Praying for the Welfare of Others
By Urmila Devi Dasi
On the path of pure devotion to Krishna, where does praying for others fit in?
“Thank you!” I said when a friend brought me a plate of lunch. “Can I do anything for you?”
“Please pray for me,” she replied. “Ask that I can do better service for Krishna.”
Later that day I saw a posted notice about a devotee’s illness that included a request for prayer. I often pray for others, and have also done my share of asking others to pray for me.
A few days before Sridhara Swami, an ISKCON leader and guru, left this world several years ago, I asked him if I could do anything for him. He requested me to research and write about praying for others, often called intercessory prayer.
“So many people say, ‘Would you pray for me?’ or ‘I’ll pray for you,’ but I wonder if that is just something people say, or if they really do it,” he said. “We should research how praying for others is part of spiritual life, what we pray for, and the mood we should have.”
For a deeper understanding of intercessory prayer, I turned to India’s ancient scriptures, especially the Srimad-Bhagavatam.
Praying for Others
After the great war at Kurukshetra, one of the few warriors left alive on the defeated side was Ashvatthama, son of Dronacharya, the martial guru of the Pandavas. Ashvatthama wanted to ensure that the dynasty of the victors at Kurukshetra, the Pandavas, would end with them. He therefore killed the Pandavas' five sons, but a grandson was lying in embryo within the young widow Uttara, wife of Arjuna’s son Abhimanyu.
Ashvatthama was a brahmana by birth though not by character. Still, he knew how to use supernatural weapons and could cause an abortion from a distance with a brahmastra that could home in on a specific target. Ashvatthama threw the weapon at Uttara’s womb, and she felt her child to be in danger. She raced to Arjuna and Krishna.
“Let the weapon destroy me if you like," she prayed to Lord Krishna, "but please save my baby!”
Krishna then entered her womb in a four-armed form, foiling Ashvatthama. The Pandava line would continue.
In this historical account from the Srimad-Bhagavatam, a devotee of Krishna prays for another’s welfare. There are other notable examples in scripture of prayer for others. Prahlada asked the Lord to give mercy to his father, who had tried to kill him numerous times. King Ambarisha also prayed that his would-be murderer, Durvasa, be excused.
Some notable devotees have prayed for forgiveness for a family member who committed an offense to others. When the serpent Kaliya attacked Krishna, his wives prayed for his release. When the sage Samika’s son cursed King Parikshit to die, the sage begged Krishna for his son’s pardon.
There are also historical examples of devotees praying for others’ spiritual enlightenment. Vasudeva Datta, an associate of Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, asked to take on others’ sinful karmic reactions so they could attain bhakti, love of God. Prahlada and Lord Brahma both implored the Lord to grant spiritual benedictions to people in general.
Although there are few instances in scripture of praying for others’ protection from disease, injury, and general harm, we do find that Yashoda Devi, Krishna's mother, often prayed for her son’s protection, and the context seems to indicate that such prayers for others’ bodily safety were a common part of the cultural tradition that surrounds ancient India’s spirituality.
The Role of Mood
Prayer to God could be considered an inherently pure activity, but intent or mood affect the purity of prayer. So, while prayer to God is one of the items of pure devotional service, those who offer prayers for others should consider their own motives. We do not want to try to use God as our servant.
Often, prayer for others takes the form of asking God to relieve someone of suffering. Due to the law of karma, people suffer as a reaction to their own sinful deeds. Ultimately it is Krishna, or His deputed agents, who have ordained suffering for the person’s rectification. So, when we pray for others, are we presuming to know better than God how to run the universe, or one life within it? No. We are simply trying to develop our natural relationship of dependence on Him. Even the most exalted saintly devotees naturally turn to Krishna when they or others are in danger. Such dependence is the natural loving relationship of the pure soul to Krishna.
Praying for others focuses our attention on Krishna rather than on thinking ourselves the controllers of the world. If we don't turn to Krishna, we might develop a mood of carelessness and irresponsibility in our dealings with others, even becoming cold-hearted in response to others’ difficulties. Taking our time and energy to pray for others helps us develop selflessness.
Those who pray for others in a mood of pure love for Krishna know that everything is up to Him. It is not the volume or intensity of prayer that changes a situation; it is Krishna and His will. It is true that there are cases in scripture where the Lord changes things at the behest of His devotees. But while Krishna may sometimes change His decisions out of love for those who petition Him, He always has the ultimate deciding power. Those who pray for others, therefore, think, “Whatever you want, Lord, is all good.”
Throughout the scriptures, those who want spiritual enlightenment are advised to do good for others. Activities to benefit others are both a prime symptom of spiritual advancement and an essential part of the process to achieve enlightenment. Offering intercessory prayer can enhance such a mood of openhearted service.
What Can We Pray For?
We have considered the mood of offering prayers for others, but what of the content? Is it within the realm of pure devotional service to Krishna to pray for others’ health, family, and finances? When we examine Prabhupada’s prayers for others, we find that he does include health or prosperity, but always within the context of spiritual service. [See the sidebar "Examples of Intercessory Prayer."] Like Prabhupada, we can certainly ask Krishna to grant others a fit body for a long life in His service. Of course, since the definition of “service” to Krishna is what Krishna desires, those who pray like this accept that the best service a person could render might be in a situation different from what we imagine is best.
Asking Others to Pray for Us
So far we have considered prayers for others in circumstances where the person praying took the initiative without the request or expressed desire from the person for whom the prayers were offered. There are also, however, numerous examples of devotees who request others to beseech the Lord on their behalf. King Prataparudra asked many devotees to beg Lord Chaitanya to grant him a meeting. Srila Prabhupada would sometimes ask his disciples to pray for his recovery from disease so he could finish his spiritual master’s mission.
Asking others to pray for us is not contrary to the mood of pure love for Krishna we're trying to cultivate. We are not trying to manipulate Krishna, but are asking others to pray for us because of a natural humility—a feeling that others' prayers will be more valuable than our own. We do well to remember that when we ask spiritually mature persons to offer prayers on our behalf, they will think of our ultimate benefit, not just whatever we may be asking for. They might, therefore, ask the Lord for us to graciously accept His will, whatever it may be.
Both those who pray for others, whether asked or not, and those who request others to pray for them can remember that the results of prayer are not always visible or obvious. Krishna is happy to fulfill the honest prayers of His devotees, but sometimes He gives a better result than what is asked for. In our limited conception of reality, we may not always be able to see the greater good in the situation that Krishna arranges. God is all-good and all-merciful, the most powerful controller and our best friend. So, all that happens, whether bad or good from our limited material vision, is for our benefit.
Srila Prabhupada explains how a devotee views happiness and distress:
A fully Krishna conscious person is not at all disturbed by the onslaughts of the threefold miseries, for he accepts all miseries as the mercy of the Lord, thinking himself only worthy of more trouble due to his past misdeeds; and he sees that his miseries, by the grace of the Lord, are minimized to the lowest. Similarly, when he is happy he gives credit to the Lord, thinking himself unworthy of the happiness; he realizes that it is due only to the Lord's grace that he is in such a comfortable condition and able to render better service to the Lord.—Bhagavad-gita 2.56, Purport
In summary, for intercessory prayer to be part of pure devotional service to Lord Krishna, it should be free of desires outside of that service, and it should ask for something favorable to the Lord. Such prayers should not stem from excessive attachment to the world. We can engage in intercessory prayer to deepen our relationship with Krishna, to develop a mood of humility and compassion for others, and with a desire to glorify our beloved Lord.
Examples of Intercessory Prayer
Requesting others to pray for oneself
Srila Prabhupada: I came here [to America] with a great mission to execute my spiritual master's order, but my heart is stabbing me. … If I die in this condition, my mission will remain unfulfilled. Please therefore pray to Prabhu Lord Chaitanya and Vrindaban Bihar [Krishna] to rescue me this time. My mission is still not finished. (Letter to Sri Krishna Pandit, 1967)
Requesting the Lord to forgive an offender
Prahlada Maharaja said, "O Supreme Lord, … [my father] directly blasphemed Your Lordship, the spiritual master of all living beings, and committed heavily sinful activities directed against me, Your devotee. I wish that he be excused for these sinful activities." (Srimad-Bhagavatam 7.10.15–17)
King Ambarisha said, “I wish … that this brahmana [Durvasa] be freed from the burning caused by the Sudarshana chakra." (Srimad-Bhagavatam 9.5.10)
Then the rishi [Samika] prayed to the all-pervading Personality of Godhead to pardon his immature boy, who had no intelligence and who committed the great sin of cursing a person who was completely free from all sins, who was subordinate, and who deserved to be protected. (Srimad-Bhagavatam 1.18.47)
"At least once, a master should tolerate an offense committed by his child or subject. O supreme peaceful Soul, You should therefore forgive our foolish husband [Kaliya], who did not understand who You are." (Srimad-Bhagavatam 10.16.51)
Requesting the bodily protection of another
Uttara said, "A fiery iron arrow is coming towards me fast. My Lord, let it burn me personally, if You so desire, but please do not let it burn and abort my embryo. Please do me this favor, my Lord." (Srimad-Bhagavatam 1.8.10)
[The women of Vrindavana prayed for Krishna's protection:] "May Aja protect Your legs, may Maniman protect Your knees, Yajna Your thighs, Acyuta the upper part of Your waist, and Hayagriva Your abdomen. May Keshava protect Your heart, Isha Your chest, the sun-god Your neck, Vishnu Your arms, Urukrama Your face, and Ishvara Your head." (Srimad-Bhagavatam 10.6.22)
Requesting the welfare of the world
Prahlada Maharaja said, “May there be good fortune throughout the universe, and may all envious persons be pacified. May all living entities become calm by practicing bhakti-yoga, for by accepting devotional service they will think of each other's welfare.” (Srimad-Bhagavatam 5.18.9)
Vasudeva Datta to Chaitanya Mahaprabhu: “My dear Lord, You incarnate just to deliver all conditioned souls. I now have one petition, which I wish You would accept. My Lord, my heart breaks to see the sufferings of all the conditioned souls; therefore I request You to transfer the karma of their sinful lives upon my head. My dear Lord, let me suffer perpetually in a hellish condition, accepting all the sinful reactions of all living entities. Please finish their diseased material life.” (Chaitanya-charitamrita, Madhya 15.160, 162, 163)
Various prayers in Prabhupada's letters
"I pray to Krishna for your more and more advancement of Krishna consciousness."
"I am thinking of you and your husband and of the nice devotional service you are performing, and I pray that Krishna will give you more and more intelligence to continue in this way."
"I will pray for your ever increasing advancement in Krishna consciousness."
"I am praying to Krishna to offer you all His strength in the discharge of His noble service."
"I pray that you will live long for chanting Hare Krishna continuously."
"I am praying always to Krishna that the boys and girls who have stretched their helping hand in this country in this connection may always be in good health and continue to assist me in my missionary activities."
"I am praying for your long life and prosperity in Krishna consciousness."
"I pray that Krishna may bless you with a long life with which to open many temples and that in this very lifetime you may return back to home, back to Godhead."
"I am fully aware of your sincere service and therefore I pray always to Krishna for your all-round welfare."
"I pray to Krishna that you may give a starting to such an ashrama in full Krishna consciousness."
"I am praying to Krishna that He will favor you with that new house for conducting His preaching work."
"I pray to Krishna that you all may use your intelligence for Krishna's service and not for any personal ambition."