Prayer is a much misunderstood word and usually conveys the idea of some favour or boon sought from a God outside of ourselves. Even the dictionary defines it as a "supplication to God or persons." But who is God? With the exception of the materialists, all believe in God, either as a person, however high, or as a power, however divine, but outside of the human heart and of the universe. Theosophy teaches God to be the Supreme Spirit, omnipresent and omnipotent, the root and the source of all beings; and man is its crystal ray, a beam of immaculate light within the form of material clay. It is the highest privilege of man to commune with God because he is a self-conscious being. The kingdoms below man move in terms of natural impulse in accordance with the law of their own being, and that is their harmonious evolution. The human consciousness is a link between the divine and the personal, so man can choose to move in one direction or another, either to unite with the Supreme Self within or get victimized by his lower and personal self.
Prayer is the outpouring of the human heart in utmost humility and reverential gratitude for all the blessings of life. There is no thought of personal gain, no petition for personal favours, because God, from the Theosophical point of view, is also Law, universal and impersonal, which cannot be deviated from its own course by human petitions. As Lord Buddha advises us in The Light of Asia:
It is the wrong type of prayer that kills self-reliance and makes one dependent on priests and ceremonies, temples and churches. The right understanding of God and prayer enables one to become self-dependent on the basis of interdependence. As there is unity of life, so human solidarity is a fact, and each one is his brother's keeper and therefore responsible for his own thoughts, words and deeds.
True prayer is a yearning of the human heart, its ardent wish to be united with its Divine Parent, to seek its guidance and reflect its light in the daily affairs of life. This is the real significance of prayer.
Leaving aside the selfish ones who pray for their own gain and benefit, there are evil minds who wish harm to others. Fanatics of one orthodox religion look down upon their brothers of another religion and show enmity towards them without understanding the true meaning of religion as a binding force, a bond of unity between man and man. Wars have been fought in the name of religion! Opposing creeds express hatred towards one another and even wish for the downfall of their opponents. During the two World Wars, opposing Christian nations, the so-called followers of Jesus, the teacher of the Sermon on the Mount, prayed to the same God to bring them victory and defeat their enemies! This sort of prayer is really dangerous and can ultimately lead to black magic.
We have a very good story in The Light of Asia where the great Master taught the householder Singala the true kind of prayer. Singala was seen bowing to the earth and looking up to the heaven and in all four quarters, and while doing so, he scattered rice with both his hands. When Lord Buddha questioned him, he replied that this was the custom followed by his ancestors at every dawn to ward off evil from all quarters. This is a mechanical sort of a prayer condemned by all the great teachers, and so the the great Lord advised him: "Scatter not rice, but offer loving thoughts and acts to all." And he told him to think of parents and teachers when he turned to the east and the south; of wife and children when he face the west; of friends and kinsmen and all men when he turned towards the north; looking heavenwards he should think of the great saints, and with his head turned down towards the earth he should remember the lower kingdoms. And this was the correct way of shutting out evil. So it is really the thought and the devotion behind the uttered prayer that is more important. Thinking of all with a pure heart and wishing them well in the true spirit of harmony can alone establish peace and good-will on earth, and that is the correct way of praying or becoming worthy of relationship with the divine and the eternal.
In the Tenth Discourse of the Bhagavad-Gita, mentioning his divine excellences Sri Krishna states: "Of words I am the monosyllable OM." Even one word rightly uttered with full understanding of its meaning and importance is better than thousand words muttered without understanding. "Better than reciting a hundred verses of empty words is the repeating of a single stanza hearing which one feels peace" (The Dhammapada, Verse 102). And Sri Krishna says that "the silent repetition of sacred texts" is the best form of worship. We have a similar statement in the sermon on the Mount where Jesus teaches: "When thou prayest, enter into thy closet, and when thou hast shut thy door, pray to thy Father which is in secret." All the other great teacherrs have taught likewise and have indicated the futility of churches and priests. Madame Blavatsky, in her first monumental book, Isis Unveiled (II, 635) states: "The world needs no sectarian church, whether of Buddha, Jesus, Mahomet, Swedenborg, Calvin, or any other. There being but ONE Truth, man requires but one church—the Temple of God within us, walled in by matter but penetrable by anyone who can find the way; the pure in heart see God."
It is purity that is of the utmost importance, purity of mind and heart, purity in thought, word and deed stressed by Lord Zoroaster. It is through supreme purity that one becomes worthy of relationship with the God within. Gos is truth, and the more an individual aspires after truth and lives up to the true and immortal ideas, the closer he comes to the realization of the SELF and the more firmly he is convinced of the fact of Universal Brotherhood. God is love, and the more we open our minds and hearts to the sufferings of others, the greater will be the expression of unity and harmony. "The more thou dost become at one with it, thy being melted in its BEING, the more thy Soul unites with that which Is, the more thou wilt become COMPASSION ABSOLUTE." (The Voice of the Silence, p. 76)
Three definitions of Yoga are given in the Bhagavad-Gita. In the first place, it is called "equal-mindedness." Passing through the joys and sorrows of life, through success or failure, elation or depression, one has ever to preserve calmness and equipoise in the daily affairs of life. The second definition is: "Yoga is skill in the performance of actions." Some people are indifferent to their work; they work for money and do not have full interest in or love for their work. Skill comes only through the power of the Higher Self, the God within, and this requires the union of mind and heart. Each act then becomes a prayer. The poet Wordsworth calls duty the "stern Daughter of the Voice of God." It is stern only in the sense that it demands from each one his due, however unpleasant it may seem many a time. "Theosophy is the quintessence of duty," says H.P.B. in The Key to Theosophy. One of the great Masters has stated: "Duty...is for us stronger than any friendship or even love; as without this abiding principle which is the indestructible cement that has held together for so many millenniums the scattered custodians of nature's grand secrets—our Brotherhood, nay, our doctrine itself—would have crumbled long ago into unrecognizable atoms." This shows how the great teachers have valued duty as something sacred and holy, which, when performed with skill, unites one to his silent and supreme Self—and that, indeed, is true prayer.
There is a third definition of yoga given by Sri Krishna: "Know that...disconnection from union with pain is distinguished as yoga, spiritual union or devotion, which is to be striven after by a man with faith and steadfastly." Disconnection from union with pain is difficult. Whether the pain is physical or mental, whether it is heart-anguish or soul-starvation, it has to be calmly endured and patiently cured. And that is still another form of prayer bringing us closer and nearer to the God within.
The highest type of prayer is will-prayer. "The intensity of our ardent aspirations changes prayer into the 'philosopher's stone', or that which transmutes lead into pure gold. The only homogeneous essence, our 'will-prayer' becomes the active or creative force, producing effects according to our desire" (The Key to Theosophy, p. 68). But this has to be done with the purest of motives, realizing one's own responsibility to oneself and to humanity and dedicating oneself to the service of others. Mr. Crosbie explains in his Answers to Questions on The Ocean of Theosophy (p. 109): "Spiritual Will...is developed by true unselfishness, a sincere and full desire to be guided, ruled and assisted by the Higher Self, and to do that which, and suffer or enjoy whatever, the Higher Self has in store for one by way of discipline or experience." To command and perfect the Will is one's duty, and it leads to White Magic or true Wisdom. As H.P.B. states in summing up the ten Propositions of Psychology (Isis Unveiled, I, 590), "One common vital principle pervades all things, and this is controllable by the perfected human will."