Symbolism of Puja, the Ritual Worship of God in Hinduism

A priest performing puja

A priest performing puja at home

by Jayaram V

In Hinduism we come across a common method of worship called puja or pooja. Unlike the elaborate sacrificial ceremonies, it can be performed by anyone except those who have incurred impurity due to menstruation or the death of a family member, etc. As the most popular form of worship, "puja" is practiced in almost every Hindu household even today, either every day, occasionally on certain days in a week or month, or on important religious, auspicious or festive occasions as required by tradition. A puja can either be a simple ritual worship or a very complicated one, depending upon the way it is performed. One may perform it to overcome a problem, seek divine help, or just to render devotional service to the family deities. For many people, puja is part of the daily sacrifice (nitya karma).

Meaning of puja

Many interpretations can be given in Hinduism to the word "puja" which consists of two letters, namely, "pa" and "ja." According to one interpretation, "pa" means "parayana" or continuous repetition of the names of God and "ja" means "japa" or continuous mental recitation of the names of God. According to this interpretation "puja" is essentially a kind of Hindu worship in which both parayanam and japam are practiced by the devotees.

In a puja ceremony, Hindus offer both flowers and water to the deity. Thus from this point of view, "pu" means "pushpam" or flower and "ja" means "jal." The letter "ja" can also mean simultaneously "japam." So in this context, puja becomes that form of Hindu worship, during which water and flowers are offered to God along with recitation of His names.

Lastly, puja has a spiritual dimension also. According to this interpretation, puja means that form of worship through which we give birth to or awaken the indwelling spirit in us. Here "pu' means "purusha," meaning the eternal self and "ja" means "janma," meaning to give birth to or to awaken.

According to Hindu beliefs, during the puja the deity, which is normally an idol or a statue, comes to life. This happens both outwardly in the object of worship or the deity and inwardly in the subject of worship or the devotee. The statue or the form of the deity is brought to life externally through the chanting of mantras or special invocations, or specifically speaking, through the performance of 'prana pratishta' or establishing the life breath in it. Similarly, the indwelling spirit in the worshipper is awakened because of his sincerity, concentration, devotion, and divine grace which is symbolically represented as 'prasad," grace or blessing from above.

How puja is conducted

Hindus perform pujas in various ways. The commonest form of worship follows a well-established sequence of actions, or procedure, which is approximately similar to how a visiting guest is customarily treated by a devout householder. According to the Vedic tradition, visiting guests are considered gods (athidhi devo bhava) and they are supposed to be treated with the same respect as gods are treated during an invocation or sacrificial ceremony. Thus, although the puja ceremony is a later day development, the idea of honoring the deity by paying respects and making offerings is very much rooted in Vedic ritualism and sacrificial ceremonies.

During the ceremony, the first step involves uttering an invocation, mantra or prayer, inviting the chosen god to visit the place of worship, which is indicated to him by specifying the directions, the time and the place name. This is generally performed either by a mediating priest or the worshipper himself. Once it is done, it is assumed that the deity has agreed to come and arrived at the designated place as requested. The worshipper then washes his feet with a symbolic gesture and offers him a seat with utmost respect.

These honors are extended to him as if he is physically present in front of the worshipper in person. Just we offer water or a drink to a visiting guest to quench his thirst as if he has walked in the bright sun for a long time, the worshipper next offers him water to drink by placing a glass in front of the idol or dropping water with a small spoon or ladle. Once he is seated, as a mark of utmost reverence, love and self-surrender, he once again washes his feet with ceremonial water.

After that, the idol is bathed with water, milk, honey, etc., and massaged with various perfumes and scented pastes such as turmeric powder, sandal paste and curd mixed with ghee to the accompaniment of various mantras which usually end with “samarpayami,” meaning, “I have offered.” After the bathing ceremony, the deity is offered new clothes to wear during the ceremony, which is symbolically represented either by a peace of cotton thread in simple ceremonies or real clothes in more organized ones.

Having made him comfortable in the new attire and honoring him with a high seat, the worshipper then makes him a series of offerings namely pushpam (flowers), phalam (fruit), gandham (sandal paste), dhupam (incense), deepam (light), naivedyam (food), jalam (water), mantram (recitation of sacred verses) and mantra-pushpam (a sacred flower). All these arrangements, devotional offerings and respectful prayers are intended to make the deity feel comfortable and at home in the new surroundings and enter a positive state of mind.

Once the worshipper follows all the steps and makes sure that he has endeared himself to the deity with his devotion and sincerity, he intensifies his worship with more prayers and supplication, expressing deep devotion and gratitude. The purpose of such an elaborate procedure is to build rapport with the deity and earn his love and grace for which he specifically chooses prayers and hymns that extol the virtues, triumphs and greatness of the deity.

In more elaborate ceremonies of Hinduism, which may last for one more days, the deity is entertained with songs, music and dance, and on occasions taken out in a public procession. He is also made a number of customary offerings and gifts such as clothes, incense, flowers, perfumes, light, ornaments, food items, money, etc. These offerings may be real or imaginary. Both approaches are valid. Their purpose is to express one’s gratitude, devotion, love and surrender.

The puja ceremony of the Hindus, generally ends with the offering of aarati or sacred flame to the deity and the distribution of prasadam, or the remains of the offering. The word prasadam is a combination of two words namely 'pra' and 'sada'. It literally means the bestowed or giver of eternal life. Hindus believe that, when an offering of food is made to a deity, it becomes pure, sacred and blessed with his touch. Having become infused with His or Her prana or energy, it is believed to possess the purifying power to heal those who partake it or remove their sins and impurities. Hence the name 'prasadam."

As we can see from the above description, in Hinduism the way a puja is conducted in the traditional fashion is akin to the way a householder invites and entertains a guest of honor into his house. The tradition says that a guest should be treated like God ('athidi devo bhava' with utmost respect and his stay should be made as comfortable as possible. As long as the guest stays in the house, his desires, wants and needs should be fulfilled as far as possible, for who knows God himself might have descended upon the house in the guise of a guest to test his devotees!

The same concept is extended to the deities when they are worshipped during the puja ceremony. All deities are the aspects and forms of God only. Worshipping them is the same as worshipping the highest God. Hence, during the worship they should be propitiated with utmost respect and devotion and given utmost attention.

On the physical plane, prayers and the mantras are chanted during the puja ceremony to create an atmosphere of sacred feelings or vibrations in and around the house and add sanctity and purity to the whole environment. Thus, in Hinduism puja is essentially a religious ritual and a form of worship. Mentally and spiritually, it is an expression of devotion and a method of direct communion with God. It assumes many forms, including invoking divine power to delude and destroy enemies or acquire supernatural powers. Symbolically, it represents the symbolic act of offering of our lives and activities to God which culminates with the Grace of God as the reward (prasadam) for the service rendered, which leads to the blissful state of liberation.

Presently, domestic worship (puja), both at homes and in the temples, is the most popular method of worship in Hinduism. It has gained precedence over the more elaborate ritual methods and sacrificial ceremonies of the Vedic tradition because of its simplicity, directness, convenience and emotional appeal. Although people may use it for different ends and with different attitudes, its essential structure and basic purpose remain the same, which is to invite God as if he is a dear friend and visitor to your home and treat him with utmost devotion, care and attention.

Those who are further interested in the subject may check the links in the "Further Reading" section

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