Main Page | See live article | Alphabetical index


Prayer is an attempt to communicate with a deity or deities; prayer in western civilization is usually directed to God.

The existence of prayer is attested in written sources as early as 5000 years ago, and anthropologists believe that the earliest intelligent humans practised something that we would recognize today as prayer.

There are many types of prayer. Four of the most basic types of prayer are thanksgiving, confession of one's sins, praise of the divine, and petitioning for help or fulfilment of need.

= Western religions =

Table of contents
1 Biblical views of prayer
2 Prayer in Jainism
3 Hindu/Vedic views of prayer
4 Buddhism
5 Prayer in Polytheism
6 Jewish prayer
7 Christian prayer
8 Islamic Prayer
9 Bahá'í Prayer
10 Philosophical paradoxes
11 Philosophical re-interpretations of prayer
12 Prayer and Medicine
13 See also
14 External links
15 References

Biblical views of prayer

The Bible contains many examples of prayer and various instructions and teachings about prayer. The book of Psalms is composed of prayers, song verses and poems by various authors, and some of its prayers in particular have been used by Jews and Christians for years, in corporate prayer and individual prayer, and used both verbatim and as inspiration for new prayers and songs

Prayer in the Hebrew Bible

The neglect of prayer is grievous to the Lord (Isa. 43:21-22; 64:6-7). Many evils in life are to be attributed to the lack of prayer (Zeph. 1:4-6; Dan. 9:13, 14, cf. Hosea 7:13-14; 8:13-14). It is a sin to neglect prayer (1 Sam. 12:23).

In the life of the patriarch Abraham prayer seems to have taken the form of a dialogue--God and man drawing near and talking to each other (Gen. 18; 19); developing into intercession (Gen. 17:18; 18:23, 32), and then into personal prayer (Gen. 15:2; 24:12); Jacob, (Gen. 28:20; 32:9-12, 24; Hosea 12:4). The patriarchal blessings are called prayers (Gen 49:1; Deut. 33:11).

Not very much prominence is given to formal prayer during the period of the Law. Deut. 26:1-15 seems to be the only one definitely recorded. Prayer had not yet found a stated place in the ritual of the law. It seems to have been more of a personal than a formal matter, and so while the Law may not afford much material, yet the life of the lawgiver, Moses, abounds with prayer (Exod. 5:22; 32:11; Num. 11:11-15).

Under Joshua (7:6-9; 10:14), and the judges (c. 6) we are told that the children of Israel "cried unto the Lord."

Under Samuel prayer seems to have assumed the nature of intercession (1 Sam. 7:5, 12; 8:16-18); personal (1 Sam. 15:11, 35; 16:1). In Jeremiah (15:1) Moses and Samuel are represented as offering intercessory prayer for Israel.

David seems to regard himself as a prophet and priest, and prays without an intercessor (2 Sam. 7:18-29).

The prophets seem to have been intercessors, e.g., Elijah (1 Kings 18). Yet personal prayers are found among the prophets (Jer. 20--both personal and intercessory; 33:3; 42:4; Amos 7).

In the Psalms prayer takes the form of a pouring out of the heart (42:4; 62:8; 100:2, title). The psalmist does not seem to go before God with fixed and orderly petitions so much as simply to pour out his feelings and desires, whether sweet or bitter, troubled or peaceful. Consequently the prayers of the psalmist consist of varying moods: complaint, supplication, confession, despondency, praise.

True prayer consists of such elements as adoration, praise, petition, pleading, thanksgiving, intercession, communion, waiting. The closet into which the believer enters to pray is not only an oratory --a place of prayer, it is an observatory--a place of vision. Prayer is not "A venture and a voice of mine; but a vision and a voice divine." Isa. 63:7; 64:12, illustrates all essential forms of address in prayer.

The book of Psalms is composed of prayers, song verses and poems by various authors, and some of its prayers in particular have been used by Jews and Christians for years, in corporate prayer and individual prayer, and used both verbatim and as inspiration for new prayers and songs.

Prayer in the New Testament

According to the New Testament, to pray is a positive command (Col. 4:2; 1 Thess. 5:17); One is commanded to take leisure or a vacation for prayer (1 Cor. 7:5). Prayer is God's appointed method of obtaining what He has to bestow (Dan. 9:3; Matt. 7:7-11; 9:24-29; Luke 11:13). The lack of the necessary blessings in life comes from failure to pray (James 4:2). The Christian apostles regarded prayer as the most important employment that could engage their time or attention (Acts 6:4; Rom. 1:9; Col. 1:9).

Prayer as petition in the Bible

In the Hebrew Bible various forms of prayer appear; the most common form is petition. This in many ways is the simplest form of prayer. Some have termed this the "social approach" to prayer. In this view, a person directly confronts God in prayer, and asks for their needs to be fulfilled; God really does listen to prayer, and may or may not choose to answer. This is the primary approach to prayer found in the Hebrew Bible, the New Testament, most of the Church writings, and the Talmud.

This "petition approach" to prayer is supported for example by Matthew 21:22, where Jesus is reported as saying "If you believe, you will receive whatever you ask for in prayer." Also "the way to my father is through me"

Most modern day prayerbooks by monotheistic religions contain many prayers that were originally written as petitions. However, many modern believers may recite the same prayers with a different understanding of prayer (see below) in mind.

= Eastern religions =

Prayer in Jainism

Although Jains believe that no spirit or divine being can assist them on their path, they do hold some influence, and on special occasions, Jains will pray and meditate for right knowledge to the twenty-four Tirthankaras (saintly teachers).

Hindu/Vedic views of prayer

The Vedic faith system, known today as Hinduism, is known to stretch back to around 3000 BCE. Over its imposing lifetime, it has incorporated all sorts of prayer systems, from fire-based rituals to the highest form of philosophical musings. Prayer was part and parcel of the Vedic lifestyle, and as such permeated through their books. Indeed, the highest sacred texts of the Hindus, the Vedas, are a large collection of mantras (sacred hymns of Hindus, later adopted by Buddhists) and prayer rituals extolling a single supreme force, Brahman, that is made manifest in several lower forms as the familiar gods of the Hindu pantheon.

Hindus in India have numerous devotional movements. Stemming from the highest Creator God called Brahma, prayer is focused on His many manifestations, including the most popular deities Shiva, Vishnu, Rama and Krishna.

Prayer in the Vedas

Before the process of ritual, before the invoking of different deities for the fulfillment of various needs, came the human aspiration to the highest truth, the foundational monism of Hinduism, pertaining ultimately to the one Brahman. Brahman, which summarily can be called the unknowable, true, infinite and blissful Divine Ground, is the source and being of all existence from which the cosmos springs. This is the essence of the Vedic system

The following prayer exemplifies this: it was part and parcel of all the Vedic ceremonies and continues to be invoked even today in Hindu temples all over India and other countries around the world.

"Asato Ma Sad Gamaya/Tamaso Ma Joytir Gamaya/Mrityor Ma Amritam Gamaya/Om Shanthi Shanthi Shanthi." MEANING: "O Lord Lead Us From The Unreal To The Real,/Lead Us From Untruth To Truth,/ Lead Us From Darkness To Light/ Lead Us From Death To Immortality/ AUM (the universal sound of God) Let There Be Peace Peace Peace." (Rig Veda)

the Gayatri mantra is Hinduism's most representative prayer. Hindus recite it on on a daily basis, not only contemplating its straightforward meaning, but also dwelling and imbibing its sound, regarded to be pregnant with spiritual meaning. For this reason nearly all Hindu prayers and mantras are sung. The Gayatri was first recorded in the Rig Veda (iii, 62, 10) which was written in Sanskrit about 2500 to 3500 years ago, and by some reports, the mantra may have been chanted for many generations before that.

Having prayed for enlightenment and peace through unity with God, the transcendental and final goal of the Hindu religion, the Vedas proceed to lavish all sorts of encomia and praise of Brahman's many aspects, typified by representative gods and goddesses that stem from one source.

Prayer in the Upanishads

But soon, around 1500 BCE or so, the first of the Upanishads came into existence. These are also known as Vedanta (the end of the Vedas), informing all that the Vedas find their culmination in the thought of the Upanishads. For this reason, the Vedas and Upanishads, collectively known as the Vedas, form the core of Hindu religion. The Upanishads expanded on the monist framework and their terminology became more abstract, though not completely divorced from the earlier Vedas.

"All Upanishads start with a prayer, - prayer to the guardians of the quarters, the deities or the manifestations of God, who rule the whole of creation, that we be blessed with health and understanding in order to go into the secrets of the Upanishads, to meditate upon them and to realise the Truth proclaimed in them." (, DIVINE LIFE SOCIETY)

"Om. That supreme Brahman is infinite, and this conditioned Brahman is infinite. The infinite proceeds from infinite. Then through knowledge, realizing the infinitude of the infinite, it remains as infinite alone." (Mandukya Upanishad)

The Ultimate Hindu Prayer: Aum

Hindus believe that Aum is the enigmatic, universal, divine sound. It is said to represent everything from the three (and ultimate fourth transcending) states of consciousness to the Trinity of Hinduism. It is analagous to the concept of the "word of God," but seems to transcend it by maintaining that everything emanates from Aum, exists in Aum, and ends in Aum. It is known as the pranava or root mantra of Hinduism. Included in all prayers, from the Vedas and onwards, regardless of the nature of the prayer, it is the ultimate self-contained prayer for the Hindu mind. Many sages of the Hindu tradition claimed (and still do) that if nothing else, the lover of God could pray through that one sound alone. The Upanishads define it in depth, and one such definition is as follows.

Bhakti Yoga, or the Yoga of Devotion

Described in the Bhagavad Gita (a sacred Hindu and Yoga scripture from sometime between 500 to 200 BCE), Bhakti Yoga is the path of love and devotion.

ON BHAKTI YOGA: ";.... those who, renouncing all actions in Me, and regarding Me as the Supreme, worship me... of those whose thoughts have entered into Me, I am soon the deliverer from the ocean of death and transmigration, Arjuna. Keep your mind on Me alone, your intellect on Me. Thus you shall dwell in me hereafter." (B.G., Chapter 12, Verses 6-8) "

It is essentially the process of enlightenment found through worship of God, in whatever form one envisions. Prayer is achieved through pooja (worship) done either at the family shrine or a local temple. We can see from Krishna's injunction that prayer is fundamental to Hinduism, that to dwell constantly on God is key to enlightenment. Prayer repitition (through mantras) using maalaas (Hindu prayer beads) are a strong part of Hinduism.

Hindus in India have numerous devotional movements. Stemming from the highest Creator God called Brahman, prayer is focused on His many manifestations, including primarily Shiva and Vishnu. Some other extremely popular deities are the Lords Krishna and Rama (incarnations of Vishnu), Ma Kali (Mother Kali, the feminine deity, or Mother Goddess, aka Durga, Parvati, Shakti, etc.) and Lord Ganesh (the famous elephant-headed God of wisdom). It is epitomised by the devotion of the monkey God Hanuman for his Lord Rama.

Anoter major form of prayer for Hindus involves a heavy focus on meditation, through Hindu yoga that stills the mind in order to focus on God. See Yoga for more on how yoga is a part of Hindu prayer ritual.


The religion of Buddhism, well known for being non-theistic, utterly discards worship and places devotional emphasis on the practice of meditation alongside scriptural study. Although God and deities are recognized as present, Gautama Buddha claims it is mankind who by their own free will, possess the greatest capacity and potential to liberate themselves and are urged to do so without exterior assistance. Therefore, prayer is not as central to devotion as in its neighbouring asiatic faiths.

Prayer in Polytheism

In Graeco-Roman paganism, ceremonial prayer was highly formulaic and ritualized. The Iguvine Tables contain a supplication that can be translated, "If anything was said improperly, if anything was done improperly, let it be as if it were done correctly."

The formalism and formulaic nature of these prayers led them to be written down in language that may have only been partially understood by the writer, and our texts of these prayers may in fact be garbled. Prayers in Etruscan were used in the Roman world by augurs and other oracles long after Etruscan became a dead language. The Carmen Arvale and the Carmen Saliare are two specimens of partially preserved prayers that seem to have been unintelligible to their scribes, and whose language is full of archaisms and difficult passages.

Roman prayers and sacrifices were often envisioned as legal bargains between deity and worshipper. The Roman formula was do ut des: "I give, so that you may give in return." Cato the Elder's treatise on agriculture contains many examples of preserved traditional prayers; in one, a farmer addresses the unknown deity of a possibly sacred grove, and sacrifices a pig in order to placate the god or goddess of the place and beseech his or her permission to cut down some trees from the grove.

= Prayer practices =

The actual act of praying can take on many different outward forms. Most religions or religious subgroups have certain forms that they recommend, usually more than one; occasionally, there may be specific forms that are forbidden. Prayer may be done privately and individually, or it may be done corporately in the presence of fellow believers. Some outward acts that sometimes accompany prayer are: ringing a bell; burning incense or paper; lighting a candle or candles; facing a specific direction, i.e. towards Mecca or towards the East.

A variety of body postures may be assumed, often with specific meaning associated with them: standing; sitting; kneeling; prostrate on the floor; eyes opened; eyes closed; hands folded or clasped; hands upraised; and others. Prayers may be recited from memory, read from a book of prayers, or composed spontaneously as they are prayed. They may be said, chanted, or sung. They may be with musical accompaniment or not. There may be a time of outward silence while prayers are offered mentally. Often, there are prayers to fit specific occasions, such as the blessing of a meal, the birth or death of a loved one, other significant events in the life of a believer, or days of the year that have special religious significance.

Jewish prayer

Prayers said by Jews are described in the entry on Jewish services. The prayers of the Jewish services are collected in a prayerbook called the Siddur. The entry on the siddur describes the different types of Jewish prayerbooks and how they have evolved over time.

The most imporant Jewish prayers are the Shema Yisrael ("Hear O Israel") and the Amidah ("the standing prayer").

Christian prayer

Each branch of Christianity has its own distinctive liturgy. Some of the more commonly recited Christian prayers include the following:

Islamic Prayer

Muslims pray a brief prayer service in Arabic, facing Mecca, five times a day. (More to be written.). The Call for prayer is called Azaan.

Bahá'í Prayer

Baha'is are required to recite each day one of three obligatory prayers revealed by Baha'u'llah. The believers have been enjoined to face in the direction of the Qiblih when reciting their Obligatory Prayers.

One, the longest obligatory prayer, may be recited at any time of day; another, of medium length, is recited once in the morning, once at midday, and once in the evening; and the shortest is recited at noon. This is the text of the short prayer:

I bear witness, O my God, that Thou hast created me to know Thee and to worship Thee. I testify, at this moment, to my powerlessness and to Thy might, to my poverty and to Thy wealth. There is none other God but Thee, the Help in Peril, the Self-Subsisting.

Baha'is also read from and meditate on the scriptures every morning and evening. There are also many other revealed prayers in the Baha'i scriptures, most for general use at the choice of the individual and some for specific occasions.

In the past 200 years a new form of prayer has emerged among Christians, called praying in tongue (see Glossolalia). According to adherents of this practice, the Holy Spirit comes into the body of the prayer and speaks on the Christian's behalf in a celestial language. The person praying will later deny any knowledge of what they said while praying.

= Issues related to prayer =

Philosophical paradoxes

There are a number of philosophical paradoxes involving prayer to an omnipotent God, namely:

These questions have been discussed in Jewish, Christian and Muslim writings from the medieval period onward. The 900s to 1200s saw some of the most fertile discussion on these questions, during the period of Neo-Platonic and Neo-Aristotelian philosophy. Discussion of these problems never ceased entirely, but they did fall mostly from the public view for several centuries, until The Enlightenment reignited philosophical inquiry into theological issues. (More to be written.)

All of these questions have been discussed in many Jewish, Christian and Muslim religious texts. Many of these texts offer proposed resolutions to some or all of these paradoxes.

Philosophical re-interpretations of prayer

Post-Biblical theologians considered the philosophical problems involved in prayer (see below). Over time a number of re-interpretations of prayer evolved in the Jewish, Muslim and Christian community. These were developed in great detail by the medieval neo-Platonic and neo-Aristotelian philosophers, and have influenced how many people still pray today. At the moment, the descriptions below list some Jewish sources, but each of these views of prayers also has Christian and Muslim proponents as well; there was much intellectual cross-fertilization between Jews, Christians and Muslims during parts of the middle-ages, and so there appears to be some convergence among the philosophers of that era.

The educational approach

In this view, prayer is not a conversation with God. Rather, it is meant to inculcate certain attitudes in the one who prays, but not to influence God. Among Jews, this has been the approach of Rabbenu Bachya, Yehuda Halevy, Joseph Albo, Samson Raphael Hirsch, and Joseph Dov Soloveitchik. This view is expressed by Rabbi Nosson Scherman in the overview to the Artscroll Siddur (p.XIII); note that Scherman goes on to also affirm the Kabbalistic view (see below). Among Christian theologians...(please add examples here) Among Muslim theologians....(please add examples here).

The Kabbalistic view of prayer

People involved with kabbalah (esoteric Jewish mysticism) often reject rationalist reinterpreations of prayer outright, but they also reject the social approach, in which prayer is viewed as a dialogue with God. Instead, this approach ascribes a higher meaning to the purpose of prayer, which is no less than affecting the very fabric of reality itself, restructuring and repairing the universe in a real fashion. For Kabbalists, every prayer, every word of every prayer, and indeed, even every letter of every word of every prayer, has a precise meaning and a precise effect. In Kabbalah and related mystical belief systems, adherents claim intimate knowledge about the way in which God relates to us and the physical universe in which we live. For people with this view, prayers can literally affect the mystical forces of the universe and repair the fabric of creation.

Among Jews, this approach has been taken by the Hassidei Ashkenaz, the Zohar, the Kabbalist school of though created by the Ari, the Ramchal, most of Hassidism, the Vilna Gaon, and rabbis such as Yaakov Emden and Kalonimus Shapira. In the 1800s some European Christians were influenced by Kabbalah...(please add information here)

The rationalist approach

In this view, ultimate goal of prayer is to help train a person to focus on God through philosophy and intellectual contemplation. This approach was taken by Maimonides and the other medieval rationalists; it became popular in Jewish, Christian and Islamic intellectual circles, but never became the most popular understanding of prayer among the laity in any of these faiths. In all three of these faiths today a significant minority of people still hold to this approach.

The experiential approach

In this approach, the purpose of prayer is to enable the person praying to gain a direct experience of God. This approach is very significant in Christianity and widespread in Judaism (although less popular theologically). In Eastern Orthodoxy, this approach is known as hesychasm. It is also widespread in Sufi Islam, and in some forms of mysticism. It has some similarities with the rationalist approach, since it can also involve contemplation, although the contemplation is not generally viewed as being as rational or intellectual. It also has some similarities with the Kabbalistic view, but it lacks the Kabbalistic emphasis on the importance of individual words and letters.

Prayer and Medicine

Several studies have claimed that patients who pray for their health or are being prayed for recover faster. Critics have attributed this to the placebo effect. Typically, the scientific establishment ignores studies of the occult and esoteric, but in 1999, media reports on prayer studies prompted a comprehensive review of such studies in The Lancet. The result: "Even in the best studies, the evidence of an association between religion, spirituality, and health is weak and inconsistent." A 2001 double-blind study of the Mayo Clinic found no significant difference in the recovery rates between people who were (unbeknownst to them) assigned to a group that prayed for them (five people praying once a week for 26 weeks), and those who were not. In 2003, a second MANTRA study by Duke University contradicted the first MANTRA study's findings that intercessory prayer improved recovery rates in heart patients.

See also

Qi, public prayer, prayer in school and moment of silence

External links


Moshe Greenberg, Biblical Prose Prayer as a Window to the Popular Religion of Ancient Israel

Abraham Joshua Heschel, Man's Quest for God Scribner, NY, 1954

Seth Kadish, Kavvana: Directing the Heart in Jewish Prayer, Jason Aronson Inc., 1997