In Sanskrit and most of the native Indian languages, the word prarthana means prayer or seeking. While the word has a deep religious connotation and peculiarly Hindu in its origin, in course of time it acquired a secular and generic sense and used to convey the meaning of “to request, or ask or seek something politely with a feeling of reverence or submissiveness.” In the Vedic parlance, prayer was more or less synonymous with mantra, a religious chant or incantation, used to communicate with gods and seek some kind of wealth or favor from them. The Vedic Indians performed elaborate rituals, chanting mantras or prayers to please the gods and seek their assistance in the fulfillment of individual desires or realize some potentially important goal either forthemselves or for others or for the community in general. For example, one of the most frequently found prayers in the Vedas wishes for peace everywhere: peace in the worshipper’s mind, body and environment or peace in the world, in the middle region of the celestial beings and in the highest world of the gods. Another prayer seeks perfection and wholeness of oneself and the world by becoming complete to reach out to That which is complete and perfect in everyway.
In Hinduism prayer or prarthana takes on many forms. Their purpose, however, is essentially the same which is seeking communion with God or gods, expressing one’s love and devotion to them and obtaining their blessings and favors. The Hindu Puranas and epics such as the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, emphasize through many examples that God never fails to respond to the sincere calls of His devotees and comes to their rescue. We understand that in extraordinary circumstances when too many pure souls pray to him and make a distress call, He even incarnates upon earth to destroy evil and restore order. Some of the well known forms of prayers are mantras, japas, bhajans. Mantras are incantations or chants, which are believed to be endowed with magical powers and powerful vibrations capable of manifesting reality or desired results through the intervention of gods.
Japa is a continuous repetition of one or more names of God or some phrase from the scripture or given by a guru to calm the senses and control the mind or purify it. Bhajans are devotional songs, usually sung in groups to the accompaniment of music in front of the image of a deity or a guru. Etymologically the word “prayer” can be interpreted in different ways. According to one interpretation we can view it as a combination of two root words, “prar” and “dhana” meaning to ask or to seek “dhana” or wealth. The word “dhana” is closely associated with the word “dhaanya” meaning grains, which was the most notable form of wealth in the ancient world. Closely linked to these two words is the word “daan”, meaning charity. It was from the practice of giving food (grains) as charity to the needy people, probably the word “daan” came into usage. Interestingly, the corresponding word for “daan” is “donation” inEnglish, “donat” in French and “donatio” in Latin, all of which along with Sanskrit belong to the Indo European group of languages.
All prayers are but sounds or expressions of speech. Speech and sounds have a special significance in Hinduism, because space, which is also identified with ether or the essence of God, is considered to be the medium of the sound, while space itself is considered the physical manifestation of Brahman. It is filled with air, breath or prana, without which life is not possible. Therefore, from this perspective, prayer is the means to communicate with God through the immediately available mediums of space, speech, sounds, and sacrifices.