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15 March, 2015

In Indian Culture..Why do we celebrate Puja?

In Indian Culture Why do we celebrate Puja?

       Puja is one of the most beautiful ways to bring out the devotee within oneself and establish a relationship with Isvara, the Lord.  Puja is called kayikam karma, an action invoking one's limbs.  It also includes speech and mental action in the form of chanting and thinking of the Lord.

Physical Form of Worship

       In a physical form of worship, such as puja, there is a greater field of expression of one's devotion than is possible in purely oral or mental forms of worship.  The body, mind and speech are all involved in a puja. The forms, colours, fragrances and sounds of the various items of worship arrest one's mind and aid in evoking devotion in oneself.

       A Puja is performed in order to express one's gratitude to Isvara for all one has been given in one's life. The very creation in which one is born is considered to be a gift of the Lord.  The body-mind-sense complex is made up of five basic elements: space, air, fire, water and earth which also constitute the creation. Through the sense perceptions backed by the mind one perceives the Lord's vast creation and appreciates his glories.

Fivefold offering - pancopacara-puja -

       Traditionally, a form of worship is known as pancopacara-puja, worship with fivefold offering, is performed.  This worship acknowledges the presence of the Lord and makes a simple offering of the five elements through a symbolic offering of puspa, flowers; dhupa, incense; dipa, light; naivedya, food and gandha, sandalwood paste.  These objects represent the elements space, air, fire, water and earth respectively.

Puja at Home

       Puja is generally performed by an individual at home.  Most homes have an altar where one or more deities are kept.  The choice of deity is a personal one.  It does not matter which deity is chosen as each one represents Isvara in a different form or aspect.  The deity that one chooses is called Ista-devata, one's desired deity.

Panchayatana Puja 

       Traditionally, those who strictly follow the Vedic way of life perform a puja called the pancayatana-puja.  The following verse describes the deities worshiped in this puja:

आदित्यम्  अम्बिकां विष्णुं गणनाथं  महेश्वरम्

पञ्चायज्ञापरो नित्यं ग्र्हस्थः पञ्चा पूजयेत  

adityam ambikam vishnum gananatham maheswaram

pancayajnaparo nityam grhasthah panca pujavet

adityam - the sun deity; ambikam - Goddess Ambika; visnum - Lord Visnu; gananatham - Lord Ganesa; mahesvaram - Lord Siva; panca-yajna-parah- one committed to the five sacrifices; nityam - daily; grhasthah - householder; panca - five; pujayet - may worship.

"A householder who is committed to the performance of the panca-jajnas, five daily sacrifices, may do pancayatana-puja daily to five deities: the sun deity, Goddess Ambika, Lord Visnu, Lord Ganesa and Lord Siva."

       The five deities in this puja are traditionally invoked in the form of naturally occurring stones.  For instance, sphastika, a crystal which occurs in various places in India, represents Aditya (the sun deity); stones with specific markings, obtained from River Svaranamukhi in Andhra Pradesh represents Goddess Ambika; saligrama, obtained from River Gandaki in Nepal, represents Lord Visnu; a red stone called sonobhadra from River Sona represents Lord Ganesa; and bana-linga, obtained from River Narmada, represents Lord Siva.

       The idols are placed in the prescribed manner.  For Siva-pancayatana-puja, Lord Siva is placed in the centre, surrounded by the other deities; for Visnu-pancayatana-puja, Visnu is placed in the centre surrounded by all the other deities and on.  A puja is performed to all the deities in either a five-step worship or a sixteen-step worship.

Steps of a Puja

       Whether a puja is performed at home or in a temple, the essential steps are the same.  The basic puja is called the pancopacara-puja, in which one makes a fivefold offering.  A more elaborate puja is called the sodasopacara-puja, a sixteen-step puja, in which one additionally offers clothes, ornaments and other similar items that one enjoys.  The most elaborate puja is called the catussasti-upacara-puja, a sixty-four step puja, where the offerings include music, dance, chariots, elephants and other similar items.  Whatever one enjoys in life can be offered to the Lord as an expression of gratitude.

       With minor variations, the following steps are customarily followed in any puja.  After taking a bath and preparing the altar, one sits in front of the altar in a comfortable posture.  One begins the puja by lighting a lamp, which symbolises knowledge.  In order to be prayerful, one invokes an attitude of purity within oneself by doing acamana, which involves chanting the Lord's name three times and sipping water with each chant. This is followed by a prayer to Lord Ganesa, who is the remover of all obstacles.  Next, one performs pranayama, which helps one gain a relative compousre of mind. Sankalpa is done next to identify the person, yjamana, doing the puja and to state the purpose for which the puja is done.  Then one rings the bell.  The sound of the bell is considered auspicious and is said to ward off negative influences from the place of worship.

       Following these steps, one sacrifices water in the water pot through chants and purifies the various articles of worship by sprinkling the sanctified water on them.  These articles include the place where one is seated, the bell and the flowers.

       The jayamana then offers prayers to the Lord within himself by reciting a verse in which one's body is likened to a temple and the self within is likened to the deity.  As a final preparatory step one offers prayers to one's guru.

       The main puja may be brief or elaborate.  It begins by invoking the presence of the Lord in a given symbol.  This symbol may be a picture or an idol of a given deity, such as Ganesa or Lakshmi; or even a lump of turmeric powder; a betelnut; or a kalasa, a brass pot of water.  Once the Lord is invoked, the symbol is looked upon as the Lord until the puja is completed.

       The Lord is treated as a revered guest.  He is offered a regal seat and his feet are washed.  He is then given a bath and offered clothes and various ornaments.  Flowers are offered along with salutations.  While offering flowers and salutations, the Lord is addressed by the various names. They may be sixteen in number, one hundred and eight in number, or one thousand and eight in number. These names reveal the glories of the Lord and his essential nature.  Naivedya is offered to the Lord in the form of freshly cooked food or fruits. The Lord is then provided with comforts and music and dance is offered unto him.


       After the various offerings are completed, one offers arati to the Lord by lighting a camphor and chanting prayers.  Following the arati one offers flowers and salutations.  One concludes the worship by asking for forgiveness for any inadequacies, omissions and commissions in the performance of the puja. Once the puja is completed, the Lord is requested to return to his abode.  The offerings that are made to the Lord are distributed as prasada to everyone who participates in the puja.  

Items Needed to Perform Puja

       The following items are needed to perform the sixteen-step puja:

1)      An altar with a vigraha, idol, of the deity to be worshipped.  If an idol is not available, a picture of the deity may be used.

2)  An oil lamp, oil and a wick.  One lights the lamp at the beginning of the puja and makes sure that it remains lit until the puja is completed.

3)  Aksatas, unbroken rice grains to which turmeric powder is added.

4)  Pancapatra, a vessel with water and spoon for offering water.  The water may be poured into another cup during the offering.

5)  Canadana, sandalpaste and kummkum, vermilion.

6)  Dhupa, incense sticks.

7)  Dipa, a small oil lamp.

8)  Naivedya, food offering.

9) Puspa, flowers kept on a plate.

10) Ghanta, bell.

11)  Karpura, camphor with a holder for burning it.

The altar should be clean and can be decorated as one wishes.  Metal vessels and utensils are preferable.  If these are not available, paper plates and cups may be used.  The utensils for the puja should be kept apart and not used for other purposes.

[If some of the offerings listed above such as vastra, puspa and so on, are not available, one may use aksatas instead).

Brief Explanation of the Steps

       After lighting a lamp, one performs the sankalpa.  The sankalpa identifies the person doing the puja (yajamana and the purpose for which the puja is done.  A common purpose in all puja is 'durita-ksaya' - the removal of duritas, impurities of the mind.  One may pray for other reasons, but an important element in all prayers is to seek a mind free from confusion and wrong thinking.

       The initial step is invoking the presence of the Lord in the given symbol.  Once invoked, the symbol becomes the Lord and is looked upon as such until the puja is completed.

       The Lord is received with an attitude of devotion and is then offered, acamana, vastra, cloth and the other items described.

       While offering flowers, one addresses the Lord by the various names that reveal the Lord's nature or describe his glories.  One may chant sixteen, one hundred and eight or one thousand and eight names of the Lord.

       Naivedya is then offered at the altar.  For naivedya, one may offer fruits (fresh or dried), nuts or cooked foods. It is customary that we do not offer the Lord pre-made, store-bought or leftover foods.

       Arati is performed by dimming or switching off the electric lights in the room and offering lighted camphor.

       When vising a temple, one may go around the deity clockwise three times as an act of salutation.  Since the Lord also abides within, one may turn around oneself three times, in a clockwise direction, while remaining in the same spot.  Both these acts are known as pradaksina.

       In performing the puja, there may have been errors of omission and commission.  One asks for forgiveness of the Lord for these.

       After the puja, the Lord is requested with a prayer to return to his original abode.  The prasada is then taken from the altar and distributed to all.

Source: Excerpts from the book on "Purna vidya" - Vedic Heritage Teaching Programme by Swamini Pramananda Saraswati and Sri Dhira Chaitanya.