Bharat, the pious land of culture and religion, finds the way of devotion in the hearts of its citizens. Puja Rituals play a vital role in every Indian faith as it serves as the means to pay respect and homage to the Gods and Goddesses. Indian households adorn the gracious presence of the deities for seeking their blessings on every auspicious occasion. Indians perform puja to mark every important phase of their lives, whether it is the birth of a child or the onset of a new venture like marriage. Further pujas in India have formed the part of celebrations that emerged region-specific or culture-specific, like the Bengalis celebrating Durga Puja with much grandeur. Pujas vary with sects, beliefs, and religion but few things like the use of flowers and incense sticks, chanting of mantras are quite common rituals among all faiths.
Importance of Puja Rituals
Rituals play a pivotal role in necessitating the growth of spiritualism. In Hinduism, rituals bring spirituality to life by infusing deep emotions of devotion and piousness that facilitate closeness to God. Rituals are so important in Hinduism that it defines the way of life. Even before a new life arrives, rituals mark the happy beginning of the new born human which even continues even after death, including all the cremation practices. Most of the Hindu rituals and hymns have been passed down orally over generations from the Vedic Era, marking their importance.
Followers of Jainism perform rituals along with some daily obligations throughout their lifetime. Rituals in Jainism signify the homage and respect that the devotees show for the salvation attained by the Tirthankaras. Every Sadhak or aspirant in Jainism strives for inner peace by attaining rites and rituals. In Buddhism, rituals define one of the most important elements of life. It further establishes relationships with others and seeks the pathway to spiritual life. The Sikh communities observe rituals with much perseverance and piety. Rituals also mark their initiation into becoming true Sikhs. The new beginnings of life, including the naming of a new child and the blissful union in marriage, are marked with grand ritualistic practices and happiness.
Puja rituals are of utmost importance as it prevails upon showering blessing and devotion. In Hinduism, worshipping different deities come in diverse forms of ritualistic languages. Since the Vedic Era, the religious scriptures have taught us to follow the path to Dharma or righteousness and inculcate bhav or spiritual emotion in a devoted manner. Hindu puja rituals follow practice of Darshan, Puja Aarti, Havan, Bhajan or Kirtan, Prasad, Pravachan, Japa or Meditation, Parikram, and Seva. This ensures worshipping God in the most respectful manner and enriches one’s religion.
Jains too are engrossed in performing puja rituals for conducting their puja in the most pious manner. They start with the establishment of pratimajis or the idols with the holy ceremony of pran pratistha which ensures the livingness in pratimajis. They proceed on with the Jinpuja that is performed by the aspirants of Jainism or Shravaks and is conducted to renounce all worldly desires. Jains also follow a ritualistic order while entering their temple which includes Namo Jinanam Jiabyanam and pradakshina. Generally, three types of pujas are performed in temples – Ang Puja in which the parmatma is worshipped; Agra puja, in which the parmatma is worshipped by standing in front of him and waving incense and lamp, and Bhav puja.
Buddhists relieve puja rituals as a means to overcome suffering. All puja rituals include mantras, chanting, mala, meditation, bowing, and offerings. Devotion in the pujas is observed as a central practice in Buddhism. Sikhs are extremely disciplined about observing their puja rituals.
Idolatry is Sikhism is prevented and the Guru Granth Sahib is seen as the supreme boon-giver. Generally bowing down to Guru Granth Sahib, chanting mantras, listening to holy sermons, community worship, and seva forms some of the ritualistic practices followed by the Sikh community.
Aarti or Puja Aarti is one of the most widely performed puja rituals in which light (usually from a flame) is offered to the deities. The concept of Aarti dates back to the Vedic period’s fire rituals or homa. The meaning of this ritual is embedded in the Sanskrit word आरात्रिक (ārātrik) which means something that removes ratri (darkness), the ‘aa’ implies a sense of completeness and ‘rati’ implies union with the supreme power. The performing of Aarti reveals the balance of five elements of the Universe-fire (Agni), water(Jal), earth(Prithvi), ether(Akash), and wind(Vayu). For initiating this ritual, lamps are offered to the deities with their wicks dipped in ghee, signifying the source of fire or heat component. Flowers are used to an abundance in the offerings to the deities, implying the eternal meaning of earth ritual or solidity. The deliberate use of peacock fan stands as an important quality of air movement while the yak-fan stands as a subtle form of ether or space. Incense sticks fill the air with fragrance and reveal the purified state of mind.
Aarti is usually accompanied by singing in praise of the deity. The key reason for performing Aarti is paying for respecting deities with humbleness. When Aarti is performed, it should be done with full dedication and devotion, as it spreads profound love and admiration for the Almighty. Mostly aarti is performed twice or thrice in a day, but it might vary with rituals of different deities. At the end of every Aarti, the fire is waved as a form of blessing showered upon by the Lord which serves as a reminder that all of us belong to God.
Havan is considered as a prime ritual as it is observed as a practice of a devotee, willing to come close to the Divine. The havan is one of the important rituals of puja where offerings are made to the fire, which belongs to the major five elements of existence. Havan is also one of the routes to Deva Yagnya or one of the five duties in accordance to Sanatana Dharma. It is regarded as the established link between cosmic consciousness and human consciousness. The ritual of havan is performed in a ‘havan kund’ or ‘fire pit’, which is generally made of bricks. The fireplace around the havan kund is decorated with colourful flowers, leaves, beans, and grains. Ghee is added to the flame for setting the fire ablaze. Loud Sanskrit mantras are in accompaniment to havan to bring forth power and positivity.
Havan brings in spiritual and materialistic success in life and is said to drive away all negative forebodings. Further, it initiates togetherness and harmony among families and communities. It induces good health and clarity of thought and enhanced usage of mental abilities. Science has also proved that the gases produced during havan expel poisonous substances and decomposes to liberate oxygen in the process. Gases like ‘formic aldehyde’ released during havan kills the bacteria and viruses in the environment. Yajurveda listed that item like honey, jaggery, flowers, cardamom, ghee, and antibiotics like gyol are to be used in havan. Havan is considered complete only if donations are made. The donations act as charity and teach one to be a good human.
Mantra is often defined as a text or a syllable or a group of words in Sanskrit and Pali and is said to possess spiritual and magical effects. The Sanskrit word ‘mantra’ (मन्त्र ) is derived from the words ‘mann’ means ‘mind’ and ‘tra’ means ‘instrument’. Mantras in all Indian faiths are of spiritual utterance and spreads sacredness and devotion. Mantras are means of establishing a spiritual connection between Gods and devotees. The earliest practiced mantras were more than 3500 years old and were composed in Sanskrit. During the ancient period of India, mantras and hymns consisted of the Vedic religion. The earliest historical records suggest that even the people of the Indus Valley civilization used tantric practices with mantras and verses to invoke God’s blessings.
Mantras have become a part of domestic ceremonies and is chanted mostly by experienced priests. The simplest form of the mantra is Om which is regarded as the core source of all mantras. This is due to Brahma being the very first manifestation and an expression of Om. This is the reason why the usage of the mantra, Om is before and after every ancient Hindu ritual. Some mantras are intended to be dedicated only to Gods or bestow certain principles, but there are certain mantras such as the Gayatri mantra which deals with focussing on reality. Besides showering upon spiritual enlightenment, mantras have other psychic purposes too. The Vedas suggest that to every mantra a ritualistic act is attached and a connection is achieved between each Vedic mantra and every Vedic act.
Katha is a very interesting practice and involves storytelling with spiritual annotations. Kathas generally take place at community gatherings like temples, weddings, social functions, or puja celebrations. Kathas in the household is an act of oral tradition propagated through generations and involves the vrata-katha genre. The storytelling or Pravachan generally involves professional storytellers, also known as kathavachak or vyas, who draw the stories from ancient scriptures like excerpts or quotations of Puranas, the Ramayana, or the Bhagavata Purana. Mostly verses of epics and puranas are the common themes of stories. The verses of Ramayana and Shri Satyanarayana are meant to instill moral values and initiate self-development among the listeners.
A storyteller is seen as the guru or teacher who is well acquainted with the stories in the original Sanskrit language and passes them on to generations in vernacular languages. Different regions of India have developed their own storytelling tradition in their own regional language. Especially parts of South India have an ancient tradition of storytelling. There are three predominant Katha traditions –
◙ Purana pravachana in which lectures or sermons are given on scriptures and the teacher or pauranika is generally the translator and interpreter of the stories.
◙ Kathakalashepa is stories bearing anecdotes and is mainly narrated in the Indian languages like Sanskrit, Tamil, Marathi, Telegu, Kannada, and Hindi.
◙ Folk narratives are in accompaniment to any musical instrument too and are known by different names in different parts of the country. In Andhra Pradesh, it is known as Burra Katha, which accompanies the drum when it is narrated. These stories are also meant for social welfare programs and often contain historical ballads.
The ritual of Vrata is observed in every important facet of life. The Sanskrit word, Vrata bears the meaning of a ‘rule’ or ‘vow’, observance, discipline, or duty. Vrata refers to the vow of complete abstinence from food for a certain period before any ritual or as a strive for the fulfillment of desires. Vrata is an accompaniment to prayer and is performed to enhance one’s self-development in a spiritual and materialistic way. In ritualistic terms, vrata is in accompaniment to visiting temples in order to please a deity, or for charity work. The earliest references of vratas are found in the Vedas which suggests that there were different vratas for each professional class. Vratas were enacted to express gratitude or ratify desires.
Vratas are generally observed by both genders but women mostly observe them with utmost devotion. The most common wishes include speedy recovery of a child or family members, the longevity of husband’s life, to overcome ongoing adversities in life, neutralize the adverse effects of planets on life, remove birth or natal defects, win favour of wrathful deity, gain materialistic success owing to blessings of God, etc. Vrata is essential for the setting of orderly progression of rituals.
The puranas denote various types of vratas, some of the major vrata types are –
◙ Kayika Vrata is a vrata pertaining to the body and the stress is primarily on physical austerity like fasting.
◙ Vachika Vrata is pertaining to speech, much importance is given to speaking the truth and reciting the scriptures. It could also be Mauna vrata (vow to maintain silence) for certain period of time.
◙ Manasa Vrata is pertaining to the mind. The emphasis here is on controlling the mind, by controlling the passions and prejudices that arise in it.
Sometimes sacrifices are followed by vratas. Vratas reflect the righteousness of action, self-control, and honesty to self. Nirjala Vrata consists of complete fasting without even drinking water. Hence, it is called Nirjala (without water) vrata. Unlike common vratas in which consumption of fruits, juices, milk, water and sugar is allowed, the person following nirjala-vrata doesn’t eat or drink anything at all during the period.
Bhajan and Kirtan
In religious celebrations and pujas, Bhajans and Kirtans are quite popular and are much loved by the devotees. The term, Bhajan has its roots in the Sanskrit word, Bhaj which means ‘to revere or admire’. Bhajans are sung by a singer or in chorus, dwelling upon the themes of spirituality, devotion, and love for God, and verses of mythological glory from the Epics or the Puranas. The lyrics are sung in regional language and accent for the audience to connect with it and impart learning and enjoyment. Bhajans are always in accompaniment to Indian classical musical instruments like percussion, table, dholak, or tambourine. There is no set of rules binding the music or defining ragas or notes, but a sense of liberty in devotion is experienced.
Bhajans and kirtans came in vogue with the Bhakti movement where preachers sang and danced to the melodious tune to revive the glory of Hinduism. Kirtans are similar to Bhajans and involve reciting or telling a story. But kirtans involve the ‘call-and-response style’. This enables the audience to be in conversational mode with the singer. Bhajans and Kirtans have their earliest roots in the Samaveda, where the Samaveda Samhita was sung loudly among the devotees. In Vaishnavism, devotion is driven by the act of bhajans and kirtans, which sings of the praise of Lord Vishnu and his avatars such as Krishna, Rama, Vitthal, and Narayana. Bhajans inculcate in an individual a sense of music-driven spirituality and form a bond with the community, wherein devotees reconnect.
Seva or Selfless Service
Selfless Service or Seva is a must in the life of every human. This is a noble act of divineness and appears as a devotional form of serving God indirectly. Seva is seen as an important aspect in all Indian faiths as it benefits society and mankind. The word, ‘seva’ implies ‘service’ or selfless service without any expectations of materialistic return. Seva has many direct implications on the development of self. When a human works selflessly for others, he shreds away the negativities of egoism, hatred, jealousy, and superiority complex. Instead, the mind is infused with humility, pure love, empathy, tolerance, and mercy.
The evils of selfishness get uprooted and one gets to view the broader perspective of life. The knowledge about self and personality development is enhanced. The first step for attaining spirituality is serving humankind selflessly and seva is the initiator of the path to attaining salvation. The Sevak or aspirant gains cosmic consciousness while on whom the charity is showered feels the blessing and protection of God. There are a lot of poor and destitute people waiting for the flickering light to shine on their life. Through selfless service, one can be the light to relieve from the impending darkness. The humble service offered makes the world a better place to live in and an abode experienced while having life on Earth.