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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
“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
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,