What is puja? Puja (pronounced pooja) comes from the Sanskrit meaning reverence, honor, adoration and worship. It is used to describe an act of worship involving a ritual or ceremony. Puja can be relatively simple and offered daily at home or more involved, at a temple, where the ceremony is usually performed by a priest. Puja can be offered for a specific deity or commemorate the beginning of a new venture or special event.
Regarding puja, Swami Nirmalananda says, “We practice puja to melt resistances... it gets into your heart stuff. How much can you open your heart to divinity? The practice of puja removes the blocks. It is the yoga of opening your heart to God.”
She adds, “We are not just working on the your body and mind, we are working on the your heart. The candles, bells, flowers, chants, ceremonies, fragrances evoke a mood, create a heart opening.”
And she continues, “It is not a religion, but we use some of the same tools in the same way… way...because you must have access to the experience.”
Instructions for a Home Puja Practice
B: The following steps to a home practice are excerpted from Maria Sichel’s article “Puja Part Four: How to Puja” based on her conversation with Swami Nirmalananda.
Ingredients for a Simple Puja Using an Arati Plate
- Metal tray — Traditionally stainless steel or silver, special plates can be purchased online or at an Indian grocery store. The plate used for arati is a new plate, dedicated to puja only. “It is a dedicated, sacred object,” says Swami Nirmalananda. “It can be a very personal offering to design your own arati plate. I have seen many with painted with designs around the edges using oil or acrylic paint.”
- Turmeric — This brilliant gold spice is the grated root of a plant. The color of sunlight, t honors the goddess Lakshmi.
- Kumkum — This paste is turmeric which has been processed so it turns red. It honors the goddess Durga and is the color of life, like the color of blood. Kumkum is also used to make the bindu, the red dot on your forehead between your eyes.
- White rice — Basmati or any white rice is used, not brown or wild rice. This honors Saraswati and is the color of purity and peace.
- Tea light & holder or ghee wick — While a tea light and tea light holder work well, the traditional arati tray has a metal holder for securing a ghee wick, a cotton wick saturated with ghee (about the size of a Hershey kiss). To prepare the wick, use your fingers to saturate the wick in liquefied ghee, with a little extra ghee in the holder under the wick. If you don’t get enough ghee on it, it burns too quickly. When you are done, your fingers are covered in ghee. “What do you do with all the ghee stuck to your fingers?” asks Swami. “You lick your fingers,” she says, answering her own question with a twinkle in her voice. “Ghee is delicious and good for you. It oils your nervous system and keeps you functioning.”
- Flowers — an odd number of fresh cut flowers (one or more) with no stem. These flowers are not to be reused. “Flowers are never offered in water. When you put them in water you are trying to preserve the flower,” explains Swami. “ When you offer a flower you are giving it over, giving the flower in its fullness, bursting with life. You are giving today and you will give a new one later or tomorrow. You are not preserving the flower’s beauty for yourself.”
- Jewelry — something very personal placed on the tray such as a pendant, ring, or earring. At the end of the ceremony you take it back with blessing.
How to Assemble the Arati Tray
- Gather your ingredients. Place your tray on a table or counter to set it up. If it had a clock face on it, somewhere around the number 4, imagine a small circle. Place a small amount of turmeric in 1/3 of the circle (upper left), kumkum in 1/3 of the circle (upper right), and rice in 1/3 (bottom portion).
- Place your candle or a ghee wick in the center. Affixing the candle with tape on the bottom helps to hold it securely in place. You can offset the candle from dead center if you need room for more flowers. Add your fresh flowers. Face the blossom away from you, stem side toward you. Finally, add the piece of personal jewelry, placing it around the 7 on your imagined clock face.
- It is also wonderful to decorate the murti or the space around it with flowers, candle flames, silken scarves and flower garlands.
How to Perform the Arati:
- Light the candle or ghee wick. Swamiji says, “Your flame holds the whole light of consciousness and represents the way it brings life to you and to the universe.” Bhakta Johnson adds, “The light or candle represents the light of the soul and the lamp of devotion.”
- Kneel, sit or stand to do your Arati depending on the height of your puja table. Place the tray on your hands with open palms. Do not use your thumbs to grip around the edges. Your hands are flat all the way underneath.
- Hold your tray and look at the photo or murti on your puja table. Lift the tray 1 or 2 inches or move it forward 1 or 2 inches, offering it to the deity as you get centered. Then move the tray clockwise from the six o’clock on the bottom, slowly up to the twelve and down to the six again. While you are moving the tray you can be chanting, or repeating mantra, aloud or silently. The movement is slow, reverential and respectful.
“The light draws a full circle around the picture or murti. It’s like when I was a kid and I had a sparkler,” shares Swami. “You could draw or write in the dark with the light. It is the same with arati — you are drawing a full circle with the flame.”
If you like, you can add a little sway at the bottom of the circle of light. You are moving your tray around the circle from 6 to 9 to 12 to 3 to 6. For the little sway, from 6 you go to 7/8 and then back to 4/5, returning to the clockwise direction again (from 6 to 9 to 12 to 3 to 6). “This movement is very specific when you are doing arati to a murti or photo that shows the whole body.” explains Swami. “The movement of the arati tray is bowing to one foot and then their other foot.”
“The energy of manifestation flows from the top downward, from head through feet,” continues Swami. “With the Guru, that energy is very pure, so you are touching their feet, acknowledging the grace that is flowing to you.” “The puja ceremony is for the pujari, the one doing the puja. It is not for the one you are worshipping. It is to invoke the flow of grace and increase your ability to receive it.”
A video with Bhakta Johnson and Swami Nirmalananda performing a simplified version of the traditional arati ceremony with a tray can be viewed on YouTube.
How to Clean Up
“The candle either burns until it goes out or you may extinguish it with a candle snuffer.” explains Bhakta. Swamiji adds, “You never blow out the light of consciousness!” Bhakta continues, “After the arati ceremony, the flame is considered to offer blessings to the devotees and is honored, not blown out.”
You may use the same arati tray (with the circle of turmeric, kum kum and rice) again and again. When it gets messy you can use the rice and spices for cooking. Otherwise place them in the woods, river, water, or in the garden under a tree or bush, but do not put them in the trash.
Arati: Simple Version
For a simple arati, hold a candle in your right hand with a flat palm and place your left hand underneath. With this open-handed offering, complete your flame circles as described above. “When I do not have a candle, then I place my right hand on my heart,” describes Swami Nirmalananda. “Laying my heart in my hand, I use my heart instead of the candle flame, and then place it back in my chest.”
How to Savor the Experience
Like cooking, puja is not about perfection. “It is okay to make a mistake.” says Swami. “Especially with this. Be genuine, sincere, from the heart...that is what is important. If you are not quite sure...if it all seems strange, do a simple arati at the same time every day for three days in a row. Then skip it...and you will notice something is missing.”
For more in-depth information and guidance on the practice of puja, click on the links below: