The devotional rite of puja is regarded as highly significant in the Hindu tradition, as the core Hindu ritual (Fuller 57). Through the practice of worship, individuals demonstrate their adoration and reverence towards one or more deity’s images; this act is pleasing to the gods and goddesses in Hinduism. Regardless of the type of puja conducted, temple, home, or festival worship, all share similar fundamental structures and goals of respectful honouring. This widespread rite of worship is fundamentally performed by Hindus across all castes and classes. It is conducted in temples by Brahmin priests or at home by laypeople, allowing all to actively practice their religion. Faithful puja dismisses the hierarchy between the Divine and the individual, resulting in the primary ambition of spiritually unification.
Overview of Puja
In Hinduism, suffering, despair, and societal complications are believed to be the result of unfaithful and untimely worship (Fuller 69). Deity worship is often performed to achieve protection and prosperity for one’s household, community, or region, and it is believed to bring about blessings, grace, and divine virtue. The response of the deities is solely based on their own discretion and will, as one’s devotion may influence the deities but does not offer any guarantees. For some, the act of puja is solely an act of loving devotion (bhakti), where they do not expect or hope for anything in return (Rodrigues 2006: 233; Fuller 70-71). Worshiping with the heart of personal gain is generally frowned upon, yet commonly practiced.
The meanings attached to offerings and practices of puja are also often viewed differently by the various schools of Hinduism; primarily, two perspectives are taken. First is the idea that deities are self-sufficient and are not in need of being washed and fed, etc. However, the sense of reverential honoring expresses the worshiper’s devotion. This practice of hospitality towards the gods and goddesses as though they were dependent on the offerings is pleasing to the divine. The second perspective is that the deities are wholly dependent on the offerings and practices making these actions necessary for their persistence. This perspective displays the interdependence of the deities and people on one another (Fuller 69-71).
Overall, both perceptions install the ideology that divinities are gratified by the ritual pious acts of ceremonial practices and services (upacaras) that make up puja. Symbolized by the camphor flame, the unity and identity of the deity and worshiper is one of the most sought-after goals of puja (Fuller 82), eliminating hierarchical separation between them. Taken together, the significance of puja is to create a relationship among the god or goddess and the individual. This may be done in the anticipation that their sanctified acts of tribute will promote security and favour from the deity.
Practices of Puja (Upacaras)
Puja is performed as an act of reverence towards the deities whose power is housed within iconographic pictures, statues, or symbols of the particular divine being. Each image containing the spiritual manifestation of the deity (murti) is specialized according to proportion, form, and features, and are typically man-made out of bronze, stone, clay, glass, or printed ink photographs. Within the rite of puja, the power of the deity is ritually consecrated into the image before the procession of the upacaras commence. This is done because the image itself is empty until employed with the power. The object of worship is not the image itself but the sacred power of the god or goddess.
The puja ritual varies greatly in terms of simplicity, size, and occasion. Regardless, all puja upacaras have the same general structure, involving a standard total of sixteen (sodasa), ten (dasa), or five (panca) upacara which are grouped into four phases (Rodrigues 2003: 253; Fuller 67). These services are accompanied by 16 verses of the Sukta and/or other additional Vedic mantras. To begin, the deity is summoned and installed within the murti. This phase consecrates the image making it divine. Next is the offering of a seat and water for the washing of the feet, head, mouth, and body. Third, the image is bathed, outfitted, decorated (with flowers), given the sacred thread, wafted with incense, illuminated by a lamp, and given offerings of food. This phase is commonly known as the heart of the ritual, where the image is glorified and adorned. Lastly, the deity is displayed signs of respect (such as the namaskara gesture) and is dismissed (in temples and homes this action does not take place once the puja is complete) (Rodrigues 2006: 228). Other additional acts of worship such as signing, dancing, prayer, and the chanting of mantras may accompany puja (Fuller 63). The upacara practice is seldomly completed in full and may only consist of a single camphor flame offering, known as arati, and a single food offering. Although partial practice is considered less good, synecdochally the entire ritual is produced since the overall structure and connotation of puja is maintained. Puja is specialized for each different deity based on their preference of offerings; offerings are also altered based on the means an individual has accessing materials due to their placement in society (Buhnemann 66). Unlike Vedic sacrifices, puja is inclusive to all, regardless of their gender and class, allowing for women to participate also (Michaels 2016: 9). This act of worship displays one’s hospitality and adoration for the deity, treating them like royal guests given their utmost respect.
Temple worship is the process in which Hindus pay homage to certain deities permanently housed in a sacred temple space, such as the main shrine. The images within temples are usually immoveable (mula murti) and made of bronze or stone (Fuller 58). Within larger temples puja is conducted frequently (daily), where as lesser temples may perform puja semi-frequently (weekly) (Fuller 62). Devotees stand before a deity’s murti, particularly in temples, to perform/engage in darsana, meaning “vision.” Darsana is the process of going to see the deity and be seen by the deity, thus absorbing some of their power through an intimate union and gaining a promising blessing. Many individuals attend temples in the mornings, just after the deity has been awoken to enhance their fruits of darsana (Fuller 59).
Puja begins in the morning with an elaborate ceremony to wake the murti, conducted by a Brahmin priest (purohita) known as a Pujari (the one who performs the ritual), on behalf of all (Buhnemann 56; Fuller 62 ). The appropriate offerings are made, and the god or goddess is bathed. The water poured over the Divine is considered sacred and can then be used as a prasada (blessing) by devotees throughout the day (Rodrigues 2006: 230). The priest’s ignition of the flame (dipa) and passing it before the murti is known as arati, and is the climax of the ritual. The boisterous sounds of bells, drums, and cymbals can be heard within the temple neighbourhood, marking this segment of the worship rite. Subsequently, the flame is passed amongst the devotees, allowing them to cleanse themselves of their sins with the consecrated smoke, which is done by wafting the smoke over their bodies. With the conclusion of arati, worshipers are invited to make their offerings (typically purchased at the entrance) through the officiant following the washing of their hands and removal of shoes (Rodrigues 2006: 231).
In certain temples, puja involves the participation of various ministrants in addition to the Pujari: the Benare (one who recites mantras), the Haridas (one who recites the aratis), the Paricarak (Pujari’s assistant), the Dingre (one who places the mirror), the Divte (one who transfers the torch), and the Dange (the mace carrier) (Buhnemann 63). In the afternoon the deity may be given a period of rest, in which the inner sanctum is temporarily closed (Rodrigues 2006: 231). Otherwise, rituals take place throughout the day, until the deity is put to sleep later in the evening, around 11 p.m. which entails another prominent puja. In sum, temple worship communally gathers large crowds of devotees. These individuals are free to participate in their own individualistic worship of expressing prayers and performing gestures towards the particular deity, as well as engage in the devotional ritual of puja.
Worship conducted in the home, although very different in terms of scale and simplicity compared to temple worship, maintains a similar structure and intent overall. Home worship takes place before a home shrine in which many icons are present, and the principle image is centrally placed (Jhala 106). The permanent installation of the divine within one’s home shrine can be done by a priest or by one’s self through frequent acts of service and adoration which eventually invoke the deity. Home shrines include various icons that were either gifted, inherited or bought, and which may symbolize or picture different deities, vehicles, gurus, and ancestors (Jhala 109). The arrangement and collection of these icons illustrates the vast network and history of the Hindu family, bringing about awareness of their collective interdependence and relationships with the deities and others.
The wealth of an individual’s family dictates the elaboration of the shrine. The wealthiest of families may have their own small temple or various shrine rooms within their home. They may also invite Brahmin priests into their home and pay them to perform the puja rituals daily (Rodrigues 2006: 228). More commonly, laypeople of any class/caste preform the ritual upacaras on their own, although only the upper three castes may recite Vedic literature. Similar to temple worship, home puja is characteristically performed daily in the morning, but depending on the family’s schedule and degree of personal pollution due to deaths, childbirths, and menstruation, puja can be postponed, shortened, or prolonged (Jhala 117).
The Pujari in home worship is usually the head of the household or the most significant member of the family. Once the ritual is complete, the rest of the family is invited into the shrine room to bow and present their gifts (Buhnemann 56). However, the idea that puja can be taken jointly rather than individually is controversial since some believe it is a personal formality, to be done privately by all (Jhala 123). Prior to taking part in puja, it is customary to bathe in order to purify oneself before entering the shrine room. The shrine usually consists of a cabinet symbolizing a temple, a shelf, or a lowered table flooded with adorned images and icons. Directly across from the shrine on the ground is a gadi, which is a large cushion, that the Pujari is to be seated cross legged on during the ritual (Jhala 111). Furthermore, the upacaras of puja are to be performed on the favoured principal deity. The doors of the cabinet are opened during the puja and then shut when it has ended.
Separate from temple worship and home worship where the deity’s power is fixed within the image, festival worship involves the installation of the deity, veneration and worship, and release of the deity with each extravagant devotional event (Buhnemann 191-200). The movable images involved in festive pujas are known as utsava murti, which are either cast of bronze or made of painted clay (Fuller 58). A good example of festival worship is the Durga Puja, an elaborate festival which admires the Great Goddess Devi (i.e. Durga), the aggregate of all goddesses who possesses an immense array of attributes.
The commemoration begins on the sixth day of the larger festival, Navaratra (Rodrigues 2003: 37). The purohita who acts as the Pujari, prepares for the ritual through a series of preliminary obligations, concluding with a hymn. Moving forward, the Durga Puja commences the awakening of the Great Goddess through the bodhana rite. This process fixes the Goddess’ power (sakti) into a clay jar, topped with a coconut, swathed in a sari, and anointed with sandalwood paste (Rodrigues 2003: 38-39). Followed by the transformation/purification process, the technique of Kundalini Yoga is used to arouse Devi. The adhivasanam ritual of anointing takes place next, accompanied by procedures that eventually install the Goddess’ sakti into a clay figurine. Ritual bathing of Durga enveloped in numerous forms follows the next day as part of the Mahasaptami (Great Seventh) rite. As the Mahasaptami is drawn to completion, the Great Goddess Durga is filled with “life,” taking up her dwelling within as a living icon and marking her full arrival (Rodrigues 2003: 46-50).
Similar to conventional puja, the next portion of the service is the sixteen upacara where Durga is showered with extravagant devotional offerings of honor. The bathing rites (Mahasaptami) are then repeated in a process known as the Mahastami (Great Eighth). There after, the Sandhi Puja occurs between the eight and ninth lunar day when the Goddess is presented a blood sacrifice (a goat’s head) whilst another series of the elaborated sixteen step practice is conducted; this marks the pinnacle of the Durga Puja. Once again, a variation of the Mahasaptami rite, labelled the Mahanavami, is performed with the inclusion of homa a Fire Oblation ritual. Finally, to conclude the Durga Puja, one last ten-part ritual is held dismissing Devi (Vijaya Dasami). Her clay image is then immersed in the Ganga signifying the Great Goddess’ ultimate departure. Through this illustration of festival worship, comparisons and contrasts between daily puja and occasional puja are exemplified in terms of the structure, simplicity, and magnitude of the worship ritual.
The devotional practice of puja is central to Hindu worship. Through the acts of deity adoration and respect, an individual expresses their devoutness to unify themselves with the Divine. Essential to puja, the power of the deity is invoked into an image, transforming it into murti, thus allowing for darsana and worship to take place. Another fundamental characteristic to puja, regardless of its size, is the demonstration of revealing one’s reverence to a deity through the use of offerings. These two processes of installation and veneration characterize the core elements of upacara within puja. Additionally, specific to festival worship the release of the deity also follows. Puja’s universality allows for it to be performed on a small and simple scale within the home by laypeople, or also on a massive and elaborate scale in temples or during festivals by qualified priests. Although the magnitude, amplification, and occasion vary, the structure and meaning of puja remains constant.
References and Further Reading
Buhnemann, Gudrun (1998) Puja: A Study in Smarta Ritual. Vienna: Institut fur Indologie der Universitat Wein.
Eck, Diana (1981) Darsan: Seeing the Divine Image in India. Chambersburg: Anima Books.
Ciraulo, Jonathan M. (2013) “The divine image: Hindu murti and Byzantine iconography.” Journal of Ecumenical Studies 48: 505-522. Accessed October 28, 2018.
Fuller, Christopher J. (2003) The Camphor Flame: Popular Hinduism and Society in India. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Hawley, John S., and Donna Wulff (1996) Devi: goddess of India. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Jhala, Jayasinhji (2000) “Puja, Pujari, and Prabhu: Religious Worship in the Hindu Home.” Visual Anthropology 13:103-128. Accessed October 28, 2018. doi:10.1080/08949468.2000.9966793
Michaels, Axel (2004) Hinduism: Past and Present. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
______ (2016) Homo Ritualis: Hindu Ritual and Its Significance for Ritual Theory. New York: Oxford University Press.
Prasad, Birendra N. (2011) Monasteries, shrines, and society: Buddhist and Brahmanical religious institutions in India in their socio-economic context. New Delhi: Manak Publications.
Rodrigues, Hillary P. (2003) Ritual Worship of the Great Goddess: Liturgy of the Durga Puja with Interpretations. Albany: State University of New York Press.
______ (2006) Introducing Hinduism. New York: Routledge.
Yelle, Robert A. (2003) Explaining mantras: ritual, rhetoric, and the dream of a natural language in Hindu tantra. E-Book: Routledge.
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This article was written by: Hailey Rausch (Fall 2018), who is entirely responsible for its content.