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From Hindupedia, the Hindu Encyclopedia

By Swami Harshananda

Humans are in constant pursuit of unalloyed happiness or bliss. Freedom from suffering and attainment of eternal peace and joy, is the universal goal of life. An age-old firm belief ingrained in the very nature of man is about the existence of a Supernatural Being, who is omniscient and omnipotent. The conviction of this belief is that one can attain whatever one wants in life by establishing a contact (by worshiping) this Being, often called as ‘God’. Devapujā literally means ‘worship of God or a deity’.

Traits of God[edit]

God is said to have the following attributes:

  1. Nirākāra - Without any particular form
  2. Nirguṇa - Without any attributes
  3. Sākāra - Capable of assuming any form at his own will
  4. Śaguṇa - Capable of assuming any or all attributes at his own will

He can also manifest himself as a personality without any particular form but blessed with all the qualities that one can imagine. Nothing prevents him from assuming any form that a votary devotedly hankers for seeing.


An illustration can make the above point more clear. Water can exist in three states - Ice, Water, Vapor or steam. Water vapor has no particular form whereas ice has. But liquid water can assume the shape of the vessel into which it is poured. In all these three states, vastu or substance is one and the same, though nāma (nomenclature) and rupa (form) are different. Similar is the case with God.


Gaining freedom from suffering and attaining eternal bliss, is possible by adopting any one of the four well-known yoga paths:

  1. Jñānayoga
  2. Bhaktiyoga
  3. Rājayoga
  4. Karmayoga

Bhaktiyoga or the path of bhakti[1] is comparatively much easier than other Paths.

Necessity of Rituals[edit]

‘Rituals,’ designate certain religious observances and practices performed in a systematic way as per the directions given in the scriptures. Types of rituals are:

  • Pujā - worship of God or a deity
  • Sandhyopāsanā - meditation on God as the light of knowledge and wisdom at dawn and dusk
  • Homa - offering of oblations unto a deity in a duly consecrated fire
  • Upavāsa - Ceremonial fasting
  • Jāgaraṇa - Keeping vigil at night as a part of spiritual discipline

The philosophical truths contained in the Vedas, Upaniṣads and other similar scriptural works are often too recondite to comprehend. It is necessary to have an incisive intellect and purity of mind resulting from a pure sinless life to understand them. Performance of rituals is one of the easier means to achieve this purity of mind. However, these rituals should be observed meticulously with a proper knowledge of the spirit behind them.

Need for Icons[edit]

Majority of human beings are incapable of contemplating upon God as the Supreme Power or Intelligence without any particular name or form. This is outcome of the limitations imposed by the body-mind complex and the consequent identification with it. However, an icon or an image or a picture or a symbol can definitely help in the process of contemplation.

This phenomenon is same as the view of boundless sky from a bounded window in our room. If the symbolical meaning and significance of the icon is understood properly, it denotes an actualized form of the ideal. Then viewing it is as good as viewing the original which it represents. It is akin to remember a person when we look at his photograph.

We may also look at it in another way. An abacus is needed (and used) to teach certain fundamental concepts of arithmetic to little children. Similarly an icon, especially the one installed in a temple along with the associated ideas, can help us to conceive and contemplate upon God.

Image Worship[edit]

Worship of God using images as a medium is widespread and popularly done at home, temples and public places.

Preparation of images of deities, worship to the deities through them, either in one’s own personal shrine, family shrines or temples seems to be an ancient custom. Reference to images is found even in the Vedas.[2] Worship of deities through images is explicitly referred to in the Rāmāyana[3] and Mahābhārata.[4] Often, the images are replaced by symbolical objects such as:

  1. Śivaliṅgas
  2. Śālagrāmas
  3. Yantras

External and Internal Worship[edit]

Worship of God can be of two types:

  1. Internal worship - It is called ‘mānasapujā’. It is actually meditation which may be a simple process of contemplation in the form of the deity which may involve a regular ritualistic worship with all the ingredients. It is done mentally.
  2. External worship - It is the worship of the deity through an image or a symbol with all the necessary articles needed for the worship as per religious works.

Eventually, when the external worship is performed properly in the right spirit, it increasingly leads to greater introversion. As a result, external and formal worship may drop off by itself. Then only internal worship or meditation can be continued.

The Conception of Arcāvatāra[edit]

Some schools of devotion have put forward the theory that God descends (= avatāra) into the image at the time of worship (= arcā) in a subtle form when invited through appropriate mantras. It is same as putting on the switch to make the electric current flow through a lamp and give light. By the same logic, when an image fixed in a temple, is consecrated as per the prescribed procedure (in which prāṇa-pratiṣṭhā or infusing with life, is an important aspect), the deity ‘lives’ in that image permanently, in a divine or subtle form. Hence the worshiper has to be extraordinarily careful while performing the ritualistic worship to such consecrated images.

Pujā or Worship(Tantric tradition)[edit]

Now the various steps involved in an actual pujā or worship is described below:

  • Since external cleanliness and neatness are conducive to internal purity, the first thing to be done before starting pujā is to clean the pujā-room and the surrounding area thoroughly.
  • The worshiper should take bath and wear washed and clean clothes for the pujā. It is advisable to keep two sets of clothes to be worn (by turns) only at the time of ritualistic worship.
  • After arranging all the vessels and materials needed for the pujā properly, the worshiper should sit on the pujā-seat.[5]in such a way that he is facing the deity or keeping the deity to his left. Generally, facing east or north is preferred and facing south is forbidden.
  • The whole rite of pujā or any religious or ritualistic act should begin with ācamana or ceremonial sipping of water with certain mantras.
  • This should be followed by saṅkalpa or religious resolve. Apart from the details of the particular day according to the calendar,[6] the saṅkalpa - mantra should also contains some other statements such as the destruction of one’s sins, acquisition of religious merit and some other particulars connected with the mode of worship.
  • Then follows the purification processes that includes:
    1. Āsanaśuddhi - ritual sanctification of the seat
    2. Bhutāpasāraṇa - driving away the evil spirits
    3. Puṣpaśuddhi - ritual cleansing of flowers, bilva and tulsi leaves
    4. Agniprākāracintā - erecting a wall of fire through imagination
  • The next steps are prāṇāyāma (breath control in aid of peace and concentration) and bhutaśuddhi or creating a spiritual body in place of the physical one.
  • Then the following rituals are followed:
    1. Prāṇapratiṣṭhā - filling the spiritual body with the presence of the deity
    2. Nyāsas - ritual purification of limbs
    3. Mudrās - postures of fingers and hands
  • Then the core of worship which is dhyāna[7] and upacāras[8] are performed.These upacāras can be 5 or 10 or 16. Sometimes they are raised to 64 or even 108. But, normally, the first two are common for daily worship and 16 upacāras for special worship. The other two are done only in temples on very special occasions.These upacāras are ceremonially offered with appropriate mantras to the deity invoked into the image or symbol. The ten upacāras are:
    1. Pādya - water for washing the feet
    2. Arghya - water for washing the hands
    3. Ācamanīya - water for rinsing the mouth
    4. Snānīya - giving a bath by pouring water over the image or the symbol with Vedic mantras
    5. Gandha - applying fresh sandal paste
    6. Puṣpa - offering of flowers, bilva and tulsī leaves
    7. Dhūpa - waving of lighted incense sticks
    8. Dīpa - waving of a lighted lamp
    9. Naivedya - offering food and drinking water
    10. Punarācamanīya - giving water for rinsing the mouth at the end
  • At the end of the worship, puṣpāñjali (offering of a handful of flowers) is laid at the feet of the deity. It indicates the conclusion of the whole ritual.
  • Wherever the pujā is done to the deity in a temporarily invoked image just as in the worship of clay icons of Gaṇapati or Durgā, udvāsanā or visarjana also has to be done. It is the ceremonial withdrawal of the deity from the image and back into one’s own heart. After this the image or the symbol (like a flower) can be disposed off.

Pujā or Worship (Vedic tradition)[edit]

By far all the mode of worship described are according to the tāntric tradition. The Vedic tradition is slightly different from this. A brief account of the same is given and performed in following order:

  • Dīpajvalana ( lighting the lamp and praying to it as the symbol of the deity and requesting it to burn steadily till the pujā is over)
  • Ācamana, Guruvandana (obeisance to one’s own guru or spiritual teacher).
  • Then the prayer to Vighneśvara or Gaṇapati is done for the removal of obstacles to the pujā.
  • Then Ghaṇṭānāda is done. It is ringing the bell with appropriate mantras to drive away the demons and welcome the gods. It is necessary during other rituals like ceremonial bath of the deity and offering incense etc.
  • Then follows recitation of two vedic mantras are to steady the mind.[9]
  • Then meditation on the miniature shrine structure generally made of wood is performed which is called Maṇtapadhyāna.
  • Then purification and steadiness of the seat is done by the process called as Āsanamantra.
  • Then the person is made fit for puja by observing Prāṇāyāma, saṅkalpa and ceremonial purification of the water in the kalaśa (water vessel).
  • Then the śaṅkha (conch) is filled with the water and inviting its presiding deities like Surya, Varuṇa, Candra and others. All of them are asked to reside in it in a subtle form.
  • Then water is sprinkled over all the articles of pujā to consecrate them.
  • Then the nyāsa with the Puruṣasukta[10] invokes the presence of the deity into the image and offering the upacāras. The sixteen upacāras offered are:
    1. Āvāhana
    2. Āsana
    3. Pādya
    4. Arghya
    5. Ācamanīya
    6. Snāna
    7. Vastra (cloth)
    8. Upavīta (sacred thread, called ‘yajñopavīta’)
    9. Gandha
    10. Puṣpa
    11. Dhupa
    12. Dīpa
    13. Naivedya
    14. Tāmbula (betel leaf and nut)
    15. Recitation of the Mantrapuspa[11]
    16. Pradakṣiṇa (circumambulation)
    17. Namaskāra (obeisance)

Some more traditional and interesting aspects of this worship stated below are:

  • In the pañcāyatanapujā (pujā to the five standard deities viz., Śiva, Devī, Viṣṇu, Gaṇeśa and Suryaj) one’s own family deity should be kept in the center and the other four around it in the prescribed order.
  • Then the water is poured for giving bath to the image which is called as Abhiṣek. It is to be done with gośṛuga (horn of a cow) to the śivaliṅga and with śaṅkha to Viṣṇu or śālagrāma.
  • While offering cloth in pujā, different types of clothes are offered to different deities which can be known from the concerned scriptural injunctions. In the routine daily pujā even flowers can be offered in place of cloth, as a substitute.
  • Dhupa is offered to the feet. Dīpa is offered before the face of the deity.
  • In general ārati (waving of lights), the dīpa has to be waved all over the deity’s image.
  • Pradakṣiṇā is to be done three times in the clockwise direction, slowly with the folded hands. Then sāṣṭāṅga-praṇāma is done by lying down on the chest on the floor.
  • At the end, tīrtha (the consecrated water of the pujā) and prasāda (consecrated food offering) should be received by all who have taken part in the pujā or witnessed it.


The description till now just gives an idea of the philosophy and the spirit behind the religious ritualistic worship. The scriptures themselves consider these rituals as the kindergarten of religion. When understood properly and performed meticulously, they lead to inner purity and concentration. When this concentration becomes deep, the external rituals drop off by themselves. Till then, they must be performed.


  1. Devotion to God in his sākāra saguṇa aspect
  2. Ṛgveda 4.24.10
  3. Ayodhyākānda 20.14, 15
  4. Adiparva 70.49; Anuśāsanaparva 10.20, 21
  5. It is a seat which one should use only for the purposes of pujā.
  6. Calender followed in the tradition of the worshiper’s family
  7. Meditation on the deity in one’s heart and transferring the same into the image or symbol
  8. Modes of direct service
  9. Ṝgveda 10.63.3 and 4.50.6
  10. Rgveda 10.7.90
  11. Taittiriya Aranyaka—Arunapraśna 78 to 84
  • The Concise Encyclopedia of Hinduism, Swami Harshananda, Ram Krishna Math, Bangalore