I. Elements of Worship
Like Ramachandran in the story below, many Hindus observe a weekly fast, the choice of day depending upon the Deity to whom they have vowed. Whether fasting or not, worshiping at home or in the temple, all Hindus begin their day by bathing. It is considered essential to approach a Deity in as clean a manner as possible, both in body and in dress. Even the very poor and destitute will wash in a local reservoir or under a hand pump before approaching their household or community shrine. Those that live in the desert or in drought conditions will still sprinkle a few drops of precious water on their faces, hands and feet before beginning their pujas. Those who can afford it always put on fresh clothes in order to pray, the men either in simple traditional dress or contemporary pants and shirts, the women, depending on the region, in their cleanest saris or sets of tunic and pajamas, or blouses, skirts and veils. Footwear is always taken off before entering a shrine--one symbolically removes the dirt of the outside world and enters the sacred space clean in body and in spirit.
For the Hindu, once the image of a Deity has been consecrated it is believed to be the Deity incarnate, no matter what its form. It may be an unaltered element of nature, such as a rock or tree or body of water; or it could be a stone or woodcarving, or a casting in brass or bronze, or a painting, even a mass-produced print. The rituals of consecration for temple images are elaborate and closely prescribed through ancient texts and canons. The installation of images in the household shrine may be less complex, depending upon the traditions of the caste, family and community; but once the images are consecrated, they are, nevertheless, viewed as Deities themselves and are accorded profound respect. Images in temples and shrines are given the same treatment that would be shown to royalty or to a very honored guest. In a temple this preferential treatment, called upachara, is carried out by the chief priest and, possibly, his assistants; while in the home it is most often the responsibility of the senior female, the matriarch.
The first thing every morning, the image is gently awakened. Then it is bathed in holy water that comes from the Ganga (the Ganges River, which is also viewed as a Goddess) or from another sacred body of water. There are many sacred rivers, streams and springs in India. Whatever its source, any water used in a shrine is considered to be mystically transformed into Ganga. After the image's initial bath, it is anointed with other substances believed to enhance its purity. Prints or paintings, for obvious reasons, cannot receive daily applications of liquids. They are instead cleaned carefully and may be adorned with sacred powders and with garlands of flowers. Sculptures are first anointed with one substance, then rinsed with holy water; a second substance is applied, and again the sculpture is washed with water before the third application, and so on. These materials vary according to local traditions, but often include honey, milk, yogurt, oil, sandalwood paste or turmeric, coconut water, a mixture of five fruits (panchamrita) and sacred ash (vibhuti). Once cleaned and anointed, the image is then dressed in garments befitting its gender and station: a dhoti and shawl, or a sari or skirt and veil. It will then be further adorned with jewelry (bangles, necklaces, nose rings and a crown) depending upon the wealth that it has acquired over the years as gifts from devotees. Finally, it will be garlanded with flowers. This bathing and anointing ceremony is usually conducted in private. Public viewing is considered indiscreet, and invasive to the Deity. The image may only be seen by others when it is properly dressed and adorned. Few Westerners recognize that the manner in which Hindu sculptures are most often exhibited in museums, galleries and private collections both inside and outside India is considered disrespectful by many Hindus. The images may be beautiful in elemental form and design, but without their ritual apparel and adornment their display is thought inappropriate.
Hindus chant prayers and songs of praise to the Deity all during the ceremonies of preparation, as well as during the puja itself. Many of these prayers (shlokas) are derived from the most ancient of Hindu scriptures, the Vedas, and have been recited in this precise form for many thousands of years. Others were collected and/or written by sages and saints within the last two millennia. It is considered essential that shlokas be repeated precisely and with proper reverence. Hindus believe that the very name of a God or Goddess has magical properties, as do many other sacred words and verses. The cadence, quality, pitch and vibration of a voice may pierce through the illusion of the material world and speak directly to God. In fact, many texts state that the Absolute, Brahman, is pure sound. Most classical Indian music is considered sacred. Fine musicians are treated as the heaven-born, even regarded as saints, for through the magic of their voices and instruments they enable the listener to experience darshan, pure communication with the Gods. The tonal purity of the bells ringing during a puja shatters the devotee's mundane train of thought and makes him or her directly receptive to the miracle of divine presence.