Prayer is the soul’s sincere desire,
Uttered or unexpressed;
The motion of a hidden fire
That trembles in the breast.
~ James Montgomery, What is Prayer?
I have always believed in the power of prayer. What is prayer? It is acknowledging the existence of some higher power. It helps me connect to that Higher Power.
The word Prayer came to English from Old French preier, meaning “to request”. It has been an integral part of human beings across time and culture. Prayers also find expression in diverse forms – rites & rituals, chants, confessions, pleas and supplications. In fact, it is when we go through crises that we hold on firm to the anchor of prayer.
One of my favourite prayer chants is:
“Om Sham No Mitra Sham Varunah Sham No Bhavat varyamaa,
Sham Na Indro Brihaspatih Sham No Vishnu rurukramah,
Namo Brahmane Namaste Vaayo Tvameva Pratyaksham Brahmaasi
Tvaameva Pratyaksham Brahma Vadishyaami,
Rtam Vadishyaami Satyam Vadishyaami,
Avatu Maam Avatu Vaktaaram,
Om Shantih Shantih Shantih”
Taken from the Taittiriya Upanishad, I have been chanting this every morning, ever since Brahmachari Gagan Chaitanyaji taught it at the Vishnusahasranama classes. I really did not know what it meant, though I could recite it. It appealed to me and so I chanted it. It is interesting to note that Upanishads start with such “Shantih Paths” or peace invocations. Recently, I came across its meaning and realized the efficacy of this powerful peace invocation! Recited together by the teacher and the taught, this chant honours the forces visible in nature to reach the invisible, yet omnipresent, omnipotent and omniscient God.
This Mantra implies:
“OM. May Mitra do good to us, may Varuna do good to us, may Aryama do good to us, may Indra do good to us, may Brihaspati do good to us, and may Vishnu the omniscient do good to us. Salutations to Brahman. Salutations to thee, O Vayu! Thou art the visible Brahman. I shall declare that Thou alone art the visible Brahman, Thou art the ‘right’, Thou art the ‘good’. May ‘That’ protect me; may ‘That’ protect the speaker (teacher). Please protect me. Please protect the Speaker. Om! Peace! Peace! Peace!”
Energy is made most use of through activities during day time and hence Mitra is considered to be the spirit of prana and the day. Varuna is believed to be the one who governs the exhaled breath (called “Apana“) and night. It is worth noticing that whenever we are working hard / carrying things etc, we breathe forcefully and even go short of breath. Prana is expended and we need to rest. Besides, isn’t wind or Varuna the visible God?
Who is Aryama? Aryama is said to be the presiding deity of the Sun and the eyes. The connection is between the light principle and the eyes, with which one sees lights and colours. Without light, eyes cannot see anything. Without eyes, any light and colour is imperceptible. Indra is supposed to be the governor of physical strength and the presiding deity of the hands. Generally it is through hands that one exhibits strength.
Brihaspathi is the celestial preceptor and reins over intelligence and knowledge. Vishnu, on the other hand is both omnipotent and omniscient and controls movements; therefore He controls the feet.
Thus by invoking Mitra, Varuna, Aryama, Indra, Brihaspathi and Vishnu, the teacher and the student(s) were seeking everything they needed for their well being (Sham; meaning well being) – health, intelligence and knowledge, strength and energy to sustain themselves physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually. This prayer also invokes Brahman, the infinitely supreme truth.
Shantih means peace. The prayer ends with the chanting of Shantih three times, to ward off all kinds of obstacles that destroy mental peace. In simple terms it signifies peace in body, peace in speech and peace in mind. Alternately it could also refer to peace individually, collectively and universally.
The first one, “Aadhi-daivika” shantih refers to all kinds of disturbances from phenomenal powers, which are absolutely beyond our control, i.e. cyclones, tsunamis, floods, quakes, volcanic activity etc. With this “Shantih” we beseech the Higher Power to protect us from obstacles that are beyond our control and chant it aloud.
“Aadhi-bhautika” shantih, the second one, denotes the disturbances around us – loud talks, barking dogs, ringing telephone bells etc. We can negate them to some extent by control – moving away from the place, or locking ourselves inside a room, or plugging our ears; by taking the phone off the cradle, or switching it off altogether. So this shantih means, “O God, may we be protected from the people and surroundings.” This shantih chant is softer than the first to indicate that it is directed to the environmental disturbances.
The third is the only one over which we have total control i.e. Aadhyatmikam. It refers to disturbances springing from one’s own body, like, illness, worry, jealousy,lust, anger, sorrow, hatred etc that destroy our peace. The egoistic mind which thinks only of its comfort zones that are invariably not really good for us as persons, is the only true obstacle to mental peace. This third shantih is hence the most important one, for even if we are free from outside disturbances and if there is no inner calm, we will never know peace. On the other hand, if we have found inner peace, no external force can ever disturb us. So chanting this third shantih is akin to praying, “O God, please remove all the inner obstacles related to the self.” Hence it is chanted the softest.
The invocation prayer ends thus with three chants of shantih to invoke peace in the unseen forces; our environment; and lastly our own mind, our own heart, our own self. It is also believed that trivaram satyam – that which is said thrice comes true. We chant shantih thrice to emphasise our intense desire for peace. Truly, incessant chanting of this is earnestly needed in this strife-torn world!