India pulsates with rituals and sacred ceremonies, many dating back thousands of years into Vedic times. The Vedas themselves are filled with mantras, chants and rituals for just about any purpose you can imagine. Before any new undertaking, to mark rites of passage, to change a situation, to give thanks or merely to honor the beginning or ending of the day, sacred rituals are an integral part of Indian life. I remember Deepak Chopra once telling me how, whenever his parents bought a new car, they would do a ceremony to ask for the blessings of Ganesh (the remover of obstacles) before they would drive the car. Not a bad idea, if you’ve ever driven in India!
Let’s look at a few of these rituals and see how we can incorporate modified versions in our own lives.
Throughout India, the essential essence of a deity or saint is considered to be present in its image. These images represent an aspect of Divine Consciousness and are, as such, treated with great respect, whether residing in a temple or a home shrine. Devotees view the temple or shrine as the ‘home’ of the deity. They keep it clean and bring offerings to ensure the comfort of the presiding deity. Just as we bathe every day, each morning and evening a ceremony called Abishekam is performed to the deity. Literally meaning ‘ritual bath’, the deity’s clothing (usually a wrap-around cloth) and adornments are removed and the deity, is bathed or anointed with panchamrita. Panchamrita translates as the five nectars and includes honey, milk, yogurt, sugarcane juice and ghee. Sometimes fruit, cooked rice or other ‘favorite’ items of the deity are also used. Special mantras are chanted during the process and the image is finally bathed with fresh water. When the bath is complete, the image is dried and dressed for the day or retired for the night.
What you can do. While this is quite complicated, those of us who have statues, pictures or images of our archetypes or teachers, should endeavor to keep them in a clean and respectful setting. Place a fresh flower, candle or incense in front of them or decorate them however you feel appropriate.
Every morning and evening in India, the ceremony of Aarti, offering light, is performed in temples, shrines, ashrams and on the banks of sacred rivers. This beautiful ritual involves the devotional waving of lamps (usually containing burning ghee or camphor) before the image of the presiding deity, guru or a sacred aspect of nature. The image or guru represents the Immortal Soul while the lamp represents the individual soul seeking Oneness with the Divine. The ritual is usually accompanied by sacred chanting, singing songs of praise, offering flowers and incense and the ringing of bells and blowing of conches.
What you can do. If you have a home altar, picture or statue of a favorite deity or teacher, begin your day by offering a candle or incense. Traditionally this would be done in a clockwise circular motion as follows: full circle to the right, half circle to the right, half circle to the left, full circle to the right. This can be repeated three or more times, softly chanting the mantra OM, while expressing the feeling of gratitude.
Lasting anywhere from 5 minutes to an hour, Pujas are performed on a variety of occasions, and settings. They may be a simple daily ritual done in the home or workplace or longer temple ceremonies celebrating annual festivals or lifetime events such as a birth, a wedding or before beginning a new venture. They are often performed prior to a spiritual instruction such as learning to meditate. The Puja includes simple offerings such as fruit and flowers and is usually an expression of gratitude or confirming our connection with a higher reality.
What you can do. While there are specific prayers and chants to accompany a traditional ceremony, a Puja is also something we can create ourselves, to enliven our archetypal energies. It can be as simple as standing in front of a representation of a deity, or great teacher, offering a piece of fruit, some flowers, lighting an incense stick or bringing our palms together with the blessing “Namaste”.
At a time of transition in your life, take two small candles, such as ‘tea lights’. Mark one so you can tell them apart. Hold one candle in your cupped hands and have the intention of releasing everything that no longer serves you into the candle. Now take the other candle and imagine you are pouring into it all the good things you want create in your life. When you go to bed that evening, light the first candle (place it somewhere safe) so that everything you want to release is burned away during the night. First thing the next morning, light the second candle so all the good things begin to flow into your life as you move into your day.
Yagyas are the longest and most elaborate ceremonies, lasting anywhere from one or two hours to several days. Because of their complexity, they would normally be performed by one or more Vedic priests, with the aim of changing our own or the circumstances in the world. Although they can be conducted at any time, the most auspicious date to achieve the desired result is usually chosen by a Vedic astrologer.
A Yagya is traditionally a fire ceremony. A special, square fire-pit (kunda) is constructed and participants sit around it, offering a variety of items into the fire. This is accompanied by the chanting of sacred mantras and symbolizes offering to our own internal fire of transformation. Everything has its own special significance from the types of wood used, to each item offered, to the particular chants. Cow’s ghee is one of the main ingredients in all Yagyas as it is said to magnify the potency of any other item. As an item burns it becomes rising smoke, which combines with the vibration of the mantras, spreading their effects and influence throughout the cosmos at a very subtle level.
What you can do. It wouldn’t be easy to create your own Yagya. However, fire is a great purifier so those of you who journal or “free-write” as a means of processing unwanted thoughts and emotions, could periodically create a small ceremony to burn these writings and celebrate their release to the Universe.
Who doesn’t love a road trip? A Yatra is a pilgrimage to a sacred site, which might be a temple, a shrine, a river, a mountain or an Enlightened Guru. Most Indians will take part in at least one significant Yatra during their lifetime often accompanied by a group of other Yatris. A Yatra can be as simple as a procession within one’s home town or can involve a journey lasting weeks or even months. The journey itself is considered as important as the destination, and any hardships of travel serve as acts of devotion in themselves.
After arriving at the destination, it is auspicious to perform a Parikrama. This entails circling the site in a clockwise direction. Smaller sites such as temples and shrines are usually circled three times although up to108 times may be observed. Larger or more difficult paths can be limited to one circumambulation. When a full pilgrimage journey cannot be performed, such as following the length of the River Ganges or reaching a mountain peak, pilgrims will often be seen standing with hands in prayer position, revolving in a clockwise direction as a token pilgrimage.
What you can do. Visiting a sacred place is believed to purify the self and bring one closer to the Divine. Nowadays we have cars and airplanes to transport us quickly and comfortably but whether you visit special places in your local area or make longer journeys try to connect with the energy and devotion of the thousand of pilgrims who have made the same journeys for centuries.
The Vedas place great emphasis on the value of performing rituals and visiting sacred places. Enjoy making them part of your Sadhana (spiritual practice).