Given the reality of the world we live in, we have innumerable sufferings, mental stress, physical ailments, money problems, poverty, etc., To resolve them, we try to do whatever we need to. We go a doctor if we are unwell. We go to a banker or financier to help us with money. We go to government authorities to get approval on various things. We go to police for protection. Even as we do these perfectly logical things, we also pray to God. The fact is when the doctor gives a medicine it should work and that is all that matters. Why do we also pray?

One view is that whatever happens to us, including our problems, is simply the result of our own karma. It is God who in his infinite wisdom has chosen to inflict on us the suffering. So what is the point in praying to the same God? If we pray, we should just do it out of bhakti. If we pray for something, it should be for self purification.

Kanchi Mahaswamigal raises this question and quoting Gita answers it.

Four Types of Prayers

Lord Krishna says in Bhagavat Gita that there are four types of people, all blessed, who pray to Him: artan, jijnasu, artharthi and jnani.

‘Chaturvidha Bhajanthe Mam Jana, Sukruthino, Arjuna:
Artho, Jijnasur, Artharthi, Jnani cha bharatashbha’

Mahaswamigal explains what these mean.

  1. Artan means someone who is suffering or in sorrow: mental agony, physical ailments, pain, poverty, etc., all of which are part of ‘arti’. His or her prayer is straightforward: God, please unburden me of my problems.
  2. Jijnasu is one who is seeking jnana, or knowledge. He might pray for jnana, or, instead may meditate on the divine form, hold the reins on his mind and thereby seek to discover knowledge. Adi Sankaracharya recommends various upasanas to achieve this chitta aikagriyam, or mental concentration. When there is no separate consciousness of the jivathma, the mind merges with the God and ultimate Truth. A true jijnasu prays to God not directly for knowledge but to reach such a stage of mental integration with the God.
  3. Artharthi is the third. Artham means wealth; arthi is one who is praying for it. This is interesting as someone who is suffering from poverty is already included in the first category of Artan. Artharthi is one who is not poor, has already the money to lead a normal life, but, one who wants even more, in fact wants to be wealthy. Artham includes not just money but position, power, fame, etc.
  4. Jnani is the fourth. It is also interesting, because once one becomes a real jnani there is no distinction between him and the Lord Himself. In the Jnani samathi stage the Bhaktah is not different from the Bhagavan, but, the Jnani does not always remain in the nirvikalpa Samadhi, oblivious to external surroundings. There are times when even a jnani is aware of his external surroundings, or, at least it appears to others to be so. At such times, the jnani also meditates on the formless, attributeless thing, which he now sees in form all around. Lord Krishna says elsewhere in the Gita that ‘Vasudeval sarvamthi’ – the jnani sees Paramatma in everthing. True jnani is in a state of permanent bliss: everything outside and inside is Narayana for him. The jnani has nothing more to seek or attain. He does not need to pray for anything. Sukacharya calls this ‘ahaithuki bhakti’ – bhakti sans reason.

It is tempting for us to ask - where is such an exalted form Bhakthi in all of us? Where is bhakthi, when Artan prays to God to get rid of his problems? And, is it not worse in the case of Artharthi who has money and other worldly things and is asking for more?

It is important to note that Lord Krishna Himself speaks about Artan and Artharthi in the same breath as jijnasu who is seeking knowledge and jnani who has already attained jnana. In fact He calls all of them –sukhruthina jana, ie., people who have performed punya, or virtuous acts. A couple of slokas later in Gita, Lord Krishna also says all these four forms of bhakthas are praiseworthy ‘udhara, sarva evaithe’. Why does He say it? Why does He consider all four categories to be praiseworthy and to have performed punya?

Should we pray? Pray for what?

It is commendable if we can ignore all our pains and sufferings by saying ‘it is all God’s will’. In fact if a jnani is stabbed with a knife, even then he will not pray, because of his realization that he is not the body but athma. Very few, if any, of us are jnanis. We lead a life in a world that is ‘maya’. Adi Sankaracharya says ‘maha maya viswam Bramayasi’- maya manipulates us, maya controls the world. In this maya, we do think that the world is real, that our body is real and that there is a reality about our life. We suffer pain if we have an ailment, if there is a failure and if we run into financial problems. If a thorn pierces us, of course, it pains. In high fever, we rave and rant. If we are insulted, at the least, it gnaws us from the inside.

Our life in this world comes with duties and responsibilities and we cannot simply wish them away. When we have a problem, even if we tell ourselves it is karma, we try to do something about it. We believe that there is a God who is managing the whole universe and ruling it according to dharma, and, amongst other things, He is the embodiment of compassion. Even as we take what we believe are practical and tangible steps to get over our problems, we also appeal to His compassion.

It is possible to be like water on lotus leaf, completely unaffected by anything, but very few in reality are. The view taken is that it is God who has given the body, the family, etc., with responsibilities and in discharging them, when we run into a problem, we take remedial action, and while doing so, it is perfectly acceptable to also pray to God. If we are going to fall at the feet of various people for sorting out problems, why not fall at the God’s feet before doing so!

Actually, while doing so, what we are also saying is ‘Ishwara sakthi is the ultimate sakthi’. The problems relate to ‘I’ but we acknowledge that we are powerless without the grace of God and they cannot be solved without His grace. It is because of this Lord Krishna says all those who pray are sukruthina and udhara – those who have done virtuous acts and are worthy of praise. Lord Krishna adds one qualification, though. ‘dharma Viruddho Bhutheshu Kamoasmi’ – ‘I am the desires of people which are not against dharma’. What we desire and pray for should not be anything that is ‘adharmic’.

One might then ask, what about Artharthi? Even though he already has money, he wants more – is that not adharmic? The answer lies in two principles set out in our sastras. The first principle is that we should restrict our demands to the bare minimum, ie., to lead a reasonable life –‘aparigraham’. Anything beyond, it is greed and wrong. The other principle is that those of who can, should generate resources to do good for others. In fact when varnasrama dharma was practised properly, while the Brahmin was asked not to cross the seas lest his nithya anushtanas were compromised, the vaishya was asked to ‘brave crossing the ocean to make money’ – simply because, people with money (more than what they need for themselves) are required for social, charitable and religious activities.

The bottom line is that, whether one is artan or an artharthi, their prayers are perfectly legitimate, provided they are dharmic. Some of us, hopefully, can progress towards becoming a jijnasu when we only pray for ‘jnana vairagya’ – knowledge and self discipline, rather than alleviation of problems or acquiring wealth. Even this kind a prayer might stop for the rare one who becomes a jnani and achieves the highest state of bhakthi and a state of bliss.

Much the same thing is said towards the end in Adi Sankara’s ‘Soundarya Lahiri’. In the last but one sloka, starting ‘Sarswathya Lakshmya’, it says that Ambal grants us literacy, attractive physical features, money and other worldly things: at the next stage, She helps us eliminate various attachments and ultimately She delivers ‘paramanda’ or highest bliss.

Jaya Jaya Sankara, Hara Hara Sankara.

(This is a summary of Kanchi Paramacharya’s speech contained in Voice of God – Volume 5)