Temple worship and rituals (2 of 5) – Symbolism of Rituals in Temple Worship

06 Sep

Symbolism of the temple

– Symbolism of Rituals in Temple Worship

The Agama texts mention that divinity may be worshipped in one of the four ways: (1) Japa, recitation of the holy name as initiated by the Guru ;( 2) Homa, oblations offered in Agni accompanied by appropriate hymns ; (3) Archana, actual worship (of nine types); and (4) Dhyana, meditation on transcendental and empirical aspects of divinity.

The first approach is through a pattern of sounds (nada/shabda) while the second is through the medium of Agni. Meditation isindependent of concrete representations. All these three are individual approaches. It is the Archa, the worship of a deity individually and in communion with fellow devotees that is easiest. Further, the Archa includes in itself the essentials of the other three approaches as well. Archana in temples is an integrated mosaic of individual and congregational worship; and is the most popular approach.

The formal worship of deities in Hindu traditions broadly follows the Vedic, Tantric or the mixed (Misra) procedures. The Vedic traditions are centered on Agni (fire) the visible representation of divinity and a medium to approach other gods in celestial realm. Oblations offered into Agni accompanied by recitation of appropriate hymns constitute Vedic worship. The Vedic traditions do not generally provide for worship of icons.

Tantric ideology views the divinity in terms of human or semi human forms (murti) and as represented by diagrams (mandala) and incantations of great merit (mantra).

The temple and iconic worship may appear like tantric. However, in practice the worship at temples involves both homa and archa rituals. The rituals here are a combination of concepts, procedures and symbolism. The symbolism behind this method of worship is that God pervades the universe and that the entire creation is his manifestation. The human mind with its limitations cannot easily comprehend God in absolute; but tries to comprehend divine spirit and bestow a form to the formless. (Na cha rupam vina devo dyatum kenapi sakyate, Vishnu samhita 29, 51).

The worship helps the devotee to visualize the incomprehensible divinity in chosen form and attributes so that he may dwell on it and engage himself in a certain service; else, the mind of an ordinary person might lapse into drowsiness or wither away. The texts suggest that human form of God’s image helps the devotee better to meditate on the divine attributes ; and to relate to the spirit of god with love, affection, friendliness, devotion, reverence etc. The temples generally house images of god in human form except in Shiva temples where the image will be in lingam form (even here the processional image will be in human form).

The worshipper is aware all the while that the forms (murti), sounds (mantras) and diagrams (mandalas) employed in worship are human approximations and are inadequate representations of God (prathima svalpa buddhinaam). Yet, he tries to find through them an approach to the Supreme. It is not very important whether it is archa or the Agni you choose, but it is the devotion and sincerity of purpose that matters. Here, concepts are more significant than precepts; procedures more significant than concepts and symbolism more relevant than procedures.

The temple worship ritual has two distinct aspects; symbolic and actual. The former is the inner worship (manasa puja or antar yajna) and the latter is the procedural aspect, the service (Upachara). In manasa puja, God is the worshipper’s innermost spirit; while in Upachara the personified god is treated and revered as the most venerated guest. The services are rendered with gratitude, love  and devotion.


The Aagama texts, Tantra Sara and Siddha yamala list as many as sixty-four upacharas. However, in practice, about sixteen upacharas are conducted; hence the expression Shodashopachara puja. They are , in sequence:

  • (1) seating ( aasana),
  • (2) welcoming (swagatha),
  • (3) offering water to wash feet (padya),
  • (4) offering water to wash hands (arghya),
  • (5) offering water to sip and rinse mouth (aachamana),
  • (6) providing a bath (snana),
  • (7) offering fresh clothes and decorations (vastra- abhushana),
  • (8) offering fresh sacred thread ( yajno_pavitha),
  • (9) offering aromatic substances like sandal paste (gandha),
  • (10) offering flowers (pushpa),
  • (11) burning incense (dhupa),
  • (12) waving lights ( deepa),
  • (13) offering four kinds of food (naivedya),
  • (14) offering tambula (betel leaves with areca nut, camphor and spices),
  • (15) prostrations (namaskara) and
  • (16) send off(visarjana).

The offerings during the worship are meant to please different aspects of the divine. For instance, Arghya is offered to please celestial deities (deva priyartha), sandal paste is a favorite of the Brahma; flowers favor prosperity; dhupa is dear to Agni (vaishvanara priya); aarathi signifies victory (jaya prada); and offering food– naivedya or havis is for abundance (samruddhi).

Each of the five senses contributes to our joy in life. The five fold offering (Panchopachara) – of Gandha (sandal paste), Pushpa (flowers), Dhupa (fragrance), Deepa (lights) and Naivedya (food) – are submission to the Lord with a request to direct our five sensestowards the goodand the God.  

Abhishekha (pouring water over the deity) is an act of love and submission. It purifies the worshippers’ mind and fills with devotion. Flowers confer prosperity, gladden the mind   and hence are Sumanas.Dhupas just as the flowers, gratify the deities immediately. Lights represent energy, fame and upward motion. Lights dispel darkness and ignorance. Satvic food(Naivedya)  of  agreeable scent and appearance mixed with milk  along with flowers and fruits ,offered with reverence and devotion gratify the deities .These offerings submitted with devote  bows , prostrations and absolute surrender do please the Lord.

Prasad and Charanmrit (the residue of the offerings made to the Lord) is most precious, sacred and purifying. It is most the sought after and one who receives it considers himself most fortunate and blessed.

These Upacharas are submitted to the deity only after conducting ceremonial purification of various kinds, infusing life force into the deity and establishing a proper communication with the divinity residing in the icon.

The entire ritual of daily worship  is broadly classified into five stages of worship; (1) aasana, welcoming the divinity to partake the worship; (2) sthapana, seating and invoking life force into the deity; (3) sannidhi_karana, establishing proper communication with the deity; (4) archana main worship; and (5) visarjana bidding farewell or literally dismissing. Incidentally, in Mahabharata (Anushasana parva), Bhishma describes , among other things , the virtues of worship and talks about the  significance of offering flowers , fruits , lights and food to the deity .

(KM Ganguli’s translation )

All the sixteen (shodasha) upacharas like tendering invitation, offering seat; offering water for the feet and to sip and to rinse the mouth and also for bath; presentation of dry and fresh garments,; serving food etc. are performed with devotion and reverence. The personified God is also the Lord of the Lords who oversees the universe (lokadyaksha).Therefore the honors that are due to a king are offered to the icon as Rajopachara. These include white umbrella, flywhisk, music, dance, vehicles of various sorts, flower pavilions, swings, chariots etc.

All the while the worshipper and the devotees are aware that the external worship characterized by splendor and spectacle is an overflow of religious devotion and is secondary to the main worship, the inner worship manasa puja of the antaryamin (the inner being) residing in ones heart.

The inner worship that takes place in the privacy of the sanctum is more significant than the external worship. These are in a sequence such as Shudhi (purification of elements), Mudras (assumption of appropriate and effective gestures), Pranayama (regulation of breath to enable contemplation of the divinity), Dhyana (contemplation), Soham_bhava (identity of the worshipper with the worshipped), Mantra (words to help realize the deity in worshipper’s heart) and Mandala (diagrams representing aspects of divinity).

Shuddhi is not merely the purification of the sanctum and its ambiance as the worshipper purifies the earth (bhu shuddhi) and the elements but is also the symbolic transformation and accommodation of all the elements that constitute worshippers body and world around him.

Dhyana is an important sequence in internal worship. It is not a prayer in the sense, it is not recited in praise of the deity nor is the worshipper seeking through it fulfillment of his desires. It is essentially to attune the inherent divine nature of the worshipper with the divinity of the deity. The worshipper visualizes and contemplates on the resplendent form of the deity as abiding in his own heart.

Mantras that seek to evoke the power of the deity and the mystical designs (yantras or mandalas) that serve as fit abodes for the deity are also important.

The next step is very significant. According to Tantra ideology, the worshipper regards his body as a Yantra where the deity resides. As a prelude to worship per se, the worshipper literally breathes life into the deity during prana_prathista sequence. The idol is transformed to divinity itself. The worshipper does this by extracting the power or the luster (tejas) of the divinity residing in his heart by means of inhalations and exhalations (ucchvasa and nishvasa), and investing it upon the deity. At the same time, the worshipper draws the presence of the Highest Spiritual being (paramatma) into his own individual being (jiva).This process symbolizes invoking the divine residing in ones heart, extracting it (bahir agatya) and transferring it with ease (sukham thistathu) in to the deity in front (asmin bimbe).The transferred Tejas stays in the deity until the worship is formally concluded.

The placement (nyasa) of divine presence in the structure of the icon as also in the worshipper is an essential ritual sequence before the actual service (upacharas) commences. Through these nyasas collectively called bhagavad_aaradhana adhikara_yogyata-siddhi, the worshipper secures competence to worship the deity. He invokes divine presence in himself.This takes three forms.

(1) Matrka-nyasa: placement of fifty seed-sounds (beeja mantra) in several psychic centers (chakras) on different parts of the body.

(2) Devata-nyasa: placement of different aspects of divinity on limbs and different parts of body; and

(3) Tattva-nyasa: Endowments of twenty-four basic factors (as per Samkhya) to the deity in order to individualize it.

The first two forms of nyasa are Tantric in character and are intended to transform the abstract form of divinity residing within the worshipper into a concrete form of divine as invested in the icon.

The second form of nyasa is designed to suit a specific type of deity .The Vaishnavas adopt Keshavadi nyasa; the Shaivas adopt Srikantadi nyasa while Shakthas adopt kala nyasa.

The third nyasa is largely Vedic with traces of Tantra. It sometimes provides a structure for abstract form of worship.

It is only after the deity is thus properly invoked (Avahita), established (stapitha), close at hand (sanhita), positioned right in front of the worshipper (sammukha), confined in a place of honor (sanniruddha) and well concealed under a canopy  (avaguntitha), the worship (upachara) commences and acquires a significance. Unless the worshipper establishes his identity with the worshipped, the rituals have no meaning. The Agama texts prescribe, “God is not to be worshipped by one who has himself not become God” (nadevo bhutva devam pujayet).

After the formal worship is completed, the deity is dismissed (visarjana). This ritual signifies withdrawal of the divine presence (temporarily lodged in the icon) and taking it back into worshipper’s heart (which is its permanent residence). The mantras recited in this context say “ Come ,oh God residing in the icon come back into my heart-lotus” (Ehi ehi, prathima sthitha purushottama , mama hrutkamale); “Reside in my heart , O Lord of the worlds , along with your glory” (hrudaya kuru samvasam sriya saha jagatpate).

vishnu with sridevi bhudevi

The foregoing is the broad pattern of ritual worship and its symbolism. However, certain temples where the deity is Self-manifest (Swayambhu) or installed by celestial beings (Deva prathistaha) say, as in Tirumala, follow a slightly different procedure. Here, the deity is the repository of divine powers ; and the priest need not go through the prana-prathista ritual. The Upacharas (services) are rendered not to the main deity but to a smaller image of the Lord (Kauthuka beru).It is the kauthuka beru that is infused with prana at the time of upachara worship. The priest evokes Tejas from the main deity , not from his own heart , and transfers it to kauthuka beru.

Read Next :

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Agama kosha By Prof. SK R Rao


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6 responses to “Temple worship and rituals (2 of 5) – Symbolism of Rituals in Temple Worship

  1. sreenivasaraos

    March 21, 2015 at 8:19 am

    hi sreenivasarao s
    this is very interesting and informative post. i would like to share one of my experience here. recently i have participated in abhishek of lord ganesh. what they do in this temple is, they clean thedeity with oil first just like what we do for abhyangan snanam, then they clean the deity with shikakaya, and then they start the abhishekam with water, milk, pachamrutham and sandal etc.

    i was watching the whole process with concentration. when the abhishekam reached the stage of pouring milk, i started feeling as if the milk was being poured on me and started feeling cold and came out of my trance because of the cold feeling.

    it was an experience which i did not experience previously and was not leaving my mind and heart. was it because of the power of those mantras ?


  2. omendr singh

    April 19, 2017 at 4:56 am

    Tremendous knowledge , sir

    • sreenivasaraos

      April 19, 2017 at 6:02 am

      Thank you Dear Singh for digging out an old and a forgotten blog

      Thank for for breathing a fresh life into it and for the appreciation

      Please do also read the other articles on Tantra and Agama


  3. harini

    May 21, 2020 at 8:46 am

    very elaborative, informative and interesting. I could see the interrelationships with architecture, divinity, Vaastu Shastra, and literature here.

    • sreenivasaraos

      May 26, 2020 at 3:19 pm

      Dear Harini

      Thank you for the visit; and. for the comments

      You are most welcome

      Stay safe, healthy and happy

      Have a great life

      Cheers and Regards

  4. sudarshana rao

    July 11, 2021 at 12:00 am

    wish it was in kannada !! Will take a few re reads to absorb it all.


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