We bought the 'pooja' articles and a cute clay idol of Lord Ganesha
and were inching our way home through the unusually heavy festive traffic.
Rohan who was so cheerful and enthusiastic while choosing the 'pooja' articles
became rather quiet going into one of his thoughtful moods. I instinctively
knew what was coming!
Rohan: Dad. The 'shopping' was cool! It was real
fun with the market being so colourful and all that. But what really is
the meaning of all this? Why do Poojas at all?
Me: Well! Let me see how I can make it easy for you to
understand. Every religion employs symbolism although they would not like
to admit it. But it is in the Hindu religion that symbolism is employed
to its acme. However most of us tend to get lost in the superficialities
or the periphery of this symbolism without appreciating the essence or
the true and deeper meaning of such symbolic rituals. It is for this reason
that to many among us these rituals appear to be funny, unintelligent or
even absurd. This is why the older and the traditional among us face ridicule
from the younger generation!
Rohan: well (mumbling)... I didn't say THAT... Not in
so many words anyway!
Me: However now that we are on this subject let us look
at certain basic aspects of the 'Pooja' itself.
The Pooja ritual is like performing what Hindus call a 'karma' ...A
divine ordained duty. Hindus believe that the 'soul' (or 'atman', being
a miniscule part of 'Paramatman' or the divine whole) passes through innumerable
births evolving into higher and higher planes. In its present form it will
reap the rewards of past good deeds but at the same time will have to pay
for the past negative deeds. Pooja rituals have been prescribed to mitigate
or even to totally counter the suffering from such negative deeds.
Rohan: Ya...but the whole thing is so elaborate and takes
Me: Lets see. There are 3 stages or steps, which are important
for any ritual. Ofcourse, before we perform any action we must first have
a 'sankalpam' (a genuine urge). After that the 3 stages are:
(1) Discipline: Clear thinking leads to clear action.
There is no confusion. All that has gone into organising this Pooja today
like fixing a time, the invitations, gathering Pooja materials, our fasting
since last night, the traditional head-bath today, and your mum cooking
'prasadam' (offering to Gods) and so on, all these require certain amount
of pre-planning. This leads to self-discipline.
(2) Steadfastness: We create an atmosphere of piety and
serenity in an attempt to steady our minds during the Pooja. This includes
cancellation of appointments, cleaning and decorating the house with flowers
and mango leaves, putting Rangoli designs in front of the house, playing
devotional music and wearing new clothes. Throughout the 'pooja' we try
and concentrate on the proceedings.
(3) Sacrifice: (or offerings) At the conclusion of the
pooja We give our offerings to the GODS and then to the person performing
the pooja. We also offer food to the holy cow in some Poojas. Then we share
the prasaadams and food with our friends and relatives. Poor feeding is
customary in Poojas.
Rohan: But why all this so-called discipline?
Me: Well. There are many who talk about taking the path
of pure 'devotion' to attain liberation and some among them even shun rituals
and poojas in their so called path of 'renunciation'. There are others
who opt for the path of 'duty' as worship. Little do they realise that
a mind not trained in Discipline, Steadfastness and sacrifice can never
reach the heights that are the required qualities for reaching the goal
If there is no Discipline in life there will be confusion in the mind
and the results will reflect this confusion. If there is no Steadfastness
in action then one's tasks will be left incomplete. And when there is no
sense of sacrifice (like parting with a few material things like a small
amount of money) how can one even dream of surrendering ones ALL to the
Supreme Being, an act that the 'devotional' path demands.
Rohan: Here we are. We have arrived. But I want to know
more about the pooja itself. May be later.
Me: Ya. Let's continue this chat later.
SYMBOLISM AND THE HINDU RELIGION
The Hindu religion is often criticized and even ridiculed by Uninformed
or misinformed people, not just from other faiths but from among the Hindus
themselves, for the type of symbolism employed in their worship and for
the rituals they follow. However, a close study would clearly show that
every tradition in the world employs symbolism and rituals to a greater
or lesser degree. From time to time, there have been reformers in every
religion who have opposed symbols and rituals. But, as Swami Vivekananda
aptly explained, that as long as man remains as he is, the vast majority
will want something concrete to hold on to, something around which, to
place their ideas, something which will be the thought-forms in their minds.
The great attempts of the Muslims and of the Protestants have been directed
at doing away with all rituals and symbolism. But, the masses simply change
one symbol for another. Symbolism may come in the form of candles, the
Holy Book or the Church building or the black stone in the wall of the
Caaba shrine, or the Well of Zimzim, to name just a few. But, it is in
Hinduism that symbolism is employed to its acme.
To appreciate the real essence of any religion, one must learn to appreciate
the science of symbolism. An understanding of this science would lead one
to discover the deeper meaning of Hindu traditions which outwardly appears
to be rather superficial, unintelligent and absurd. Symbolism is used to
represent the ideas signified behind them. This Universe is a symbol, in
and through which, we are trying to grasp the thing signified, which is
beyond and behind.
THE TEMPLE VISIT
Most Hindus visit temples during their lifetime. Yet, when questioned
about the purpose or the meaning of the 'ritualistic' events that accompany
such a visit, not many are able to give a coherent or clear reply. This
often leads to doubt and skepticism on the part of the inquirer. It therefore
should hardly come as a surprise, when those from other faiths ridicule
the Hindus. In order to understand the deeper meaning of the rituals, let
us first examine a 'typical' temple visit.
The beauty and meaning of the simple ritual during the temple visit
can only be comprehended when one tries to understand the symbolism behind
The devotee brings flowers, coconut, incense sticks and camphor that
is offered to the priest in the temple. The idol of God within the dark
interiors is often not visible to the devotee immediately upon entering
the temple. Using the lamp burning inside the temple, the priest lights
the camphor and with that light shows the idol of God to everyone. The
coconut is then broken and the coconut milk is offered to the devotees.
After a brief period of silent meditation, the devotee leaves the temple.
DARK INTERIOR OF THE TEMPLES
Ignorance is traditionally equated with darkness. When the devotee enters
the temple, there is darkness within and even though the devotees vision
is good, the idol is not visible. On first entering this world, human beings
are engulfed in 'ignorance'. Even in later life, one spends one’s time
in ignorance with little awareness of the 'purpose' to this life. “Ajnane
Na Tu Jnanam Avrtam Tena Muhyanti Jantavah" which means 'By ignorance
one's intellect is covered, hence the delusion”. (BhagawadGita).
THE GURU IN THE TEMPLE
In such a state of ignorance, the devotee hands over the camphor to
the priest who here is symbolically the 'guru'. The word GURU means “gukaro
tu andhakarah, Rukaro tu tat nivartkah”. GU stands for ignorance and RU
for that which eliminates this ignorance. The camphor represents all the
negative qualities within us… our past, our notions, conditioning, dogmas,
conclusions, beliefs, prejudices and so on. By the act of giving the camphor
to the priest, the devotee is surrendering all that is negative to the
BURNING CAMPHOR AND THE ETERNAL FLAME
The priest lights the camphor from the eternal flame of the temple lamp
that stays lit for 24 hours a day. The flame of the temple lamp stands
for the flame of knowledge..”jnanagni”. Fire always stands for knowledge.
In this fire, which represents knowledge, wisdom, and inquiry, the
camphor representing all the negative qualities within us (our notions,
beliefs, conclusions, dogmas,conditioning…) are symbolically burnt. The
flame or light emerging from this act dispels darkness. Just as darkness
is dispelled by light, the light of knowledge dispels our ignorance. Therefore,
this act of lighting the camphor by the priest is equivalent to 'guru
upadesa' (a sermon by the master). And in this emerging light (of wisdom),
the idol becomes visible to the devotee. The idol is always present in
the temple. So also one’s true self is always present. The idol only
becomes visible after the camphor is burnt and light emerges from it. Similarly,
the devotee become aware of his/her true self only when it surfaces out
in the light of knowledge that emanates from the destruction of ignorance.
Unable to grasp the significance of life, we spend most our life
in ignorance. It is by the process of acquiring knowledge that one destroys
COCONUT AND THE EGO
The coconut representing our 'ego' is broken by the GURU in front of
the idol, meaning at the altar of truth, and the coconut milk representing
the sweet water of happiness and joy is symbolically offered to us, the
devotees. The coconut shell, just like the ego, is hard to break. Every
time a coconut is broken it is the suggestion that ego is being broken.
The sweet coconut milk, which existed even before the coconut was broken,
could not be experienced because of the hard shell covering it. It is only
when the shell is broken that we are able to experience the joy. Similarly,
in our lives the sweet water of happiness exists but the hard shell of
our ego deprives us from experiencing it.
Thus, this simple ritual of going to a temple has a profound connotation.
But, the symbolism behind it only unveils itself when we explore and attempt
to understand it. The spirit is the goal and not matter. As stated by Swami
Vivekananda, symbols and rituals help in the growth of the soul. In the
heart of all these ritualisms, there stands one idea prominent above all
the rest…the worship of a name!
(My son and I were returning from a visit to the temple of Lord Ganesha.
I found Rohan unusually silent and just as I was wondering what was bothering
him, he blurted out)
Rohan: Dad, that idol of the Elephant God! Did you notice
that it had the head of an Elephant with a tusk missing, the body of a
human being, a stomach like a balloon with a snake tied around it. And,
to top it off, He was sitting on a tiny little mouse!
Me: Thank you, Rohan. We saw Him too. And, will you stop
calling him Elephant God? He is Lord Ganesha, the God of success and wisdom.
Anyway, what's wrong with his looks?
Rohan: Wrong! The idol of this Lord Ganesha appeared so
ridiculous and so absurd. No wonder some of my friends don't believe in
Me: That is no way to talk about our favorite God!
But, from what you just described, isn't it obvious to you that such a
'person' in fact does not exist? Don't you see that surely something is
connoted or indicated through this symbolism?
Rohan: Good Lord NO! All I see is a funny looking idol
sitting on a mouse! But do tell me what it means.
Me: Alright, let me try and explain. Every tradition or
faith employs symbolism. Unless one understands the deeper meaning
of the real Hindu tradition, it would appear to be superficial or absurd,
as it did to
You now. However, each and every part of any Hindu Deity connotes something
or has a symbolic meaning.
Me: You noticed the head of Lord Ganesha is that of an
elephant. The body, which represents human beings, and the head, which
represents the animal, are symbolic of the Lord or God or Truth existing
Through both the human and animal kingdoms. Did you observe the shape
of the head closely? If you did, you would have noticed that it was in
the shape of OM. This means that the thought vibrations of a wise person
are similar to the vibrations of OM.
Rohan: What is this OM?
Me: OM or AUM is believed by Hindus to be the first (primordial)
sound in creation. It includes all known sounds. OM is the most natural
sound, the basis of all sounds. The first letter, A, is the root sound,
the key, pronounced without touching any part of the tongue or palate;
M represents the last sound in the series, being produced by the closed
lips, and the U rolls from the very root to the end of the sounding board
of the mouth. Thus, OM represents the whole phenomena of sound producing.
It denotes the whole range and possibility of all the words that can be
made. Around this OM, are centered all the different religious ideas in
India. It has been used to mean all the various ideas of God. The English
word God covers only a limited function, and, if you go beyond it, you
have to add adjectives, to make it Personal, or Impersonal, or Absolute.
The signification of the word for God in any language is very small, but,
this word OM, however, has around it all the various significances. Open
your mouth wide and start producing a loud sound. Observe how the sound
changes as the mouth gradually closes, and listen to the sound when the
mouth is completely closed. When you chant OM or AUM, articulation begins
with A (AAA…) when the mouth is fully open. The sound then changes to U
(UUU…) as the mouth is closing and, finally, the chanting sounds like M
(MMM…) when your mouth is closed.
(Predictably, the car was already full of the OM vibrations, with everyone
inside trying it out, and the passers-by were staring at us very curiously).
Hindu scriptures suggest that AAA stands for the waking world; the UUU
for the dream world; and the MMM for the deep sleep world. All sounds are
included in the OM or AUM because they occur in between the opening and
closing of the mouth.
Rohan: (rather impatiently) So?
Me: Well, this means that since all objects are represented
by words, and all words or sounds are included in OM, OM includes the whole
world or the Universe.
Rohan: (rather thoughtfully)…I see.
Me: It is said that the head of Lord Ganesha, which is
in the shape of OM, represents the entire vision and entire wisdom of an
enlightened person. This vision includes the whole world, all living beings,
and in fact all creation, not just oneself. Contrast this with the vision
of an unenlightened person, whose vision includes only himself, and excludes
others of the world. This is what our ancestors meant when they used the
word 'Vasudhaika Kutumbakam", which means that the whole world is part
of one family.
Rohan: I heard people saying OM in many different ways.
What is the
right way to say OM? How does one actually say it?
Me: You don't say it. You chant it! Anyway, let’s have
a practical demonstration. As you begin to say AAA, keep your hand on your
tummy. What do you feel?
Rohan: I think I feel some vibrations!
Me: Now say UUUUU, and feel the front of the chest. Do
you feel the vibrations? Good. Now say MMMMM, and do you feel your face
vibrating? As you end the chanting, you will feel the vibrations going
towards the top of your head, and leaving your body at the top?
Rohan: Hey! This is great. I never experienced this before.
Me: In our body there are power centers called 'chakras'.
Chanting 'OM' helps to raise a power called 'kundalini' upwards from the
navel region (navel chakra), to the crown region of the head (crown chakra),
via the heart region (heart chakra) and the forehead region (forehead chakra).
This process has great significance in the practice of Yoga. But, let us
get back to Ganesha!
Rohan: O.K. Where were we? Oh yes, the big ears! By the
way, You never ever told me why you used to call me Big Ears when I was
Me: OH! Did I! I don't even remember?. Anyway. Back to
Ganesha! The large ears symbolize the ears of an 'awakened' person, whose
‘listening’ is very sharp and who is attentive. This attentive ‘listening’
in Sanskrit is called 'shravanam'. Normally, our ‘listening’ is not attentive.
Also our ‘listening’ is not objective. Mostly, we tend to listen to our
own 'listening'! We are caught up in our own inner chattering, and even
as we are ‘listening’ to what others are saying, the ‘listening’ gets clouded
by our conclusions, and judgement. The ‘listening’, therefore becomes very
shallow and not focussed.
Rohan: What about the trunk?
Me: To the elephant, the trunk is a very effective tool.
It can pick up tiny objects like a needle as dexterously as it can use
it to uproot a large tree or push a rock. Symbolically, an enlightened
person can deal with trivial issues as dexterously as with complex ones.
This 'effectiveness' arises out of an objective perception, when the ‘listening’
is powerful because of the symbolic large ears.
Rohan: What about the small eyes?
Me: Lord Ganesha's eyes like that of an elephant, is purity
and innocence personified. The eyes are crystal clear and beautiful, and
represent the pure mind. It is said that the eyes truly reflect the nature
of one's mind. Eyes can not manipulate…except by long practice as by actors.
A lot of non-verbal communication takes place through the eyes and at times
there really is no need to articulate feelings in words. A certain 'luminosity'
is said to be seen in the eyes of individuals with a pure mind.
Rohan: But Dad, why was one of the tusks broken?
Me: Lord Ganesha, like the elephant had two tusks. He
broke one and used it to kill a demon. TWO means duality (dwandwa). You
do remember the verse:
'Nirdwandwah Hi Mahabaho Sukham Bandhat Pramuchyate….' from the
Bhagawad Gita, don't you?
Rohan: Of course, I do!
Me: Good! The two tusks stand for Raga (likes) and Dwesha
(dislikes). Our likes and dislikes are very precious to us, just like ivory
is precious to us. The ivory tusks symbolize this duality. Operating our
lives from such a mind-set, we feel happy when our likes are fulfilled,
and unhappy when what we dislike is forced upon us. However, a wise
person doesn't operate from this duality (dwandwa), but operates from the
background of commitment (sankalpa), and surrender (samarpana). He works
from a space of what “is”, and accepts the results, whatever it may be.
Accepting what 'is', he surrenders to “what is”. Of course,
Surrendering doesn't mean a passive acceptance, but it implies that
one is “objectively” accepting facts as they are. So, when the duality
(dwandwa) is broken, you are released automatically from bondage.
Rohan: Can you tell me the significance of the big stomach
Me: Certainly! The big stomach represents the capacity
to 'stomach' all problems of life! It also symbolizes the very appetite
for life. People generally want a “problem-free” life. They forget that
life is not always a bed of roses. A life without problems doesn't exist.
In fact, problems add spice to life. Problems are to be faced head-on and
surmounted. Every problem successfully faced and solved gives us that little
extra confidence to face the future. It is only an unwise person that hopes
to have a “problem-free” life, and when the problems do arise, they become
a source of unhappiness to such an individual. So, be like a wise person
who has the capacity to ingest and digest all problems!
Rohan: Thank you Dad! My appetite is already building
Me: Regarding the appetite!… the appetite to live is not there when
one is resigned to life. But for an awakened person, life is full of fun
and joy. Such a person lives in the 'present', becomes so participative
Life, that every moment is a source of joy and adventure, even in the
midst of problems.
Rohan: What about the snake coiled round Lord Ganesha's
Me: Oh! You noticed! In yoga Shastras (science), a snake
represents the 'kundalini shakti' or the psychic energy of a person. It
is the life energy or potential of Man. In an unexploded form, this energy
lies dormant at the base of the spine; 'coiled' up like a snake that is
resting. When awakened, the energy rises up through the 'chakras'
(power centers) of the body, just as an awakened snake uncoils to its full
length. Yoga is a practice which aims at getting this 'kundalini' power
Rohan: Dad! We are almost home. Can we continue this talk
Me: Certainly! The symbolisms that we talked about today,
are specific to Lord Ganesha. Other features like the position of the hands,
the articles carried in the hand etc., are common to other deities also.
So, in our next chat, we will talk about that.
When you look at the Idol of a Hindu God one is struck by certain aspects
to the Idol like the number of hands, their posture and what they hold.Very
few stop to think of their significance. As an example let us look at the
idol of Ganesha.
THE FOUR HANDS
The 4 hands represent the four aspects of the mind namely, Manah, Buddhi,
Chitta and Ahamkara. In each one of the Antahkarana represented by the
hands, there is a certain instrument.
Right Upper Hand: An axe representing detachment. 'Asanga Shastrena
Drohene Chitwa' ….with the sword of detachment break or cut away all your
problems or bondages. By detachment it is not suggested thatone should
escape from problems. What is meant is that attachment creates hurdles
in our path to progress in spiritual life. So understanding attachment
itself would free man from it and would lead to a kind detached attitude.
Left Upper Hand: One sees a noose('pasha'). It is a love noose(
prem pasha) whereby a detached person attracts all people close to him
with this noose of love. Love unlike attachment is inclusive and includes
everybody. Lust excludes and has a possessive quality to it. Love guarantees
nothing but provides everything.
Right Lower Hand: The posture of this hand is called Abhaya Mudra'
when the hand is open. But in some Idols the hand is in chin mudra where
the thumb and the fore finger are touching in a circle.
Abhaya Mudra: Abhaya means fearlessness. Mudra means posture.
The first thing an awakened person does in his relationships is to assure
freedom, fearlessness. This is supposed to be the greatest gifts one can
give any one. It is in athe safety of such a relationship alone that a
relationship can grow, whether it be a teacher-student relationship or
any other relationship that is to last. When there is fear of criticism,
hostility and judgement no relationship can thrive.
Chin Mudra: Chin stands for Chit which means conciousness.
This whole posture is of conciousness.
Index Finger represents Ego (ahamkara), the thumb represents Brahman,
the middle,ring and the little fingers represent the three gunas-namely,
Satwa, Rajas and Tamas gunas.
The index finger which is always used to threaten or criticize or brand
somebody or some thing is traditionally used in 'japas' It represents Ahamkara,
The Thumb is the support (Adhara) for all the other fingers without
which the other fingers become powerless. It is likened to the Atman(conciousness).
It is only in conciousness that our qualities, whether positive or negative
that can be expressed.
The other Three fingers represent the three qualities or gunas of which
the world is made of (trigunatmaka Maya).
In chinmudra posture the thu,b and the index fingers are merged together
in the form of a circle with the tips touching and seperated from the other
fingers. This means the Ego should detach itself from the world of the
other three Gunas and gain its union with the thumb, the original self(brahman).
The the Ego automatically disappears and a circleis formed meaning that
it becomes complete.
Normally we go through life without realizing our true nature. The purpose
of spiritual life is to enhance our awareness of our true self . The sum
total of spiritual life is Awareness, Wakefullness and Vigilance. In any
awakened state there is merging of Ego in the self.
The fourth Hand: In this hand of Ganesh there is a 'modaka',
a sweet preparation. It implies that the result of an understanding and
implementation of the above would lead to results that would be sweet.
The life would be a sweet one.