Pondering the mystical elements and knowledge behind Hinduism’s major form of temple worship

By Satguru Bodhinatha Veylanswami 

Watch the Video on Youtube: Essential Ingredients for a Powerful Puja

Let’s compare worshiping the murti in the temple to the preparation of a vegetable curry. To prepare a curry, you start by cleaning raw vegetables, removing skins or inedible parts and cutting all to size. In a pan, you heat up a splash of oil, adding whole spices, dried peppers, seeds and a dollop of dry dal. Once the seeds pop and become fragrant, add curry leaves and onions. Brown slightly, add tomatoes and simmer for a short time. Next add salt, spice powders, such as turmeric and curry powder, and simmer a bit more. Finally, add raw, steamed, boiled, baked or fried vegetables and cook until complete. As any good cook will attest, lots of ingredients are required to turn a bland vegetable into a tasty curry. Such a dish feeds our body, while our soul is nourished by puja in the temple. For a puja to be powerful, a known process must be followed and a number of important ingredients need to be present.

  1. The first is the nature of the temple’s connection to the inner worlds, which varies considerably from temple to temple. It needs to be a strong one. We can compare this to connecting a computer network to the Internet. A T1 connection, for example, can transfer only a small amount of data compared to the fastest optical connections. The strength of the temple’s connection to the inner worlds depends upon three factors: whether it was founded in connection with a vision of the Deity; the number of years it has maintained devout pujas without a break; the number and strength of pujas performed each year.
  2. The second ingredient for a powerful puja is that the chosen day be auspicious for the Deity being worshiped. An annual festival, such as Ganesha Chaturthi for Lord Ganesha, is a highly auspicious time for worship. The monthly Chaturthi tithi is also more favorable than other days of the month for Ganesha worship. In both cases, the auspiciousness relates to the exact period that the tithi or nakshatra is in power. For example, in Hawaii, Ganesha Chaturthi in 2020 was from about 7am on September 21, until 5am, September 22. For the convenience of devotees, some temples hold annual festival pujas on the weekend even though the actual and most propitious time was a few days before. This is not ideal.
  3. The third ingredient is the skill, knowledge, purity and mystical understandings of the priest or priests who are performing the puja, and the depth of their devotion. During the puja, through mantras, mudras and mystical ritual, the priests invoke the Deity. They beseech the God to indwell the image, to accept the prayers of the votaries, and to shower blessings and love on all. My guru, Sivaya Subramuniyaswami, provides additional insights into this process: “When you worship the God in the temple, through puja and ceremony, you are bringing that Divinity out of the microcosm and into this macrocosm. You supply the energy through your worship and your devotion, through your thought forms, and even your physical aura. The pujari purifies and magnetizes the stone image for this to take place. The Gods and the devas are also magnetizing the stone image with their energy, and finally the moment is ready and they can come out of the microcosm into this macrocosm and bless the people. You observe that they stayed only for an instant, but to them it was a longer time. The time sense in the inner worlds is different.”

A trend in modern Hinduism is to conduct pujas in languages other than Sanskrit. One justification for this is that devotees will be able to understand what is being chanted. Of course, this idea is not supported by the Vedas and Agamas, the two scriptures that are the source of the mantras. Traditionally, all mantras are only chanted in Sanskrit. It is my experience that mantras chanted in a regional language do not generate the power they do when Sanskrit is used. Gurudeva’s affirmed that puja chants work best in Sanskrit, which most effectively invokes the Deity’s presence. Devotional singing works well in regional languages which have innumerable expressive hymns capable of melting the heart in love of God. He also offered that local languages shine in providing precise explanations and interpretations.

  1. The fourth ingredient is one that will surprise some of our readers—the devotional actions of attending devotees make a significant difference in the puja’s power. This came to my attention many years ago in the pujas done by the monks at Kauai Aadheenam. The monks do a number of pujas late at night or early in the morning when there are no devotees present. It became clear that the presence of devotees in a reverent mood is important ingredient for a powerful puja. Why? Because devotees supply energy through their worship, their yearning for blessings, through their thought forms, and even their physical aura.
  2. A fifth ingredient is offering of cut fruit, cooked food, water, fragrant flowers and milk. These play an important part in the inner workings of the puja. The Deity does not utilize the gross physical substance being offered, but rather utilizes the life energy or prana within it as the priest presents the offering.

The same principles hold true for the fire ritual known as yajna or homa. Jayendrapuri Mahaswamiji, head of Kailash Ashram in Bengaluru, visited our monastery in Hawaii a few years ago. His three priests performed an elaborate yajna in our Kadavul temple with elaborate offerings of grains and woods they had brought from India. Afterwards Swamiji explained that Agni, the God of fire, takes the offerings to the Deity in a purified form for the Deity to use in blessing those present.

When the five ingredients described above are all present in a puja, that ceremony is definitely going to be a powerful event in which significant blessings come forth from the inner worlds. In a medium length puja, this blessing from the Deity takes place during the final arati. In a more elaborate one, blessings also pour forth when the curtain is opened to reveal the newly-dressed Deity. It is at these two moments that the Deity and His helpers, or devas, reflect back the prana they have received into the aura of each devotee, purifying it of subconscious congestions. Devotees so blessed leave the temple feeling uplifted and relieved of burdensome mental conditions. Some become motivated to live more peaceful lives, have greater harmony in the home and more tolerance in the community. Some will be inspired to bring forth and perpetuate traditional Hindu culture in the form of sacred music, art and dance.

Others may receive a life-changing message from the Deity. Gurudeva describes this mystical process: “To understand darshan, consider the everyday and yet subtle communication of language. You are hearing the tones of my voice through the sensitive organ, your ear. Meaning comes into your mind, for you have been trained to translate these vibrations into meaning through the knowing of the language that I am speaking. Darshan is a vibration, too. It is first experienced in the simple physical glimpse of the form of the Deity in the sanctum. Later, that physical sight gives way to a clairvoyant vision or to a refined cognition received through the sensitive ganglia within your nerve system, the chakras. Through these receptors, a subtle message is received, often not consciously. Perhaps not immediately, but the message that the darshan carries, direct from the Mahadeva—direct from Lord Ganesha, direct from Lord Murugan, direct from Lord Siva Himself—manifests in your life.

“This is the way the Gods converse. It is a communication more real than the communication of language that you experience each day. It is not necessary to understand the communication immediately. The devotee may go away from the temple outwardly feeling that there was no particular message, or not knowing in his intellectual mind exactly what the darshan meant. Even the words you are now reading may not be fully cognized for days, weeks or even months. The depth of meaning will unfold itself on reflection.”

The next time you attend a temple puja or homa, reflect on the many elements, subtle and gross, that go into making it a holy connection, a profound communion with God and the Gods.