Symbolism of Puja, the Ritual Worship of God in Hinduism

by Jayaram V

In Hinduism we come across a common method of worship called
puja or pooja. Unlike the elaborate sacrificial ceremonies, it can
be performed by anyone except those who have incurred impurity due
to menstruation or the death of a family member, etc. As the most
popular form of worship, “puja” is practiced in almost every Hindu
household even today, either every day, occasionally on certain
days in a week or month, or on important religious, auspicious or
festive occasions as required by tradition. A puja can either be
a simple ritual worship or a very complicated one, depending upon
the way it is performed. One may perform it to overcome a problem,
seek divine help, or just to render devotional service to the family
deities. For many people, puja is part of the daily sacrifice (nitya
karma).

Meaning of puja

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 a puja ceremony, 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 Hindu beliefs, during the puja the deity, which
is normally an idol or a statue, comes to life. This happens both
outwardly in the object of worship or the deity and inwardly in
the subject of worship or the devotee. The statue or the form of
the deity is brought to life externally through the chanting of
mantras or special invocations, or specifically speaking, through
the performance of ‘prana pratishta’ or establishing the life breath
in it. Similarly, the indwelling spirit in the worshipper is awakened
because of his sincerity, concentration, devotion, and divine grace
which is symbolically represented as ‘prasad,” grace or blessing
from above.

How puja is conducted

Hindus perform pujas in various ways. The commonest form of worship
follows a well-established sequence of actions, or procedure, which
is approximately similar to how a visiting guest is customarily
treated by a devout householder. According to the Vedic tradition,
visiting guests are considered gods (athidhi devo bhava) and they
are supposed to be treated with the same respect as gods are treated
during an invocation or sacrificial ceremony. Thus, although the
puja ceremony is a later day development, the idea of honoring the
deity by paying respects and making offerings is very much rooted
in Vedic ritualism and sacrificial ceremonies.

During the ceremony, the first step involves uttering an invocation,
mantra or prayer, inviting the chosen god to visit the place of
worship, which is indicated to him by specifying the directions,
the time and the place name. This is generally performed either
by a mediating priest or the worshipper himself. Once it is done,
it is assumed that the deity has agreed to come and arrived at the
designated place as requested. The worshipper then washes his feet
with a symbolic gesture and offers him a seat with utmost respect.

These honors are extended to him as if he is physically present
in front of the worshipper in person. Just we offer water or a drink
to a visiting guest to quench his thirst as if he has walked in
the bright sun for a long time, the worshipper next offers him water
to drink by placing a glass in front of the idol or dropping water
with a small spoon or ladle. Once he is seated, as a mark of utmost
reverence, love and self-surrender, he once again washes his feet
with ceremonial water.

After that, the idol is bathed with water, milk, honey, etc.,
and massaged with various perfumes and scented pastes such as turmeric
powder, sandal paste and curd mixed with ghee to the accompaniment
of various mantras which usually end with “samarpayami,” meaning,
“I have offered.” After the bathing ceremony, the deity is offered
new clothes to wear during the ceremony, which is symbolically represented
either by a peace of cotton thread in simple ceremonies or real
clothes in more organized ones.

Having made him comfortable in the new attire and honoring him
with a high seat, the worshipper then makes him a series of offerings
namely pushpam (flowers), phalam (fruit), gandham (sandal paste),
dhupam (incense), deepam (light), naivedyam (food), jalam (water),
mantram (recitation of sacred verses) and mantra-pushpam (a sacred
flower). All these arrangements, devotional offerings and respectful
prayers are intended to make the deity feel comfortable and at home
in the new surroundings and enter a positive state of mind.

Once the worshipper follows all the steps and makes sure that
he has endeared himself to the deity with his devotion and sincerity,
he intensifies his worship with more prayers and supplication, expressing
deep devotion and gratitude. The purpose of such an elaborate procedure
is to build rapport with the deity and earn his love and grace for
which he specifically chooses prayers and hymns that extol the virtues,
triumphs and greatness of the deity.

In more elaborate ceremonies of Hinduism, which may last for
one more days, the deity is entertained with songs, music and dance,
and on occasions taken out in a public procession. He is also made
a number of customary offerings and gifts such as clothes, incense,
flowers, perfumes, light, ornaments, food items, money, etc. These
offerings may be real or imaginary. Both approaches are valid. Their
purpose is to express one’s gratitude, devotion, love and surrender.

The puja ceremony of the Hindus, generally ends with the offering
of aarati or sacred flame to the deity and the distribution of prasadam,
or the remains of the offering. The word prasadam is a combination
of two words namely ‘pra’ and ‘sada’. It literally means the bestowed
or giver of eternal life. Hindus believe that, when an offering
of food is made to a deity, it becomes pure, sacred and blessed
with his touch. Having become infused with His or Her prana or energy,
it is believed to possess the purifying power to heal those who
partake it or remove their sins and impurities. Hence the name ‘prasadam.”

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.
The tradition says that a guest should be treated like God (‘athidi
devo bhava’ with utmost respect and his stay should be made as comfortable
as possible. As long as the guest stays in the house, his desires,
wants and needs should be fulfilled as far as possible, for who
knows God himself might have descended upon the house in the guise
of a guest to test his devotees!

The same concept is extended to the deities when they are worshipped
during the puja ceremony. All deities are the aspects and forms
of God only. Worshipping them is the same as worshipping the highest
God. Hence, during the worship they should be propitiated with utmost
respect and devotion and given utmost attention.

On the physical plane, prayers and the mantras are chanted during
the puja ceremony to create an atmosphere of sacred feelings or
vibrations in and around the house and add sanctity and purity to
the whole environment. Thus, in Hinduism puja is essentially a religious
ritual and a form of worship. Mentally and spiritually, it is an
expression of devotion and a method of direct communion with God.
It assumes many forms, including invoking divine power to delude
and destroy enemies or acquire supernatural powers. Symbolically,
it represents the symbolic act of offering of our lives and activities
to God which culminates with the Grace of God as the reward (prasadam)
for the service rendered, which leads to the blissful state of liberation.

Presently, domestic worship (puja), both at homes and in the
temples, is the most popular method of worship in Hinduism. It has
gained precedence over the more elaborate ritual methods and sacrificial
ceremonies of the Vedic tradition because of its simplicity, directness,
convenience and emotional appeal. Although people may use it for
different ends and with different attitudes, its essential structure
and basic purpose remain the same, which is to invite God as if
he is a dear friend and visitor to your home and treat him with
utmost devotion, care and attention.

Those who are further interested in the subject may check the
links in the “Further Reading” section

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