I grew up in a largely irreligious household (is that a word? 'Irreligious'? It should be. Now it is). We didn't visit temples, we didn't have an alter at home. I saw my paternal grandfather do his daily prayers. A highly disciplined man, I always thought that was part of his morning ritual, not very different from that first sip of coffee perfectly timed with the unfurling of the newspaper.
My maternal grandmother was the first adult to infuse me with a real sense of 'faith'. My sister and I would meet her over our summer holidays. She would line up all us grandkids and teach us the basic Gayatri Mantra and Sri Vishnu Sahasranamam. I enjoyed these sessions thoroughly because she was a 'fun' grandparent and injected everything with laughter and joy. [Today these prayers are on Youtube and as I listen to them, the sounds of my childhood and my beloved Ammamma come back to me.] I once asked her why she prayed as much as she did and more importantly why she wanted us to do the same. She answered that as I grew up and moved through life, I would need these prayers more and more. That when all seemed blurry and confused, my faith and these prayers would stand me in good stead.
She died when I was 12 and I got busy being a troubled teenager. I forgot the Gayatri Mantra and only remembered the first two words of the Sahasranamam. I had no idea what it meant to have faith in anything unshakable. I relied completely on my own resources and made a mess of most things.
In my late twenties, I began a journey back to myself. I met a wonderful therapist and started reading important books. I worked hard on understanding where I came from and took responsibility for landing where I had. Then, one morning, I returned to prayer. Completely devoid of my own spiritual anchors, I drew on the faith of my grandmother. I hinged all the hopes of my fractured self on the fact that she had once, more than 15 years ago, told me that when all else failed, prayer would help me.
My prayers were not like hers at all. They were in English and derived from a self-help book. The first few times I said them, I felt desperate, needy and ridiculous all at the same time. I said them anyway. Then I said them again the next day and the next. By the second week, I didn't care that there weren't immediate, tangible results. I felt lighter because I was sharing the load with something else. I was letting someone else carry the burden for a while. The more I prayed for good things, the more my insides began to believe that I deserved the good things. The more I believed I deserved it, the more I - consciously and subconsciously - went after the good things. The results were surprising. I did get - and continue to get - amazing gifts everyday that I'd never imagined possible.
But what really surprises me is the change in my insides. I have always thought that I'm a depressive type. But I've always known that I have a place of joy inside me that's more real than the depressive aspect. The depression has always followed me like a shadow but I've never been able to access the joy, beyond occasional snatches. I was beginning to believe that life is mostly sad with a handful of happy moments thrown in to keep us going. I never imagined that things could be the other way round too.
I can't aptly describe what prayer does for me. I know that it affects me at my cellular level. I know that it has changed my DNA to a large extent. It helps me work harder at things that mean something to me. I give up less easily and things are more fraught with meaning than ever before. I carry it like a legacy from my grandmother, a protective layer that takes care of me. The more I believe in it, the more energy I feed into my prayers, the stronger its influence becomes in my life. The more my life lights up.
(Sculpture by Allan Houser)