A brief overview
by Swami Bhajanananda Saraswati
Puja is an ancient and powerful Tantric system of worship consisting of mantra, mudra, visualization, ritual action, meditation and offerings. There are layers of symbolic, philosophical, mystic and devotional meanings in each practice. What follows is a simple introduction to some of the technical aspect of puja based on the Tantric scriptures and oral tradition. Puja can be thought of consisting of several main parts: purification, divinization, worship of the various aspects of Divinity and the internal and external worship of the Divine Mother.
Purification starts with sipping of water charged with the holy name, preparing the mouth to chant sacred mantras. The worshipper feels that this consecrated water, like the Ganges, is flowing from Lord Vishnu’s holy feet. Water is a central element in puja. This water receives its purifying power through mantra. The sacred rivers, which are personified Goddesses, are invoked into the water and used to purify the altar, offerings and the Deity.
We then need to create a safe, pure and sacred space for puja by consecrating and worshipping Mother Earth. All the flowers, offerings and worship paraphernalia, although physically clean, are further purified of subtle and psychic impurities by the sprinkling of holy water and the chanting of mantras. As our concentration deepens and our heart opens, we can become sensitive to internal and external negative energies. Visualizing ourselves surrounded by a protective ring of fire and chanting powerful protective mantras, we create a safe environment for performing the internal practices that follow.
Since the Tantric scriptures teach that “Divinity alone can worship Divinity”, our body and mind need to be divinized. This is done through bhuta-shuddhi, a powerful combination of pranayama (breath control), visualization, and mantra. By consciously regulating the breath the flow of prana (vital energy) is balanced, thus calming the mind and helping to awaken the kundalini shakti (the power of conciousness withing the body). Our physical body–representing the universe–along with the individual consciousness that identifies with it, is symbolically dissolved into the Supreme Self by raising our individuated consciousness along with kundalini from the base of the spine and uniting Her with Lord Shiva in the thousand-petaled lotus at the head. We have to bring Mother up from the depth of our being so She can manifest and accept our worship. With our body purified, the Divine Mother is invoked into the heart by chanting a set of secret mantras while touching the chest with a mudra (hand gesture) taught by the Guru.
Now that the Goddess has been invoked in the heart, a proper spiritual body must be made for Her in place of our own. The Mahalakshmakam Strotam states: “mantra murti sada devi/ The Goddess’ form consists only of mantra.” According to Tantric philosophy, creation begins with vibration or sound. This supreme vibration is the universal sound “om“, which then differentiates itself into the fifty distinct sounds of the Sanskrit alphabet. These sound-letters combine to manifest the world of name and form. The image of Kali standing on top of Shiva represents this philosophy. Shiva is the static absolute ground of being, without modification. Kali stands on Him with Her right foot forward, in dynamic expression. She is the primordial moment of manifestation. Her garland of severed heads are the fifty Sanskrit letters, through which She manifests the world. In puja we embody this philosophy, creating Her form though nyasa, by installing each letter in specific parts of our body.
With our body and mind charged with divine presence we worship various forms of divinity, invoking their blessings. We worship our guru first, for it is from our Guru that we receive our personal mantra. Next we worship Lord Ganesha, the Remover of Obstacles, to clear the way for a successful puja. After Ganesha Puja, Lord Shiva is worshipped by bathing and decorating a Shiva-Lingam (a stone emblem of Shiva). The Goddess, who is ever united with Shiva, states in the Tantras that She will not accept worship unless the Shiva-Lingam is bathed first. The five traditional Vedic Gods (Shiva, Narayana, Durga, Surya and Agni), the different forms of the Goddess, and the incarnations of Vishnu are then worshipped along with all other Gods and Goddesses.
We then worship Sri Ramakrishna and His consort Holy Mother Sri Sarada Devi. By honoring them, we are brought to the feet of the Mother.
The worship of Mother Kali now starts with the chanting of Her meditation mantra, and a meditation/visualization on Her form described therein. She is mentally adored within our heart and invoked into the external image. She who exists deep in the formless nerves of our soul is brought out to be loved and served in form. Mother is treated as a most respected visitor, traditionally offered sixteen items: 1) asana (seat), 2) swagata (prayers of welcome), 3) padya (foot wash), 4) arghya (respectful offering of flower, leaves etc.) 5) achaman (water for sipping), 6) madhupurka (mixture of milk, ghee, yogurt, honey, and sugar-water), 7) punar-achaman (water for washing the mouth again), 8) snana (bath), 9) vastra (new clothes), 10) abramani (jewelry), 11) gandha (perfume), 12) pushpa/patram (flowers and leaves), 13) dhupah (incense), 14) dipah (light), 15) naivedya (food), and 16) pranam (prayers). After also worshipping Mother’s attendants, we beg forgiveness for any mistakes in our worship, remembering that Mother is gracious to Her sincere children.
The ritual ends with arati (waving of lights etc.), where this entire creation consisting of fire, water, space, earth and air is offered back to the Divine Mother. Link: For more about puja, see The Art of Seeing God.