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Elements of Puja


This is a work in progress - it'll be added to as it develops.

Tantric teachings stress that purely external rituals (puja) are of no value, unless their inner significance is understood and symbolism is mirrored by internal conscious activity. The relationship between the inner conscious process and the outer ritual action needs to be understood and mastered. The supreme goal of the sadhaka is to dissolve the false distinction between subject and object, and to perceive reality directly as an undivided unity. Of this process, the Saivite master Abhinavagupta says:

Oblation is effortlessly offered in the fire of (Siva's) intensely flaming consciousness by offering fully all of the great seed of internally and externally created duality.

The various ritual manuals associated with Tantric deities also contain elaborate detail about the bodies of the gods & goddesses, which again simultaneously stresses the relationship between symbolism and the body. For when a practitioner is engaged in magical ritual directed towards a deity, he or she is also identifying with that deity.

The Sri Lalita Sahasranama, (the thousand names of Lalita) is a ritual manual of the Sri Vidya tradition which gives an extensive description of the goddess Lalitas' attributes, in a very lyrical manner, which is excellent for visualisation and meditation:

"In the ocean of Her Beauty, her eyes are sparkling fish
The brilliance of her nose-ring diamonds puts the stars to shame
Salutations to She who has the Sun and Moon for her ear-rings
Salutations to She whose teeth shine as seedlings of pure knowledge
Salutations to She, whose feet dispel the darkness
Salutations to She whose gait is like a female swan
Salutations to She who is the great ocean of beauty
Salutations to She who is red all over
The ten avataras of Visnu emerge from her fingernails
Salutations to She whose conversation is the sweetest of all music
Salutations to She whose smile overwhelms Sri Kamesvara (i.e. Shiva)
Salutations to She, whom the brilliance of her toe-nails dispels the ignorance of her devotees"

Whatever the form, the dynamics of external ritual serve to remind the practitioner that ultimately, there is no difference between worshipper and worshipped. For example, in the Sri Vidya lineage, the devi Lalita Tripurasundari (the lovely goddess of the three cities) is venerated through the complex relationships of the Sri Yantra. The Sri Yantra is both a form of the goddess, and the body of the practitioner. The complex groups of saktis arrayed within the yantra are both manifestations of Lalita and elements of the practitioner's body.

Some lineages make a distinction between three forms of puja, the gross, the subtle, and the supreme. External puja is considered the gross form, internal puja the subtle form, and supreme worship is attained when the dualising tendency of the mind is stilled, and settles into silence.

Those who worship the gods become gods; those who worship ancestors become ancestors; those who worship the elements master the elements, and those who worship me gain me.
Krishna, The Bhagavadgita

As noted above, the main concept in Tantric puja is that the goddess or god is made present before the sadhaka - indwelling in a yantra or murti and is treated as an honoured guest. The goddess/god is venerated with offerings, mantra, litanies, etc.

Tantric puja can be approached in a modular fashion, in that one can begin with fairly short puja sequences, and, as one comes to understand the use and meaning behind ritual techniques such as Mudra or Nyasa, (see below) these too can be incorporated into one's ritual practice.

An Example Puja sequence

Purification/Protection

One method of beginning a puja would be to establish the local space as 'sacred'. In Western approaches to ritual magic, a Banishing Ritual is often used in the context of creating a demarcation between the 'ordinary' and the 'magical'. This kind of thinking is alien to Tantra, where all space is a emanation of Shakti and hence 'sacred' and ritual serves to 'condense' the sacredness of a space.

Approaches to 'condensing' sacred space include: establishing the 8 directions using the weapon-mantra Phat; rattling a drum; invocating the sadhaka's guru-line (i.e. acknowledging respect to one's guru, the guru's guru, and so forth); visualising the local space being swept by fire; stamping on the ground (done to ward off evil spirits).

Once this has been accomplished, the next stage might be to prepare one's body to be a vehicle for the goddess or god (or quality) to which the puja is directed.

To worship a deity, a man must become the Self of that deity through dedication, breath-control and concentration until his body becomes the deity's abode.
Gandharva Tantra

Again, techniques such as nyasa can be used at this point. Another appropriate practice might be that of Bhuta Suddhi.

antaryaga (internal worship)

The practice of antaryaga involves visualising one's chosen deity taking shape within one's own body. The visualisation may be accompanied by appropriate litanies, nyasa and mudra.

bahiryaga (external worship)

In bahiryaga the internal form of the deity is 'placed' (sometimes by an exhaled breath) into an external receptacle such as a statue or picture which is then regarded as the living presence of the goddess or god. Offerings are then made to the deity indwelling the image.

Following the offerings, the deity may be further offered repetitions of mantras; recitations of the deities qualities (as in the example given above from the Lalita Sahasranama); and requests for boons made or acts of magic made under the auspices of the deity.

Mudra

The term mudra is often translated as 'to seal'. One explanation of 'to seal' is that mudra comes from a joining of mud - bliss and dhra - dissolving - thus mudra is that which dissolves duality and brings together deity and devotee. Like many other Indian terms, mudra has a variety of meanings according to the context in which it appears. For example, mudras in Hatha Yoga often refers to particular body postures - sometimes, but not exclusively, involving hand gestures. In Buddhist Tantra, mudra can refer to the female partner of a male practitioner. In Hindu iconography, gods & goddesses are often depicted with their hands making mudras (for example, the twin gestures of dispelling fears and granting boons). Mudras are also widely used in various stages of Tantric ritual and various deities have mudras which are associated with them. According to some texts for example, Ganesha has seven mudras used in ritual worship, one of which is:

"Hold middle fingers straight and the forefingers anchored with each other at the middle joints. The forefingers should bend a little and pull one another. This is the Ankusha (goad) mudra."

Nyasa

Nyasa can be translated as 'imposition' or 'placing' and refers to a major technique within tantric ritual practice whereby the practitioner sadhaka touches various parts of the body whilst at the same time pronouncing a mantra, and visualising a particular god/goddess (or sometimes an aspect of a god with a particular shakti). Nyasa is one of the techniques for 'divinising' the body.

There are many types of Nyasa, some of which are highly complex and elaborate and involve effectively incribing a yantra on one's own body. Sometimes the 50 letters of the Sanskrit Alphabet are placed on the body, and the practitioner may also use Mudra to accompany the placing. Some tantric deities have particular modes of Nyasa associated with their ritual forms.