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.