The above Shlok beautifully sums up the spiritual meaning of Puja. The Sanatan Vedic Dharma has a broad range of philosophies with unique and varied rites and rituals. Honouring of purity with devotion to the God is Puja. It primarily uplifts our five senses and raises our consciousness to higher levels. It is the simplest way to eliminate negative energy and create a positive aura around oneself.
A Puja is a bridge between the Divine and devotee. Puja is an effective way to discipline the self and making us more focused and aligned. Puja is a ritual during which one makes offerings to a Deity while chanting Mantras or Stotras. It helps one to connect to the supreme. Puja if done with sincerity and devotion elevates one to an enlightened and peaceful state of mind and reveals previously hidden paths.
The word Pu means to purify or cleanse and Ja means birth. Hence, Puja means that which cleanses or purifies the birth or life of a person. The word Puja can be expanded to mean Purna Jagruti (total awareness). Puja is offering back everything to the Divine with gratefulness. While performing a Puja one surrenders one's base impurities and imbibes purity emanating from the Divine. Puja is the supreme expression of the expanded consciousness adoring creation and giving it all back with unconditional love to the Creator.
While performing a Puja one’s body, mind, and consciousness are aligned and focused solely on – the Deity. If one is overwhelmed with negative thoughts, burdened with problems, or simply caught-up in a confusing situation, the Puja helps in clearing up the confusion. One’s negativity can have an adverse effect in one’s home and on loved ones too. So a Puja not only helps the individual but also people around him.
The Vedic Pujas have four salient aspects, the Deity, the devotee, the offerings and the Prasad. During the Puja, various offerings are made to the Deity. They include fruits, dry fruits, various food items and sweets. At the end of a Puja, the offering of food is distributed between the devotee, the family members and the priests.
The offerings that are mainly made to the deity are Dhyaan – Meditating on the deity, Aavaahan – Inviting the deity, Aasan – Seat, Paadya – Washing the deity’s feet, Arghya – Offering the deity water to rinse hands and mouth. Aachaman – Offering the deity water to drink. Snaan – Bathing the deity with various auspicious items. Vastra – Dressing the deity with clean clothes. Yagnopaveet – Offering the deity a clean sacred thread. Gandha – Applying fresh sandalwood paste. Pushp – Offering fresh flowers. Dhoop – Offering incense. Deepa – Waving a lamp. Naivedya – Offering of food. Taambul - Offering of betel nut and leaves. Pradakshina & Namaskar – Circumambulating the altar. The Shodashopchar (The sixteen steps of rituals) is usually performed while doing a Prana Pratistha Puja of an idol and Pujas during festive occasions.
A less elaborate Panchopchar Puja is performed for daily worship at homes. They comprise; Gandha – Applying fresh sandalwood paste, Pushp – Offering fresh flowers, Dhoop – Offering incense, Deepa – Waving a lamp and Naivedya – Offering of food.
Collectively these rituals represent the objects of the five senses. During a Puja one engages all the five senses in addition to the mind and the body. The offerings made to God with Shraddha establish a relationship with God on an intimate and personal level.
During the Puja the idol which is worshipped is considered to be the living incarnation of the deity. A Puja therefore demands purity and sincerity of the worshipper. The idol helps one to focus the mind during the worship and arouses a feeling of closeness with the invoked deity. Symbolically it represents the omnipresence of God and his presence even in inanimate objects.
The other type of Puja that is recommended in the Shastras is the Maanas or Maansik Puja (the process of mentally performing the Vedic rituals). It was a significant step by the Vedic Rishis; they found it to be a more effective way to communicate with God. It transformed the Vedic Dharma and shifted its emphasis from outward practices (Karma Kaand) to internal, spiritual practices (Jnaan Kaand). This led to the birth of Upanishad and their teachings, which further gave rise to Tapascharya, Yoga, and Meditation and other spiritual practices.
The human mind is easily distracted and drawn to various worldly desires. Even after fulfilling millions of desires new ones emerge and the cycle continues. If one wants to control the mind and the desires within, the best tool is the Maanas Puja, which is worshipping God within one’s mind. One’s prayers are more effective when it is done mentally rather than recited loudly. The most important benefit is that it awakens the Divinity within and makes it the central core of one’s life. The Divine becomes one’s friend, philosopher, guide and the witness of one’s thoughts and actions and keeps one safe from the pitfall of performing bad Karmas.
The Upanishads state that Brahman is both Sagun (with form and attributes) and Nirgun (without form and attribute less). That is, tradition supports the worship of both, but suggests that worshipping the forms of God is easier than the Maansik Puja since the mind cannot easily establish a rapport with the formless Brahman. Therefore the Shastras basically prescribed idol worship for householders and the common people and the Maansik Puja for evolved ascetics, Yogis and for people into higher spiritual practices. Both the Pujas ultimately opens up the path to the omnipresent in the form of a personal Godhead or to the Nirakaar Param Brahman respectively.
Now with regard to performing a Puja people frequently ask me whether it is proper to conduct a Puja without being present in it or if a Puja can be performed on someone’s behalf. The Shastras are very clear in this matter, Yagya Mimamsa authoritatively states स्वयंकर्तुं शक्तश्चेत्कुर्यात्तत्पुरोधसा meaning that, “If a person is unable to perform a Yagya or Puja, then it can be performed by a Purohit or an Acharya on behalf of the devotee”.
There are innumerable instances in Puranas that show Rishis and Sages performing a Puja or a Yagya on behalf of a King or a Yajmaan and how they benefitted from it.
The devotee gets the full benefit of the Puja if the Sankalp and the other rituals are performed as per the Vedic practices by the priest. One should keep in mind that any Yagya / Homam / Puja which is performed without the proper Vedic rituals, hymns, Mantras and distribution of food to the priests is considered to be null and void. It benefits no one and the devotee accrues no merit for the Puja.