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A Prayer For Everyone

It's a salve for tormented souls, across religions, across communities
The Book Of Prayer
By Renuka Narayanan
Viking Penguin India Pages: 377; Rs 295
ONE does not have to believe in God to concede that prayer has power: most people in distress pray for help when they are in trouble. "More things are wrought by prayer than the world dreams of," wrote Lord Tennyson. I know of a lady faith healer whose simple formula to fight sickness is to chant "Om arogyam." Apparently it worked with her: she also claims to have healed many people. You may take recourse to passages from sacred texts as most Hindus turn to the Gayatri Mantra, Christians to the Lord's Prayer or one of the Psalms, Muslims to aayat-ul-Kursi (the Throne Verse) or sayings of Prophet Mohammed in the Hadith, Sikhs to their favourite passages from the Granth Sahib. And there is nothing to stop anyone making up his or her own prayer. Bernard Shaw was right in holding that common people do not pray, they beg.

Renuka Narayanan, who writes a weekly column for The Indian Express, has compiled The Prayer Book in which she has included her favourite quotations from the religious scriptures of all communities as well as sayings of saints: Hindu bhaktas, evangelists, Muslim Sufis and others. It is entirely understandable that extracts from Hindu sacred texts predominate. Instead of dividing them on the basis of religion, she has chosen one for every day of the year with the originals of some transliterated and followed by translations in English. The great merit of her compilation is that it highlights how much different religions share in common when it comes to approaching divinity and craving for solace. Reading them will remove many deep-seated prejudices cherished by the semi-literate. One example will suffice. Most non-Muslims tend to equate Islam with the fanaticism of the Taliban, and in the name of Islam, call for jehad (holy war) against Christians, Jews and Hindus. This is what the founder of Islam, Prophet Mohammed, had to say about jehad:

The most excellent holy war is that for the conquest of self;
Therefore let God fill my angry heart with safety and faith;
For no person has drunk a better draught
Than me who has swallowed anger
For God's dear sake
And again:
Every human heart has two motivations
One towards good and the other towards evil
But God's help is near and he who asks
Obtains this help in fighting the evil promptings of his own heart.

Narayanan describes herself as "a bazaar writer, not a scholar". She is being unduly modest and humble. Her compilation has come out of her heart and not her head. There are some well-known prayers with which most Indians are familiar but which are missing from her anthology. Gurudev Tagore's "Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high", for example and Rudyard Kipling's "If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue/Or walk with Kings—nor lose the common touch/If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,/If all men count with you, but none too much;/If you can fill the unforgiving minute/With sixty seconds' worth of distance run,/Yours is the Earth and everything that's in it,/And—which is more—you'll be a Man, my son!" I look upon this poem as the essence of the message of The Gita in English. There are several sayings of Mahatma Gandhi and Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan which deserved to be included. She has an excess of Amir Khusrau and Guru Tegh Bahadur and short pieces in praise of Hindu deities like Ganapati, Shri Hanuman, Saraswati, Durga, Lakhsmi, Murugan and others.In many cases they are not prayers in the strict sense of the term but descriptive of their appearances and powers. Many have only a line or two and are poorly translated when better translations are available. And at least one entry (on page 311) is not from the Sikh's evening prayer—Rehras—as she maintains. What I found charming is her including a couple of quotations from Madho Lal Hussain, Sufi poets of Lahore. Madho Lal was a Brahmin lad, Hussain his Muslim lover. They formed a corporate personality and jointly called themselves Madho Lal Hussain. They sent their compositions to Guru Arjun to be included in the Granth Sahib which he was then compiling. Guru Arjun, though he liked their poems, refused to incorporate them in the Sikh's scripture because their homosexual relationship had become scandalous.

I have little doubt Narayanan's prayer book will go into many editions: nothing sells better than religion. She would be well-advised to rectify imbalances and make the necessary corrections for subsequent editions to come. She might also consider including some prayers which are not reverential. Like Voltaire's "I have never made but one prayer to God, a very short one: 'O Lord make my enemies ridiculous.' And God granted it." Adlai Stevenson, once candidate for the presidency of the United States, had a nugget: "God bless mother and daddy, my brother and sister. And, oh God, do take care of yourself, because if anything happens to you, we're all sunk."
AUTHORS: Khushwant Singh
OUTLOOK: 21 May, 2001
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