21st November 2015
Hinduism is a religion to almost a billion people in this world. Majority of Hindus live in India and Nepal. It is the main religion of India and has been for thousands of years. The origin of the religion is thought to have started prior to 2000 B.C.E, which is when the Harappa Culture of the Indus Valley thrived. Today, Hinduism is generally known to be a polytheistic religion that unites the worship of many gods with a belief in a single divine reality (Molloy 78). A pivotal part of this great religion is puja, which is a form of worship that an individual addresses to the image of a deity or a pair of deities. This image or an icon of a Hindu deity is called a murti. Puja is a way of expressing love or devotion, which is “Bhakti” in Sanskrit – the ancient language of India and the Vedas – to a deity in some form and it has become the central religious practice of Hinduism (Flood 1996). Hinduism also emphasizes the importance of trying to find salvation through Bhakti Yoga, which is a method people utilize to show devotion.
The history of puja is elementary in the sense that there is not much information of its origin. There are no textual or archeological evidence that Aryans, people that lived in India during the Vedic period, worshiped gods in iconic forms. Scholars believe that puja became popular during the later puranic age of 300-750 C.E. (Cush, Robinson, and York 633). This period was known for theism and the popularity of temple building. Gradually, puja swapped places with vedic sacrifice yajna, which was the main ritual of the time. Unlike yajna, which had to be performed by priests and was meant to appease a deity, puja can be performed by anyone and it means to honor the deity. Puja soon became even more popular after the Bhagavadgita legitimized it as the core of Bhakti, loving devotion.
In contrast to animal sacrifice, puja is the offering of vegetarian food, flowers, and incense to a deity. While the offerings to a deity are usually the same, some deities accept other offerings as well, such as blood (Flood 208). Through puja, a devoted person seeks contact with the gods and he or she does so by offering gifts or prayers to the god. Apart from gods, Brahmans, teachers, virgins, children, cows and other animals, plants, books, the earth, a water jug, or stones can be the focus of a puja as well (Michaels 242).
Puja can be performed in one’s home or the temple. In homes, puja is usually performed before the icon of a deity placed in a separate or purest room of the house and the prayer is usually uttered by a layperson. The first thirteen years of my life were spent in Bangladesh, where the second biggest majority of people in the country were Hindus. Tenants on the ground floor of our building were Hindus. On my way to school every morning I passed by their window and I remember having all my senses aroused. I remember seeing and hearing the performing of the prayers in front of miniature deity statues. I also remember the strong but pleasant smell of incense and loud ringing of the bell from the puja. I have also seen the Hindu temples, or mandir, many times where the icons of deities – murtis – were much larger and a larger number of people perform the prayers together. If the puja is performed in the temple, the temple priest usually conducts it. During the puja in temple, the murti is also bathed and dressed. Next, varieties of foods are offered, along with the burning of incense, loud ringing of bells and banging of drums.
In temples, puja usually consists of a process of bathing the murti, during which various substances are rubbed on the deity’s body. Then the murti is dressed in sacred clothes, adorned with perfumes, and decorated with new jewels. The murti also often receives a dot of red turmeric on its forehead. Along with ringing bells, the deity is then offered boiled rice and fruits, which are later consumed by the priests. After the deity was served the meal, a curtain is drawn back and devotees are allowed to view or “darsan” the deity. Next is, “diparadhana,” of the puja, where the priest waves different camphor lamps in a circular motion before the murti. The puja is now almost complete, and might include loud drumming, pipes, and the blowing of conches at this time. A priest will then take a lamp, known as the arati lamp, to devotees who cup their hands over the flames and touch their eyes and faces, bringing the light and warmth of the deity to themselves (Flood 209). Finally, the devotees accept turmeric powder or white ash from the priest to mark their foreheads and the puja is over. Devotees will usually take away blessed food or “prasada,” which will be eaten later.
Puja tends to vary in rituals in different places. For example, in Minakhsi temple at Madurai, for important occasions a preparatory ritual precedes the puja and it ends with a fire ritual or “homa” (Flood 210). Another example is the famous Jagannath temple at Puri, which has devdasi dancers – temple’s prostitutes married to the deity – to perform sacred dances in front of the shrine. At the famous temple of Guruvayur on the Kerala coast, which attracts many thousands of pilgrims, five daily pujas are performed (Flood 210). They occur between dawn and sunset.
Many wonder, how a Hindu chooses to decide which deity shall be the object of his or her devotion. While there is no one simple answer to the question, some generalizations do exist. First of all, there are several kinds of deities. For most of these deities a devotee simply cannot decide. The decision is made by the circumstances of his or her birth. An example is the lineage deities, khula devam, often known as the “family deities,” which are worshipped by extended family and passed down from one generation to the next through the paternal line (Rinehart 104). Another example is the inheritance of the gama devam, the “village deity” (Rinehart 105). Devotion to other deities, such as the pan-Indian gods and goddesses Ganesha, Shiva, Murugan, Rama, Krishna, and Durga etc. are usually personal choice of the devotee (Rinehart 106).
Hindus also celebrate many festivals throughout the year. Some of these festivals are Mahasivaratri, Durga Puja, Sarasvati Puja, Ganesa Caturthi, Krsnajanmastami, and Ramanavmi. Most of these festivals include puja, darsana, and devotion shown toward the respective deity. But, some of these festivals are more prominent in certain areas than others. Puja for the goddesses Durga and Sarasvati are usually celebrated more and with particular fanfare and devotion in Bengal. On the other hand, birthday of the elephant-headed deity, Ganesa, is special to Hindus of Maharastra and Rajasthan region of India (Kumar 21). Having lived in Bangladesh, I have seen the importance of Durga Puja in the region. It is known to be one of the biggest holidays for Hindus in Bangladesh. For the celebration, the temples are decorated magnificently, murti’s are made larger and more alive than ever, and other glorious fanfares take place.
As previously mentioned, expressing bhakti, which means devotion, to a deity is what makes puja an integral part of Hinduism. Bhagavad-Gita, which is revered as one of the most important texts of Hinduism, recommends spiritual paths as well as quiet contemplation to achieve salvation. Yoga, which means union, is methods that can be used to live spiritually. Yoga allows people to perfect their union with the divine (Molloy 91). Out of the major forms of yoga, Bhakti Yoga is closely related to puja. It is known as the devotional yoga. During the early transitions of Hinduism, around 1300 C.E. the Sri Vaisnava community had split into sub-sects called the ‘northern culture’ or vatakalai and the ‘southern culture’ or tenkalai (Flood 137). While the vatakalai emphasized the Sanskrit scriptures and salvation through traditional bhakti-yoga, the tenkalai emphasized the Tamil scriptures and surrender to the lord by his grace.
According to Ramanuja, who was an early Hindu theologian, bhakti yoga entails both love and knowledge in a shape in which a person is completely submissive to god. This means that the self must take refuge or surrender at the feet of the deity. Ramanuja states that refuge provokes the deity’s saving grace and this grace opens the door to release, by illuminating the devotee’s heart (Olson 158). Bhakti yoga can involve various expressions of devotion. These devotions are mostly rituals performed in pujas, such as chants, songs, food offerings, and the anointing of the murtis. Bhakti yoga can extend also to acts of devotion shown toward one’s guru, parents, or spouse (Molloy 94).
The ultimate goal of a Hindu is to be released from the cycle of life, and achieve moksha – complete freedom (Molloy 92). By showing devotion one is a step closer to moksha, and that is why puja is such a fundamental part of a Hindu’s life. By performing or participating in puja, the person is able to worship and seek contact with the divine deity through its physical manifestations.
Cush, Denise, Catherine A. Robinson, and Michael York. Encyclopedia of Hinduism. London: Routledge, 2008. Print.
Flood, Gavin D. An Introduction to Hinduism. New York, NY: Cambridge UP, 1996. Print.
Kumar, P. Pratap. Contemporary Hinduism. Durham: Acumen Limited, 2013. Print.
Michaels, Axel, and Barbara Harshav. Hinduism: Past and Present. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 2004. Print.
Molloy, Michael. Experiencing the World’s Religions: Tradition, Challenge, and Change. 6th ed. Boston: McGraw Hill Higher Education, 2008. Print.
Olson, Carl. The Many Colors of Hinduism: A Thematic-historical Introduction. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers UP, 2007. Print.
Rinehart, Robin. Contemporary Hinduism: Ritual, Culture, and Practice. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2004. Print.