You practice mudras, you chant, you say "namaste," but there's a deeper spiritual side and sense of worship that goes along with yoga that you might be missing out on. I remember the time I witnessed my first puja ceremony. I was at a beautiful, mystical temple called Thillai Nataraja Temple, in a village known as Chidambaram in southeastern India.
What a sacred experience it was! Worshipers offered flowers and other edibles to their beloved Hindu gods. Women, men and children were all filled with the spirit of worship -- taking part in what felt like a truly heartfelt and holy experience. That was nearly 20 years ago. Little did I know, Patanjali actually consecrated this particular temple. Now that I’ve studied The Yoga Sutras, I realize just how impressive that is!
Performing puja is a way to connect with the universal Consciousness, the Divine or God. Simply put, puja is a way to worship. It’s a devotional act, a prayer, a spiritual ritual. It’s based 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 I give and offer through puja, I receive in true knowledge of my inner self. The more fully and open-heartedly I am able to give, the more I’ll receive.
Here's a little more background on the ritual of puja and a description of the basic elements so you can learn how to create your own.
History of Puja
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 as a major rite of passage, such as that observed in the birth of a child 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. The deity 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 daily at home 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 This Spiritual 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. These chants 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. (Learn Our 4 Favorite Chants.)
Use of Images
An image of reverence toward the deity is often used in puja ceremonies. This may be Lord Shiva, Goddess Durga, or Lord Ganesha, depending on the host’s preferences and the purpose of his/her ceremony. It could be a picture or a statue of the deity. In Hinduism, this representation is not considered to be the deity itself; what is worshiped is the representation of the Divine within the image. Using a photograph or a statue of the guru, puja can even be performed as an act of devotion to a revered spiritual guru or teacher. As part of the puja ceremony, this image or other representation may be decorated with ornaments, dabbed with perfumes, or wrapped in a cloth as a sign of deep respect.
Incense or Fire
At the beginning of a puja ceremony, the lighting of incense usually accompanies the chanting and invocation of the deity. In ceremonies to honor the Rigvedic deity of fire, Agni, a fire may be lit to invoke his spirit.
Oftentimes, gifts to please the deity are offered during the ceremony. Garlands of flowers can be hung on the image or statue, 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 they’re necessary for living. Candles may symbolize enlightenment, or express gratitude for the sense of sight. Peacock feathers in Buddhism symbolize purity, so they may be used to evoke true wisdom and knowing. In Hinduism, peacock feathers symbolize Goddess Lakshmi, so they’re oftentimes offered as a gift to her. (Learn more about the auspicious Goddess Lakshmi in Abundance-Boosting Mantra & Meditation of Goddess Lakshmi.)
Frequently, at the purja ceremony’s onset, the worshiper prostrates, or bows before, the image or statue, in a show reverence and respect. It’s traditional to bow by placing the hands in prayer position, anjali mudra, and lowering the head. This is usually done three times before the image, or it may be performed more formally, with a series of head-to-floor bows. Bowing expresses pure love and open-hearted surrender to the Divine.
How to Perform Your Personal Puja
It’s important to define an appropriate space to perform puja. This is a sacred space in which to perform the ceremony amid peace, and without fear of interruption. You may wish to create a small altar or shrine with an image of any deity you wish to honor. You can also include candles or any other symbols to your liking. Crystals can be used to bring positive energy into the space. You can also prepare any items you wish to use as offerings, such as flowers, peacock feathers, fruit, or water.
Clear the Mind
It’s a good idea to begin with a few moments of silence and meditation, while also setting an intention for your puja ceremony. The mind should be clear, and thoughts should be pure, before beginning. Cultivate pure thoughts by contemplating the virtues of love, respect, compassion, and truth. Feel free to light incense, chant, or meditate. Don’t hesitate to express devotion to a particular deity, or to the Divine, through prayers and bowing.
Offer Gifts and Prayers
After chanting and meditation, it’s time to make any offerings to the deity. Perhaps decorate the image or symbolically place your gifts next to them. Experiment by reciting passages from spiritual texts that resonate with you. Perform chants, prayers, or hymns. Finally, the ceremony may be closed by bowing again or by ringing a bell. (You can get an idea of which text to choose a passage from in The Message of the Upanishads.)
Play Around With It
Like all forms of yoga and spiritual acts, to perform puja is to connect with and honor the Divine. The ceremony provides 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.
One of the great things about puja ceremonies is that they can be as intimate and personal or as grand as you wish. You don’t have to pay homage at a massive Indian temple. You can create your own beautiful and meaningful puja in your own home or with your own friends.
When performed by an individual, a puja ceremony can be very personal. So, adapt these guidelines to suit your own needs. 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. Your devotion through puja is a step on your journey to true knowledge of your inner and higher Self. (Read on in Svadhyaya: A Lifetime of Self-Study.)