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Suklaam Baradharam Vishnum
Sasivarnam Chathurbhujam
Prasanna Vadanam Dhyayeth
Sarva Vighnopa Santhaye
Om
Santhi Santhi Santhi hi
 
 
Significance of 
'POOJA'  RITUALS

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 so long! 

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 of 'liberation'. 

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 RITUAL

The beauty and meaning of the simple ritual during the temple visit can only be comprehended when one tries to understand the symbolism behind it. 
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. 

THE MEANING

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 GURU. 

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 ignorance. 

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! 


LORD GANESHA 

(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 our Gods. 

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. 

The Head 

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 in and 
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? 

CHANTING 'OM' 

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 small! 
 
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? 

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? 

THE 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? 

THE TUSKS 

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 now? 

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 up! 

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 in 
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 stomach? 

THE SNAKE 

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 awakened. 

Rohan: Dad! We are almost home. Can we continue this talk another time? 

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. 


THE MUDRAS

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 Ego.
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.
 

 
 

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