Friday, 7 October 2011

Symbolism in Puja (Hindu Ritual)

by Jayaram V
In Hinduism we come across a common method of worship called puja. "Puja" is the most popular form of worship practiced in almost every Hindu household even today, either on a daily basis or during some important religious function or ceremony. A puja can be either a simple ritual worship or a very complicated one, depending upon the way it is performed.

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 the puja ceremony, the 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 the Hindu beliefs, during the puja ceremony the deity, which is normally a static statue, becomes alive. This happens both at the external level and at the internal level. The statue is brought to life externally through the chanting of mantras or special invocations, or specifically speaking, through the performance of 'prana pratishta' or establishing of life breath. Similarly the indwelling spirit is awakened through the devotee's sincerity, concentration, devotion, and divine grace which is symbolically represented as 'prasad', or the blessing from above.

The Hindus perform pujas in various ways. But the most common form involves a certain sequence of events or procedure. During the ceremony, the first step involves invocation of God through invitation to a certain spot on earth, which is indicated with the directions, specification of time and place name. This is generally accomplished through the chanting of mantras or simple prayers. Once it is believed that the deity has consented to come and has arrived as requested, he is then offered a seat with utmost respect. Water is then offered to him just like we tend to offer water to a guest who comes into our house after a long journey. Once he is seated, as a mark of utmost reverence, love and self surrender, His feet are washed with ceremonial water.

After that he is bathed with water and sprinkled with various perfumes or scented pastes to the accompaniment of various chants. After the bath ceremony, he is offered clothes, symbolically represented by a peace of cotton thread in simple ceremonies or real clothes in more pompous ones.

Once comfortable in the new attire and seated in his high seat, he is offered the following: pushpam (flowers), phalam (fruit), gandham (sandal paste), dhupam (incense), deepam (light), naivedyam (food), jalam (water) and mantram (recitation of sacred verses). When it is felt that He is comfortably and contentedly at home and is in right mood and right disposition, he is further supplicated with various hymns and prayers of praise and gratitude.
In more elaborate ceremonies of Hinduism, He is also entertained with song and music and presented with a number of offerings and gifts such as clothes, incense, flowers, perfumes, light, ornaments, food items etc, some times really sometimes mentally, but essentially and symbolically to express ones gratitude, devotion and the degree of self-surrender.

The puja ceremony of the Hindus, generally ends with the offering of aarati or sacred flame to the deity and distribution of prasadam. Prasadam is a combination of two words, namely 'pra' and 'sada'. It literally means the bestower of eternal life. The Hindus believe that, when an offering is made to the deity, it is blessed by the deity and becomes infused with His or Her prana energy. Hence the name 'prasadm".

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. In Hindu tradition, a guest is almost akin to God ('athidi devo bhava'), and should be treated as such with utmost respect. As long as the guest stays in the house, he should be given utmost respect. All his desires and expectations should be fulfilled as far as possible, for who knows he might be God himself who has come in disguise! The same concept is extended to the deities when they are worshipped during the puja ceremony. They are invited and worshipped with utmost respect, attention and devotion.

On the physical plane, the prayers and the mantras chanted during the puja ceremony create an atmosphere of sacred feelings or vibrations in the house and add sanctity and purity to the whole environment.

In Hinduism, thus puja is essentially a religious ritual, or a form of communion with the Divine. It has many levels and layers. At the highest level, it is suggestive of symbolic offering of our lives and activities to God at the end of which comes the divine blessing in the form of prasada, which is sweet in nature and is infused with God's energy.

Today most of the ritualism and systematic approach to conducting the puja ceremony is giving way gradually to more simplified and restricted forms of worship and offerings, reflecting the pace at which life is progressing. Though its outer form has been gradually changing, the spirit, the sincerity and seriousness of doing the pujas are still intact in many Hindu households even today.


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