Yoga is one way in which you might find unity with the Divine that is within yourself and in everything. Performing puja is another beautiful way you can seek to make that connection with the universal Consciousness, Divine or God. Simply put, puja is a place to worship. It is a devotional act, a prayer, or a spiritual ritual. It has its basis in Hinduism and Buddhism and, in essence, is a ritualistic act of reverence and devotion to the Divine.
In this way, puja can be considered a yogic practice in and of itself. What you give and offer through puja you regain in true knowledge of the inner Self. The more fully and open-heartedly you are able to give, the more you will receive.
The word, puja, has Sanskrit roots meaning "reverence, adoration and worship." For Hindus, puja may be performed daily in the home or in the temple as a sacred ritual. It may also be an act performed at key ceremonies and festivals, or at major rites of passage, such as the birth of a baby or a wedding. Its frequency and exact ceremony depend on the school of Hinduism, the context and the individual. In many Hindu puja ceremonies, a deity will be symbolically welcomed as a guest. They may be offered praise and gifts, such as food, chants, money or flowers, before the host graciously and affectionately says goodbye.
Similarly, in Buddhism, puja is an act either performed at home every day or in the temple during communal festivals. In the "Pali Canon," an ancient Buddhist text, Buddha describes puja as the “highest blessing.” Thus, performing puja is a sacred and beautiful act of reverence.
Elements of the Ritual
The act of puja may include chanting, use of images, incense or fire, offerings and bowing, or any combination of these.
Chanting and Sound
A chant may be used as an invocation to invite a particular god to the ceremony, or to evoke feelings of tranquility and harmony in those performing the ceremony. The chants will usually be in traditional languages, such as Sanskrit, Pali or Tibetan. They may be followed by more personal prayers or hymns. A bell may be rung as part of a puja ceremony because it symbolizes the sense of hearing and also a belief in karma.
Use of Images
An image of the deity being revered is often used in puja ceremonies. This may be Lord Shiva, Goddess Durga or Lord Ganesha depending on the preferences of the host and the purpose of their ceremony. It could be a picture or a statue of the deity. In Hinduism, this idol is not considered to be the deity itself; what is worshiped is the representation of the Divine within the idol. Puja can even be performed as an act of devotion to a revered spiritual guru or teacher, using a photograph or a statue of the guru. As part of the puja ceremony, this image or idol may be decorated with ornaments, dabbed with perfumes or wrapped in a cloth as a sign of deep respect.
Incense or Fire
The lighting of incense usually accompanies the chanting and invocation of the deity at the beginning of a puja ceremony. In ceremonies to honor the Rigvedic deity of fire, Agni, a fire may be lit to invoke their spirit.
Gifts to please the deity may be offered during the ceremony. Garlands of flowers can be hung on the image or idol, or given as a gift. In Buddhism, these represent the impermanence and cycle of life. Food and water may be provided to show reverence and respect for life as these are necessary for living. Candles may symbolize enlightenment or express gratitude for the sense of sight. Peacock feathers in Buddhism are a symbol of purity, so they may be used to evoke true wisdom and knowing. In Hinduism, peacock feathers symbolize the Goddess Lakshmi, so they may be offered as a gift to her.
The worshiper may lower themselves or bow before the image or idol at the beginning of the puja ceremony to show reverence and respect. It is traditional to bow by placing the hands in prayer position, anjali mudra, and lowering the head. This is usually done three times before the idol or it may be performed more formally with a series of head-to-floor bows. Bowing is an expression of pure love and open-hearted surrender to the Divine.
The Benefits of Puja
Like all forms of yoga and spiritual acts, to perform puja is to connect with and honor the Divine. The ceremony can provide space to fully meditate on and contemplate the nature of the Divine within everything, through honoring the deity in the ceremony. Thus, it can be a powerful part of spiritual development. It may evoke feelings of peace, tranquility and comfort. Traditionally, puja ceremonies were also used to make direct requests to the gods.
How to Perform Your Own Puja
It is important to define an appropriate space to perform puja. This is a sacred space where you can perform the ceremony in peace, without fear of interruption. You may wish to create a small altar or shrine with an image of any deity you wish to honor, candles, or any other symbols you wish to include. Crystals can be used to bring positive energy into this space. You can also prepare any items you wish to use as offerings, such as flowers, peacock feathers, fruit or water.
It is a good idea to begin with a few moments of silence and meditation upon your intention for the puja ceremony. The mind should be clear and the thoughts pure before beginning the puja. Pure thoughts can be cultivated by contemplating the virtues of love, respect, compassion and truth. Then you may wish to light incense, and perhaps chant or meditate. You can express devotion to the selected deity or to the Divine through prayers and also bowing.
After chanting and meditation, it is time to make any offerings to the deity, perhaps decorating the image or symbolically placing your gifts next to them. You may also wish to recite passages from spiritual texts that resonate with you or to perform more chants, prayers or hymns. Finally, the ceremony may be closed by bowing again or by ringing a bell.
Puja ceremonies performed by individuals can be very personal, so feel welcome to adapt these guidelines to suit what works for you, your beliefs and your spirituality. Most of all, enjoy this beautiful ritual and act of love. Puja is a place to offer yourself with an open heart to the Divine that is in everything. Every moment in puja is sacred and your devotion in puja is a step on your journey to true knowledge of your inner Self.