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Magazine Web Edition > July/August/September 2009 > Insight: Approaching God - Elements of Worship & From Shrine to Temple
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Divine Gifts

Hinduism revolves around the concept of reciprocity: by giving one receives and, in turn, one shows gratitude by giving. Both religion and hereditary society are based on this principle. Most if not all Hindu pujas involve expressions of thankfulness by the symbolic offering of gifts to the Deity, usually in the form of food and flowers. The type of offering depends on the financial ability of the devotee, as well as the climate, season and local tradition. Those living in wet, tropical areas might offer rice, bananas and fresh fruits, while those in drier environments may give breads or sweets made of wheat or millet, or simple pellets of sugar. People in North India prefer to give garlands of marigolds and roses, while in the South devotees offer more exotic flowers such as jasmine, tuberoses and hibiscus. Lotuses are highly valued as sacred gifts everywhere in India. Flowers are used to adorn the image of the Deity while the food is placed in its close proximity. During the puja rituals, the Deity is believed to symbolically consume the food. In doing so, his or her sacred energy seeps into the flowers and the remaining food, transforming them with vibrant divine power.

Many of the items donated to shrines are purchased in the markets just outside or even within the temple compound. Florists sell individual blooms and garlands of flowers strung together by hand, and fruit sellers provide coconuts, bananas and other produce. Confectioners display varieties of sweets and cakes, all to be given to the Gods. Other vendors peddle incense and camphor. Many cater primarily to the needs of household shrines, stocking their stalls with framed and unframed prints of painted portraits of the principle Deities being worshiped inside the temple, as well as those of many other Gods and Goddesses that might be of interest to devotees. Brass shops not only carry lamps, incense burners, trays and water vessels, but also various sizes of metal sculptures of popular Gods and Goddesses; other vendors sell the brocaded and embroidered costumes and miniature jewelry for these household images.

Certain occasions may require significant gifts to the Gods. The annual festival of one's patron Deity may be an auspicious time to give something extra to the temple or shrine. Rituals that herald important life-changing events, such as birth, coming of age or marriage, often involve the donation of presents to the family's temple. When a devotee prays for a specific boon from the Deity--for example, the healing of a disease, or success in a new project, or a raise in income--she or he promises that if the wish is granted, a gift will be given to the God or Goddess. If, then, the illness is cured, the enterprise successful, or the salary increased, the devotee will donate something special to the shrine or temple. The quality and value of the gift depends upon the financial capabilities of the donor. A common offering is a new garment for the image, often a cotton or silk sari or dhoti. Women may offer their own jewelry: glass, silver or gold bangles, gold or silver bracelets, anklets, earrings, necklaces or rings. Wealthy individuals might commission fine jewelry to be made, such as a crown or diadem, or perhaps even silver or gold coverings for a part of the body of the image. Terracotta (low-fired clay) sculptures are also given by the poor to community shrines, although rarely to large temples. Most often these sculptures are ordered from local potters to represent those animals (horses, cows or elephants) that tradition states are of particular interest to the Deity. They are believed by many to be transformed into their real counterparts in the spirit world for the Deity's own use.

Once the Deity is suitably prepared for worship, the puja begins. Fire is an essential part of all Hindu rituals. Lamps (dipas) are lighted during a puja and waved with the right hand in a clockwise fashion in front of the image, first around its head, then around its central portion and finally around its feet. The left hand of the priest or person conducting the puja usually holds a small bell that is rung continuously while the lamp is being waved. From ancient times, fire has been worshiped in India as the God Agni, and today remains a primary symbol of divine energy. In offering the flame in front of the image, the devotee acknowledges the sacred supremacy of the God or Goddess. Various vegetable oils may be used in dipas, but the most auspicious fuel is ghee, or clarified butter. Most lamps are brass, and many are sculpted with sacred symbols relevant to the Deity being worshiped. Camphor, known locally as karpura, is processed from the pitch of the camphor tree. When lighted, it has the unique property of creating a bright, cool flame that leaves no ash. It is usually placed in a flat tray known as an arati. After being waved in front of the image, the arati is customarily brought close to the devotees so that they may pass their hands through the fire and then touch their eyelids or the tops of their heads with their fingertips. This action has great symbolic value. The bright, fragrant flame represents the brilliant presence of the Deity whose darshan is facilitated through the puja. Contact with the fire is believed to purify and elevate the devotee's soul, allowing it to merge with the magnificence of the Divine; at the same time the energy of the Absolute unknowable Deity is transformed and channeled into a palpable connection with the devotee. The arati puja and the darshan (the moment of visually recognizing and being recognized by God) are the two most important acts in Hindu worship.

The arati is usually directly followed by giving water to the worshiper. A small brass container of holy water blessed by the Deity is brought out of the sanctum. A spoonful is poured into the cupped right hand of the devotee, who drinks it and then rubs the remaining drops through his or her hair, thereby melding both the inside and outside of the body with the essence of the Divine. It is again an acknowledgment of the complement of opposites, the two primary elements--fire (masculine) and water (feminine)--like the early morning prayers to the river and the rising sun.

According to ancient Indian philosophy, the human body is divided into seven vortexes of energy, called chakras, beginning at the base of the spine and ending at the top of the head. The sixth chakra, also known as the third eye, is centered in the forehead directly between the eyebrows, and is believed to be the channel through which mankind opens spiritually to the Divine. At the end of each puja ceremony, the devotee marks this chakra with sacred powder, usually either kumkum (vermilion) or vibhuti (ash), or with a paste made of clay or sandalwood as a symbol and reminder of his or her darshan. The mark, or tilak, is a public proclamation of one's devotion and may identify a specific spiritual affiliation. Most common is a simple dot of bright red vermilion that symbolizes the shakti (power) of the Deity. Worshipers of Vishnu use white clay to apply two vertical lines joined at the base and intersected by a bright red streak. The white lines represent the footprint of their God, while the red refers to his consort, Lakshmi. Devotees of Siva customarily draw three horizontal lines across their brows with sacred ash (vibhuti), symbolizing the three levels of existence and the three functions of their Lord as Creator, Preserver and Destroyer of all existence. A married woman in some parts of India may be identified by the vermilion used in her tilak and in the red streak in the part of her hair. Contrary to popular belief, outside of India the bindi, or beauty mark, that modern Indian women and girls put on their foreheads has no other contemporary significance, although it has evolved from these symbolic tilaks. It does not refer to caste, community or marital status.

After the symbolic purification with fire, the drinking of holy water and the marking of the third eye, the final act in most pujas is the return to the devotee of some of the flowers and the newly blessed food, called prashad. In the household, all the prashad will be consumed by family members. In the temple, some of it remains as payment to the priests who facilitate the rituals, while the remaining prashad is taken home and eaten. Hindus believe that the ingestion of prashad fills them with the divine energy of the Deity to whom they have prayed, in the same way that Christians believe that by partaking of the bread and wine in holy communion they accept the spirit of Christ into their bodies. While pujas may be made either before or after meals, depending upon family tradition, all food that is cooked in the home must first be symbolically offered to the Gods before it is eaten. In the strictly traditional home, the cook will never even taste the food while it is being prepared, as that would alter the purity of the offering. Consequently, all food cooked in these homes becomes prashad. The kitchen is therefore considered a sacred space that should not be violated by uncleanness or by impure actions, words or thoughts.

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