Monday, July 23, 2007


(First Posted on bloopdiary on 09/05/2003)

Classes of Worship

Modes and methods of Hindu worship can be classified into two distinct categories, the Vedic, (based on the prescriptions of the Vedas, primarily the Samhitaas and the Braahnmanaas), and the Aagamic or Pauranic, (based upon later scriptures, the puraana, the sutra, the shaastra and the Itihaasa, literature). Aagama literally means ‘that which has come’; thus Aagama rituals are derived from some older source, canonically the Veda.

Vedic worship centred on the fire-sacrifice, (the Yajna), certain religious and domestic rituals, (shrauta sutraas and griyha sutraas), and the sacraments, (samskaara). Very few of these rituals are in common practice today. The most widespread rituals of worship today are of the Pauraanic or Aagaamic variety. One very important difference between Hindu forms of worship and Judeo-Christian / Islamic ones, is that congregational or public worship is absent in Hinduism. This is traditionally because of the Hindu concept of adhikaara or spiritual competence; not every one is competent for every form of worship.

Most present Hindu rituals of worship seem to have developed after the establishment of the six orthodox schools of Hindu philosophy. This is because the changes in religious rituals from the Vedic to the Aagaamic seem consonant with the themes prevalent in the six orthodox systems (darshanas); this rationalisation was missing in many Vedic rituals. A very significant change is the integration of Yoga methodology into the rituals; given that Yoga was a non-Vedic, and probably a pre-Aryan system. The orthodox Yoga system, also called the Ashtaanga Yoga or eight limbed Yoga has eight ascending stages that culminate in realisation of the Brahman in a state of super-consciousness, samaadhi. Four of these eight stages are an integral part of all ‘worship’ – namely, posture, (aasana), breath (life force)-control, (praanaayaama), placing or fixation, (nyaasa or dhaaranaa), and deep concentration & contemplation (dhyaana).

The presence or absence of these components separates the worship rituals from the preparatory rituals; more on this later.

The significance of Yoga is also seen in temple worship where the installation of the image of the Deity, the vigraha or the pratimaa in the sanctum-sanctorum (from the foundation upwards) is analogous to the six plexuses (chakras) in the body; the image itself being equivalent to the thousand-petaled-lotus, (sahasraara-padma). The temple thus depicts the body of the yogin.

Methods of Worship

There are three forms of worship in present day Hinduism (almost entirely Aagama). These are described below:

This form of worship is common in temples. It is also a daily activity in Hindu homes where images in the family altar are worshipped. Special Poojaa rituals, worshipping specific deities as parts of specific festivals or otherwise (e.g., Ganesh Poojaa during the Ganesh Festival, or the Satya-Naaraayana Poojaa) are also common.

Poojaa includes the four elements of Yoga as described above. In addition, it involves invocation of the Deity in the worshipper, specifically at his manipura chakra, which is transferred to the image. In the main, Poojaa consists of the five offerings or attendances (panchopachaara). Though they are called ‘five offerings’, these are really ‘six’; they are yet called ‘five offerings’ probably because the first and the sixth offering have the same ‘seed mantra’. These six offerings are represented by the material used during Poojaa which are water, (paadya), sandalwood paste and other fragrant substances, (gandha), flowers, (pushpa), incense, (dhoopa), light, (deepa) and food, (naivedya). Each of these has an emotional and theological significance. The Deity is the all-pervading Absolute, the six offerings represent the five elements that constitute the manifested universe and the individual-Self (jiva) of the worshipper. The offerings thus symbolically represent the return of the manifested universe, including the individual-Selfs, to the Brahman, the all-pervading Purusha.

The offerings also imply an emotional relation to Deity. Thus the offering of water, represents that element, (Aapa), and denotes ‘acquaintance’ with the Deity. Sandalwood and fragrances, represent the element earth, (prithvi), and symbolise trust in Deity. Flowers represent ether, space, (Aakaasha), and convey adoration of Deity. Incense represents wind, (Vaayu), and denotes devotion, (bhakti), to Deity. Light represents energy, (Tejas), and stands for knowledge, (jnana) of the Real. And finally food, representing the individual-Self, (jiva), denotes the realisation of the identity of the worshipper with Deity. The offering of food is accompanied by what is called ‘oblation of the life-forces’, the praanaas.

After the Poojaa is completed, the Deity is transferred back to the manipura chakra within the seeker. This symbolic step is not observed in temple worship, or after worshipping at the family altar because Deity is in a way ‘permanently’ invoked in those images.
Japa / Dhyaana

Chanting and contemplation of Deity is a very private, one-to-one form of worship. No image is required here. The four steps of Yoga are followed. In most cases, Deity is invoked, but the transference does not occur t any physical image, rather to the image residing in the minds eye. Japa involves repeating the name of the Deity or repeating the mantras of different Deities, Ishthas.

Sometimes, a hymn of praise or a strotram is recited, instead of performing japa, making the worship akin to a prayer, (praarthanaa). Most often, the stotram recitation is not a prayer making requests to the Deity, but simply comprises of verses of adoration, describing the form of the Deity (Ishtha) to be remembered, (smaran), and contemplated upon (dhyaana), or praising the greatness and goodness and benevolent deeds of the Deity.

Practice of the eight-limbed Yoga, or Raaja Yoga meditation, as it is often called, is itself a form of worship. This method of worship doesn’t have any ‘external’ symbolism associated with it. Yoga is different from the other modes of worship though, in that it goes for the gold as it were. The goal of Yoga is salvation, (Moksha). The first two stages of Yoga constitute ethical readiness, the next two stages physical readiness, the fifth stage ‘withdrawal’ refers to control of the senses, (this is where the difficult part begins). The sixth and the seventh stages are fixation (“dhaarana” = holding on), and deep uninterrupted contemplation beyond any memory of ego or ‘I-ness’, (dhyaana). Japa or recitation of the name or mantra is often used as an aid for fixation, while a hymn (stotram) describing the form of the Deity (Ishtha) may be recited to help create a mental picture of the Deity, the object of meditation. The final stage is samaadhi; a state of ‘realisation’ of the identity of the Self, (Aatman), and the Real, (Purusha); the fruition of all worship. This realisation is Moksha. The Ashtaanga Yoga therefore is often called the most perfect, the best and the ideal mode of worship.

This rarely practiced form of worship is a legacy of the Vedic yajna. It involves making oblations (of clarified butter, rice, etc.,) into the sacred fire with the chanting of mantras.

Other religious activities include singing of songs of praise or bhajans, which is usually done in groups, listening to religious discourses (pravachana), etc. These activities are most often communal and congregational. However, they do not typically constitute ‘worship’, (Upaasanaa), but are preparatory and educative in nature.

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