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Puja (Worship)

Devpuja or worship of God, in and through an image, either at home or in temples, is a common practice in the Hindu society. Through millions of Hindus all over our country and world visit temples, witness or participate in such puja ceremonies, not many are aware of the philosophy behind it (the 'why' and the 'how' of it), the need for puja and its effects on our mind.

Added to this ignorance, unsympathetic criticism from adverse quarters which brands it as idolatry, pure and simple, makes even our educated people to shy away from it.

The main purpose of this article is to expound in a simple language, the philosophy behind puja or ritualistic worship and its significance, in order to instill an intelligent fait in the hearts of our intelligent votaries.

Throughout the history of mankind, human beings have been seeking whether they know it or not – unalloyed happiness or bliss. Freedom from suffering and attainment or eternal peace and joy, have been the universally acclaimed goals of life.

From times immemorial, a firm belief in the existence of a Supernatural Being, omniscient and omnipotent, seems to have been ingrained in the very nature of man. By somehow establishing a contact with this Being, often called “God”, one can get whatever one wants in life. This is the conviction resulting from this belief.

Hinduism proclaims that this God is both “nirakara” and “nirguna” (without any particular form or attributes) as also “sakara” and “saguna” (capable of assuming any form and attributes at will). He can also manifest himself as a personality without any particular form, but with all the blessed qualities that one can imagine. Nothing prevents him, if need be, form assuming any form that a votary devotedly hankers for seeing or even incarnate here in the human form to set right the mess we create!

An illustration can make this point more clear. Water can exist in three states: ice, liquid water and water vapour or steam. Water vapour has no particular form whereas ice has. But liquid water can assume the shape of vessel into which it is poured. In all these three states, vastu or substance is one and the same, though “nama” (nomenclature) and “rupa” (form) are different. Similar is the case with God.

Though Hinduism concedes that the gaining of freedom from all suffering and attainment of eternal bliss, are possible by adopting any one of the four well-known “yogas” (paths of spiritual disciplines) – “Jnanayoga”, “Bhktiyoga”, “Rajayoga” and “Karamyoga” – “Bhaktiyoga” or the path of “bhakti” (devotion to God in his “sakara saguna” aspect) is, comparatively speaking, much easier in this age, characterized as it is, by an excessive attachment to the physical body and (consequently) to physical comforts.

Once this is acknowledged, the necessity for and the role of rituals in this path of “bhakti” can easily be recognized and appreciated.

Necessity of Rituals

By the word “rituals”, certain religious observances and practices performed in a systematic way as per the directions given in the scriptures are meant. “Puja” (worship of God or deity), “sandhyaopasana” (meditation on God as the light of knowledge and wisdom at dawn and dusk), “homa” ( offering of oblations unto a deity in a duly consecrated fire), “upavasa” (ceremonial fasting) and “jagarana” (keeping vigil at night as a part of spiritual discipline) – all these are rituals.

The philosophical truths contained in the Vedas, Upanisads and other similar scriptural works are, very often, too recondite to comprehend. Apart from an incisive intellect, purity of mind resulting from a pure sinless life is necessary to understand them. Performance of rituals is one of the easier means to achieve this purity of mind. However they should be done meticulously with a proper knowledge of the spirit behind them.

Need of Icons

A great majority of human beings are incapable of even conceiving – let alone contemplate upon – God as the Supreme Power or Intelligence without any particular name or form. This is because of the limitation imposed by the body-mind complex and the consequent identification with it. However, an icon – an image or a picture or even a symbol – can definitely help in this process of contemplation, even as a limited window in our room giving us a view of the unlimited sky as long we are sitting in it.

If the symbolic meaning and significance or the icon is understood properly, the icon itself will become an actualized form of the ideal. Then, viewing it will be almost as good as viewing the original it represents. It is akin to remembering a person when we look at his photograph.

We may also look at it in another way. An abacus is needed (and used) to teach certain fundamental concepts of arithmetic, to little children. Similarly an icon, especially the one installed in a temple, along with the associated ideas, can help us to conceive of contemplate of God.

Icons or concrete symbols have played a prominent part in all religions.

Image Worship

Worship of images, both at home and in temples, as well as in public places of worship is widespread and popular in Hinduism. There is a mistaken notion that this is pure and simple idolatry. When in idolatry, the physical symbol itself is revered as God, in image worship; the reverence is to God in and through the image.

Preparation of images of deities, worship to the deities through them, either in one’s own personal or in family shrines or even in temples seems to be an ancient custom. Reference to images is found even in the Vedas. Worship of deities through images is explicitly referred to in the “Ramayana” and “Mahabharata”.

Often, the images are replaced by symbolical objects such as “sivalingas”, “saligramas”, and “yntras”, and worshipped.

External and Internal Worship

Worship of Puja of the God can be either internal or external. Internal worship called “manasapuja” is actually meditation, which may be a simple process of contemplation on the form of the deity or may involve a regular ritualistic worship with all the ingredients, but all done mentally.

External worship is the worship of the deity in an image or a symbol with all th necessary articles needed for the worship as per the religious works.

When the external worship is performed properly in the right spirit, over a period of time, it may lead to greater and greater introversion. As a result, external, formal, worship may drop off by itself. Then, only internal worship or meditation can be continued.

The Conception of Arcavatara

Some schools of devotion have put forward the theory that God descends (= “avatara”) into the image at the time of worship (= “acra”) in a subtle form when invited through appropriate mantras. It is something like putting on the switch to make the electric current flow through a lamp and give light.

By the same logic, when an image fixed in a temple, is consecrated as per prescribed procedure (in which “pranapratishtha” or infusing with life, is an important aspect), the deity “lives” in that image permanently, in a divine or subtle form.

Hence the worshipper has to be extraordinarily careful while performing the ritualistic worship to such consecrated images.

Puja or Worship

Now, the various steps involved in an actual “puja” or worship may be described.

Since external cleanliness and neatness are conducive to internal purity, the first thing to be done before starting “puja” is to clean the “puja-room” and the surrounding are thoroughly. Of course, it goes without saying, tha the worshipper should take the bath and wear washed and clean clothes for the “puja”. It may be a good custom even to keep two sets of clothes to be worn (by turns) only at the time of ritualistic worship.

After arranging all the vessels and materials needed for the “puja” properly, the worshipper should sit on the “puja-seat” (which shouled be used onlyfor the purposes of “puja”) in such a way that he is facing the deity or keeping the deity to his left.

Generally, facing east or north is preferred and facing south is forbidden.

The whole rite of “puja” – for that matter, any religious or ritualistic act – should begin with “achamana” or ceremonial sipping of water with certain mantras.

This should be followed by “sankalpa” or religious resolve. Apart from the details of that particular day according to the Hindu Calendar (followed in the tradition of the worshipper’s family), the “sankalpa-mantra” also contains some other statements such as the destruction of one’s sins, acquisition of religious merit and some other particulars connected with the mode of worship.

Then come some purificatory processes like “asanashuddhi” (ritual sanctification of the seat), “bhutapasarana” (driving away the evil spirits), “pushpashuddhi” (ritual cleansing of flowers, “bilva” and “tulasi” leaves) and “agniprakaracinta” (erecting a wall of fire through imagination) and so on.

The next steps ae pranayama (breath control in aid of peace and concentration as also “bhutashuddhi” or creating a spiritual body in place of the physical one.

“Pranapratishtha” (filling the spiritual body with the presence of the deity), “nyasas” (ritual purification of limbs) and “mudras” (postures of fingers and hands) follow next.

Now, are taken up the most important parts of the worship or puja – “dhyana” (meditation on the deity in one’s heart and transferring the same into the image or symbol) and “upacharas” (modes of direct service).

These “upcharas” can be 5 or 10 or 16. Sometimes they are raised to 64 or even 108! But, normally the first two are common for daily worship and 16 “upcharas” for special worship. The other two are done in temples on very special occasions.

These “upcharas” are ceremonially offered with appropriate mantras to the deity invoked into the image or symbol.

The ten “upcharas” are “padya” (water for washing the feet), “arghya (water for washing the hands), “achmaniya” (water for rinsing the mouth), “snaniya” (giving a bath by pouring water over the image or the symbol with Vedic mantras), “gandha” (applying fresh sandal paste), “pushpa” (offering of flowers), “dhupa” (waving with lighted incense sticks), “dipa” (waving of a lighted lamp), “naivedya” (giving food-offering as also drinking water) and “punarachmaniya” (giving water for rinsing the mouth at the end).

At the end of the worship, “pushpanjali” (offering a handful of flowers) is laid at the feet of the deity, indicating the conclusion of the whole ritual.

Where the “puja” is done to the deity in a temporarily invoked image (as in the worship) of clay icons of Lord Ganesha or Goddess Durga), “udvasana” or “visarjana” also has to be done. It is the ceremonial withdrawal of the deity from the image, back into one’s own heart, after which th image or the symbol (like a flower) can be disposed off.

The mode of worship described so far, is according to the “tantric” tradition. The Vedic Tradition of worship is slightly different from this. A brief account of the same is as follows:

“Dipajvalana” (lighting the lamp and praying to it as the symbol of the deity and requesting it to burn steadily till the “puja” is over), “achmana”, “guruvandana” (obeisance to one’s own “guru” or spiritual teacher), prayer to “Vighnesvara” or Lord Ganesha (for the removal of obstacles to the “puja”), “ghantanada” (ringing the bell with appropriate mantras to drive away the demons and welcome the Gods) (Ringing the bell is necessary at other times also as during ceremonial bath the deity and offering incense etc.), recitation of two Vedic mantras to steady the mind, “mantapadhyana” (meditation on the miniature shine structure, generally made of wood), “asanamantra” (for purification and steadiness of the seat), “pranayama” “sankalpa”, ceremonial purification of the water in the “kalasha” (water vessel) to make it fit for using in “puja”, filling up the “shankha” (conch) with that water and inviting its presiding deities (like Surya, Varuna, Chandra and others) to reside in it in a subtle form, sprinkling that water over all the articles of “puja” to consecrate them, “nyasa” with the “Purushasukta”, invoking the presence of the deity into the image and offering the “upcharas”.

The sixteen “upacharas” offered are: “avahana”, “asana”, “padya”, “arghya”, “achmaniya”, “snaniya”, “vastra’ (cloth) as also “upavita” (sacred thread, called “yajnopavita”), “gandha”, “pushpa”, “dhupa”, “dipa”, “naivedya”, “tambula” (betel leaf and nut), recetation of the “Mantrapushpa”, “pradaskshina” (circumambulation) and “namaskara” (obeisance).

Some more, traditional and interesting, aspects of this worship may now be stated.

In the “panchayatanapuja” (“puja” of five standard deities viz., Shiva, Devi, Vishnu, Ganesha and Surya”, one’s own family deity should be kept in the center and the other four around it in the prescribed order.

“Abhisheka” (pouring water for giving bath to the image) is to be done with “gosrnga” (horn of the cow) to the “sivalinga” and with “shakha” to “Vishnu” or “saligrama”.

While offering cloth in “puja”, different types of clothes are offered to different deities, which can be known from the concerned scriptural injunctions. In the routine daily “puja” even flowers can be offered in place of cloth, as a substitute.

“Dhupa” is offered to the feat and “dipa” before the face of the deity. In general “arati” (waving of lights), the “dipa” has to waved all over the deity’s image.

“Pradakshina” is to be done three times in the clockwise direction, slowly, with folded hands. Then comes “sashtangapranama”, done by lying down on the chest, on the floor.

At the end, “tirtha” (the consecrated water of the “puja”) and “prasada” (consecrated food offerings) should be received by all who have taken part in the “puja” or witnessed it.

Whrt has been described till now, just gives an idea of the philosophy and the spirit behind the Hindu ritualistic worship.

The Hindu scriptures themselves consider these rituals as the kindergarten of religion. When understood properly and performed meticulously, they lead to inner purity and concentration. When this concentration becomes deep, the external rituals drop off by themselves. Till then, they must be performed. takes every care to perform following puja on behalf of its clients:

MahaGanapati Puja, Lakshmi Narayan Puja, MahaLakshmi Puja, MahaMrityunjaya puja, Maha Sudarshan Puja, Rudra Abhishkam, Saraswati Puja, Uma Maheshwara Puja, Vishnu Sahasrnam Puja, Surya Puja, Chandra Puja, Mangal Puja, Budh Puja, Guru Puja or Brihaspati Puja, Shukra Puja, Shani Puja, Rahu Puja, Ketu Puja and Navgrah Puja

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