Q: Could you tell me the procedure to perform the standard Deity Puja as it is done in India?
I can tell you something much better than that. I will tell you how Ma Anandamayi told me to do puja.
During a conversation with Ma I asked her if the basic form of doing puja by making offerings with simple mantras was suitable for use in our ashram. To my surprise she told me that there was no need for mantras at all. She was very insistent about this.
She told me that she had long ago instructed the way puja should be done, but after a while all the Anandamayi ashrams (and the individual devotees, apparently) had abandoned that way and taken up the usual puja rituals. When I asked that she tell me the way she preferred worship to be done, she gave me these very simple but wonderful instructions:
Ma’s instruction on puja
- Prepare the offerings and keep them to the side.
- Take the first offering, place it before the deity and bow.
- Close your eyes and imagine the deity present before you in a living form and visualize yourself offering the same thing to the deity. Your mental offering(s) can be as simple or elaborate as you like. Then bow again.
- Put the offering to the side by the deity.
- Place the next offering before the deity, bow, visualize yourself making the offering(s) in the same way, bow and and continue in the same manner with the other offerings.
- After the final bow before the deity you are done.
The real puja, Ma said, is the mental puja, though material offerings are made. Otherwise, without the inner puja, it is not puja at all but just playing with dolls. She was very insistent about this.
This is what Ma told me should be the manner of puja. I have relayed her instructions exactly as she told them to me.
Traditional offerings in puja
Because I had done puja for several years, Ma did not give many details, knowing that I did not need them. However, I will set them down for you.
The center of the puja is a representation of a deity, either an image or a picture.
The offerings made in puja traditionally are five, which represent the five elements of which all things are made, the five senses and the five bodies which comprise the human being. They are:
- Sandal paste (gandham). If sandal paste cannot be made, then sandal oil or some other genuine, pure oil (not perfume with alcohol) can be used.
- Flower (pushpam). More than one flower can be offered, and even a garland of flowers.
- Incense (dhūpam). Pure, natural incense sticks or pure puja dhoop, which is sandalwood powder mixed with pure oil and aromatic ingredients to make a putty-like substance you can shape with your hands, should be offered. (Laxmi Dhoop is the only genuine puja dhoop available in America that I know of. Many things are advertised as dhoop but turn out to really be hard dry cones or small cylinders that are not as good as incense sticks.)
- Light (dīpam). This is usually a wick in ghee in a small vessel (a tiny dish or bowl–there is a standard kind available in India or Indian stores here), but a wick in pure oil is acceptable. A small candle or votive light might be used instead.
- Food (naivedyam). This is usually fruit, larger fruit being cut into bite-size pieces. But cooked food is also acceptable if it is of an appropriate kind: obviously vegetarian and pure. Sweets can also be offered.
When ready to begin, take the container with sandal paste or perfume oil, take some of it on the fourth fingertip on your right hand and touch it to the forehead (point between the eyebrows) of the image or picture and bow. (You can also touch the hands and feet as well.) Then mentally put a tilak on the forehead of the deity. If you like, imagine touching the hands and feet of the deity with sandal paste as well. (If using oil, you can imagine putting it on the forehead, palms of the hands and soles of the feet as well.) Then bow again put the offering to the side by the deity.
Repeat this procedure, moving the previously offered item to the side and placing the next item before the image, bowing, then with closed eyes imagining making offerings of the same kind to the living deity, and then bowing again.
As mentioned before, your mental worship may be as simple or as elaborate as you wish. It should be very personal. That is, you touch the deity, put garlands on the deity, wave incense and lights before the deity and feed the deity with your own hands.
When the mental puja is completed, say a prayer if you like and then leave or sit for a while in meditation.
This can all be done in silence or while mentally intoning the deity’s name. (There is no need for a formal mantra, just the simple name. Ma said the same about japa and meditation: the name is sufficient, and no initiation of any sort is required.)
Variations in puja
Puja can also be done in a group with one person making the material offerings and the others doing the mental puja. Or each person could have their own image or picture and do puja at the same time. (For example, at the Mahashivaratri all-night puja it is usual for a priest to do the worship of a single linga while others simply observe. But Ma had all the participants sit in circles around several lingas and each one made their own offerings. At the end of each of the four periods of the night, each one did arati of the linga with their own dipa.)
Although it is considered most appropriate to do worship with material offerings, there is no reason a person cannot do mental puja whenever they wish, either before, during or after meditation, or any time during the day.
There is no reason why someone should not make more than the five offerings, though the five should not be omitted (unless you find you do not have an item). If you wish to make offerings of other items and they seem appropriate and fitting, then do so. Books on puja list the various numbers and kinds of items that are traditional.
Although I feel that making the offerings one by one is usually best, you can also put all five on a plate or tray and wave them in a clockwise circle before the image or picture seven or nine times. (This works well if there is a large number of people wanting to participate.) I know this is acceptable, because I did worship of Ma Anandamayi in this way during pilgrimages to India, and one time she went into samadhi during it.
- Ma Anandamayi’s instruction on Nama Japa of the Divine Name
- Podcast: Didima (Swami Muktananda Giri), Mother of Anandamayi Ma
- When Rites Go Wrong