As it was commonly said during World War II, "There are no atheists in foxholes." Most pray when in need though whom exactly they address is often secondary to their desperation.
You've heard the joke about the Irishman who was late for a job interview in Dublin with Microsoft and couldn't find a parking place? He prayed, "Lord Jesus Christ and Mother Mary, help me find a parking place and I'll go to church on Sunday instead of O'Reilly's Pub." Suddenly an empty space appeared and he said, "Oh, never mind, I've got one, thanks." That reminds me of the kind of prayers I said as a child when I knew I was in trouble. I was no more faithful to my pledges than that Irishman.
A story told in India is of a disciple who was inspired by his guru's complete dependence and surrender to God for protection and sustenance in all matters. The next day this disciple is walking along a forest path and behind him he hears someone shouting, "Watch out, get out of the way, this elephant is running wild!"
Blissful (and ignorant) in the "safety" of God's omnipresent protection in all matters, the disciple ignores the shouts and continues walking. The elephant, bearing down upon him, throws him roughly into the bushes with a flick of his trunk. Bruised and battered the man returns to his guru's ashram confused and hurt. "But, my son," the guru explained, "God DID speak to you through the mahoot (elephant driver): "Get out of my way!"
We are all better at praying for (usually) minor material desires or needs than listening for God's answer or feeling the divine presence as an act of devotion. It is no coincidence that on the path of Self-realization only upon taking discipleship to Yogananda and his line of gurus is one taught the technique of "Aum" whereby, using a special mudra and arm rest, one is able (with practice and with concentration) to hear the Aum sound and other subtle sounds (of the chakras). Most of us are great talkers but poor listeners! Listening is the hallmark characteristic of one who enters onto the spiritual path consciously and with deep sincerity. Offering up our attachment to our own likes and dislikes in favor of the daily practice of asking for guidance and seeking attunement, one gradually becomes a true disciple.
But how, then, should we attune ourselves to God? How can we love someone or something that we do not yet know? In the Bhagavad Gita,
Arjuna, the archetypal disciple, asks his guru, Lord Krishna, "What is the best approach to God: with devotion to God in some form, or, striving to realize the Infinite beyond all form?" Mind you, now, this question appears in the text just after
Arjuna has this mind-blowing experience of "Krishna" as the Infinite Spirit! At the end of that experience, Arjuna pleads with Krishna to return to his familiar, human form! It was simply too much!
Krishna's response is appropriately personal and comforting--not just to Arjuna--but to you and I. He says that for embodied souls, the way of devotion ("I-Thou" relationship) is far easier. Rare is that soul who, striving assiduously to Self-realization by the formless path of seeking the Absolute, succeeds swiftly. Indeed to such a one, even the practice of meditation is taboo for all efforts in duality are tainted with delusion. Yogananda stated that such rare souls are already highly advanced spiritually.
How does this happen, then? To what form of God should we seek as a doorway to Infinity? Patanjali, in the Yoga Sutras, says that to one who sincerely and with intensity seeks to find God there comes to him that perfect form of God, suited to the soul's special needs, called the Ishta Devata, to lead the soul to freedom. As the adage suggests, "When the disciple is ready the guru appears." Down through the ages saints have prayed to God in every admissible form: Father, Mother, Beloved, Friend, child.......as Light, Peace, Joy, Love.......forms both personal and abstract, but always some form.
Yet, God has no form. As Jesus put it: "God is a spirit and they that worship Him must worship Him in spirit and in truth." Yes, but.......God manifested creation out of Himself and therefore IS the creation even while hidden BY the creation. God is omnipresent. God is both infinite and untouched by creation and immanent within creation. As Ananda Moyi Ma put it (in the form of a koan): "It is, and it isn't." To quote Ram Gopal Muzimdar in "Autobiography of a Yogi, [God is] "all pervading, eh?" Yes but that philosophically correct point is not personally all that useful (witness the devotee and the rogue elephant).
This is one reason we each need our own wayshower; another reason is simply that "tat twam asi": you are THAT! We, each one of us, is also a potential Christ, Krishna, Buddha or Yogananda. God is very personal where we are concerned for God has manifested himself AS us but we have yet to perfect our realization of that profound and ego-shattering fact. Because "heaven is within you" (to quote Jesus Christ) we must perforce begin right where and who we are!
Just as we identify with our physical form and personality, with our race, religion, gender, nationality, age, talents, upbringing, family characteristics and much more, therefore it is more natural for us to gradually refine our self-definition and to seek to transform every lower identification to an increasingly expanded form which, at every present point along the way, is necessarily "Other."
[The other direction of our efforts can be to annihilate the ego but this contractive approach, while equally valid, is contrary and contraindicated for most of us owing to the expansive direction of consciousness innate to the age in which we live. This was the hallmark characteristic of spirituality in the former, "Kali," age wherein sincere spiritual aspirants left the world for caves, forests and monasteries in order to achieve any measure of God realization in their lives.]
There's another angle, moreover, to the need to focus our devotion on that which is "Other." And that is the need for concentration in meditation. Concentration in meditation is both a prerequisite and a result. To pray deeply, therefore, we need to have some form to concentrate on? Otherwise, the mind becomes vague if it has no notion of what it seeks to know or unite with.
Yes, it is true that we are not our self-definitions nor is God limited by the form that appeals and inspires us, but, to use an expression from India, "Use a thorn to remove a thorn." On the spiritual path, then, God as "Thou" becomes the oarsman in the boat that takes us across the river of delusion to the shore of Infinite bliss. Achieving Self-realization, we transcend all forms when "Knower, knowing, known" become One.
Our Ishta Devata is like the gravitational pull of a planet that a spaceship that uses to propel it further along in its journey deeper into space.
As God IS the creation so any form will, strictly speaking, suffice for our spiritual journey. However (and there's always a "but" in duality), praying to a sacred alligator is far less likely to uplift us into superconsciousness than praying to a true guru, saint, or avatar! As Paramhansa Yogananda once put it (wryly), "Stupid people will never [sic] find God." (Well, so long as they ARE stupid!)
A more practical point relates to our love of nature and desire for harmony in and with the natural world. Nature, in her mineral, vegetable and animal forms, contains qualities which we admire: calmness, sensitivity, beauty, grace, strength, intelligence and many more qualities. Yet nature is SUB-conscious and, while inspiring to us, not yet self-aware. A saint is awakened in God and a savior is one with God! So while nature's admirable qualities can inspire us with gratitude we cannot "find" God through a form which is not yet self-aware, what to mention God-conscious! Let our love of nature be God-quality-reminding!
In "Art and Science of Raja Yoga," by Ananda's founder, Swami Kriyananda, "It's not what we love but how purely we love." The natural emphasis upon our special form of devotion (Jesus, Krishna, Buddha, etc.) is what can create fanaticism or dogmatism. Better to focus on refining and expanding the love of God in our chosen form to include all beings, all life than to place exclusive emphasis on the uniqueness of that form. In God all are equal, whether or not the roles they play seem greater or lesser on the stage of human history.
It is helpful, therefore, to recall the story from the life of Krishna where his adopted mother, Yasoda, tries to tie up the naughty boy Krishna but finds that every piece of rope she uses is always just TOO short! We cannot define or contain in form that which is beyond form. Nor can we, in duality, "see" God (or limit God to) any one of the divine forms of the great God-realized saviors, or avatars, on earth.
Someone once asked Paramhansa Yogananda, "Where does all spiritual striving end? "It ends in endlessness," the great guru replied!
We grow in stages: we begin to admire, love, and emulate goodness and virtue. We hear God spoken of in scripture, books, and, in time, from the lips of God-fired messengers. We seek to know God for ourselves and He responds by sending to us one who knows and shows the way. We go within to "find" Him and discover "tat twam asi:" We are THAT!
Joy to you,