It is customary in Vedic philosophy to sit next to God at least three times every day to sing praises and offer prayers to Him. For years and years, this practice has included chanting of Ved mantras, with knowledge of their meanings. The practice is called Sandhya (in Sanskrit). The word has been derived from the conjunction of two smaller words, sam (pronounced “sum”) and dhya. Sam means ‘well or thoroughly’; Dhya means ‘to meditate upon’. Therefore, the process involves thorough meditation upon God.
The purpose of Sandhya is the search for God, contemplation on divine thoughts and an attempt to establish a connection with God. We use words to do so. These words can be simple Vedic words used to address God like ‘Om’ or specific verses or mantras like the Gayatri Mantra. Our ancient scholars have also compiled a set of mantras suitable for the purpose. The collection is known as Vedic Sandhya.
Notwithstanding the type of mantras used for prayers, it is essential to know the meaning of what we are chanting. It has been seen that people just read the words or even memorize and chant them but do not know what they mean. Prayers done in this way are almost futile. The word meaning has to be understood and in fact can also be spoken during the prayers along with the Sanskrit words. If the same mantra is being chanted over and over, the meaning can be spoken after every three or four chants (or as suitable).
The question has often been raised as to whether it is acceptable to pray with only the meanings of the mantras. The answer is that the pure, original words should always be present although they can be accompanied with the simplified meanings as well. If we completely leave out the original words, there is fear of contamination of thoughts.
Scholars often worry that people do not even know how to pray. There is a story about a shepherd who used to take his cattle out to graze. The cattle used to get ticks and mites on their skin and being in contact with them, the shepherd’s overcoat used to catch those insects. It used to take him a long time and lots of effort to get rid of them. Once, in his prayers to God, he promised that he would serve God with all his strength. His promise however was that he would help God remove all the ticks and mites from His overcoat when He came back from the pastures with the cattle. Little did the poor fellow realize that the Lord was not a mere shepherd and hence didn’t require the service that the shepherd required.
So our saints and scriptures say that we should stick to the real mantras but for the sake of comprehension, we can say or sing the meanings as well. If too much digression is allowed, people will probably start asking God (in their prayers!) to get their food ready, to run a chore for them or to massage their heads!