Prayer As Petitioning – A Lesson In Piety From ‘The GodsFather’

The conception many people have of ‘Prayer’ is that it constitutes of ‘asking’ – often for things that might be thought of as ‘for personal gain’, or for the assistance of others. Now, as we’ve recently discussed, there’s quite a bit more to prayer than that, and effectively the broad meaning to the concept is of engaging with the Divine. With the ‘asking for’ component being one particular method and purpose within that much broader field. 

We have encountered, over the years, people who take issue with this – not so much in terms of disagreeing with the concept as a concept, but rather disagreeing that it has a place within whatever manifestation of Indo-European faith they happen to (notionally) follow. Or, in other cases, that it’s something they feel particularly comfortable with as part of their own devotional perception. 

As applies the former – it is readily demonstrable that this particular ‘style’ of prayer was very much a part of ‘the religion of our ancestors’, whether we’re claiming descent from the Germanic, Roman, Hellenic, or various other spheres. Indeed, we can demonstrate this linguistically without having to go through and quote various textual occurrences. Prayer is from Latin  ‘Prex’ (or ‘Precor’), which means to plea, to beseech, to request; itself from PIE *Prek (‘To Ask’, ‘To Entreat’, ‘To Sway To’, ‘To Woo’). In the Germanic sphere, we find terms such as biðja (Old Norse) and gebed (Old English) – both meaning ‘prayer’, and both from PIE *gʷʰedʰ-, which once again, means ‘to ask’ or ‘to request’ … and which also continues on in modern (ok, somewhat archaic) English when we ‘bid’ (or have ‘bade’) someone to, say, come into our home.

One of the more surprising places that this Proto-Indo-European root shows up in our contemporary language, however, is in ‘Prayer Beads’ … as the ‘Bead’ component. This makes ‘Prayer Bead’ a tautology, and also shows just how powerful the concept has been: the word ‘bead’, itself, which most of us would associate with the adornments or components of any manner of jewelry necklace – appears to be derived from the quite specific occurrence of ‘Bead’ in rosaries etc. … quite literally the ‘beads of prayer’. But I digress.

Now, our purpose here is NOT to speak to the notion that the people claiming ‘our ancestors’ did not ‘pray’ are incorrect. That is almost self-evident already as it stands.

Rather, it is to speak to the notion that while ‘prayer’ in the sense of ‘asking’ IS a thing, that it is perhaps felt to be rather gauche and presumptuous.

We don’t agree (although that statement must be qualified – we definitely agree that it is possible to do these things rather badly and in a manner that is frankly affronting both conceptually and ‘personally’ (or, as applies relevant Divinities – Personally), with all the risks that that may so happen to dreadfully entail). 

We also wish to emphasize that prayer … is often considered in a decidedly decontextualized manner. And that seems to be a significant quotient of why it seems rather off to some people. Adding the context back in may help ease some of those qualms. 

So let’s get into it then.

One of the Sanskrit words we – briefly – examined in our most recent piece upon prayer in an Indo-European context was ‘Prarthana’. This means, literally, ‘Asking Before’ – as in “I come Before [Pra] You to Ask [Artha] …”. In English we might perhaps refer to this as ‘petitioning’ – “I petition You to …”, and it is uncoincidentally also utilized in a politico-legal context even in the modern day. ‘Petition to Parliament’, ‘Petition the Government to …’, you get the idea. It often entails getting a great number of signatures, and perhaps organizing some form of ‘handover’ occasion to highlight the cause and make it seem ‘resonant’ – so as to help sway both electorate and elected officials to take it in greater receptiveness. I do not (necessarily) intend to suggest an analogy here to the more involved rites one might perhaps perform in pursuit of a cause. 

The ‘broader context’ for ‘Prayer’ as a concept (rather than ‘just’ a word) that I had spoken of earlier is also a simple one – it is ‘Prayer’ as Engagement with the Divine; ‘Talking to God’, we might say (and note that ‘Talking’ and ‘Asking’ do not exactly mean the same thing – even if ‘Asking’ is a subset of ‘Talking’ in many occurrences). And – to make things rather more overt – it is part of cultivating a relationship, so to speak, with said Divine. 

Which does not mean, I ought emphasize, the sort of ‘personal Jesus’ understanding that is common in various Christian circles – at least, not for everyone. There are most definitely a rare and remarkable few who are able to speak to various Gods with such familiarity.

This is not necessarily the ‘literal’ ‘familiarity’ of the sense that we find when people call upon various Gods as ‘Father’ or ‘Mother’ (although, that said, the situation of RV III 53 5, wherein the  ritualist, using the words of the relevant Rsi [‘Seer’ / ‘Poet’ / ‘Divinely Inspired Versesmith’] actually addresses Lord Indra as ‘Bhrata’ (that is to say as ‘Brother’) is nevertheless remarkable enough to be comment-worthy itself). But is rather a different kind of ‘familiarity’ found with the sorts of Heroes or Saints (we are particularly thinking of the great Shaivite Saints of South India here) who really can be said to be able to ‘Know the Gods’ on something approaching a ‘Personal’ basis. 

But as I say, that is not the paradigm that we are seeking to popularize nor publicize herein. 

Which is, instead, something based around a rather different kind of relationship. 

Many are aware of the rather famous scene from The Godfather. The one that is so iconic, set upon the day of the Don’s Daughter’s Wedding. Where a gentleman comes to beseech and petition the aforementioned Godfather for assistance in delivering a certain form of justice against some scoundrels who have grievously assaulted (and attempted to rape) the man’s daughter.

We would contend that it is an intriguingly resonant ‘model’, if you like for … well, some of the pitfalls of the approach that is often exhibited toward these spheres.

Let us quote.

BONASERA: “[…] Then I said to my wife, “for justice, we must go to Don Corleone.”

VITO CORLEONE: “Why did you go to the police? Why didn’t you come to me first?”

BONASERA: “What do you want of me? Tell me anything. But do what I beg you to do.”

VITO CORLEONE: “What is that?”

[Bonasera gets up to whisper his request into Don Corleone’s ear]

“That I cannot do.”

BONASERA: “I’ll give you anything you ask.”

VITO CORLEONE: “We’ve known each other many years, but this is the first time you came to me for counsel, for help. I can’t remember the last time that you invited me to your house for a cup of coffee, even though my wife is godmother to your only child. But let’s be frank here: you never wanted my friendship. And uh, you were afraid to be in my debt.”

BONASERA: “I didn’t want to get into trouble.”

VITO CORLEONE: “I understand. You found paradise in America, had a good trade, made a good living. The police protected you; and there were courts of law. And you didn’t need a friend of me. But uh, now you come to me and you say — “Don Corleone give me justice.” — But you don’t ask with respect. You don’t offer friendship. You don’t even think to call me Godfather. Instead, you come into my house on the day my daughter is to be married, and you uh ask me to do murder, for money.”

BONASERA: “I ask you for justice.”

VITO CORLEONE: “That is not justice; your daughter is still alive.”

BONASERA: “Then they can suffer then, as she suffers.
How much shall I pay you?”

VITO CORLEONE: “Bonasera… Bonasera… What have I ever done to make you treat me so disrespectfully? Had you come to me in friendship, then this scum that ruined your daughter would be suffering this very day. And that by chance if an honest man such as yourself should make enemies, then they would become my enemies. And then they would fear you.”

BONASERA: “Be my friend
— Godfather?”

VITO CORLEONE (after Bonasera kisses his hand)

Some day, and that day may never come, I’ll call upon you to do a service for me. But uh, until that day — accept this justice as a gift on my daughter’s wedding day.”

BONASERA (as he leaves the room): “Grazie, Godfather.”


Why do we quote all of that?

Because – there we have the paradigm of Prarthanam …

… and we also have the Godfather (very resonant term, that … God … Father) responding to this effort at a Prarthana from the supplicant by asking the most obvious of questions:

What standing does the man have to request these things? What relationship is there between the man and the Godfather? Why would the Godfather be inclined to assist him – if he is merely a figure of last resort, and the would-be supplicant is only turning up when he needs something and no-one else shall seem keen to assist.

This is particularly the case given there should be a relationship between the families even a-priori and simply due to the Godfather’s wife being Godmother (another resonant term, that …) to the supplicant’s child. That relationship has been neglected – the ‘starting point’ for the petitioner is, therefore, in some ways worse than if he were attempting to ‘approach afresh’ and with no history with the Lord in question (although it is also better – because these things can be repaired, likely with far greater ease than working to establish such an engagement ‘from scratch’). 

It is, indeed, all up more than somewhat disrespectful (and not least given the occasion our exemplar-petitioner is approaching upon) … and all could have been avoided had the would-be supplicant done the entirely natural and human thing of actually cultivating a relationship with the Godfather when he didn’t need Him.

To the point, verily, that (as the Godfather seems to point out) there would be no need for the gentleman to seek to actively petition the Don – as it would have automatically already been the case that his enemies and problems should become the Don’s simply by virtue of the depth of their mutual association and relationship.

Of course, Gods – as with Godfathers, it should seem – are often merciful. And, indeed, even though this is the “first time” across a span of years that the gentleman has sought to engage the Don in this way, his request is indeed granted.

A man in a tight spot that carries out a desperate prayer for deliverance – well, he may not be turned away merely because this is the first time he’s found himself actually actively doing the (rite) thing.

But he has started down a road of piety – one way or the other. If it is delivered – and he realizes the request has been delivered … well, he is indeed in the God’s Debt.

In truth, of course, if you are in the religious milieu, we are always already in something approaching such status. We owe debts of Honour, of Thanks, of Loyalty to the great and mighty Powers that look after us and have rendered the world (whether natural or human / civilizational) at least somewhat more amenable for us to exist there within. It is a ‘feudal’ model in that regard.

But yes, it is – as Don Corleone notes – a potentially rather fearful thing to be in the debt of a powerful man, who happens to be a luminary of the organized criminal Underworld.

We do not seek to presume that being in the debt of the Lord of the Underworld … the uh … you know, The Underworld … is any less weighty a concept upon the minds of many.

And not least because we have the distinct impression that He shall inevitably have ample opportunity to collect in good time…

And this is the other reason that we ‘cultivate a relationship’ – just as the good Don says, it means that we don’t find ourselves fronting up and beseeching for a weighty boon with attendant ‘hanging over us’ potential price to be paid for same.

Things are much more ‘taken care of’ automagically – precisely because our purpose, and those of our Patron(s) are already so closely concordantly aligned, and we are ‘looked out for’ by They.

However, we can also – without intending to reduce piety down to a ‘transactional’ model (although yes, yes there is an element of this ‘exchange’ principle to be found in Vedic and other Indo-European religions – ‘Do Ut Des’, the Latin maxim of ‘I Give So That You Might GIve’, is encountered in reasonably direct cognate coherency as ‘Dehi Me, Dadami Te’ : ‘Give [to] Me, I give [to] you’ in the Yajurveda) – quite clearly observe that an ‘exchange’ is said to be occurring.

In the case of the Godfather exemplar, it is for a promise to be named at some future point (which may, perhaps, remind us of our ‘Vrat’ / ‘Vrata’ concept (‘Word’ – as in ‘I Give You My ..’) from the Hindu understanding – although usually those are much more defined and specific in nature); something which , we would presume, helps the Don to carry out his endeavours and which makes use of the skills or resources available to the supplicant . 

This is , again , actually not all that far removed from the sense inherent in the relevant Vedic perception – part  of the idea behind why we carry out sacrificial offerings and rites of certain kinds is very much that we are not only seeking to convince the Gods to help us and to intervene upon our behalf (or, for that matter, that we are attracting Their Attention and thence Their Presence and Agency, should They be so inclined, to our immediate area and areas of concern – to be more salient, coming here among us) … but we are also ’empowering’ the Gods to do so. Whether in the sense of ‘giving permission’, or the sense of ‘giving a mechanism for action’ (say, providing a sword or other weapon to be imparted with Divine Essence as part of a prayer to ward against and liberate from demonic oppression), or simply in the general sense of ‘strengthening Them’. 

That last sense occurs, in particular, in RV IX 63 5 – a Soma hymnal, rather uncoincidentally – wherein it is said that Indra is ‘augmented’ or ‘strengthened’ (‘vardhanto’), implicitly via the pious conduct and offering in question (it is, after all, Soma that is focal in this ritual invocation , also), so that He might then Smite Down and Expurgate the Adversaries (apaghnanto arāvṇaḥ); in this way is the whole (‘vishva’) place rendered ‘Arya’ (‘proper’, concordant with the pious and Rta-oriented religion and Divine Order) .

As it happens, the term translated as ‘Adversaries’ there, ‘Aravan’, could figuratively be understood as those who do not have a relationship with the Gods – insofar as it quite literally means ‘the non-/opposite-to-‘ (‘A-‘, like the ‘A-‘ of ‘A-theist’), ‘those who give / offer (and perhaps ‘invoke’)’ (‘ravan’ – I mention ‘invoke’ there because whilst ostensibly we are dealing with ‘ravan’ as ‘giver / offerer’ (i.e. ‘sacrificer’), an identically pronounced / expressed term can also refer to ‘calling’ : ‘God’, after all, even in English, via root etymology is not just ‘That Which Is Offered To / Oblations Poured For’, but (likely) also ‘That Which Is Called [upon / to]’, for the Rite and in supplicatory Prayer). 

The way Griffith has chosen to render the verse is, I believe, a resonant one – in terms of concept, at least (even if a direct translation would read a bit differently):

“5 Performing every noble work, active, augmenting Indra’s strength,
Driving away the godless ones.”

But again, we digress.

Our point with all of this has been a remarkably simple one – albeit one that really does benefit from having that suitably illustrious filmic scene to really ‘bring it to life’. 

Now, of course, even despite the reasonably extensive array of both Shaivite and Odinic conceptry regarding These Faces of the Sky Father as being Lord(s) of ‘Criminals’ in various senses (more upon this, perhaps, some other time) … we do not mean to imply for a moment that the only suitably fitting paradigmatic for Indo-European ‘relationship with the Divine’ in the modern age is one of Organized Crime. 

Quite the converse. It is – in its sense – Organized, Ordos indeed, Order (and its tangible, tacit expressioning) that is the fulcrum here.  

The actual heart of our metaphor is, in effect, something along the lines of a ‘feudal model’ – the relationship between subject and Lord; and not in the petty and exploitative sadly stereotypical (mis-)perspective that dominates discussion of this nature. (Which is not to say such scenarios didn’t exist in history – amongst humans … but we are not dealing with a human oriented model of this relationship, are we. We are dealing with the Divine). But rather, the definitely ‘two-way’ and ‘mutually beneficial’ – quite literally ‘reciprocal’ and ‘organic’ – approach. 

And, interestingly, and rather unlike, perhaps, the historical human conceptry around feudal lieges – what we behold in that brief quoted exchange is a much more ‘opt in’ style of system than a peasant or a serf ‘chained’ to a lord via the land and long-term monetary debt of the ersatz-slavery type.

The petitioner had neglected his relationship with the Don established via prior familial engagement, it is true … but there was no enforced loyalty and mandatory corvee labour engaged in as a matter of course and a fact of living. The absence of proper engagement prior to the petitioning was just exactly that – an absence of proper engagement which, whilst it might have bemused the Don, didn’t have armed men being dispatched in order to forcibly levy a due. And then, following this, the supplicant willingly and wilfully exercises his free choice to come to Corleone – and to more properly engage in the relationship, this time in an active and cognizant sense. He thusly benefits as a result – even as he is reminded that had he been proper and party to the relationship prior to his having needed Corleone’s intervention, then there would be no question of having to come in beseeching supplication to beg for a particular and specified boon. The matter would already be being taken care of – and, for that matter, given the formidable reputation and resources of the Godfather in question, significant elements of it might never have eventuated in the first place. 

We had had to invoke that filmic figure of the Godfather in part because there is no suitable other modern exemplar which could easily spring to our mind. You would certainly be hard-pressed to find such a scenario in active occurrence in a modern, first-world political paradigm. Or many other places and spaces wherein we might have direct and personal experience to draw from in order to colour and to contour our perception. Indeed, even in the case of Royalty – the modern iterations of the concept with which we might be personally vaguely familiar (and I speak as somebody writing from a Commonwealth country, headed in not-entirely-nominal terms by King Charles) hardly lend themselves to preparing us for this kind of engagement. A King on the other side of the globe, whom I would be writing a letter to (and effectively, to the bureaucracy which surrounds him) or engaging in simulacra via the local machinery of state … somehow seems simultaneously only vaguely more ‘tangible’ and yet unutterably more remote than the Gods I speak to or otherwise engage with in pious devotions on a much more frequent – and, dare I say, much more ‘present’, much more ‘responsive’ basis. 

Perhaps this is partially why so many are evidently rather ill-at-ease with these notions of engaging with Divinity in a proper and respectful manner being possible, particularly when asking for assistance via prayer. Because we are so estranged from these kinds of relationships in our human lives and kens of experience that we have little to typologically ‘model’ something higher upon. And we really really do not want to utilize those other models and experiences pertaining to ‘leadership’ that we are familiar with (say, in the political or corporate world)  – precisely because those are so often so fundamentally disappointing, disenchanting, exploitative, and ‘grubbily human’ or even ‘less-than’. We do not want to think of our Deities in these terms – and that is quite right and eminently understandable. 

Who in their right mind would wish to believe – to conceptualize and to construe their belief, I mean – in a God that is effectively modelled in our perception upon a billionaire CEO (or, for that matter, the likely much less wealthy employer we might actually have to contend with in our own personal lives and workspaces, today)? Given the paradigms of politics which we find ourselves confronted with – who would choose to think of the Gods as little more than ‘superpowered’ elected officials (or unelected technocrats) … with all of the glib words, untrustworthiness, horse-trading, and seeming ‘shackling’ of actually doing anything useful that that particular suite of vocations seems inevitably to bring ushering in with it. 

Until we enter this world – of Gods and Myths and natures that are not just ‘human’, but ‘more-than’ at the same time .. we may find it hard to believe that such a thing does, and can even exist. Even if half-glimpsed from time to time, or dimly, vaguely recalled as some sort of ‘instinctive’, semi-ancestral pseudo-memory that prods us with the unsettling yet unshakeable knowledge that It Doesn’t Have To Be This Way. That our disappointments with the men around us and in theory ‘above us’ (or, I should say – in ‘fact’ above us, for a given and significantly meaningless ‘sidereal’ definition of the word ‘fact’ and the direction of ‘above’) do not have to entail that we can only be disappointed with figures of auctoritas and responsibility forever and in perpetuity. But again, I am potentially heading off in the direction of something of a tangent. 

The simple truth is – there are most definitely ways to approach, propitiate, and petition the Divine … that are respectful, proper, pious, and quite firmly attested in the ‘ancestral’ and archaic religious spheres. 

It is entirely understandable to feel somewhat ill-at-ease with the concept, if you have only previously thought of it, or encountered it being ‘done badly’; yet the fact of it being ‘done badly’ does not vitiate the reality of it also being, and able to be, ‘done well’, in earnest. 

And at the core of this sense of ‘doing well’, and not merely being engaged in the tawdrily ‘transactional’ ethos that some have said they feel ‘cheapens’ the pious engagement with the Gods … is ensuring that the engagement takes place within the context of a Relationship with the Divine . That it is NOT simply turning up when you want something or are in dire straits – but that you have put the salient work into fostering and maintaining this relationship (a relationship built, in no small part, from ‘prayer’ in that broader sense of – engagement with, communion with the Divine), and also acted to support your Patron(s), your Liege(s) in turn. Not because you are ‘investing’ or ‘buying insurance’ for the proverbial ‘rainy day’ (or ‘no-rain day’, given the relevant competencies of the Sky Father in this particular meteorological area – viz. Zeus Ikmaios, Parjanya, etc.) … but because it is the right thing to do. Because the God in question is Your God, and because you want to do your part in His (or Her) Holy Cause. As we have said – align your purposes and the Divinity’s, and you find things are frequently ‘taken care of’ without even having to (explicitly) ask. 

‘Do Ut Des’ is most certainly a worthy maxim for a worthy concept – yet it is, of course, somewhat limited. One does not see outside, within, and around these three words when they are simply invoked there in black upon the page. One sees, perhaps, the notion of making offerings to the Gods – and petitioning for support alongside this upon occasion as part of the reciprocal arrangement that we have capaciously aforementioned above. Yet does one really see the Relationship that lies at its heart and provides the scoping space within which such a favour might even be asked for? 

Hopefully. Hopefully now, at any rate. 

Our associate, Gottfried Yann Karlssohn, had once made mention to us of verses in the Havamal which speak of ‘Friends’ and ‘Friendship’ in terms that seem almost deliberately to resonate with the conceptry of the ‘God as Guest’ etc. typologies familiar to us more overtly from the Hindusphere (wherein we do, indeed, invite our beloved Gods to our homes and offer Them sustenance – or we go to visit Them in Their House(s) by paying visits to Temples, etc.). We shall not endeavour to significantly expand upon that here. But we will briefly quote one of the verses which seems pertinent in this particular regard:

“Veiztu, ef þú vin átt,
þann er þú vel trúir,
ok vill þú af hánum gótt geta,
geði skaltu við þann blanda
ok gjöfum skipta,
fara at finna oft.”

Bellows translates it as the following:

“If a friend thou hast | whom thou fully wilt trust,
And good from him wouldst get,
Thy thoughts with his mingle, | and gifts shalt thou make,
And fare to find him oft.”

It should certainly prove a welcome counterpoint to that observation of Don Corleone toward his would-be supplicant petitioner that:

“I can’t remember the last time that you invited me to your house for a cup of coffee”

Or Soma, or Mead – as the case may be. 

One thought on “Prayer As Petitioning – A Lesson In Piety From ‘The GodsFather’

  1. The analogy of the the relationship between Indo-Europeans and their deities being like that which existed in Feudal times is a good one. I think it can also be likened to that which existed (and still does in many places) within and between the clans found throughout the Indo-European sphere. By investigating the the practices of these clans it can be seen that the acts of gift-giving, petitioning and hospitality are a normal part of traditional Indo-European culture and values, as important in the mundane world as they were/are in the divine.

    Liked by 1 person

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