Hindu Worship Service on Mahashivratri

India, one of the world’s oldest civilizations, is known for its long and rich tradition of religion dating back to the 1028 hymns of the Rig Veda (the world’s oldest religious text), probably composed between B.C. 1500 and 900. In fact, modern Hinduism can trace its roots back to the Rig Vedas though Hinduism itself changed and evolved, from the earliest icons of worship of Mother Goddesses and ‘elements’ of nature, to the modern day Hindu belief that life is controlled by a triad of Gods: “Brahma the creator, Vishnu the preserver and Shiva the destroyer.”

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Orthodox Hindus offer prayers and perform ‘puja’ (worship service) religiously and regularly, both in the temple and at home. Sometime ago, I had the opportunity to observe a typical Hindu worship service at a friend’s home. My friend belongs to a Tamil Brahmin family, which observes all the , though they have settled in America. Being exposed for the first time to the idea of elaborate worship service conducted at home, I later asked the priest conducting the ‘puja’ to explain the significance of such a ceremony in the residence, as against attending one at a place of worship.

He explained that the Hindu belief is that “Worshipping should be a personal experience.” He also added that devout Hindus regularly performed different types of worship service at home in the belief that it appeased the Gods and resulted in “God’s Blessings on the house and its members.” This was over and above attending worship service at temples.

Whereas the basic rite of the Vedic religion was sacrifice (yajna), that of Hinduism is worship (puja). In general a god is worshipped in the form of an icon, which has been sanctified by special rites, after which it is believed that the divinity has in some sense taken up his abode in it.”

The particular religious ceremony that I witnessed was to offer prayers to Lord Siva on the very special occasion of ‘Mahashivratri,’ which falls on the thirteenth day of the waning moon in the month of February-March or ‘Phagun.’ I learned from my friend that on ‘Mahashivratri,’ all Hindu homes perform a ritual at night to propitiate lord Shiva.

The ritual begins with every family member having a bath to purify the body and immediately thereafter dressing in traditional clothing. The ladies wear rich ‘saris’ and the male members including young boys dress in ‘dhotis,’ leaving the upper half of their bodies bare. The women also place a ‘kum tilaka’ on their foreheads while the men apply sacred ash in three rows on their foreheads, chest, upper and lower arms. Between their brows is placed a dot of sandal paste, layered over with ‘kum.’ The ash on the forehead, I was told, is a symbol of a follower of Shiva.

Every member takes a bath and dresses up in clean clothes. The ‘puja’ room is naturally cleaned up and the images of Ganesh, Shiva and Parvati are placed in the centre of the room. A ‘jyot’ (lamp) is lit in front of the images and ‘agarbattis’ (incense sticks) are also lit.”

The priest, dressed in a nine yard dhoti worn in a style known as ‘panchakaccham,’ with an ‘uthiiryam’ or upper unstitched garment covering his upper torso sits on a flat stool before the household shrine where all the ritual items have been washed and laid out in readiness.

The ‘shaligrama’ or river stone (representing the Shiva lingam) is placed on a bronze holder. The priest along with the head of the family, a male member, commences the ‘puja’ by lighting a lamp and invoking the Lord Ganesha, which marks the beginning of every Hindu ritual. The ritual format is as that prescribed in the ancient texts or ‘Agamas.’ The significance of the lamp is that it “brings brilliance, auspiciousness, health, wealth and destroys the presence of bad intellect.”

At first, all implements to be used in ritual are sanctified by using special mantras and leaves of specified herbal plants. Then the ‘atma puja’ or invoking of ones own soul is done. This is followed by the ‘agni puja’ or breathing life into the deity to be worshipped, by chanting of mantras and using specific ritual gestures, the very being of Shiva, the focus of the Mahashivratri puja is invoked.

The next ritual is a bath: “With clean water in the conch, pour the water on the plate, place the lingam, and pour milk over it reciting the purusha sooktam.” The lingam is then wiped and then decorated with sandal paste, after which silver armour is placed that covers the lingam. Just as in humans the lord is anointed with ‘kum kum’ paste and sandal paste. Once the decorations are complete the ‘Shiva Strotram’ is recited.

An integral part of the ritual is: “do a pradakshina (circumambulation) turning three times in a circle to your right. Whatever sins I have committed in all my lives. May all of them be absolved as I circumambulate in thy worship.”

For each syllable, one leaf called ‘bhel’ is placed on the lingam. After recitation of the 108 names, an ‘arti’ is performed with the waving of lamps and offering of food specially prepared for Shivratri. The foods are coconut, fruits, betel leaf, with an areca nut, boiled sweet potatoes and milk. The sanctified food is shared with the family after the prayers are concluded.

In conclusion, it is important to note that many of the elements described above in the worship service at home are present in temple service as well. All Hindus observe Mahashivratri as Lord Shiva is regarded as representing the cycle of life. “Salutations to you Lord Shiva… you are the cause of this creation and you alone dissolve it in the end; you alone are present in my heart continuously dancing to express your infinite love and joy.”


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