Is Puja a Legitimate Form Of Divine Worship?

Internal Worship

by Jayaram V

Question: When I visit a temple, or try to distribute prasad to my friends, they often make fun of me, saying in this modern age of science and computers, I should not be so superstitious. They say, I may have faith in God but why to waste my time on rituals? Is puja a legitimate form of divine worship?

People will have opinions. It is Nature’s diversity in action. You must have your own opinions. For that, you must have own discretion and follow your heart. It is good that you have asked a question. It is by asking questions one gains knowledge. The Upanishads came into existence in this manner only. Jayaram V

In puja (or pooja) you treat the deity as if he or she is a divine guest. You treat him or her the same way as you treat an honored guest according to the best practices of Hinduism. The Sanskrit saying, “Atidhi Devo Bhava,” meaning a guest is verily God himself, aptly summarizes the idea. You bring up this idea to full fruition in the practice of puja, extending all the honors due to a guest to the image or the symbol which serves as the living incarnation (arca) of the deity. In the ritual, you invite the divine guest, offer him a seat, wash his feet since he has come a long way, give him drinking water, perfume and sweet drinks, wash his body with a ritual bath, gift him clothes and ornaments, sing prayers of admiration and supplication, and finally offer him rich and sumptuous food, before saying farewell to him.

The idea is you create the living presence of the deity at the place of worship and make the deity very pleased and comfortable with your devotion, submission, surrender and sincerity. You may do it to impress the deity, to fulfill your desires, overcome some adversity, expiate for sins or as a part of another ritual. You may not be conversant with the tenets of Hinduism. You may not know how the practice originated. All the same, you practice it because you have seen your parents or grandparents doing it, and you have taken it as a part of your family tradition or duty. Hinduism is not just a religion of the individual, although in its highest aspects it is. It is also a religion of the family, the caste or profession, the community and even gods and celestial beings whose lives and destinies or karma are collectively interlinked. Hence, we also believe in Satsang, association with good people.

Now, to a person who is not conversant with Hinduism or who believes in a formless God, the whole process may look somewhat naïve or ridiculous. As the Bhagavadgita declares, ignorant people do not recognize God even if he lives amidst them. Then, how can they see God in an idol or image? In puja, we not only worship a familiar form of God but also pour life into it with our thoughts, devotion and actions. The idea is if you keep doing it, someday the deity may truly manifest in your life and reciprocate your devotion with the abundance of divine love.

Is it legitimate? Certainly, all forms of worship are legitimate. Puja is one of the recognized forms of worship in Hinduism. It is a form of external worship, similar in some respects to Yajna. Through puja, as in other forms of worship, you establish a spiritual connection or a bond with the deity. Each time you perform it, you strengthen the bond. Besides, it is also a good karma. If nothing else, repeated acts of worship or puja cleanse you and prepare you for a better rebirth.

Two types of worship

In Hinduism divine worship is essentially of two types, external and internal. External worship is an essential part of Karma Sanyasa yoga, and internal worship is an essential part of Jnana Karma Sanyasa Yoga. If you worship the gods to fulfill your desires or for your personal benefits, you reap the rewards. At the same time, you also suffer from the consequences due to the karma that arise from it. Hence, renunciation of the fruit of your action (Sanyasa) is important in both the approaches.

In the external worship you project life into the object of your worship, which is usually the image. In the internal worship you entirely rely upon your mind and your power of visualization to do it. Hence, it is also known as mental worship (manasa puja). Here, instead of physical objects, you worship mental objects which you create. With your imagination you give a clear shape to the deity, visualizing him or her with all the details. Then, having created the context and the ambiance, you make mental offerings in the same manner you conduct the puja. The quality of your mental worship depends upon your visualizing power, which in turn depends upon your purity (sattva), concentration, devotion, sincerity, knowledge, intelligence or discernment and resolve.

Technically, internal worship is more powerful, as you create the deity in the mind and pour life into him. It is also more demanding since the mind which is fickle requires great discipline and concentration to visualize the deity without impure thoughts and desires. Hence, it is not suitable for all. However, if you keep doing it regularly and sustain it for long in your mind, that mental image gains energy and becomes a force in itself. It becomes active in your subtle mind and responds to your calls and prayers as a mental incarnation of the original deity. It is not necessary that you have to visualize the deity in a particular form. In whatever form you visualize and worship, that form gains strength and the power to manifest according to the frequency at which it is visualized.

Both external and internal methods of worship are approved for the householders. They may practice either of them or both of them according to their inclination and convenience. Some people prefer external worship and some only internal worship. They are part of a person’s spiritual progress. Therefore, no one should judge the efficacy of any type of puja. Each method is a stepping stone to the next and more advanced methods. They will be revealed to the seekers in their own time according to their progress and the purity of their intentions.

The highest form of worship

Higher than the two types of worship, is the third form of worship, which is possible only for those who have renounced the world and overcome attachment to their names and forms and worldly life. It is an advanced form of internal worship. You may call it spiritual worship (adhyatmika puja). In this, the worshipper transcends all forms of duality and distinction between himself and the deity. Removing all traces of egoism, he worships the deity as his very Self. He becomes a living, walking, breathing, temple in which he becomes both the worshipper and the worshipped, the offering and the object of offering.

By that unified awareness and mental absorption, he makes every action which he performs an act of worship, devotion and selfless offering. For him living and breathing become a way of continuous worship, and an act of unending love and devotion. In that worship, the Self of the devotee becomes absorbed in the Self of God or the deity. There is no higher form of worship or devotion other than this. It is the culmination of the Way of Life as envisaged in Hinduism. Even Isvara, the Manifested Brahman himself seems to practice it eternally. Hence, we regard a devotee who has transcended his name and form and merged his identity in that of God as God himself. For a human being, it is Parandhama, the Highest State or the Ultimate Goal. In the history of the world, only a few such as Hanuman ever achieved it.

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