heart of devotional worship
Swami Bhajanananda Saraswati
This article was commissioned for, and first appeared
in, the Winter 2001 issue of Light of Consciousness
Inside, the hush of anticipation is intense. The
temple, drenched in predawn murkiness, is full of all
types of devotees, diverse souls seeking the same
sanctuary at this early hour.
Monks sit silently at the foot of the altar, their
orange robes almost glowing in the dimness; their fire
defies the shadows. No image is to be seen. The large
wooden double doors on the altar remain shut. But the
light coming from the crack under those doors tells you
that something is about to happen. In an instant the
hallowed sound of the blowing conch pierces the silence
and as the single note fills every corner of the hall,
the doors are opened, light spills everywhere, and a
thunderous tumult of bells, gongs and drums announces
the glorious awakening of the sleepless, all-powerful
Lord. As the eyes of the divine image fall upon you, you
fall to your knees, head to the floor, bowing. Then you
rise, and the clamor of instruments glides into a
natural rhythm as the pujari offers flame, flower,
water, perfume and cooling breeze to the living God. The
devotees know without a doubt that they have seen God,
and that God has seen them. This is darshan, the
grace and beauty of the Hindu temple: you do not have to
be a saint to see God.
This scene is repeated morning after morning in
thousands of temples throughout India. Most of the
world's major religions teach that God is everywhere and
ever-present. Yet these same religions recognize the
power and importance of sacred sites; temples, mosques
and churches are unlike other buildings. The house of
worship holds within it a special manifestation of
divinity. Call it an "atmosphere" or a "presence", or
whatever you like-it is a quality, immediate and
unmistakable, and powerful enough to remind us that the
Truth felt within those walls is indeed outside as well.
The lens held up to the sunlight will focus the
all-pervading rays into a beam powerful enough to burn.
If the temple is the lens through which divinity is
focused, then within the Hindu temple, the image of the
deity is that blazing point of total convergence.
It is surprising that some practitioners of religions
who accept the divine presence within the sacred site
often have great difficulty in accepting the same
presence within the sacred image, and they will usually
resort to derisive tones, calling it "idolatry." But to
recognize the false, we must have some notion of the
true. How does a thing become sacred? What brings about
that quality? Why will the devotee trample across one
stone presumably to worship another stone? The answer
lies within an object's connection to the divine.
are symbols and symbols, the real ones and the false
ones. The mirage has got the appearance of water, but
it is a delusive phenomenon which has nothing to do
with water; whereas, the wave may be recognized as a
true symbol of the ocean, because it rises out of it,
is in touch with it, and also gets merged in it. Like
the ocean, it is made of the same substance, water."
(Swami Yatiswarananda, Meditaion and Spiritual
Life, Sri Ramakrishna Ashram, Bangalore, 1983,
The images in Hindu temples are not arbitrary; these
are not golden calves, made up on a whim. These are
divine forms, revealed forms, possessing the necessary
attributes that separate them from other forms, in the
same way that a hundred-dollar bill possesses the
particular elements that separate it from just another
scrap of paper.
While it is true that you do not have to be a saint
to see God, there are gradations to darshan. Inside the
temple, the saint will not see the deity in same way as
the scoundrel. Just as we all have different physical
eyesight, so we all have different spiritual vision. But
there is hope, and therein lies the incentive. For
though our corporeal vision generally deteriorates as we
grow older, our spiritual vision should only improve. It
must improve, and become perfect: that is the goal of
sadhana, spiritual practice.
If God is everywhere and ever-present then why is it
that we are not continuously stunned in divine rapture?
We are not always conscious of the Divine presence. The
devotional schools of Hinduism stress the importance of
invoking this presence through prayers, chanting and
Before we can truly see everything as divine, we must
adopt an attitude of treating everything as divine. But
this is not pretense; this is process. The mind and
heart must be transformed. One of the easiest ways to
purify our heart and mind is to call to the Lord from
the depth of our being. God's presence must be invoked
and sustained by our heartfelt prayers and adoration.
This is called puja. Puja can be as simple as
offering your love and aspiration as a flower to the
lord of your heart or as intricate as the ritualized
worship in public temples.
It is perhaps best to begin a discussion of the
elements of traditional worship with the One being
worshiped. There are 33 million gods and goddesses in
the Hindu pantheon. The label-loving western mind will
immediately assume that "Hinduism" (itself a western
label for the sanatana dharma or "eternal
religion" of India) is "polytheistic"---or perhaps
"henotheistic." Dictionaries and encyclopedias will
describe with anemic brevity the "Hindu god of [fill
in blank]" or the "goddess of [fill in
blank]". Yet if asked, a devout follower of one of
those gods or goddesses will say, "I am only worshiping
God [that's a capital "G"]." As the
is one; sages call it by many names."[1.164.46]
The same mountain will appear differently when
approached from different directions. Theologically
speaking, this is a revolutionary thought-even for
so-called "sophisticated" modern minds. It is this
revelation which allows for the incredible richness,
variety and complexity within India's religion. As a
result, we have the concept of the ishta devata, or
"chosen deity." The devotee chooses the face of Truth
that is dearest to his or her heart and begins to
cultivate a relationship of love, reverence and
surrender. We may look upon God as our Mother, Father,
Child, Friend, or Lover. Because the Supreme Being is
supremely gracious, we are allowed to approach and to
worship that Being in so many beautiful ways.
Each of these approaches carries with it its own
unique form of puja. Puja varies according to the deity
worshiped, and, naturally, the region of practice. Yet
there are striking similarities as well, since certain
elements of all forms of puja have their collective
roots in Tantra. Tantra is the esoteric science
of transforming consciousness though dynamic spiritual
practices. These elements were absorbed into the Vedic
system, eventually finding new expression. Even in
modern times the diverse traditions continue to
influence and enrich one another.
The heart's need for the divine vision is by no means
exclusive to India. It is universal. There are many
temples in the US. For example Kali Mandir is a
traditional temple dedicated to bringing all the beauty
and sanctifying power of traditional ritualistic worship
to the West. It is a temple of the Divine Mother of the
Universe as the loving-fierce form of Goddess Kali. Kali
Mandir has grown into a beautiful blend of sincere
Indian and Western devotees from different lineages, as
well as aspirants with no formal affiliations-all
attracted by the tangible living presence of the Divine
Worship is performed daily to the awakened image of
Ma Dakshineshwari (the Goddess from
Dakshineshwar). The puja performed at Kali Mandir
follows the ritualistic tradition of the Dakshineswar
Kali Temple, located in Bengal, just outside Calcutta.
This temple is renowned as the place where Sri
Ramakrishna Paramahamsa lived, taught, and worshiped the
Divine Mother with an awe-inspiring intensity.
Dakshineshwar has been a beacon for the universality of
religion for over a century.
Once a month, large crowds of Ma's children gather
for a special worship held on amavasya, the mystic night
of the dark moon, an auspicious time for Kali worship.
Sincere devotees from far and wide come for this event.
They come from all over the state, some driving over
four hours to see Her and sing Her names. There are
pious Indian families, who come together, sometimes four
generations, bowing before Ma simultaneously. Mendicant
Hindu monks sit silently, their very presence infusing
the atmosphere with sanctity. Conservative Christian
Fathers and young devotees from Los Angeles, pierced,
dyed, and tattooed, whose pure-hearted sincerity will
bring tears to your eyes, sit together waiting with
anticipation. Old, young, spiritual geniuses and the
slightly crazy -- they all find their way to Mother's
feet. A glimpse of the devotees can change your life as
quickly and thoroughly as a glimpse of the Mother.
The puja is performed by a pujari, someone who
has trained in the technical nuances of traditional
ritual. The pujari's main function is to call forth
Divinity, to make the Divine Presence felt. To do this
he or she must first awaken the Divinity within through
a series of purifying acts, each one operating on
increasingly subtler levels:
our actions, mind and speech, we have no other goal
than You, Who by dwelling within, witnesses all
beings, O Supreme Goddess.
This prayer, recited at the end of the puja,
beautifully conveys the essence of devotional worship.
The act of puja is a conscious redirecting of our mind
and the senses toward the ever-present Reality. Our
speech becomes purified through the recitation of the
sacred mantras used in puja; our actions become purified
through the use of mudras (hand gestures),
pranayama (breath control), and the physical
offering of gifts to the divine. Our thoughts become
purified through the various meditations and
visualizations occurring throughout the worship.
Redirection, purification, and transformation: this is
the process by which the Divine is awakened.
Dusk has settled. The altar is sparkling clean and
exquisitely decorated. Garlands of marigolds adorn the
images, while trays piled with flowers await offering.
The lamps and incense are lit. The pujari comes before
the altar, bows, and sits down to meditate for a short
time before starting. The outgoing mind must now withdraw and
patiently focus on the inner world. As if being cued,
everyone present settles down and begins to withdraw. It
is now so quite you could hear a feather drop. Once in a
while we encounter moments so peaceful, they seem like
the soft pause between the breaths of Life Itself. This
is one of them. Serene silence, the flickering of oil
lamps, and the gently curling fragrant incense: God is
waiting. Slowly the pujari puts his hands together and
begins to pray:
auspiciousness come from You, our Divine Guru.
auspiciousness come from You, our Divine
May auspiciousness come from You, devotees
of the Lord.
May auspiciousness come from You, all
This prayer helps to remind us that devotion is a
gift. Remembering this helps develop the humility
necessary for spiritual advancement. It is by the grace
of our teachers, the devotees, and the Divine Mother
Herself that we are blessed with the privilege and
opportunity to worship Her. The pujari, on behalf of the
assembled devotees, therefore invokes their blessings
before beginning the puja.
All the mantras used in puja are spoken in Sanskrit.
Each mantra is a sacred formula-divine consciousness as
sound vibrations In linguistics there is the concept of
the "speech act". For example, the speaking of a
marriage vow is itself the act of becoming married. When
spoken with a focussed will, words have a tremendous
power. Considering that ordinary words possess the power
to win or break hearts, topple governments, and
transform civilizations, what can be said of the power
of sanctified speech?
The pujari then begins the first stage of
purification, acamana. Three times, he pours a
spoonful of water in his right palm, infuses it with the
name of Lord Vishnu, and sips. The scriptures stress the
importance of sipping water charged with mantras for
purification at the beginning of any religious act. The
worshiper feels that this consecrated water, like the
Ganges, is flowing from the holy feet of the Lord.
Water is a central element in puja. This water
receives its purifying power through mantra. In front of
the pujari is the copper vessel and offering spoon that
represents the womb of the Divine Mother. The pujari
fills this vessel with water and begins to show a series
of mudras. His hands hover and glide like birds
over this water, as if speaking fluently in some
beautiful sign language. The sacred rivers (the Ganga, Yamnuna,
Godavari, Saraswati, Sindhu, and Kaveri), all of them
personified Goddesses, are invoked into this water,
which will now serve as an important purifying agent
throughout the rest of the puja.
Puja contains syntax unique unto itself, employing
sacred conventions to express spiritual intentions. The
mudra is an example of one such convention. Mudras are
hand gestures that, like mantas, embody certain
energies. The hands naturally express emotions and
ideas: we make fists when angry, throw up our hands when
frightened or disgusted, wave, point, etc. Similarly,
certain hand gestures can express spiritual ideas.
Mudras also help concentrate the mind, by unifying body,
mind and prana (vital force).
Shifting into a position almost resembling the
Catholic genuflection, the pujari recites the sankalpa,
the formal declaration of pure intent. This keeps us
mindful of our purpose in performing the ritual. It is
extremely dangerous to worship God with selfish motives.
Sri Ramakrishna would pray, "Oh Mother! I do not crave
bodily comforts. I do not want name and fame. I do not
seek the eight occult powers. I only want pure love for
Thy Lotus Feet!"
The pujari now draws a Goddess yantra
(mandala) with water on his seat, and offers it flowers,
honoring and sanctifying Mother Earth, Who holds us all
in Her lap. Then the altar and articles of worship are
subtly purified with water and mantras.
The system of puja is a tradition handed down from
guru to disciple. The pujari invokes his sampradaya, or
line of gurus, therefore connecting himself with this
unbroken chain of grace, and placing himself at a
specific point within sacred time.
The pujari next places himself at a specific point
within sacred space. Through the sanctity of the worship
itself, the place of worship becomes the holy yantra or
realm of the Goddess. This yantra has ten main entrance
points: the eight cardinal directions, and above and
below. It is through these that energy can enter and
leave the yantra. The pujari moves his hand around his
head, snapping his fingers while uttering the protective
mantra "phat", sealing these points, in order to contain
the divine energies invoked during the worship.
Pouring water from the palm of his hand around
himself, the pujari imagines being protected by a ring
of fire. As our concentration deepens and our hearts
begin to open up, we become sensitive to negative
energies and astral entities. This process creates a safe environment for
performing the internal practice that follow. As these
opening rituals continue, one of the many expert
musicians begins to sing to the accompaniment of
harmonium, drums and hand cymbals. Some devotees
continue to meditate throughout the puja but most repeat
the line in chorus. Kirtan (call and response
devotional chanting) is a great way to personally
experience the transforming power and beauty of God's
many holy names.
Meanwhile the pujari begins performing
pranayama. Prana refers to the vital force that
animates our body and mind, and manifests outwardly as
our breath. Ayama means control. Pranayama is the
practice through which this "vital air" is consciously
controlled or directed. While mentally chanting a
bija (seed) mantra such as om, the breath
is inhaled, held, and exhaled through alternating
nostrils in a series of sequential durations. This
quiets the mind and purifies the 72,000 nadis
(subtle nerves) in the body, allowing the free flow of
prana and kundalini shakti (the Divine Mother as
the power of consciousness, residing in the body).
Only a diamond can cut diamond. The Tantric
scriptures declare that, "Divinity alone can worship
Divinity." The body and mind need to be divinized. All
the purification that has take place so far goes to
support the following practice, one of the most crucial
in puja, known as bhutashuddhi. Consciousness,
divine by nature, has no material form or shape, but
rather takes on the qualities of its container.
Therefore the whole process of bhutashuddhi is to purify
the container, the body and mind. According to Tantra,
this body and mind are composed of five gross elements
(earth, water, fire, air, ether), and three subtle
elements (mind, intelligence, ego). In bhutashuddhi, all
of these principles undergo total purification.
The pujari relaxes into the meditation pose and
begins to recite a series of mantras. In the process of
this recitation, further pranayama, and accompanying
visualizations, the physical body (which also represents
the universe), is symbolically reabsorbed into its
original source to allow the worshiper's individual
consciousness to become dissolved into the supreme
reality. This individuated consciousness is raised,
along with the kundalini shakti, up from the base
of the spine, piercing the chakras (the subtle
energy centers within the body), and is finally united
with the Supreme Consciousness in the thousand-petaled
lotus at the top of the head.
With the body and mind now purified, the Divine
Mother can be invoked within the heart through the
appropriate mantras and mudras. The pujari now creates a
proper spiritual body for Her, in place of his own. The
Maha-Lakshmyashtakam states that, "The form of
the Goddess consists only of mantra." According to
Tantric philosophy, creation begins with vibration. The
supreme vibration is the universal sound om, which then
divides into the fifty unique sounds of the Sanskrit
alphabet. These sound-letters join to create the world
of name and form. Each letter is recognized as a
matrika, or mother-goddess. Through the process
of nyasa, each matrika is placed and worshiped
within the pujari's body.
The excitement continues to build as the pujari
begins the traditional preliminary worship. The guru is
honored first, since the guru is the human channel of
divine grace. Next Lord Ganesha, the elephant-headed son
of Shiva and Parvati, is worshiped as the remover of our
material and spiritual obstacles. Then the five Vedic
deities (Shiva, Vishnu, Surya, Durga, and Agni) are
honored, connecting us with ancient tradition. As
perfume, flower, incense, light, and sweets are offered,
the music of the kirtan becomes intoxicating. The drums
and cymbals beat faster, and the singing falls into
harmony with the pujari's chanting.
Reciting a verse that describes the vision of Mother
Kali seen by the sages, the pujari places a flower on
his head and mentally worships the Goddess within his
heart. He now prepares for the invocation of the
all-pervading Mother into the image. This is the moment
of prana pritishtana, when God is humbly asked to
come, sit, and face the assembled devotees. These
mantras and mudras are some of the most powerful ones
used in the puja, and it is not difficult to perceive
the manifestation taking place. That transcendent
Reality, in the form of the Goddess, now stands before
us to receive our worship.
This is the magic moment. She is here! The devotees
feel Her presence. The Subtle One has become obvious.
The Absolute Existence, Knowledge and Bliss, invoked
within the pujari's heart and projected into the holy
image can be seen and experienced. The devotees, all
different and unique, offer their love, prayers,
concerns, complaints and aspirations to their Mother.
Does She listen? Is it only imagination? The full hearts
and shining faces of Her devotees give the answer.
The pujari raises his hands before the Divine Mother,
beckoning Her to sit. He offers Her welcome, washes Her
feet, and gives Her water and sweet milk to drink. He
bathes Her, clothes Her, gives Her bangles and other
ornaments, perfume, hibiscus (Ma's favorite flower),
garlands, incense and light. These external offerings
are the symbolic tokens of our inner love, devotion and
respect. We want relationship. We want to see God.
Assistants clear space on the altar, making room for
Mother's meal. Trays and trays of cooked foods, sweets,
fruits, and refreshing spices are brought and laid
before Her. The mood suddenly changes and the devotees
sing soulful songs while their dear Mother enjoys Her
meal. When She is finished, the trays of food are taken
back to the kitchen. This food having been partaken by
God is now prasad and is considered purified and
blessed. The devotees will feast on Her mercy after the
The pujari stands and blows the conch. All rise for
the concluding arati. The air is now electric. Every
voice in the temple is glorifying the Divine Mother,
chanting Jai Ma! Jai Ma! Jai Ma! Jai Ma! (Victory
to the Mother!), while every pair of hands, every bell,
drum, and cymbal, claps and clangs in unison. The pujari
offers a ghee lamp with five wicks, gently circling it
around Her image. Then he offers a spoon of burning
camphor, water from a bathing conch, cloth, flower, and
fan. Symbolically, the elements of the material universe
are being offered back into their Source. But for the
devotees present, this is simply the natural way to
adore the Mother. The conch is blown again three times,
declaring spiritual victory, as all bow to Ma. The
worship is complete.
Puja is a way to fine-tune our minds to see God. It
is by no means the only way, for God is everywhere. This
universal vision is real puja.