Where shall we find God if we cannot see Him in our own hearts and in every living being?
– Swami Vivekananda
As happens every year on the occasion of Maha Shivaratri, hundreds of thousands of devotees will be going to Ganga Talao to collect water from the lake and take it back to be poured on the Shiva Linga when they do the puja in their respective temples. They will start with a simple puja at the water edge where, as in all pujas, they will make offerings.
As Swami Tejomayananda, Spiritual Head of Chinmaya Mission, has written: ‘Very few people really pay close attention during an ordinary puja. They say, “Oh, we do not understand anything the priest is doing or what he is chanting.” But many do not even try to understand! We cannot blame the priest class or others for our ignorance. We ourselves must be serious in learning the meaning of the ceremony.’ (italics added)
Understanding through reason
I will not be far wrong in asserting that this observation of Swamiji is very much the experience of many of us. We take things too lightly and do not make any earnest and consistent efforts to understand the basis of our customs and practices, and we pay only lip-service to them. We have time for everything else but will not set aside dedicated time to analyse and appreciate the depth and beauty of our cultural richness.
But it is never too late: I myself did not understand the true meaning and purpose of these offerings until, late in my life I must admit, I obtained that knowledge directly from my spiritual guides, and supplemented it by my own research which is a continuing pursuit. It is this knowledge that I wish to share, presented in its fundamentals. Those who wish to explore the subject further will find some references at the end of the article.
When through laziness and impatience people take a superficial approach to understanding, they tend to glibly label everything as superstition, that is, something without any sound or rational basis. As far as Hinduism is concerned, nothing could be further from the truth. Let us see what an unbiased specialist in the matter, Jean Herbert, says:
‘Ce qui distingue l’Inde, c’est d’abord que la métaphysique y est exempte de tout dogme et que non seulement on y fait la place à la raison sans restriction, mais qu’on requiert même la raison d’y jouer un rôle considérable et décisif… La mystique et la religion, sur une base matérielle et éthique solidement établie, font appel à toutes les facultés de l’homme: à sa raison, à son affectivité, sa volition et même son activité la plus matérielle, dans tous leurs aspects et leurs subdivisions.’
Hindu perspective on existence/creation
In fact, there is both an overt and a subtle logic in the Hindu darshana or perspective (loosely translated as ‘philosophy’ in the western sense) on existence which insists on the primacy of reason, knowledge and experience in the quest for its understanding.
From this standpoint, everything in existence emanates from the Ultimate Truth or Absolute Reality: Brahman. Through the power of Maya-Shakti, Brahman projects or manifests as Iswara (equivalent to God in the semitic religions) who is the ruler of the universe, and does so through the three functions of creating, maintaining and destroying it cyclically. Each function is but a facet of the same or one Iswara, referred to respectively as Brahma (creator), Vishnu (maintainer) and Shiva (destroyer).
If we take our own example as human beings, after we are born (created) we need food and overall nurturing so as to grow to total maturity (maintained) and eventually we die (destroyed).
In the Hindu model, creation – that is, all things created, living and non-living – consists of five elements (not, though, in the sense the term is used in chemistry), which are Space, Air, Fire, Water, and Earth. A correspondence has been established between the elements and the five sensations, and each element is as well symbolized by an item used in the performance of the puja. This is set out below schematically as follows:
Space (Akash) — Sound — Flowers (Pushpa)
Air (Vayu) — Touch — Incense (Dhupa)
Fire (Agni) — Vision (Form) — Light (Deepa)
Water (Apah) — Taste — Fruit/food (Naivedya)
Earth (Prithvi) — Smell — Sandalwood paste (Gandha)
Why do we ‘offer’?
For the same reason that when we receive a gift, we express our thanks in gratitude to the giver. And here it is about the gift of life, and of the things created that are needed to sustain or maintain this life. Although we know that whatever we are offering has been given to us by the same Ishwara, we still ‘offer’ in the same spirit that a child ‘offers’ a birthday gift to his parents using their own money. Will the parents refuse or make fun of the child? Never, they will gracefully accept it and even thank the child. So too Ishwar ‘accepts’ these offerings, and we feel as happy too from the feeling of peace that dawns within.
As has been beautifully put in ‘Purna Vidya’, ‘Puja is one of the most beautiful ways to bring out the devotee within oneself and establish a relationship with Ishwara, the Lord. Puja is called kayikam karma, an action involving one’s limbs. It also includes speech and mental action in the form of chanting and thinking of the Lord.’
On another level, in making these offerings we are acknowledging that creation is made up of these five elements by symbolically representing them with the items shown above, which, it must be underlined, are all natural. At the same time, though, we are recognizing that as human beings we are as one with all of creation, since we are made of the same five elements. This realization of our connectedness with the larger whole, of our being an integral part of it, and of our mutual interdependence leads to an expanded awarenesss of both our place and that of everything else in the universe: that everything and everyone has got a rightful pace in it. Internalising this dawning awareness by daily meditation is what we call spirituality.
From this profound understanding of is what is referred to as the ‘fundamental unity of all existence’ flows such profound axioms as Vasudaiva kutumbakam (the world is one family) and Ekam sat vipra bahuda badanti (Truth is one, the sages call it by various names).
These axioms have profound practical implications for peaceful coexistence in the world, because they signify that behind the diversity of humankind there is a profound unity, a deeper Oneness which, if acted upon, would make it easier to accept each other despite our differences and refrain from wishing to impose our ways of thinking or doing upon others through force or violence.
It may be noted that we use some other items too in puja, such as a bell or ghanta, the pleasant sound of which represents Space too, but also gives rise to vibrations that enhance the spiritual atmosphere. Camphor, besides giving light, burns down completely without leaving anything; this represents our mind which must be emptied completely of all vasanas or impressions so as to be rendered pure, prepared to receive the highest spiritual teachings. For specific pujas we use specific items, such as the coconut, which again has symbolic significance.
As we undertake the yatra towards Ganga Talao, let us try to keep the above in mind and focus on the deep significance of the actions we will be performing, and also share and discuss with others, especially the younger devotees who may not have had the opportunity to learn about these various aspects of the puja.
1. ‘Hindu Culture – An Introduction’: Swami Tejomayananda; Central Chinmaya Mission Trust, Mumbai
2. ‘La Mythologie hindoue: son message’: Jean Herbert; Editions Albert Michel, Paris
3. ‘Tattva Bodha of Sankaracharya’: By Swarupa Chaitanya; Central Chinmaya Mission Trust, Mumbai
4. ‘Puja & Prayers: Purna Vidya (Vedic Heritage Teaching Programme)’: Editor – Irene Schleicher; Sri Gangadhareswar Trust, Rishikesh
* Published in print edition on 4 March 2015