Prostration is the placement of the body in a reverentially or submissively prone position as a gesture. Typically prostration is distinguished from the lesser acts of bowing or kneeling by involving a part of the body above the knee touching the ground, especially the hands. Major world religions employ prostration as an act of submissiveness or worship to a supreme being or other worshiped entities (i.e. God or the gods), as in the sajdah of the Islamic prayer, salat, or to show reverence to persons or other elements of the religion. In various cultures and traditions, prostrations are similarly used to show respect to rulers, civil authorities and social elders or superiors, as in the Chinese kowtow or Ancient Persian proskynesis. The act has often traditionally been an important part of religious, civil and traditional rituals and ceremonies, and remains in use in many cultures.
Traditional religious practices
Many religious institutions (listed alphabetically below) use prostrations to embody the lowering, submitting or relinquishing of the individual ego before a greater spiritual power or presence.
In the Bahá'í Faith, a single prostration is performed before the recitation of each obligatory prayer and in the case of traveling, a prostration is performed in place of each missed obligatory prayer in addition to saying "Glorified be God, the Lord of Might and Majesty, of Grace and Bounty". However, if unable to do so, saying "Glorified be God" is sufficient. There are specifics about where the prostration can take place including, "God hath granted you leave to prostrate yourselves on any surface that is clean..." (#10) and "He also condemns such practices as prostrating oneself before another person and other forms of behaviour that abase one individual in relation to another". #57
- the Awakened One (Sanskrit/Pali: Buddha) (in this meaning, to own potential)
- his teaching (Sanskrit: Dharma; Pali: Dhamma)
- his community (Sangha) of noble disciples (ariya-savaka).
In addition, different schools within Buddhism use prostrations in various ways, such as the Tibetan tantric preliminary practice of a 100,000 prostrations as a means of overcoming pride (see Ngöndro). Tibetan pilgrims often progress by prostrating themselves fully at each step, then moving forward as they get up, in such a way that they have lain on their face on each part of their route. Each three paces involves a full prostration; the number three is taken to refer to the Triple Gem. This is often done round a stupa, and in an extremely arduous pilgrimage, Mount Kailash is circumnavigated entirely by this method, which takes about four weeks to complete the 52 kilometre route.
In Christianity, the Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic and Anglican churches use full prostrations, lying flat on the floor face down, only during the imposition of Holy Orders, Religious Profession and the Consecration of Virgins. In the Roman Catholic and Anglican churches, partial prostrations ("profound bows") can be used in place of genuflections for those who are unable to genuflect. The prostration is always performed before God, and in the case of holy orders, profession or consecration the candidates prostrate themselves in front of the altar which is a symbol of Christ.
Lesser prostrations, lit., "low bows" (zemnoy poklon) involving kneeling and touching the floor with the hands, but with the torso off the floor, are common in Eastern Orthodox worship, and are used in conjunction with the Sign of the Cross, at specific moments during the services and when venerating relics or icons. However, the use of prostrations is traditionally discouraged on the Lord's Day (Sunday), during Paschaltide (Easter season) and on Great Feasts of the Lord. During Great Lent, and Holy Week, prostrations are especially encouraged in all the Eastern Churches (see Prayer of St. Ephraim). Orthodox Christian will also make prostrations in front of people (though in this case without the Sign of the Cross, as it is not an act of veneration or divine worship), such as the bishop, one's spiritual father or one another when asking forgiveness (in particular at the Vespers service which begins Great Lent on the afternoon of the Sunday of Forgiveness.) Those who are physically unable to make full prostrations may instead substitute metanias (bows at the waist).
In Islam, prostrations (sajadat, plural of sujud or sajda) are used to praise, glorify and humble oneself in front of Allah, and are a vital part of the five obligatory prayers performed daily; this is deemed obligatory for every Muslim whether the prayers are being performed individually or in congregation. Additionally, the thirty-second chapter (sura) of the Qur'an is titled As-Sajdah ("The Prostration": see 32:1 (Translated by Yusuf Ali)), while the Arabic word sujud (also meaning prostration) appears about 90 times in the Qur'an, a fact which many Muslim scholars claim to be another example of its significance in Islam.
According to a traditional account of the words and deeds of Muhammad as contained in the collection of hadith of Ibn Majah, Muhammad is reported to have said that "The prayer [salah] is a cure for many diseases". In another hadith he is also said to have advised people to perform prostration calmly and to get up only when the body has come to ease.
It is also important to note that in Islam, prostration to any one but Allah is absolutely forbidden. Muhammad strictly prohibited Muslims from prostrating before him, because prostration should only be performed to Allah, not to creatures. Regardless of the circumstances, no Muslim should request, or even accept, it from others.
In Judaism, the Tanakh and Talmudic texts as well as writings of Gaonim and Rishonim indicate that prostration was very common among Jewish communities until some point during the Middle Ages. In Mishneh Torah, Maimonides states full prostration (with one's body pressed flat to the earth) should be practiced at the end of the Amidah, recited thrice daily. Members of the Karaite denomination practice full prostrations during prayers. Traditionally, Orthodox Ashkenazi Jews prostrated during Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, as did Yemenite Jews during the Tachanun part of daily Jewish prayer. Ethiopian Jews traditionally prostrated during a holiday specific to their community known as Sigd. Sigd comes from a root word meaning prostration in Ge'ez, Aramaic, and Arabic. There is a movement among Talmide haRambam to revive prostration as a regular part of daily Jewish worship.
Sikhs prostrate in front of Guru Granth Sahib, the holy scripture of the Sikhs. Sikhs consider Guru Granth Sahib as their living Guru and the unchanging word of God: thus, by prostrating, Sikhs present their head to their Guru, awaiting command, which is taken in the form of a hukamnama, or a random opening of Guru Granth Sahib to reveal an edict for the individual or congregation (similar to the ancient Roman practice of sortes sanctorum, a form of bibliomancy). Sikhs call the prostration mutha tekna ("lowering the forehead"). Whenever and however many times a Sikh is in the presence of Guru Granth Sahib he will prostrate, usually upon the initial sight of Guru Granth Sahib and again upon leaving the presence of Guru Granth Sahib. Sikhs, in their personal worship (morning Nitnem and evening Rehras), will prostrate upon the completion of prayers and the ardaas. The direction of prostration is not important as Sikhs place emphasis on the omnipresence of God: however, if it is possible, Sikhs tend to prostrate in the direction in which bani (books containing the word of God, such as the Gutka Sahib or Pothi Sahib) are kept. Other prostrations practiced by Sikhs from an Indian culture are touching of the feet to show respect and great humility (generally done to grandparents and other family elders). Full prostration is reserved for Guru Granth Sahib, as prostration is considered to be the ultimate act of physical humility and veneration.
Outside of traditional religious institutions, prostrations are used to show deference to worldly power, in the pursuit general spiritual advancement and as part of a physical-health regimen.
In ancient Hawaii, a form of prostration known as kapu moe required all to prostrate in the presence of a nīʻaupiʻo or a piʻo chief on the pain of death. The only people exempt from this were chiefs of the next grade the naha and wohi chiefs who were required to sit in their presence. Other Polynesian groups are known to practice this.
In Japan the name of the prostration used is called seiza or the more ancient term Dogeza was used as a sign of deep respect and submission for the elders of a family, guests, Samurai, Daimyo and the Emperor.
In modern yoga practice, "sun salutations" (sūrya namaskāra) are a regular part of practitioners' routines. Such a practice may be used for both maintaining physical well-being and spiritual attainment.
In traditional and contemporary Yoruba culture, younger male family and community members greet elders by assuming a position called "doba'le". The traditional, full Yoruba prostration involves the prostrator lying down almost prone with his feet extended behind his torso while the rest of his weight is propped up on both hands. This traditional form is being replaced by a more informal bow and touching the fingertips to the floor in front of an elder with one hand, while bending slightly at the knee. The female form of the greeting is the "ikun'le", a form of kneeling where the younger party bows to one or both knees in front of an elder relative or community member. Both gestures are widely practiced; to not perform them would be considered ill-mannered.
Modified versions of both greetings are also common in traditional Yoruba religious and cultural contexts in the African Diaspora, particularly in Brazil and Cuba.
- Source: The Kitab-i-Aqdas, The Most Holy Book, by Baha'u'llah, #14.
- For an example of how this reverence for the Triple Gem is embodied in the Pali Canon, see, e.g., the Ratana Sutta.
- See the "Namo Buddha Glossary of Buddhist Terminology," entry "four special foundations" (retrieved 2008-09-03 at http://www.rinpoche.com/glossary.htm).
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