What counts as ‘prayer,’ and is it a category with cross-cultural utility? In this blog post, Anishka Gheewala-Lohiya reflects on her fieldwork with Pushtimarg Hindus in India and the UK to argue for an expanded understanding of the concept among devotees of the baby Krishna.
‘The paucity of scientific literature on a subject of such primordial importance is truly remarkable’ – Marcel Mauss
Anthropologists of religion often grapple with the meaning of words, asking questions such as: can this be applied universally? Does it mean similar things in different contexts? “Ritual,” “belief,” and “conversion” are all words we come across and debate in Anthropology of Religion 101. “Prayer,” however, is conspicuously absent. Yet prayer forms a large part of peoples’ religious lives, conversations, and practices.
During my fieldwork with Pushtimarg Hindus in Ahmedabad, London, and Leicester, the concept of prayer was not easily applicable to the main practice of seva (selfless service to Lord Krishna). Seva to Lord Krishna as he is worshipped involves waking up, feeding, bathing, singing, sometimes dancing, and always playing with the image of baby Krishna. Yet calling these acts “rituals” seemed equally problematic. The Pushtimarg are part of the Vaishnava community who practice bhakti, loving devotion to a deity and, specifically, Krishna bhakti. The Pushtimarg devotees wholeheartedly reject the word “ritual” to describe their religious acts of seva, viewing ritual as transaction, while seva is selfless and performed out of love without the expectation of anything in return. “Prayer” as a term was also more or less equally aligned with “asking for” and transaction by my interlocutors, so the question becomes, is there an intersection between “prayer” and “ritual”? Can these terms be applicable universally in scholarly research? Are ritual and prayer directly opposed to each other or complementary religious acts? This is the interesting, yet puzzling, juncture I find myself in when discussing Cannell’s question: “What counts as prayer?”
One devotee I was close to in India would wake up every day at 5am. In the darkness of the early morning, she began her day by washing and dressing in a clean saree before going to the kitchen to prepare the day’s food offerings for her Krishna. This would take most of the morning, until about 9am. She prepared the items in absolute happiness. It was only at this time that she would go into Krishna’s room to sing to him and softly wake him up. After washing him in warm water, dabbing him gently with a cloth, she would dress him in the finest clothes, picking different colours each day. After offering him a light breakfast, she would lay out toys in front of him, from mini croquet sticks and balls to spinning tops. This is how she would serve him until 4pm where, after his last meal of the day, she would tuck him into bed. That’s when she would finally sit down and eat the blessed leftovers from her Krishna (prasad). One afternoon when I was with her for the afternoon meal after her seva, she told me, “This is my [Krishna’s] favourite dish, you know.”
In the vignette above, the devotee performs these “acts” as daily devotion. She varies her actions in certain ways – the way she speaks to her Krishna, the foodstuffs she offers him, the colour of the clothes she chooses – however, the main caregiving practices do not change. She will cook, clean, play and sing to him every day. Each individual can perform seva in the way they wish, or in the way that suits their lifestyle. For instance, if a devotee has to go to work early, they may shorten their seva to under an hour. They will sing, clean and offer misri (sugar crystals) and water before putting Krishna to bed and leaving. Krishna resides in an individual’s home, and so people do their seva in different ways.
Seva rests on the idea of developing a relationship with Krishna, and not asking for anything in return. Krishna plays many roles, not only in theological stories but with individual devotees. He can be a child, master, friend, divine lover, and so on. This is all dependent on a persons’ bhava (mood or attitude) towards Krishna. Bhava must be developed, and the way to do this is to continue your daily relationship with Krishna through seva. Most often amongst the Pushtimarg, the mother-child bond is encouraged and preferred, but in other Krishna devotional sects, such as the Hare Krishna or ISKON temples, any and all roles are worshipped. Pushtimarg devotees perform these services to Krishna out of love and to be a part of Krishna’s bliss and presence. Seva is the manner in which devotees form a close, intimate bond with the divine, through communication, touch, and experience. However, without the right bhava, in a basic sense of love, seva becomes meaningless. In fact, seva without bhava then equates to ritual according to the Pushtimarg.
What part of ritual as a concept do the Pushtimarg insist on distancing themselves from? The devotee in my vignette essentially does similar activities day in and day out, so it may appear as a ritual or even a routine. The difference between ritual and routine, in this case, is that routine can be unintentional, which falls far from the idea of seva, which is inherently intentional, and based on emotion. For instance, if the devotee in my vignette has a flexible approach in what she cooks for her Krishna, this relates to her bhava. The fact that she has to cook every day could be associated with routine, if it weren’t for the intentional emotion behind it. Besides rejection by devotees, there is another difference between their practice and ritual. The Pushtimarg closely associate “ritual” with the idea of transaction, of asking for something from the divine, as do many anthropologists. As I have mentioned already, seva is seen as selfless, and devotees typically do not ask for anything while in the presence of Krishna. Therefore, seva is different from ritual in an emic sense in that it is non-transactional and based on an emotional bond with Krishna. In that case, does it count as prayer?
The etymology of the word “prayer” is Latin and has predominantly Christian connotations. Yet, this does not mean it cannot have any use in our analysis of non-Christian religious traditions. Taking note of Jonathan Mair’s plea for a precise description of “historically specific modes or styles of belief, in relation to their specific contexts,”[i] we can also apply this to the term “prayer.”
“To pray” typically refers to a petitionary act (requesting something from the divine) or an act of gratitude (thanking the divine). The Sanskrit word prarthana has similar connotations of asking and receiving, allowing us to make a direct comparison to other Hindu practices. There is a clear differentiation in this case where prarthana and the concept of ritual transaction are connected; however, seva fits somewhere in between.
Given that we find both similarities and differences in the ways that people practice prayer around the world – for instance, many traditions involve the lighting of incense, the clasping of hands, the bowing of heads, etc – our approach to prayer will be limited if we consider a focus on request or gratitude as the sole meaning of the word. Rather than debate what prayer “is” in terms of definition, we can, instead, begin to look at prayer practices themselves (among which I would count the devotions described above). This does not mean we should not acknowledge the possible risks of universalising certain terms, or the Christian influence in how the term is commonly understood. However, ethnographic evidence suggests that prayer practices are varied and extensive.
While it is important to note that anthropological categories like “belief,” “miracle,” and “prayer” have an Abrahamic historical background (see Ruel’s work on Christianity, for example),[ii] expanding the scholarly notion of prayer has relevancy and applicability for non-Christian contexts. A “universal” application with the same definition is not necessary in order to get the concept across. For the Pushtimarg, seva cannot be seen as “ritual,” but as relationship-building – much as many Christians understand prayer.[iii] If we discuss prayer as dialogue and communication, that is how seva can be considered a prayer practice, while maintaining the distance from a ritual transaction that they so desire.
Anishka Gheewala-Lohiya is a PhD candidate in Anthropology at the London School of Economics, where her work focuses on prayer and Hinduism in India and the UK diaspora.
[i] Mair, Jonathan. 2013. Cultures of belief. Anthropological Theory 12: 4, 448 – 466.
[ii] Ruel, Malcolm. 1997. “Christians as believers.” In Belief, Ritual and the Securing of Life: Reflexive Essays on a Bantu Religion. Leiden: Brill.
[iii] Lurhmann, Tanya. 2012. When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship with God. New York: Vintage Books.