Devotional ceremonies are designed to bring our attention to the presence of God within and around us and to infuse us with that spirit. When properly understood and performed, such worship leaves deep, positive impressions within the mind. A well- designed ritual takes the practitioner’s body and mind through a series of steps that are simultaneously aesthetically pleasing and spiritually purifying.
In bhakti practice, such worship is called puja. Puja commonly consists of offering physical objects in a specific order and with specific prayers to the object of worship. Puja is not ritual in the way many people imagine rituals—that is, routine worship without much internal participation. All worship has the power to be deeply moving spiritual experiences, but routine ritualism, or ritual performed without the heart dimension, could become sectarian observances that can alienate thoughtful people. Truly devotional rituals are not based on superstition or ungrounded sentiment. Puja is a way of connecting with the transcendental realm; it’s a tool we can use to focus the mind in our sincere intent to love and serve the Divine. As a tool, it provides us with the language to help direct our thoughts, and it engages the body in a meditation by having us perform a series of actions. In its most enlightened form, puja translates the idea of devotion into an action of devotion. The spiritual energy we generate during puja can stretch beyond the limits of time and space and transmit blessings and grace into the world. Puja is a form of meditation—a way of absorbing body, mind, and words in devotion and aligning ourselves with the Supreme. It shapes the mind to reflect the soul’s true nature. Those who perform puja find themselves cultivating gratitude and love and a strong desire to transform their lives into fully spiritual expressions. You can think of a devotional ritual as an envelope you use to send a message to the supreme object of your love. An envelope is only as valuable as its contents. So what message would you like to send in your ritual-envelope? Would you use your puja to placate the Supreme Being? Get something you want? Make an unselfish offering of love? The answer to this question is critical, as it determines whether your ritual-envelope is material or spiritual, empty or valuable. Jesus warned against empty rituals done “according to the letter of the law but without understanding the spirit and power behind it.” All day long, our senses and mind are bombarded by images that reflect the materialism that surrounds us. On top of that come the worries and pressures of modern life. For bhakti yogis, the experience of attending or performing a puja infused with beauty and devotion—whether it’s a temple ceremony, a ritual sanctifying an event like a marriage, or a simple meditative ceremony in the home—can be a refreshing way to leave our troubles behind and reconnect with our spiritual essence.
Some people are confused and even alarmed by the practice of deity worship common to Hinduism, Jainism, Buddhism, and other Eastern spiritual traditions because they mistake it for idolatry. Many Eastern traditions, however, consider deity worship a highly respected part of yogic science. All of India’s spiritual traditions agree on this point: the Supreme Being is unlimited and independent, so he can appear according to his sweet will in any way he chooses, including in the form of a deity that may be made of stone, metal, earth, wood, or in the form of a painting.
Like most other scriptures of the world, bhakti texts do not advocate idolatry—the worship of arbitrary forms invented by the imagination or approached without pure spiritual intentions. Scripturally prescribed worship of authorized deities, on the other hand, is highly respected. If the deity is made according to authorized guidelines and God’s presence is invoked by an enlightened guru, the Supreme Being will appear in that form to accept the worshiper’s prayers and offerings and facilitate his or her meditation. The Supreme reciprocates with the purity of the worshiper’s intent. You can think of the deity as a governmentapproved mailbox. Not just any box will do. Letters need to be dropped in a mailbox provided by the postal service in order to reach their destination.
“I am the source of all spiritual and material worlds,” Krishna declares in the Bhagavad Gita (10.8). Everything emanates from the Supreme, and if he chooses, he can appear through his energy as a deity to help us remember him. As electricity flows into a light bulb to radiate light, so the Supreme can manifest his presence in a deity. Electricity is invisible, but we see it when it energizes a light bulb. In a similar way, the Lord may appear in the tangible form of a deity to help us see and feel his presence. In several religions, devotees focus their prayers, rituals, and devotion on particular objects: Catholics use crucifixes or statues of Mary and baby Jesus to help them commune with God. The Eastern Orthodox Church uses icons. In the cathedral of San Damiano in Assisi, St. Francis, at a crossroads in his life, prayed to Jesus for direction. The painted wooden form of Jesus on the crucifix hanging above the altar spoke to him: “Francis, my church is in ruins. Repair it.” This was a moment of complete transformation for St. Francis, and it’s what prompted him to abandon his life as the son of a wealthy merchant and commit himself to reviving the devotional spirit of the Church. This powerful historical event is just one example of how God, in an apparently material manifestation, reciprocated with a sincere devotee. When we display photos of beloved family members, those images are more than paper to us, and looking at them invokes affection. Having a deity is not so different. These inner mysteries in the bhakti tradition become clearer as devotion deepens