Why do people pray ? Probably Tennyson had the answer while holding forth thus on the power and efficacy of prayer , “ If thou shouldst never see my face again , / Pray for my soul ./ More things are wrought by prayer / Than this world dreams of ; / Wherefore , let thy voice / Rise like a fountain for me night and day “ .
All schools of spiritual enquiry trend towards the same supreme reality but yet there are many religions . One reason for it may be the deficient transport and communication systems of several thousand years ago and the resultant constraints for dissemination of a particular belief system to different regions of the world , causing multiple religions to flower in the west and east. Yet another reason may well be that the supreme reality deemed it to be in the fitness of things to delineate its infinite dimensions vide diverse belief streams winding its way to the ocean of divinity. These different religions reached out to all corners of the earth riding on royal patronage, adventurous travellers, itinerant traders , missionaries , monks and highly evolved sages . In this context, we may visualize the dedication and travails of Buddha in attaining higher states of realization and imparting it to his disciples , Adi Shankara in the spread of Advaitha , the twelve disciples of Christ for their missionary zeal in spreading Christianity, prophet Mohammed,Talib, Moinuddin Chisti, Jalaluddin Rumi , Kabir and Mirza Ghalib in the propagation of Islam and Sufism in addition to Ramakrishna Paramahamsa , Swami Vivekananda , Paramahansa Yogananda , Jiddu Krishnamurthy , Khalil Gibran , Baruch Spinoza, Immanuel Kant, Soren Kierkegaard, Ralph Waldo Emerson , Henry David Thoreau and the edifying influence their teachings had on the world at large .
The existence of God , beliefs in various religions , rituals and prayer may be subjects of endless debate . Whether the universe , as we see today in all its details and magnitude , is God’s creation or the outcome of evolutionary progression starting with the Big Bang ? Tossed between compulsions of faith and logic , questions of spiritual and rational import , I have gradually come to the realization that it is better to strike a balance , tempering religious dogma with scientific rationale while still allowing a larger scope for matters of faith , keeping in view substantial territories that are yet unexplored by science, and about which we do not have clear answers as these are apparently well beyond the frontiers of scientific reasoning .
From the essence of various religious teachings , it would appear that good living is basically a matter of living , not religiously but spiritually , arriving at the real core beneath rituals and dicta , of not harming others if not helping them , of doing good deeds and thereby setting off a cause and effect chain of one good deed resulting in another . Karma , as it is called in Sanskrit, to mean action , work or deed , also refers to the principle of causality , where the future of an individual is influenced by his intent and action . Good intents and deeds contribute to good karma and future happiness , while the opposite triggers future suffering . Karma is closely associated with the idea of rebirth in Hinduism and other Indian religions , affirming that karma in the present, affects one’s future in existing life, as well as the nature and quality of future lives or one’s ‘samsara’ (cycle of rebirth). To quote the Upanishad, “And here they say that a person consists of desires, and as is his desire, so is his will; and as is his will, so is his deed; and whatever deed he does, that he will reap” . The ideal spiritual state transcends , or goes beyond the physical and empirical, and one achieves such insight through personal intuition rather than religious doctrine. As within , so without . Transcendentally, Nature is the outward sign of inward spirit, expressing the “radical correspondence of visible things and human thoughts,” as Emerson wrote in ‘Nature’.
Shifting focus to the domain of science , we are given to understand that all beings , animate and inanimate , consist of matter and energy . Matter is that which has mass and occupies space and is composed of energy ; it can be divided and subdivided to arrive at its minutest indivisible form, known as ‘god particle’ . The latest theory points to possibility of division beyond ‘god particle’, thus we are not sure up to what micro-nano levels can matter reduce to and what forces create that substance or ‘param anu’ wherefrom all forms evolved . Energy is both kinetic, or energy in motion, and potential, or energy that is stored . Both these states of energy are present in various forms ranging from light , heat , mechanical , magnetic , electrical , sound, chemical and atomic . We are all objects in a cosmic field controlled by the supreme energy , which , according to vedantha , is manifested as ‘shakthi , the mother goddess , existing in the substratum that is ‘shiva’ . In a metaphysical sense , prayer is also a form of energy . Prayer , in its simplest definition , is a direct form of communion with the Almighty or an aid to meditation . The act of prayer can be traced to documentary sources as old as several thousand years . While praying , one’s body postures may vary in accordance with the intent (mainly respect or adoration) : standing; sitting; kneeling; prostrate on the floor; eyes opened; eyes closed; hands folded or clasped or palms brought together ; hands raised up ; holding hands with others etc . Prayer enables an existential transformation in the person praying. The act of praying elicits a new kind of understanding which was not apparent before praying. Soren Kierkegaard , the Danish philosopher who blazed the trail of existentialism , wrote that “the function of prayer is not to influence God, but rather to change the nature of the one who prays.”
What is the co-relation between prayers and fingers ? The answer is implied in the universally prominent posture of worship where the palms are brought together and held close to one’s chest or near the forehead . Each of the fingers on the hand holds a definitive significance in prayer mode .
The little finger points to all the people who are away from us in a diaspora , people who are no more, and also those who are not so favourably disposed towards us . All of them are required to be prayed for ; the purpose being the protection of those known to us but physically away from us ; the same serves for those who are dead and gone ; one is required to pray for redemption of their souls ; likewise again for our enemies , so they gradually become our friends (the prescription for greater realisation here is that one should visualize , during prayer session, changing attitudes of one’s enemies) or at least mend themselves (clearly exemplified by Christ himself who , even as he was dying on the cross , was praying for his persecutors) .
The next is the ring finger ; ring finger , as anyone playing string instruments or key board would experience , is the weakest finger in the hand ; thus in prayer mode , ring finger represents the poor and deprived , the homeless and downtrodden , leading virtually sub-human existence . We are duty bound to pray for them, for their uplift.
As the longest finger in the hand , the middle finger , in prayer mode , represents all the prominent people in society ; who are these entities ? Certainly those holding positions of power, learned people moulding public opinion , teachers , scientists and technocrats , business tycoons controlling enormous wealth and through it the fortunes of large sections of people . Prominence is attained through the congruence of knowledge , skills and capabilities . The world progresses when knowledge , skills and capabilities converge towards social weal , not otherwise . The collective prayers of people are required to enable the prominent group’s functioning for the greater good .
The purpose of the index finger in the hand is one of giving instruction and guidance. When the palms join together in prayer , the index fingers signify the need to remember and pray for our teachers ; all the teachers under whose tutelage one has passed through right from kindergarten to university . A teacher is referred to as ‘guru’ in Sanskrit , to mean someone who dispels the darkness of ignorance and ushers in the light of knowledge . ‘Guruthwam’ (guru’s blessings) does not happen in a vacuum . It is prayer for the guru that generates ‘guruthwam’ in our lives .
Finally the thumb ; in prayer mode, the thumb stands for our parents , spouse and children who are support systems ; so their well-being needs to be prayed for .
The concept of praying for others , entities that are not connected to us through family relationships , is not conspicuous in Hindu religion , which is highly individualistic (in point of fact, the term Hindu is a Persian coinage ; the Persians initially referred to people living near and around the river Sindh as ‘Sindhu’ , which in due time corrupted to ‘Hindu’) . It does not figure in the Vedas or eastern traditions . The act of praying for others has its origins in western philosophy and Christian theology , and practised widely in churches and by followers of the Christian faith . It is a firmly held credo that one’s prayer must always be for someone else’s well being and not for advancing one’s personal agenda ; likewise , one’s own welfare needs to be the burden of one’s well-wisher’s prayer and so goes the ideal prayer chain to encompass an entire mass of people . In just the same way as there are soldiers to fight wars , there are people who are deeply devoted to praying selflessly for others , going by the description of ‘prayer warriors’ . The term warrior denotes the war against Satan , as strongly committed prayers tantamount to warring against satanic influences and overcoming them . All these observations may be seen as reinforcing the central theme that prayer must always be for the welfare of the other as opposed to self , as none of the fingers hints at any need for self-centric prayer .
The salutary effect of thousands of people praying and the ensuing prayer energy , rising up to the cosmos and cycling back with infinite momentum , is what transforms human endeavour into desired outcomes . So the next time your palms join together in prayer, remember the symbolic signification of five fingers .