Prayer In Gandhi's Ashram
By Mahatma Gandhi
"Worshipping God is singing the praise of God. Prayer is a confession of one's unworthiness and weakness. God has a thousand names, or rather, He is Nameless. We may worship or pray to Him by whichever name that pleases us. Some call Him Rama, some Krishna, others call Him Rahim, and yet others call Him God. All worship the same spirit, but as all foods do not agree with all, all names do not appeal to all. Each chooses the name according to his associations, and He being the In-Dweller, All-Powerful and Omniscient knows our innermost feelings and responds to us according to our deserts.
Worship or prayer, therefore, is not to be performed with the lips, but with the heart. And the prayers of those whose tongues are nectared but whose hearts are full of poison are never heard. He, therefore, who would pray to God, must cleanse his heart. Rama was not only on the lips of Hanuman, He was enthroned in his heart. He gave Hanuman exhaustless strength. In His strength he lifted the mountain and crossed the ocean. That faith is nothing but a living, wide awake consciousness of God within. He who has achieved that faith wants nothing. Bodily diseased he is spiritually healthy, physically poor, he rolls in spiritual riches.
The language of the lips is easily taught; but who can teach the language of the heart? Only the bhakta - the true devotee - knows it, can teach it. The Gita has defined the bhakta in three places and talked of him generally everywhere. But a knowledge of the definition of a bhakta is hardly a sufficient guide. They are rare on this earth. I have therefore suggested the Religion of Service as the means. God Himself seeks for His seat the heart of him who serves his fellowmen...
At the morning prayer we first recite the shlokas (verses) printed in Ashram Bhajanavali (hymnal), and then sing one bhajan (hymn) followed by Ramadhun (repetition of the Gita). There is history attached to almost every shloka and every slected bhajan. The Bhajanavali contains, among others, bhajans from Muslim Sufis and fakirs, from Guru Nanak, and from the Christian hymnary. Every religion seems to have found a natural setting in the prayer book. In the evening we have recitation of the last 19 verses of the second chapter of the Gita, one bhajan and Ramadhun and then read a portion of a sacred book.
The shlokas were selected by Shri Kaka Kalelkar who has been in the Ashram since its foundation. Shri Maganlal Gandhi met him in Shantiniketan, when he and the children of the Phoenix Settlement went there from South Africa while I was still in England. Dinabandhu Andrews and the late Mr. Pearson were then in Shantiniketan. I had advised Maganlal to stay at some place selected by Andrews. And Andrews selected Shantiniketan for the party.
Kaka was a teacher there and came into close contact with Maganlal. Maganlal had been feeling the want of a Sanskrit teacher which was supplied by Kaka. Chintamani Shastri assisted him in the work. Kaka taught the children how to recite the verses repeated in prayer. Some of these verses were omitted in the Ashram prayer in order to save time. Such is the history of the verses recited at the morning prayer all these days.
A hymn was sung after the shlokas. Indeed singing hymns was the only item of prayers in South Africa. The shlokas were added in India. Maganlal Gandhi was our leader in song. But we felt that the arrangement was unsatisfactory. We should have an expert singer for the purpose, and that singer should be one who would observe the Ashram rules. One such was found in Naryan Moreshvar Khare, a pupil of Pandit Vishnu Digambar, whom the master kindly sent to the Ashram. Pandit Khare gave us full satisfaction and is now a full member of the Ashram. He made hymn-singing interesting, and the Ashram Bhajanavali (hymnal) which is now read by thousands was in the main compiled by him. He introduced Ramadhun, the third item of our prayers.
The fourth item is recitation of verses from the Gita. The Gita has for years been an authoritative guide to belief and conduct for the Satyagraha Ashram. It has provided us with a test with which to determine the correctness or otherwise of ideas and courses of conduct in question. Therefore we wished that all Ashramites should understand the meaning of the Gita and if possible commit it to memory. If this last was not possible, we wished that they should at least read the original Sanskrit with correct pronunciation. With this end in view we began to recite part of the Gita every day. We would recite a few verses and continue the recitation until we had learnt them by heart. From this we proceeded to the parayan. And the recitation is now so arranged that the whole of the Gita is finished in fourteen days, and everybody knows what verses will be recited on any particular day.
At the evening prayer we recited the last 19 verses of the second chapter of the Gita as well as sing a hymn and repeat Ramanama. These verses describe the characteristics of the sthitaprajna (the man of stable understanding), which a Satyagrahi too must acquire, and are recited in order that he may constantly bear them in mind.
Repeating the same thing at prayer from day to day is objected to on the ground that it thus becomes mechanical. (However) the point is not whether the contents of the prayer are always the same or differ from day to day. Even if they are full of variety, it is possible that they will become ineffective. The Gayatri verse among Hindus, the confession of faith (kalma) among Musalmans, the typical Christian prayer in the Sermon on the Mount have been recited by millions for centuries every day; and yet their power has not diminished but is ever on the increase. It all depends upon the spirit behind the recitation. If an unbeliever or a parrot utters these potent words, they will fall quite flat. On the other hand when a believer utters them always, their influence grows from day to day."
[Source: The Gandhi Message, Summer Solstice, Volume XXXVI, Number 2, 2002.
Published by - The Mahatma Gandhi Memorial Foundation, Inc, Washington, D.C.20016]