Talk:Worship and Contemplation
By Swami Sarvadevananda
The contemplative life is adored by spiritual seekers of all religions and faiths. Hindu scriptures glorify meditation, holding absorption in God in the highest regard:‘dhyānaṁ vāva cittād-bhūyo dhyāyatīva pṛthivīdhyāyatīvāntarikṣaṁ … tasmād-ya iha manuṣyāṇāṁmahattām prāpnuvanti dhyānāpādāṁśā ivaiva tebhavanti …; Meditation is indeed greater than intelligence. The earth is meditating as it were. Theatmosphere is meditating as it were. [The heavens… the waters … the mountains … the gods and humanbeings are meditating as it were.] Therefore,those among human beings who attain greatnesshere, they verily appear to have acquired a portion of the result of meditation.’
It is understood by all seekers of truth that calmness,serenity, and inwardness alone can bring peace,harmony, and joy in life. But how to attain that?Contemplation is defined as ‘tatra pratyayaikatānatādhyānam; an uninterrupted flow of themind towards the truth’. But thousandsof thoughtsmove through our minds every minute: the mindruns like a drunken monkey that has been bitten bya scorpion, as Swami Vivekananda says. The Upanishad declares: ‘Ekam-evādvyayaṁbrahma neha nānāsti kiñcana; there is no many at all, there is only the one nondual Brahman.’Everythingis pervaded by that one consciousness:‘Sarvaṁ khalvidaṁ brahma.’ To maintain a life ofabsorption in or contemplation on the Absolute, apure, steady mind is needed. Sri Ramakrishna statesthat even the grace of the guru, the grace of LordKrishna, and the grace of a Vaishnava, a holy man,cannot help the spiritual seeker without the graceof his or her own mind.
The human mind, at the beginning of spiritual life, is incapable of grasping, through the un-trained intellect, the absolute Truth, the nondualBrahman. The Gita says: ‘Klesho’dhikataras-teṣāmavyaktāsakta-cetasām, avyaktā hi gatir-duḥkhaṁ dehavadbhir-avāpyate; Greater is their trouble whoseminds are set on the Unmanifested, for the goal ofthe Unmanifested is very difficult for the embodiedto reach.’
The rishis, saints, and seers of all religions offerinstructions for the beginner by which the mind, still moving on the plane of the senses, can be directedtowards God. The senses and sense objects which ordinarily stand as obstacles before us can,through the rituals of worship, help us to go quicklyand quietly into the heart in our inward journey.Swami Vivekananda explains, ‘The countingof beads, meditation, worship, offering oblationsin the sacred fire, all these and such other thingsare the limbs of religion; they are but the means;and to attain to supreme devotion (para-bhakti)or to the highest realization of Brahman is the preeminent end.’
Worship can help a novice develop a contemplative nature; worship performed by an advanced spiritual soul helps him or her to go into a deeperabsorption or even samadhi. Sri Ramakrishna’s lifeproves that worship, if done with the proper faith,love, and spirit, can lead one to the vision of the Divineand to the realization of that which is beyondbody and mind.
Most people have a great need to worshipsymbols, icons, and forms of gods and goddessesthrough rituals. In worship, we can adore thebeautiful forms of God. Because the mind is absorbedin the various details of the ritual, it stop roaming about, and gradually feels more and moreattraction for God. We develop a unique relationshipwith our Chosen Ideal, expressed through one or more of the five moods of śānta, dāsya, sakhya,vātsalya, or madhura—worshipping God in everyone;worshipping God as his servant, friend, parent,or beloved. When bhakti matures, the minddevelops a great attachment for the Chosen Ideal. Just as a lover’s mind is carried away from all otherthoughts and stays ever fixed on the form of his orher beloved, the mind of such a devotee stays fixedon the iṣṭa, and spontaneous meditation occurs. Inthe contemplative life, an undercurrent of thoughtever pulls the aspirant’s mind towards God; thepractice of worship helps foster this undercurrent.
- 1 Worship
- 2 Contemplative Rituals in Buddhism
- 3 The Christian Mass
- 4 Islamic Prayer and Dance
- 5 Jewish and Sikh Sacred Texts
- 6 Hindu Science of Worship
- 7 Puja: Preparation
- 8 Purification, Consecration, Divinization
- 9 Involution and Evolution
- 10 External Worship
- 11 Seeing God Everywhere
- 12 References
Worship is reverent love and honour accorded tothe Deity, often as manifested in or represented by an image or sacred object. It is the ceremony orprayer by which the worshipper’s immense love forthe iṣṭa is expressed—an immersion resulting in fullparticipation in the religious life. It is upāsanā—sittingclose to God, waiting upon God, contemplatingon him, as an expression of our reverence andhomage. The sincere worshipper becomes lost inthis contemplation, and surrenders body and mindto God. Worship does not mean merely chantingmantras with the tongue and forming mudras withthe hands. It includes a full spectrum of practiceswhich, as the mind becomes absorbed, directly connectus with God. Such rituals include chantinghymns, singing bhajans (devotional songs), listeningto readings about God, going on pilgrimages,visiting places associated with the divine sport of Lord, and being in holy company. The principle of loving God through rituals and relationship is found in all of the dualistic religions of the world.
Contemplative Rituals in Buddhism
The life of Buddha, the great meditator, is the shining example for all Buddhists; thus meditation is acentral practice of Buddhism. But rituals too play unimportant role in Buddhist practice. Some schoolsof Buddhism have developed devotional practices involving chanting of holy texts to protect against illness or misfortune. Other schools worship the Buddha himself. In Zen Buddhism, the practice of meditation itself is highly ritualized: every aspect of the meditation experience, from how oneregulated by rules. In Tibetan Buddhism, prayer wheels inscribed with or containing a sacred textare spun by practitioners: each turn of the wheel effects an utterance of the prayer. Elaborate rituals have developed in Tibetan Buddhism, which help sincere practitioners to calm their minds and achieve elevated states.
The Christian Mass
The Roman Catholic and Anglican or Episcopalianmass is structured to direct the mind of the sincere devotee towards the Divine, and bring toit an inner peace. The devotional mood starts in the vesting room: the priests ready themselves bydonning their sacred robes and vestments, and feel the enveloping presence of the Lord. Reverend John J Capellaro, an Episcopal minister, once described the transformation he feels upon entering the small vestibule before his sermon: the worldis forgotten, and a loving presence envelops his whole being. He dons the sacred robe, and a greatsilence fills his mind with joy. In the church, the Christian devotees sit in silence while the preludeplays. The processional hymn begins: ‘I am mortal,invisible, God only wise, in light inaccessiblehid from our eyes; most blessed, most glorious,the ancient of the days, almighty, victorious, thyChanting as adoration great name we praise ...’ The solemn procession, waving of incense, the reading of the Gospel, the sermon by the priest, prayers by the congregation,melodious hymns lifted up by the notes of the organand intoned by the choral singers, all create adeep mood of devotion. The church vibrates withholiness when the hearts of its people are sincere.At the time of taking the Eucharist, the worshippersfeel a communion with God and become totallytransformed, thinking that even their physicalbodies and blood are non-existent: rather, thebody of Christ exists, and it is his holy purifyingblood that is flowing through their veins. By thismystery, the person who was a sinner is cleansedof sins, becoming part of the very body of Christ.Worship in this way leads Christian devotees to acontemplative mood, bringing peace and joy intheir lives and helping them to develop a more vibrant spiritual life.
Islamic Prayer and Dance
Rituals play an essential part in the lives of Sufimystics. Five times per day, they stop all activity and turn to worship God, following the same ritualof salat or namaz which was taught by the ProphetMuhammad and which is followed by all Muslims.The specific postures and prayers involve the whole body and mind, thus helping to immersetheir minds in divine thought. Sufis also make useof their tasbihs or prayer beads when repeatingnames of God. Widespread among certain sects isthe communal dhikr, in which the names of Godand various prayers are chanted and sung aloud. The dhikr may include ecstatic dancing as well. Wehad the opportunity to join some followers of theSufi tradition; their singing, dancing, and ritualisticprayers, though seemingly externally directed, turntheir minds ever inward where they find a transformingpeace. Their rituals then become an expressionof their deep love for God.
Jewish and Sikh Sacred Texts
In Jewish temples, the Torah, the ancient Hebrewscripture written on one long parchment scroll, is hidden, as one would hide one’s most cherished possession, away from the clamour of the world.In the serene atmosphere of the temple, the congregantswait in silence, their heads respectfullycovered with the yarmulke, and their prayer shawlsdraped over their shoulders. As the cantor’s melodiousvoice fills the air with chanting, the congregantsare filled with a sense of reverence. Their minds arequieted. The Torah is then gently retrieved from itsplace of safety, and is supported and carried in thearms of the Rabbi as he weaves his way through thecongregation.One after another, each worshipperreaches out to touch the sacred text, and then, withlove and reverence, touches to his or her lips thathand or cloth which has touched the Torah. Thecantor’s song, the chanting of the prayers in Hebrewin response, all serve to lift the worshippers’minds from their daily concerns, filling them witha deep peace, which is thehallmark of the contemplativelife.
Sikhs adore and revere their holy text, the GuruGranth Sahib. They wave incense around it and singthe praise of the Lord regularly for hours as theirspiritual practice. These rituals help them withdrawtheir minds from mundane thoughts. Many seekersbecame saints through this devotional practice.
Hindu Science of Worship
The Hindu tradition has developed ritualistic worship into a science which, if followed, can lead one from external forms of worship to the depths of contemplation, and ultimately, to perfect union with Brahman. This progression leads to the experience of sarvaṁkhalvidaṁ brahma, and ultimately to samadhi. Because this progression is not generally well understood, many look down on ritualistic worship. But sincere practice of ritualistic worship has brought many saints to realization. Sri Ramakrishna’s life proves to the doubting and sceptical modern mind the value of such worship, and how sincere love for God leads to the highest goal of God-realization.
We shall now focus on worship, or puja, in the Hindutradition, and how preparation for and performanceof puja help all the senses and their master,the mind, to become engaged with and absorbedin God. Spiritual aspirants develop attraction fora specific form of the Divine as their iṣṭa deva, orChosen Ideal—Durga, Shiva, Kali, Krishna, Rama,Christ, Buddha, or Ramakrishna—whichever formappeals most to their hearts. Being distracted bythe business and stress of daily life, beginners cannotordinarily keep their minds on their Ideals forlong during meditation. But the activities of pujainvolve the body and mind in such a way that themind is naturally drawn to the Chosen Ideal, andis brought gradually to contemplation.
First, we must prepare and collect the materialsfor worship. While collecting flowers and leaves, fruits and sweets, while stringing garlandsand making sandalwood paste, and while cookingspecial food items, our minds naturally thinkabout our iṣṭa, for whom these things are being prepared. prepared. The contemplative mood begins to arise inour hearts. We contemplate offering to God those things that we love most. We busy ourselves in makingsandalwood paste, cleaningthe shrine, decorating the altar,adorning the image, and preparingthe place of worship. Allthese external activities engageour senses in the world of namesand forms—but all the while our minds are revolving around theblessed iṣṭa devatā. Thus arisesthe unconscious practice of viveka and vairāgya—discriminationbetween the real and the unreal,and rejecting worldly thoughts. As our minds go on contemplatingon God, we move, effortlessly,deeper into the mood of vairāgya. And just as effortlessly, we fall more deeplyin love with God.
Purification, Consecration, Divinization
Our discussion will now focus on the puja ritualas practised in the Ramakrishna Order. The three preliminary steps in puja are purification, consecration,and divinization. These steps are applied to the worshipper, the articles of worship, and theDeity as represented by the image; each step bringsthe worshipper closer to the Divine. It is a movementfrom the gross to the subtle, and from thesubtle to the causal.
How can the limited worship the Infinite? It isnot possible: only God can worship God. Therefore it is said, ‘Devo bhūtvā devaṁ yajet; Havingbecome divine, one should worship the Divine.’ So the underpinning of the seemingly dualistic processof puja is actually advaitic: it is the divine whoworships, and God who receives the worship. Thisis effected by the following process.
Before entering the place of worship, we purifythe body by bathing; we wear fresh clothes. Then we enter the shrine, and make a full-length pranam,surrendering ourselves completely to God. We try to feel the living presence of the Deity in the shrine.We take our seats, think of God, repeat his name,and say, ‘Whether pure or impure, wherever onemay be, if one remembers the lotus-eyed Lord, onebecomes pure, both inside and out.’ With variousmantras, prayers, mudras, and sprinkling of holywater, we further purify the surroundings, the seaton which we sit, the articles of worship, our hands,the flowers, the image of the Deity, and our ownbodies. We drive away any evil spirits that may benearby. We create a mystical wall of fire aroundus to shield us from any obstacles to worship. Weperform simple pranayama, which balances thenerve currents in the body. The purification processmoves from gross to the subtle; our minds alsobecome more calm and indrawn.
Bhūtaśuddhi, the ‘purification of the elements’,is the crucial next step. Through bhūtaśuddhi, we strive to realize the identity of the jivātman (individualsoul) with the paramātman (supreme Soul). We sit in the meditation posture, and visualizethe jivātman as an unflickering flame burningin the heart. This flame then moves to the baseof the spine, and awakens the kundalini at themūlādhāra-cakra. The awakened kundalini, alongwith the jivatman, moves up the suṣumnā, towards the head. The lotuses of the chakras, which weredown-turned and closed, now turn upwards andburst into bloom. When the kundalini reaches thesahasrāra-cakra, the thousand-petalled lotus in thebrain, the jivātman merges with the paramātman.The twenty-four bhūtas or cosmic principles alsomerge in the paramātman: the five gross and fivesubtle elements, the organs of perception and action,as also the mind, intellect, and ego—all mergein the supreme Self. Now Atman alone abides; weare one with the Supreme.
We then visualize the pāpa-puruṣa, the ‘personof sin’, who represents the concretized form of all negative and evil thoughts and deeds accumulatedthrough millions of births, sitting in the left side of our belly. We dry up this repulsive creature, andalso our subtle body, saying ‘yaṁ’; then we burn them to ashes, saying ‘raṁ’. We bring the moon up to our forehead, and let the nectar from the moon flow down, creating a new, divine body. Finally, we let the jivātman and the twenty-four cosmic principles descend to their places in this new, divine body. We are now ready to worship the Divine, having become divine; the old person is dead and gone. If we have properly followed the process of bhūtaśuddhi, we really feel perfectly pure and divine; our minds are steady, and we feel the presence of the Deity.
Now that we, the worshipper, are pure and divine,we invoke the Chosen Deity in the heart. Touchingthe chest, we pray, ‘May God’s prana (vital energy)become seated in the place of my vital energy. Lethis individuality be established on my individuality.Let my sense organs be overpowered by hisdivine sense organs. Let my speech, my mind, myeyes, my skin, my ears, my nose, my breath, becomehis. Let the iṣṭa devatāappear in my body andmind and stay on foreverin joy.’ Thus ourbody, mind, and sensesare all lost into the divinebody of the Lord. We are dead and goneas it were. Here sits theworshipped God in thebody of the worshipper.This is Devo bhūtvādevaṁ yajet. Only God! A thrill passes through ourbody and mind.
Involution and Evolution
Before the Deity is worshipped with external offerings,worship is done internally. One can spend a long time in this mental worship, forgetting timeand outward conditions. We meditate on the divineform of the Deity sitting in the heart, as guidedby the meditation mantra. We offer the lotus ofthe heart as a seat for the Chosen Ideal, and inviteHim or Her to accept our worship there. All theofferings are to be given mentally, and the itemsare made of subtle elements prepared by the itself. Finally, we offer flowers representing virtueslike compassion, freedom from envy, and divineknowledge.
Now we are ready to worship our Ideal externally.This is the process: we hold a flower by our heart,and meditate again on the divine form of the Deity.Then, gently breathing on this flower,we imaginethat our beloved iṣṭa devatā is brought out fromthe heart to the flower. We place the flower on theimage and feel that the Lord is physically manifestnow in the image to receive our offerings. We thusbring the Absolute, the nameless timeless Reality,from within ourselves, to the world of name andform, where that Consciousness, in the form of theiṣṭa devatā, can be tangibly adored.
We offer flowers and gifts to a friend whom welove; when the very lord of the universe is before us, what shall we do? We offer the best, the choicestthings to the Lord as a token of our deepest love,reverence, and respect. This loving offering takes usnearer to him. That is why it is called upacāra, ‘thatwhich takes one near’. We offer, according to ourmeans and ability, various special articles to thismost honoured of guests: among other things, weoffer the nicest seat for the Deity, loving words ofwelcome, water for washing the feet and a towel todry them, scented body oil, water for bathing, newclothes, ornaments, sandalwood paste, perfume, flowers, leaves, incense, light, fruits, sweets, drinkingwater, and betel leaf. We feel thrilled that thelord of the universe, who is beyond time, space, andcausation, beyond the comprehension of the mind,intellect, and ego, has, out of his infinite compassion,appeared before us to receive ourhumble giftsof love. The expression of our deep gratitude for thekindness of the Lord—his descent from his abodeof nirguṇa (without quality or form) to saguṇasākāra(with quality and form), as it were—bringsto our mind a deep satisfaction, peace, and moodof inwardness. For the purest of hearts, the deitybecomes visible and tangibly receives the offerings.When offering food to Mother Kali, Sri Ramakrishnawitnessed rays of light emanating from the Divine Mother’s eyes and touching the offering,making it prasad.
Seeing God Everywhere
In following the path of worship, the distractedmind can gradually come back to peace and joy. Insteadof fighting with the senses and the mind, weemploy them in the rituals of worship, prayer, andjapa; they become friends in our journey towardsthe Divine. In the beginning, worship may seem dry, but by regular practice, with devotion and understanding,worship will reveal its power to turnus toward the Divine within.
Swami Vivekananda says that at the beginning,work and worship should go hand in hand. A con-templative mood evoked during worship will help one to see one’s work as service to God. Work donein the spirit of service, again, will inspire one to worship and meditate on God. After long practice,work will be as if worship. The hand will work butthe mind will think of God. When one’s practicegoes still deeper, there will be no distinction betweenwork and worship: all work will be worshipof God. Finally, external work will drop away as onebecomes totally absorbed in God. Then, meditationwill mediate all our actions.
Sri Ramakrishna told the young Swami Vivekananda,who wanted to stay in samadhi all the time,that there is a state higher than samadhi—that is seeing God with eyes open. This was Ramakrishna’s own experience, after his first vision of the Mother: During worship and meditation the Master used to see the living presence of the Mother in the temple’s stone image of Her; now he could not see that stone image at all. In its place was the living Mother, the embodiment of consciousness, Her hands bestowing boons and fearlessness. Later, he described what happened: ‘I put my hand near the Mother’s nostrils and felt that She was actually breathing. At night I watched carefully, but in the lamplight I could never see Her shadow on the temple wall. From my room I would hear Mother running upstairs, as merry as a little girl, with Her anklets jingling. I would rush outside to see if this was true. And there She would be standing on the veranda on the second floor of the temple, with Her hair blowing in the breeze. Sometimes She would look towards Calcutta and sometimes towards the Ganges.’
Mother is everywhere in the eyes of Sri Ramakrishna. His experience resonates with that of the Vaishnava’s: ‘Wherever my eyes fall I behold Krishna,’ or that of Saint Patrick, who experienced Christon the right, Christ on the left, Christ in front, Christ behind, Christ above, Christ below. This is also the Vedantin’s experience: ‘Sa evādhastātsa upariṣṭāt-sa paścāt-sa purastāt-sa dakṣiṇataḥ sa uttarataḥ sa evedaṁ sarvam-iti; He indeed is below, He is above, He is behind, He is in front, He is in the South, He is in the North, He is indeed all this.’ This ultimate experience of Brahman comes spontaneously in the life of one who sincerely practises worship, and who progresses to deeper and deeper stages of meditation: such a devotee is finally led to the experience of seeing God everywhere. P
- Chhandogya Upanishad, 7.6.1.
- Adhyatma Upanishad, 63.
- Chhandogya Upanishad, 3.14.1.
- Bhagavadgita, 12.5.
- The Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda, 9 vols. (Calcutta: Advaita Ashrama, 1–8, 1989; 9, 1997), 5.386.
- Swami Saradananda, Sri Ramak rishna and His Divine Play, trans. Swami Chetanananda (St Louis:Vedanta Society, 2003), 216.
- Chhandogya Upanishad, 7.25.1.