Devotional Rituals

Hinduism has hundreds of brief and elaborate rituals. Formerly, the mandir used to be the nucleus of almost every village and town in India. Mostly all activities were centered in and around the mandir. So, the rituals of darshan, arati, seta and celebrating festivals became an intrinsic part of a Hindu’s life. From the simple pranam and the chanting of God’s names to the elaborate yajna rituals, all are focused on worship and pleasing the Divine. The general articles of worship are leaves, flowers, fruits, kumkum, milk& yogurt, spoon (sruva), plate (patra). Rituals form an integral part, which is practiced from generation to generation.

Such rituals, performed with a spiritual mindset and feeling, become acts of bhakti or devotion to God, which gradually purify, strengthen and soothe the senses and the mind of the devotee. They also dissolve and lighten the devotee’s burden of frustrations and resolve his or her moral lapses. They further serve in dissolving dehabhava and in leading the individual towards moksha.The various rituals include pranama, puja, mahapuja, darshan, arati, naivedyam, namajapa, dandavat, pradakshina, yajna and others.


A Hindu expresses reverence to the image of God by joining the palms and bowing the head. This ritual is called pranam. Pranam is also a gesture used for greeting guests, showing respect to seniors and conveying farewell to friends, relatives and others. Pranam, when offered to God, shows one’s obeisance to him. A devotee also bows to God with humility and submission – pranipata. The palms held together by the heart and the bowed head convey deep reverence from the heart and total surrender of the mind. Furthermore, by offering pranam to God, who is the creator, sustainer, destroyer and possessor of infinite powers, one acknowledges his supreme greatness, glory, refuge and protectorship.

So briefly, by offering pranam to God, guru, parents and elders, one offers respect and seeks their blessings for happiness and protection in this world and beyond. The other related gestures of reverence to the Divine are panchanga pranama and shastanga dandavatpranama. Prostrating and touching the five or eight specified parts of the body to the floor is called panchangapranama (mainly offered by female devotees in mandirs and personal puja; also offered by children to their parents and elders) and shastanga dandavat pranama(mainly offered by male devotees) respectively. Many times while offering pranam the devotee says a personal prayer to God or chants his name. Offering pranama soothes and rejuvenates the body and mind. The feeling of respect and humility in the devotee lingers and grows with daily practice. The practice of pranama is also prevalent all over Southeast Asia.

Daily Personal Puja

The puja of a deity performed on a personal level is done in two ways. Some devotees worship a small murti of their chosen deity (ishtadevata), made either of panchadhatu or stone, and others worship printed images. In the former case, devout Vaishnavas engage themselves in the daily morning ritual of awakening the deity (called Balamukunda, Lalji or Thakorji), bathing the murti in water, dressing and adorning him with ornaments and a flower garland. Thereafter, they worship the deity with kumkum, sandalwood paste, incense, deepa, etc. Then they apply a sacred mark on their own forehead, arms and chest. This is followed by meditating, turning mala, (rosary), offering prostrations and prayers and singing bhajan before the deity. The personal ritual worship may last from half an hour to one hour or even more. In the second practice of worshipping hand-painted or printed images of the deity and guru parampara, the devotee invokes the deity, meditates, applies a sacred mark on his own forehead, arms and chest rotates the mala while chanting a mantra, performs pradakshina and dandavat, offers prayers and finally briefly reads a portion of a shastra or holy text. The daily puja ritual may have differences according to the various sampradayas. Many devotees drink water, have breakfast and engage in their worldly duties only after performing personal puja. This daily ritual cleanses the mind and imbues the individual with divinity, peace and faith in God.


This is a ritual wherein all the main deities, sages and devotees are worshipped. Mahapuja is performed in many Swaminarayana mandirs for the spiritual progress, peace, fulfilment of desire and solutions to the problems of devotees. As an act of devotion it means service to the deity and a way to please him and win his favour for both bhukti (worldly success) and mukti (liberation). It is also performed to sanctify a home or office prior to living or working there. The ritual is conducted by a sadhu or Brahmin priest. It begins with the chanting of Vedic peace prayers (called shanti patha), and thereafter the deities are invoked in oval- shaped betel nuts. Then the nyssavidhi is performed in which the participant invokes the Divine in each part of his or her body by chanting appropriate Vedic mantras. This makes one pure and eligible to worship the deities, which one performs thereafter. Firstly, one bathes the deities with panchamruta and sacred water while chanting mantras. Then one adorns them with clothes, applies sandalwood paste, offers food and arati and performs circumambulations and prostrations. Finally, prayers are offered to the deities for forgiveness for any lapses during the ritual ceremony and for the fulfillment of wishes and solutions to problems.


Darshan literally means beholding the deity, guru or the place of pilgrimage with devotion and respect. It is a central and important religious activity of all practising Hindus. When they go to a mandir they say, “I am going for darshan,” but they do not say, “I am going for worship.” Since the Hindus believethat the deity is present in the sacred murti the act of darshan is charged with religious meaning. To “see” and to be “seen” by the deity, holy person or sacred place (tirtha) is the essence of darshan. The devotees gain the blessings of the Divine. While doing darshan of the deity in a mandir, devotees offer pranam by joining their palms together and bowing their head in respect. Then a detailed darshan of the deity involves “seeing” the murti from head to toe along with the adornments and attire. The ritual of darshan calms the mind and fills the person with divinity and joy.

Devotees generally go for darshan to mandirs during arati (morning and evening), festive days, ekadashi, punam (full-moon day), birthday or any socially important day of their life.


Arati is the most popular ceremony in Hinduism. It is a ritual that expresses devotion and respect to a deity. Arati is performed by circling deepas before the murti of God or guru while chanting a prayer. It is one of the sixteen steps (shodashaupachara) of the puja ritual. It is often called “the ceremony of lights” during which the devotee seeks protection, benediction and moksha by singing God’s glory. In some mandirs the pujari performs arati with camphor, a three or a five-wick lamp, Incense, a flower, water and other items. The ceremony is mostly performed standing and by ringing a small hand bell. It is accompanied by playing a drum and a pair of gongs, and blowing a conch shell.

The ritual originated many centuries ago when the murti of a deity was illuminated for the darshan of devotees. The pujari in the dark sanctum sanctorum of mandir circulated the deepa from head to foot while chanting mantras or singing a prayer. Gradually the practice developed into arati. When the arati is over it is circulated among devotees who cup their down- turned hands over the flame and raise their palms to touch them to their eyes and head. This helps the devotees to absorb and be blessed with the sacred light of the deepas. Arati is performed not only in mandirs and home shrines but also after a religious ceremony or prior to or after a spiritual discourse. In shikhara baddha Vaishnavamandirs (big pinnacled temples) there is a tradition of performing aratis five times/ every day, whereas in harimandirs (small temples) or home mandirs it is done twice daily, in the morning and evening.

Dandavat Pranama

Dandavatpranama is a gesture of reverence to the deity or spiritual guru in which a devotee prostrates on the ground. Dandavat means “like a stick lying on the ground.” Shastangadandavat means prostration, in which eight parts of the body touch the floor:

Oora sashirasadhrustyamanasavacha satathapadabhyam

Karabhyam janubhyam pranamo-sbtangammuchyate.

Ahanik Sutravali

The eight parts are chest, head, eyes, mind, speech (mouth), feet, hands and thighs. The reason why eight parts should touch the floor is that a person performs all activities with body, mind and speech, therefore all the three should be offered or surrendered to God. Only males perform shashtanga dandavatpranama.

Panchangapranama is a gesture of offering respect in which five parts of the body touch the ground, namely, head, hands, feet, mind and speech. Males offer ashtanga or panchangapranama to the murti of God, parents, seniors and sadhus. Females offer only panchangapranama to God and parents. The ritual of pranama is a gesture of reverence and humility. Its daily practice dissolves one’s ego.


The practice of circumambulating around the deity, mandir, sacred mountain, lake or river is called pradakshina. It is performed to show respect to the deity and to absorb the divine vibrations of the deity or holy place. The devotee performs pradakshina after having darshan of the deity or sacred site. While so doing he or she chants God’s holy name and remembers him. The devotee also performs pradakshina while doing daily puja at home. The ritual of pradakshina helps consolidate and realize God to be the centre of one’s activities.


Naivedyam is a bhakti ritual in which a devotee offers food to the murti of God. It is done to express appreciation to God as the provider and sustainer and to sanctify the food. While visiting mandirs, devotees partake of the prasada – food offered to the deities – and feel blessed. In addition, in their home shrines, devotees offer their breakfast, meals or whatever they eat or drink to the deities first. When the breakfast or meal is placed in the home mandir the thalas (songs supplicating the Lord to accept the offering) are sung by members of the family. The annual annakuta offering of thousands of vegetarian food items to the deities in mandirs on the Hindu New Year’sDay is an overwhelming experience of dedication and bhakti. There have been many occasions when the deities have eaten the offered food items.


Repeating God’s name (mantra japa) aloud or in one’s mind is both a sadhana and a religious ritual. It is called namajapa. There is an innate tendency for the mind to dwell upon worldly objects. As a result, the meditation or concentration on anything divine becomes extremely difficult. The moment one closes one’s eyes to meditate upon God, the mind becomes filled with worldly thoughts. To provide an inward focus, our ancient rishis had created certain mantras or holy syllables whose vibrations have the power to create an ambience that enables one to concentrate and meditate. The mantras or holy names of God are chanted repetitively (japa) to purify one’s mind and surroundings.

It is believed that mantras and their sounds contain an image of the deity they represent. When chanted, they produce images of the respective deities. So a Rama mantra will produce an image of Rama within the consciousness of one who chants it. But initially, the image will form only for the time that the person chants the mantra. Later on, as the impressions of the mantra become implanted within one’s consciousness, the image of the deity remains for longer periods and then one reaches a point where the deity actually becomes present forever (sakshatkar). Japa should be done after completing one’s ablutions and in a clean, quiet place. It is mainly done with the aid of a mala. The devotee turns the mala with his or her thumb chanting God’s name loudly or silently in the mind. One must try to keep one’s body as still as possible during the ritual. Namajapa is the easiest and surest way to purify and elevate the mind, and relieve oneself from worries and tensions. It creates divine vibrations within and without and is believed to increase one’s concentration. It is done while performing one’s morning puja, in mandirs, in holy pilgrim places or anywhere and at any time. The ritual should be performed with the remembrance of the deity in one’s mind. Namajapa is the most important means in the Gaudiya Vaishnavism of Mahaprabhu Chaitanya and the Varkari Sampradaya of Maharashtra, whose devotees spend hours singing aloud bhajans and the name of Virthala or Vithoba, In the Vibhuti Yoga chapter of the Bhagavad Gita (10.25), Bhagwan Krishna states, “Yajnanam japayajno’smi”. It means, “Among the yajnas (fire sacrifices), I am the chanting of the holy names.”


The word yajna is derived from the Sanskrit root word ‘yaj’, which means to ‘give’. Yajna is generally translated as sacrifice or offerings in which one offers the best objects to God. There are two scriptural sources of yajna rituals – Vedas and Agamas. The early Vedic era placed great importance on yajna (fire ritual) as a means to appease the devas and earn their favour. The Agamic rituals are mainly related to fire rituals performed to please deities in murti form in mandirs and elsewhere. Basically, according to the Vedas and Agamas, yajnas are performed to gain worldly prosperity, fame, good health, progeny and liberation.

In the Bhagavad Gita, Bhagwan Krishna describes the system of ‘giving’ as the yajna chakra (cycle):

“Annad bhavantibhutani parjanyadannasambhavaha,

Yagnad bhavatiparjanyo yagnaha karma samudbhavaha.”

“Through food life forms come into existence, through rain food is formed; through yajna there is rain and the yajna is produced through karma (effort).”

The life cycle mentioned by Shri Krishna in the Bhagavad Gita is called the yajna bhavna. In it each element produces or nourishes the other. This concept of sacrifice is also found in nature’s food cycle and the oxygen and water cycles in our ecosystem.

The yajnas prescribed by the Vedas include the offering of grains and ghee in the sacrificial fire or altar (vedi). The fire is the medium that conveys the sentiments and prayers of the aspirants to the devas in swarga. However with time the Brahmin priests started sacrificing animals to appease the devas.

They interpreted the popular Vedic verse, ajenayajeta, in which aja means both barley and goat, by sacrificing goats and other animals and then cooked them to eat it as prasada. The Mahabharata ratifies the tradition of non-violent yajnas, “Yajnas should be performed with seeds – this is the Vedic tradition. Aja is barley seed. Therefore it is not proper to slaughter goats. Wherever there is animal slaughter in yajnas, it is not the way of righteous men.” The Mahabharata instructs, “Na binsyat sarvabhutani… !! – “Do not kill any living creature.”

Five Types of Yajnas

The five principal kinds of yajnas to be performed by householders in accordance to the shastras are: 1. Deva-yajna, 2. Rishi or Brahma-yajna, 3. Pitru-yajna, 4.Manushya-yajna and 5.Bhuta-yajna. The runa (obligation) mentioned is similar to that of the five types of yajnas explained below.

1.  Deva-yajna

The devas sustain and nourish all life on earth. They are Varuna (water-god), Agni (fire-god), Surya (sun-god), Chandra (moon-god), Prithvi (goddess earth) and others. Man performs deva-yajna through chanting of appropriate mantras and offerings of ghee and grains in the yajna fire to appease the devas and to appreciate them for their contributions to the welfare of mankind and all living things.

2.  Rishi or Brahma-yajna

The objective of performing this yajna is to repay one’s debt to the rishi or guru who imparts knowledge during one’s stay as a student in the gurukula. It is also performed to attain moksha. The Brahma-yajna involves the disengagement of the ten senses and mind from material pleasures to focus on God. It is done by meditating on God, listening to spiritual discourses, having darshan of God, reading the shastras, partaking of food that has been offered to God, and by contemplating on and praying to God.

3.  Pitru-yajna

Pitrus mean one’s forefathers or ancestors. They are believed to live in a higher realm as one’s guardians or custodians. Pitru- yajnas are performed to appease them and to fulfill the debt one owes to them for one’s birth and existence. Householders daily pray for the happiness and moksha of their ancestors. During the shraddha period in Bhadrapada (October) they offer special rituals, prayers and a meal of khir (cooked rice in sweet, thick milk), puri and other food items to Brahmins, cows, crows, pigeons, etc. They believe that their forefathers come and accept their offerings through them. Subsequently, the ancestors shower their pleasure and blessings upon them for progress and happiness.

4.  Manushya-yajna

This is a sacrifice performed to fulfil one’s debt to humanity. It includes all acts of charity and donation for serving and loving others in order to rid of one’s ego, greed, cruelty, violence, anger and other base instincts. Manushya-yajna also includes serving the poor, sick and needy. It should be done selflessly, and without harbouring any desire for fame, name or returns. The only sentiment one should have is to please God through serving humanity or Daridra narayana (Narayana in the form of poor and helpless people).

5.  Bhuta-yajna

This sacrifice expresses thanks to the contributions of all life forms (bhutas) to humanity. Every living organism contributes to the development and nourishment of life on earth. The intricate web of life is connected with and interdependent on all its members. Man’s existence is dependent on other life forms, so he should not destroy or upset the fragile and dynamic balance in our ecosystem. Instead, he should conserve and help nourish all life forms. Since Vedic times the rishis of India have been chanting prayers (shanti patha) for peace and harmony in all life forms. A vegetarian diet is important as a mark of respect and preservation of animals. Hindus also generally serve a portion of their meals daily to nourish animals.


The heart of the yajna rituals lies in selfless sacrifice and offering of gifts and food to God, devas, rishis, forefathers, teachers, birds, animals and all those who are in need. What is important during the sacrifice are the sentiments of detachment and selflessness expressed through the mantra idamna mama (this is not mine). Hinduism has a living yajna tradition that seeks to preserve, serve and foster all life forms.

When a devotee performs the rituals of pranama, puja, mahapuja, darshan, drati, dandavatpranama, pradakshina, naivedyam, namajapa and yajna with the sole aim of pleasing God, then these acts are transformed into bhakti. And these seemingly small acts of devotion to God liberate the devotee from his or her mundane attachments and tendencies. The devotional rituals are in fact a spiritual practice which uproot an aspirant’s desires for mundane things and join him or her to the divine form of God.


1.   In ancient times the mandir was generally the centre of the village and town. The devotional rituals associated with the mandir played an important role in integrating spiritual faith in the lives of people.

2.   The various rituals that engage people in worship and devotion are pranam, puja, mahapuja, darshan, drati, dandavatpranama, pradakshina, naivedyam, namajapa and yajna. The five types of yajna are:

A.)        Deva-yajna: Performing yajnas by offering grains in a sacred fire to appreciate and please the devas.

B.)        Rishi or Brahma-yajna: Focusing the ten senses and mind on God through meditation and reading of shastras, darshan, listening to spiritual discourses, ere.

C.)        Pitru-yajna: Pleasing one’s ancestors through yajna, tarpana, and shraddha ceremonies.

D.)        Manushya-yajna: Serving mankind selflessly.

E.)         Bhuta-yajna: Caring for and nourishing all life forms.