Prayer means a request, appeal, communication or petition before God. Humans perform millions of prayers every day. All our prayers are addressed to God, and we ask for security, safety and peace of mind. Every faith has different ways to please God through prayer. Two things are fundamentally common in every prayer.
First, prayers are made to an external deity, God that is outside humanity, has supernatural powers, is omnipotent and can do anything and everything for us on demand.
Second, because God is believed to be external, all our prayers are for outer or external purposes, i.e., worldly things.
Our prayers in fact reflect our conception of God; in other words, we ask an “external” God for worldly things. Based on that conception of God, common requests in our prayers may include:
- Asking for rain when there is drought;
- Asking for a safe journey before we travel;
- Praying for victory in our personal challenges, e.g. an election or court case;
- Asking for success in a business endeavor;
- Praying for a cure for a disease that we or loved ones suffer from;
- Asking for a child;
- Praying for academic successes for our child, e.g., university admission;
- Expressing gratitude to God for everything He has given us.
- Key point is that our focus in our prayers is external.
When we conceptualize God as an external Being that is omnipotent or almighty and can perform miracles in violation of the laws of nature, this leads us to believe that God can answer every prayer. This belief system is thousands of years old and has not changed until today. Even though humans have intellectually advanced so much to be able to land on the moon, our conception of God and our system of prayer has not changed.
In the age of scientific and technological advances, today’s youth no longer accepts unquestioned obedience to religious dogmas. They demand logic, reason and facts in religious discourse. Today in the age of science and advanced knowledge we find that the God we worshipped for thousands of years is failing to answer our prayers, protect us from dangers, cure sickness, stop murder of innocent people; bad people prosper while good people suffer. God even failed to protect a young girl from being raped at a place of worship. For these reasons, our faith in God today is drastically waned. There is no living connection with God. A lack of belief in the God we worshipped for years is rising. Questions are raised as to the very existence of God. The youth of today is walking away from faith because they believe God has little or no relevance in their daily lives. What is then the meaning of prayer? Who do we pray to for spiritual security and salvation? Where do we go from here? It is in this context I now discuss meaning of prayer in Gurbani.
Guru Nanak (1469—1539) in Sikh scriptures (AAD GURU GRANTH SAHIB) says BIRTHEE KADE NA HOWAEE JAN KI ARDAS ( SGGS page819), meaning the prayer of the spiritually awakened follower is always answered. God never fails a devotee. How does Nanak claim that? What is the God that Nanak prayed to and those prayers are always answered? The answer is in the concept of God in the spiritual philosophy of Guru Nanak. Concept of God by Nanak is a complete shift from the thousands year old belief system. Nanak says God is SHABAD GURU, BANI GURU meaning God is divine wisdom, knowledge, intellect, a treasure of virtues. God is embodied in the laws of nature. God is universal life energy, essence of life. God has no size, shape or color. God does not take human form. Most importantly God is not a supernatural human-like deity that is external to humanity. God is within all of us, a divine spark of enlightenment that is our true nature, our true self. (For a detailed explanation of concept of God in Gurbani see separate article). When we understand Nanak’s concept of God, the meaning of prayer completely changes. We find the true meaning of prayer. The most important point is this: prayer has nothing to do with outer or external purpose, or the material world. Prayer has everything to do with internal purpose, realizing our true nature, and experiencing a conscious transformation. The path to happiness, peace and joy is inward.
Prayer is communication, a dialogue with God that is within every one of us. Prayer is communication with my inner self, a commitment to inspire myself. It is about my commitment to spiritual awakening, finding my true nature, and who I am. It is about surrendering to God within, realizing that I had enough of this egoistic miserable life, a life full of worries, anxiety, stress, depression. It is my commitment to walk the spiritual journey. It is about connecting to my authentic self. Prayer according to Gurbani has nothing to do with outer purpose. Guru says WINN TUDH HOR JE MANGNA SIRR DUKHAN KAI DUKH(SGGS page 958) meaning God my only prayer before you is for divine wisdom, knowledge, godly virtues and to learn to live in the present and find meaning of life. Nanak says EK SABAD IK BHIKHIA MANGAI GIAN DHIAN JUGAT SACH JAGAI (SGGS page223) meaning my prayer is for divine wisdom, divine knowledge that guides me to become spiritually awakened and realize my true self. Guru says the cause of our life’s pain and suffering is that we continue praying for worldly comforts, outer purpose. Our focus is outward, not inward. Nanak says AISA JAG DEKHIA JUAREE SABH SIKH MANGAI NAAM BISAREE (SGGS page 222) meaning mankind is gambling its future by craving for more wealth, material comforts. Humans pray for all worldly comforts. They have forgotten to realize truth and live truthfully.
It is not that we do not have desires for worldly comforts, conveniences and business success. We do have these research shows that these are never a source of inner peace, or lasting happiness and joy. Th ese should not be our priorities of life. It is our fear, ignorance and superstitious beliefs that we continue praying for outer purpose, material things. We are so stuck in our belief systems that are thousands of years old and have failed us in every spiritual aspect of life, but we are not prepared to make the shift from seeking outer purpose from an external deity, to seeking inner purpose, with an inner God.
I believe that out of ignorance of basic principles of SIKHI, Sikhs have made PANTHIC prayer to be one way communication with God (SHABAD GURU). We demand from God every need of our life: God give us success in business, gift of son, cure our sickness, victory in elections and even admission of child in the university. Congregation in Gurdwara hands over a long list of demands to the priest to be conveyed to God. Sangat then feels good by listening to verse KEETA LLORIAI KAMM SO HAR PAIH AKHIAI (SGGS page 92) meaning for successful completion of any task or fulfilment of desires always pray to God. It is a serious mistake to believe that Nanak here is talking about worldly tasks. In fact Nanak says SANTAN SANG NIDHAN AMRIT CHAKHIAI (SGGS page 92) meaning by meditating on divine wisdom, divine knowledge one becomes spiritually awakened (SACHIARA) and enjoys peace, happiness and bliss in life.
I have read two books on the subject of SIKH ARDAS (SIKH PRAYER). Both these authors wrote all about PANTHIC ARDAS, nothing about meaning of prayer according to Gurbani. I believe essence of PANTHIC ARDAS must be same as in the ARDAS according to Gurbani. This is how I read PANTHIC ARDAS. First meditate on name of AKAL PURAKH (THE UNIVERSAL LIFE ENERGY). Second contemplate with utmost respect on ten Gurus and follow their teachings. Contemplate on divine message of ten Gurus embodied within the SUPEREME GURU, SGGS. Think about the noble deeds of those who sacrificed everything upholding the truth, shared common kitchen (WAND CHHAKIA), overlooked short comings of others, showed bravery till death. Always keep in our thoughts five holy thrones and all Gurdwaras. Pray to SATGURU for gift of SIKHI, unshorn hair, divine wisdom, unflinching faith, supreme treasure VIVEK BUDH (DIVINE INTELLECT), humility and love. PANTHIC ARDAS is inspiration and motivation to uphold natural justice and truth. It gives one courage to sacrifice for just cause.
Sikh Nation prays every day SIKHAN NU SIKHI DAAN NAAM DAAN meaning God give us wisdom to live truthful life, life of contentment, tolerance, kindness, love, humility, peace and happiness, life guided by spiritual teachings of Gurus. However, we treat this as a one-way communication, asking an external God to grant us this state of being. This prayer is not about communicating with God that is within. We don’t take responsibility to commit to change ourselves. When the focus is not about internal conscious transformation, we witness no change in Sikh psyche and SANSKARS. As I discussed before, Nanak says BIRTHEE KADE NA HOWAEE JAN KI ARDAS (SGGS page 819) meaning God answers every prayer of true devotee. Where lies the problem? As I said our prayer is a one-way communication, it is not a commitment with God within, a commitment with myself to be SACHIARA, a person of compassion, kindness, tolerance, humility, unconditional love. As Sikhs we make a serious mistake of praying to God as if God is an external deity, sitting up in the sky, OOPARWALA. Worst of all, our prayers are for external purposes. Nanak says SAT SANTOKH HOWAI ARDAS TA SUNN SAD BAHALAI PAS (SGGS page878) meaning God give me wisdom to realize the meaning of life, find my true self, truthful living, to live a life of contentment, unattachment to material world, form. When my prayer is about communication with God within and my commitment with myself, then my prayer will certainly be answered. My life will change. I will be at peace within me. Nanak further says NANAK BIRTHA KOE NA HOE AISEE DARGAH SACHA SOE (SGGS Page 878) meaning when we pray for divine wisdom, knowledge, godly virtues, living the will of God and we have commitment to follow through, our prayer is always answered.
When I visit Gurdwara on Sunday I commonly here this hymn JO MANGAI THAKUR APNE TE SOEE SOEE DEWAI ( SGGS page 681), which is interpreted to mean that upon prayer God fulfills all your worldly desires. Then there is a long list of demands from members of congregation. Focus is never on inner change, conscious transformation.
Why as Sikhs in our prayers do we keep demanding material things and worldly comforts instead of inner change and conscious transformation? This confusion comes from misunderstanding and misinterpretation of two hymns, one by Saint Dhanna and one by Saint Kabir in SGGS. Since content of both these hymns is similar, I will discuss here the hymn by Saint Dhanna. GOPAL TERA ARTA. JO JAN TUMAREE BHAGAT KARANTE TIN KE KARJ SWARTA (RAHAO). DAL SEEDA MANGAO GHIOO. HUMRA KHUSEE KARAI NIT JIOO. PANIA CHHADAN NEEKA. ANAJ MANGAO SAT SEE KA. GAOO BHAINS MANGAO LAWEREE. EK TAZAN TUREE CHANGEREE. GHAR KEE GEEHAN CHANGEE. JAN DHANNA LAWAI MANGEE (SGGS page 695). Prof. Sahib Singh has interpreted this hymn as follows.
O SATGURU, GOD you are provider of this world. I am a beggar at your door. Those who sing your praise, their desires are fulfilled. I pray that all my desires are fulfilled. (RAHAO). I beg for DAL, ATTA, GHIO; I need these comforts for my daily living. I also beg for new shoes and clothing. I beg for COW, BUFFALO for milk. I also need a quality horse. I, as your devotee, beg for a beautiful wife.
In his interpretation Sahib Singh says that praying for material things and worldly comforts are not against the basic principles of SIKHI. For support of his views he quotes Guru Nanak’s hymn, MANGAO RAAM TE SABH THOK. MANUKH KAOO JACHAT SARAM PAEEAI PRABH KAI SIMRAN MOOKH, RAHAO (SGGS page 682). Prof. Sahib Singh interprets this as follows: for all my worldly needs I only pray to God because asking from humans only brings disappointment, but praying to God gets my material and worldly desires fulfilled. His interpretation goes on to mention that, on the other hand, through meditation on divine wisdom and truth I realize freedom from attachment to and slavery of material things. We should note that this verse is the central idea of the hymn. Nanak is talking about freedom from attachment and slavery of material wealth and worldly comforts. In this context it is inconceivable that Guru Nanak is praying for these things. It is a mistake to interpret THOK (PADARATH) as material things. Nanak says NAAM PADARATH MANN WASIA NANAK SEHAJ SMAAI (SGGS page 34) meaning those who understand and internalize divine wisdom and truth enjoy inner peace and happiness in life. In SGGS, THOK and PADARATH are always used in the context of realizing divine wisdom. I understand this hymn to mean that looking for happiness from people will not work because we can’t control what others do (they may disappoint us) and because we cannot gain from others the one true means of happiness, which is divine wisdom; this can only be found by realizing God within us. We must remember that Guru Nanak’s overall message in SGGS is that the only way to have sustained happiness and joy is to live life in a detached way. We naturally have desires, but we must not condition our happiness on these desires being fulfilled. Whether our desires are fulfilled or not, we can remain joyful if we have found the divine wisdom that resides in each of us.
Contrary to Sahib Singh’s interpretation, I do not find a single hymn in SGGS where Guru Nanak prayed for material things and worldly comforts. There are many hymns, however, in SGGS that praying for outer purpose is ignorance and in fact is the cause for human pain and suffering. Let me discuss hymn by Guru Nanak that he wrote with the knowledge of hymn by Saint Dhanna. I believe Guru Nanak wrote this hymn to clarify this subject. KARTA TU MERA JAJMAAN. EK DAKHNA HAO TAI PEH MANGAO DEH APNA NAAM. (RAHAO SGGS page 1329). Guru Nanak uses metaphor to explain his philosophy. To provide context for this hymn, we must know that in Guru’s time a devotee was referred to as JAJMAAN. When a Brahman visited a devotee’s house to perform blessing, the devotee (JAJMAAN) offered DHAN, ATTA (KANAK), CHAWAL, DHUD, GHIO, KAPRA ETC to the Brahmin. Nanak in this hymn is metaphorically calling God, SATGURU his JAJMAAN. However, instead of asking for material things from his JAJMAAN, Nanak asks for spiritual awakening, while using the material things that devotees offered to the Brahmin as metaphors for divine wisdom, virtues, and contentment. Guru Nanak replaces the outward focus on material things to a focus on one’s inner world.
In this verse Nanak is saying my SATGURU, GOD you are enlightener of my consciousness. I pray for gift of divine wisdom, divine knowledge, godly virtues and spiritual awakening.
JAT SAT CHAWAL DAYA KANAK KAR PRAPAT PATEE DHAN (SGGS page 1329), meaning God you are my JAJMAAN give me gift of moral character, truthful living and purity of thoughts, this is CHAWAL for me. God, I pray for compassion, kindness and concern for others; this is ATTA, KANAK for me.
DUDH KARAM SANTOKH GHIO KAR AISA MANGAO DAAN (SGGS page 1329) God I pray for gift of contentment, so that I may perform righteous and good deeds in life. This is DHUD ( MILK) and GHIO ( BUTTER) for me.
KHIMA DHEERAJ KAR GAOO LAWEREE SAHJE BACHHRA GHEER PEEAI (SGGS page 1329) meaning God, I pray for inner tolerance and patience in life. This is GAOO (MILKING COW) for me. The inner peace and happiness I enjoy is DUDH (MILK) for me.
SIFAT SARAM KA KAPRA MANGAO HAR GUNN NANAK RAWAT RAHAI (SGGS page 1329) meaning Nanak says to be able to meditate on truth every day in life is new KAPRA (CLOTHING) FOR ME.
It is not coincidence that Guru Nanak used the language of hymns by Saints Dhanna and Kabir. Guru Nanak had these hymns with him. There are many other places where Gurus have clarified the meaning of hymns by Saints in SGGS.
When as Sikhs we begin to understand the true meaning of Gurbani and concept of God in Nanakian Philosophy, the meaning of prayer completely changes. We no longer pray for outer purpose, material things before an external SUPERNATURAL DEITY. We begin to pray before SHABAD GURU, BANI GURU for divine wisdom, godly virtues and living the HUKAM, WILL OF GOD. Our focus completely changes from external to internal.
Author: S. Harbans Singh Kandola