Which is stronger: the power of prayer or the power of service? Many people ask this question. In reality, they are both two forms of human energy and two separate paths for its manifestation. Prayer comes under the branch of bhakti yoga and service under karma yoga. Then should we follow bhakti yoga or karma yoga? This is a dilemma which troubles many people and for long periods of time they are unable to decide upon which path to follow. For the common man, such dilemmas and concerns are quite natural, but they cannot be resolved without sadhana and a guru. This knot can never be fully unravelled until you bow at the holy feet of the guru with utmost devotion. To believe or not to believe is up to the individual, but this is the experience of atheist thinkers who turn into believers. If this were not true, then the historically renowned Tulsidas would not have eulogized the guru, Mira would not have sung praises of the greatness of the guru and Surdas and Kabir would not have extolled the virtues of the guru element in one voice. Were these great personalities of our history less brilliant or less intelligent than you and me? If we think thus, what is it but our stupidity and insolence?
The variety of practices and paths confuse a novice seeker. Just as a small child cannot decide for himself which subjects he should or should not study, how he should or should not live, the householder is faced with the same situation in this business of life. The laws of dharma, science and progress are not at all different. No religion or sadhana says anything against the laws of progress. The guru, a realized being and a capable man on the path of the science and progress of spirituality, fully comprehends the essence of this concept. Even if the guru is not the all-knowing, omnipotent God, he still knows much more about human sciences or a branch of science than you or I do. He knows the value of things that are permanent and long-term.
Prayer and service are methods that belong to two different paths, yet one is not better than the other, nor is one a higher sadhana and the other a lower sadhana. Such a differentiation does not exist. You must know this from your own experience. Both support and complement each other. Gross and subtle, matter and energy, Shiva and Shivaa, each of these pairs are mutually complementary. Prayer is a mental karma, action, and service a physical karma. The actions and qualities of both the body and the mind are important.
Consider this from the practical, psychological as well as the scientific viewpoint. If someone is sick, he needs both service and prayer. However, the power of prayer is greater than service. This does not mean that if someone is sick, is on fire or is drowning, one should only sit and pray. Prayer is a power, but in order to be functional at the level of the gross world, it has to have a gross medium. If you only serve a sick person, that service will give him some respite, but you will not receive divine intervention. However, if your prayer is totally heartfelt and guileless, even a little service will help the patient gain a quick recovery. If someone is drowning and you do not know how to swim, and you are praying for his safety with your mind, words, actions and the full intensity of your emotions, then it is likely that some other person will appear and save him or the tide will push him ashore or he will be saved by some other chance occurrence which can only be called divine benediction. You may not experience the result immediately, but such chance occurrences do take place and everyone experiences one or two miraculous happenings in their life.
Nature sends out messages of its subtle powers, but man does not understand them. Nor is he eager to use them. It is only a chosen few who grasp them, find a means of putting them to use and thereby leave something behind for humanity. This is their gift to mankind. The efforts of Edison, Marconi, Bell and others were towards the discovery of these very same subtle powers of nature, and they used this knowledge for the benefit of mankind. When hidden powers are understood by the confines of intellectual knowledge and a means is found to use them for the benefit of mankind, it is called an invention.
Let us analyse a prayer psychologically. The mind, with its various emotions, thoughts, subjects and influences, is like a ball of tangled threads. The entire energy of the mind is entangled in this, so in spite of being an extremely potent force, our mind is a victim of its own weaknesses. Doubt, suspicion, lack of faith, inferiority, fear, shame, sloth, and so on are like leeches that suck out the energy. If they can be eliminated or somehow not allowed to influence the mind, then man can perform fantastic feats. The willpower of the mind is extremely unique and priceless.
If you have ever prayed from your heart, you must have experienced that through a true prayer to God or your ishta, all the other emotions in the heart melt away like ice and only one main emotion remains. For some time all other influences are gone. All the modifications of the mind, vrittis, come together and become one-pointed. This state of concentration is what is important. This is the sharp point of the arrow which pierces the target.
Prayer is a big help in times of distress. After having unsuccessfully tried every kind of worldly intervention and being completely dejected, a man seeks the support of prayer and gets a lot of strength. At times and in places where he cannot think of a way out, man prays, and in response to his call of distress he definitely receives help. When a person’s willpower is steady and fixed, it contains immense dynamic strength. This is a natural law which can be put to use only when completely understood.
The relationship between the body and mind is very strong and cannot be abandoned. You cannot separate the two from one another. Still, in less evolved beings, the body influences the mind. The yogi, on the other hand, knowing the value of both, dissociating himself from both, even invites worthwhile action in plenty. The yogi is aware of the power of resolve, and on the basis of this power he accomplishes work or gets others to accomplish tasks. Thus, prayer belongs to the department of the mind and service to that of the body.
The householder should bring both these together, unite them. The arguments of prayer or service are intellectual wrangling from which nothing is gained and mental energy is wasted. Instead, if you put your mental and physical energy to good use every day by praying with no personal desire or selfish motive, and engaging in seva, service, and being helpful to others, then life goes smoother for you and others are also benefited.