What is Puja and the Bhakti Tradition in Hinduism?

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Ritual worship and devotion in the Hindu religion has a long history. According to historian of religion Ninian Smart, of Hinduism’s practical dimension, the practice of worship or puja was one of the most basic and fundamental of its rituals (1).

In the earliest traditions of the sacred Vedic texts, it was crucial that sacrifices made at sacred fires be performed the correct way (2): “Various forces were coalescing to provide a shape for the heterogeneous religions over which the Brahmins came to prevail. The cult of gods and goddesses, probably always important in modest circumstances inside the home, began to acquire more permanent public form. Perhaps in part under the stimulus of Buddhism, the Hindu temple came to play a leading role in Indian life. It provided a focus for ceremonial and a place for meeting with the great and lesser gods” (3).

The Function of Puja

Sacrifices were to be performed solely by the brahmins, or the priestly class, however, in the early part of the first millennium CE, the approach to worship became less exclusive and soon evolved into bhakti, the practice of loving devotion. Temples were home to many images (murti) of the gods that could be visited by worshippers and, over time, there gradually developed a tradition of making puja open to all, irrespective of class. Puja involves making a simple offering of incense, followers, or vegetarian goods before an image of a god or goddess. This ritual may occur at home or in a temple, and devotees will mark their foreheads with powder or paste in acknowledgment of the act. At the end of the ritual, worshippers may receive the food that has been offered to the god or goddess. This is acceptable because the nature of the offering is less important than the intention behind the offering. Sometimes it is sufficient to just go to a temple and look at the image of the deity.

Through puja, worshipers pay respect to the gods and ask favours of them. The gods are often referred to according to the activities they perform, for example, the elephant-headed god Ganesha is called the “remover of obstacles.” Hindus are allowed to select what god or goddess they wish to worship and approach it for favour. Puja is not always linked to personal requests and thanksgiving but also occurs within large gatherings at festivals. Durga Puja is a major annual festival occurring in the September-October period that celebrates the defeat of the demon king Mahishasura at the hands of the goddess Durga. It is a nine-day event honouring a deity who is believed to embody the female aspects of divine power. During public acts of puja, worshipers and devotees will make offerings, say prayers, sing hymns, dance, fast, and feast in the god’s honour. As Smart acknowledges, “On the experiential and emotional level, the spirit behind such ritual practices varied. Poets and others expressed the feelings of devotional religion or bhakti, associated both with temple worship and with the fervor of pilgrimages and festivals” (4)

Personal Relationship with Deities

Bhakti and puja traditions evolved to include a personal relationship perhaps best exemplified in the visible images of gods and goddesses within Hindu temples. The gods are viewed as persons with whom worshipers can have a fulfilling relationship, which produces an intense emotional dimension to Hindu religious practice. One can develop an intense emotional bond with his or her chosen deity while the divine comes to be seen as dwelling within the worshiper’s heart. This form of bhakti came to dominate Hinduism by the twelve century CE when the relationship between worshipers and gods became seen as a relationship between two lovers.

Although practices varied, many forms of bhakti focused on the god Vishnu who is depicted in the Ramayana and Mahabharata. In these texts, Vishnu is the god who came down to Earth to help humankind in the disguise of one of his many avatars (embodiments of a god). This is why the Bhagavad Gita is so fondly read by Hindu readers because in it Vishnu, who is both Lord and creator of the universe, reveals himself as loving and willing to intervene in messy human affairs. According to the Gita, Vishnu declares that “Those who worship me with complete discipline and who contemplate me, whose thoughts are constantly on me—these I soon raise up from the sea of death and rebirth.” There are many riches in the Gita, “but the central value is that of loyalty and devotion to God, namely bhakti” (5).

References

1. Smart, Ninian. 1998. The World’s Religions. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. p. 46

2. Ambalu, Shulamit., et al. 2013. The Religions Book. London: Dorling Kindersley Ltd. p.

3. Smart, Ninian. 1998. Ibid. p. 87.

4. Smart, Ninian. 1998. Ibid. p. 48.

5. Smart, Ninian. 1998. Ibid. p. 88-89

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