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Basic Terms in Hindu Ritual

This article explores some fundamental terms and concepts relating to the ritual tradition in Hinduism. The following terms are in Sanskrit, an Indian language with ancient roots that is the most commonly used language in Hindu ritual life. The most central term to know is puja. Puja refers to the general act of ritual worship. Hindus perform puja most often for a particular deity, but also for other figures who are held in sacred esteem (i.e. spiritual master or teacher).

Most pujas take place in the temple or the home. In the home, ritual traditions are passed down from one generation to the next and performed in the household shrine. Generally the women of the household perform the pujas, which include both smaller pujas on a daily basis and more elaborate pujas for special holidays or occasions. In many Hindu temples, a priest (pujari) is solely responsible for performing rituals. The temple is considered the residence of the deity. Therefore the pujari performs the rituals with scheduled regularity whether or not others are present to witness the ritual. In other temples, worshippers hold the authority to perform the rituals themselves.

Pujas are physical activities that involve all the senses -- sight, sound, smell, taste and touch. The following are basic components of every puja:

Murti: The image of the deity that is worshipped and can be made out of a variety of materials (i.e. stone or wood etc.). During the puja the deity is believed to be fully present in the murti. Worshippers make offerings (upacara) that honor the presence of the deity. Offerings almost always include flowers.

Avahana: Calling the deity to manifest in the murti at the beginning of the puja.

Visarjana: Permitting the deity to depart from the murti after the puja is completed.

Darshan: The ritual act of seeing that brings blessings to the worshipper. This includes both seeing the deity and being seen by the deity.

Mantra: The sacred words that are chanted during the puja (normally in Sanskrit).

Aarti: The offering of light (oil lamps) to the deity. The light is normally offered in a circular motion in front of the deity.

Prasad: Food that is blessed during the puja that is then offered to the worshippers afterwards.

In each of the above activities, a particular sense is engaged to create an impressionable experience. Each part of a puja carries special significance and pujas are performed in a variety of ways depending on the occasion and the particular deity who is worshipped. This article serves as a brief description of the most basic experiences of every Hindu ritual.

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