Temple Rituals - Sanatana Dharma Holy Practices
WHY DO YOU AND HOW DO YOU RECEIVE
Young and old have questions as to why certain rituals are performed and certain traditions followed at the temple. Our parents, whom we never questioned, have passed much of what we do at the temples today, down to us. The present generation’s thirst for knowledge has not left our practices unquestioned. This article is an amateur attempt to put things in perspective, and to give some meaning and significance to these practices. To examine some of them:
It is the Hindu custom to remove footwear before entering THE LORDS HOUSE. Or any house for that matter. It is believed that footwear carries germs dust and dirt from the streets. It is also customary for people to wash their hands and legs before they enter any temple. This is an example of how Hindus maintained sanitation and cleanliness of their surroundings.
Why do the priest chant so many prayers?
Prayer is the ultimate way for one to communicate with the almighty. The priests are a medium through whom one can communicate with the Almighty. Prayer with devotion brings about inner peace and invokes the Brahman (God) within you. When slokas are chanted with correct pronunciation and intonation, a divine atmosphere is created with holy vibrations all around.
It is a ritual performed in the worship of Hindu Gods, whereby a lighted lamp or lighted camphor is moved circularly (clockwise) around the idol. The sanctum sanctorum is usually dark, the idol is carved usually out of black stone, and Aarathi removes darkness and reveals the form of the Lord to you when the priest moves the lamp all around the idol. Before electricity was invented, the only way devotees could see the actual idol was when the priest performed aarathi. This also reminds us that God can lead us from darkness to light and from ignorance to knowledge “ Tamaso – ma Jyotirgamaya”. When the priests bring the flame to the devotees, it is customary to run both the palms of ones hand over the flame and then pat the palms over ones eyes as a mark of absorbing the Almighty’s light into ones body. It should also be remembered that fire is a purifying agent and what is pure is what is offered to the Lord.
Theertha or how does one receive the holy water?
It is the Hindu belief that all prayers chanted will invoke the Lord, in fire, water and air. Spiced water is offered to the Lord during the chanting of hymns. When the priests chant the mantras they imbue the water with good spirits, example the holy rivers, protecting elements (5 Life controlling elements) praana, apaana, vyaana, udaana, samaana and God himself. Water is thus turned to “THEERTHA” (holy water) during pooja. At the end of a pooja after distribution of the aarathi the priest hands out only half a spoon of this holy water to the devotee, in order that this holy water may be absorbed by the body and never desecrated, excreted or spilt on the floor. It is a practice among orthodox south Indian seniors, to visit their neighboring temples after morning rituals and receive this holy water before eating any solid food each day. Theertha should be received by placing a cup shaped form of the right hand over the left and sipped in, so that the Theertha does not run off to the floor and what is left over may be sprinkled on top of ones head. It is also a practice in South India for people to place the end of their sari or dhothi under the cup shaped right hand as a means to absorb the excess water spill, if any. Theertha should be received with reverence and devotion. Theertha usually contains water, tulsi (mint like herb), flavoring agents, lilac, cardamom, saffron, nutmeg, cooking camphor.
Prasaadam: What is prasaadam and how do you receive it?
Food offerings to the Almighty is called prasaad, it may be tulsi leaves (plant), flowers, nuts, raisins, coconut, fruits etc. These become sanctified as the priests offer them to the Lord by chanting the proper mantras (prayers) invoking the vital airs (the pancha pranas). Anything offered to the Lord must be given with devotion and a pure heart and he is said to accept it. As Krishna says in the Gita
Patram Pushpam Phalam Toyam Yo me Bhaktya Prayacchati
Tadaham Bhakty –upahratama –snaami prayaattmanah
I will accept a leaf, flower, a fruit or water offered to me with devotion and a pure heart.
The prasaad is only an expression which states that whatever produce of nature one obtains, or food which one has prepared, is actually HIS and one should consume it only after it is offered to the Lord. After the pooja is over, the priests distribute a small serving of prasaad to each devotee, which is to be consumed. When a meal is offered to the Lord, it is usually partaken by the offered, his family and friends. It should not be treated carelessly or discarded. It is not a practice to eat regular meals in front of the sanctum sanctorum. In Indian temples there are special places designated for this purpose. It is also a time to remember your creator and thank him for all the blessing of food that you receive.
Shataari or blessing from a crown
Shataari is the Sri Vaishnava practice of placing a silver crown on the devotee’s head by the priest. Shataari comes from the word removal or emancipation from wickedness and evil (Shata means wickedness and ari means evil), which you seek at the feet of the Lord. Shataari is synonymous with “Paduka” (footwear) of Sri Rama. When Rama was exiled to the forest, Bharatha his brother was distraught and wanted Rama to come back to reign the kingdom of Ayodhya, Rama removed his “Paduka” and gave it to his brother. Bharata placed it on the throne and mythology says that the footwear protected the world, in Rama’s absence. If one closely observes the crown, one will see 2 feet impressions of Lord Vishnu on top. Men should receive with both hands covering the nose and a bowed head by women and with folded hands and a head bent down Shataari. Receiving the Shataari signifies the surrendering to the feet of the Lord and asking him mercy to relieve you from all wickedness.
The purpose of various adornments (marks) on the forehead:
Applying whatever it may be Vibhuthi, Kumkum, Chandan or Naamam on the forehead and other parts of one’s body is a form of decoration of the Lord within (Paramatman, Atman) and it is also considered a blessed gift (prasaadam) from the Almighty.
Vibhuthi Sacred ash
The authoritative Bhargava dictionary gives the following meanings for the word Vibhuthi: excellence, dignity, majesty, dominion, and some more, and also a celestial missile given to Rama by Viswamitra. Vibhuthi in Sanskrit means prosperity, wealth and glory. Vibhuthi is ash collected from burnt organic matter. Perhaps all the above “qualities” and “power” can be attributed from its various meanings to Vibhuthi, the organic holy dust worn on the foreheads of saivite worshipers ( Shiva, Parvathi, Ganesa, Subramanya). Shiva, the ascetic is visualized as covered with ash, which is fragrant as mentioned in the commonly chanted “ MRUTUNJAYA JAPA MANTRA”, (for him) “sugandham”(sweet smelling). When one applies Vibhuthi, it is a constant reminder that the material being is perishable and that we should look for the imperishable (nitya) the Brahman within us. After all, isn’t the ultimate destination of the human body ash! Vibhuthi is also said to have medicinal value. And is used in the mantric type of healing. As the story goes, not only did Saint Thirughana Sambandhar had to cure the stomach disease of the Jain King Koonpandian, of Madhurai (7th Century), but also had to prove to the king that it had medical value. The saint while composing the poem Mandiram –aavathu Neeru took a hand full of Vibhuthi and applied it on the king’s body. This gave the king immediate relief and he converted himself to a Hindu. History also records that the people of Tamilnadu converted from Jainism to Hinduism after this. Vibhuthi should be taken with the right hand and applied on the fore-head as three horizontal lines. The first line stands for removal of Ahankar (pride) the next stands for removal of ignorance and the third stands for removal of bad karma (actions). Ardent Shaivite men apply the Vibhuthi on nine parts of the upper body, the forehead, on both the upper arms, elbows, wrists, neck and chest. Vibhuthi applied with faith, is said to increase intellectual power and prosperity. Sivapuranam and Tirumandiram extol the use of Vibhuthi in great detail. Tirumalar, another poet says “Gangalan Poosum Kavacha Tiruneetrai”, glorifying the use of Vibhuthi.
The U or Y shaped marking, adorning the fore-head of Vaishnavites the followers of vishnu adorn their foreheads with a Naamam. It consists of either a U or Y shaped outer white marking and either a red or yellow straight line in the middle. The white paste is from china clay paste and the red vermillion paste made from turmeric, which is yellow but can be dyed red. The white lines represent Vishnu and the red Lakshmi. White stands for purity, while the red indicates brilliance, symbolizing wealth and riches from Lakshmi. Some wear a yellow line amidst the 2 white lines, which signifies the person comes from a very spiritual and pious background. The Naamam is usually worn by the men, while the Sri charanam (single red line) is worn by women in the Sri Vaishnava sect. Naamam give a cooling effect when exposed to scorching sun (china clay and sandal paste are antidotes). Ardent Vaishnavite men apply the namam on the top of head, forehead, both upper arms, fore-arms, neck and chest.
Kumkuma:red vermillion powder
Combining turmeric with limestone, which changes its color from yellow, makes Kumkum to red. It is applied to the center of the forehead as a circle or tilak. Many non-Indians question the purpose of the Kumkum and many of us do not have an answer, here is how it can be answered, the Kumkum or any mark on the forehead signifies that the person belongs to the Hindu religion. Of course people of other faiths also adorn it as a mark of beauty. With the Muslim occupation, usage of Kumkum, gained momentum and then in the last century has moreso evolved into a cosmetic representation, assuming different shapes and colors. Kumkum is associated with the worship of female deities, Lakshmi, Parvathi and Saraswathi. It is considered auspicious, an indication of good fortune and prosperity and is considered particularly fortunate for a long happy married life. The red color of the Kumkum is associated with fire. Fire is considered energy, so another interpretation is, Kumkum represents energy(Shakthi).It is customary among South Indian families to offer Kumkum to women visitors as a way of honoring them. In North Indian Practice, Kumkum applied on the parting of a woman’s hair symbolizes marriage. Adoring the forehead with Kumkum between the eyes is also a way to honor Lord Shiva’s third eye, which was supposed to be powerful and distructive.
Gopi Use of Sandalwood Paste and Saffron
Lord Krishna is usually seen with a yellow U on his forehead which is sandalwood paste mixed with saffron. This is called Kasturi tilakam. Sandalwood paste is also used in poojas and at the end of the services some of it is distributed to the devotees. In temples like Guruvayoor the idol is fully smeared with sandal paste during abhishekam and at the end of the pooja the same paste is distributed as prasadam to all. The use of sandal wood paste is more common among Madhvacharya followers. This fragrant paste is used by men on their own bodies while performing Sandhya-Vandanam, the personal ritual worship that one is inducted into after the sacred thread ceremony among Brahmins (Upanayanam). The paste is applied moist to vital parts of the body and the mark of discus (Chakra) and Conch (Shanku) is made invoking the divine energy. Chandan is customarily received with the middle finger and worn on the forehead and the neck.
Namaskaaram Salutation by prostrating in front of God and Elders
It is the Hindu tradition to bow down to the Supreme and to the elders by kneeling and bowing ones head to the floor. There are 2 postures, which are practiced by Hindus. The Astanga posture is when all 8 limbs of the body touch the floor (face down sleeping posture). This is also called Sashtaanga Namaskaaram. This is recommended to be done by the men only. The Panchaanga Pranaamam or 5 parts of the body touching the floor(head, shoulders and hands, knees, feet) is done by men and women. This is a kneeling posture with the head bowed down to the floor. In temples prostrations of these types are done only to the Gods. Outside temples they are done to elders. Prostrations should not be done to those who are sleeping or still in wet clothes. One should not also bow down to those who are younger in age. In the Vaishnava practice the men in the family prostrate and then announce their name, ancestry and school of thought (abhivadanam) after they have had their upanayanam (thread ceremony). Usually one announces his gotra, the three or five sages one is descendent from, the sutra one follows, the vedas one follows and then ones name to receive blessing from elders. These announcements are not made before God, Sages, Sanyasis, or women other than ones mother. Abhivadanam is an interesting practice handed down from generation to generation without any documentation. It was unique way of maintaining a record of the family background, school of thought, Vedic study and background of the individual.
Lighting of an Oil Lamp
Lighting an oil lamp at the altar at dawn and at dusk at the temple and in homes is a beautiful custom among the Hindus. Light is a manifestation of Goddess Lakshmi, symbolizing knowledge, brilliance, health and wealth. The oil lamp is adorned with sandal paste, Vermillion and fragrant flowers. Hindus believe that by lighting lamps, they are inviting their favorite Gods and Goddesses into their hearts and dwellings.
Materials are from ARADHANA -A publication of Hindu Cultural Center of Tennessee, USA - Sri Ganesha Temple, Nashville, TN