Temple worship and rituals (1 of 5)

06 Sep



This is the first of the five articles on certain aspects of temple worship and its related rituals


The Hindu temples are complex institutions. They represent the culmination of social and religious aspirations of a society. Temple is the focal point in the life of a community and often represents its pride, identity and unity. It is also the index of the community’s wellbeing. It draws into its fold people from its various segments and denominations; and binds them together. In smaller communities the temple apart from being a source of spiritual or religious comfort, also serves as center for education and recreation.

A temple is also a treasure house of art and architecture, designed according to the principle of Vaastu Shastra, characterized by their majesty, serenity and beauty of intricate sculpture and designs. A temple evokes in the visitor a sense of beauty in art and in life as well. It lifts up his spirit, elevates him to a higher plane dissolving his little ego. At the same time, it awakens him to his insignificance in the grand design of the Creator.

The most significant aspect of the temple worship is its collective character. Peoples’ participation is both the purpose and the means of a temple. The community is either actually or symbolically involved in temple worship. The rituals that dominate temple worship are therefore socio- religious in character.

The worship in a temple has to satisfy the needs of individuals as also of the community. The worships that take place in the sanctum and within the temple premises are important; so are the festivals and occasional processions that involve direct participation of the entire community. They complement each other. While the worship of the deity  in the sanctum might be an individual’s  spiritual or religious need ; the festival s are the expression of a community’s joy , exuberance , devotion , pride and are also an idiom of a community’s cohesiveness .

The appointed priests carry out the worship in the temple on behalf of other devotees. It is hence parartha, a service conducted for the sake of others. Priests, generally, trained in ritual procedures, pursue the service at the temple as a profession. As someone remarked, “other people may view their work as worship, but for the priests worship is work.” They are trained in the branch of the Agama of a particular persuasion. The texts employed in this regard describe the procedural details of temple worship, elaborately and precisely.

Puja items. 2 jpg

The term Agama primarily means tradition. Agama Shastras are not part of the Vedas. The Agamas do not derive their authority directly from the Vedas. They are Vedic in spirit and character and make use of Vedic mantras while performing the service. That is the reason they are regarded as authoritative.

One often hears Agama and Nigama mentioned in one breath as if one follows the other or are closely related; whereas Nigama stands for Vedas and Agama is identified with Tantra..The two traditions- Veda and Tantra – hold divergent views on matters such as God; relationship between man and God; the ways of worship; and path to salvation etc.The Vedic concept of God is omniscient, omnipotent, a formless absolute entity manifesting itself in phenomenal world of names and forms. The Agama which is a part of Tantra regards God as a personal deity with recognizable forms and attributes.

Vedic worship is centered on the fire- (the Yajna), certain religious and domestic rituals, (shrauta sutraas and griyha sutraas), and the sacraments, (samskaara). In this tradition the gods and their descriptions are, mostly, symbolic. The hymns of the Rig Veda are inspired outpourings of joy through sublime poetry. The Yajur and Sama Vedas do contain suggestions of sacrifices; but they too carry certain esoteric symbolic meaning.  Very few of these rituals are in common practice today.\The most widespread rituals of worship today are of the Aagamic variety. The Agama methods are worship of images of God through rituals (Tantra), symbolic charts (Yantra) and verbal symbols (Mantra).Agama regards devotion and complete submission to deity as fundamental to pursuit of it aim; and wisdom, enlightenment (jnana) as that which follows eventually by the grace of the worshipped deity. The approach of Agama is basically dualistic, seeking grace, mercy and love of the Supreme God represented by the personal deity, for liberation from earthly attachments (moksha).

As compared to Vedic rituals (Yajnas) which were collective in form, where a number of priests specialized in each disciple of the sacrificial aspects participated; the Tantra or Agamic worship is individualistic in character. It views the rituals as a sort of direct communication between the worshipper and his or her personal deity. The Yajnas always take place in public places and are of congregational nature, where a large number participate with gaiety and enthusiasm. The Tantra rituals, on the other hand, are always carried out in quiet privacy; self discipline and intensity is its hallmark not exuberance or enthusiasm.

The culmination of these two dissimilar streams of worship is the temple worship. Though one concedes that representation of Godhead is theoretically impossible; yet one has to recognize that an image helps contemplation, visualization and concretization of ideas and aspirations. Here, at the temple , both the Vedic and the Tantric worships take place; but each in its sphere. A temple in Hindu tradition is a public place of worship; several sequences of worship are conducted in full view of the worshipping devotee; and yet another set of rituals are conducted by the priests in the privacy of the sanctum away from public gaze.

The temple worship is guided by its related Agama texts which invariably borrow the mantras from the Vedic traditions and ritualistic details from Tantric traditions.  This had the advantage of claiming impressive validity from Nigama, the Vedas; and at the same time carrying out popular methods of worship. For instance, Vedic mantras are chanted in traditional manner while performing services such as ceremonial bath, adoring the deity with flowers, or waving lights.

In addition, the worship routine was rendered more colorful and attractive by incorporating a number of ceremonial services (upacharas) and also presentations of music, dance, drama and other performing arts. These also ensured larger participation of the enthusiastic devotees.

In due course the Agama came to be accepted as a subsidiary culture (Vedanga) within the Vedic framework.


Agamas are a set of ancient texts and are the guardians of tradition .They broadly deal with jnana (knowledge), Yoga (meditation), Kriya (rituals) and Charya (ways of worship).The third segment Kriya (rituals) articulate with precision the principles and practices of deity worship – the mantras, mandalas, madras etc.; the mental disciplines required for the worship; the rules for constructing temples and sculpting the images. They also specify the conduct of other worship services, rites, rituals and festivals. The fourth one, Charya, deals with priestly conduct and other related aspects.

[ incidentally , the Buddhist and the Jaina traditions too follow this four-fold classification.]

They hold the view that Japa, homa, dhyana and Archa are the four methods of worshipping the divine; and of these, the Archa (worship) is the most comprehensive method. This is the faith on which the Agama shastra is based. The Agama shastra is basically concerned with the attitudes, procedure and rituals of deity worship in the temples. But it gets related to icons and temple structures rather circuitously. It says if an image has to be worshipped it has to be worship worthy. The rituals and sequences of worship are relevant only in the context of an icon worthy of worship; and such icon has to be contained in a shrine. And an icon is meaningful only in the context of a shrine that is worthy to house it. That is how the Agama literature makes its presence felt in the Silpa-Sastra. The icon and its form; the temple and its structure;   and the rituals and their details, are all thus interrelated.

I think  , the most present Hindu rituals of worship seem to have developed after the establishment of the six orthodox schools of Hindu philosophy (darshanas). The changes in religious rituals from the Vedic to the Aagaamic seem consonant with the themes prevalent in the six orthodox systems. A very significant change is the integration of Yoga methodology into the rituals. Four of these eight stages are an integral part of all ‘worship’ – namely, posture, (aasana), breath (life force)-control, (praanaayaama), placing or fixation, (nyaasa or dhaaranaa), and deep concentration & contemplation (dhyaana). . The temple architecture too follows the structure of the human body and the six chakras’ as in yoga.

Surely the Agama tradition  began to flourish after the 10th or the 11th century with the advent of the Bhakthi School.


There are three main divisions in Agama shastra, the Shaiva, the Shaktha and Vaishnava. The Shaiva branch of the Agama deals with the worship of the deity in the form of Shiva. This branch in turn has given rise to Shaiva Siddantha of the South and the Prathyabijnana School of Kashmir Shaivisim. The Shaktha Agama prescribes the rules and tantric rituals for worship of Shakthi, Devi the divine mother. The third one, Vaishanava Agama adores God as Vishnu the protector. This branch has two major divisions Vaikhanasa and Pancharatra. The latter in turn has a sub branch called Tantra Sara followed mainly by the Dvaita sect (Madhwas).

Agama is essentially a tradition and Tantra is a technique; but both share the same ideology.But, Agama is wider in its scope; and contains aspects oh theory, discussion and speculation.

The term Agama is used usually for the Shaiva and Vasishnava traditions and the Shaktha cult is termed as Tantric. But, there is an element of Tantra in Agama worship too, particularly in Pancharatra.


As regards Vaikhanasa, after the emergence of temple _culture, Vaikhanasa appear to have been the first set of professional priests and they chose to affiliate to the Vedic tradition. That may perhaps be the reason they are referred to also as Vaidikagama or Sruthagama. Yet, there is no definite explanation for the term Vaikhanasa. Some say it ascribed to Sage Vaikhanasa; while some others say it is related to vanaprastha, a community of forest-dwellers.

As regards their doctrine, Vaikhanasas claim to be a surviving school of Vedic ritual propagated by the sage Vaikhanasa. Most of Vaikhanasa is almost completely concerned with ritual, prescribing the rituals and their rules of performance of yaga, yajnas etc. To the Vaikhanasas, their temple worship is a continuation of Vedic fire sacrifice. The Vaikhanasa doctrine states that moksha is release into Vaikunta determined by the nature of a man’s devotion and faith experienced mainly through archana, service to the deity.

The Vaikhanasa is regarded orthodox for yet another reason; they consider the life of the householder as the best among the four stages of life. Because, it is the householder that supports, sustains and carries forward the life in the society. They treat the worship at home as more important than worship at the temple. A Vaikhanasa has therefore to worship the deities at his home before he leaves for his   duty as a priest at the temple. There is not much prominence for a Yati or a Sanyasi in their scheme of things.

The Agama texts make a clear distinction between the worship carried out at his home (atmartha) and the worship carried out as priest at a temple(parartha ) for which he gets paid. A person who receives remuneration for worshipping a deity is not held in high esteem. This perhaps led to a sort of social prejudices and discriminations among the priestly class. But, with the change of times, with the social and economic pressures and with a dire need to earn a living, a distinct class of temple-priests , naturally , crystallysized into a close knit in-group with its own ethos and attitudes.

From the end of the tenth century Vaikhanasa are prominently mentioned in South Indian inscriptions. Vaikhanasas were the priests of Vaishnava temples and were also the admistrators.  However with the advent of Sri Ramanuja, who was also the first organizer of temple administration at Srirangam Temple, the Vaikhanasa system of worship lost its prominence and gave place to the more liberal Pancharatra system .Sri Ramanuja permitted participation of lower castes and ascetics , the Sanyasis ( who were not placed highly in the Vaikhanasa scheme)  in temple services. He also expanded the people participation in other areas too. This change spread to other Vaishnava temples particularly in Tamil Nadu. Vaikhanasas, however, continued to be important mainly in Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and some temples in Tamil Nadu.

As regards Pancharatra, it appears to have been a later form of worship that gained prominence with the advent of Sri Ramanuja .Pancharathra claims its origin from Sriman Narayana himself.

Here Vishnu is worshipped as the Supreme Being conceived in five ways:

Para, or transcendent form;

Vyuha or the categorized form as Vasudeva, Sankarshana, Pradyumna, and Aniruddha, who are brought together in worship and adoration as a complete body of divine power;

Vibhava, or the several incarnation of God;

Archa, or the form of God worshipped in an image or an idol symbolizing the Universal entity;

And, Antaryamin, or the indwelling immanent form of God as present throughout in creation.

The peak of Vaishnava devotion is recorded in Dashamaskanda, the Tenth Book of the Bhagavata Purana, and in Nalayira Prabhandam the four thousand Tamil verses of the Vaishnava saints the Alvars, and especially in the thousand songs known as Tiruvaimozhi of Nammalvar. The ecstasy of the Gopi-type of God – intoxicated-love is exhilarating and gives raise to divine intoxication in Nammalvar’s poetic compositions.

Therefore the Tamils verses and songs are prominent in Pancharatra worship. This method also employs more Tantras, Mandalas and Uthsavas which makes room for a large number of devotees of all segments of the society to participate. There are here more Jaanapada (popular) methods of worship than mere Vedic performance of Yajnas. Even here, each prominent temple follows its favorite text. That is the reason there are some minor differences even among the Pancharatra temples.

Among the differences between Vaikhanasa and Pancharatra, the latter say they gain eligibility to worship (Diksha) after the ceremonial Chkrankana, which is imprinting the symbols of Vishnu imprinted on their body. Vaikhanasa see no need for such a ritual. The pregnant mother is given a cup of Payasam with the Vishnu seal in the cup. They recognize as worthy only such Garbha_Vaishnavas.

Vaikhanasa follow the lunar calendar while the Pancharatra follow the solar calendar.

Vaikhanasa consider Vishnu-Vaikhanasa-Brighu as the guru_parampara; while Pancharatra consider Vishnu_Vishvaksena_Satagopa_Nathamuni_Yamuna_Ramanuja as the guru -parampara.

Vaikhanasa think it is enough if the daily worship is performed once in a day or if needed it could be stretched to six times in a day (shat kala puja). Pancharatra do not place any limit. If needed the service could be even 12 times a day, they say.

The other differences are that Vaikhanasa worship is considered more Vedic, the mantras being Sanskrit based and there is a greater emphasis on details of worship rituals and yajnas. Even here, the householders and celibates get priority in worshipping the deity. They consider Griha_archana the worship at home as more important than the congregational worship. The Sanyasis or ascetics have no place in this system.

Whereas in Pancharatra, more Tamil hymns are recited and there is greater scope for festivals and processions where all sections of the society including ascetics can participate


What is more important than the rituals is the symbolism that acts as the guiding spirit for conduct of rituals. At a certain level, symbolism takes precedence over procedures.

I think ultimately there is not much difference between Pancharatra and Vaikhanasa traditions. Both are equally well accepted. The differences, whatever they might be, are not significant to a devotee who visits the temple just to worship the deity and to submit himself to the divine grace.

More of that in the next segment.



Read Next:

Symbolism in temple worship


Posted by on September 6, 2012 in Indian Philosophy, Temple worship


Tags: , ,

4 responses to “Temple worship and rituals (1 of 5)

  1. sreenivasaraos

    March 21, 2015 at 8:24 am

    dear rajan,

    as far as i know the e agamas do not directly derive their authority from the vedas, but are not antagonistic to them. they are vedic in spirit and character. that is the reason they are regarded as authoritative.

    vaikhanasa aagama is ascribed to sage vikanasa. other sages like atri, marichi, brugu have contributed to this aagama . as regards panchratra aagama , the followers of that aagama believe shreeaman narayanan himself authored pancharaatra aagama.

    vedic worship is centred on the fire- (the yajna), certain religious and domestic rituals, (shrauta sutraas and griyha sutraas), and the sacraments, (samskaara). very few of these rituals are in common practice today. the most widespread rituals of worship today are of the aagaamic variety.

    i am not sure about the historical development of the aagamas. however i think most present hindu rituals of worship seem to have developed after the establishment of the six orthodox schools of hindu philosophy (darshanas). the changes in religious rituals from the vedic to the aagaamic seem consonant with the themes prevalent in the six orthodox systems. a very significant change is the integration of yoga methodology into the rituals.four of these eight stages are an integral part of all ‘worship’ – namely, posture, (aasana), breath (life force)-control, (praanaayaama), placing or fixation, (nyaasa or dhaaranaa), and deep concentration & contemplation (dhyaana).

    the temple architecture also follows the structure of the humanbody and the six chakras’ as in yoga.

    the vaishnava and other schools took root by 12th century and onwards . each school developed its method of worship and the lore to suit that.

    i am sorry i have not been of much help.


  2. sreenivasaraos

    March 21, 2015 at 8:25 am

    Dear Srinivasa Rao garu

    I’ve read your series of articles on Agama and Architechture of temples. They are very good and highly informative. Thanks for posting!! This is really an excellent work, Keep going!

    Ramakrishna Deekshitulu Archakam
    Hereditary Temple Priest
    Srivari Temple
    Tirumala Hills

    • sreenivasaraos

      March 21, 2015 at 8:25 am

      Dear Shri Ramakrishna Deekshitulu, the appreciation coming from the Archakam at the very sanctum of the Lord of Tirumala Hills is truly precious. I value it much. I am delighted you read the articles and found them good.

      Please also read the series on Devalaya Vastu, the temple architecture commencing from Temple Architecture-Devalaya Vastu –Part One ( 1 of 7)

      Welcome to Sulekha.I trust you will have enjoy a fruitful time here.

      Please keep talking. Regards

      • sreenivasaraos

        March 21, 2015 at 8:27 am

        Dear Rao garu

        Thanks for your kind words!
        I will go through that series also, and will post my comments.
        Yesterday I have offered the Night Kainkaryams at the lotus feet of Srivaru, and for the last one week busy with temple kainkaryams, so not able to respond for your comment!

        Ramakrishna Deekshitulu Archakam


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: