There are several people I regularly talk to about Advaita and their search for truth on a-one-on one basis. Although I have talked with most of them for years, only lately I have introduced prayer. This partly is due to the fact that prayer has not been part of my own spiritual life up until a year back, except for in my (Christian) youth and partly due to the fact that Westerners have their difficulties with God and prayer.
As mentioned in several blogs before God or the Lord in Vedanta is something entirely different from the Christian concept of God. In Vedanta we call God Ishvara and Ishvara is the sum total of the law and order of the universe. Nevertheless Ishvara is prayed to in the form of a personal God or Goddess. Although this seems contradictory, these two ways of considering prayer can be reconciled in the actual act of prayer.
All of us live with a body and mind, even if we know that we are neither – whether we only have read about it, find it logically convincing or have actually comprehended and absorbed the knowledge. For this body-mind it is natural to sometimes feel overwhelmed with gratitude and love – be it when looking into the star-strewn night, listening to deeply moving music or finding an essential question answered. We did not do anything to be bestowed with such moments, they are Ishvaras gifts – the gifts of the natural order involving us in its blessed workings. So, what better thing can you think to bow to in love and in gratitude?
In life it is as natural to sometimes be at a loss as to what to do. At the transactional level we are not all-knowing, let alone almighty and even the enlightened one will not become so. But there is something that is all-knowledge and all-power: Ishvara, the sum total of the universe. So, what better thing can you think of to turn to for guidance?
Now, Western adults harbor a deep mistrust of such an approach. In Germany this is still due to the fact of as a people having fallen for someone seemingly all-mighty and all-powerful who then turned out to be all-destructive – quite a recent event in history. Not only the German mind but the Western mind in general has been losing trust in an absolute since the Age of Enlightenment while at the same time struggling to make up for it by conquering the world - first only physically (spacewise), then also mentally (industrialization, mechanization etc.), then also psychologically (“at one point I will have healed all my psychological traumas and finally can handle life instead of it handling me”), and now in the New Age movement also “spiritually” (“I just need to arrange these crystals in the right order, make the right affirmations, take the right flower essences etc. and life will be how I want it”).
Needless to say, none of this will work. In vedantic terms, whatever we as individuals do, we will not be able to know and manage life the way Ishvara does. We can never ever do all the right things at the right time with the right attitude in order to get exactly the result we would like to have. It simply is not possible. There are too many unknown and unknowable factors to be taken into account.
“Okay”, the Western skeptic will say, “how should prayer help here?” And the Advaitin may object: “What does it do to the ocean if the wave asks for support?”
First the first question: Prayer helps in two ways. One: as auto-suggestion. You allow yourself to ask for help in a matter that you feel helpless with – thereby already giving it motion in a certain direction. Second: As Swami Dayananda puts it “prayer is free will applied”. You do not have much doubt that in an ice-cream parlor asking for an ice-cream you will get one, provided you pay for it. You could also go and stand in there, even with the money openly displayed on the palm of your hand – unlikely that an ice-cream would be given to you and even more unlikely that it would be the one you wanted. The solution is very easy: You have to ask for what you want – this is how you can express your free will. We have free will and we constantly apply it without having major philosophical difficulties with it.
So why some advaitins, especially Western, have these difficulties with prayer? Some reasons I have touched on above. The specific objection of (mainly Western) advaitins is expressed by “What does it do to the water if the wave asks for support?”
Two things come to mind:
- The question is wrong. It should rather be: “What does it do to the wave asking for support?” Within this analogy obviously we cannot answer it. But “What does it do to the individual to ask for support?” is answered in the reply to the first question.
- In this question there is a mix up of two levels of reality. Prayer is an action of the jiva directed to Ishvara – all three being mitya (belonging to transactional reality). Prayer is performed on vyavaharika level (the dual phenomenal), which relates to the wave (form) and action. Water relates to paramarthika level (the non-dual real). Both levels do not touch. So the question does not make sense in the first place.
Swami Dayananda expresses the view of Advaita Vedanta on prayer thus: “The Self that is now an individual is praying to the Self that is Ishvara, the total, the Lord.” As an advaitin you certainly pray with a background knowledge different from a dvaitin. But there actually is no need to constantly tell yourself what Ishvara actually is. If you know it you can take this knowledge for granted. If there was a possibility to forget it you actually did not really know it yet. Then you will just have to go on studying which will remind you again. But maybe you will come to realize that however much you pray, you simply cannot forget that truth is in and through the action of prayer as well as the performer of the action as well as the one the action is directed to.
Since I have introduced prayer to the Advaita seekers I talk to I can actually watch in amazement what it does. Most of those people have deep insight into their own non-dual nature already but frequently came up against a kind of a wall: they felt a shade of depression creeping in, a grey feeling, a dryness, like walking through the desert. This has disappeared since they started praying.
What happened is that they allowed themselves to feel their helplessness – not as a psychological defect or escapism or defeat but simply acknowledging the basic and natural human condition. The one who prays can see him/herself as a child of life, trusting that he will be taken care of and not be left alone. This brought about a deep change in all of them. One who had the tendency to run and rush through life in order to keep it all going and under control has developed calm and relaxation. One who had no self-discipline started to discipline himself and actually enjoys it. One who tended to make herself a victim develops a sense of dignity. All have deeply fallen in love with Ishvara, whether calling him/her Ishvara, Shiva, Devi, Ganesha, Mary, or simply Father. Maybe it can be said that a wound intrinsic to human beings is being healed through prayer – at least if it is done in a non-dual context.
So even if you think that you are beyond prayer or unable to pray, I encourage you to give it a try; turn to Ishvara the way you would have turned to a loving parent who knows so much better and is endlessly more powerful than yourself – even or especially if you never had such a parent. Ishvara can be worshiped as God or Goddess, in the form of mother, father, sister, brother, beloved or friend or all of this and more. The form does not matter as long as you admit your own helplessness and surrender yourself to that higher order.
 See http://advaita-academy.org/blogs/Sitara/Translating-Vedantic-terms-to-Western-seekers---Faith,-God,-Sin.ashx
 Swami Dayananda „Morning Meditation-Prayers“ Ch. 8