Updated: Jan 29
Swami Chetanananda, a monk of the Ramakrishna Order, is the head of the Vedanta Society of St. Louis. We recently got a chance to ask him a few questions about puja and get his advice on the proper attitude for worship. First published in the Kali Mandir newsletter.
Kali Mandir: Swami, what is the origin of the puja (ritualistic worship) tradition.
Swami Chetanananda: The ritualistic worship tradition comes from the Vedic Age. In the karma-kanda section of the Vedas we find various kinds of rituals and sacrifices. Gradually these Vedic rituals transformed into Tantric rituals. We follow the Tantric tradition when we worship different deities in our temples.
KM: What is the purpose of puja?
Swamiji: The main purpose of worship is to have union with God. Krishna said in the Gita: “Four kinds of people worship me-the world-weary, the seeker for knowledge, the seeker for enjoyment, and the person of spiritual wisdom.” Most people worship God to fulfill their desires. They pray for health, wealth, worldly prosperity, and even for a parking place. A real lover of God prays, “Lord, I want you in my life and nothing else.” We seldom find people who pray for devotion, discrimination, dispassion, purity and vision of God. When we perform worship, we really get joy because we divert all our senses toward the Lord.
KM: What are the basic principles of ritual purity?
Swamiji: Please maintain external and internal cleanliness. Before approaching an awakened deity, have a shower or wash your hands and face, and rinse your mouth. Put on clean clothes. Bow down to the Mother and sit on your asana (meditation seat). Put some flowers on the shrine. Don’t smell them beforehand, and discard any that fell to the floor. Repeat your mantra, and meditate. Then chant some hymns and read a chapter of the Gita or the Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna. If you offer any cooked food, fruit or sweets, don’t taste them beforehand or breathe on them. Offer the deity a glass of water. The offering vessels should not be used for anything else. Always be mindful that you are serving your beloved God.
KM: Ideally, what should be one’s attitude during worship?
KM: Swami, how can I make my image of God come alive?
Swamiji: Your devotion can awaken an image or a picture. Create a divine mood and look through your mental eye instead of your physical eyes. You can see the living deity through bhava, or spiritual mood. Keep your shrine clean and place pictures of the deities on the altar. Decorate your shrine with flowers and beautiful things. The Holy Mother once said: “The body and the shadow are the same. And what is his picture but a shadow? If you pray to him constantly before his picture, then he manifests himself through the picture.”
KM: What’s the difference between an image of Kali that I could purchase in a store and the image of Kali in Dakshineswar?
Swamiji: The Kali image in Dakshineswar was installed by Ramkumar, Sri Ramakrishna’s elder brother, who invoked prana (life) through ritual and mantras into the image. This is called prana-pratishtha, or bringing the life force into the deity.
KM: What is the proper behavior before an awakened deity?
Swamiji: Keep the image clean and the altar orderly, and decorate it with flowers. There should not be any dust on the shrine. During meditation, burn incense and light a candle. Chant hymns and read spiritual books. Play devotional music or listen to some bhajans. Create a spiritual atmosphere in your home. Love and longing are the two things necessary. Learn how to establish a relationship with God, and try to make your home an ashram.
KM: If I have an awakened image in my house, what will happen if I do not treat Her right?
Swamiji: Christ said: “Blessed are the pure in heart for they shall see God.” If we really want to love God, we will have to be pure, both on the physical and mental plane. Keep your shrine clean and decorate it with flowers and other beautiful artifacts. You don’t want to bring your beloved to a dirty, disorderly place. Create a nice atmosphere using candles, incense and music. Always remember, you are a child of the Divine Mother. So treat others as Her children. Love all and serve all. Before you perform ritualistic worship, you should take a bath and use a fresh cloth. It will be nice if you have a separate set of clothes to wear only in the shrine. Rinse your mouth and wash your hands before you start your spiritual disciplines. Remember that your main shrine is your heart. It should be clean. Our desires and doubts make our hearts unclean. Do not harbor ill feelings for others – this type of tamasic (dark) meditation is self-destructive.
KM: What’s the minimum requirement for worshipping an image that has not been ritually awakened?
Swamiji: When you perform worship in your house, always remember that it is the house of God. There is a saying: “Pilgrims make a place holy, not the deity.” Devotees make the shrine spiritually vibrant through their worship, tears and prayers, fasting, vigil, japam (mantra repetition), meditation, kirtan (devotional singing) and satsang (holy company). When you make a garland or cook for the Mother, don’t chat or gossip. Repeat your mantra or sing devotional songs. Don’t quarrel in the house of God. We have come to the Kali Mandir to worship the Mother. May the Divine Love unite us all.