Hindu Worship

Diversity is perhaps the first and most important feature of Hindu worship to be noted. The term ‘Hindu’ was used originally to describe a geographical entity rather than a uniform religious culture. Today, it refers to a multiplicity of beliefs and practices. Given the close connection between Hinduism and the land of India, this diversity is not inexplicable. It reflects the astonishing variation in geography, language and culture across the Indian sub-continent. Each region has contributed its favourite deities and its distinctive customs and rituals into the melting pot of the Hindu tradition. The history of Hinduism, therefore, is the record of what has gone on in the regions of India, and is the result of this long process of interaction and absorption. This tendency to assimilate has become a characteristic feature of Hinduism, and one which is enthusiastically defended by its apologists.

hen conceived in a large historical spirit, Hinduism becomes a slow growth across the centuries incorporating all the good and true things as well as much that is evil and erroneous, though a constant endeavour, which is not always successful, is kept up to throw out the unsatisfactory elements . . . It allows each group to get to the truth through its own tradition by means of discipline of mind and morals. Each group has its own historic tradition, and assimilation of it is the condition of its growth of spirit.” (1)

This diversity, however, has been counterbalanced by a certain uniformity derived from the Sanskrit tradition rooted in the prestigious literature of the Vedas. It has added a coherence through common myths, customs, values and concepts. Contemporary Hinduism reveals a dynamic interaction of various regional traditions with this embracing Sanskrit tradition, and the domination of one or the other varies.

For some of the reasons already mentioned, Hindu worship presents a rich variety of content and forms, often bewildering to the outside observer. It includes rituals and ceremonies of great complexity and details of procedure, to the most simple, informal and spontaneous. All these specific forms of worship, however, have one common aim in which they are fulfilled. The aim is through particular acts of worship, at special times and places, to make of one’s whole life a continuous act of worship.

Before describing some of the ways in which we worship, it will be useful to discuss some of the implicit and often unspoken attitudes which we bring to our worship. An understanding of these will help to reduce the bewilderment which our worship can quite easily invoke. Much of the variety of Hindu worship is the result of the concept of the istadeva, or the deity of one’s choice. This concept is partly the result of the plurality of the environment in which Hinduism developed, and the recognition of the diversity of human personalities. It is a view which also helps to explain a certain liberality of outlook in Hinduism towards other religions. Within a certain framework, we have the freedom to choose concepts and representations of God with which we can most easily identify, and with whom we can enter into a relationship. Among the most popular chosen deities are the various incarnations or avatăras of God. In the Bhagavadgită, we are told that God incarnates from time to time to revitalise the search for righteousness and ultimate spiritual values. The incarnations of Rama and Krishna are perhaps the two most popular istadevas or deities chosen for personal worship by Hindus. The reasons for a particular choice are many. The deity might have been traditionally worshipped in the family or the individual may be attracted to certain features and attributes of the deity. Many of us, for example, find it more appropriate to conceive of the creator and sustainer of the universe through the symbols of femininity and motherhood. There are also, therefore, many female representations of God in Hinduism, worshipped as the mother of the universe. It is not uncommon to find the members of any Hindu home choosing different personal deities for worship.

There are many reasons why this plurality of representations of God is not, for us, confusing or conflicting. Each chosen deity is completely identified with the qualities and attributes of Godhead, such as omnipotence and omniscience, and is not opposed to another similar representation. The unity and oneness of God is most strongly affirmed side by side with this multiplicity or representation in worship. The guiding principle for us is the Rg Veda text, “Truth is one; it is spoken of diversely.” There is also a very beautiful and often quoted verse of the Bhagavadgita in which Krishna says: “In whatsoever ways people approach me, in that same way do I return their love; for the paths people take from every side are Mine” (4:11).

As I have already mentioned, there are many reasons why we might choose a particular deity for worship. Our choice could be influenced by the nature of the relationship which we wish to have with God. In our worship, some kinds of relationships are common. We refer to the first of these as dasya bhava. Here, the worshipper conceives of God as master and of herself as servant. A more intimate and preferable relationship for many of us is sakhya bhava. God is viewed as a personal friend, always near, and to whom one’s heart can be open. He is a comrade on the journey of life. Many of our mothers choose to worship God as child. This attitude is known as vatsalya bhăva. The baby Krishna, for example, evokes maternal love and adoration, and Hindu mothers find it easy to identify with the mothers of Rama and Krishna. This attitude is understandable among religions which share a doctrine of the incarnation of God. It is a form of worship which can be observed especially on the occasions when the births of our incarnations are celebrated. Conversely, one may choose to think of oneself as child, and of God as mother or father. Perhaps the most intense and close relationship in our tradition is madhura bhăva, where God is thought of as a husband and the worshipper as wife. He is the eternal beloved. These relationships are, of course, not exclusive, and one may at different times adopt different attitudes.

Another important feature of our worship is the profuse use of various symbols and images, or what we refer to as mürtis. The place of these in our worship has often brought and still brings upon us the accusation of idolatry. Some words of explanation, therefore, are necessary. Diana Eck points to an important reason for this historical distrust.

“On the whole, it would be fair to say that the Western traditions, especially the religious traditions of the ‘Book’ — Judaism, Christianity and Islam — have trusted the Word more than the Image as a mediator of the divine truth. The Qur’an and the Hebrew Bible are filled with injunctions to ‘proclaim’ and to ‘hear’ the word. The ears were somehow more trustworthy than the eyes.” (2)

In surveying our attitudes about images, two principal approaches can be distinguished. In the first approach, the murti is viewed as a symbolic focus for concentration and worship. The symbolic nature of the murti is often cited in defence of its use. The Hindu scholar, Satischandra Chatterjee writes:

“It is a mistake to think that the worship of images, approved by Hinduism, is crude idolatry. For image-worship is really the worship of God as represented by means of images. These images by themselves are neither looked upon as God nor worshipped as such. They are treated only as symbols or concrete representations of God.” (3)

In the second approach, the mürti is perceived as a real embodiment of God and not merely a symbolic focus for concentration or worship. It is an actual manifestation of God. This view has been particularly elaborated by the Sri Vaisnava community through its most distinguished theologian, Ramanuja, in the eleventh century. The image is understood as one of the five ways in which the Lord manifests Himself. In the supreme (para) form, the Lord eternally abides in heaven. The emanations (vyuha) of the Lord preside over the functions of creation, preservation and destruction. At specific times, the Lord manifests (vibhava) or incarnates. Divine personalities like Rama and Krishna represent such earthly incarnations (avatăras). The Lord resides in the heart of all human beings as the inner controller (antaryamin). Finally, and most important for the Sri Vaisnavas, is the descent of the Lord into the world as an image. The term arcăvatăra is used to refer to this ‘image incarnation’. (4) It is a form in which the Lord makes Himself accessible for worship.

The Hindu acceptance of the arcăvatăra concept has to be understood in the context of its prevalent views about the nature of God and His relationship to the world. According to Rămănuja, God is the only reality. There is no existence outside or independent of God. God, however, contains within Himself the world of individual souls and material objects. Within the all-inclusive God exist unconscious matter and finite spirits. Rămănuja uses the analogy of body and soul for clarifying the relationship between the Lord and the universe. Matter and souls are conceived of as constituting the body of God. God, as the soul of the entire universe, pervades, controls, guides and uses it as an instrument. For the Advaita philosopher, Sańkara, the entire universe is an inexplicable appearance of God who is both its intelligent and material cause. In either view, the universe as a whole and all its particular forms are pervaded by God. All forms belong to God and each can serve as a medium for appreciating and worshipping Him. The fact that the axis of the universe literally runs through everything, grants to all objects the potential for revealing God.

The persistent equation of the arcăvatăra concept with idolatry ought also to be examined in the light of the clear and strong affirmation of divine transcendence in Hinduism. We have already noted that in Vaisnava theology, the arca form is only one of the five ways in which the lord is understood to manifest Himself. The Hindu concept of God as both immanent in the world and transcendent over it is expressed figuratively in the Vedas in the view that God pervades the world by a fourth of His being, while three-fourths of Him remain beyond it. The Bhagavadgita similarly affirms that while the entire universe owes its being to God, the forms of the universe do not contain or express him fully (9:4-5). It is clearly recognized that no finite process or form can ever finally express the absolute. Ultimately, however, we appreciate the limitations of all our concepts and forms of worship. This is movingly expressed in a traditional Hindu prayer for forgiveness:

“In my meditations, I have attributed forms to You who transcend all forms.
By my songs of praise, I have contradicted that you are indescribable.
By my pilgrimage, I have denied your omnipresence. O Lord of the universe, forgive me these limitations.”

We have just discussed the different relationships which we can choose to have with God, and the significance of the use of murtis in our worship. I now wish to describe some of the worship practices in our homes.

For most of us, the home is the important centre of religious life and worship, and the place where we gather our primary knowledge of spiritual values and practices. We are not constrained by any obligation to worship in temples, and there are many of us who seldom visit temples. Congregational worship, as generally understood, is not a significant feature of Hindu worship. The individual nature of worship largely prevails.

The term, pujă, which literally means worship, is used to describe the various forms of worship in the home or in the temple. A püjă is an act of reverence by a devotee towards a chosen representation of God, indicated by the presence of the mürti. Strictly speaking, a pujä is a formal mode of worship with its conventionally prescribed procedures or upacaras venerating the Lord as an honoured guest. The procedures are generally about fourteen in number. Among the important procedures of a püjä are the initial invocation of the deity (avahana), the invitation to a seat (ăsana), the washing of the feet (padya), and acts of adoration through the offering of flowers, the burning of incense, the waving of lights (dipa) and the consecration of food (naivedya). These acts are accompanied by the recitation of appropriate scriptural texts and forms of meditation. The pujă ritual concludes with the distribution of prasada, that is food which has been ritually offered to the deity. The acceptance of prasăda is an acknowledgement of the Lord as the source of all that we enjoy. The word also means grace, and is symbolic of the blessings of the deity. A puja, therefore, is a total involvement of the body, speech and mind in worship.

Most Hindu homes have a special room or corner of another room set aside for the purpose of worship. On a shrine will be kept the mürtis of the family istadevas, that is the chosen deities, or perhaps some pictorial representation of a deity, sacred texts, as well as some utensils for worship. This section of each home has an atmosphere of special sanctity and is the focus of family devotion. Great care is taken to maintain its cleanliness and purity.

There is great variation in the forms of worship in our homes, depending on factors such as individual competence, general family circumstances, or even personal preferences. In some homes, for example, there will be the full pujă ritual performed daily by a competent family member or a priest appointed for this purpose. In most homes, however, the entire puja ritual will only be conducted a few times each year. Daily worship, therefore, generally takes the form of a few selected procedures from the puja ceremony. These are usually performed twice daily, on mornings and evenings. It is important to note that the initiative and leading role in family worship is commonly undertaken by the Hindu mother who plays a very important role in the transmission of our religious tradition.

The presence of a properly consecrated and installed murti literally transforms the family home into an abode of the Lord. It becomes a sacred environment in which all aspects of life are centred and focussed on God. For the Hindu, the mürti is a potent reminder of God’s eternal presence and His existence in all things. It calls us to act as if we are always in the presence of the divine. For one whose consciousness is so imbued with a sense of the divine, God cannot be ignored. In His arca form He is the beloved household guest, around whom all activities revolve and to whom everything is dedicated.

Perhaps the most common form of worship in our homes is the daily performance of the ărati ceremony. This is the waving of a flame of light before the murti in a clockwise direction. Each family member may perform the ritual or it may be done by one person. The flame is then passed on to the others who receive the blessings of God by holding their hands over the flame and then touching their eyes and foreheads. The ărati is essentially a ceremony of loving adoration and reverence, and light is one of the central positive symbols of Hinduism.

Arati is usually accompanied by the recitation of scriptural verses (mantras) or the singing of hymns (bhajana). One of the verses recited comes from the Katha Upanisad and is one of my favourite texts. It most beautifully expresses the paradox of trying to illuminate the Lord with a tiny, flickering flame. The following is a translation of the Sanskrit text:

“You are not illumined by the splendour of the sun, the moon, the stars, or even the bright flashes of lightning. Of what avail then is this tiny flame”? It is after You that all of these shine, and through Your lustre that they are all illuminated.” (Katha Upanisad 2.2. 15)

Another common form of worship in our homes is the singing of bhajanasor kirtană. Both can be done at the time of the ărati ceremony or be a separate form of worship. A bhajana is a song of devotion. Many date back to the mediaeval period of Indian history which witnessed a great flowering of the devotional movement. Songs by saintly composers of that time like Kabir, Surdas, Tulsidas and the female singer Mira are daily sung in Hindu homes. Most of the themes of these songs centre around the incarnations of Rama and Krishna. They describe the attributes of the Lord and the compassionate nature of His activities. Many of these relate to the Lord as the irresistible and attractive beloved, and express an intense yearning for His vision (darsana). A kirtana, on the other hand, is a musical recitation of the various names of God. Each name defines an essential quality of God, and several such names are combined and sung repeatedly. Again, these centre primarily on the figures of Rama and Krishna and constitute a form of contemplation on the nature of God. Both forms of worship are generally accompanied by music, which plays an important role in Hindu worship.

In describing our worship practices, it is important to note that all of the sacraments (sarnskaras) marking important stages in the life of the individual are performed in the home. Among the most important of such rites are those concerned with the birth of a child, initiation into religious life, marriage and death. All of these are essentially religious in nature and are very important occasions of family worship.

Having discussed the Hindu home as the centre of daily worship, we shall now briefly consider the significance of the Hindu temple as a place of worship.

Hindu temples vary in both size and shape. One will find large, extraordinarily beautiful temples, as well as small and simple ones standing humbly at village roadsides. Whether small or large, however, they all share a common feature. The Hindu temple is conceived primarily as the abode of the particular deity to whom it is dedicated. Temples may be dedicated to any one of the many Hindu deities. The central feature of any Hindu temple, therefore, is the garbhagrha (inner sanctuary) where the particular form of the deity has been ritually installed. The inner shrine is covered by a pyramidal canopy or roof, the function of which is to denote honour and eminence. Traditionally, Hindu temples were not constructed to accommodate congregational prayer, and were meant primarily for individual worship. It is interesting to note, however, that the temples constructed by Hindus who have settled outside of India are designed for forms of congregational worship and also serve wider functions.

Larger Hindu temples have a priest or a group of priests whose responsibility is to care for the deity and to conduct the regular daily schedule or worship. Generally speaking, daily worship in the Hindu temple is based on the concept of God as king of kings. Worship begins in the silent dawn when the deity is symbolically roused from sleep with soft, solemn music and the recitation of scriptural verses. The awakening ceremony is followed by the ceremonial bath, after which the deity is anointed with sandal paste, dressed in royal robes and decked with ornaments and flowers. Hymns and prayers are recited during the day and there are regular offerings of food for consecration. Worship ends with an elaborate ărati ritual. On special festive occasions the deity is taken out in procession.

For us, the primary purpose of visiting a temple is to have darsana of the deity. The concept of darsana in our tradition is a very rich one. It means more than the physical sight of the deity. It is to enter from the mundane into the presence, atmosphere and awe of the sacred. The mind is lifted, however temporarily, into an awareness of a deeper reality and significance of life. At the temple, we also make offerings of fruits and flowers in thankfulness for the bounties of the Lord, or as an accompaniment to our prayerful requests. No visit to a Hindu temple is complete without the receiving of prasada, representative of the grace of God.

The Hindu scriptures are not unaware of the dangers of overdoing this kind of worship. Such worship is considered to be preliminary and not the ultimate aim of religious life. We aim through acts such as these to cultivate an unbroken awareness of God. This is the goal held out by Krishna in the Bhagavadgita: “One who sees Me everywhere and sees everything in Me, of him I shall never lose hold and he shall never lose hold of Me” (6:30).

In our discussion so far, we have concerned ourselves with the significance of the deities in worship, the purpose of mürtis, and some of the forms of worship in our homes and temples. Other important occasions of worship are associated with the many festivals or our tradition. Some of these are seasonal, some celebrate the harvest or fertility of the fields, while others commemorate the births of incarnations like Rama and Krishna. In concluding, I have chosen to return to a theme which I was only able to hint at in the beginning of this discussion. I think it is fitting to emphasize here the aim of Hindu worship to make living itself an act of worship.

While we ascribe great importance to all the forms of worship which I have described, the hope is always to overcome the identification of worship with distinct actions performed only at certain times and places. The intention is to rise above the division between the religious and non-religious dimensions of life. If worship is the highest and most joyful activity we engage in, then the aim must certainly be to make it continuous. Hindu worship, then, finds its culmination when we discover the beauty of offering every one of our actions to God, and living itself becomes synonymous with the joy of worship. This supreme ideal of making life itself worship is one of the central themes of Krishna in the Bhagavadgită:

“Whatever you do, whatever you eat, whatever you offer in sacrifice or give away in alms, whatever penance you may perform, offer it up to Me” (9:27).

This aspiration is also voiced in a well-known prayer which we recite in Sanskrit at the conclusion of any specific worship. The following is a translation of this prayer:

“I offer unto God all of the actions which, according to their respective capacities and natures, I perform through my body, senses, mind and intellect.”

As our creator, we recognize that our relationship with God, unlike many of our day to day relationships, is not one that we can temporarily assume during worship and then discard with a change of time and place. Being the most fundamental, it ought to be continuous and unbroken, informing and determining all other relationships and activities. For us, the way to preserving the attitude of worship in all our activities is given in an important Bhagavadgită verse:

“To action alone you have the right and never at all to its fruits; let not the fruits of action be your motive; neither let there be in you any attachment to inaction” (2:47).

We understand this verse to suggest that as human beings we can and must always act. The results of our actions, however, are ultimately determined by God. We try to learn, therefore, to cheerfully accept the results, pleasant or unpleasant, as coming from Him. Our attitude to these is the same as when we accept prasada, that is food offered to the deity at the end of worship in the home or temple. Dedication of the action to God is done once the fruit of action is gladly accepted with all reverence as His prasada or blessings.


1. S. Radhakrishnan, The Hindu View of Life (London: Unwin Paperbacks, 1980), p.31.

2. D. Eck, Darsan, Seeing the Divine Image in India (Pennsylvania: Anima Books, 1985), p.20.

3. S. Chatterjee, The Fundamentals of Hinduism (Calcutta: The University of Calcutta, 1970), pp.176/177.

4. Vasudha Narayanan, “Arcavatara: On Earth as He is in Heaven”, in Joanne Punzo Waghorne and Norman Cutler eds., Gods of Flesh Gods of Stone (Pennsylvania: Anima Publications, 1985), pp.53—68

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