Worship and Contemplation in the Ramakrishna order
By Swami Sarvadevananda
The scriptures glorify meditation, holding absorption in God in the highest regard:‘dhyānam vāva cittād-bhūyo dhyāyatīva prthivīdhyāyatīvāntariksam … tasmād-ya iha manusyānām mahattām prāpnuvanti dhyānāpādāmśā ivaiva tebhavanti …. Meditation is indeed greater than intelligence. The earth is meditating as it were. The atmosphere is meditating as it were. [The heavens… the waters … the mountains … the gods and human beings are meditating as it were.] Therefore, those among human beings who attain greatness here, they verily appear to have acquired a portion of the result of meditation.’
Calmness, serenity, and inwardness alone can bring peace, harmony, and joy in life. These can be attained through contemplation. Contemplation is defined as ‘tatra pratyayaikatānatā dhyānam; an uninterrupted flow of the mind towards the truth’. But thousands of thoughts move through our minds every minute: the mind runs like a drunken monkey that has been bitten by a scorpion, as Swami Vivekananda says.
The Upanishad declares: ‘Ekam-evādvyayam brahma neha nānāsti kiñcana; there is no many at all, there is only the one nondual Brahman.’Everything is pervaded by that one consciousness: ‘Sarvam khalvidam brahma.’ To maintain a life of absorption in or contemplation on the Absolute, a pure, steady mind is needed. Sri Ramakrishna states that even the grace of the guru, the grace of Lord Krishna, and the grace of a Vaishnava, a holy man, cannot help the spiritual seeker without the grace of his or her own mind.
The human mind, at the beginning of spiritual life, is incapable of grasping, through the untrained intellect, the absolute Truth, the nondual Brahman. The Gita says: ‘Klesho’dhikataras-tesāmavyaktāsakta-cetasām, avyaktā hi gatir-duhkham dehavadbhir-avāpyate; Greater is their trouble whose minds are set on the Unmanifested, for the goal of the Unmanifested is very difficult for the embodied to reach.’
The rishis, saints, and seers of all religions offer instructions for the beginner by which the mind, still moving on the plane of the senses, can be directed towards God. The senses and sense objects which ordinarily stand as obstacles before us can, through the rituals of worship, help us to go quickly and quietly into the heart in our inward journey. Swami Vivekananda explains, ‘The counting of beads, meditation, worship, offering oblations in the sacred fire, all these and such other things are 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 deeper absorption or even samadhi. Sri Ramakrishna’s life proves that worship, if done with the proper faith, love, and spirit, can lead one to the vision of the Divine and to the realization of that which is beyond body and mind.
Most people have a great need to worship symbols, icons, and forms of gods and goddesses through rituals. In worship, we can adore the beautiful forms of God. Because the mind is absorbed in the various details of the ritual, it stops roaming about, and gradually feels more and more attraction 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 mind develops a great attachment for the Chosen Ideal. Just as a lover’s mind is carried away from all other thoughts and stays ever fixed on the form of his or her beloved, the mind of such a devotee stays fixed on the ista, and spontaneous meditation occurs. In the contemplative life, an undercurrent of thought ever pulls the aspirant’s mind towards God; the practice of worship helps foster this undercurrent.
Worship is reverent love and honour accorded to the Deity, often as manifested in or represented by an image or sacred object. It is the ceremony or prayer by which the worshipper’s immense love for the ista is expressed—an immersion resulting in full participation in the religious life. It is upāsanā—sitting close to God, waiting upon God, contemplating on him, as an expression of our reverence and homage. The sincere worshipper becomes lost in this contemplation, and surrenders body and mind to God. Worship does not mean merely chanting mantras with the tongue and forming mudras with the hands. It includes a full spectrum of practices which, as the mind becomes absorbed, directly connect us with God. Such rituals include chanting hymns, singing bhajans (devotional songs), listening to 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.
The 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 sarvam khalvidam 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 Hindu tradition, and how preparation for and performance of puja help all the senses and their master, the mind, to become engaged with and absorbed in God. Spiritual aspirants develop attraction for a specific form of the Divine as their ista deva, or Chosen Ideal—Durga, Shiva, Kali, Krishna, or Rama—whichever form appeals most to their hearts. Being distracted by the business and stress of daily life, beginners cannot ordinarily keep their minds on their Ideals for long during meditation. But the activities of puja involve the body and mind in such a way that the mind is naturally drawn to the Chosen Ideal, and is brought gradually to contemplation.
First, we must prepare and collect the materials for worship. While collecting flowers and leaves, fruits and sweets, while stringing garlands and making sandalwood paste, and while cooking special food items, our minds naturally think about our ista, for whom these things are being prepared. The contemplative mood begins to arise in our hearts. We contemplate offering to God those things that we love most. We busy ourselves in making sandalwood paste, cleaning the shrine, decorating the altar, adorning the image, and preparing the place of worship. All these external activities engage our senses in the world of names and forms—but all the while our minds are revolving around the blessed ista devatā. Thus arises the unconscious practice of viveka and vairāgya—discrimination between the real and the unreal, and rejecting worldly thoughts. As our minds go on contemplating on God, we move, effortlessly, deeper into the mood of vairāgya. And just as effortlessly, we fall more deeply in love with God.
Purification, Consecration, Divinization
Our discussion will now focus on the puja ritual as practiced in the Ramakrishna Order. The three preliminary steps in puja are purification, consecration, and divinization. These steps are applied to the worshiper, the articles of worship, and the Deity as represented by the image; each step brings the worshiper closer to the Divine. It is a movement from the gross to the subtle, and from the subtle to the causal.
How can the limited worship the Infinite? It is not possible: only God can worship God. Therefore it is said, ‘Devo bhūtvā devam yajet; Having become divine, one should worship the Divine.’ So the underpinning of the seemingly dualistic process of puja is actually advaitic: it is the divine who worships, and God who receives the worship. This is effected by the following process.
Before entering the place of worship, we purify the 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 one may be, if one remembers the lotus-eyed Lord, one becomes pure, both inside and out.’ With various mantras, prayers, mudras, and sprinkling of holy water, we further purify the surroundings, the seat on which we sit, the articles of worship, our hands, the flowers, the image of the Deity, and our own bodies. We drive away any evil spirits that may be nearby. We create a mystical wall of fire around us to shield us from any obstacles to worship. We perform simple pranayama, which balances the nerve currents in the body. The purification process moves from gross to the subtle; our minds also become 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 (individual soul) with the paramātman (supreme Soul). We sit in the meditation posture and visualize the jivātman as an unflickering flame burning in the heart. This flame then moves to the base of the spine and awakens the kundalini at the mūlādhāra-cakra. The awakened kundalini, along with the jivatman, moves up the susumnā, towards the head. The lotuses of the chakras, which were down-turned and closed, now turn upwards and burst into bloom. When the kundalini reaches the sahasrāra-cakra, the thousand-petalled lotus in the brain, the jivātman merges with the paramātman.The twenty-four bhūtas or cosmic principles also merge in the paramātman: the five gross and five subtle elements, the organs of perception and action, as also the mind, intellect, and ego—all merge in the supreme Self. Now Atman alone abides; we are one with the Supreme.
We then visualize the pāpa-purusa, the ‘person of sin’, who represents the concretized form of all negative and evil thoughts and deeds accumulated through millions of births, sitting in the left side of our belly. We dry up this repulsive creature, and also our subtle body, saying ‘yam’; then we burn them to ashes, saying ‘ram’. 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 worshiper, are pure and divine, we invoke the Chosen Deity in the heart. Touching the chest, we pray, ‘May God’s prana (vital energy) become seated in the place of my vital energy. Let his individuality be established on my individuality. Let my sense organs be overpowered by his divine sense organs. Let my speech, my mind, my eyes, my skin, my ears, my nose, my breath, become his. Let the ista devatā appear in my body and mind and stay on forever in joy.’ Thus our body, mind, and senses are all lost into the divine body of the Lord. We are dead and gone as it were. Here sits the worshiped God in the body of the worshiper. This is Devo bhūtvā devam yajet. Only God! A thrill passes through our body and mind.
Involution and Evolution
Before the Deity is worshiped with external offerings, worship is done internally. One can spend a long time in this mental worship, forgetting time and outward conditions. We meditate on the divine form of the Deity sitting in the heart, as guided by the meditation mantra. We offer the lotus of the heart as a seat for the Chosen Ideal, and invite Him or Her to accept our worship there. All the offerings are to be given mentally, and the items are made of subtle elements. Finally, we offer flowers representing virtues like compassion, freedom from envy, and divine knowledge.
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 imagine that our beloved ista devatā is brought out from the heart to the flower. We place the flower on the image and feel that the Lord is physically manifest now in the image to receive our offerings. We thus bring the Absolute, the nameless timeless Reality, from within ourselves to the world of name and form, where that Consciousness, in the form of the ista devatā, can be tangibly adored.
We offer flowers and gifts to a friend whom we love; when the very lord of the universe is before us, what shall we do? We offer the best, the choicest things to the Lord, as a token of our deepest love, reverence, and respect. This loving offering takes us nearer to him. That is why it is called upacāra, ‘that which takes one near’. We offer, according to our means and ability, various special articles to this most honored of guests: among other things, we offer the nicest seat for the Deity, loving words of welcome, water for washing the feet and a towel to dry them, scented body oil, water for bathing, new clothes, ornaments, sandalwood paste, perfume, flowers, leaves, incense, light, fruits, sweets, drinking water and betel leaf. We feel thrilled that the lord of the universe, who is beyond time, space, and causation, beyond the comprehension of the mind, intellect, and ego, has, out of his infinite compassion, appeared before us to receive our humble gifts of love. The expression of our deep gratitude for the kindness of the Lord—his descent from his abode of nirguna (without quality or form) to sagunasākāra(with quality and form), as it were—brings to our mind a deep satisfaction, peace, and mood of inwardness. For the purest of hearts, the deity becomes visible and tangibly receives the offerings. When offering food to Mother Kali, Sri Ramakrishna witnessed 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 distracted mind can gradually come back to peace and joy. Instead of fighting with the senses and the mind, we employ them in the rituals of worship, prayer, and japa; they become friends in our journey towards the Divine. In the beginning, worship may seem dry, but by regular practice, with devotion and understanding, worship will reveal its power to turn us toward the Divine within.
Swami Vivekananda says that, at the beginning, work and worship should go hand in hand. A contemplative mood evoked during worship will help one to see one’s work as service to God. Work done in 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 but the mind will think of God. When one’s practice goes still deeper, there will be no distinction between work and worship: all work will be worship of God. Finally, external work will drop away as one becomes totally absorbed in God. Then, meditation will 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.’ This is also the Vedantin’s experience: ‘Sa evādhastātsa uparistāt-sa paścāt-sa purastāt-sa daksinatah sa uttaratah sa evedam 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.
- 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 Ramakrishna and His Divine Play, trans. Swami Chetanananda (St Louis: Vedanta Society, 2003), 216.
- Chhandogya Upanishad, 7.25.1.
- Originally published as "Worship and Contemplation" by Prabhuddha Bharata January 2007 edition. Reprinted with permission.