The Rituals of Worship
Puja in the Home, in the Temple, and on Pilgrimage

Domestic Worship
The Bhagavad Gita (9.26) makes it clear that whatever is offered with a pure heart, be it a leaf, a flower, a fruit, or water, that act of devotion will be accepted. This articulates the essential feature of bhakti offerings, where the sincerity of the sentiment is more important than the items being offered, or the ritualized manner in which those offerings are made. However, the prescriptive ritualization of the processes of bhakti worship which developed may reflect the hand of priestly functionaries in securing a niche for their craft. Puja is this ritualized form of devotional worship. The origins of the word are unclear. Some trace it to the Tamil “pucu” (to smear), whereas others relate it to the Sanskrit root “puj” (to honor). The formal rites appear to parallel the procedures used to welcome a guest, as described in Vedic literature. However, the characteristic style of puja is personal and interactive, which does not have precedents in Vedic modes or worship. Puja does not typically need the ministration of priests. However, it entails three main components: invocation of the deity, devotional worship of that deity, and dismissal of the deity. Priests have come to play an indispensable role in all three of these processes particularly to deities in temple settings and during the performance of elaborate pujas. However, Hindu men and women of all classes routinely perform puja in domestic settings without the aid of priests. (IH, 246)

Puja in the Home
Most Hindus have a picture, a shelf, or a corner of a room set off as a shrine. Wealthy families may have a shrine room, whereas others may even maintain small temples on the premises of their homes. Certain wealthy families actually commission Brahmin priests to visit their homes daily to perform regular pujas to the deities installed in their home shrines. More typically, the devotees themselves perform the acts of worship. The technical term for these acts of devotional worship is upacara, which most people equate with the performance of puja. The simplest form of consists of five offerings, and thus is sometimes called a five-part puja. In it, the devotee first anoints the murti [image] with a fragrant paste (gandha). This is often sandalwood, ground into a powder and mixed with water. Then the deity is offered fresh flowers (puspa) or the image is draped with a garland. Incense (dhupa) is waved before the image, producing a fragrant smoke and aroma. A flame (dipa), generally from a bit of ignited camphor or a lamp fueled by ghee, is also passed before the image. And the fifth item is an offering of something edible (naivedya) to the deity. This is typically a sweet or a piece of fruit. The worshipper may then utter a simple honorific exclamation such as “Homage to Siva,” while bowing slightly and making a gesture of reverence (pranama) such as an anjali, a widely used Hindu form of greeting made by pressing the palms and fingertips of the hands together. The devotee may perform a partial or full prostration. The food offering is regarded as having been consumed or transformed by the deity, and is, therefore, rendered immaculate (prasada) or blessed. This consecrated edible is then eaten by the devotee, and portions distributed to the family members who were attending the rite. ...

The crucial element in puja is intimate relationship with the divine. The degree to which this intimacy is conceived or realized depends on the experience of the devotee. Some with monistic worldviews, strive for the deepest connection leading to absolute integration, becoming one with the deity. Others, and this is quite characteristic of many worldviews, strive for the greatest closeness that still retains the separate identities of the divine and the devotee. “I want to taste sugar, not become sugar,” is a commonly voiced dualistic bhakti sentiment. (IH, 247-8)

Puja in the Temple
A Hindu temple is regarded as the abode of a deity. ... A chief priest closely attends to the needs of the deity. He may awaken early, perform his daily personal purification rituals, and then proceed to “awaken” the god or goddess, who is located in the inner sanctum of the temple. The murti [divine image] is often bathed, and the bathwater, which has been consecrated by contact with the diving form, is used as a prasada (blessing) for worshippers who will later visit the temple for darsana [the viewing of a deity]. The murti may then be anointed with fragrant pastes, dressed in fine clothing, adorned with a garland of fresh flowers, and offered food. This is essentially part of the devotional service portion of puja, here performed for the awakened deity. The doors of the inner sanctum are then opened so that devotees who have gathered get their first glimpse of the deity. (IH, 249; for a detailed description of temple rituals, see The Life of Hinduism, 33-41)
Images of the Divine

[T]he temple is a point of juncture, a focus, where divine energies come together in a highly intense form. The center of this center, focus of its focus, is the temple’s principal image. ... Once carved, a divine image is called a murti, face. Such a murti is a bit like a radio or TV receiver; it draws its deity to it when proper prayers and invocations “turn it on.” ... Most temples own moveable forms of their images that can be mounted on a cart or carried in a palanquin. ... The moveable image is a clone; although it travels, the original deity still empowers its temple. The concept of image as receiver can help one to understand such doubling. If one TV is receiving a broadcast and a second is turned on, activating the second does not switch off the first; both can receive the same program at the same time. The same concept helps to explain how a single deity can be present in many temples at the same time. (Living Hinduisms, 139-40)
The variety of names and forms in which the divine has been perceived and worshipped in the Hindu tradition is virtually limitless. If one takes some of the persistent themes of Hindu creation myths as a starting point, the world is not only the embodiment of the divine, but the very body of the divine. The primal person, Purusa, was divided up in the original sacrifice to become the various parts of the cosmos (Rg Veda 10.90). Or, in another instance, the original germ or egg from which the whole of creation evolved was a unitary whole, containing in a condensed form within it the whole. While far-sighted visionaries may describe the one Brahman by the negative statement “Not this ... Not this ...,” still from the standpoint of this world, one can as well describe Brahman with the infinite affirmation “It is this. ... It is this. ...” The two approaches are inseparable. (The Life of Hinduism, 51)
The high point of the worship rite occurs when the priest ignites a flaming torch or lamp and passes it before the deity. This flame (dipa) offering is no different from the type conducted in a home puja. However, in temples the scale may be dramatically different. On special festival days, a priest may set ablaze simultaneously 108 flames on a brass lamp, no ordinary feat of ritual technical accomplishment, and wave this before the deity. This segment of the rite is known in Hindi as arati/arti (Sanskrit: aratrika, honoring), and is often used as a synonym by worshippers for the worship procedure as a whole. During arati, while the priest waves the flaming lamp, devotees may ring the temple bells, beat drums, and clash cymbals, producing a clamor of honorific noise that can be heard well beyond the temple premises. People throughout the neighborhood are aware that the arati of a particular local god or goddess is taking place by the sound of the bells and drums. The flame, now consecrated, is often passed to the gathered devotees, who pass their hands over the fire and smoke and then wave their hands over their faces and bodies, an action explained as cleansing them of all sins.

When the arati is finished, a priest typically takes up position at the portal of the inner sanctum and attends to the devotees who approach to make offerings. When visiting a Hindu temple it is customary to buy some offerings from the vendors who line the entrance. Typically one purchases a few flowers or a flower garland in a leaf container, washes one's hands, removes one's shoes and walks barefoot through the entrance. ... Votaries ring a bell strung above the temple doorway, announcing their arrival to the deity. They rarely approach the inner sanctum directly, and generally circumambulate, by walking in a clockwise direction around the temple, before making their way to the main murti. At the entrance to the inner sanctum they may pass their offerings to the priest. He will anoint their foreheads with an auspicious mark (Sanskrit: tilaka; Hindi: tika) typically made of red powder, although sandalwood paste or ash may also be used. The priest sometimes touches their offerings not to the image itself, but to a symbol of the divine, such as footprints (paduka) close to the entrance of the sanctum, where he is located. Elaborate offerings, such as a fine garland of flowers may actually be placed on the deity, if deemed pure. An offered coconut may be smashed and part of it placed in the inner sanctum, while the other half is returned to the devotee. The coconut water may be drunk as prasada. The priest dispenses some of the consecrated water from the deity's morning bath into the cupped right hand of worshippers, who sip it and dispense of the rest by passing it over the hair on their head. Devotees, making a reverential gesture (pranama) and uttering a prayer of homage, then gaze at the deity, taking darsana, hoping that the gaze is reciprocated and that the deity simultaneously looks back, acknowledging their presence and devotion, and hopefully attending to their needs. The eyes of murtis, particularly of goddesses, are often distinctively rendered to be “eye-catching” and thus facilitate the process of darsana. ...

Within the ideologies of bhakti, the deity is not in need of any ministrations. The divine is not dependent on the devotee. Perennially pure, the deity does not need to be cleansed. It does not need to be fed. Devotion displayed towards the deity brings the devotee into relationship with the divine, and the actions and sentiments of love and care, such as washing, clothing feeding, and honoring, actually purify and consecrate the worshipper. Devotees drink the  consecrated water that washed the deity. They eat the blessed prasada, and purify themselves with the honorific arati flame that passed before the deity. Bhakti cleanses bhatas of the karmic defilements that separate them from their Beloved, and progressively deepens the levels of intimacy they may enjoy in their relationship with the Divine (IH, 249-53)

Puja on Pilgrimage
Pilgrimage (yatra) is mostly an optional, although highly popular type of religious practice, because it fuses a religious quest with the adventure of travel and the pleasure of tourism. Hindus may undertake a yatra as part of a vowed ascetic observance (vrata), or to eliminate sins. Others travel to perform particular rites, such as going to Gaya for postmortem rituals, or to celebrate particular festivals, such as attending the Kumbha Melas. Each such holy site is known as a tirtha (ford or crossing place), so called because it provides a passage across the perilous waters of samsaric reality to the far shore of liberation. Although one might conceivably traverse between worldly and divine spheres anywhere, tirthas are locations where it is believed to be easier to cross from profane to sacred realms. When sacred chronology intersects with sacred geography, the tirtha is particularly charged, and pilgrims flock to avail themselves of these purifying and liberating portals in the divine time-space continuum. For instance, the Kumbha Melas occur every three years rotating between four locations. The one that takes place every twelve years at Prayag (Allahabad) is the world’s largest festival gathering. It attracts well over 15 million worshippers, who clamor to bathe in the confluence of the Ganga and Yamuna Rivers during an auspicious astrological conjunction. (IH, 261-2)
Despite the touristic dimension of pilgrimages, whose sites are quite commonly visited by honeymooning Hindu couples, if characterized by ordeal their value is often substantially enhanced. The Himalayan pilgrimages, which holy men (sadhu) generally perform on foot, involve arduous journeys to high mountain caves and glaciers. A particularly vigorous pilgrimage, which has dramatically grown in scale over the last half century, takes place at Sabarimalai, in the state of Kerala, during December and early January. For each of the 41 or 51 days, about 175,000 men undertake a pilgrimage to the mountain shrine of Lord Aiyappan (Ayyappan). Aiyappan is regarded, by orthodox Hindus, as the son of Siva, and Visnu, who assumed the alluring female form of Mohini, to lure away the demons when the Elixir of Immortality (amrta) was extracted from the churned Ocean of Milk. Aiyappan’s core myth, however, tells of a baby boy who was found mysteriously in the forest, and who as a youth was sent on a perilous journey, intended to kill him, to retrieve tiger’s milk. He returned victoriously riding the tiger and revealed himself to be the divinity Aiyappan.
Pilgrims don a black cloth lower garment (lungi), eat a simple diet of fruit and grain, and abstain from shaving, sex, and alcohol. Then, with periodic loud shouts, calling upon Aiyappan, they conduct their journey to various shrines, and into the mountain forests inhabited by tigers and wild elephants. At the main temple, the destination of their strenuous pilgrimage, they smash a coconut that they have been carrying on one of 18 steps, ideally repeating this journey, annually, to complete the rite on all 18 of the steps. By enduring the challenges of the forest ordeal and encountering the dangerous power of the wilderness, they emerge transformed, figuratively and experientially united with Aiyappan himself. (IH, 262-3)
Permanent Pilgrims
The boy who would become Swami Tapovan Maharaj was born in 1889, the oldest son of a well-to-do Nair caste family from the Malabar region of South India, now part of the state of Kerala. ... After studying for a time with a swami in Maharashtra, he took a vow of renunciation. ... He began trekking from tirtha to tirtha, even walking over the mountains into Nepal and Tibet, reaching the fabled Lake Manasarowar and Kailash, the mountain whose upper reaches are said to hold Shiva’s paradise. Gradually, he evolved an annual pattern, spending winters in Rishikesh, then moving higher during the summers, hiking from one pilgrim site to another but stopping wherever he pleased to spend days in meditation. ... Recalling a failed attempt to reach the site where the epic hero Yudhisthira was carried to heaven, Tapovan breaks into verbal ecstasy:
My heart was dancing with joy at the divine splendour all around me. ... God himself shines here as this mass of spotless snow, as lakes and springs, as these powerful tall trees and these powerful cold blasts and these crystalline streams. All I see is God. The Himalayas are God. The entire earth is God. Everything exists in Him. Everything shines because of his brightness. (Living Hinduisms, 178-9)