BBC – Religions – Hinduism: Worship

Puja

Hindu worship, or puja, involves images (murtis), prayers (mantras) and diagrams of the universe (yantras).

Central to Hindu worship is the image, or icon, which can be worshipped either at home or in the temple.

Statue of the elephant-headed Ganesh, surrounded by flowers, plants and offerings A shrine to Ganesh

Individual rather than communal

Hindu worship is primarily an individual act rather than a communal one, as it involves making personal offerings to the deity.

Worshippers repeat the names of their favourite gods and goddesses, and repeat mantras. Water, fruit, flowers and incense are offered to god.

Worship at home

The majority of Hindu homes have a shrine where offerings are made and prayers are said.

A shrine can be anything: a room, a small altar or simply pictures or statues of the deity.

Family members often worship together. Rituals should strictly speaking be performed three times a day. Some Hindus, but not all, worship wearing the sacred thread (over the left shoulder and hanging to the right hip). This is cotton for the Brahmin (priest), hemp for the Kshatriya (ruler) and wool for the vaishya (merchants).

Indian women and children climbing the steps to a temple At the temple for a festival

Temple worship

At a Hindu temple, different parts of the building have a different spiritual or symbolic meaning.

  • The central shrine is the heart of the worshipper
  • The tower represents the flight of the spirit to heaven
  • A priest may read, or more usually recite, the Vedas to the assembled worshippers, but any “twice-born” Hindu can perform the reading of prayers and mantras

Religious rites

Hindu religious rites are classified into three categories:

  • Nitya
    • Nitya rituals are performed daily and consist in offerings made at the home shrine or performing puja to the family deities.
  • Naimittika
    • Naimittika rituals are important but only occur at certain times during the year, such as celebrations of the festivals, thanksgiving and so on.
  • Kamya
    • Kamya are rituals which are “optional” but highly desirable. Pilgrimage is one such.

Worship and pilgrimage

Pilgrimage is an important aspect of Hinduism. It’s an undertaking to see and be seen by the deity.

Indian women making offering to Shiva on the Ganges, Calcutta, India Indian women worshipping Shiva on the Ganges

Popular pilgrimage places are rivers, but temples, mountains, and other sacred sites in India are also destinations for pilgrimages, as sites where the gods may have appeared or become manifest in the world.

Kumbh Mela

Once every 12 years, up to 10 million people share in ritual bathing at the Kumbh Mela festival at Allahabad where the waters of the Ganges and Jumna combine.

Hindus from all walks of life gather there for ritual bathing, believing that their sins will be washed away.

The bathing is followed by spiritual purification and a ceremony which secures the blessings of the deity.

River Ganges

The river Ganges is the holiest river for Hindus.

Varanasi

This city, also known as Benares, is situated on the banks of the Ganges and is one of the most important pilgrimage centres.

It is said to be the home of Lord Shiva where legend has it that his fiery light broke through the earth to reach the heavens.

A Hindu who dies at Varanasi and has their ashes scattered on the Ganges is said to have experienced the best death possible.

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