Why should we pray? History and characteristics of prayer in different religions

Why should we pray? History and characteristics of prayer in different religions


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Along the centuries, mankind has practiced prayer as part of your way of life, regardless of the society to which you belonged or the belief you practice but,have you ever wondered why we should pray?

The belief, together with the worship and petition to a divinity, they are part of our being since prehistorySo we are going to try to do a historical analysis to understand why prayer is important in practically all the religions that have been known until now.

History of prayer

Anthropologically, the concept of prayer is closely related to that of surrender and supplication, and thus it can be appreciated in different cults throughout history. Some of the ways were:

  • In ancient times: it used to be done with raised hands
  • Crete and Cyprus: in figures of these cities we see representations of people with open arms, which have been interpreted as worshipers, crouched with raised hands and in a position universally known as surrender.
  • Early christians: standing, looking at the sky with outstretched arms and bare head.
  • Roman paganism: similar, but the head had to be covered in prayer.
  • Middle Ages: here appears the kneeling posture with hands clasped or joined, becoming the traditional prayer posture and which is supposed to have been adopted from a gesture of feudal homage.
  • AnimismAlthough there is no literal prayer, there is a communication with the spiritual world, which in many beliefs is achieved through a shaman who, in a trance, accesses that world and then shows his thoughts to his fellow citizens.

The prayers in the historical sources.

Much of the older extant literature, such as the hymns of the Sumerian temple of Enheduanna (XXIII century BC) are liturgies addressed to deities, with what would technically be sentences.

The Texts of the Egyptian Pyramids from about the same period, they similarly contain spells or incantations directed at the gods.

There are Reliable records available for the polytheistic religions of the Iron Age, especially the ancient greek religion (which strongly influenced the Roman), religious traditions that were direct developments of the earlier religions of the Bronze Age.

Traditions in Asia

In ancient polytheism, ancestor worship is indistinguishable from theistic worship. The vestiges of ancestor worship persist, to a greater or lesser extent, in modern religious traditions throughout the world, especially in Japanese Shintoism and Chinese folk religion.

The practices involved in Shinto prayer are strongly influenced by Buddhism, and consist of wishes or favors that are asked of kami, instead of long praises or devotions.

The practice of the votive offering is also universal and it is attested from at least the Bronze Age.

In Shinto, this takes the form of a small wooden tablet, called an 'ema'.

The roman world

Sentences in Etruscan were used in the Roman world by soothsayers and other oracles long after the demise of Etruscan as a language. We find two examples of sentences of this style in 'Carmen arvale' Y 'Carmen Saliare', Partially preserved and whose language is full of archaisms and passages that are difficult to understand.

Continuing with the Roman world, prayers and sacrifices were conceived, in many cases, as “agreementsbetween deity and worshiper. The Roman principle was expressed as "do ut des", "I give so that you give."

Many examples of traditional prayers are found in the ‘Treaty of agriculture' from Cato the Elder, as, for example, one in which a farmer addresses the unknown deity of a grove (possibly sacred) and sacrifice a pig to appease the god or goddess of the place and ask his permission to cut down some trees from the grove.

Celtic, Germanic and Slavic religions

The Celtic, Germanic and Slavic religions They are recorded much later and in a much more fragmentary way than the religions of classical antiquity, although all of them bear parallels with some of the better known religions of the Iron Age.

In the case of germanic religion, the practice of prayer is reliably attested, but no actual liturgy is recorded from the early period (Roman era).

In the slavic religion, a sentence in Old Norse is recorded in skaldic poetry dramatization form, and which is found in stanzas II and III of the poem 'Sigrdrífumál', A compiled in the Poetic Edda of the 13th century from previous traditional sources, and in which the Valkyrie Sigrdrífa Pray to the gods and the earth after being awakened by the hero Sigurd.

For its part, a prayer to Odin It is mentioned in Chapter II of the 'Völsunga' saga, where King Rerir prays for a child.

In stanza IX of the poem 'Oddrúnargrátr’A sentence is made to“the kind ghosts, Frigg and Freyja»And many more gods.

The medieval period

Popular religion in the medieval period produced syncretisms between the pre-Christian and Christian traditions, as for example is the Anglo-Saxon charm of the eleventh century ‘Æcerbot’For the fertility of crops and land, or for the medicine called‘Wið færstice’.

Australian Aboriginal Mythology

In the australian aboriginal mythology, "Great Ingenuity" prayers are performed by "clever men" and "clever women," or kadji . These Aboriginal shamans use maban or mabain, the material believed to give them their supposed magical powers.

Mesoamerican religions

In Mesoamerican civilizations we find a great set of beliefs through which the world view of each of these cultures was developed.

Existed rituals of worship, petition, sacrifices and offerings diverse to the divinities of each culture, being the priests and sages who had to transmit the precepts and teach them to the community.

In turn, we find through various vestiges and sources different intimate and personal manifestations, both of prayer and of worship or sacrifice, which were carried out in each of the homes.

Among others, we find different prayers and devotions when getting up, eating and going to bed.

Prayers in different religions

Christian prayers

Prayer, according to the Catholic Church, is a dialogue between God and man, being this one who glorifies God through prayer, obtaining in turn spiritual peace.

This definition is, in turn, the answer to the question why we should pray.

The most common prayer is Our father, which, according to the Gospel, is the way Jesus taught his disciples to pray.

Known prayers in Christianity

There are other prayers that are well known to the Catholic Church, some of them are:

  • Ave Maria
  • Gloria Patri
  • rosary beads
  • Liturgy of the hours
  • Hail
  • Magnificat

Here we leave you the example of a christian prayer:

Prayer in Islam (Salat)

One of the pillars of this religion is prayer and its mandate comes from the Koran. There are, in total, 5 daily prayers which are performed looking at Mecca.

The five prayers of Islam:

  • Al-Fajr, which takes place from dawn to dawn until the instant before dawn.
  • Zuhar, which takes place at noon.
  • Asr, is the evening prayer
  • Magrib, which takes place after sunset
  • Isha, the last prayer, which takes place 1.5 hours after sunset.

The content of prayers in Islam

There are two types of prayers in this religion:

The first is a formal routine recitation of verses from the Qur'an and other sentences that are made essentially in the language of the Koran, Arabic.

In this case, it is expected that all the faithful know the meaning of what they are reciting, so as not to be deprived of the immense benefit that this prayer confers.

The second type frames the individual sentences, where each one is free to pray as they please and in their own language.

Prayer in Judaism

In Judaism we find the following daily prayers:

  • Shacharit: upon waking
  • Mincha: at sunset
  • Maariv: At dusk
  • After each meal

In addition, we find longer prayers on special days like the Shabbat or in the different jewish holidays, which include the Musaf and various readings from the Torah.

Your most important prayers are Shema Israel (Listen, Israel) and the Amidah (permanent prayer).

Prayer in Eastern Religions

In the main oriental prayers (Asian), buddhism and hinduism, the repetition of mantras are closely related to the repetitive prayer that we can find in western religions, such as the rosary beads.

Many of these mantras are, originally, invocations of different deities such as the 'Gayatri Mantra', dedicated to Suria (the sun god), or the 'Pavamana Mantra', dedicated to Soma.

Prayer in Buddhism

Prayer, based on the oldest tradition, the Theravada, plays a secondary role in Buddhism, but, as we said before, mantras are related to the tradition of prayer.

However, today many people who profess Buddhism, especially in the Southeast Asian countries, they usually pray to their gods in a similar way to how it is done in the West, with the aim of asking for their intervention and offering devotion.

On the other hand, the meditation, a fundamental practice in Buddhism, can be considered a form of prayer.

Prayer in Hinduism

Hinduism has incorporated many types of prayer throughout history, from rituals to philosophical reflections. In addition, they can be found both in the form of recitation of verses and through dhyanam, a deeper meditation that seeks to connect with a certain deity.

The sentences, drawn in many cases from the Vedas, the sacred texts that constitute a large collection of mantras and prayer ritualsThey can be aimed at satisfying the individual's own needs as well as the deep enlightenment of the being, or they can be aimed at the benefit of third parties.

Approaches to Prayer

exist various approaches through which to analyze prayer, from the most direct to the most rational forms. They are:

Sentences with direct requests (social approach)

This form of prayer is the most common of all. Consists in appeal directly to the deity to grant your requests.

Some psychologists and scholars (atheists) argue that this type of prayer could have undesirable psychological consequences about a person, by simply asking a divinity instead of actively seeking solutions to their problems.

It can also become potentially dangerous when manifested in its most extreme forms such as those of the Christian Scientists, who depend on prayers to cure their illnesses instead of seeking medical treatments for their family members, which in many cases would be treated very simply, but leading to different problems due to lack of treatment.

Educational approach

From the educational approach of prayer, it would not be a conversation but its objective is to instill certain attitudes in those who pray.

Is a more frequent focus within Judaism through Rabbis Rabbenu Bachya, Yehuda Halevi, Joseph Albo, Samson Raphael Hirsch, and Joseph B. Soloveitchik.

This approach is also embodied in the work of the rabbi Nosson scherman, specifically in the summary of 'Artscroll siddur'(P. XIII).

At Christianity, EM Bounds also explained the educational purpose of prayer in each chapter of his book "The need for prayer”.

Rationalist approach

The rationalist approach posits that the ultimate goal of prayer is to empower a given person to focus on divinity through philosophy and intellectual contemplation (meditation).

The Jewish scholar and philosopher Maimonides he was the great promoter of the rationalist approach.

In turn, it had a great reception among others rationalists of the Middle Ages, being especially popular in the intellectual circles as much Jewish as Christian and Islamic, although it did not get to become the most popular understanding among the laity of these religions.

Experiential approach

This approach aims to allow the person praying to get direct experience from the recipient of the prayer, being the most significant in Christianity although it is also very widespread in Sufi Islam and in some forms of mysticism.

In Eastern Orthodoxy, this approach is known as hesychasmus.

Has some similarities with the rationalist approach, since it can also involve contemplation (although this is not seen as rational or intellectual).

Christian and Catholic traditions also include an experimental approach to prayer within the practice of prayer. lectio Divina, historically a Benedictine practice in which scriptures are read aloud.

The notion of «religious experience»Goes back to William James, who used this term in his book 'The varieties of religious experience', Although scholars believe that its origins may be earlier.

In later centuries, specifically in the 18th, 19th and 20th, different historical figures displayed highly influential views that both religion and their beliefs could be based on experience itself.

Kant argued that moral experience justified religious beliefs, while John wesley believed that religious experiences in the Methodist movement were basic to religious commitment as a way of life.

In turn, the form of «religious experience»Was used by Schleiermacher and Albert Ritschl to defend religion against growing scientific and secular criticism, while defending that the view that human experience (both moral and religious) justifies religious beliefs.

This religious empiricism would be seen years later as problematic, although in the 20th century and even in the 21st, religious and moral experience as justification for religious beliefs prevail.


Video: If God is Sovereign, Why Pray?: Prayer with. Sproul


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