There are several Hindu Rituals and Practices: The primary Hindu rituals can be defined: Aarti, Bhajan, Darshan, Mantra, Puja, Satsang, Stotra and Yagna
Aarti, Arti, arathi, or Arati is a Hindu ritual in which light from wicks soaked in ghee (purified butter) or camphor is offered to one or more deities. It may be said to have descended from the Vedic concept of fire rituals, or homa. The word may also refer to the traditional Hindu devotional song that is sung in the ritual of the same name.
Aarti is generally performed twice or three times daily. For example, in the morning and in the evening, and at the end of a puja or bhajan session.
Aarti in Hindu temples
In mandirs (Hindu temples) aarti is performed daily by pujaris (priests). There is usually a 'mangala-arati' first thing in the morning, another later in the morning, one at lunchtime, and the final arati of the day at sundown.
The assembled devotees in the temple sing various types of kirtana and bhajans during the arati ceremony. The pujari performing arati first purifies his hands with sacred water from the acamana cup. He then sprinkles three spoonfuls of water over a conch, and blows it three times. He then lights an odd number of incense sticks (usually three) from a ghee lamp standing beside the altar. While ringing a small bell, he waves it seven times around the deities, and then he waves it once to the assembled devotees.
The pujari next lights a five-wick ghee lamp from the large lamp and offers it; four circles to the deities' feet, two to their navel, three to their face, and then he waves it seven times around the deities' whole bodies. He then gives it to another devotee, who presents the lamp to each devotee in the temple room. When offered the ghee lamp, devotees touch the flame with their hands, and then touch their hands to their foreheads.
The pujari then takes a smaller conch and fills it with water. He offers it by waving it three times around the deities' heads and seven times around their bodies. He then pours the water into a shaker; which another devotee takes and walks around the temple room shaking it, ensuring that everyone has been touched by the water.
The next item offered is a cloth, offered seven times around the deities. After the cloth has been offered, the pujari takes a plate with flowers on it and offers it seven times around the deities' bodies. The plate is then taken by another devotee and offered to the rest of the devotees, who each sniff the flowers.
After that, the pujari takes a camara (yak-tail whisk) from beside the altar and waves it before the deities, to keep the flies away from them. In warm weather, he will also wave a peacock fan before the deities.
Bhajan or Bhajans
Bhajans are deeply rooted in the Indian tradition. Bhajans are simple songs in soulful language expressing the many-splendored emotions of love for God, a complete submission or self-surrender to him through singing.
History and Origin of Bhajans
The groundwork for bhajans was laid in the hymns found in Sama Veda, the third Veda in the Hindu scriptures. They are distinguished from the Sanskrit shlokas by virtue of their easy lilting flow, the colloquial renderings and the profound appeal to the mass. These are sung in a group comprising devotees, with a lead singer. The fixed tunes, repetition of words and phrases lend a kind of tonal mesmerism. Anecdotes, episodes from the lives of Gods, preaching of saints, description of God's glories have been the subject of bhajans. Another form of the bhajanis the keertan or songs in the Haridas tradition.
Types of Bhajans
A plunge into the past reveals, that bhajans, as a genre, have come a long way weaving a home for itself into the core of human hearts. Traditions of bhajan � singing have been formed over the ages � Nirguni, Gorakhanathi, Vallabhapanthi, Ashtachhap, Madhura-bhakti are some of them. Each sect has their own sets of bhajans and ways of singing them.
The medieval age saw devotees like Tulsidas, Surdas, Meera, Kabir and others composing Bhajans. In the modern times, composers like Pt. V. D. Paluskar and Pt. V. N. Bhatkhande have tried to mingle Raga Sangeet or Indian classical music - which had been an exclusive domain of the elite - with bhajans, thereby democratizing the Raga tradition.
Popularity with the Masses
The common mass indulges in bhajan-singing without realizing that such traditional methods of invoking the divine can have a tremendous stress-removing impact. Bhajan mandalis that have been in existence in the Indian villages since the beginning of the Bhakti era, have proved to be great social leveller where individuals unhesitatingly participate in the singing, relegating their petty differences to the background. This participatory action elicits recreation and consequently a kind of mental relaxation. They close their eyes to ensure that they concentrate and thereby meditate on this near ecstasy.
Darshan is a Sanskrit Hindu term meaning sight or a glimpse of the divine. We could have a "darshan" of the deity in the temple (at the gross level) or have a "darshan" in that inward eye of a light or awareness (at a subtle plane). Sudarshan means a glimpse of the "self".
In India people will travel hundreds of kilometres for the darshan, the look, of a holy man or woman because this look is believed to confer blessings. Conversely, looks of anger or envy are widely feared.
Darshan or Drshn means Seeing, derived from drush, to see. To see with reverence and devotion. The term is used specifically for beholding highly revered people with the intention of inwardly contacting and receiving their grace and blessings. "By doing darshan properly a devotee develops affection for God, and God develops affection for that devotee."
In Indian culture, the touching of the feet (pranaam or charansparsh) is a show of respect and it is often an integral part of darshan. Children do touch the feet of their family elders while people of all ages will bend to touch the feet of a great guru or the icon of a Hindu demigod (angel) or a form of God (such as Ram or Krishna).
Vedanta darshan is also the philosophy of life as revealed in the Upanishads.
A mantra is a religious syllable or poem, typically from the Sanskrit language. Their use varies according to the school and philosophy associated with the mantra. They are primarily used as spiritual conduits, words and vibrations that instill one-pointed concentration in the devotee. Other purposes have included religious ceremonies to accumulating wealth, avoiding danger, or eliminating enemies. Mantras originated in India with Vedic Hinduism and were later adopted by Buddhists and Jains, now popular in various modern forms of spiritual practice which are loosely based on practices of these Eastern religions.
The word Mantra is a Sanskrit word combining the two syllables: man, meaning "mind", and tra, translated as "deliverance". A mantra is a pure sound-vibration intended to deliver the mind from illusion and material inclinations. Chanting is the process of repeating a mantra.
Puja (alternative transliteration pooja, Sanskrit: reverence or worship, loosely) is a religious ritual which most Hindus perform every morning after bathing and dressing but prior to taking any food or drink. Puja rituals vary between Hindu sects, but generally involve the chanting of a particular mantra on a mala (rosary) and optionally the offering of food and drink to one's personal murtis (idols) of god and guru).
A puja can be performed for anyone the performer considers a god, from an idol of Vishnu to a holy tree. The worship consists of offering something to the object of worship, such as flowers or food, and possibly lighting a candle or incense.
The ritual may be observed in silence or accompanied by prayers. A Hindu priest will chant prayers in Sanskrit or some other language while performing puja.
Puja may be performed by an individual worshipper or in gatherings. Sometimes a puja is done for the benefit of certain people, for whom priests or relatives ask blessings.
The company of the highest knowledge and Truth; the company of a Guru; contact with a person or an assembly of persons who listen to, talk about, and assimilate the Truth. This highest company also takes the form of hearing or reading the words of highest awareness, reflecting on, discussing and assimilating their meaning, meditating on the source of these words, and bringing this awareness into one�s daily life.
Stotras are Hindu prayers that praise aspects of God, such as Devi, Siva, or Vishnu. Stotras, according to Swami Tapasyananda, are invariably uttered aloud and consist of chanting verses conveying the glory and attributes of God. The three most famous and sacred stotras in Hinduism are Lalitha Sahasranama, Shri Rudram Chamakam, and Vishnu Sahasranama.
Yagnas / Homas
In Hinduism, Yajna (also Yaga or Yagya) is a type of sacrifice performed to please the Devas. It involves pouring oblations into the divine Agni (the sacrificial fire). Everything that is offered in the divine Agni is believed to reach the Devas. A yajna is typically performed by a pundit, with a number of additional pundits playing a supporting role, chanting Sanskrit verses. Often there will be a fire in the centre of the stage and items are offered into the fire. The range and expense of the items thrown on the fire can be surprising - including many whole coconuts, large quantities of ghee, sandalwood shavings and even quantities of clothing. A yajna can go on for several hours, typically with the whole village turning up to witness.
While yajnas clearly have a religious origin they also appear to have a subtle effect on the level of consciousness.
Why do we light a lamp?
In almost every Indian home a lamp is lit daily before the altar of the Lord. In some houses it is lit at drawn, in some, twice a day – at dawn and dusk and in a few it is maintained continuously (akhanda deepa). All auspicious functions and moments like daily worship, rituals and festivals and even many social occasions like inaugurations commence with the lighting of the lamp, which is often maintained right through the occasion.Light symbolizes knowledge and darkness, ignorance. The Lord is the “Knowledge Principle” (chaitanya) who is the source, the enlivener and the illuminator of all knowledge. Hence light is worshipped as the Lord Himself. Knowledge removes ignorance just as light removes darkness. Also knowledge is a lasting inner wealth by which all outer achievements can be accomplished. Hence we light the lamp to bow down to knowledge as the greatest of all forms of wealth. Knowledge backs all our actions whether good or bad. We therefore keep a lamp lit during all auspicious occasions as a witness to our thoughts and actions. Why not light a bulb or tube light? That too would remove darkness. But the traditional oil lamp has a further spiritual significance. The oil or ghee in the lamp symbolizes our vaasanas or negative tendencies and the wicked, the ego. When lit by spiritual knowledge, the vaasanas get slowly exhausted and the ego too finally perishes. The flame of a lamp always burns upwards. Similarly we should acquire such knowledge as to take us towards higher ideals. A single lamp can light hundreds more just as a man of knowledge can give it to many more. The brilliance of the light does not diminish despite its repeated use to light many more lamps. So too knowledge does not lessen when shared with or imparted to others. On the contrary it increases in clarity and conviction on giving. It benefits both the receiver and the giver. Whilst lighting the lamp we thus pray :
"Deepajyotihi parabrahma Deepa sarva tamopababa Deepena sadhyate sarvam Sandhyaa deepo namostute"
I prostrate to the dawn/dusk lamp; whose light is the Knowledge Principle (the Supreme Lord), which removes the darkness of ignorance and by which all can be achieved in life.
Thus this custom contains a wealth of intellectual and spiritual meaning.
Why do we prayer room?
Most Hindu homes have a prayer room or altar. A lamp is lit and the Lord worshipped each day. Other spiritual practices like japa (repetition of the Lord’s name), meditation, paaraayana (reading of the scriptures), prayers, devotional singing etc, are also done here. Special worship is done on auspicious occasions like birthdays, anniversaries, festivals and the like. Each member of the family- young or old –communes with and worships the Divine here. The Lord is the owner of the entire creation He is therefore the true owner of the entire creation. He is therefore the true owner of the house we live in too. The prayer room is the Master room of the house. We are the earthly occupants of His property this notion rids us of false pride and possessiveness. The ideal attitude to take is to regard the Lord as the true owner of our homes and ourselves as caretakers of His home. But if that is rather difficult, we could at least think of Him as a very welcome guest. Just as we would house an important guest in the best comfort, so too we felicitate the Lord’s presence in our homes by having a prayer room or altar, which is, at all times, kept clean and well-decorated. Also the Lord is all pervading. To remind us that He resides in our homes with us, we have prayer rooms. Without the grace of the Lord, no task can be successfully or easily accomplished We invoke His grace by communing with him in the Prayer room each day and on special occasions. Each room in a house is dedicated to a specific function like the bedroom for resting, the drawing room to receive guests, the kitchen for cooking etc. The furniture, décor and the atmosphere of each room are made conducive to the purpose it serves. So too for the purpose of meditation, worship and prayer, we should have a conducive atmosphere – hence the need for a prayer room. Sacred thoughts and sound vibrations pervade the place and influence the minds of those who spend time there. Spiritual thoughts and vibrations accumulated through regular meditation, worship and chanting done there pervade the prayer room. Even when we are tired or agitated, by just sitting in the prayer room for a while, we feel calm, rejuvenated and spiritually uplifted.
Why do we do namaste ?
Indians greet each other with namaste. The two palms are placed together in front of the chest and the head bows whilst saying the word namaste. This greeting is for all- people younger than us, of our own age, those older than us, friends and even strangers. There are five forms of formal traditional greeting enjoined in the shaastras of which namaskaaram is one. This is understood as prostration but it actually refers to paying homage as we do today when we greet each other with a namaste. Namaste could be just a casual or formal greeting, a culture convention or an act of worship. However there is much more to it than meets the eye. In Sanskrit namah + te = namaste. It means – I bow to you – my greetings, salutations or prostration to you. Namaha can also be literally interpreted as “na ma” (not mine). It has a spiritual significance of negating or reducing one’s ego in the presence of another. The real meeting between people is the meeting of their minds. When we greet another, we do so with namaste, which means, “may our minds meet,” indicated by the folded palms placed before the chest. The bowing down of the head is a gracious form of extending friendship in love and humility. The spiritual meaning is even deeper. The life force, the divinity, the Self or the Lord in me is the same in all. Recognizing this oneness with the meeting of the palms, we salute with head bowed the Divinity in the person we meet. That is why some times, we close our eyes as we do namaste to a revered person or the Lord – as if to look within. The gesture is often accompanied by words like “Ram Ram”, “Jai Shri Krishna”, “Namo Narayana”, “Jai Siya Ram”, “Om Shanti” etc – indicating the recognition of this divinity. When we know this significance, our greeting does not remain just a superficial gesture or word but paves the way for a deeper communion with another in an atmosphere of love and respect.
Why do we prostrate before parents and elders ?
Indians prostrate to their parents, elders, teachers and noble souls by touching their feet. The elder in turn blesses us by placing his or her hand on or over our heads. Prostration is done daily, when we meet elders and particularly on important occasions like the beginning of a new task, birthdays, festivals etc, In certain traditional circle, prostration is accompanied by abbivaadana which serves to introduce one self, announce one’s family and social stature. Man stands on his feet. Touching the feet in prostration is a sign of respect for the age, maturity, nobility and divinity that our elders personify. It symbolizes our recognition of their selfless love for us and the sacrifices that they have done for our welfare. It is a way of humbly acknowledging the greatness of another. This tradition reflects the strong family ties, which has been one of Indian’s enduring strengths. The good wishes (sankalpa) and blessing (aashirvaada) of elders are highly valued in India We prostrate to seek them. Good thoughts create positive vibrations. Good wishes springing from a heart full of love, divinity and nobility have a tremendous strength. When we prostrate with humility and respect, we invoke the good wishes and blessings of elders, which flow in the form of positive energy to envelop us. This is why the posture assumed whether it is in the standing or prone position, enables the entire body to receive the energy thus received. The different forms of showing respect are :
* Pratuthana – rising to welcome a person.
* Namaskaara – paying homage in the form of namaste .
* Upasangrahan – touching the feet of elders or teachers.
* Shaastaanga – prostrating fully with the feet, knees, stomach, chest, forehead and arms touching the ground in front of elders.
* Pratyabivaadana – returning a greeting.
Rules are prescribed in our scriptures as to who should prostrate to whom. Wealth, family name, age, moral strength and spiritual knowledge in ascending order of importance qualified men to receive respect. This is why a king though the ruler of the land, would prostrate before a spiritual master. Epics like the Ramayana and Mahabharata have many stories highlighting this aspect. This tradition thus creates an environment of mutual love and respect among people ensuring harmony in the family and society.
Why do we wear marks on the forehead ?
Most religious Indians, especially married women wear a tilak or pottu on the forehead. It is applied daily after a bath and on special occasions before or after ritualistic worship or a visit to the temple. In many communities, it is enjoined upon married women to sport a kumkum mark on their foreheads at all times. The orthodox put it on with due rituals. The tilak is applied on saints and image of the Lord as a form of worship and in many parts of north India as a respectful form of welcome, to honor guests or when bidding farewell to a son or husband about to embark on a journey. The tilak varies in color and form. This custom was not prevalent in the Vedic period it gained popularity in the Puranic period. Some believe that it originated in South India. The tilak or pottu invokes a feeling of sanctity the wearer and others. It is recognized as a religion mark. Its form and color vary according to one caste, religious sect or the form the Lord worshipped. In earlier times, the four castes (based on varna or colour) – Braahmana, Kshatriya, Vaishya and Sudra – applied marks differently. The Brahmin applied white chandan mark signifying purity, as his profession was a priestly or academic nature. The kshatriya applied a red kumkum mark signifying valour as be belonged to the warrior. The Vaishya wore a yellow kesar or turmeric mark signifying prosperity as he was a businessman or trader devoted to creation of wealth. The Sudra applied a black bhasma, kasturi or charcoal mark signifying service as he supported the work of the other three divisions. Also Vishnu worshippers apply a chandan tilak of the shape of “U”, Shiva worshippers a tripundra (of the shape of “=”) of bhasma, Devi worshippers a red dot of kumkum and so on. The chandan, kumkum or bhasma which is offered to the Lord is taken back as prasad and applied on our foreheads. The tilak covers the spot between the eyebrows, which is the seat of memory and thinking. It is known as the Aajna Chakra in the language of Yoga. The tilak is applied with the prayer – “May I remember the Lord. May this pious feeling pervade all my activities. May I be righteous in my deeds.” Even when we temporarily forget this prayerful attitude the mark on another reminds us of our resolve. The tilak is thus a blessing of the Lord and a protection against wrong tendencies and forces. The entire body emanates energy in the form of electromagnetic waves – the forehead and the subtle spot between the eyebrows especially so. That is why worry generates heat and causes a headache. The tilak or pottu cools the forehead, protects us and prevents energy loss. Sometimes the entire forehead is covered with chandan or bhasma. Using plastic reusable “stick bindis” is not very beneficial, even though it serves the purpose of decoration. This custom is unique to Indians and helps to easily identify us anywhere.
Why do we not touch papers, books and people with the feet ?
In Indian homes, we are taught from a very young age, never to touch papers, books and people with our feet. If the feet accidentally touch papers, books musical instruments or any other educational equipment, children are told to reverentially touch what was stamped with their hands and then touch their eyes as a mark of apology. To Indians, knowledge is sacred and divine. So it must be given respect at all times. Nowadays we separate subject – academic or spiritual – was considered divine and taught by the guru in the gurukula. The custom of not stepping on educational tools is a frequent reminder of the high position accorded to knowledge in Indian culture. From an early age, this wisdom fosters in us a deep reverence for books and education. This is also the reason why we worship books, vehicles and instruments once a year on Saraswathi Pooja or Ayudha Pooja day, dedicated to the Goddess of Learning. In fact, each day before starting our studies, we pray :
"Saraswati namasthuhhyam Varade kaama roopini Vidyaarambham karishyaami Sidhirhhavatu me sadaa"
O Goddess Saraswati, the giver of Boons and fulfiller of wishes, I prostrate to you before Starting my studies. May You always fulfill me.
Children are also strongly discouraged from touching people with their feet. Even if this happens accidentally, we touch the person and bring the fingers to our eyes as a mark of apology. Even when elders touch a younger person inadvertently with their feet, they immediately apologize.
To touch another with the feet is considered an act of misdemeanor. Why is this so ?
Man is regarded as the most beautiful, living, breathing temple of the Lord ! Therefore touching another with the feet is akin to disrespecting the divinity within or her. This calls for an immediate apology, which is offered with reverence and humility. Thus, many of our customs are designed to be simple but powerful reminders or pointers of profound philosophical truths. This is one of the factors that has kept Indian culture alive across centuries.
Why do we apply the holy ash ?
The ash of any burnt object is not regarded as holy ash. Bhasma (the holy ash) is the ash from the homa (sacrificial fire) where special wood along with ghee and other herbs is offered as worship of the lord. Or the deity is worshipped by pouring ash as abhisheka and is then distributed as bhasma. Bhasma is generally applied on the forehead Some apply it on certain parts of the body like the upper arms, chest etc. Some ascetics rub it all over the body. Many consume a pinch of it each time they receive it.
Why do we do use bhasma ?
The word bhasma means, “that by which our sins are destroyed and the Lord is remembered” Bha implies bhartsanam (“to destroy’) and sma implies smaranam (“to remember”.) The application of bhasma therefore signifies destruction of the evil and remembrance of the divine. Bhasma is called vibbuti (which means “glory”) as it gives glory to one who applies it and raksha (which means a source of protection) as it protects the wearer from ill health and evil, by purifying him or her.
Homa (offering of oblations into the fire with sacred chants) signifies the offering or surrender of the ego and egocentric desire into the flame of knowledge or a noble and selfless cause. The consequent ash signifies the purity of the mind, which results from such actions. Also the fire of knowledge burns the oblation and wood signifying ignorance and inertia respectively. The ash we apply indicates that we should burn false identification with the body and become free of the limitations of birth and death. The application of ash reminds us that the body is perishable and shall one day be reduced to ashes. We should therefore not get too attached to it. Death can come at any moment and this awareness must increase our drive to make the best use of times. This is not to be misconstrued as a morose reminder of death but as a powerful pointer towards the fact that time and tide wait for none.
Bhasma is specially associated with Lord Shiva who applies it all over His body. Shiva devotees apply bhasma as a tripundra (the form of “=”). When applied with a red spot in the centre, the mark symbolizes Shiv – Shakti (the unity of energy and matter that creates the entire seen and unseen universe).
Ash is what remains when all the wood is burnt away and it does not decay. Similarly, the Lord is the imperishable Truth that remains when the entire creation of innumerable names and forms is dissolved.
Bhasma has medicinal value and is used in many ayurvedic medicines. It absorbs excess moisture from the body and prevents colds and headaches. The Upanishads say that the famous Mrityunjaya mantra should be chanted whilst applying ash on the forehead.
"Tryambakam yajaamabe Sugandhim pushtivardhanam Urvaa rukamiva bhandhanaan Mrytyor muksheeyamaa amrutaat"
“We worship the three-eyed lord Shiva who nourishes and spreads fragrance in our lives. May He free us from the shackles of sorrow, change and death-effortlessly, like the fall of a ripe brinjal from its stem.”
Why do we offer food to the Lord before eating it?
In western tradition food is partaken after a thanksgiving prayer – grace. Indians make an offering of it to the lord and later partake of it as prasaada a holy gift from the lord In temples and in many homes, the cooked food is first offered to the lord each day. The offered food is mixed with the rest of the food and then served as prasaada. In our daily ritualistic worship (pooja) too we offer naivedyam (food) to the Lord. Why do we do so ?
Why do we offer neivedya ?
The Lord is omnipotent and omniscient. Man is a part, while the Lord is the totality. All that we do is by His strength and knowledge alone. Hence what we receive in life as a result of our actions is really His alone. We acknowledge this through the act of offering food to him. This is exemplified by the Hindi words tera tujko arpan from the arati "J“I Jagadisha Hare” – I offer what is Yours to you. Thereafter it is akin to his gift to us, graced by His divine touch. Knowing this, our entire attitude to food and the act of eating changes. The food offered will naturally be pure and the best. We share what we get with others before consuming it. We do not demand, complain or criticize the quality of the food we get. We do not waste or reject it. We eat it with cheerful acceptance (prasaada buddhi). When we become established in this attitude, it goes beyond the purview of food and pervades our entire. Lives. We are then able to cheerfully accept all we get in life as His prasaada. Before we partake of our daily meals we first sprinkle water around the plate as an act of purification. Five morsels of food are placed on the side of the plate acknowledging the debt owed buy us to the -divine forces (devta runa) for their benign grace and protection; -our ancestors (pitru runa) for giving us their lineage and a family culture; -the sages (rishi runa) as our religion and culture have been “realized”, maintained and handed down to us by them; -our fellow beings (manushya runa) who constitute society without the support of which we could not live as we do and -other living beings (bhuta runa) for serving us selflessly.
Thereafter the Lord, the life force, who is also within us as the five life-giving physiological functions, is offered the food. This is done with the chant – praanaaya swaahaa, apaanaaya swaahaa, vyaanaaya swaahaa, udaanaaya swaahaa, samaanaaya swahaa, brahmane swaahaa (referring to the five physiological functions – respiratory (praana), excretory (apaana), circulatory (vyaana), digestive (samaana) and reversal (udaana) systems. After offering the food thus, it is eaten as prasaada - blessed food.
To remember this concept, many chant the following verse of the Geeta. "Brahmaarpanam Brahmahavihi Brahmaagnau Brahmanaahutam Brahmaivatenagantavyam Brahmakarma samaadhina" Brahman is the oblation; the clarified butter; the obtain; the fire…… Brahman ( the Supreme) shall be reached by him who sees the Supreme in all actions.
"Aham vaishvaanarobhutvaa Praaninaam dehamaashritaha Praanaapaanasamaayuktaha Pachaamyannam chaturvidham"
“Residing in all living beings as the digestive fire, I digest the four types of food eaten by them (as an offering to Me)”.
Why do we do pradakshins ?
When we visit a temple, after offering prayers, we circumambulate the sanctum sanctorum. This is called pradakshina. We cannot draw a circle without a centre point The Lord is the centre, source and essence of our lives. Recognizing Him as the focal point in our lives, we go about doing our daily chores. This is the significance of pradakshina, Also every point on the circumference of a circle is equidistant from the centre. This means that wherever or whoever we may be, we are equally close to the lord. His grace flows towards us without partiality.
Why is pradakshina done only in a clockwise manner ?
The reason is not, as a person said, to avoid a traffic jam ! As we do pradakshina, the Lord is always on our right In India the right side symbolizes auspiciousness. It is a telling fact that eve in the English language it is called the “right” side and not the wrong one ! So as we circumambulate the sanctum sanctorum we remind ourselves to lead an auspicious life of righteousness, with the Lord who is the indispensable source of help and strength as our guide the “right hand” – the dharma aspect – of our lives We thereby overcome our wrong tendencies and avoid repeating the sins of the past. Indian scriptures enjoin – matrudevo bhava, pitrudevo bhava, acharyadevo bhava. May you consider your parents and teachers as you would the Lord With this in mind we also do pradakshina around our parents and divine personages. The story of lord Ganesha circumambulating his parents is a well-known one. After the completion of traditional worship (pooja), we customarily do pradakshina around our-selves. In this way we recognize and remember the supreme divinity within us, which alone is idolized in the form of the Lord that we worship outside.
As we circumambulate, we chant:
"Yaani kaani cha paapaani Janmaantara krtaani cha Taani taani vinashyanti Pradakshina pade pade."
All the sins committed by an individual from innumerable past births are destroyed by each step taken whilst doing pradakshina.
Why do we regard trees and plants as sacred?
From ancient times, Indians have worshipped plants and trees and regarded all flora and fauna as sacred. This is not an old fashioned or uncivilized practice. It reveals the sensitivity, foresight and refinement of Indian culture. While modern man often works to “conquer” Mother Nature, ancient Indian “worshipped” her. The Lord the life in us, pervades all living beings, be they plants or animals Hence, they are all regarded as sacred. Human life on earth depends on plants and trees. They give us the vital factors that make life possible on earth: food, oxygen, clothing, shelter, medicines etc. They lend beauty to our surroundings. They serve man without expectation and sacrifice themselves to sustain us. They epitomize sacrifice if a stone is thrown on a fruit-laden tree; the tree in turn gives fruit! In fact, the flora and fauna owned the earth before man appeared on it Presently, the world is seriously threatened by the destruction of forestlands and the extinction of many species of vegetation due to man’s callous attitude toward them. We protect only what we value Hence in India, we are taught to regard trees and plants as sacred Naturally, we will then protect them. Indian scriptures tell us to plant trees if, for any reason, we have to cut one. We are advised to use parts of trees and plants only as much as is needed for food, fuel, shelter etc. We are also urged to apologies to a plant or tree before cutting it to avoid incurring a specific sin named soona. In our childhood, we are told stories of the sacrifice and service done by plants and trees and about our duty to plant and nourish them. Certain trees and plants like tulasi, peepal etc., which have tremendous beneficial qualities, are worshipped till today. It is believed that divine beings manifest as trees and plants, and many people worship them to fulfill their desires or to please the Lord.
Why do we fast?
Most devout Indians fast regularly or on special occasions like festivals. On such days they do not eat at all, eat once or make do with fruits or a special diet of simple food. Some undertake rigorous fasts when they do not even drink water the whole day! Fasting is done foe many reasons – to please the Lord, to discipline oneself and even to protest. Gandhiji fasted to protest against the British rule. Is it to save food or to create an appetite to feast after the fast? Not really. Then why do we fast? Fasting in Sanskrit is called upavaasa. Upa means “near” + vaasa means “to stay”. Upavaasa therefore means staying near (the Lord), meaning he attainment of close mental proximity with the Lord. Then what has upavaasa to do with food ? A lot of our time and energy is spent in procuring food items, preparing, cooking, eating and digesting food. Certain food types make our minds dull and agitated. Hence on certain days man decides to save time and conserve his energy by eating either simple, light food or totally abstaining from eating so that his mind becomes alert and pure. The mind, otherwise pre-occupied by the thought of food, now entertains noble thoughts and stays with the lord. Since it is a self-imposed form of discipline it is usually adhered to with joy. Also every system needs a break and an overhaul to work at its best. Rest and a change of diet during fasting is very good for the digestive system and the entire body. The more you indulge the senses, the more they make their demands. Fasting helps us to cultivate control over our senses, sublimate our desires and guide our minds to be poised and at peace. Fasting should not make us weak, irritable or create an urge to indulge later. This happens when there is no noble goal behind fasting. Some fast, rather they diet, merely to reduce weight. Others fast as a vow to please the Lord or to fulfill their desires, some to develop will power, control the senses, some as a form of austerity and so on. The Bhagavad Geeta urges us to eat appropriately – neither too less nor too much – yukta – aahaara and to eat simple, pure and healthy food (a saatvik diet) even when not fasting.
Why do we ring the bell in a temple ?
In most temples there are one or more bells hung from the top, near the entrance. The devotee rings the bell as soon as he enters, thereafter proceeding for darshan of the Lord and prayers. Children love jumping up or being carried high in order to reach the bell. Is it to wake up the Lord ? But the Lord never sleeps. Is it to let the Lord know we have come? He does not need to be told, as He is all – knowing. Is it a form of seeking permission to enter His precinct? It is a homecoming and therefore entry needs no permission. The Lord welcomes us at all times. These why do we ring the bell ? The ringing of the bell produces what is regarded as an auspicious sound. It produces the sound Om, the universal name of the Lord. There should be auspiciousness within and without, to gain the vision of the Lord who is all-auspiciousness. Even while doing the ritualistic aarati, we ring the bell It is sometimes accompanied by the auspicious sounds of the conch and other musical instruments. An added significance of ringing bell, conch and other instruments is that they help drowned any inauspicious or irrelevant noises and comments that might disturb or distract the worshippers in their devotional ardor, concentration and inner peace. As we start the daily ritualistic worship (pooja) we ring the bell, chanting :
"Aagamaarthamtu devaanaam Gamanaarthamtu rakshasaam Kurve ghantaaravam tatra Devataahvaahna lakshanam"
I ring this bell indicating The invocation of divinity, So that virtuous and noble forces Enter (my home and heart); And the demonic and evil forces From within and without, depart.
Why do we worship the kalasha ?
First of all what is a kalasha? A brass, mud or copper pot is filled with water. Mango leaves are placed in the mouth of the pot and a coconut is placed over it. A red or white thread is tied around its neck or sometimes all around it in an intricate diamond-shaped pattern. The pot may be decorated with designs. Such a pot is known as a kalasha When the pot is filled with water or rice, it is known as purnakumbha representing the inert body which when filled with the divine life force gains the power to do all the wonderful things that makes life what it is. A kalasha is placed with due rituals on all-important occasions like the traditional house warming (grhapravesa), wedding, daily worship etc. It is placed near the entrance as a sign of welcome. It is also used in a traditional manner while receiving holy personages. Before the creation came into being, Lord Vishnu was reclining on His snake-bed in the milky ocean From His navel emerged a lotus from which appeared Lord Brahma, the Creator, who thereafter created this world. The water in the kalasha symbolizes the primordial water from which the entire creation emerged It is the giver of life to all and has the potential of creating innumerable names and forms, the inert objects and the sentient beings and all that is auspicious in the world from the energy behind the universe. The leaves and coconut represent creation. The thread represents the love that “binds” all in creation. The kalasha is therefore considered auspicious and worshipped. The waters from all the holy rivers, the knowledge of all the Vedas and the blessings of all the deities are invoked in the kalasha and its water is thereafter used for all the rituals, including the abhisheka, The consecration (kumbhaabhisheka) of a temple is done in a grand manner with elaborate rituals including the pouring of one or more kalashas of holy water on the top of the temple. When the asuras and the devas churned the milky ocean, the Lord appeared bearing the post of nectar, which blessed one with everlasting life. Thus the kalasha also symbolizes immortality. Men of wisdom are full and complete as they identify with the infinite Truth (poornatvam) They brim with joy and love and represent all that is auspicious. We greet them with a purnakumbha (“full pot”) acknowledging their greatness and as a sign of respectful and reverential welcome, with a “full heart”.
Why do we worship tulasi ?
Either in the front, back or central courtyard of most Indian homes there is a tulasi-matham-an altar bearing a tulasi plant. In the present day apartments too, many maintain a potted tulasi plant. The lady of the house lights a lamp, waters the plant, worships and circumambulates it. The stem, leaves, seeds and even the soil, which provides it a base, are considered holy. A tulasi leaf is always placed in the food offered to the Lord It is also offered to the Lord during poojas, especially to Lord Vishnu and His incarnations. In Sanskrit, tulanaa naasti athaiva tulasi – that which is incomparable (in its qualities) is the tulasi. For Indians it is one of the most sacred plants. In fact it is known to be the only thing used in worship, which once used, can be washed and reused in pooja as it is regarded so self-purifying. As one story goes, Tulasi was the devoted wife of Shankhachuda, a celestial being. She believed that Lord Krishna tricked her into sinning. So she cursed him to become a stone (shaaligraama). Seeing her devotion and adherence to righteousness, the Lord blessed her saying that she would become the worshipped her saying that she would become the worshipped plant, tulasi that would adorn His head. Also that all offerings would be incomplete without the tulasi leaf – hence the worship of tulasi. She also symbolizes Goddess Lakshmi, the consort of Lord Vishnu. Those who wish to be righteous and have a happy family life worship the tulasi. Tulasi is married to the Lord with all pomp and show as in any wedding. This is because according to another legend, the Lord blessed her to be His consort. Satyabhama once weighed Lord Krishna against all her legendary wealth. The scales did not balance till a single tulasi leaf was placed along with the wealth on the scale by Rukmini with devotion. Thus the tulasi played the vital role of demonstrating to the world that even a small object offered with devotion more to the Lord than all the wealth in the world. The tulasi leaf has great medicinal value and is used to cure various ailments, including the common cold.
"Yanmule sarvatirthaani Yannagre sarvadevataa Yanmadhye sarvavedaascha Tulasi taam namaamyaham"
I bow to the tulasi, at whose base are all the holy places, at whose top reside all the deities and in whose middle are all the Vedas.
Why do we consider the lotus as special ?
The lotus is India’s national flower and rightly so. Not long ago, the lakes and ponds of India were full of many hued lotuses. The lotus is the symbol of truth, auspiciousness and beauty (satyam, shivam, sundaram). The Lord is also that nature and therefore, His various aspects are compared to a lotus (i.e. lotus-eyes, lotus feet, lotus hands, the lotus of the heart etc.). Our scriptures and ancient literature extol the beauty of the lotus. Art and architecture also portray the lotus in various decorative motifs and paintings. Many people have names of or related to the lotus : Padma, Pankaja, kamal, Kamala, Kamalakshi etc. The Goddess of wealth, Lakshmi, sits on a lotus and carries one in her hand. The lotus blooms with the rising sun and closes at night. Similarly, our minds open up and expand with the light of knowledge. The lotus grows even in slushy areas. It remains beautiful and untainted despite its surroundings, reminding us that we too can and should strive to remain pure and beautiful within, under all circumstances. The lotus leaf never gets wet even thought it is always in water. It symbolises the man of wisdom (gnaani) who remains ever joyous, unaffected by the world of sorrow and change. This is revealed in a shloka from the Bhagavad Geeta:
"Brahmanyaadhaaya karmaani Sangam tyaktvaa karoti yaha Lipyate na sa paapena Padma patram ivaambhasaa"
He who does actions, offering them to Brahman (the Supreme), abandoning attachment, is not tainted by sin, just as a lotus leaf remains unaffected by the water on it. From this, we learn that what is natural to the man of wisdom becomes a discipline to be practiced by all saadhakas or spiritual seekers and devotees.
Our bodies have certain energy certain described in the Yoga Shaastras as chakras. Each one is associated with lotus that have a certain number of petals, For example, the Sahasra chakra at the top of the head, which opens when the yogi attains Godhood or Realisation, is represented by a lotus with a thousand petals, Also the lotus posture (padmaasana) is recommended when one sits for meditation.
A lotus emerged from the navel of lord Vishnu Lord Brahma originated from it to create the world. Hence, the lotus symbolizes the link between the creator and the supreme Cause. It also symbolizes Brahmaloka, he abode of Lord Brahma.
The auspicious sign of the swastika is said to have evolved from the lotus. From the above, we can well appreciate why the lotus is India’s national flower and so special to Indians.
Why do we blow the conch?
In temples or at homes, the conch is blown once or several times before ritualistic worship (pooja). It is sometimes blown whilst doing aarati or to mark an auspicious occasion. It is blown before a battle starts or to announce the victory of an army. It is also placed in the altar and worshipped. When the conch is blown, the primordial sound of Om emanates. Om is an auspicious sound that was chanted by the Lord before creating the world. It represents the world and the Truth behind it. As the story goes, the demon Shankhaasura defeated the devas, stole the Vedas and went to the bottom of the ocean. The devas appealed to Lord Vishnu for help. He incarnated as Matsya Avataara the “fish incarnation” and killed Shankhaasura. The Lord blew the conch-shaped bone of his ear and head. The Om sound emanated, from which emerged the Vedas. All knowledge enshrined in the Vedas is an elaboration of Om. The conch therefore is known as Shankha after Shankhaasura. The conch blown by the Lord is called Paanchajanya. He carries it at all times in one of His four hands. It represents dharma or righteousness that is one of the four goals (purushaarthas) of life. The sound of the conch is thus also the victory call of good over evil. If we place a conch close to our ears, we hear the sound of the waves of the ocean. Another well-known purpose of blowing the conch and other instruments, known traditionally to produce auspicious sounds is to drown or mask negative comments or noise that may disturb or upset the atmosphere or the minds of worshippers. Ancient India lived in her villages. Each village was presided over by a primary temple and several smaller ones. During the aarati performed after all-important poojas and on sacred occasions, the conch used to be blown. Since village were generally small, the sound of the conch would be heard all over the village. People who could not make it to the temple were reminded to stop whatever they were doing, at least for a few seconds, and mentally bow to the Lord. The conch sound served to briefly elevate people’s minds to a prayerful attitude even in the middle of their busy daily routine. The conch is placed at the altar in temples and homes next to the Lord as a symbol of Naada Brahma (Turth), the Vedas, Om, dharma, victory and auspiciousness. It is often used to offer devotees thirtha (sanctified water) to raise their minds to the highest Truth. It is worshipped with the following verse.
"Twam puraa saagarot pannaha Vishnunaa vidhrutahakare Devaischa poojitha sarvaihi Paanchajanya namostu te"
Salutations to Paanchajanya, The conch born of the ocean, Held in the hand of Lord Vishnu And worshipped by all the devaas.
Why do we say shaanti thrice ?
Shaanti, meaning “peace”, is a natural state of being. Disturbances are created either by others or us. For example, peace already exists in a place until someone makes noise. Therefore, peace underlies all our agitations. When agitations end, peace is naturally experienced since it was already there. Where there is peace, there is happiness. Therefore, every one without exception desires peace in his/her life. However, peace within or without seems very hard to attain because it is covered by our own agitations. A rare few manage to remain peaceful within even in the midst of external agitation and troubles. To invoke peace, we chant prayers. By chanting prayers, troubles end and peace is experienced internally, irrespective of the external disturbances. All such prayers end by chanting shaanti thrice. It is believed that trivaram satyam – that which is said thrice comes true. For emphasizing a point we repeat a thing thrice. In the court of law also, one who takes the witness stand says, “I shall speak the truth the whole truth and nothing but the truth”. We chant shaanti thrice to emphasise our intense desire for peace. All obstacles, problems and sorrows originate from three sources.
1.Aadhidaivika: The unseen divine forces over which we have little or no control like earthquakes, floods, volcanic eruptions etc. 2.Aadhibhautika: The known factors around us like accidents, human contacts, pollution, crime etc. 3.Aadhyaatmika: Problems of our bodies and minds like diseases, anger, frustrations etc.
We sincerely pray to the lord that at least while we undertake special tasks or even in our daily lives, there are no problems or that, problems are minimized from the three sources written about above. May peace alone prevail. Hence shaanti is chanted thrice.
It is chanted aloud the first time, addressing the unseen forces. It is chanted softer the second time, directed to our immediate surroundings and those around, and softest the last time as it is addressed to oneself.
Why do we offer a coconut ?
In India one of the most common offerings in a temple is a coconut. It is also offered on occasions like weddings, festivals, the use of a new vehicle, bridge, house etc. A pot ( kalasha) full of water, adorned with mango leaves and a coconut on top is worshipped on important occasions and used to receive revered guests. It is offered in the sacrificial fire whilst performing homa. The coconut is broken and placed before the Lord. It is later distributed as prasaada. It is offered to please the Lord or to fulfill our desires. There was a time when animal sacrifice (bali) was practiced, symbolizing the offering of our animalistic tendencies to the Lord. Slowly this practice faded and the coconut was offered instead. The fiber covering of the dried coconut is removed except for a tuft on the top. The marks on the coconut make it look like the head of a human being. The coconut is broken, symbolizing the breaking of the ego. The juice within representing the inner tendencies (vaasanas) is offered along with the white kernel – the mind, to the lord A mind thus purified by the touch of the Lord is used as prasaada ( a holy gift). In the traditional abhishekha ritual done in all temples and many homes, several materials are poured over the deity like milk, curd, honey, tender coconut water, sandal paste, holy ash etc. Each material has a specific significance of bestowing certain benefits on worshippers. Tender coconut water is used in abhisheka rituals it is believed to bestow spiritual growth on the seeker. The coconut also symbolizes selfless service. Every part of the tree – the trunk, leaves, fruit, coir etc. is used in innumerable ways like thatches, mats, tasty dishes, oil, soap etc. It takes in even salty water from the earth and converts it into sweet nutritive water that is especially beneficial to sick people. It is used in the preparation of many ayurvedic medicines and in other alternative medicinal systems. The marks on the coconut are even thought to represent the three-eyed Lord Shiva and therefore it is considered to be a means to fulfill our desires. In certain rituals a coconut is placed on a kalasha, decorated, garlanded and worshipped as symbolic of Lord Shiva and of the man of realization (gnaani).
Why do we chant Om ?
Om is one of the most chanted sound symbols in India. It has a profound effect on the body and mind of the one who chants and also on the surroundings. Most mantras and Vedic prayers start with Om. All auspicious actions begin with Om. It is even used as a greeting – Om, Hari Om etc. It is repeated as a mantra or meditated upon. Its form is worshipped, contemplated upon or used as an auspicious sign. Om is the universal name of the Lord. It is made up of the letters A (phonetically as in “around”), U (phonetically as in “put”) and M (phonetically as in “mum”). The sound emerging from the vocal chords starts from the base of the throat as “A” With the coming together of the lips, “U” is formed and when the lips are closed, all sound ends in “M”. The three letters symbolize the three states (waking, dream and deep sleep), the three deities (Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva), the three Vedas (Rig, Yajur and Sama) the three worlds (Bhub, Bhwah, Suvah) etc. The Lord is all these and beyond. The formless, attribute less lord (Brahman) is represented by the silence between two Om chants. Om is also called pranava that means, “that (symbol or sound) by which the Lord is praised”. The entire essence of the Vedas is enshrined in the word Om. It is said that the Lord stared creating the world after chanting Om and atha. Hence its sound is considered to create an auspicious beginning for any task that we undertake. The Om chant should have the resounding sound of a bell (aaooommm). It fills the mind with peace, makes it focussed and replete with subtle sound, People meditate on its meaning and attain realization. Om is written in different ways in different places. The most common form ( Om ) symbolizes Lord Ganesha. The upper curve is the head; the lower large one, the stomach; the side one, the trunk; and the semi-circular mark with the dot, the sweetmeat ball (modaka) in Lord Ganesha’s hand. Thus Om symbolizes everything – the means and the goal of life, the world and the Truth behind it, the material and the Sacred, all forms and the Formless.
Why do we perform aarati ?
Towards the end of every ritualistic worship (pooja or bhajan) of the Lord or to welcome an honored guest or saint, we perform the aarati. This is always accompanied by the ringing of the bell and sometimes by singing, playing of musical instruments and clapping. It is one of the sixteen steps ( shodasha upachaara ) of the pooja ritual. It is referred to as the auspicious light ( mangala niraajanam ). Holding the lighted lamp in the right hand, we wave the flame in a clockwise circling movement to light the entire form of the Lord. Each part is revealed individually and also the entire form of the Lord. As the light is waved we either do mental or loud chanting of prayers or simply behold the beautiful form of the Lord, illumined by the lamp. We experience an added intensity in our prayers and the Lord’s seems to manifest a special beauty at that time. A the end of the aarati we place our hands over the flame and then gently touch our eyes and the top of the head. We have seen and participated in this ritual from our childhood. Having worshipped the Lord with love – performing abhisheka, decorating the image and offering fruits and delicacies, we see the beauty of the Lord in all His glory. Our minds are focussed on each limb of the Lord as it is lit up by the lamp. It is akin to silent open-eyed meditation on His beauty. The singing, clapping, ringing of the bell etc. denote the joy and auspiciousness, which accompanies the vision of the lord. Aarati is often performed with camphor. This holds a telling spiritual significance. Camphor when lit burns itself out completely without leaving a trace of it. Camphor represents our inherent tendencies ( vaasanas ). When lit by the fire of knowledge which illumines the Lord (Truth), our vaasanas thereafter burn themselves out completely, not leaving a trace of the ego which creates in us a sense of individuality that keeps us separate from the Lord. Also while camphor burns to reveal the glory of the Lord, it emits a pleasant perfume even while it sacrifices itself. In our spiritual progress, even as we serve the guru and society, we should willingly sacrifice ourselves and all we have, to spread the “perfume” of love to all. We often wait a long while to see the illumined Lord but when the aarati is actually performed, our eyes close automatically as if to look within. This is to signify that each of us is a temple of the Lord we hold the divinity within. Just as the priest reveals the form of the Lord clearly with the aarati flame, so too the guru clearly reveals to us the divinity within each one of us with the help of the “flame” of knowledge (or the light of spiritual knowledge). At the end of the aarati, we place our hands over the flame and then touch our eyes and the top of the head. It means – may the light that illumined the Lord light up my vision; may vision be divine and my thoughts noble and beautiful. The philosophical meaning of aarati extends further. The sun, moon, stars, lightning and fire are the natural sources of light. The Lord is the source of all these wondrous phenomena of the universe. It is due to Him alone that all else exist and shine. As we light up the Lord with flame of the aarati, we turn our attention to the very source of a light, which symbolizes knowledge and life. Also the sun is the presiding deity of the intellect; the moon, that of the mind; and fire, that of speech. The lord is the supreme Consciousness that illumines all of them. Without Him the intellect cannot think, nor can the mind feel nor the tongue speak. The Lord is beyond the mind, intellect and speech. How can these finite equipment illumine the infinite Lord? Therefore as we perform the aarati we chant:
"Na tatra suryo bhaati na chandra taarakam Nemaa vidyuto bhaanti kutoyamagnih Tameva bhaantam anubhaati sarvam Tasya bhaasa sarvam idam vibhaati"
He is there where the sun does not shine, Nor the moon, stars and lightning. Then what to talk of this small flame (in my hand) ! Everything (in the universe) shines Only after the Lord, And by his light alone are we all illumined.