Understanding Hindu Puja Rituals
There are many reasons why people perform puja rituals. They do puja to seek God’s help when faced with the problems of life. Likewise, many people do puja to thank God after fulfillment of their wishes. Also, many of us do puja to pray for a problem-free life, full of prosperity and happiness for all times. While these are all valid reasons, however, the true objective for doing a puja should be our unconditional love for God without any selfish motive. It is an opportunity to express our gratitude for everything that God has given us. We should do puja to renew, reaffirm and re-energize our dedication and commitment to God. A true puja is more than a physical activity which is aimed at pleasing a deity for fulfilling some worldly desires. More importantly, a puja is an act of whole-hearted devotion and love for God. Puja should remind us to live a moral life with God as the focus of our life. In that sense, puja can be described like a holy SANGAM (संगम confluence) of three rivers, namely Bhakti Yoga, Jnana Yoga and Karma Yoga. It has the love and devotion for God (भक्ति BHAKTI), proper understanding and knowledge of rituals (ज्ञान JNANA) and physical action for performing puja for the good of self and others (कर्म KARMA).
PUJA IN HINDUISM
The word puja is derived from Sanskrit word ‘puj’ which means to honor or respect. By performing puja we honor God and seek His/Her blessings and guidance for living a purposeful life. The word puja can also be understood as the unification of ‘PU’ (पू ) meaning indwelling spirit (पुरुष PURUSHA ) and (जा ‘JA’) meaning the new awakening (जनम JANAM). Through puja, we hope to awaken ourselves to realize our true nature. Therefore, we can say that puja symbolizes communication between self and the Higher Self, God. The puja rituals are not the ends, but are only the means to facilitate our communication with God. Therefore, it is necessary that we do not perform these rituals blindly but understand them for their underlying meanings.
THE PUJA CEREMONY
Prior to performing the puja ceremony, gather together the Common Elements Used in Hindu Puja. Decorate a wooden platform (चौकी CHOUKI), fill a copper vessel (kalash) with water, and place coconut and mango leaves on the kalash. Place sacred idols and pictures of deities near the water-kalash.
While puja ceremonies may vary depending on local customs and practices, the first step in a puja ceremony is to invoke the presence of God, just like our inviting a guest to our home. The actual invocation ceremony is called PRAN-PRATISHTHA (प्राण प्रतिष्ठा) meaning life-breath by which the sacred image of God is brought to life through chanting of mantras, hymns, and offering prayers. After invocation, the water-kalash symbolizes the presence of all gods and goddesses in the ceremony. The mouth of the kalash represents Lord Vishnu, its throat represents Lord Shiva and the base represents Lord Brahma. The belly of the kalash symbolizes the presence of all goddesses, representing the powers of divine mother. Thus, the water-kalash signifies the presence of all divine manifestations emanating from one single source, Almighty God. During the process of invocation a devotee also feels an inward awakening of spirit due to his/her focused attention on God. This act of invocation also means that first we will need to purify our hearts of all impurities (वासना VASANAS) before we can invite God in our life.
After invoking the presence of deities, we welcome them with utmost respect. As a mark of our respect, we wash the feet of the sacred idols, give bath, offer new clothes (using red-colored cotton thread (मौली MOULI), flowers (पुष्पं PUSHPAM), fruits (फलं FALAM), sandalwood paste (गंधं GANDHAM), incense sticks (धूपं DHUPAM), light (दीपं DEEPAM), water (जलं JALAM), food (नैवेद्यं NAIVEDYAM) and sacred verses (मन्त्रं MANTRAM). Devotees recite prayers and chant mantras during the ceremony to generate sacred vibrations which purify the entire surroundings. There is a wide variety of pujas and mantras for each Hindu deity and each are used on different occasions, depending on preference and culture. Towards the end of puja, the deities are given a hearty send-off with a request for condoning any acts of commission or omission that may have happened during the ceremony.
The puja ceremony ends with Aarti with a lighted lamp while devotees sing, clap and ring bells. After the Aarti, devotees say SHANTI (शान्ति PEACE) three times and, if possible, walk around the images or idols of God in a process called circumambulation (प्रदक्षिणा PRADAKSHINA). When all ceremonies are complete, prasad (the blessed food that was offered to God) is distributed to convey God’s blessings.
A Note on Puja Rituals
A puja ceremony can be a simple ceremony or someone involving many rituals. While it is important to understand the meanings behind these rituals, one should understand that these rituals are not the main purpose for which a puja is performed. It is the spirit of devotion and love for God that counts the most in a puja ceremony. The puja rituals, though important, are only the pointers in that direction. God accepts our puja if we offer it from the depth of our hearts, notwithstanding some inadvertent mistakes in doing some rituals. God does not need anything from us except our love and devotion. Lord Krishna has said in Bhagvad Gita (Chapter 9 verse 26), “Whosoever offers me, with devotion, a leaf, a flower, a fruit or water-that I accept, the pious offering of the pure in heart.”
Another important thing to remember is that God loves us unconditionally without any favoritism, so we should also love God unconditionally under all circumstances of life. Puja ceremony is not meant for receiving some favors from God. God alone knows what is best for us, what we need or don’t need. Sometimes we may be wishing for something that may not be in our best interest in the long run. So, we should not feel disappointed if all the wishes we prayed for, are not fulfilled. Just as parents take care of their children in every possible way, so does God provide for our needs as we are all children of God. A puja ceremony should always remind us about the constant presence of God in our aspect of our life.
Problems and challenges are an integral part of life’s process. Happiness (सुख SUKH) and sorrows (दुख DUKH) are like day and night, one follows the other. Howsoever we may want, we cannot run away from the difficulties of life nor can a puja provide a cover against them. We should pray to God for giving us the strength and wisdom to face the challenges of life boldly and with determination. Sometimes the best in life comes only after one goes through the most difficult circumstances. The lives of saints and prophets bear an ample testimony to this fact. Had Shri Ram not been exiled for fourteen years, demon Ravana would not have been killed. Without the tragedy of Mahabharata, we would not have received the divine message of Bhagvad Gita. Had Jesus Christ not been crucified, the message of love would not have been conveyed to us so succinctly. Had Gautama Buddha and Bhagvan Mahavir, who were born in royal families, not taken the path of renunciation, the world would not have continued to benefit from their teachings even after two thousand five hundred years after their birth. Had Mahatma Gandhi not been humiliated in South Africa, he would have never used non-violence to fight British imperialism. Importantly, had our parents not made sacrifices for us, we would not be what we are today. Problems and difficulties offer us opportunity to grow, and not something to shy away from. God is always with us whether it is rain or sunshine. The true spirit of puja gives us this divine message for helping us to live a life that has both a purpose and meaning to live for.