Pūjā: Hindu Pūjā

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From ancient times, Hinduism has known two preeminent methods of approaching divinity in ritual: (1) the method of yajña, which conveys offerings to a distant god by consigning them to an intermediary fire, and (2) the method of pūjā, which extends offerings to a present divinity by placing them before, or applying them to, the god's symbol or image. The yajña appears in the earlier records; it was the principal ritual method of the ancient Aryan peoples whose priests produced the collection of texts known as the Veda. The pūjā is first mentioned in texts supplementary to the Veda that are known as sūtra s (composed around 600400 bce). It first became prominent in India as a result of the god-centered devotional movements that spread throughout India during the early centuries of the common era. The method of pūjā now predominates in Hindu practice, although the yajña remains important to priestly and domestic ritual.

Origins and Etymology

Scholarly opinion is divided regarding the origins and etymology of pūjā. Many scholars have argued that pūjā was initially a Dravidian practice native to India and point to the sharp distinction traditionally drawn between pūjā and yajña, the refusal of the strictest Vedic priests to participate in puja, the long-standing prevalence of pūjā in village cults, and the long role of low-caste (and hence non-Aryan) hereditary priests in village pūjā s. But no clear-cut Dravidian derivation has been established for the term pūjā; the best-known attempt at a Dravidian etymology is that of Jarl Charpentier (1927), who proposed to derive pūjā from Tamil pūcu or Kannada pūsu, "to smear," a reference to the applications of sandalwood, turmeric, or vermilion pastes that are common in pūjā offerings.

Alternatively, the Sanskritist Paul Thieme proposed in 1939 that the term pūjā is derived from the Sanskrit (and hence Aryan) pc, "to mix," a reference to the madhuparka, or mixture of honey and water that was commonly offered to guests in ancient Indian times. Analyzing the uses of the term pūjā in sūtra and epic literature, Thieme concluded that it had once referred primarily to a ritual of guest worship. The offerings and gestures characteristic of pūjā are in fact still utilized in India to honor distinguished guests, as well as other meritorious persons, sacred plants and animals, and occasionally also weapons or tools. Furthermore, elements from ancient guest ritual such as offering a seat and washing the feet still play a significant role in conventional pūjā s. However, traces of guest ritual are rarer in village practice and in pūjā s of heterodox (i.e., Buddhist and Jain) traditions; hence the question of the term's origin remains open.


Deva- pūjā s (i.e., pūjā s for the gods) are offered in four sorts of settings: (1) at shrines maintained for family (kula ) and/or "chosen" (ita ) divinities within the Hindu home; (2) at temples devoted to pan-Indian deities such as Śiva and Viu; (3) during the course of festivals, which may be sponsored either by temples or by local communities; (4) at shrines or temples of localized village divinities. Pūjā s in any of these contexts may be quite freely structured, consisting of little more than gestures of reverence (namas ) and minimal offerings. Or they may follow conventional patterns, which vary only slightly according to the devotional sect of the performer and the deity who is honored.

Pūjā at the home shrine

Most Hindus maintain a home shrine for one or more divinities honored within the household. Ideally, the home shrine is located in a small room of the house that is set aside solely for worship (pūjāālā ). The shrine itself may consist of pictures of gods set up on a table or low platform, or images may be housed in a wooden shrine-cabinet, whose doors are opened only during the service. Images housed in such shrines may be Śiva-liga s, small cast-metal statues of various gods, or the stones sacred to Viu that are known as ālagrāma. A single family representative generally offers the pūjā ; other household members enter at the close of the rite to offer prostrations and/or sip the water in which the image has been bathed. Worshipers of Viu will also eat the food (prasāda ) that the god has sanctified by his taste, and may append to their pūjā special offerings of homage for the family's ācārya, or religious teacher. An ambitious household pūjā may incorporate all or several of sixteen traditional upacāra s, "attendances," which also form the core of traditional temple services. (The following list varies slightly in different textual sources.)

  1. Āvahāna ("invocation"). The god is invited to be present at the ceremony.
  2. Āsana. The god is offered a seat.
  3. Svāgata ("greeting"). The worshiper asks the god if the journey has gone well.
  4. Pādya. The worshiper symbolically washes the god's feet.
  5. Arghya. Water is extended so that the god may cleanse his or her face and teeth.
  6. Ācamanīya. Water is offered for sipping.
  7. Madhuparka. The god is offered the water-and-honey drink.
  8. Snāna or abhiekha. Water is offered for symbolic bathing; if submersible, the image may literally be bathed and then toweled dry.
  9. Vastra ("clothing"). Here a cloth may be wrapped around the image and ornaments affixed to it.
  10. Anulepana or gandha. Perfumes and/or ointments are applied to the image.
  11. Pupa. Flowers are laid before the image, or garlands are draped around it.
  12. Dhūpa. Incense is burned before the image.
  13. Dīpa or ārati. A burning lamp is waved in front of the god.
  14. Naivedya or prasāda. Foods such as cooked rice, fruit, clarified butter, sugar, and betel leaf are offered.
  15. Namaskāra or pranāma. The worshiper and family bow or prostrate themselves before the image to offer homage.
  16. Visarjana or udvāsana. The god is dismissed.

Temple pūjās

A full pūjā of sixteen upacāra s is in effect a miniaturized temple ritual; the daily worship, or nitya pūjā, in a major temple differs from it principally in scale and in the number of times that the pūjā is repeated (three to six times daily for the temple ritual). Temple officiants are usually brahmans; however, brahmans who are temple priests enjoy lesser status than those who perform Vedic rituals. In non-Śaiva temples pūjā s are usually addressed to anthropomorphic images, but in temples of Śiva the central "image" is always the nonanthropomorphic linga. A sequence of temple pūjā s may actually involve two images, for a moveable image stands in for the permanently fixed central symbol when it becomes necessary to manipulate or transport the divinity.

The god of a major temple is more of a resident than a guest. Segments of the daily pūjā will vary accordingly; hence the god is "awakened" rather than "invoked" in the morning, and may quite literally be aroused from a bed where his or her moveable image was laid the night before. Furthermore, the temple god is royal; the temple is his or her palace, and its priests are palace servants. Hence the god's "seat" is a throne, and ornaments affixed to the image may include a crown; furthermore, the "ruler," in the form of the moveable image, is carried each day in procession around the temple grounds, much as local rulers in India formerly processed through their territories. Temple pūjā s differ slightly according to sect and region. Thus temples of Śiva in South India once featured performances by dancing girls (devadāsī s) maintained as part of the temple staff. Śaiva pūjā s also incorporate many Tantric elements; for example, an officiating priest begins his pūjā by summoning Lord Śiva into his own body. Devotional hymns are often sung during pūjā s at Vaiava temples; while images of Vaiava saints are honored as well as images of Viu.

Daily temple pūjā s are not communal performances; as in the home, one person (here, the temple priest) acts for the benefit of all. Individuals may, however, make special requests of the gods by means of special offerings. This practice is known as kāmya pūjā, "the pūjā undertaken by choice." Such optional pūjā s are most often performed at the small shrines that dot a major temple's grounds. The intended worshiper commissions a priest to place his or her offerings before or onto the image.


All major temples sponsor festivals. A frequent type is the ratha yātrā, or "car festival," in which the moveable image is mounted on a large (sometimes multistoried) cart and pulled through the town on a set processional path. The devotee thus receives an opportunity for darśana, or "sight," of the god; he or she may toss flowers, break coconuts, or sprinkle the image with water as the cart progresses. Communities may also sponsor festivals in which public display and celebration of images is a central feature. Community associations or families may commission elaborate and expensive clay images for such festal pūjā s. The images are feted with music and entertainments, then paraded to a river and left to dissolve in its waters. Pūjā festivals of this type are especially popular in the state of Bengal, in northeastern India.

Village pūjās

Animal sacrifice has fallen out of favor among Hindus in the early twenty-first century. It was once, and sometimes remains, a standard feature of the worship of fierce goddesses such as Kālī. Animal sacrifice was also common in pūjā s of village divinities (gramādevatā ), which differ in several respects from pūjā s of the urban-based pan-Indian deities. Such divinities associated with specific locales have been reported from ancient times, not only in Hindu, but also Buddhist and Jain writings. The cult of village gods is now most prominent in South India, where the village divinity is often a goddess whose name is a compound of amma, "mother." Although temples for amma s have become increasingly popular, an amma 's shrine may be quite minimal. Sometimes it is just a bare enclosure outside the bounds of the village proper amma 's shrine may be minimal; sometimes it is just a bare enclosure outside the boundaries of the village proper. The "image," if any permanent image exists, may be a rock or an earthen pot or lamp. The hereditary shrine priest, or pūjāri, is of low caste, often a potter. Village pūjā s are not necessarily maintained on a regular basis, nor do they commonly follow the upacāra model; coconuts, bananas, margosa or betel leaves, turmeric, and cooked rice are the most common nonbloody offerings. Village gods may possess their pūjāri s or other mediums during the course of pūjā s; festivals feature such possession experiences, as well as processions, sometimes fire walking, and sometimes sacrifices of sheep, goats, fowls, or buffalo.

See Also

Domestic Observances, article on Hindu Practices; Rites of Passage, article on Hindu Rites; Worship and Devotional Life, article on Hindu Devotional Life.


Sources cited for proposed etymologies of the word pūjā are Jarl Charpentier's "Über den Begriff und die Etymologie von pūjā," Beiträge zur Literaturwissenschaft und Geistesgeschichte Indiens: Festgabe Hermann Jacobi, edited by Willibald Kirfel (Bonn, 1926), pp. 276297; also Paul Thieme's "Pūjā," Journal of Oriental Research 27 (19571958): 116. For a summary of precepts governing pūjā s in classical Sanskrit literature, see Pandura Vaman Kane's History of Dharmaāstra: Ancient and Medieval Religious and Civil Law in India, vol. 2, pt.1 (Poona, 1941), pp. 705740. Temple pūjā s vary somewhat in different locales and sectarian traditions. Good resources for scholars exploring these variations are: Gudrun Bèuhnemann's Pūjā: A Study in Smārta Ritual (Vienna, 1988), examining Vedic pūjā s of Maharashtra; Carl Gustav Diehl's old but still useful Instrument and Purpose: Studies in Rites and Rituals in South India (Lund, 1956), reflecting southern āgama -based traditions; and Hillary Peter Rodrigues, The Liturgy of the Durgā Pūjā with Interpretations, comparing Banaras and Bengal-based versions of pūjā s for the great goddess festival. For non-specialists, fine you-are-there portrayals of pūjā in practice are found in Stephen P. Huyler's Meeting God: Elements of Hindu Devotion (New Haven, Conn., 1999) and Elizabeth U. Harding's Kali: The Black Goddess of Dakshineswar (Delhi, 1998). Huyler includes many superb photographs.

Nancy Auer Falk (1987 and 2005)