by Jana Thevar
Part 2: How to Perform Simple Puja
Most Indians are familiar with puja and would know how to perform a simple, basic puja at home (or anywhere, actually). If you’re new to this and would like to start, congratulations on taking this first step in Bhakti Yoga.
Puja can be as simple or as elaborate as you want. Remember, the most important aspects of puja are devotion and sincerity. Don’t worry about doing something wrong. As long as you perform puja with love and good intentions, your offerings will be accepted and you’ll receive the benefits of the ritual in the form of positive energy.
Basic things you’ll need for puja:
An incense holder
A clean cloth for the altar
New cotton wick
A brass puja bell
A brass oil lamp
Pictures or statues of your deities of choice
Pictures of your spiritual masters / gurus
A container for water (for offering)
Oil for the lamp (ghee or any pure, edible vegetable oil)
Fresh flowers, leaves or fruits (all three, if possible)
Additional items (optional):
A camphor holder
A frankincense holder
A container for water with a spoon (to purify your hands)
Plates for offering food (kept specifically for puja purposes)
1. Shower. Always be freshly showered before having anything to do with puja, even if you’re just cleaning or setting up the altar. Purity on all levels is best when it comes to puja.
2. Clean the altar. If you don’t have an altar, a table covered with a clean, new cloth will do. If the altar was used previously for puja, remove any dried flowers, dried garlands, leftover incense ash and previously offered water. Dispose all organic material under a tree or plants. Any previously offered water should be consumed or poured on plants. It’s not necessary to throw away leftover oil in the lamp – it can be reused and replenished as needed.
3. Arrange your pictures and puja utensils. Every altar should ideally have a picture or statue of Ganesha, as he is the deity in charge of removing obstacles. Place Ganesha on the left, followed by the other deities to the right. If you have a two-tiered altar, you can place the pictures of your spiritual masters below the pictures of the deities; otherwise, place these to the sides. Place the incense holder, water container and bell on your altar, in front of the pictures. Note: You can easily make additional tiers on your altar using bricks, wooden blocks or books, and covering these with a cloth.
4. Decorate the altar and prepare your offerings. If you have fresh flowers or garlands, decorate the altar with these, in any style you like. Light the incense. Fill the water container up with clean drinking water or fresh milk. If you have sattvic vegetarian food or fruits you’d like to offer, arrange these on the altar on plates specifically purchased for puja. If the oil lamp is empty, refill it with fresh ghee (or vegetable oil). Trim a cotton wick to about 1 ½ to 2 inches in length, then lightly dip the edge you’re going to light into the oil. Squeeze the wick’s tip to remove excess oil, then place the whole wick into the lamp, with the edge of the wick sitting on the pointed rim of the lamp.
5. Light the lamp to begin your puja. Ring the bell firmly for a few seconds; this is done to invite the devas to accept your offerings and dispel any negative energies within the space. If you feel comfortable enough, ring the bell using your left hand and perform aarathi with your right hand (with lit camphor placed in the camphor holder). Aarathi should be performed in large, circular motions three times, in a clockwise direction. Some people prefer to perform aarathi at the end of the puja, but I do mine at the beginning.
6. Recite mantras or pray silently. If you want to recite mantras, always start with a Ganesha mantra before anything else. After Ganesha, the mantras for the other deities should follow in this sequence, according to your chosen deities : Vishnu / Krishna, Shiva, Lakshmi, Durga, Muruga, and the rest. If you don’t know any mantras, it’s perfectly acceptable to pray silently, in your mind and heart, in any language. Offer your greetings and obeisances to the deities respectfully, and thank them for coming to grace your puja (never doubt this – once you ring the bell, they are energetically present at your altar). Mentally share any concerns you have and ask them for help or guidance. Once you have completed your prayers, thanks the deities for everything you’ve been given so far – always remember to have an attitude of gratitude.
7. Meditate. Make sure the flame is ‘safe’ so as not to accidentally cause a fire when you’re not watching it. You may place it on a large metal tray to prevent stray sparks from touching the altar cloth. Once you’re sure the lamp is burning in a safe manner, meditate with your eyes closed for about 10 to 20 minutes. It’s best to sit on a pillow or mat, with your hands in chin mudra or in your lap. You may also do japa chanting with the aid of a rosary.
8. Conclude the puja. Once you’ve completed your meditation, silently ask for permission to end the puja. Then, put out the lamp using a flower (or use a twig to drown the wick and flame in the oil). If you have offered milk, water, fruits or food, you may now remove the items and transfer them to your regular cups and plates for consumption.
Note: If you’d like to perform a more elaborate puja for a special reason, you may want to consider hiring a priest as they are trained extensively in complex Vedic rituals. It does not mean that a simple puja you do yourself is inferior – it’s just more practical due to the complexity of the rituals, especially those done for specific purposes.