For many Hindus ritual and practice form an essential part of their everyday life. The range of ritual and practice is extensive and cannot all be covered here. Anyone who spends time in South Asia or among South Asians in the diaspora quickly comes to realize just how important ritual and practice are to the average Hindu. Wherever you go you will see temples open to the public, you will find people quietly worshipping at roadside shrines, and if you enter the homes you will become aware of the puja corner or portion of the house dedicated to the deity of choice and used for household worship. Beyond the daily activities there are annual festivals that draw large crowds and have unique rituals and practices as well. Below you will find a brief description of some of the various rituals and practices that Hindus are engaged in, remember what you find below is not exhaustive but rather a sample.
Hindu Ritual and Practice
Before giving details regarding the household puja it is important that we understand what the term puja actually means. Puja is not easy to translate into English but roughly it can be equated with the English word ‘worship.’ Puja is the sum of the various rituals and practices that go into worship, whether it be at home or the temple. Often different castes have different methods and types of puja. Most Hindus reserve a small portion or room within their homes that is dedicated to either the family deity or to a number of deities. In this portion—often found in the kitchen—you will usually find images of the deity/deities whether that be in picture form or an actual statue. It is not uncommon to also keep the pictures of deceased parents or spouses in this space as well, in order to remember them during your daily worship. Often the daily puja is performed by the matron of the house, although others in the family can and are involved depending on the family. There is no exact prescription for puja although you find certain practices that are fairly universal among Hindus. Often flowers along with possibly fruit are offered to the deity, and also a small camphor flame is waved in front of the images. Various other offerings are also offered depending on the person doing the puja. Certain mantras are also chanted along with personal prayers to the deity. After finishing the puja it is common for females to dip their thumb into saffron powder (which is red) and put this between their eyes at the crest of their nose. Before performing these various rituals the person should take a bath in order to be ritually clean. Traditionally women who are menstruating should stay away from the portion of the house dedicated to the deity in order to avoid making it impure. Normally Hindu families are very guarded on who they allow into this space, especially avoiding lower caste individuals from entering to avoid the space from becoming impure. There are many other practices and rituals that vary from house to house. For many Hindus this is the most common and most important form of worship and devotion shown to the deity or deities. It is very private and basically involves only the family and deity. Only during special occasions, i.e. a birth or wedding will a priest be brought to the house to perform the puja. It is essential to have some knowledge of household puja if one wants to understand the way in which Hindus show devotion and worship to the deity.
Like household puja, temple puja is also of high importance for many Hindus. Puja in temples also varies from temple to temple based on the deity that is housed there and various other factors. There is no required or expected time that a person has to visit a temple for puja, that is primarily left up to each individual to decide. Some Hindus rarely visit temples, only visiting in times of special need or occasion. Others attend regularly, many even daily to show their devotion to the deity and in hope that they will gain a blessing. Most temple have a resident priest or priests depending on the size and popularity of the temple. These priest are in charge of maintaining the temple premises as well as attending to the needs of the deity. Along with those responsibilities they are also more importantly in charge of performing puja on behalf of visitors to the temple. It is common for visitors to bring offerings of fruit and flowers to the deity. It is also very common for the visitor to bring a coconut to the priest which is then broken in two, half being retained by the visitor while the other half the priest keeps. Some will also bring articles of clothing, i.e. a sari for a goddess to be worn by the goddess. This is done in order to gain a blessing from the deity. The priest will present the offerings to the deity then speak certain Sanskrit mantras. During this time the devotee usually looks straight into the eyes of the deity, this is called darshana, and is one of the more important moments of the temple puja. It is then that Hindus believe power from the deity can come to you through the action of gazing into the deities eyes. While the priest is saying the mantras he often waves a small camphor flame around the image, he then takes the flame out of that space and waves it around the head of the visitors. Finally after the puja is completed the priest will take some of the flowers offered to the deity and distribute them to the visitors, usually certain types of sweets are also distributed after being blessed by the deity. These are then distributed and eaten, this is known as prasad. By eating the prasad it is believed the devotee is ingesting the blessing. Most temples are open all day, but only certain times in the morning and evening usually will the deities room be open for viewing. While there is no set time for temple puja it is true that most temples have an annual festival commemorating the deity either on the deities birthday or during some other significant event that the deity is believed to have performed or been a part of.
There are innumerable sites in South Asia that are considered to be places of sacredness. These sites are often the location of pilgrimage for countless Hindus from around the subcontinent and the world. There are many local sites that are frequented by local Hindus that are of great importance to those local people but may not be of significance for the wider Hindu community. However, there are certain sites that are revered by large numbers of Hindus and are well known as pilgrimage sites. Especially of note are the seven most sacred sites: Varanasi and Hardwar which are located on the river Ganges are of extreme importance and receive thousands of pilgrims every year; Ayodhya believed to be the birth place of Lord Rama; Mathura believed to be the birthplace of Lord Krishna; Dwarka a city where Krishna ruled as king; Kanchipuram the Shaivite temple city in South India; and Ujjan the site of the Kumbh Mela every twelve years. By no means are these the only pilgrimage sites considered important, however almost all Hindus recognize the above sites as especially auspicious if visited. There are various reasons why a person or family would go on pilgrimage. It is believed by many that simply the act of going is a sign of devotion towards the deity which can result in special blessings. Others also believe that by performing pilgrimages one can remove their sins, this is especially true of the pilgrimages to the sites along the Ganges River. Taking a bath in the Ganges is considered extremely sacred and removes the sins of the bather. Often water is taken from these rivers in containers to be placed in the household puja site later to bring continued blessing to the family. Certain pilgrimage sites are the scenes of the world’s largest religious gatherings with millions of devotees coming to take part in auspicious acts during auspicious times. Every twelve years the kumbh mela attracts devotees from all over the world and is considered the single largest religious gathering found anywhere on earth. Many Hindus make sure that at least once in their life they go on a pilgrimage circuit to visit some of the more holy sites in India. By doing this it is believed much merit can be gained and the karma of the pilgrim is greatly improved.