The most important part of the puja ritual is mental worship, known as Manasika Puja. This is followed by external worship (Bahya Puja). In this the worshipper begins offering various items known as Upacharas to the chosen deity. The items could be five, ten, sixteen or thirty-two, though offering ten items (Dasopachara) is the usual practice.
On special holy days sixteen items including some special items like clothes, Vermillion, and ornaments are offered, and is often, followed by a special fire-ceremony called Homa.
The common items that are offered in the ten-itemed puja are water for washing, bathing etc., sandal paste, flowers, incense, light and finally food such as fruits and sweets. If a worshipper is unable to procure any of these items he may perform puja with flowers alone as substitute for all the other items.
The Symbolism of Puja
When we observe closely at the ritual puja it appears as though the worshipper is honouring God as one honours a beloved guest. But a spiritually developed worshipper attributes a higher spiritual meaning to every one of these acts and objects connected with the ritual and thereby remind himself of the fundamentals of spiritual life. In course of time a devotee realises that worship is a ritual pregnant with deep meaning; as he advances in his sadhana so also will his understanding deepen. When we delve deep we are astonished with the revelations. In practice, worship is one of the most helpful ritual taking us nearer to God. Let us see what the symbolism of puja is.
Welcoming (Avahana) and immersion (Visarjana) of the image are parts of the ritual called worship (Puja). Welcoming the Deity is meant to make the worshipped conscious of the presence of the Deity both in his own heart as well as in the outside world. In the ten-itemed worship one offers a beautiful flower smeared with sandal-paste to God as an act of welcome. Then one’s pure mind is offered as the best seat for God to sit on.
The Immersion ceremony signifies that the worshipper is now able to see the Divine within one’s heart and does not anymore need an external image. Hence in this final act the Deity is requested to return back to the worshipper's heart.
Among the articles offered in worship waters represent cleansing and purifying power, and faith (Sraddha); flowers represent devotion, and spiritual qualities; light represents knowledge, food represents the body, the conch stands for the sacred syllable OM, the bell for the unsounded sound which only Yogis can hear (Anahata); incense stands for all positive thoughts; prostration (Pranama)represents humility and self- surrender. By the process of circumambulation the worshipper is made conscious of the presence of the Deity not only in the image and in his own heart but in everything around him.
In salutation (Namaskaram) one is taught humility and is made to feel his utter dependence on God and it leads to the killing of egoism gradually. Namaskaram is considered a stand-alone sacrifice (Yajna).
Yajna symbolizes the understanding that the world belongs to God and is God; hence the act of gratitude and thanksgiving to God for everything.
The offering of fruits, sweets etc. to the deity stands for the offering of all one’s possessions and one’s heart and soul to God; it also symbolizes utter detachment from the world.
The temple or the shrine stands for the body and the enclosures (prakaras) for the three bodies–gross, subtle, and causal. Realization consists in perceiving the identity of oneself with God; Puja is to be done with the feeling of identity of oneself with the object of worship.
The non-dualist (Advaitin) also performs worship but to him the meaning of Puja is absolute identity with Brahman or Paramatman. Hence the non-dualist is only worshipping himself. (While worshippingMother Kali Sri Ramakrishna used to worship himself with items meant for Her.)
Popularly known as Aratrikam, this is a special ritual done after the worship is over. It is the symbolic act of the soul's surrender to God. Often five articles (in the order given below) are waved in Aratrikam: light, water, cloth, flower and chamara (a kind of fan). These five items symbolize the five elements – fire, water, ether, earth and air, respectively. According to Vedanta the whole cosmos is constituted of the five subtle and gross elements knows as Pancha Bhutas. Again these elements are the manifestations of Brahman.
When a spiritual aspirant worships God with devotion, he obtains God’s grace and as a result he understands that the whole world, including himself, belongs to God and that he has nothing of his own to offer to Him. This understanding makes him surrender himself to God. Surrender brings the highest knowledge ‘I am That’. Thus he becomes liberated.
Though Aratrikam, usually, is done as a vesper service, it is done at other times too, especially, after a sixteen-itemed worship.
We should remembered that the main purpose of worship is to establish a loving relationship with God, culminating in complete self-surrender, leading to the realization of oneness with God. After this the life of the worshipper becomes an unbroken worship fulfilling the dictum that God alone can worship God.
Offering of flowers (Pushpanjali)
The conclusion of puja is, often, marked by a special offering of handfuls of flowers called pushpanjali symbolizing the successful conclusion of the worship.
In the ancient times Vedic rituals like the fire-sacrifice (agnihotra) used to be performed regularly. But this is no longer in vogue. The only fire ritual which is still performed on special occasions is the homa.
Another form of Vedic worship which is still surviving, though, in a shortened form is the sandhya. This is a ritual performed at the junction of day and night in which the famous Gayatri mantra is repeated a number of times. This is the daily obligatory duty of every twice-born, specially of the Brahmins. Swami Vivekananda felt that all Hindus are entitled and must perform the Sandhya ritual. In this ritual a hearty prayer is offered to the Divine (specially felt in the Sun god) for guidance and right understanding.
Om Bhuh Bhuvah Svah Tat Savitur Varenyam,
Bhargo Devasya Dheemahi Dhiyo Yo nah Prachodayat.
“We would like to realise the Divine. We meditate on the Divine. May the Divine endow us with right understanding”.
Commenting on the formalities and essentials of religion Sri Ramakrishna says: “When, hearing the name of Hari or Rama once, you shed tears and your hair stands on end, then you may know for
certain that you do not have to perform such devotions as the sandhya any more. Then only will you have a right to renounce rituals or rather, rituals will drop away of themselves. Then it will be
enough if you repeat only the name of Rama or Hari, or even simply ‘Om.’ Continuing, he said,
‘The sandhya merges in the Gayatri, and the Gayatri merges in Om.’”
Every act in the life of Sri Ramakrishna has a deep significance. He started his spiritual practice with the worship of the Divine Mother. He proved conclusively that rituals are not meaningless mumbo-jumbo, but done with devotion they slowly but gradually help a devout seeker to dive deep into the ocean of God and obtain the priceless jewel of God. It is a fact that no one can advance in spiritual life without first going through rituals.
With many thanks to Swami Dayatmananda
From Vedanta Magazine Nov-Dec 2017