Bhakti could be described as loving of one’s chosen god or goddess the way a lover loves their beloved, a parent loves their child, or a friend loves another friend. Bhakti is a deeply personal spiritual intimacy on the part of the devotee, and open to everyone regardless of gender or caste. Bhakti as a devotional practice was never exclusively Hindu but also important in Buddhist and Jain traditions, having spread to Sufism, Christianity and Sikhism as well (note 1).
As a Hindu devotional philosophy and a means to achieve moksha (note 2), Bhakti has been known for millennia but didn’t really become popular until the early medieval period around 600 AD. At that time, seemingly out of nowhere, itinerant poet-saints began wandering from temple to temple throughout south India chanting deeply personal, and at times frankly erotic, hymns praising their chosen gods and goddesses. When focussed upon Vishnu and/or his avatar, Krishna they were known as these poets were known as Alvars, when praising Shiva they were Nayanars, and when the focus was upon one of the Divine Goddesses they were Shaktics.
Prior to the rise of Bhakti, Hindu worship was primarily a function of an ancient Vedic sacrifice ritual carried out by Brahmin priests deep inside the temples. Devotions were a quid pro quo type of ceremony where the worshipper, through the priests, would offer something of value, such as food or flowers or cash, to the deity in exchange for a gift or their blessing. Bhakti offered a much more personal alternative for the worshipper, a direct connection to God, without the need for either priests or structured ritual. Temple worship remains an important element of Hindu practice, however it is the personal devotion of Bhakti through which most Hindus offer their prayers, whether through a simple puja ceremony at home or a quick invocation to a postcard of Ganesh on the dashboard of their autorickshaw.
Note 1 – personal devotion to the Buddha may have been common practice from Buddhism’s earliest days (500 BC) though Bhakti as a term is Hindu in origin.
Note 2 – the two other paths to achieve moksha are; a) Vedic ritual and knowledge, and b) Yogic meditation and contemplation on the nature of Brahman.
Bhakti – The Love of GodTerry Curell2019-11-07T16:24:22-08:00
The languid gaze. The elegant gesture. The whisper of silk. The goddess serenely voluptuous. The god lithe and supple. Chola Bronzes are among the world’s finest sacred sculpture, with an undeniable vitality as though they are about to take a breath.
A first impression is over in a heartbeat, but if you take the time to look deeper perhaps you may begin to see them as their Chola creators intended – metaphors in bronze of an absolute divine beauty.
Shailja and I wrote this Reference Library to help you gain a wider understanding of the spiritual context of this extraordinary sacred art. Whether you are casually browsing or searching for something specific, if you don’t find the information you need, just ask and we’ll help you find what you need.
We don’t make any claims to scholarship for this material. It was written from our personal perspective and just as it is for the other billion or so Hindu believers, we have chosen what it is true from the almost limitless array of truths Hinduism offers. You may not agree with everything you find here, but one of Hinduism’s wonderful qualities is inclusiveness and acceptance and we hope you’ll accept our Reference Library in the spirit with which it is offered.
Anyone who has spent time in India knows it can often be a full spectrum sensory experience, and that is something especially true of its spiritual life; the fragrance of incense, flowers and burning lamps, the sharp ring of bells, mantras chanted softly in the dark, the vivid colours of garlanded icons, all fully involve the senses of the worshipper, enhancing the experience of connecting with the Divine.
Ritual worship requires a material object to focus the mind; a tree, a lingam, or a bronze sculpture of a favourite deity, any material object deemed sacred by the worshipper (note 1). When the devotions are directed toward an icon, it is treated as an honoured guest. Water and flowers are gifts of honour and devotion even the poorest can afford, and these offerings, in addition to prayers and the chanting of Mantras, are intended to ensure the deity feels welcome and appreciated (note 2). Once the worshipper has endeared himself to the deity with devotion and sincerity, worship intensifies with prayers expressing praise and gratitude.
Puja; Just as it is today, Puja was the central act of worship in the Chola period. Puja offers the solace of a ritual that calms the mind. Lamps, flowers and bells awaken the inner senses and subtly direct a quiet heart towards an experience of God. Whether performed softly at home, or part of a lengthy, elaborate ritual involving scores of priests, the common elements of Puja are the same. When performed at home;
A lamp is lit, and a beautiful icon is revealed – sight,
Incense and flowers are offered (note 3) – smell,
A bell or bells are rung – sound,
An offering of water or yajna (vegetarian food or sweets) – taste (note 2),
Lamps circled three or more times clockwise before the icon, heat from the lamps – touch.
Temple worship is somewhat more elaborate than the simple daily pujas performed at home and follows the rituals set out in the Agamas, Tantras and ritual manuals (paddhati) such as the Kamikagama, codified in the time of the Cholas.
The icon is ritually bathed (abhiseka) and sandalwood paste, sesame oil and curd rubbed onto the deity’s ‘body’,
Then it is dressed in new clothes, and adorned with a fresh sacred thread (valayajnopavita), gold, jewels and fragrances, as well as having a dot of red turmeric applied between the eyebrows,
Offerings of sweets and cooked rice are made accompanied by a cacophony of ringing bells. Once blessed, these offerings are now deemed yajna, or consecrated, and taken away at the close of the ritual to be consumed by the devotee.
The curtains are drawn and devotees have the opportunity to experience Darshan, a powerful connection through reciprocal eye contact between devotee and deity,
The climax of temple puja is when the priests wave a camphor lamp in a circular motion in front of the deity accompanied by the blowing of conches and loud drumming. The priest will then offer the lamps to the devotees who may cup their hands over the flames and ritually bathe their eyes and faces accepting the god’s light and warmth unto themselves. They then accept a thumb of white ash or turmeric upon their foreheads or tie a red thread around their wrist, the left for females, right for males. With that, the temple puja is over.
It is believed by some that if an icon does not receive puja regularly, it may lose its appeal for the deity. The rates at which icons lose their ‘charge’ varies between individual gods (Shiva and Kali, for instance, require more than less dynamic gods, say Ganesha or Hanuman), or whether the icon is situated in a temple or a private home. Temple pieces require more ‘recharging’ than home sculptures due to the greater demands placed upon them by multiple supplicants.
Aarti; another important ritual synonymous with Puja is Aarti, an offering of light, usually from oil lamps, of songs or chants. The Ganga Aarti at Rishikesh in the Himalayan foothills is a particularly spiritual and uplifting experience. It’s an informal affair, commencing with the singing of hymns (bhajans), prayers, and a purifying fire ritual (hawan) dedicated to Agni, the fire god. At the Aarti’s conclusion, children sing hymns as small lamps (diya) are lit and set into the Ganges to float away into the darkness.
Pranapratishtha; If you purchase a sacred sculpture destined to become part of your spiritual practise, once it arrives, you may want to perform a consecration ritual (pranapratishtha), which symbolically awakens Brahman’s essence within your sculpture.
Note 1 – friends were travelling through Rajasthan a few years ago and came upon a shrine to a fellow who had crashed his motorcycle. For some reason, the truckers deemed the motorcycle ‘auspicious’ and started leaving offerings of cigarettes and alcohol. Hindu theology says that everything animate or inanimate holds within it a spark of Brahman’s divine essence and is therefore worthy of veneration, even a Royal Enfield motorcycle.
Note 2 – traditionally, each god prefers specific flowers for puja. Lakshmi prefers pink lotus; Saraswati likes white; Bhu Devi, blue. Vishnu likes lotuses, of course, but is also fond of tulsi leaves (which should never be offered to Ganesha). Kali, Ganesha and Hanuman prefer any flower in red, while Shiva and Uma enjoy white. Marigold and red hibiscus is everybody’s favourite.
Note 3 – coconuts will often be offered, as well. They symbolize the ego whose hard shell must be broken to access the goodness within. As the centre of community life, temples are a magnet for commerce and worshippers can purchase a puja ‘kit’ of traditional offerings.
Mantras, (tr: mind instrument) are central to the ritual traditions of Hinduism. They are syllables, words, phrases or sentences having sacred power when repeatedly chanted, whispered or thought, usually in Sanskrit. The literal meaning of a mantra’s content is of less importance than its vibrational quality and is usually used in combination with an action of some sort, such as when making a ritual offering or when meditating to clear the mind of day to day clutter, allowing it to focus and concentrate. Should a specific mantra be gifted from a guru to a student it is empowered or brought to life in much the same way an icon is empowered when inhabited by a deity.
Mantra’s origins are Tantric and therefore strongly associated with the Shaktic energy permeating all planes of existence from the most sacred and subtle to our own base earthly level. Tantrics believe the Mantra itself is divine as if it were a deity in its own right.
The ultimate Mantra is, of course, the syllable OM (pronounced ahh–uhh–mm), which is identified with Brahman, the Ultimate Soul.
If the colour white contains every colour in the spectrum, then OM contains every sound in the cosmos’ vibrational spectrum. It is believed that once our vibration matches that of the cosmos (Brahmanda), slowly repeating OM clears the mind and connects us to the cosmos. OM is considered to be the essence of The Vedas distilled into one syllable and found in virtually all Vedic rituals from daily pujas to Vedic temple sacrifice. OM is also sacred to Buddhists and Sikhs.
Other mantras are prayers, such as the timeless Gayatri Mantra which is so important to Hindu belief it is embodied as the goddess, Gayatri. For many Hindus the Gayatri Mantra may be the only Sanskrit prayer they know;
Aum Bhuh Bhuvah Svah Tat Savitur Varenyam Bhargo Devasya Dheemahi Dhiyo Yo Nah Prachodayat
“O thou existence Absolute, Creator of the three dimensions,
We contemplate upon thy divine light. May He stimulate our intellect and bestow upon us true knowledge.”
Hindu Gods and Goddesses exist on a higher plane in a formless state, however, if a puja ritual preparing the icon to receive the deity is carried out correctly, and if the worshipper has a pure heart, the god or goddess may descend into the lifeless sculpture animating it with a small fraction of its of divine essence. This is an act of grace on the part of deity and enables direct and reciprocal connection by touch or sight. Should this connection occur the worshipper experiences a moment of ecstasy – Darshan. The term is also applied to the sight of a particularly revered object or person, such as one’s guru.
Darshan is not a ritual to be undertaken lightly. There are apocryphal tales of unwitting bystanders incinerated by a god’s gaze the moment the deity entered the icon.
Darshan – To See and Be SeenTerry Curell2019-11-07T16:31:55-08:00
Normally the conclusion of ritual worship, or puja, aarti is the offering of light, usually oil lamps, to one or more deities. Aarti may also be an offering of song or chant. See also; Puja and Mantra.
Ananda is the blissful state reached upon completion of moksha, oneness with Brahman. Ananda is deemed many hundreds of times stronger than any ecstasy experienced in our mortal existence. See also; Moksha.
formal temple ritual
Puja performed by a priest in a temple.
opening of the eyes
A Chola Bronze is only able to fulfill its role as a spiritual image when its eyes are ritually opened in the ritual known as Chaksunmilan. Initially it is the last task to be completed by the craftsman before it is considered finished. It is also the final ritual when the piece is consecrated in the temple or home. Once chaksunmilan is complete the sculpture is believed able to receive divine worship and bestow grace in return. See also; Pranapratishta.
When proper rituals are performed the deity, which normally exists in a Brahmanic formless state, descends into the icon, bringing the bronze to life. Cold sculpture becomes sacred icon. On the part of the deity, this is an act of grace and allows direct and dynamic connection between the worshipper and the deity. Eye contact may be only momentary but when connection is made, the believer receives the god’s blessing in a moment of ecstasy. See also; Pranapratishtha, Puja, Bhakti and Nyasa.
An autumn festival where craftsmen worship their tools with incense, flowers and unhusked rice. In ancient times carpenters offered prayers and sought forgiveness of a tree before cutting it for wood. The tree was considered to be a living being and the axe used to cut the tree would be rubbed with honey and butter to minimise the hurt to it.
servant to the gods
A woman attendant in the temple whose duties were to serve the gods, either in a housekeeping role or as part of ritual worship. From a young age girls were taught classical dance, hymns or poetry. The position brought high status and they often married well, their daughters would often following their mother in temple service. Devadasis were banned from temples by the Indian government in 1988.
festival of lights
Diwali is the Festival of Light, a celebration renewing the allegiance of us mortals to the gods rather than demons. It’s a time for family and friends, new relationships, fresh possibilities and opportunities. According to tradition people put small oil lamps outside their door on Diwali, guiding Lakshmi, the goddess of material and spiritual wealth, into their home to bless them. See also; Lakshmi.
feminine force of fertility
A belief in the blooming of trees and flowers through contact with a young woman through the touch of her hand or foot, or the sound of her voice in song. The young women are known as salabhanjika and over time images of them became ornamental carvings, often as a bracket figures. See also; Salabhanjika and Yakshis.
The Gayatri Mantra is the most widely known of the Hinduism’s sacred chants and for most Hindus, the only Sanskrit prayer they know. Translated to English; “Aum Bhuh Bhuvah Svah Tat Savitur Varenyam Bhargo Devasya Dheemahi Dhiyo Yo nah Prachodayat”
"O thou existence Absolute, Creator of the three dimensions, we contemplate upon thy divine light. May He stimulate our intellect and bestow upon us true knowledge.” Click here to listen to our favourite interpretation; https://youtu.be/yQjHSIHPJfw
Whether chanted, whispered or thought, Mantras are syllables, words, phrases or sentences charged with metaphysical energy. Tantric in origin, Mantras are used in ritual and spiritual practice to carry the thoughts and prayers of devotees to the deities. In Tantrism, Mantric energy is guided by yantras, deity-specific geometric shapes. A favourite for Shailja and I is the Gayatri Mantra sung by Deva Premal; https://youtu.be/yQjHSIHPJfw See also; Yantra, Tantra.
establishing a deity’s presence
The ritual of establishing the presence of one’s chosen deity by touching the limb of sacred image then touching one’s own limb in turn, one by one. See also; Bhakti, darshan and pranapratishta.
The ritual of putting the deity, in the form of an icon (murti), to sleep for the evening.
Prana means ‘life giving element’ and pratishta means ‘installed’ or ‘consecrated’. Pranapratishta is a ritual where the soul-less metal icon becomes the literal embodiment of the divine. When the worshipper comes before the statue and begins to pray, faith activates the divine energy within every object, and at that moment, the god or goddess is present. The worshipper sees the divine and is seen in return, in the belief known as . See also; Upasana,
Food or other offerings, which after being presented to God, are considered sanctified, reflecting the recognition that when human beings make offerings to deities, the initiative is not really theirs. They are actually responding to the generosity that bore them into a world fecund with life and possibility. The divine personality installed as a home or temple image receives prasada, tasting it (Hindus differ as to whether this is a real or symbolic act, gross or subtle) and offering the remains to worshipers. Some Hindus also believe that prasada is infused with the grace of the deity to whom it is offered. Consuming these leftovers, worshipers accept their status as beings inferior to and dependent upon the divine. An element of tension arises because the logic of puja and prasada seems to accord all humans an equal status with respect to God, yet exclusionary rules have sometimes been sanctified rather than challenged by prasada-based ritual.
Puja is the act of showing reverence to a god, a spirit, or another aspect of the divine through invocations, prayers, songs, and rituals.The purpose of the puja ritual is an offering to the divine and the granting of a blessing in return. Puja can be a simple daily devotion in the home where the icon is treated as an honoured guest and offered refreshments and sweets, flowers or coconut milk, or puja could be a complex many-layered temple ritual undertaken over many days. The focus of the ritual can be a sacred symbol, such as a lingam and yoni, or an icon representing the deity. See also; Bhakti and Darshan.
Every art form in India is meant to arouse rasa in the beholder or listener. According to the Natya Sastra, entertainment is a desired effect of performance arts but not the primary goal. The primary goal is to transport the individual in the audience into another parallel reality, full of wonder and bliss, where he experiences the essence of his own consciousness, and reflects on spiritual and moral questions.
ritual hallucinogenic drink
A Vedic ritual drink conferring immortality. A great favourite of the deities for its hallucinogenic properties.
A festival where icons of gods and goddesses, usually housed in the temples, are borne in procession outside the temple walls to be worshipped directly by ordinary citizens.
The essential element of Vedic ritual is sacrifice to the divine fire (Agni) of offerings such as cooked food, grain, fruit, ghee, oil, water, milk, honey, wood of varous kinds, incense, leaves, kusa grass, prayers, chants, etc. Everything sacrificed to the sacred fire (Agni) is believed to be distributed by Agni the god equally to the other deities. While important Vedic rituals must strictly follow the scriptures, simple daily sacrifice (puja) is performed by individuals without diminishment. See also; Devas, Vedas.
Glossary of Terms – Hindu RitualTerry Curell2019-11-07T16:35:44-08:00
The spiritual beliefs and practices of Hinduism’s one billion followers are chosen from the broadest possible spectrum of options. These choices are made, either unconsciously at a very young age as they absorb a particular set of beliefs from their family and community, or perhaps those choices are made later in life and may vary from the formal Vedic traditions of the Brahmins to the casual, informal style of the modern hipster. Should they choose to follow the orthodox tradition of The Vedas, even a basic grasp of Vedic principles requires a lifetime of dedicated commitment to the study of very thick books – a daunting prospect. Or they may follow the path of yoga where they may meditate and contemplate the nature of God – again a massive time commitment. Or they may choose a more personal style of worship such as Bhakti, the expression of personal love towards their chosen god(s) or goddess(es). There is no wrong way to worship in Hinduism for the simple reason that God is All.
“Without a form how can God be meditated upon? If God is without form, where will the mind fix itself? When there is nothing for the mind to attach itself to, it will slip away from meditation or glide into a state of slumber. Therefore the wise will meditate on some form, remembering, however, that the form is a superimposition and not a reality.”
Vishnu Samhita Ch 29, V 55-7
When Brahman (God) is without form, the form which enables Hindus to focus their devotions is either an abstract aniconic form such as a lingam, yoni or yantra; or figurative – such as a Chola Bronze.
Lingam and Yoni; The aniconic pillarlike form of the lingam predates figurative imagery to a time when symbols alone were used to represent divinity (note 1). In the Saivite and Shaktic traditions, the lingam is Shiva’s column of light at the center of the world, rooted in the dark netherworld, breaking through the surface of the earth and reaching towards the infinite cosmos. The yoni (tr; womb, origin, source) is the female, regenerative equivalent of the lingam and represents the Divine Feminine principle of Shakti. The lingam and yoni together represent the regenerative power of the universe through the union of male (Prakriti) and female (Purusha) natural, divine power.
Yantra; A Yantra (tr; machine) is a geometric shape, often drawn on the floor with powder, specific to a particular deity and worshipped as that deity. Yantras predate Vedic belief by many thousands of years and closely associated with Shakti worship. Yantras are charged with the power of a Mantra and direct mantric energy towards the deity. While Yantras and Mandalas are similar in appearance and both are metaphysical devices created to aid meditation practice, Yantras are specific to a deity, or the home of a deity, while Mandalas represent the cosmos as a whole.
An ancient tradition in south India is the kolam, an auspicious geometric pattern similar to the yantra and mandala. The kolam is applied to the ground outside the entrance to private homes and are refreshed each morning. Kolam are believed to repel evil and welcome Lakshmi, Goddess of Abundance and Good Fortune.
Figurative Sculpture; In Hindu mythology, it is believed gods and goddesses exist on a higher plane in a formless state and leave this state only when a physical body is required to perform a heroic deed, or when a worshipper requires a material focus for worship. If certain rituals are performed the god’s spirit may mystically descend and enter into a sculpture created in its human form (murti). For the time it takes to perform puja, the bronze figure becomes the god or goddess. Doing so is an act of grace on the part of the deity and having a physical form enables the god to bestow a blessing upon the worshipper with a gesture or eye contact (Darshan). and it is the clean, simple, visual vocabulary of iconography which makes it possible.
The challenge for Chola artists was to craft sculpture worthy of the gods. As a material metaphor of a divine entity, it must be aesthetically and technically perfect and when royal patronage put all the resources of the empire at the artist’s disposal, the iconic Chola Bronzes were created. The artists worked within the temple complex and in most cases, were also trained in music and dance. Then as now, dance brought to life the god’s stories, not only through body language (bhangas and hastas) but subtle hand gestures (mudras) as well (note 2). A dancer tells the god’s story with their body, the sculptor tells it in bronze.
For those new to the idea of gods and goddesses as sexual beings, the sensuality of Chola Bronzes can be unsettling. Prudery was unknown to the Cholas, indeed to most pre-colonial Indians, who believed the body’s senses were a gift from the gods. The intense sensual stimulation of sex was the greatest of those gifts and connection with one’s beloved while making love was believed to be spiritually akin to the feeling of connection between worshipper and deity during the ritual of Darshan. In addition, the ecstasy of sexual release was deemed similar to Darshan’s moment of bliss when the worshipper and divinity became visually connected.
As Chola artists created their sculptures, they were guided by the firm hand of sacred texts, the Shilpa Sastras. Every aesthetic and technical detail was followed to the letter (note 3). The units of measurement are the angula, or a finger width, and the tala, the distance from the chin to the forehead. Twelve angulas equal one tala. The artist creates a figure using an ancient system where the head is one tala high; the neck is four angulas, the torso three talas, and so on. The figure’s eyes, for example, are to be shaped like a small fish or lotus petal; the eyebrow like an archer’s bow; the lips shaped like lotus blossoms; the chin like a mango stone; and the arms like an elephant’s trunk or, in the case of a woman’s arms, long and tapered like a perfectly formed edible root. The male torso should resemble the frontal view of a bull’s head or the chest of a lion. The female should have full breasts, a narrow waist like a drum (damaru), and generous hips, all symbolizing nature’s abundance and the female procreative powers. Goddesses are slightly shorter in stature and slender, while in a grouping of deities, lesser gods and juveniles are proportionally smaller.
As they blend characteristics of both the divine and the human, a Hindu god’s body appears soft, without muscle definition, because it is filled not with blood, muscle and bone, but with prana, the sacred breath of life and evokes the serene otherworldliness of spiritual beings who have passed beyond the physicality of the human body. The way the gods stand or sit or hold their hands conveys messages to the beholder of assurance, blessing or protection. Multiple arms and hands hold symbolic attributes such as flowers or weapons, all conveying information as to the deity’s qualities or responsibilities. The head of an animal, such as a boar or an elephant, places the deity in myth and legend. But tradition – and the Shilpa Sastras – specify these figures must also blend supernatural characteristics with the ideal beauty of earth-born men and women and the artists need to look no further than the royal court around them for inspiration. They would be surrounded by beautiful, youthful, semi-nude men and women, adorned in fine silks and lavish jewellery (note 4). For royalty, divine or mortal, the wearing of jewels and silk sets them apart and above. In a tropical environment, minimal clothing was natural and only lack of adornment (alankara) was considered vulgar.
Note 1 – The lingam is the central fixed point in Creation and any figurative forms are deemed secondary. For example, while the galleries and outer courtyards of a Saivite temple may contain multiple images of Shiva in his various aspects (Nataraja, Tripuravijaya, etc.) the centre of temple worship in the innermost sanctum is the Lingam.
Note 2 – Bharatanatyam is India’s oldest classical dance form and in the Chola period was known as Sathir. Noted for its fixed upper torso, with legs bent or knees splayed, intricate footwork and sophisticated vocabulary of body postures (hastas), gestures (mudras), eye and facial expressions, Bharatanatyam is an interpretive narration of mythical legends and spiritual ideas. For a top contemporary dancer see; http://arushimudgal.com/video-ardhnarishwar.html
Note 3 – The Shilpa Shastras formalized how Chola bronzesmiths related the perfection of the natural world to the perfection of the gods. In addition to the creation of their iconic bronzes, the Shilpa Shastras also directed the arts of painting, temple architecture, mural carving, jewellery making, music, dance, poetry, medicine, carpentry, even the erotic arts.
Note 4 – Chola Bronzes worshipped in temples are never seen unadorned except by their attendant priests. Except for their faces and perhaps their hands, their bodies are hidden beneath garlands, silks and jewellery.
Chola Bronze IconographyTerry Curell2019-11-08T05:28:22-08:00