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What is Puja? The Philosophical Foundations of Worship

Article of the Month - Mar 2011

This article by Nitin Kumar

Who is a Guru? The Traditional, Scriptural View

The meaning of inertia is well known. It is defined identically in both science and the ancient scriptures (Shastra). Accordingly, an inert body is one, which can be activated only by an external force and never by itself. For example, a stone remains immoveable as long as a boy using some force does not throw it. Hence, we say that the stone is inert. There has to be an external force to move it.

Further, even this force itself is inert. It cannot by itself determine its own magnitude, point of application or direction. This has to be determined by an animate body. This is precisely the reason why science measures force in terms of horsepower. The animation in the boy, which is responsible for the movement of the stone, has features which are very much opposite to the stone. Unlike the inert stone, it does not depend upon something else for its motivation. That is why the boy applies the force out of his free will. This does not mean however, that the boy's body is itself animate. His body too is inert. However, the animate soul within the body can move the body, make it run, and rotate it by its own will. This implies that the source of all activity in an inert body is an animate free will. This is God. It certainly exists, though one may not see it. There is no rule that everything that exists has to be seen. The intelligence of a scientist is invisible though it certainly exists.

Lord Vayu
Lord Vayu


For example, inert air moves from one place to another, and the cause for it may be the pressure difference between the two places. There could be another cause for this pressure difference also, but, the ultimate cause for the blowing of the wind cannot be inert; it has to be an intelligence with a free will. According to the Vedas, this intelligence is none other than Vayu-devata, the wind-god. He is invisible but is there. Similarly, for the rotation of the inert earth the root cause will have to be an intelligence. This is Vasundhara, the earth-goddess. She is not seen but certainly exists. In fact, we can say that air is the body of Vayu-devata and earth is the body of Vasundhara.


Are there Many Gods?

Doubt: Then are there as many gods (devatas) as there are activities?

Answer: Even granting this, what is wrong with it?

Doubt: The very concept of several gods is misleading. There arises mutual dislike among people only because each considers his own god as supreme.

Discovery of God
Discovery of God


Resolution: Firstly, do not use the phrase 'concept of gods', because the word 'concept' means our mental construct. It has been shown above that gods are not concepts in this sense, but rather they are inevitably existing realities. Further, the multiplicity of gods is not a cause for mutual dislike. Even within those religions who accept only one god, there are many groups with mutual dislikes. Amongst the communists also who do not accept any god there are quarrels. Their mutual dislike is not something that is proportional to the number of gods; rather, it is greed and jealousy operating through the contrived slogan that their god is the only true god and any other is a fake.



Role of Puja (Worship):

Doubt: If gods are undeniable, let them be. But why should one worship them?

Krishna Delivering Gita Sermon
Krishna Delivering Gita Sermon




Resolution: It is they who cause good rain and shine and also perform all the involuntary functions in our bodies. Therefore, just as one pleases the bosses by his work and gets what he wants, we also have to please the gods for the fulfillment of our desires. We have to do our duties and then with obedience please them with our conduct. It is not sufficient to just perform the puja. The scriptures do not agree with this. We have to do our duty also along with our puja. It is this combination of duty and worship that constitutes the life cycle. One who does not complete this cycle but enjoys life is like a thief, says the Gita.



Further Doubt: With bosses we deal directly. Hence, we can directly experience the results of doing our duties and therefore duly decide our conduct. However, in the case of the invisible gods, how can we know whether they are pleased or not?

Why? Hinduism defined scientifically and rationally
Why? Hinduism defined scientifically and rationally





Reply: They are extremely pleased by our devotion and worship, and they will certainly bestow favors on devotees. If people really had not got rewarded for their worship of the gods, they would not have been worshipping them since time immemorial. People continue to have faith in puja only because have been rewarded quite often. This can never be denied. Further, it is the scriptures (Shastras) which tell us what conduct pleases the gods.





Further Query: Can you spell out clearly what exactly is the mechanism between our puja and the fulfillment of our desires?

Reply: When gods are worshipped, they do not themselves come directly and execute our needs. They do not build our houses or cook our food. However, when they are pleased with our actions, they kindle the right thoughts in us, which on execution by us will fulfill our desires. They can do this because they are also stationed in our own bodies. For example, Agni, the god of fire, is not only in the sun but also in our body, etc.

There are several instances of this. One of them is as follows:

A young lady in her advanced state of pregnancy once got a severe headache. Her brother, a well-known doctor, gave only mild medicine for fear of impacting her pregnancy. She was not cured. He then brought her to another expert. The same happened with him too. Then someone suggested that praying to Lord Vaidyanatheshwara in a nearby town would help her. The father of the girl immediately did this. Later her brother took her to another doctor. He perchance asked her to open her mouth and noticed a decayed tooth. He advised her to have it removed. When this was done, she was cured without any medicine. Each of us has had many such experiences. Therefore, it is the idea for appropriate action that is kindled in us by the gods, which eventually does us good.

Standing Krishna with Aureole of Peacock Feathers
Standing Krishna with Aureole of Peacock Feathers





Doubt: There is also confusion regarding the gods. For example, people talk differently about Rama and Krishna. Rationalists say that Ramayana and Mahabharata are only fictions and Rama and Krishna are merely their respective heroes. Some say they were only great men. Some others believe that they are incarnations (Avatars) of Vishnu. What exactly do the scriptures say in this regard?





Answer: The first opinion is incorrect because Rama and Krishna are worshipped since aeons, and we have never ever, anywhere in the world, come across anyone worshipping heroes of novels or celebrating their birthdays however good a novel may be.

Horoscopes of Lord_Rama and Lord Krishna
Horoscopes of Lord_Rama and Lord Krishna






Horoscopes of both Rama and Krishna also exist. Their dates of birth have been verified using modern equations of astronomy. According to astrological analysis, their horoscopes agree with the momentous lives they led. So they cannot be just heroes of fictitious novels.






As to the second opinion, they are of course, great men. But they are much more than that for the following reason: All persons, great or otherwise, are born due to their mixed (bad and good) karma, done in the previous lives. That is, their karma includes both sin and merit. As a result of the former, they invariably suffer from some disease or the other, at least at some point of their lives. However, Rama and Krishna did not face any such situation. So, we cannot say that they were just ordinary human beings. This implies they are Avatars of God. Nor are the Ramayana and Mahabharata fictions. The only vicarious pleasure the self-styled rationalists can derive is by asserting that they are exaggerated reports of some simple events.


Some More Doubts About Puja:

Query: Sometimes we hear that only one God should be worshipped. Is it wrong to worship more than one?

Answer: Different gods (devatas) will have to be worshipped for fulfillment of different requirements. For example, the moon (Chandra) is worshipped for mental stability, Surya, the sun god for good health and so on. The fulfillment of such particular desires may not happen by worshipping some other god. However, we should remember that as gods do not have mutual jealousy, they do not hate us if we worship another god. There are great men who have worshipped only one god throughout their lives. There are some great men who have worshipped several gods. Therefore, it depends upon one's proclivity. One can worship either one god or several gods. But the most important factor to remember is this: whichever god is worshipped, it reaches only the supreme God.

Doubt: Majority of the people indulge in idol worship; but some do not agree with it. Is idol worship right or wrong?

Reply: The Supreme God is indeed formless. Therefore some people think that He cannot be worshipped in any form. This statement is not wrong. But everyone does agree that He has to be worshipped. Then how is a formless God to be worshipped at all? 'By Dhyana' they reply. That is correct. This is what we all do, though of course for very short durations!

Objection: How can you say that everybody worships by Dhyana only?

Resolution: Consider the following example:

The Holy Image of Tirupati Balaji
The Holy Image of Tirupati Balaji




We all know that it is only with great difficulty that we go to the Shri Tirupati Balaji Temple for darshan. When we reach there, the rush is so huge that the organizers give us only about 10 seconds for viewing the Lord (darshan). And what do we do during the time of actual darshan? We join our palms in prayer, see the idol for about three seconds and bend our heads, closing our eyes in meditation! Notice that the idol (murti) only serves the purpose of reminding us of the formless God in our own hearts.




But for doing dhyana over longer intervals, without the help of a murti, one needs a very well trained mind in which there is no fickleness. However, it is a universal experience that the mind is frustratingly fickle. Therefore, Lord Krishna advises common people like us to take to God with a form. As the mind evolves and transcends this level, one can then go straight to the dhyana of the formless God.


The Procedure of Doing Puja:

Question: What exactly is the procedure of doing puja?

Mirabai Adorning Beloved Lord Krishna with a Garland
Mirabai Adorning Beloved Lord Krishna with a Garland

Answer: Suppose you bring home a person for whom you have great love and respect. When he comes to your house, you respectfully take care of him to please him. The same is being done in the case of the gods too. For example, you give the person an asana (seat), then give him a bath, then give clothes, then perhaps some cosmetics, then feed him, then ask him to rest, then take his permission to leave for your work. These are called 'upacharas.' Similarly for the god, depending upon the available time, you can do 64 or 16 or even 5 upacharas. In daily puja, an upachara is generally represented by a symbolic gesture. For example, in place of offering clothes, you may offer just a flower.

Fear: It is told that any error in the performance of the puja may be dangerous. Is it so?

Faith is Power
Faith is Power





Resolution: The lapses lie more in the ashraddha (lack of faith), than in the error itself. That is why elders have advised us to puja with shraddha (faith), and then at the end of the puja we should ask forgiveness for any error that might have occurred due to ignorance. This will certainly remove the effect of all the errors committed.






Doubt: If a mistake is committed even in our prayer of forgiveness at the end of the puja then?

Gopis Welcome Krishna, Balarama and their Companions in the Evening
Gopis Welcome Krishna, Balarama and their Companions in the Evening

Resolution: Such doubts may appear when we one worships God out of fear. This is not correct. God is full of mercy by his very nature. Bhagavan Krishna excused even hundred insults hurled at him by Shishupala and only punished him when he crossed the limit. Though it is true that God does not like ashraddha, it should not be imagined that He is always holding a whip at his devotees to lash them the moment they make a mistake. Indeed, He has a special love for innocent people. The boatman Guha in the Ramayana and the Gopas and Gopis of the Shrimad Bhagavatam bear testimony to this. Always living in our hearts, God can easily distinguish between a mistake due to ashraddha and a mistake due to innocent ignorance.


References and Further Reading:

  • Bharati, Swami Paramananda. Foundations of Dharma. Bangalore 2008.
  • Bharati, Swami Paramananda. Lectures on Vedanta at Ayodhya (40 MP3 Files).
  • Bharati, Swami Paramananda. Vedanta Prabodh: Varanasi, 2010.

This article is based almost entirely on the teachings of Param Pujya Swami Paramanand Bharati Ji. However, any error is entirely the author's own.

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