Puja in Plain English

Issues in-4I had a roommate in college who approached prayer like it was a business meeting. Each morning, she’d show up with her coffee and her planner. She’d sit down with God and lay out what she needed Him to do that day.

This is not the Hindu way of prayer.

Hindu prayer, called puja, is more like what I do when my mom and dad are coming over: clean up the house, make sure there’s a place for them to freshen up since they’ve been traveling, set out snacks, make sure I have their favorite beverages on hand. Even if I had something specific I wanted to ask of them, I certainly wouldn’t lead with that. Nor would I provide them with my daily to-do list.

Puja is not required. Some people do it, some people don’t. But a lot of times it gets dismissed as a bunch of “meaningless rituals,” as though it’s just a bunch of nonsense actions with no purpose. Puja is showing hospitality to God — the same hospitality that a Hindu would show an important human visitor. Just as you wouldn’t answer the door in sweats you’ve been wearing all week if you were having the President over for breakfast, you would likewise shower and shampoo and do your hair/makeup/jewelry before puja. Just as you don’t make your grandmother stand in your doorway for an hour, you offer God a seat.

Each part of the puja represents hospitality to God, who is a guest in your home and whom you are treating with respect.

Pujas can vary in length and complexity. Here are some of the parts common to most puja:

  • Offering water for bathing (other things may also be offered for bathing, and they are things commonly used in homemade bath & beauty products, such as milk, honey, sugar)
  • Offering cloth and a seat
  • Offering cosmetics and sindhur/kum kum
  • Offering flowers and incense
  • Offering food and water for mouth rinsing
  • Sitting and reciting the things you appreciate about God. (In Shiva Puja: “You love your devotees. You are the ruler of the three worlds. You are beloved by the Mother of the Universe. You are the bestower of grace. You are an armor for protection. For you all praises are sung.”)

My favorite puja involves reciting 1000 names of the Divine Mother. It’s performed on Friday morning, and takes about 35 minutes if you chant fast, or an entire lifetime if you ponder each name and start to understand the nuances of each meaning.

Unlike the types of petitions most people think of when they think of prayer, you don’t have to ask for anything when you do puja. You can. But often you won’t. Even if you sit down with a lot on your mind before you begin, the act of puja itself will calm you and you won’t feel so needy or desperate for things to turn out your way. If you do puja on a regular basis, you’ll find yourself creating fewer of the types of dramas that make the emergency petition form of prayer necessary.

My guru always explains it this way:

Pu means merit; ja means birth. Puja is the act which gives birth to the highest merit, which is to sit in the presence of God.

[Note: This is part of a collaborative series on Issues in Hinduism. See also Why Ritual Matters.]

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