By Jayaram V
In Hinduism, puja is essentially a ritual suggestive of symbolic offering of ourselves, our thoughts, desires, actions and things we own to God, as a mark of devotion and surrender, enjoying whatever that comes to us as a gift from Him. In Hinduism puja is the most popular form of divine worship. It is performed either by individuals or by groups and either directly by a worshipper or indirectly by a priest on behalf of the worshipper. Although many people take liberties with it to express their love and devotion to God in their own individual ways, the traditional form of puja has a definite form and structure built around, which is usually followed in more traditional households, temples and religious places. The way a puja is conducted traditionally in Hindu households is akin to the way a guest is invited into the house and treated with utmost respect. The Hindu tradition equates a guest with God with this simple expression, "Athidi devobhava", which means a guest is verily God Himself.
We have discussed elsewhere both the outer aspects of puja and its historical development. Here we will discuss the symbolic significance of puja and the symbolic meaning of the various objects used during the ceremony.
The meaning of puja
The word "puja" consists of two letters, "pa" and "ja". "Pa" means "parayana" or continuous repetition of the names of God and "ja" means "japa" or continuous mental recitation of the names of God. So according to this interpretation "puja" is essentially a kind of worship in which both parayanam and japam are practised by the devotees.
According to another interpretation, "Pu" means "pushpam" or flower and "ja" means "jal". In the puja ceremony both flowers and water are offered to the deity during the worship. The letter "ja" can also mean simultaneously "japam". So if we take these twin meanings of "ja" into consideration, puja becomes that ceremony during which water and flowers are offered to God along with recitation of His names.
Lastly "pu' means "purusha" and "ja" means "janma" , to arise or wake up. During the puja ceremony life breath is installed in the deity and He is brought to life or into His dynamic aspect. It also means that the purusha in the worshipper also wakes up after the ceremony as he receives a new life and new consciousness (with the partaking of prasad) from the deity.
Vigraham. Vigraham means the statue or the image of the deity. Vigraha (vi+graha) also means that which removes the ill effects of the grahas or planets.
Symbolism of various objects used in puja
In a puja ceremony we use certain objects, mantras and methods of worship. On a superficial level we assume that they are liked by the deity who is being worshipped and therefore by using them in our worship we gain the grace and goodwill of the deity. However, from a spiritual perspective a puja ceremony should not be conducted for personal gain but to express our love, devoting and surrender to God. Puja is a formal way of doing meditation upon God and declaring one's faith in Him. It helps us to focus our minds upon God and remain in a heightened state of devotion. And when we do it in a formal manner by following a definite procedure, we are expressing our willingness to forego our personal choices and follow the required discipline as a mark of our surrender to God. The various objects used in the puja ceremony are meant to establish a direct relationship with God on personal level and seek His help. We discuss below the symbolic significance of these objects.
Purna kumbha or Purna kalasa (the sacred vessel):
It is generally placed as the chief deity or by the side of the chief deity before starting the puja. Symbolically it stands for mother goddess in general, or goddess Lakshmi in particular. It consists of an earthen or a metal pot with either water or rice in it , with leaves (of generally five specific species) in its mouth and a bowl of rice, flowers and coconut at its top. The pot represents mother earth, the flowers represent the ornamentation, the rice in the bowl represents either the material wealth or the powers of the goddess or both and the coconut represents the divine consciousness.
It is our ignorance (avidya) which we offer to the deity. The food symbolically stands for the earth element and in human beings for the gross body. So it can also means the body and the mind (which stand for the ignorant consciousness in us) which we place in front of the deity for transformation. When it is blessed by the deity it becomes the bestower of knowledge.
It stands for the good in us. We offer the deity the good that has blossomed in us. On the side of the elements it stands for the element of water because the flowers (especially the lotus) grow out of water.
It is the fruit of our action which we are supposed to offer to God as a symbol of our detachment, self-sacrifice and surrender.
It stands collectively for the desires (vasanas) and the desires we have for various things in life, which we are supposed to offer to the deity in order to become free from the cycle of births and deaths.
It is the smoke or the clouded consciousness (the very mind with all its thoughts and ignorance) that exists in us which is also an obstacle on our path to self realization. As long as this cloud is there, we cannot see the light or illumination in our consciousness. Dhupam also stands for the illusion which keeps us chained to this world. When we offer dhupam to God, we offer symbolically our illusions and our fickle mindedness. On the elemental side, it stands for the element of air or the breath body in us. It stands for prana which we offer to the deity with a sense of sacrifice.
It is the light in us, the very soul that exists in us which we offer to the deity as acknowledgement of our surrender and devotion. On the elemental side it stands for the element of ether that exists in us as Atman.
Kumkum and turmeric powder :
The red powder stands for our emotions or for our inner wisdom. The turmeric powder stands for our inner purity and on the negative side, for our inner pride and egoism.
When we offer our ignorance to God He suffuses it with knowledge and light. The word "prasad" is a combination of two words, "pra" + "sad". That which is near life and truth. The food that is offered to God is symbolic representation of the gross body into which at the end of worship God breathes new life new light making it divine. When we share the prasad with others, we share with them symbolically the knowledge we so gained during the worship.
ALSO SEE : Symbolism in Puja