How do Hindus worship? What is the meaning behind their rituals? Rituals of a 5,000-year culture can be quite bewildering to the modern eye. Most modern Hindus are unaware of the vast diversity in practices and ways to approach God. Yet, almost all of them have performed or attended at least one puja in their life.
Puja or pooja refers to ritual worship of a consecrated idol or image. Most Hindus perform some sort of puja at their homes or temples on a daily basis.
Many pujas are quite complicated and require the expertise of a priest while some pujas are simple enough to be performed by the regular householder who does not have time to study scriptures or perform elaborate spiritual practices. At the same time, pujas also hold deep symbolic meaning for the advanced seeker. For example, the simple hand gesture called "namaste
" in India, done by pressing the palms together, has been interpreted to represent the union of the spiritual and mundane nature of ones self, connecting him to the Supreme.
A puja is believed to harness cosmic energy to achieve material or spiritual goals. Certain pujas, such as the Satyanarayan Puja
, may be performed for a specific occasion such as a festival or a housewarming ceremony.
Usually either a priest or the eldest member of a family performs the puja. However, there are no specific rules that determine who can perform a puja. However, in many Hindu temples, a priest (pujari
) performs the rites, and entry to the inner chamber of the deity is not open to people other than the priest.
Few temples lay restrictions such as not allowing non-Hindus, women, or members of certain castes.
Pujas are performed after a bath. Early morning is considered auspicious for daily pujas though an astrologer may be consulted to select an auspicious time for some special pujas. In addition, certain rituals may be performed on certain days, depending on which deity is to be propitiated.
Every year, traditional festivals based on elaborate pujas such as Durga Puja
are celebrated in Indian cities with great pomp and gaiety for several days. One remarkable feature is that the same puja is performed with unique rituals in the different parts of the country.
Pujas involve the use of all five senses in the ritual: sight, smell, touch, taste, and sound. A puja can be quite an enthralling experience with colourful flowers and fruits, the smell of incense sticks and fragrances, the sounds of conch shells and bells, sacred hymns and songs, etc. Typically, a ritual called prana pratisthan
is performed on an idol to "bring it to life."
As a rule, every puja begins with an invocation to the elephant-headed God Ganesha
. The practice is attributed to a popular myth. However, in esoteric Hinduism, Ganesha represents the lowermost chakra
(energy centre) called the Muladhara
that resides in the abdomen. A person's spiritual journey is said to begin when the "kundalini shakti
" or the creative power, starts to rise from the Muladhara chakra
. Hence, all pujas start with venerating Ganesha.
The way a puja is performed may differ but typically includes the following practices:
- Different meditation techniques such as visualising the form of the deity with eyes closed and hands pressed together in the namaste gesture.
- Sanskrit mantras or sacred sounds are chanted. Sometimes, the different names of the deity are also repeated. It is believed that the resonant effect of the mantras helps to harness cosmic energy.
- The idol may be bathed in water or milk and anointed with chandan (sandalwood paste).
- Fruits, leaves, flowers, water, rice, and betel nuts are offered to the deity. Food offered to the deity is mostly vegetarian though certain fringe sects offer meat, alcohol, and other articles that are considered unholy by orthodox Hindus. As with many Hindu practices, even the food items have symbolic value. A coconut, for example, represents the ego that must be "broken" in order to come closer to God.
- Sticks of incense are burned for fragrance.
- In a ritual known as aarti, a plate with a flame and vermillion (kumkum) is moved in a clockwise direction in front of the idol. The wick is usually soaked in ghee (clarified butter) or camphor.
- Devotional songs and prayers may be recited during pujas.
- Paying obeisance to the deity is done often, throughout the ritual to show respect. It could be either a simple bow with hands pressed together or a prostration that is more elaborate involving touching the floor with one's forehead.
- Vermillion is applied in the space between the eyebrows, believed to be the third eye, a spot that has deep significance in Indian spirituality.
- Usually, at the end of a puja, the metal plate with a flame and vermillion is passed around. Devotees use their palms to cup the flame and raise them to the forehead. The belief is that the deity's cosmic energy has passed to the flame, which is then transferred to the devotee.
- Food (prasad) and water (tirth) that was offered to the deity is distributed among people, and is believed to possess the energy of the deity. Though most Hindus do not consume food from the same plate, prasad, being pure, is openly shared. A drop or two of tirth is poured in the devotees' palms (always the right hand), and is imbibed with great respect. The word "tirtha" also means a shallow pool of water that can be crossed easily, alluding to the importance of crossing the ocean of material existence to attain liberation.
Is that all?
"If one offers me a simple leaf, fruit, or flower with love and devotion, I will accept it.
" - Bhagvad Gita
It should be remembered that a ritual such as a puja is only meant as an external aid, and is not an end in itself. Often, people tend to obsess over minor technicalities and forget the essence of rituals. The beauty of any ritual lies in the symbolisms that lie beneath it. When people fail to understand why a ritual is done, it becomes a mundane chore or a matter of habit. Any number of elaborate pujas with all the materials and mantras can be insufficient if one does not have the necessary devotion.