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Thursday, November 19, 2009

Symbols and Substance: Daily Worship (Puja)

In the daily puja, a householder treats his or her favorite deity as an Honored Guest in the house. An image or an icon of the deity is at the center stage. The deity itself is a meta-representation of philosophical principles as pointed out in the section on Form and Substance. The puja may be very elaborate with 64 steps or simple with 16 steps. These steps are meant to help the performer focus on the deity and through that medium to merge with the Cosmos and The One Universal Force.

We already learnt that taking care of an unannounced guest is one of the five duties of every householder. Now, the deity is that honored guest. His presence is invoked in the idol (aavahanam) at the beginning of the puja with special mantra. His feet are washed , He is given sips of water, and is given a bath – not just with water but with honey, milk, saffron water, etc. He is then clothed, seated and is adorned with garlands and flowers. He is then worshiped with archana which consists of uttering His name and His glorious qualities. He is offered incense, food and fruits. There is a special ceremony called AArthi, (explained in the section on Form and Substance) with camphor or a special lamp with multiple wicks. This is followed by singing of His praise called bhajans. Finally, after He takes leave, the participants take part in the food and the water used to bathe the deity (Prasad).

In this process,the performer uses five specific items, called the saamagriyas. They are flowers, water, lamp (fire), incense and bell. They represent the five primordial elements of Samkhya philosophy namely earth, water, fire, air and space or ether. The flower stands for earth, water stands for water, lamp stands for agni or fire, bell stands for the sound or air and incense stands for space.

As mentioned earlier, there are two main streams in the Hindu religion on how to relate to the Supreme. Puja is the easy method suitable to all. But, the Upanishads say “saakare bhajas thaavath niraakare parey thathvey”. In other words, worship with the help of idols but remember the Formless Absolute.

The following is a sample sheet I prepared to teach children how to perform daily puja. You can use it too. Hope it helps.

A Practical Class on Puja for Children
Puja (or pooja) translates into WORSHIP. It is a religious service. It is an act of intense devotion to the Supreme, the God. It is an act anyone can perform, at home. It is not done only at the temple. It is a mere ritual when performed without faith and feelings. Performed with proper faith and attitude, it is a noble act, that benefits oneself and all of life forms, because it is one way of connecting our individual self (ATMAN) with the Universal Dimension (Brahman).

What is the PURPOSE of performing PUJA?
To show our respect and Love for the Supreme
To thank HIM/HER for all the bounties we receive
To ask for HIS/HER grace and guidance
To connect the individual (Atman, Pinda) with the Universal (Brahman, Brahmanda)
Of course, special pujas are performed to ask HIM/HER for personal favors, to help us during times of crisis etc and for the welfare of the society.

What are the requirements to perform PUJA?
Your Faith and your Attitude (called bhava in Sanskrit) are the most important ingredients.
Materials needed (with many variations, depending on your family tradition) are:
Image/Icon (made of clay, wood or metal) of a favorite deity (called vigraha). A painting will do. (Stone images are only for the temples)
A seat (aasana)
Few metal plates
A special vessel to hold water (called panchapatra – traditionally made of five metals)
A metal spoon
A bell (Ghanta – represents the SOUND/ Naada – Space/AAkasha element of the Universe)
Flowers (this and the next two items represent the SMELL/gandha – Air/vayu element)
Incense (agarbathi)
Sandalwood powder or paste (chandhan)
Lamp (represents LIGHT/agni element of the Universe)
Water (represents WATER/AApa element)
Fruits and cooked items of food (represent the EARTH/ prithvi element)
Raw Rice coated with turmeric, called akshata
Also, kumkum (vermilion), turmeric powder, milk , clean towels, a dress for the idol, a match box to light the lamp etc

What are the steps?
Consider the Lord as an honored guest in your house. What will you do to make Him feel welcome and comfortable?

Your preparation includes Your bathing and donning clean clothes
Get all the items (samagri) ready
Set the altar
Light the lamp - and say deepajyothi namosthu tthey
AAchamanyam (sip water three times)
Invoke Lord Gansha - and say
Shukla ambaradara vishnum shashi varnam chathur bujam
Prasanna vadanam dhyayeth sarva vigna upashaanthaye

Pranayam ( Gayathri will do for this purpose)
Sankalpa (determination, your intention to perform puja) - by saying
Mamopaktha samastha ddhuritha kshayadwara
Sri Mahaganapthi preeth-yartham aham Mahaganapthi pujaam karishye

Ring the bell - and say
Ghantaaravam kurvey
Sanctify the water and puja items (by sprinkling water on them)
Dhyanam – silent meditation and then say
Asmin bimbey Sri Mahaganapathim aa-vaa-hayaami (place akshata (yellow rice) on the idol (invoking Lord Ganesha in the idol)
Sri Mahaganapathaye namah – aasanam samaprpayaami (place akshata on the idol) (asking Him to be seated)
Sri Mahaganapathaye namah – paadyam samarpayaami (pour a spoonful of water in an empty dish) (washing feet)
Sri Mahaganapathaye namah –arkyam samarpayaami (pour a spoonful of water in an empty dish) (water to wash hands)
Sri Mahaganapathaye namah – aachamanyam samarpayyami (pour a spoonful of water in an empty dish) (water to sip)
Sri Mahaganapathaye namah – snapayaami (sprinkle water on the idol) (bathing)
Sri Mahaganapathaye namah – vastram samarpyaami (wrap the idol in a clean piece of cloth) (dressing)
Sri Mahaganapathaye namah – gandhaan dhaarayami (place sandal paste on the forehead of Ganesh’s idol) (placing sandalwood paste on the forehead)
Sri Mahaganapathaye namah – akshaathan samaprpayaami (place akshata on the idol) (placing akshata/yellow rice)
Sri Mahaganapathaye namah – pushpaih pujayaami (place a flower or a petal at the feet of Ganesha) (placing a garland)
Now you perform the Ganseha Archana - with SIXTEEN names of Ganesha After saying each of the following names of Ganesha you place akshata or a flower at the feet of Ganesha.
Om Sumukhaya namah
Om Yekadanthaaya namah
Om Kapilaaya namah
Om Gajakarnaakaaya namah
Om Lambowdharaaya namah
Om Vikataaya namah
Om VigghnaRaajaaya namah
Om Ganaathipaaya namah
Om DDhoomakeythavey namah
Om Ganaadhyakshaaya namah
Om PPaalachandraaya namah
Om Gajaananaaya namah
Om Vakrathundaaya namah

Om Shurpakarnaaya namah
Om Heyrambaaya namah
Om Skandhapoorvajaaya namah
Om Mahaa Ganapathaye namah pushpaani samarpayaami

Sri Mahaganapathaye namah – ddhoopam aagraapayaami ( you hold the incense stick in your hand in front of Ganesha)
Sri Mahaganapathaye namah – dheepam dharshayaami (you
hold the lamp in front of Ganesha
Sri Mahaganapathaye namah – mahanaivedyam niveydayami (you sprinkle water on the food or fruits being offered to the Lord)
Sri Mahaganapathaye namah – karpoora neeranjanam darshayaami (you now show the lighted camphor or perform AArti)
Then comes mantra pushpam, bhajan, and pradakshin (circambulation) etc
You then make your PRAYER (petition, requests)
1. Personal: avignam kuru mey deva sarvakaryeshu sarvadaa (please remove obstacles and help me perform my tasks)
2. Universal: sarvo janaah sukhino bhavanthu (Let everyone live in comfort/be blessed)
Now give Lord Ganesha a farewell: Thath sath brahmanaarpanam asthu

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Rituals and Practices - 3

Other rituals

In his book on Gita Rahasya (Vol II Page 919),Tilak says that the Bhagavatha religion considered animal sacrifice as objectionable. Therefore this was replaced by sacrifice of wealth (hence the word thannamama). Later still other ways of obtaining moksha such as prayer (japa), austerities (vratha), pilgrimage (yatra) to sacred temples and rivers were prescribed. These were meant for those (women and specific castes) that were excluded from performing yagnas and homas and for those who do not have the means and as a means of getting rid of sins (prayaschitta).


Pilgrimage to rivers (Theertha yatra) such as Ganges and Kauveri is particularly common in India. The word theertha means “that which enables a man to cross an obstacle (a river)”. The river seems to have symbolic meaning at several levels.
1.The water comes from the sea and merges into the sea.
2.The water of the river is not different from that of the ocean and indicates flow of life.
3. Rivers contribute to prosperity. They also cause calamity.
4. The banks keep changing. Yet the unity of appearance is maintained.

Upaakarma and upanayanam

Sacred thread is a symbol worn primarily by the Brahmin men. Others belonging to Vaishya caste also wear the sacred thread. Women do not. There is a special ceremony when a young boy is vested with these threads at which time he gets his initiation into special daily japas. These japas are performed three times a day (at sunrise, middle of the day and at sunset).

What is the symbolism behind these threads (sutra)? Why are there three threads? The answers together with the mantra specific to wearing the threads are seen in a small Upanishad called the Brahmopanishad.

The word sutra means a thread. The word also denotes the unmanifested essence, the Absolute behind the entire universe. This Absolute holds together the Universe just as a thread holds together a string of pearls (thread as a support for the pearls). Thread is also what a cloth is made of (thread as inherent in a cloth). The Absolute spews out this universe, out of itself and takes it back into Itself, just as a spider weaves its thread out of itself. These symbolic ideas seem to be the basis for the use of threads or sutras.

Why the three threads? The sacred thread is called thrivit sutra, three strands. These three may represent the three gunas of the primordial prakriti from which all of this universe evolved, according to Samkhya philosophy. The three gunas are sattva (peaceful,tranquil), rajas(active) and tamas(ignorant,dull).

These three threads may also stand for thejas (fire), aapa (water) and anna (food). The three threads are tied into a knot which is placed on the left side in front of the heart where the prana or the vital force or the Divine Light resides.

The following is the mantra to be uttered while wearing the thread.
Yagnopaveetham paramam pavithram
Prajaapatheh yatsahaja, purasthaath
AAyushyam argyam prathimuncha shubram
Yagnopaveetham balamasthi thejah.

The exact meaning of this mantra is: “In the heart, the Devas live, the Pranas are present; in the heart, Supreme Light and the Immanent Cause with threefold constituents and the mahat reside. Let this sacrificial thread which is supremely sacred, which becomes manifest of yore with Prajapathi (the first created being), which embodies longevity, eminence and purity bring strength to you”.


Sipping three spoonfuls of water before and at the end of taking food is called aachamanyam. The origin of this practice may be traced to a passage in Chandogya Upanishad V.2.1. In this passage Prajapathi says that all food or anna (anna in sanskrit means that which is eaten; ath is to eat) is for the sake of Prana, the vital force. Then, “food” (anna) asks: “what is my garment?” Prajapathi says “water is your garment” (AApah ithi vaasah). Therefore people take water before and after food. (Yethath ashishyanthah purasthaath uparishtaath)


The practice of touching various parts of the body while uttering specific mantras is called nyasa. This routine owes its origin probably to the tantric system. During daily practice of sandhyavandanam (morning and evening ablution) and maadhyanhikam (ablution at noon) you will see the performer touch various parts of his body uttering the name of several deities. These names are Kesava, Narayana, Maadhava, Govinda, Vishnu,Madhusudhana, Trivikrama,Vaamana,Sridhara, Hrishikesa,Padmanabha and Damodara.

According to the Visishtadvaita, the Supreme Brahman abides in a four-fold form (vyuha) as Vasudeva, Sankarshana, Pradyumna and Aniruddha. Paramapurushan, Parabrahman possess six divine qualities. What are those Divine qualities? They are: knowledge, strength, lordship, virility, potency and splendor.

Sri Vasudeva possesses all six of these qualities of the Supreme Brahman. From Him evolve Kesava,Narayana and Madhava; they are hypostatization of these six Divine qualities, two in each.

Sankarshana possesses knowledge and strength and from him evolve Govinda, Vishnu,Madhusudhana responsible for creation, maintenance and dissolution of the universe.

Pradyumna possesses lordship and virility and from Him evolve Trivikrama, Vaamana, Sridhara to protect individual souls.

Aniruddha represents potency and splendor, rules over individuation and helps liberate the individual. From Him evolve Hrishikesa, Padmanabha and Damodara.

This is also the basis of the presiding deities of the 12 months.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Rituals and Practices - 2

Before discussing why Agni (fire) is so important in Hindu ceremonies, let me quote a few passages from a book on the Vedas by the late Sri Chandrasekharendra Saraswathi of Kanchi. He defines Yagna as “offering libations to each deva through mantras”. Then he says “mantra means that by repeatedly meditating upon which, one is saved”. “The chanting of mantra in a yagna is like writing the address on a postal envelope, he says. Only if the oblations are made with the chanting would Agni carry the message to the devas”. He then comments that "the sacrificial fire converts the oblation to a subtle state before carrying it to the devas". More about these points later.

Why is Agni(fire god)so important? Fire is equated with the mouth of the Gods in several texts (eg: Brhadaaranyaka Upanishad). It is through the mouths and “tongues” of Agni that we can send our offerings to the rishis, Gods and ancestors. All of us know how the flames of fire are described as tongues in many languages. In Mundaka Upanishad there is a passage that recommends offering oblations to the Devas through the seven tongues of Agni (fire). There are even names for these seven tongues: kali, karaali, manojava, sulohita, sudhoomravarna, sphulingini and visvaruchi. The literal meanings of these names are: black, terrible, speedy as mind, very red, colored like thick smoke, emitting sparks and innumerable rays!

Also, in the Samkhya system of philosophy, the order of manifestation of the cosmos is space, air, fire, water and earth. Fire is the first visible element. This may be another reason why fire plays such a great part in our rituals. When you take a vow in front of Agni it is a covenant with the Gods.

When performing yagna, the offering to the fire is called aahuti (oblation) and is of three kinds. Those that flare when poured into fire (Yahuutha ujjvalanthi) such as ghee and wood are meant to please the deities. Those that make noise when poured into fire (Yaahuutha athinedhanthe) such as meat and wood sticks (called samith) are meant to please the manes. Those that go down when poured into fire (Yaahutha adhisheerathe) such as rice and milk and soma juice please the world of men.

Please note that items that make noise when poured into fire include meat. It appears that when this practice was given up(I wonder whether it was after Buddha's time), the priests started using special dry sticks called samith that make noise when deposited in fire. This is still practiced during homa ceremonies.

During the offerings, the performer utters several mantras. A mantra by definition is that which protects by being remembered (mananaat thraayate iti, mantrah). Each mantra is attributed to a particular rishi, is made in a specific poetic meter and has a specific deity in charge of it or associated with it. For example, Gayathri mantra is attributed to rishi Vishvamitra, is made in the meter Gayathri and its presiding deity is Savitha. Therefore, before starting the mantra, the performer mentions the name of the rishi and touches his head, then utters the name of the meter and touches the nose and utters the name of the deity and touches the heart. Now, you may see people doing this ritual daily and you now know why.

The performer of the yagna is supposed to say the mantra silently for meditation, and loudly while pouring the offerings. While performing yagnas and homas, the performer is asked to utter a mantra, use a moment of silence and then offer the oblation into the fire using words such as svaaha or thannamama.

Chandogya Upanishad and Aitreya Brahmana (25.8) say: “That which is sacrifice is a successive movement of speech and mind, activated by prana and apana”. In the Chandogya Upanishad, there are passages to suggest that there are two paths to performing sacrifices – the path of speech uttering a Mantra ending with the word svaaha and thannamama and the path of the mind (silence).

In a subsequent passage Chandogya Upanishad says: “atha yathra brahma na vyavadathi”. That is, the priest breaks the silence in the interval. This suggests that the performer is to meditate, break the silence to utter the mantra and offer the oblation. The next cycle of meditation, mantra and oblation starts again. We will come back to this silence aspect in a subsequent paragraph.

What do the words svaaha and thannamama mean at the end of each mantra. Svaha means one’s own. Svaaha means “this does not belong to me”. Mama means mine. Thannamama means “not mine”. In other words, the performer has to offer oblations saying “All of this belongs to you; not to me”. The feeling behind these words (bhava) is more important than the words uttered for the world to hear. Substance is more important than the ritual.

Thaithriya Kaathaka Prashna I - Final Anuvaaka 4th mantra states: “One who merely performs yagna without feeling the presence of God is merely feeding the fire with firewood and raises only smoke. He is a fool. He will never realize the Self”. There is also a sloka which lists six wrong methods of saying the mantras. That includes “anarthagna”, which means saying the mantra without understanding the meaning.

How does the oblation offered into agni help the devas? Why are we sending offerings to the lesser deities when our purpose is to please the Supreme? Kanchi Periyaval has an interesting answer in his book on the Vedas. It is as follows: ” …. For each ritual there is a separate mantra, Devata, sacrificial object, time etc. Thus, although there is a different procedure for performing each, the ultimate goal is to please the Supreme Being. We know that although paid in different offices, all taxes are credited to the government’s revenue.”Similarly……

Let me digress to another area which requires intervals between silence and mantra. This is the practice of japa with the aid of beads strung around a thread (rosary). This is a common practice in all traditions. The idea is to focus on a mantra or the name of your chosen deity and repeat that name while touching the beads in succession. This is to prevent the mind from wandering all over and help focus. Sogyal Rinpoche, the Tibetan master explains the idea in his book on Meditation as follows. He suggests that we say the mantra while touching the beads one at a time, calm down, enter a moment of silence and then touch the next bead. The goal should be to prolong the period of silence in between the beads so that the moments of silence become predominant. Once you can do that, you do not need the rosary beads. The focus of japa should be the practice of silence in between the beads and not chanting of the mantra or pushing the beads!