Hindus are big on rituals. They have a tradition for every occasion in life – and I mean it! From the day of a baby’s birth, he or she will have a naming ceremony, a ceremony at one year when they get their hair shaved off – same thing again when they are three so don’t get frightened when you see little girls going around with a bald head, hopefully it’s just her ‘mundan’ been done. Then, a ritual for when they got to school, for when they start writing, for when girls get their first period (yes, really!), for first job, first car, first house; in fact for anything valuable you buy or build there’s a ritual. Then there’s life’s big milestones; birth, marriage, death… and of course all the religious festivals have their own special traditions – and these change from state to state!
But what about day to day life? Even in India, there are days when there aren’t any festivals or religious occasions going on! (I will have to fact-check this sentence though, I am not completely sure I’m telling the truth!)
In any case, here’s how to do a basic Hindu morning and evening ritual – what I do, anyway. There are people who do less, there are people who do more. These rituals – pooja – are highly customisable so don’t feel any pressure.
Here’s what you need on your altar:
1. A statue of the god of your choice – or anything to represent them.
2. Candles – they can be simple tea lights or diyas. Diya is a kind of oil lamp, I make them for special occasions.
3. Incense sticks or cones
4. Some water
5. Some food offering. Make sure it’s vegetarian and hasn’t been tasted by anyone before you offer it.
What to do:
After taking shower/bath and brushing teeth and hair in the morning you put on fresh clothes and you are ready to do pooja. It’s important to be as clean as possible, as a show of respect to the gods. It also helps you get tuned into the pooja. If you just come home from work and do it without anything beforehand, you are likely to rush it along so you can get on with other stuff. Do it when you have 10 minutes of peace for the gods.
So now that you are ready, you go to your altar and light the candle. There are hundreds of mantras out there but I will share the two most popular ones: the Gayatri and the Maha Mrityunjaya mantra. When lighting the candle people often chant the Gayatri Mantra (see below). On the candle you light your incense stick, and do three circles around your altar with it, consecrating it and offering the fragrance to the gods.
Now, many people use little bells to get the gods’ attention. If you have one, you could ring it while doing your rounds with the incense. Any ordinary bell will do if you like the sound of it, but traditionally it should be made of brass. Brass has a special vibration that is said to clear the mind of any other thoughts and help us concentrate on the pooja. Don’t worry if you don’t have one though. I don’t use mine because it irritates the devotion out of me.
After the incense, you go and change the water you have on your altar. I do this daily once, in the morning. If by chance you have chosen a Shiva lingam to worship, pour some water over it to keep its energies calm. Shivlings are said to multiply whatever emotions are present in the house, and too much is not good of anything so we try and keep the lingam nice and calm by offering it water daily. You could do this to any statue, just make sure it is waterproof and you have a dish under it to catch the water.
This is optional, I do it only on special occasions but some people do it daily: now offer the food. It can be any fruit – peal it and/or cut it like you would for children. It could be something you cooked (but don’t taste it before offering!) or a bar of chocolate. Whatever you think the gods would appreciate. Now, there is a rule at certain states of India that this offering should be vegetarian and may not contain onions or garlic. This isn’t applicable everywhere but it is good to keep in mind, just in case. Try what suits your belief and do that.
While offering the water and food you can chant the Maha Mrityunjaya mantra. If you like, you could just talk to the gods and ask them to accept your offerings, or tell them you love them and are happy to have them around… or pour your heart out to them. In my experience they love heartfelt interaction, so whatever you do, do it from the heart.
Many people blow conch shells at the end of the pooja. It is great fun and its vibrations clear the energy in the house and blowing it is good for your organs – heart and lungs especially – so I do recommend getting one and learning how to blow it.
When you are done with this, bow down and touch your forehead to the ground. Then put your hands together and say bye to them. You are free to go.
A few notes more:
Whatever you use on your altar, belongs to the altar. You don’t use the candles anywhere else, you don’t light those incenses just for the smell, and you don’t use the oil you’re making the oil lamps with for cooking.
Food and drink offerings must be eaten or drank after the pooja. You can leave them on the altar for some time but throwing them out would be a big insult. These are called prashadam, sacred food/drink that have been blessed by the gods.
So to sum it all up, a basic pooja is:
1. Light candle (ring bell if you have one)
2. Gayatri Mantra
3. Light incense
4. Change water
5. Give food
6. Chant Maha Mrityunjaya mantra
(Blow conch if you have one)
Some people sing bhajans, some stay silent and meditate… there are many things you can add to your ritual. Whatever feels right, probably is. The most important thing is:
IT SHOULD COME FROM THE HEART!
Link to the Gayatri mantra.
Link to the Maha Mrityunjaya mantra.