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Aarti fire ritual on the Ganges
at the ghats of Varanasi
It can be argued that what defines a Hindu is not the god that he or she worships but the rituals and lifestyle that he or she follows. There is often a great deal of overlapping and little distinction between religious and secular life, with prayers, initiations, ceremonies, festivals and rituals taking up a large chunk of a Hindu’s daily routine and life.

Are Hindus idol worshipers? Some non-Hindus regard Hindus as idol worshipers because of the adulation and offerings they give images and symbols of their gods. Hindus however don’t see it that way. They attention they give to images is not seen as idol worship but rather a way of recognizing that God is in everything. According to to the Hindu view, all objects are regarded as “living embodiments” of God (arca) and all methods of worship are ways of revering God. Making offerings to images, or “idols”, is called puja (“image worship”) and it refers to the belief that the entirety of creation is a form of God and that his form is in everything. Hindus do not see this as worshiping an idol because Hinduism describes it as a direct worship of God (who is in everything) instead of the worship of a representation of God. [Source: Jonathan H. Kantor, Listverse, July 31, 2016]

Children are brought up to follow the customs and ethics of their parents but are encouraged to decide for themselves which gods and goddesses are right for them. Individuals often practice group rituals for their family and private rituals for themselves. Hindu religious customs, beliefs and the gods people worship can often vary greatly from place to place and even from caste to caste in one locality. Even so Hindus generally observe broadly similar rules regarding food, marriages and burial.

The ritual world of Hinduism, manifestations of which differ greatly among regions, villages, and individuals, offers a number of common features that link all Hindus into a greater Indian religious system and influence other religions as well. The most notable feature in religious ritual is the division between purity and pollution. Religious acts presuppose some degree of impurity or defilement for the practitioner, which must be overcome or neutralized before or during ritual procedures. Purification, usually with water, is thus a typical feature of most religious action. Avoidance of the impure--taking animal life, eating flesh, associating with dead things, or body fluids--is another feature of Hindu ritual and is important for repressing pollution. In a social context, those individuals or groups who manage to avoid the impure are accorded increased respect. Still another feature is a belief in the efficacy of sacrifice, including survivals of Vedic sacrifice. Thus, sacrifices may include the performance of offerings in a regulated manner, with the preparation of sacred space, recitation of texts, and manipulation of objects. A third feature is the concept of merit, gained through the performance of charity or good works, that will accumulate over time and reduce sufferings in the next world. [Source: Library of Congress]

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Brahman performing puja
Hindus are theoretically obliged to perform the "Five Great Sacrifices" three times a day but few of them other than devout, old-fashion Brahmins actually do. They consist of 1) the worship of Brahma by reciting the Vedic verses; 2) the worship of gods with burnt offering; 3) the worship of living spirits by offering food to animals and insects, and scattering grain in four direction, the center, in the air and on household utensil; 4) the offering of hospitality to members of one castes; and 5) the giving of offering to one’s ancestors. Good Hindus are also expected to give their ancestors a rice ball on the first new moon day of every month and periodically give offerings to the household spirit that lives in the northeast corner of the house. ["World Religions" edited by Geoffrey Parrinder, Facts on File Publications, New York]

Similar obligations are required in a Hindu’s lifetime. There are some forty sacramental rites ( samskaras ) which an orthodox high-class Hindu is expected to perform or have performed on his behalf at various stages of his life. Many of these rarely take place. Most of them are very ancient in origin and feature sacraments and rites thought be similar to those performed in ancient Greece and Rome.

Websites and Resources on Hinduism: Hinduism Today hinduismtoday.com ; Heart of Hinduism (Hare Krishna Movement) iskconeducationalservices.org ; India Divine indiadivine.org ; Religious Tolerance Hindu Page religioustolerance.org/hinduism ; Hinduism Index uni-giessen.de/~gk1415/hinduism ; Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Oxford center of Hindu Studies ochs.org.uk ; Hindu Website hinduwebsite.com/hinduindex ; Hindu Gallery hindugallery.com ; Hindusim Today Image Gallery himalayanacademy.com ; Encyclopædia Britannica Online article britannica.com ; International Encyclopedia of Philosophy by Shyam Ranganathan, York University iep.utm.edu/hindu ; Vedic Hinduism SW Jamison and M Witzel, Harvard University people.fas.harvard.edu ; The Hindu Religion, Swami Vivekananda (1894), Wikisource ; Hinduism by Swami Nikhilananda, The Ramakrishna Mission .wikisource.org ; All About Hinduism by Swami Sivananda dlshq.org ; Advaita Vedanta Hinduism by Sangeetha Menon, International Encyclopedia of Philosophy (one of the non-Theistic school of Hindu philosophy) ; Journal of Hindu Studies, Oxford University Press academic.oup.com/jhs

Types of Hindu Worship

Hindu worship, or puja, involves images (murtis), prayers (mantras) and diagrams of the universe (yantras). According to the BBC: “Central to Hindu worship is the image, or icon, which can be worshipped either at home or in the temple. Hindu worship is primarily an individual act rather than a communal one, as it involves making personal offerings to the deity. Worshippers repeat the names of their favourite gods and goddesses, and repeat mantras. Water, fruit, flowers and incense are offered to god.”

the matra: Om mani padme hum

A Hindu can worship at home or in a temple. According to the BBC: “Worship at home: The majority of Hindu homes have a shrine where offerings are made and prayers are said. A shrine can be anything: a room, a small altar or simply pictures or statues of the deity. Family members often worship together. Rituals should strictly speaking be performed three times a day. Some Hindus, but not all, worship wearing the sacred thread (over the left shoulder and hanging to the right hip). This is cotton for the Brahmin (priest), hemp for the Kshatriya (ruler) and wool for the vaishya (merchants). [Source: BBC |::|]

Temple worship: At a Hindu temple, different parts of the building have a different spiritual or symbolic meaning. 1) The central shrine is the heart of the worshipper. 2) The tower represents the flight of the spirit to heaven. 3) A priest may read, or more usually recite, the Vedas to the assembled worshippers, but any "twice-born" Hindu can perform the reading of prayers and mantras. |::|

Worship of Personal Gods

For the vast majority of Hindus, the most important religious path is bhakti (devotion) to personal gods. There are a wide variety of gods to choose from, and although sectarian adherence to particular deities is often strong, there is a widespread acceptance of choice in the desired god (ishta devata ) as the most appropriate focus for any particular person. Most devotees are therefore polytheists, worshiping all or part of the vast pantheon of deities, some of whom have come down from Vedic times. In practice, a worshiper tends to concentrate prayers on one deity or on a small group of deities with whom there is a close personal relationship. [Source: Library of Congress *]

seated 14th-15th century ivory Ganesh form Orissa

Puja (worship) of the gods consists of a range of ritual offerings and prayers typically performed either daily or on special days before an image of the deity, which may be in the form of a person or a symbol of the sacred presence. In its more developed forms, puja consists of a series of ritual stages beginning with personal purification and invocation of the god, followed by offerings of flowers, food, or other objects such as clothing, accompanied by fervent prayers. Some dedicated worshipers perform these ceremonies daily at their home shrines; others travel to one or more temples to perform puja , alone or with the aid of temple priests who receive offerings and present these offerings to the gods. The gifts given to the gods become sacred through contact with their images or with their shrines, and may be received and used by worshipers as the grace (prasada ) of the divine. Sacred ash or saffron powder, for example, is often distributed after puja and smeared on the foreheads of devotees. In the absence of any of these ritual objects, however, puja may take the form of a simple prayer sent toward the image of the divine, and it is common to see people stop for a moment before roadside shrines to fold their hands and offer short invocations to the gods. *

Since at least the seventh century A.D., the devotional path has spread from the south throughout India through the literary and musical activities of saints who have been some of the most important representatives of regional languages and traditions. The hymns of these saints and their successors, mostly in vernacular forms, are memorized and performed at all levels of society. Every state in India has its own bhakti tradition and poets who are studied and revered. In Tamil Nadu, groups called Nayanmars (devotees of Shiva) and Alvars (devotees of Vishnu) were composing beautiful poetry in the Tamil language as early as the sixth century. In Bengal one of the greatest poets was Chaitanya (1485-1536), who spent much of his life in a state of mystical ecstasy. One of the greatest North Indian saints was Kabir (ca. 1440-1518), a common leatherworker who stressed faith in God without devotion to images, rituals, or scriptures. Among female poets, Princess Mirabai (ca. 1498-1546) from Rajasthan stands out as one whose love for Krishna was so intense that she suffered persecution for her public singing and dancing for the lord. *

A recurring motif that emerges from the poetry and the hagiographies of these saints is the equality of all men and women before God and the ability of people from all castes and occupations to find their way to union with God if they have enough faith and devotion. In this sense, the bhakti tradition serves as one of the equalizing forces in Indian society and culture. *

Hindu Worship

sadhu worshipping Shiva during the Khumba Mela

Christianity is an organized religion with a hierarchy that emphasizes community worship and social service. Eastern religion is not organized in the same way. Hindus have special religious communities but the religion itself is not organized and worship has traditionally been done individually rather than in groups. Even when there are gathering of large numbers of people, individuals tend to engage in worship as individuals.

Hindus and Buddhists are not required to visit temples. There is generally no liturgy or community worship for a congregation at a temple. The largest gathering usually take place at festivals, when some public ceremonies are held. Otherwise temples are mostly empty of people unless they are tourist attractions or are very popular. As a rule individuals come and go to temples when they please and worship on a one on one basis with the god they are praying to. Temples are often sought as quiet places for meditation. Worship can often be done in front of altars at home just as well as it can be done at a temple.

Reverence toward sacred images is very important. Sacred images are treated as kings in their temples and honored guest in people’s homes. This reverence is an expression of darshan (See Below). Common prayer times are sunrise and sunset when priests conduct ritual offering to the icon in the sanctuary of the temple.

The religious scholar A.L. Basham, wrote: “The most important religious acts of the Hindu are performed within the home. The life of the individual is hedged with sacraments of all kinds, which accompany him not merely from cradle to grave, but even from conception to long after death; for rites are performed while an unborn child is still in the womb to ensue its safety; and an ancestor is cared for in the after-life by special ceremonies performed by his descendants.”

At certain times of the day family members make offerings and say prayers at the family altar. Sometimes they say their prayers together, with the head of the household leading. Other times they do them at separate times. The lighting of a lamp and incense is a usual part of the ritual. Sweets, coconut, money and fruit are left as offerings. Prayers are usually said every day. Thursday is regarded as a particularly auspicious time to say them.

See Temples.

House Altars and Domestic Worship

Hindu home altar and temple

Most Hindu homes have family altars with garish pictures of Hindu gods and photographs of living and dead family members. Sometimes they are decorated with tinsel and colored lights. Here family members perform their daily puja (prayers and offerings). Some traditional large Hindu houses have an entire prayer room with a large elaborate altar. Most small houses have an altar on the side or corner of one of the rooms. Wealthy families sometimes have a large shrine outside their home.

Hindus also have roadside shrines and theoretically they can make offerings anywhere that has some connection to the gods . Some times red powder is smeared on sacred rocks or at the bases of trees. Basil, known as tulsi , is a sacred plant. It is often found growing in special planter and periodically receives puja.

The home is the place where most Hindus conduct their worship and religious rituals. The most important times of day for performance of household rituals are dawn and dusk, although especially devout families may engage in devotion more often. For many households, the day begins when the women in the house draw auspicious geometric designs in chalk or rice flour on the floor or the doorstep. For orthodox Hindus, dawn and dusk are greeted with recitation from the Rig Veda of the Gayatri Mantra for the sun--for many people, the only Sanskrit prayer they know. After a bath, there is personal worship of the gods at a family shrine, which typically includes lighting a lamp and offering foodstuffs before the images, while prayers in Sanskrit or a regional language are recited. In the evenings, especially in rural areas, mostly female devotees may gather together for long sessions of singing hymns in praise of one or more of the gods. [Source: Library of Congress *]

Minor acts of charity punctuate the day. During daily baths, there are offerings of a little water in memory of the ancestors. At each meal, families may set aside a handful of grain to be donated to beggars or needy persons, and daily gifts of small amounts of grain to birds or other animals serve to accumulate merit for the family through their self-sacrifice. *

Prayer Rooms and Family Altars Under Temples.

Darshan and Hindu Veneration of Images

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Priest offers Flowers
to the goddess Saraswati
Darshan (also spelled Darsan) is an important aspect of Hindu worship. It refers to viewing an image of a deity. "A Hindu goes to a temple," writes historian Daniel Boorstin, "not to 'worship,' but rather 'for darśan ” ...Darsan is a two-way flow of vision. While the devotee sees his god, so too the god sees the devotee, and the two make contact through their eyes. In the building of a new temple...when the images of the gods are made, their eyes are the last to be completed...The bulbous or saucer eyes that make Indian paintings of gods seem so bizarre to us are clues to the dominance of vision in the Hindu's relation to his gods. Many gods, like Shiva and Ganesh, have a third eye in the center of their foreheads. Brahma, the Thousand Eyes, regularly has four heads, to look in all directions at once, and sometimes he has leopard-spot eyes all over his body."

The importance given darshan can be appreciated by the attention that is sometimes lavished on images that are worshiped. In large temples where there are a large number of attendants, the image is woken up in the morning and washed, fed and prepared with flowers and incense before it is placed on its throne in the shrine room. In some cases the images are fanned and entertained with music throughout the day. In the old days many temples had their own troupe of dancers that entertained the images and could be enjoyed by worshipers for a fee.

Darshan is also associated with people of great holiness. Great leaders like Gandhi are also believed to possess darśan. When Indians glimpsed the Mahatma through the window of trains on his travels across India they were "taking darsan" and Gandhi was giving it. The importance of eye contact between the gods and humans helps explain why Hindu disdain eye contact in public, even between husband and wife.

Boorstin wrote: “The Hindu is dazzled by a vision of the holy, not merely holy people but places like the Himalayan peaks where gods live, or the Ganges which flows from Heaven to Earth, or countless inconspicuous sites where gods or goddesses or unsung heroes showed their divine mettle. The Hindu pilgrims trek hundreds of miles just for another darśan...Each of the cities sacred to each of the thousands of gods offers its own special darśan.”

Hindu Offerings

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Offerings ( prasad ) placed in front of images or symbols of deities include flowers, flower petals, coconut, sweetmeats, morsels of food, colored powder, uncooked rice, fruit, milk, yogurt, ghee, fire water, and bells. Many people light oil lamps, incense or small pools of camphor oil on stone slabs. Sometimes the offerings are made to the sound of chants or beating drums, ringing bells, and blowing horns.

Some offerings are quite elaborate. Floating offerings made of jasmine flowers and candles are set up to light the way for religious rituals. Offerings to the Ganges consist of tiny boats made from maljhana leaves fastened together with twigs, with marigolds, rose petals and camphor inside. The camphor is lit before the offering is set afloat on the holy river. Worshipers sometimes dip their fingers in lamps lit by bell-clanging priests and press their warm fingers to their forehead.

Offerings generally symbolize one of the five element of existence: earth, water, fire, wind and ether. They are usually made to specific gods, often on a daily basis, and are seen as a kind bloodless sacrifice, or a symbol of sacrifices that were once at the heart of the Hindu relationship.

Many Hindus begin their day at home by making an offering on their family altar. Offerings are often the central acts of devotion performed at temples, ceremonies and festivals They are often performed as much out of self or family interest---for help passing an examination, the birth a boy, success in business or good health for a sick loved one---as an act of devotion to a god.

Offerings imply subordination and may include receiving back part of the items offered---after their spiritual essence has been taken. In the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna says a flower, fruit, a leaf or handful of water offered to God will be accepted as an act of devotion. At temples cows often eat left behind as offerings.


Pujas (meritorious actions) refers to all forms of Hindu worship: prayers, prayer rituals, and offerings. They can be simple acts by worshipers at a temple or elaborate rituals performed with the help of Brahmin priests to mark special life cycle event. They usually involve chanting, bowing and leaving offerings before images.

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Puja with leaves
Many people don't understand the significance of puja, whether conducted daily at home or at a temple. It can be performed on images of the elephant-headed God, Lord Ganesha, or the monkey-God, Hanuman, or on stones. Since God is omnipresent he should be present in stones, animals and statues. Hindus believe that one commits a grave error by seeing an essential distinction between an idol and the Supreme Lord, for they are one and the same. Pujas are usually directed to a specific deity. They often are made in conjunction with a request for protection and help or an expression of thanks. Their ultimate objective is to become one with the deity to which the prayer is directed.

A puja is supposed to bring five things together: 1) a pot containing water, representing the body; 2) murtis (an image of deity); 3) prasad (a flower or fruit offering, representing nature); 4) yantras (a mandala, or sacred pattern representing the universe); and 5) a mantra , or chant. The first four are optional. The last one is necessary. The mantra is viewed as essential to complete the ritual.

A puja usually involves some kind of offering and worship before an image. It is supposed to begin with a mantra that calls the deity and ends with the worshiper smearing blood-red vermillion paste or red powder ( kumkum ) on the middle of the forehead of the image being worshiped. Lighting incense sticks and ringing brass bells, like matras, are seen as ways to get the attention of the gods.

There is often an element of give and take with puja. Sometimes an offering is made and a small portion is taken back. This portion is regarded as blessed and auspicious. In Hindu temples puja often takes the form of offerings at statues of gods followed by blessings, sometimes a mark on the forehead, by a priest. Most people give the priest a small amount of money after receiving the blessing. A Web site launched in the early 2000s (saranam.com) arranges pujas at a choice of temples in Indian by proxy for a fee of $10 to $75 per prayer, with the cost determined by how elaborate the puja is.

Practicing Puja on a Hindu Image

Durga puja

Puja can conducted on an image of a god made of gold, silver, bronze or even clay. Before the puja, one bathes to signify the outer purification. Mantras and stotras are recited for inner purification. Even a very simple puja employs flowers. The smell of flowers smell is called vaasaana. Vaasaana is also an another name for the imprints in the jiva, which constitute the flavor/smell of our personality, habits etc. Flowers are picked up with the right hand and then, the fingers are pointed downward so that the flowers fall at the feet of the idol. The five fingers signify the five senses. The senses which are normally directed outward for pleasure are pointed downward to show that they are surrendered at the feet of the image. Usually, the flower is placed after uttering 'namaH.' While namaH means salutation, it is also a corrupt form of 'na mama' i.e not mine. Thus, when offering flowers, one says, 'I am offering to you my senses, attributes, character but none of them are really mine. Everything is yours.'

The dedication of the body of the worshipper to the deity is a necessary prelude to ceremonial worship. In this rite the worshipper purifies and consecrates each part of his person that he may become fit to appear before a god. 'No man should worship a deity so long as he himself has not become a deity. If the repetition of sacred utterances is performed without previous dedication of the parts of the body to the different deities, this repetition of mantras is demoniacal and without useful effect. To worship a deity, a man must become the Self of that deity through dedication, breath control, and concentration until his body becomes the deity's abode.' (Gandharva Tantra.) [Source: Translation by Alain Danialou, in his Hindu Polytheism (New York: Bollingen Series LXXIII, 1964), PP. 377-9, Eliade Page website ^*^]

1) The first step is the purification of the worshipper and of the accessories of worship. 'The purification of the person of the worshipper consists in bathing, The purification-of-the-subtle-elements (bhuta shuddhi) of the body is done through breath control and through the dedication of the six main parts of the body to the six deities to which they correspond. After this the other forms of dedication are performed. 2) 'The purification of the place of worship is done by cleaning it carefully, adorning it with an auspicious ornamentation made of powders of five colours, placing a seat and a canopy, using incense, lights, flowers, garlands, etc. All this must be done by the worshipper himself. ^*^

3) 'Purification of the ritual utterances, the mantras, is done by repeating the syllables which compose them in the regular order and then in the reverse order. 4) 'Purification of the accessories is done by sprinkling water consecrated with the basic mantra and the weapon-mantra (astra-mantra, i.e., the sound phat) and then displaying the cow-gesture (dhenumudra). 5) 'Purification of the deity is done by placing the image on an altar invoking the presence of the deity through its secret mantra and the life-giving breathing-mantra (prana-mantra), bathing the image three times while reciting the basic mantra, then adorning it with garments and jewels. After this an offering of incense and light should be made.' (Kularnava Tantra.) ^*^

Removing Obstacles: “'The worshipper should bow with respect to the deities of the doors, first at the eastern door of the house of worship, then, successively at the southern door, the western door, and the northern door. After this he should bow to his chosen deity present in the form of its yantra.' (Nigama-kalpalata 14.) If the sanctuary has only one door, the worship of the deities of the three other directions should be done mentally. 'The sacrificial house should be entered with the right foot' (Shivarcana Candrika), with the left foot ff it is a left-hand sacrifice. 'The worshipper should remove obstacles of celestial origin by the godly look (looking with wide-open, unblinking eyes). Obstacles of the intermediary world are removed with the help of water consecrated with the astra-mantra. Terrestrial obstacles are avoided by doing three taps with the heel of the right foot.' (Shambavi Tantra.) ^*^

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Puja Sanwaliaji

Chanting, Meditating and Praising the Deity During Puja

'Just as gold is freed from its dross only by fire and acquires its shining appearance from heat, so the mind of a living being, cleansed from the filth of his actions and his desires through his love for me, is transformed into my transcendent likeness. The mind is purified through the hearing and uttering of sacred hymns in my praise., (Bhagavata Puruna II, 14, 25.) The glorification of a deity is something different from meaningless praise. The Brhad-devata (1, 6) says: 'The praise of something consists in the utterance of its name, the description of its shape, the proclaiming of its deeds, the mention of its family.' [Source: Translation by Alain Danialou, in his Hindu Polytheism (New York: Bollingen Series LXXIII, 1964), PP. 377-9, Eliade Page website ^*^]

'We cannot know a thing without knowing its merits, its qualities. All knowledge or science is based on a form of praise. A dictionary is but the praise of words. The works of science are filled with glorification. Everything which is an object of knowledge is as such a deity and is glorified in the Scripture that deals with it.' (Vijayananda Tripathi, 'Devata tattva,' Sanmarga,III, 1942.) ^*^

'Meditation is of two kinds, gross and subtle. In the subtle form meditation is done on the "body of sound," that is, the mantra, of the deity. In the gross form meditation is on one image with hands and feet. . . . The suprasensory can seldom be reached by the mind; hence one should concentrate on the gross form.' (Yamala Tantra.) 'The worshipper should engage in meditation, gradually concentrating his mind on all the parts of the body of his chosen deity, one after another, from the feet to the head. He can thus acquire such an intense state of concentration that during his undisturbed meditation the whole body of the chosen deity will appear to his mind's eye as an indivisible form. In this way the meditation on the deity in its formal aspect will gradually become profound and steady.' (Siva Candra Vidyarnava Bhattacharya, Principles of Tantra [ed. Woodroffe, I, (1916), 134, or p. 874 [1952 ed.], quoted with slight changes.) ^*^

Japa, the Repetition of Mantras: 'Japa, as the repetition of a mantra, has been compared to the action of a man shaking a sleeper to wake him up.' (Woodroffe, The Garland of Letters, P. 211, with slight changes.) 'Once the image of the chosen deity has been formed in the mind by concentration, the seed-mantra should be repeated, withdrawing the mind from all other thoughts....... Japa is of three kinds, audible, articulate but inaudible, and mental....... Japa concentration by this -means is perfected, the consciousness of the worshipper is transferred to the deity represented by the utterance and he ceases to have an individuality distinct from that of the deity.' (Barada Kantha Majumdar. Principles of Tantra [cd. Woodroffe ], II [1916, 77-8, or pp. 648 ff 1952 ed.], quoted with slight changes.)^*^

Bathing a Deity in Milk

pouring milk on a Shiva trident

Reporting from New Delhi, Emily Wax wrote in the Washington Post: “ Every morning, Hindu devotees haul buckets of fresh, creamy milk into this neighborhood temple, then close their eyes and bow in prayer as the milk is used to bathe a Hindu deity. At the foot of the statue, they leave small baskets of bananas, coconuts, incense sticks and marigolds. Milk is literally the nectar of gods in India. Most temples in the south use it at least twice a day to bathe Hindu statues, since it symbolizes the eternal goodness of human beings and is seen as a generous offering to the faith. [Source: Emily Wax, Washington Post, April 30, 2008 <=>]

“Across the country, milk also symbolizes life and death. Bodies are anointed with purified butter before cremation. Milk is a main ingredient in paneer -- a cheese-cube dish known here as the king of all foods -- as well as yogurt, curries, tea and sweets. And milk is often the main meal for children younger than five. <=>

Gods Go Hungry Due to High Food Prices

In 2008, during the World Food Crisis, Emily Wax wrote in the Washington Post: “Recently, Ram Gopal Atrey, the head priest at Prachin Hanuman Mandir, noticed donations thinning for the morning prayers. He knew exactly why: inflation. With prices soaring for staples such as cooking oils, wheat, lentils, milk and rice across the globe, priests like Atrey say they are seeing the consequences in their neighborhood temples, where even the poorest of the poor have long made donations to honor their faith. [Source: Emily Wax, Washington Post, April 30, 2008 <=>]

"But today the common man is tortured by the increases in prices," Atrey lamented during one early morning prayer, or puja, adding that donations of milk were down by as much as 50 percent. He had recently met with colleagues from other temples, along with imams from local mosques, who reported similar experiences. "If poor people don't even have enough for bread, how will they donate milk to the gods?" he said. "This is very serious." <=>

“At a hilltop temple in New Delhi, visitors headed inside for a 6:30 p.m. puja, during which the statue of a Hindu deity would be bathed in milk, sandalwood paste, water and honey. S. Shanti, 27, said she came to pray for a job in India's railway service. With prices rising and a lack of work, she said, she had less to offer to the temple. "How can we manage?" Shanti said, as she looked over at other worshipers bearing small baskets of bananas and coconuts. "God please grant my wishes. Things are so costly now. We need help."” <=>

Online Puja and Outsourced Prayers

Time-strapped Indians, who can’t make it to a temple to make offerings, can now do puja and have prayers said for them online. Reporting from Varanasi, Henry Chu wrote in the Los Angeles Times: “Got an appeal for better health, or a nicer boss? Want a rich mate, or better grades for your kids? If you can't make the pilgrimage here, an Internet connection and a small fee can book you the services of a priest at the Vishwanath Temple who will, as Indians like to say, "do the needful" for your plea to be heard on high. "It's a demand of this day and age," said Radhey Shyam Pathak, who runs the temple's daily affairs. "This was not possible even 10 years back. There are many people who wish to come here but cannot. We can help." [Source: Henry Chu, Los Angeles Times, December 24, 2007 /+/]

“The temple went online in August, and within a month received 180,000 hits on its website, shrikashivishwanath.org. That is more than double the average number of devotees who show up in person every month, braving difficult journeys, the smelly warren of narrow alleys leading to the temple, the security pat-downs outside the entrance and the gantlet of vendors hawking sweets, garlands of marigolds and jasmine, and other religious paraphernalia. Cyber-worshipers can be spared all of that -- and in the bargain save some time, a commodity in increasingly short supply for the growing cohort of middle-class Indians busy with the trappings of secular affluence, from attending cocktail parties to shuttling their children to after-school tutorials. /+/

“Besides outsourcing a puja, or prayers and obeisances, visitors to the Vishwanath Temple's website can enjoy a virtual audience with the Shiva lingam, the phallus-shaped symbol that represents the deity and resides in the temple's inner sanctum. Animated icons shower the sacred image with offerings of flowers or milk. Hymns and chants drone through the speakers. "This is an association of religion and science -- old beliefs and new ways to follow them," said Abhishek Drolia, one of the website's designers. /+/

“Going high-tech is the latest twist in the history of the Vishwanath Temple, which for a thousand years has been home to one of the most important Shiva lingams in India. Other well-known shrines around India also have gone into cyberspace, and officials here were keen not to be left behind, especially with millions of Hindus living on distant shores. "It's another way of broadcasting the message of the temple," Pathak said. "It's being mindful that we benefit all mankind." The temple's 22 priests are "gradually adjusting" to serving digital devotees, Pathak said, adding that the prayers conducted for those who book their services online are no different from those for adherents who appear in person. Whether the effect of the prayers is the same, on the god or the believer, depends on one's point of view. /+/

copper Sri Yantra

“Shashi Menon, an electronics engineer, stumbled upon the temple's website by accident and ordered a puja on behalf of his 5-year-old son, Sridhar. Menon, 44, lives near Mumbai, in western India; Varanasi is almost clear across the subcontinent. "We knew we wouldn't be able to go there in the near future," Menon said. He acknowledges that purists might take issue with Web-surfing worshipers like him, but that does not decrease the "psychological satisfaction" he felt in having a puja performed for his son in absentia. Ultimately, he said, "it's all about faith." "If you were to look at it in a more religious context or orthodox, conservative manner, then it's obviously not the right way to do a puja. You need to be present," Menon said. "But in modern times, you've got to use modern means." /+/

Hindu Symbols

A bowl or pot of water is a symbol of fertility and the Water of Life. A conch shell represents “om,” the first sound heard during creation. A disc represents power and the rotation of the world. It has spokes and is often elaborately decorated. It also sometimes represents reincarnation.

Weapons and tools commonly depicted in images of gods and goddesses include: 1) the mace or club; 2) an elephant goad, a stick with a hook; 3) a fly whisk, a shaft with tufts of hair; 4) rosary beads; 5) a trident, an indestructible weapon often associated with Shiva. The latter is said to have the power to destroy everything that is evil.

Banyan trees and sala trees are symbols of knowledge. Teachers are often shown sitting beneath a tree, notably a banyan tree or sala tree, surrounded by followers.

Rudraksha beads are sacred beads associated with Shiva. They are a symbol of his teaching. Rudraksha was an early name for Shiva.

The lotus is featured in Asian art and is a major symbol in Buddhism and Hinduism. It symbolizes self-development, enlightenment and purity because it it rooted in the mud, grows from through dirty water and without getting dirty and emerges as a thing of beauty. Asian lotus flowers contain a natural thermostat that kept its temperature constant.

Tikas, Hair and Body Marks

Many Hindus have a small tuft of hair on the back of their head that is never supposed to be cut. It symbolizes that the wearer is a Hindu.

The tikka, or tilak is the universal sign of Hinduism. It is a mark placed at the center of the forehead by a priest and is regarded as a sign of devotion and blessing of the gods. It can be a small plastic dot, a smear of ash, vermillion powder or sandalwood paste or a large mark made with yogurt, rice and cinders. It a sign of good luck and is often associated with the all-seeing third eye found in the middle of the forehead of some gods.

Receiving a tikka is part of many rituals. Sometimes a smudge of sandlewood is applied first for purification, followed by a dab of vermillion. Grains of rice are sometimes stuck on a tikkato ward off demons.

Three stripes and a Y- or U-shaped symbol made with sandalwood paste turmeric or holy ash mark sects and castes and worshipers of Shiva and Vishnu.

To Hindus "each color is symbolic of a force of life." Red is a sacred color, sometimes associated with important people. Black is associated with evil. White is linked with purity. Saffron is the sacred color of Hinduism. The colors of the Hindu trinity are red for Brahma, white for Shiva and black for Vishnu.


The swastika is one of the holiest symbols in Hinduism. It represents the seat of God, the sun and is regarded as good luck. Arms bent in a clockwise direction have traditionally meant health and life and the movement of the sun. The Nazis used a swastika with arms bent in a counter-clockwise direction. The word swastika comes from two Sanskrit words su , meaning “good,” and asti , meaning “to exist,” and together they mean “let good prevail.”

The swastika is one of the oldest known symbols, even older than the ancient Egyptian Ankh. It has been found pottery and coins from ancient Troy show that date to 1000 B.C. and found on coins from ancient China and very old blankets made by American Indians. Some say it has been associated with Hinduism for 5,000 years. According to legend Buddha left behind swastikas instead of foot prints. A 10,000-year-old swastika was found painted on the wall of a cave.

A majolica seal bearing a swastika was found at an Indus civilization state, dated to 2000 to 2500 B.C. Erica Wagner wrote in the Washington Post: “After the om, the swastika is still the second most important symbol in Hindu mythology -- and Hindus understandably protested the proposed ban. The word itself is derived from two Sanskrit words, su (good) and asati (to exist); together they are taken to mean "may good prevail." In Hindu thought, the 20-sided polygon can represent the eternal nature of the Brahman, or supreme spirit of the universe, because it points in all directions. Rudyard Kipling, who was strongly influenced by Indian culture, had a swastika on the dust jackets of all his books until the rise of Nazism made this inappropriate; Robert Baden-Powell, founder of the Boy Scouts, used the symbol, too, until the 1930s. It is found in Native American cultures, particularly among the Navajo and the Hopi. A swastika is laid in the floor of Amiens Cathedral in France. [Source: Erica Wagner, Washington Post, March 13, 2005]

Modern Hindus and Buddhist use swastikas to decorate temples, doorways and jewelry as a way to attract good fortune. Many Hindus wear them as a symbol of their faith like Christians wearing crosses. In 2005, there was a campaign among Hindus to “redeem” the swastika. The efforts was made after officials in Europe suggested the symbol be banned---after Britain’s Prince Harry wore a Nazi uniform to a party---because of the association of the symbol with death and hate and anti-Semitism.

Nazis and Swastika

The arms of the traditional Hindu and Buddhist swastika go in the opposite direction of the Nazi swastika. The original swastika adopted by the Nazi party in 1920 had arms that went in the same direction. It is believed that Allied wartime propaganda was responsible for the false belief that Hitler later reversed the swastika to the left-armed version because of its association with death.

Erica Wagner wrote in the Washington Post: “Hitler adopted it because of its links to Indian Aryan culture; the Nazis considered the early Aryans of India to be a prototypical "master race." The Nazi party formally adopted the swastika -- what they called the Hakenkreuz, or hooked cross -- in 1920. In "Mein Kampf," Adolf Hitler, who well understood the power of the visual over the power of the mere word, reflected in his writing the care put into its redesign: "I myself, meanwhile, after innumerable attempts, had laid down a final form; a flag with a red background, a white disk, and a black swastika in the middle. After long trials I also found a definite proportion between the size of the flag and the size of the white disk, as well as the shape and thickness of the swastika." [Source: Erica Wagner, Washington Post, March 13, 2005]

4000-year-old Indus Valley swastika seals

The atrocities of the Nazi regime and its program of directed genocide have rendered that symbol almost entirely out of bounds. In Germany and Austria, use of the swastika has been banned outside academic and educational contexts since 1949; recently, copies of Philip Roth's new novel, "The Plot Against America," which imagines an alternative America sympathetic to the Nazis during World War II -- were kept out of Germany because the cover features an American postage stamp adorned with a swastika. The publishers produced a separate edition for Germany and Austria (the "Hapsburg edition," it was dubbed), which replaced the swastika with a black X.

It was a royal gaffe -- when Prince Harry went to a fancy dress party clothed as a Nazi officer just days before the 60th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz -- that prompted the call for the swastika to be banned throughout the European Union. "E.U. action is urgent," Franco Fratini, the European commissioner for justice, said, "and has to forbid very clearly the Nazi symbols in the European Union."

Indian ‘Holy Hair’

In India, women cut off their cut and offer it as a sacrifice at temples. AFP reported: “Hair is offered as a sacrifice to the hundreds of thousands of gods in the Hindu pantheon for reasons as diverse as wanting to ward off ill-health and misfortune or to bring luck and fortune. The practice is common in southern India, especially at temples in Tamil Nadu state where people from all over the country come to be shaved. [Source: Agence France-Presse, June 28, 2011 \:/]

“On a religious festival day, up to 1,000 people, including 50 to 60 women, undergo the ritual at the Tiruttani temple north of Chennai. Indian women like Anandi Perumalswamy are the mainstay of the” custom. “Our favourite god is Lord Muruga. We had lots of problems, like debt, many types of problems,” said Perumalswamy, a 45-year-old mother-of-two. “I had prayed for my son to get married. I had promised that if he gets married, then I would offer my hair.” The marriage took place a few months ago and so she came to Tiruttani to uphold her part of the bargain. \:/

sadhu with long hair, 1920

“But those in the hair trade that feeds off the ritual fear for the future, as modern India changes on the back of its recent economic boom, opening up the vast country to more secular, consumerist pursuits and outside influences. “There has been a change or trend in the reduction of the younger generation going to the temple and tonsuring their hair,” said George Cherian, chief executive of Raj Hair International in the state capital Chennai. “They might cut their hair length half-way through but not necessarily fully shave their hair,” he told AFP TV. \:/

Holy Hair Supplies Western Demand for Hair Extensions

Hair that is cut from women at temples often finds it way into hair extensions sold in Western countries. AFP reported: “Strong religious belief and spirituality coupled with sky-rocketing demand from fashion-conscious Western women has made India the world-leader in the hair extension trade. The South Asian country has long been the world’s biggest exporter of human hair and companies involved in the sector estimate that the business is now worth up to 8.5 billion rupees (nearly $200 million) a year. [Source: Agence France-Presse, June 28, 2011 \:/]

“Tonnes of tresses are cut every day and mostly sold at auction to wholesalers, which then prepare and export them for use across the world. The practice has even become a lucrative side-line for temples, who use the money raised for charitable activities. Some suppliers have also gone into business themselves, cutting out the need for wholesalers.

“The vogue for hair extensions among Hollywood actresses like Gwyneth Paltrow, and other celebrities has pushed up demand for the beauty product. Cheaper synthetic hair was popular in the 1990s and caused a slump in business for Indian firms but human hair is now favoured, adding to its market value. Currently one kilogram of Indian hair fetches on average $250: 15 years ago the cost was $20 per kilo, said Cherian. \:/

“The most expensive type is “remy” hair, which is shaved directly from the scalp. It makes up 25 percent of the market; “non-remy” hair, which accounts for the rest, comes from comb waste. “Indian hair is the most sought after for the only reason that it belongs to the same Caucasian race to start with,” said Cherian. “And the natural colour black matches the hair colour of the Africans as well as, when bleached… the colour of the Europeans or the Americans.” \:/

“The end product is supplied to women like Fereena West, who goes to the ColourNation salon in central London, where a full head of natural Indian hair can cost more than $3,000 and take up to four hours to put in. “The hair extensions that I get, they’re quality. They’re 100 percent human hair and they are quite expensive but you have to pay for what you get,” said the 25-year-old part-time model. \:/

“At the exclusive michaeljohn salon, also in London, one client who gave her name only as Natasha said getting extensions was money well spent. “It’s about 600 pounds ($970), which includes the hair and the cost of the stylist, so for me, three times a year, it’s worth it,” she said. “Hair extensions have become very popular because celebrities like (the singer and television presenter) Cheryl Cole have them and it’s become more known. “But I actually think it applies to an awful lot of people and not just celebrities. I think a lot of people have them because it’s stylish and because it helps the hair look good.” \:/

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons except pouring milk on trident, Smithsonian

Text Sources: World Religions edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); Encyclopedia of the World’s Religions edited by R.C. Zaehner (Barnes & Noble Books, 1959); Encyclopedia of the World Cultures: Volume 3 South Asia edited by David Levinson (G.K. Hall & Company, New York, 1994); The Creators by Daniel Boorstin; A Guide to Angkor: an Introduction to the Temples by Dawn Rooney (Asia Book) for Information on temples and architecture. National Geographic, the New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, Times of London, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated September 2018

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