Murti Puja, also known as archana vigraha, is one of the core concepts of Sanatana Dharma. The literal meaning of murti is manifestation, something that has taken a concrete form. Murti without any prefix refers to devata murti or god-form. Thus murti is a representation (in a manifest, definite form) of god-form. Murti puja is worship of murti as a god-form, worship of god-form in the murti. The devotee worships the deity (or devata) who is requested to reside in the vigraha (murti) for the duration of the worship. A murti usually is a concrete shape, having features attributed to the god-form. These are usually the physical attributes of the deity as described by the theology for the Devata. The murti has as many hands/legs/heads as spoken of in theology. Features like wearing snakes/garlands/having moon as adornment, the weapons they hold, are also reflected in the murti.
But devata as such does not have a specific form or quality; these are not the physical attributes of devata. Devata being pure consciousness, these are the attributes that reflect the nature of that consciousness. For instance, when we speak of lord Siva, He is featureless. He is the eternal. But He is said to have two wives, wearing a snake, traveling on an ox, having matted and dusted hair. What are these features of the featureless? What are the wives of the One without the second? All these features, if seen properly, reflect only His featurelessness. His hair is the infinite space, vyoma (vyomakesa). The snake he wears is the awakened consciousness. He is the eternal and is associated with two attributes - energy and consciousness. These are His two wives (Sakti and Ganga). The universe is said to be the play of primal rhythmic energy and Her union with the eternal is said to be the dissolution or liberation as the context may be. The vehicle of this union is Nandi, the ox. This is the upward movement or ascent of man. He is digambara, the one with directions as his clothes - this in the trivial sense is nudity, but in profound sense only indicates His infiniteness. Thus, none of these are qualities in the sense that a person has qualities, but are the attributes that best describe the featureless.
"Seeing" is a metaphorical expression of experiencing. By saying one "sees" devata, we are saying that the person is elevated to the state of experiencing god-consciousness.
Then, what does one mean when he "sees" God in this form? What does he mean when he says he saw Rudra or Durga? Does it mean he really saw the devata in human form? How is this possible? The answer has two parts:
Yes, devata does descend into a form for the sake of the devotee. When worshiped with sincerity, in any particular form, one sees divinity in the particular form as one may desire. As such, divinity is pure consciousness and it does not have a form. Just like water. But one can collect it in the vessel he wants. This vessel is of two kinds - the human vessel and the god-vessel. As long as a person exists, he has to experience the impersonal in either of these ways. The impersonal exists eternally, but experiencing comes only when we talk of a seeker. And so long as the seeker is there, there is a vessel needed. The vessel is called upadhi.
- Just invoke pure consciousness and experience the formless. You are the vessel here. This is like collecting water in a vessel.
- Invoke it in the form you want. This is like freezing water into an ice-block of your desired shape. You can behold water; see it, and its form. The ice-block is the devata. The reason this kind of practice can be institutionalized is that this is not specific to any human vessel - this is impersonal and a "concrete form" of the impersonal that is created for the well-being of entire mankind.
There is no difference in the level of divinity one sees or in the nature of divinity one sees. The only difference is in the way one seeks to attain divinity. These are different approaches that need to be practiced based on the approach of the devotee. There are definite advantages in both. But the former is a secret practice that is possible only in few cases while the latter is possible at a more popular level. The reasons are:
- Ego always comes in while saying I am the pure consciousness or its vessel. This is not the case when we try to invoke it as if we are not the same. But it should be understood that though one tries to invoke divinity instead of feeling oneness with it, he can behold it only when he attains that oneness. Seeing is becoming.
- Mind has the limitation of working even while it thinks it does not work. Concentrating on the formless is not possible unless one transcends the very state of concentration. So it is tough to get to the real state of experiencing the formless unless guided very carefully.
- Treating the formless as having forms and quality-less in terms of qualities allows one to soon discover the nature of those qualities. This way thinking of God and worshiping can be made understandable and practicable for everyone.
- The state of having a form always by one's side, is a great psychological advantage. One can easily start feeling "yes there is this (impersonal) person who is more interested in my welfare than me, who is capable of everything that I am not, who has infinite patience, power, mercy, and love for me and everyone else". One slowly decreases bothering about himself because he is already taken care of and starts caring more about the "person" than himself. This is how one slowly identifies with the impersonal and impersonalizes himself.
- In fact, if seen properly, what is a better way to say "I am that" (aham brahmasmi) and "That is me", than treating devata as having a form, life and qualities like human? Treating god like oneself is nothing but feeling oneness with God. By admiring the qualities attributed to devata, one grows beyond his own limitations of human qualities and invokes those qualities he worships the devata as having, in himself.
What we call seeing, is not seeing a physical form with biological eyes. The one who sees certainly sees a form but not a physical form that every one can see. It is visible to him alone as a taijasika rupa. The form talks to him and reveals to him many secrets of the path he is following, and showers on him many other boons. But this is only another way of saying that the devotee acquired all those through his sadhana. So, by disowning the capability as an individual and attributing it to the One, one can easily grow over ego. This is precisely the reason why duality of individual-God (dwaita of jivatma-paramatma) is so successful (e.g. Bhakti marga).
But devata as such cannot be limited to an murti. Then what are we doing by worshiping an murti as devata? We are only invoking the formless infinite in the small murti as small as our thumb. It does get invoked there - wherever we want and in whichever thing we want. We need not bother whether we can compress the infinite into the murti - we cannot and we don't have to. But of the size of the thumb is the Man that is ruling us from within (Purusha). This is the reason why the murti is usually prescribed to be of that size (for personal worship). However, the consciousness/energy that one beholds through the worship is only of the order that his own consciousness permits, and not of the size of the murti. One not only identifies the murti with the Purusha within - he actually experiences it.
Theory of Puja
Puja or worship is a token of affection towards divinity. It is the ritualistic expression of devotion. The divine is the closest and the most private relative of man, and puja is a way to express one's gratitude to God, because all that he is is because of God. God causes our existence, and our evolution. It is not an expectation of God that we express anything to Him, for it does not matter to Him. But it is a necessity of man to realize his own insignificance in the cosmic game, as that is the way he can grow over all his miseries into infinite bliss.
Just in the way a parent nurtures the child irrespective of whether the child says "thanks" or kisses the parent, God still takes care of our evolution. But just the way a child spending good amount of time in the parent's lap every day never starves for anything, the devotee who sits in the lap of the divine consciousness never starves for anything. The parent is already there to take care of us, so there is no need to starve for anything as such. But all the difference is in knowing that the parent is there. The child who thinks he is not getting something he wants, and a child who thinks he gets everything from the parent, do not differ in their success - the parent causes their success in either case. They differ however, only in the quality of their happiness, their confidence, their craving for desires. One who rests his desires on God alone has nothing to desire - because he knows he already has everything.
Yes, it is true that one can worship god desiring something - but when it is like the kid appeasing the mother with kisses wanting something, it is equally blissful. But one does not experience the bliss in that love - his attention is in the thing he is asking for and not the beauty of mother's love. It is still there however. And evolution in life is to slowly move one's attention from the object of desire to the experience of love. Then one automatically realizes the insignificance of desire. He realizes that the happiness in the object of desire is infinitesimal before the happiness in mother's love. And he then seeks to sit in the mother's lap and does not seek anything else. This is what happens when one keeps worshipping - sakama becomes nishkama over time. One does not have to suppress desires, but one has to worship with sincerity even though seeking something. This guarantees his evolution.
Brahmana portion of the Veda (Aranyaka also to some extent) contains mantras for worshipping. There are many ways to worship, like arcana, homa, japa. The mantras that praise the devata are found mostly in the Samhita portion of the Veda. The mantras used in the sequence of various steps in the worship come from Brahmana. The procedures for various kinds of worship are found in the Kalpa Sutras (esp. Srauta Sutras). For different purposes, mantras are put into different sequences, and used in different combinations with different procedures. Each of these is called a samputikarana.
The major steps in worshipping are meditating on the devata, then invoking devata and praying. In case of arcana, devata is invoked in an murti. In case of homa, Agni is invoked and is asked to carry oblations to all the devatas. In case of japa/yoga the devata is invoked in the body of devotee himself. This is called dharana in yoga and nyasa in japa/upasana terminology. These categories are not mutually exclusive - nyasa can be done during arcana and so on. There are differences in the way it is done, but in all the cases the sadhaka invokes devata in himself, directly or indirectly.
There are a few common steps for all modes of worship. They are:
Sankalpa is the first step in worship. Before beginning worship the devotee mentions the place, date and time and declares that he is beginning worship. The devata being worshiped, the mode of worship and purpose of worship are also mentioned. After avahana, the mantra used for worship, its rishi and chandas are also mentioned before nyasa is done.
The devata is "satisfied" before worship. Tarpana comes from trupti and tarpana means satisfying. It is outwardly symbolized by leaving water, but the devata is satisfied by offering rahasya tarpana through yogic practice.
There are different means of giving a tarpana, for different purposes. In case of devatas it is through water or milk or any other sweet fluid. In case of pitris it is water with black sesame (tila+udaka).
The devata is then invoked, worshiped in any of the ways. One is said to attain to Samadhi and become one with the devata in that state, during worship.
The result/merit of worship performed is offered after worship. It is offered according to the result sought during sankalpa. It could be loka kalyana or any specific desire or simply left to the devata.
Here is a brief account of methods of worship.
Arcana involves 16 upacaras to the devata, dhyana, avahana. and visarjana. These are preceeded by vigraha sodhana and prana pratistha. Vigraha sodhana is finding and purifying the murti to make it fit for worship. Then the murti is charged with god-ness. This is called prana pratistha.
During prana pratistha, the murti is said to be given life, eyes and other organs. Without this, devata cannot be invoked in the murti. Through this, we are invoking the cosmic consciousness that enables all our vision, into the murti. In other words, we are charging the murti with the devata-ness. This is the step before inviting the devata (avahana). As the murti is given life and senses, we meditate on the form of devata we are invoking (dhyana). Then we invoke the devata in that form (avahana). Then the devata is worshipped in many ways, and is offered all that a human is offered.
It should be understood that prana pratistha is different from avahana. Prana pratistha is done to the murti while avahana is done by and for the devotee. Prana pratistha is charging the murti with god-ness while avahana is invoking the god-ness. Prana pratistha charges the murti with the devata, but it does not invoke it.
There are cases where devata resides imminently in certain murtis (like salagramas or swayambhuva lingas) and they do not need prana pratistha. However, avahana is needed in all cases including these, since invoking the devata in the murti is to be done every time the devotee is seeking to worship devata in that murti.
Having said this, when one worships with sincerity and attains divinity steps like prana pratistha and avahana happen by themselves even when they are not done explicitly. That does not undermine the significance of these steps but only stresses the importance of devotion.
Devata is offered all that a man is offered. The "upacaras" or services or treatment that are done to a human guest, like inviting, giving water and other drinks, clothes, food, entertainment that he likes are all done to the devata.
After that, the devata is "worshipped". This involves chanting mantra or stotra, and making offerings to the devata. This could be flowers or kunkum or abhisheka. Each devata is worshipped in a specific way. For instance Devi is worshipped with pushpa, kunkuma and haridra (turmeric). She is said to love to be praised (stotra priya). Vishnu is offered flowers, garlands, scents, He is said to like adornments (alankara priya). Siva is said to like abhisheka (continuously pouring water/milk/sweet liquids/rice/bhasma etc over the Siva linga) (abhisheka priya).
Devatas are said to like to be invoked with different names (ex. Lalita Devi is praised as nama parayana preeta). By taking the different names of a devata, one realizes the multifaceted and infinite nature of the devata.
The upacaras are done again after this and the worship then concludes.
Homa is worshipping through fire (agni karya). In Homa, Agni is invoked. Agni is said to be the face of all devatas (deva mukha). All the oblations (havis) are offered to Him. After offering oblations to Agni, oblations to all other devatas are offered through Agni - Agni is said to carry those to devatas. Havis is said to be the food of devatas by obtaining which they cause man's well-being.
Agni being the carrier of oblations, his consort symbolizes offering. Agni is said to have two wives, Svaha and Swadha. Svaha is the word to be uttered while oblations are offered. Offerings to devatas are made with Svaha and offerings to pitris or departed fathers are made with Swadha.
For a homa, an altar is built. Then fire is invoked in that. Then the articles are purified and fire is worshiped. Then other devatas are worshipped.
One is supposed to perform eight rituals everyday, they are called nityakarmas. These are eight ways of worship. The list varies for varnas and each varna has the nitya karma-astaka prescribed separately. Broadly they are taking bath, various forms of worship, serving occupation and treating guests. For a srotriya, they are snana, sandhyavandana, japa, homa, devatarcana, vaisadeva, atithya and veda patha.