Pūjā literally means worship or homage. The term generally refers to the ritual of honouring or worshipping one or more Hindu deities. Pūjā is most often directed towards a statue or mūrti of the deity, but may be directed towards a pictorial image. It is the most important and widely practised daily ritual of the majority of Hindus. This ritual enables the devotee to establish a relationship with their preferred deity. Many of the ceremonies conducted during pūjā are ways of honouring the deities or treating them as respected guests. The deity is made comfortable, bathed, adorned with jewellery, dressed in clean clothes and anointed with fragrant sandal paste. They may be offered a seat and given food to eat, entertained with singing and delighted with the aroma of incense, the air around them purified by the use of a camphor flame. The offerings appeal to the five senses, of smell, sight, hearing, touch and taste. By making offerings during the pūjā ritual, the devotee may seek to gain favour from the deities, though most often the rites are performed simply as an act of devotion. The blessing of the deity is received by the devotee in the form of a tilak - a mark between the eyes made of red kumkum or yellow sandal paste representing a third eye - or through the prasāda given at temples, which usually consists of some blessed foodstuff. During the pūjā rituals, artī (the offering of a flame and prayers) represents the climax of the proceedings.
As Hindus believe that Brahman as ultimate reality pervades the whole cosmos, anywhere can be a sacred place, therefore Hindu worship is not confined to the temple. However, temple worship is an integral aspect of Hinduism, but is not as widely practised as pūjā in the home at the domestic altar. Devout Hindus would perform a simple pūjā in the home twice a day, in the morning and in the evening.
Pūjā in the home and at the temple is a ritual undertaken to honour the deities installed there. The rituals performed might be simple or complex; at home, for instance, a simple pūjā consists of the home deities being bathed and decorated and offered water, incense, light, food and prayers. The head male of an orthodox brāhmaṇa family might perform this type of pūjā on behalf of the family. He may also recite the many names of the chosen deity, to remind the family of the many attributes of God, or he may recite passages from the Vedas. The purpose of the ritual is to make the mind pure by concentrating on God. Therefore, before starting the pūjā ritual, each member of the family would have a bath and put on clean clothes. This signifies that they are clean on the outside, ready to be cleansed within.
In the temple, pūjā is normally more elaborate, performed by one or more priests rather than by the devotee him- or herself. However, pūjā in the temple is generally undertaken on an individual basis rather than as a congregation. There is no commitment to attend a temple regularly and many Hindus only visit the large temples on special occasions, preferring instead to worship at home or at a local shrine. However, communal worship takes place periodically, at the many yearly Hindu festivals, and on these occasions pūjā at the temple is more elaborate and is performed many times during the festival. Although pūjā is a ritual in itself, during the festivals it is a core ritual within a larger group of ceremonies. On these occasions pūjā may be conducted by a number of priests who follow the complicated formulas set out in various texts such as the Āgamas, and is undertaken on behalf of many people rather than the individual. During the major festivals, great numbers of people come to take darśana, to see and be seen by the primary deity. Through pūjā, the devotees are able to communicate with the deities, who are believed to be full of sacred power, offering their prayers and receiving a blessing in return.
Pūjā became popular during the later purāṇic age (300-750 ce). This period is characterised by theism and the popularity of temple building. Gradually, pūjā replaced the Vedic sacrifice yajña as the core ritual. Unlike the Vedic yajña, which was performed solely by priests and was often undertaken for the purpose of propitiating the gods and maintaining the natural order of life, pūjā in its simplest form can be performed by anyone and is most often an expression of gratitude and honour rather than to placate a deity. The popularity of pūjā was increased further after the Bhagavadgītā sanctified it as the core of Bhakti, loving devotion (to a personal god or goddess), a legitimate path to God when Kṛṣṇa declared that he would accept any offering, however humble, if that offering was made in the spirit of devotion (Bhagavadgītā 9.26).
It is not only gods and goddesses who are honoured by pūjā rituals. Pūjā is offered on many occasions, such as in honour of school or college teachers, of one's guru, at marriages, to celebrate a birth or commemorate a death and during some festivals, in the form of kumārī pūjā, the worship of young girls as representatives of Śakti, the Goddess.
See also: Altars, domestic; Ārtī; Bhagavadgītā; Bhakti; Brahman; Darśana; Hindu; Image worship; Kṛṣṇa; Prasāda; Sacred texts; Śakti; Temple worship; Yajña
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