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Many Paths to One God

Hindu Worship and Evolution of Bhakti

Hindu Worship

Hindu worship (puja) involves images of god/goddesses (murtis), prayers and chanting of mantras and use of diagrams of the universe known as yantras.

Worship of the image or icon of God/Goddess (murtis) is the most important part of Hindu worship. This can be done either at home or in the temple.

Hindu worship is primarily an individual act; it involves making personal offerings to the deity.

Worship involve repeating the names of favorite gods and goddesses (istadevatas), and repeating mantras. Water, fruit, flowers and incense are offered as sacrifices/gifts to god.

Hindus have a shrine or personal worship room in their homes called a puja room where offerings are made and prayers are said. The pooja room can be anything from a room, a small altar or simply pictures or statues of the deity.

Visiting and worshipping temples is an integral part of Hindu worship.

Hindu religious rites can be generally classified into three categories:

1. Nitya: These are rituals that are performed daily. (Sometimes 3 times per day.) These consist in offerings made at the home shrine or performing puja to the family deities.

2. Naimittika: These are rituals that occur only at certain times during the year. Examples are celebrating of the festivals in temples, offering thanksgiving etc.

An example of naimittika is the Kumbh Mela that happens only once every 12 years. Up to 10 million devotees share in ritual bathing at the Kumbh Mela festival at Allahabad where the waters of the Ganges and Jumna combine. Ritual bathing (to wash sins away), spiritual purification, and ceremonies to obtain the blessings of the deity are part of this major event.

3. Kamya: Examples of Kamya are pilgrimage. They are optional; but highly desirable.

Pilgrimage allows a devotee to see and be seen by the deity. It is an important part of Hindu Worship. Rivers (especially river Ganges, and holy places such as Banares (believed to be the home of Lord Shiva), Allahabad, etc.), temples, mountains, and other sacred sites are popular pilgrimage places.

Evolution of Bhakti

Hindu concept of worship and reaching moksha has undergone changes from the vedic times to present.

The sages of the Upanishads considered that liberation from the miseries and continuous changes of this life could be reached through the knowledge (jnana) of the truth concerning the nature of the Self (atman) and of Brahman. This will get a devotee a complete release (moksha) from all worldly attachments and from the cycle of rebirths.

Unfortunately, jnana or knowledge was not available to everyone; it was only available to the upper caste Brahmins and scholars. The ordinary folks were left out of this.

A major change in thinking took place with the Bhagavad Gita. Gita offered three distinct paths (marga) for attainment of moksha.

In addition to the way of knowledge or wisdom (jnana yoga), the way of works (karma yoga) and the way of worship or devotion (bhakti yoga) were recommended.

Three forms of worship (yoga)

There are three forms of yoga, by which immortality is attained. The first is the yoga of knowledge, which requires regular meditation. The second is the yoga of devotion. And the third is the yoga of selfless service.

Many people do not know these forms of yoga by name; but under the guidance of an enlightened teacher they practice one of them -and they too pass beyond death.

Gita 13.24-25

Devotion, knowledge and service

Some people love me with all their hearts, and worship me with unwavering faith. They practice the yoga of devotion.

Others seek me as the sublime reality, the transcendental truth which has no name or form. They contemplate me as that which cannot be seen, and which is beyond the reach of thought and feeling. They subdue their senses, still their minds, and fill their hearts with goodwill towards all living beings. They practice the yoga of knowledge.

The path trodden by those practicing the yoga of knowledge is hard and hazardous. Yet those who travel along it with unflagging effort, swiftly reach me. And when they reach me, I release them from the cycle of birth and death. Their consciousness becomes my consciousness.

Focus your mind upon me, and you will know me. If you cannot do this at once, then learn to do it through regular meditation. If you lack the self-discipline for meditation, then engage yourself in my work, which is the selfless service of others. If you are unable to do even this, then devote your heart to me, surrendering to me the fruits of all your actions. By one of these three means you will attain inner peace.

Gita 12.2-11

By listing three different disciplines (yogas) for attaining moksha, the Bhagavad Gita accounts for three dominant trends of Indian religion:

a. dharma-based Brahmanism
a wisdom-based asceticism, and
a devotion-based theism. 

Bhakti ("reverent devotion") stressed the emotional attachment and love of a devotee for his or her personal god (Istadevata). It implied a dualistic relationship between worshipper and god. 

In Gita, Krishna taught bhakti yoga ("the way of devotion"), placing it above other paths to salvation through karma (ritual activity) and jnana (spiritual knowledge). He declared to his devotees: "Worshipping me with love, I bestow the rule of understanding, whereby they come to me".  This is the vision and experience of a personal god beyond the impersonal Brahman, a god who expresses nearness and help to man. Whenever righteousness (dharma) is threatened, Krishna promises to incarnate himself, age after age, and assures man of his love and salvation

True worship

There are four kinds of people who are good, and who love me:


those burdened by sorrow


those seeking knowledge


those striving to achieve life's purpose and 


those with vision. 

The greatest of these are those with vision; they are unwavering in their devotion to me, and they are always at one with me. I love men and women with vision, and they love me. All those following the way of yoga are blessed; but those with vision are especially blessed, because they perceive the soul everywhere and within everyone.

There are people whose vision has been distorted by numerous desires. They pursue these desires; and their religion is merely performing various rituals.

People put their faith in many things; and people always live according to their faith. So those who put their faith in that which is false or corrupt, will lead false or corrupt lives. Many people have a false image of me, identifying me with various bodily forms, and not recognizing my higher nature. They cannot see through the veil of mystery which surrounds me; and so they cannot see that I am unborn and changeless. I know everything about the past, the present, and the future; but no one knows me completely.

But those who always strive to do good, and who are free from every inclination to do wrong, truly worship me.

Gita 7.16-26. 28

The unity of religions

There are people who perform all the ancient rituals, who offer all the sacrifices which the sacred texts prescribe, who drink the sacred drinks, who keep themselves from committing any sin, and who pray regularly. They will be rewarded for their efforts. They will go to a realm above the earth, and enjoy many blessings and pleasures. But when these blessings and pleasures are complete, they will return to earth, and be trapped once more in the cycle of death and rebirth. Performing rituals cannot liberate a person from the chains of desire.

But those who worship me, who meditate upon me constantly, and who live in perfect harmony with me, will attain perfection. I shall not merely provide for their needs, but I shall give them far more.

I make no distinction between one religion and another. People may worship me in any form they wish. The form of worship does not matter to me; my only concern is the quality of love which is expressed in worship. I accept every kind of worship, because I am supreme.

Gita 9.20-24

The equality of all people

People may offer me merely a leaf, or a flower , or even a little water; I shall accept it, so long as it is offered in a spirit of devotion. Offerings are merely symbols, which in themselves do not concern me; I want a pure heart and a mind hungry for truth. Whatever you do, or eat, or give, let it be an offering to me; and whatever you suffer, then suffer it for my sake.

In this way you will break free from the bonds of cause and effect. You will be free from all interest in the consequences of action, because you will be free from desire and fear. You will be free to come to me.

I look upon all living beings equally; I do not love one being more and another being less. But those who love me, live in me, and I come to life in them. Even the worst sinners become holy when they turn to me, and worship me with all their hearts and minds. Soon their wickedness is turned into righteousness, their corruption is made pure, and they become tranquil and serene.

All those who devote themselves to me, will attain the supreme goal -regardless of race, sex, or class. Those whom society scorns, are equal in my sight to those whom society exalts. You have been born into a world where suffering is constant and pleasures are fleeting. Give all your love to me; fill your mind with me; serve me with all your strength; seek me with all your heart. Then you and I will be united in joy.

Gita 9.26-34

The chief characteristic of Bhakti movement was an intensely emotional worship, expressed in terms of personal love, yearning, courtship and ecstasy. It reacted against the rigid exclusivity of the brahmin priests, with their elaborate rituals that required a knowledge of Sanskrit. They often rejected the role of the priest as an intermediary between devotee and deity, teaching instead that divine grace was available to all, irrespective of caste or sex.

The common features in Bhakti cults have been pointed out by D. S. Sarma in his "Renaissance of Hinduism:"

  1. Belief in one supreme God of Love and Grace.
  2. Belief in the individuality of every soul, which is nevertheless part of the Divine Soul.
  3. Belief in salvation through Bhakti.
  4. The exaltation of Bhakti above Jnana and Karma; and, also above, the performance of rites and ceremonies.
  5. Extreme reverence paid to the Guru.
  6. The doctrine of the Holy Name.
  7. Initiation through a mantra and a sacramental meal.
  8. The institution of sectarian orders of Sannyasins.
  9. The relaxing of the rules of caste, sometimes even ignoring all caste distinctions.
  10. Religious teaching through the vernaculars.

From Gita evolved a rich devotional literature in different regional languages in India. Numerous bhakti saints, poets and musicians have created many popular devotional songs still widely sung today. All bhakti sects shared the basic doctrine of divine grace and ecstatic love. Bhakti poets wrote of an intensity of guilt and a yearning for redemption familiar to Christian theology. Like the Christian New Testament, the bhakti sects taught that divine love could also be expressed through love of one's neighbors, whatever their social status.

Among the earliest bhakti lyricists were those of South India such as the Alvars, who were passionately devoted to Vishnu, and the Nayanars who were devoted to the worship of Shiva. In Bengal, Chaitanya was noted for the ecstatic worship of Krishna. The lyrics of Ramananda and Kabir, of Princess Mira Bai and of Surdas are well known. Tukaram is considered the greatest poet of Marathi.

Unlike the restrained intellectual bhakti of the Bhagavad Gita, the later popular bhakti movement has expressed bhakti in strong emotional terms, with a passionate love and longing for God who reciprocates this feeling. The movement is far removed from an abstract Brahman and thus celebrates a more intimate and direct contact between man and God, an interpenetration of the different worlds of the human and the divine.

yasya bhaktir bhagavati
harau nihsreyasesvare
vikridato 'mrtambhodhau
kim ksudraih khatakodakaih

"A person fixed in the devotional service of the Supreme Lord, Hari, the Lord of the highest auspiciousness, swims in the ocean of nectar. For him what is the use of the water in small ditches?"

Srimad Bhagavatam 6.12.22

See Also:

Attaining Unlimited Happiness

Faith And Idol Worship

Bhagavad Gita (Gita)

Hindu Scriptures

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