that I can rattle them off in a trice in the same order even now. Although it wasn’t among my favourite activities, the ritual was one that I couldn’t bypass no matter what, and so I went through the motions, mostly with great disinterest. I remember even faking a headache or some such at that hour a few times to evade the tedium of it all. But then again, you couldn’t be in bed at twilight; it would invite the wrath of God and bring misfortunes of the gravest kind. So, get up, plant yourself in front of the God pictures and chant aloud, amma would firmly say.
Once the ritual at home was completed, we had to march to the temple to witness the aarti. Believe me or not, we (my sister and I) loved this unskippable routine. It was our little daily outing, unsupervised, and we enjoyed our time circling the peepal tree and loitering around a bit. There were chants prescribed for each deity in the temple which we duly fulfilled. None of what we recited made any literal sense to us, but we went through the motions, neither questioning nor violating the protocols.
At some point in time, as I grew up, the thought that God is our protector, above all else, took primacy in my heart. He is our ‘go to’ person. The umbrella in times of rain. The answerer in times of tests. The curer in times of illness. The handyman who fixed all problems—from leaky eyes to flaking hearts to broken lives. Prayer, I concluded, meant seeking the two things that dispelled fear from life—protection and security.
Help us. Protect us. Save us. These three supplications encapsulated all my acts of prayer.
The playful temple trips of childhood became sacrosanct journeys in adulthood, and I visited holy shrines to drop petitions, to reinforce my piety, and in some cases, just to soak in the ambience. The atmosphere in some places of worship were undeniably comforting to the mind. The sounds, scents and sometimes even the silence that pervaded those precincts have all had a powerful bearing on me.
But then again, our belief systems aren’t permanent. They keep changing with life experiences and exposure to the good and the bad. The exposure depends on how aligned we want to be with life and its vagaries. We attract and repel as per our consciousness. We bloom or wither based on how much light we allow into our inner space.
Pace by pace, as I lived out my life, prayer began to take a non-verbal form. It began to lose its open and obvious nature. It became subtler and started pervading every aspect of my life, infusing power into each thought, word and deed of mine.
I realised that didn’t have to go to the shrine to feel the sacredness of the Supreme. Watching the sunset from my balcony or inhaling the freshness of the hills or traipsing by the sea brought the same experience to me and I would sink into a sacrosanct moment unawares.
Eventually, I didn’t need to read verses from religious texts to get a sense of devotion. Even singing a Bollywood song could give me the same spiritual gratification. All I had to do to feel a sense of communion was to render it soulfully as if I were singing a traditional hymn.
When I wrote, I felt I was praying.
When I cooked, I felt I was praying.
When I taught, I felt I was praying.
When I slept, I felt I was praying.
When I laughed, I felt I was praying.
When I fretted or fumed, I felt I was praying.
When I breathed, I felt I was praying.
Anything I did, I knew I was doing in the presence of and with the permission of what I once thought existed only in shrines and puja rooms.
All of the Universe was now God. And every minute vibration in it, was a Divine manifestation that I couldn’t miss.
Prayer wasn’t a verb, a doing thing, anymore. It was a state in which I remained encased day and night. Like the foetus in the amniotic sac.
It became the source and vital force of all my actions. There was nothing to do except letting it act, and as it did, be acutely aware of its action every passing moment. My joys, depressions, hopes, fears, anxieties, victories, setbacks, and my very existence were now anchored in that state. My turbulences and tranquilities were all consigned to it. I feel a quiver in my heart and a sting in my eyes as I write these words.
I still light a lamp at the altar in our house. It reminds me of my mother and of what she had taught me: that a lamp was the embodiment of the Divine. I still burn incense twice a day. The fragrance they spread in our house reminds me of my father. It makes me nostalgic of my days spent with them. Together they take me back to my roots. They piece together memories of my childhood and a past from where I travelled this far. The phrase 'Hare Krishna’ is still a part of my regular vocabulary, but it now serves as an umbilical cord that tethers me to my ultimate source.
One of my greatest learnings in life, probably, has been to know the difference between praying and being in a state of prayer. This knowledge will be my sheet anchor in both my happy and not-so-happy times. It will be my landing pad when I do well or worse. For this, I am ever grateful to That which made it happen. Call it God or what you will.