The reason why Sanathana Dharma (known to some as Hinduism) is not easily defined is because it’s not quite a religion. People who follow these paths come from all walks of life and have spiritual principles that come in all combinations. This in turn, reflects in the external paraphernalia they choose to adorn themselves with, including spiritual beads (Sanskrit: mala).
Ask any person who claims to be a Hindu: what makes someone a Hindu? It’s not a question anyone can answer with absolute certainty and finality. Sanathana Dharma has no real boundaries that ‘disqualifies’ a follower of its varied paths.
Some Hindus are staunch worshipers of Shiva and only Shiva. Others will bow before none but Vishnu. Then there are people who connect with various deities, from Karthikeya to Ganesha to Durga. Our ISKCON friends chant Krishna’s names with every breath. And finally, there are people like me who can’t be categorized – I happily do regular archanais for every major Hindu deity, I go to both Catholic and Protestant churches, I like mosques, I’m an atheist and an omnist, and finally I’m everything and nothing. I can’t be bothered to consider what labels and limitations fit me – I’m too busy immersing myself in the unlimited wonders of the universal experience.
Tulasi or Rudraksha?
I wear both. And more, including neem, sandalwood, spathikam (clear quartz) and navrattan (nine sacred gems). I even have Christian rosaries. Sometimes I use just one. At other times, I wear a few together.
Why choose? Your spiritual experience of the universe is only as limited as your mind – remember that.
(Translation: That which exists is One. The sages call It by various names.)
Sanathana Dharma (Hinduism) is not a limited concept and will never be. There is no such thing as “if you do X, you’re a proper Hindu and if you do Y you’re breaching the boundaries of Hinduism”.
Come on. We have cannibalistic Aghori sadhus in rudraksha, and tulasi-wearing Vaishnavas who won’t even consume garlic in keeping with their strict vows of a vegetarian sattvic diet. Who’s to say they’re right or wrong in their practices? Those paths have their scriptural backing too.
In summary, wear rudraksha beads if you wish. Wear tulasi if you prefer that instead. Wear both if your heart so desires – neither Krishna, Shiva nor any authoritative figure of Sanathana Dharma has ever forbidden it.
According to the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, fresh milk is a highly recommended food for hatha yogis. This 15th-century yoga manual by Swami Svatmarama praises milk as a wholesome, nourishing food and states that it is an essential part of a sattvic yogic diet.
Understandably, unethical dairy farming methods are a huge concern these days. I usually get my supply from small local dairy farms or ISKCON centers (ISKCON cows are protected for life and never slaughtered) to ensure that the least cruelty is involved. If you can get ahimsa milk where you live, fantastic! For a vegan version of this drink, see the notes within the recipe below.
Spiced milk (Hindi: masala doodh) is a common beverage in India. The spices in this recipe impart fragrance, flavor and medicinal properties to the milk, as well as help in aiding digestion.
It just so happens that my favorite color is blue and my good friend, Alex Lee, has a Clitoria Ternatea flower farm in Australia. Alex provided me with a sachet of her organic, all-natural Blue Butterfly powder, and this is my first attempt at using it in my cooking. This flower is commonly known as bunga telang in Malay, and it’s popular in Peranakan cuisine. The plant is a creeper, and pretty easy to grow in a tropical climate.
As a kid, I saw Luke Skywalker drinking blue milk in Star Wars, and I’ve wanted to drink it ever since. There you go, an idea to get your kids to drink more milk – actual dairy or a quality vegan substitute, whichever your choice may be.
Here’s a simple recipe for spiced milk. I consume this almost daily before bedtime. You can vary the spices if you wish, or add a pinch of saffron. This beverage makes an excellent and nourishing meal substitute, especially at night.
500ml fresh cow’s milk (or a vegan milk substitute)
3-4 cardamom pods
1-2 whole dried cloves
1 stick of cinnamon
1 star anise
2 small springs of Indian holy basil (tulsi)
½ tsp organic chia seeds
Honey or jaggery to taste (optional)
1) Pour the milk into a sturdy pot. Add in all dried spices and stir well. Bring the milk to boil on medium heat, stirring regularly. Milk burns easily, so stir briskly and well, scraping the bottom of your pot.
2) When the milk comes to a rolling boil, stir well for 2-3 minutes, then turn off the heat. Allow to cool for approximately 5 minutes. (If you wish to sweeten the milk, allow the milk to cool for 10 minutes before adding the honey or jaggery, then stir well).
3) Add the Blue Butterfly powder solution to the milk. Stir briskly until the color is uniform.
4) Pour the milk into serving glasses or mugs. Add the springs of holy basil (one per glass), ensuring that the herb is at least partially submerged in the milk – this helps the Ayurvedic medicinal properties of the leaves to steep into the milk. Garnish with the chia seeds and serve hot.
Vegan variation: To make a vegan version of this recipe, simply substitute the cow’s milk with any vegan milk of your choice. Also, when using vegan milk, do not allow the liquid to boil – simply heat the vegan milk up, then turn off the heat when it’s close to boiling point. The best vegan milks to use for this recipe are soy, cashew, oat, almond and coconut.
Part 3: The Reasons Behind Everything We Do in Puja
How to Benefit from the Sacred Energy Exchange
Remember that every offering used in puja will become energized in two ways:
1) The energy you send out into the universe and to the deities, in the form of love and devotion; and
2) The energy that returns to you in the form of blessings and positive vibrations.
Hence, it’s important to use items of good quality, such as fresh flowers, fresh milk and an edible, cooking-grade puja oil. A transfer of energy takes place with each item you offer, so be aware of this when you purchase things for puja use.
Stale food, synthetic and processed items are energetically inferior and considered tamasic (possessing dark and negative qualities). For example, it’s spiritually more beneficial to offer whole dried turmeric than the factory-produced powdered version, and fresh milk instead of UHT recombined milk.
Here are some explanations for the items, utensils and offerings used in puja:
Pictures and Statues
Some think it’s ridiculous to ‘pray’ to pictures and statues. Contrary to popular belief, followers of Sanatana Dharma (Hinduism) are not blindly worshipping idols and paintings of fantasy humanoid beings in fancy clothes and tons of jewellery.
It’s rather pointless to get agitated over the ramblings of people like Zakir Naik – the best defence is to get educated over why we do the things we do, and leave the simpletons to their own delusions. If we consider the sheer volume of Vedic spiritual scripture available to us, we really don’t have the time to entertain such mundane things.
You can help educate others on the ways of Sanatana Dharma and the reasons we do the things we do:
1) The pictures and deities are representations of the various types of higher spiritual energies in the universe;
2) The pictures and deities are more for our benefit as mortals, so it’s simply an easier way to focus the mind on worship and communion – the gods, demigods, deities, elevated beings and spiritual masters who have attained Mahasamadhi are beyond this mundane material existence and are not confined to a material body like we humans are.
Time and time again, we are confronted with ‘scientific evidence’ that we’re not the only living beings in this universe. The Vedic scriptures have confirmed this thousands of years ago, especially the first Canto of the Bhagavata Purana (Srimad Bhagavatham), which essentially is the Sanatana Dharma version of the book of Genesis. Mantras and prayer rituals help us connect with highly-elevated beings and request their help, in the form of spiritual guidance and blessings.
If you really think about it, it’s not such a shocking thing to accept. In such a vast, endless universe, why would we assume that we’re the only existing forms of life?
Pure cow’s ghee is the best oil for puja. Remember, the oil you use is what fuels the sacred fire of your puja (agni), and the quality of energy you receive in return will be affected by the oil you use. I strongly recommend against using factory-manufactured puja oils due to the chemical additives and inferior quality.
Puja is a very sacred spiritual act of summoning and merging with powerful universal energies, so it’s wise to use quality ingredients accordingly. If you can’t afford ghee, it’s perfectly fine to use any pure, edible vegetable oil.
Flowers for Offering
When choosing flowers to offer to your deities and spiritual masters, don’t just grab the nearest thing on a stalk and pay for it. Envision what your ishta deva would like and make it a devotional, loving process. Won’t your Shakti look fabulous in that red rose garland? Wouldn’t Krishna just love this dew-fresh tulsi?
Make it personal and pour your love into everything you do for puja. That’s how you earn the favour of the higher powers and get the best positive vibrations in return.
The best flowers for puja are all types of jasmine, roses, chrysanthemum and lotus. It’s highly beneficial to offer flowers that have natural fragrance and are white, yellow, orange, red or pink in color.
Certain flowers and leaves shouldn’t be offered to certain deities; for instance, tulsi should only be offered to Vishnu or Krishna, or placed in the hands of a Srimathi Radharani deity. Lord Shiva likes white flowers and bilva leaves, but shouldn’t be offered ketaki flowers (frangipani). Ganesha should be offered the sacred kusha (also known as darbha) grass. Durga, Lakshmi and avatars of goddesses in general may be offered fragrant, colored flowers (preferably yellow, orange, red and pink).
Why do we avoid offering certain flowers to specific deities? To make a very long story short, some items match the energies of the deities better, and some don’t. Even as human beings, we have our specfic likes and dislikes, favorites and things we hate, plus allergies to items that just don’t agree with our bodily energy. It’s a similar concept with deities, just on a deeper level.
Fruits for Offering
Most sweet and juicy fruits can be offered during puja, as long as they’re fresh. It’s best not to offer pungent-smelling fruits like durian. Durga and her avatars may be offered large green limes in specific numbers, usually 9 or 27 – please check with your local pujari for more information.
Preparing Food as Puja Offerings
Everything you offer to the deities and the universal energy during puja is a representation of your love and devotion in multiple material forms, such as various types of food.
To be able to cook foodstuff to be offered in puja is a great blessing indeed. Imagine being able to create an offering for the highest energies in the universe with your own two hands and skills, in your very own kitchen – you get to choose the ingredients with love and care, prepare them and blend them into exquisite flavors.
Cooking for the deities is therefore a highly personal and divine act, and one of the highest forms of love and devotion possible while one is in this temporary human form. If you decide to cook for puja, I assure you that it’ll be a very spiritually fulfilling and highly rewarding experience. Just remember to maintain cleanliness during food preparation; the saying that ‘cleanliness is godliness’ was not without reason. All food offered during puja must be sattvic (no meat, seafood, eggs, onions, garlic or mushrooms).
Also, food being prepared for puja shouldn’t be tasted before offering – it’s better to use less salt, sugar and spices when cooking, until experience enables you to decide on the correct measures.
Maintaining the Purity of Puja Utensils
All utensils used for puja (plates, cups, spoons, wiping cloths, ect.) should be kept solely for that purpose to maintain their purity, energy-wise. It’s best to use serving ware made of brass or stainless steel.
Porcelain and glass are energetically inferior, but still better than plastic. Avoid having any form of plastic on the altar.
Disposing Used Puja Offerings (Organic)
Don’t dispose items previously used for puja in the garbage, such as dried flowers or incense ash. These items still contain sacred energy from the puja and they’re considered to be prasada. Plants will benefit immensely from them, and they will thrive and grow beautifully when nourished by used puja offerings.
Disposing Used Puja Offerings (Food)
If food offered in puja (prasada) becomes spoiled for any reason, it should be buried or placed in running water. If the food is still edible but not fresh, it may be offered to animals. Please avoid food wastage at all costs.
Disposing Used Puja Offerings (Synthetic)
If flower garlands were tied with synthetic string, remove the string and dispose it in the trash as it’s not biodegradable. On our path of self-realization, we should strive to heighten our awareness in even the simplest daily tasks. Hence, we should take care to avoid damaging the environment.
I strongly advise you to avoid using anything synthetic for puja, as these materials are tamasic in nature and don’t absorb divine vibrations well. I also personally feel that disposing puja remnants as garbage is insulting to the deities – it’s like throwing a sacred gift away.
Final Note: Puja in the Vedas
A reader asked me where in the four Vedas puja is mentioned. The simple answer is this: puja was never a separate part of Sanatana Dharma as a form of Bhakti Yoga. Per scriptures, divine worship is an essential part of life and shouldn’t be neglected.
Each Veda is divided into 4 parts – the Samhitas (which outlines the use of mantras), the Aranyakas (detailed instructions on how to conduct worship rituals and divine ceremonies), the Brahmanas (commentaries and explanations of Vedic rituals and worship ceremonies) and finally, the Upanishads (also known as Vedanta, or the ‘end parts of the Vedas’, and these generally discuss philosophy and meditation). In summary, the entire Vedas is interwoven with various aspects of puja.
Most Indians are familiar with puja and would know how to perform a simple, basic puja at home (or anywhere, actually). If you’re new to this and would like to start, congratulations on taking this first step in Bhakti Yoga.
Puja can be as simple or as elaborate as you want. Remember, the most important aspects of puja are devotion and sincerity. Don’t worry about doing something wrong. As long as you perform puja with love and good intentions, your offerings will be accepted and you’ll receive the benefits of the ritual in the form of positive energy.
Basic things you’ll need for puja:
An incense holder
A clean cloth for the altar
New cotton wick
A brass puja bell
A brass oil lamp
Pictures or statues of your deities of choice
Pictures of your spiritual masters / gurus
A container for water (for offering)
Oil for the lamp (ghee or any pure, edible vegetable oil)
Fresh flowers, leaves or fruits (all three, if possible)
Additional items (optional):
A camphor holder
A frankincense holder
A container for water with a spoon (to purify your hands)
Plates for offering food (kept specifically for puja purposes)
1. Shower. Always be freshly showered before having anything to do with puja, even if you’re just cleaning or setting up the altar. Purity on all levels is best when it comes to puja.
2. Clean the altar. If you don’t have an altar, a table covered with a clean, new cloth will do. If the altar was used previously for puja, remove any dried flowers, dried garlands, leftover incense ash and previously offered water. Dispose all organic material under a tree or plants. Any previously offered water should be consumed or poured on plants. It’s not necessary to throw away leftover oil in the lamp – it can be reused and replenished as needed.
3. Arrange your pictures and puja utensils. Every altar should ideally have a picture or statue of Ganesha, as he is the deity in charge of removing obstacles. Place Ganesha on the left, followed by the other deities to the right. If you have a two-tiered altar, you can place the pictures of your spiritual masters below the pictures of the deities; otherwise, place these to the sides. Place the incense holder, water container and bell on your altar, in front of the pictures. Note: You can easily make additional tiers on your altar using bricks, wooden blocks or books, and covering these with a cloth.
4. Decorate the altar and prepare your offerings. If you have fresh flowers or garlands, decorate the altar with these, in any style you like. Light the incense. Fill the water container up with clean drinking water or fresh milk. If you have sattvic vegetarian food or fruits you’d like to offer, arrange these on the altar on plates specifically purchased for puja. If the oil lamp is empty, refill it with fresh ghee (or vegetable oil). Trim a cotton wick to about 1 ½ to 2 inches in length, then lightly dip the edge you’re going to light into the oil. Squeeze the wick’s tip to remove excess oil, then place the whole wick into the lamp, with the edge of the wick sitting on the pointed rim of the lamp.
5. Light the lamp to begin your puja. Ring the bell firmly for a few seconds; this is done to invite the devas to accept your offerings and dispel any negative energies within the space. If you feel comfortable enough, ring the bell using your left hand and perform aarathi with your right hand (with lit camphor placed in the camphor holder). Aarathi should be performed in large, circular motions three times, in a clockwise direction. Some people prefer to perform aarathi at the end of the puja, but I do mine at the beginning.
6. Recite mantras or pray silently. If you want to recite mantras, always start with a Ganesha mantra before anything else. After Ganesha, the mantras for the other deities should follow in this sequence, according to your chosen deities : Vishnu / Krishna, Shiva, Lakshmi, Durga, Muruga, and the rest. If you don’t know any mantras, it’s perfectly acceptable to pray silently, in your mind and heart, in any language. Offer your greetings and obeisances to the deities respectfully, and thank them for coming to grace your puja (never doubt this – once you ring the bell, they are energetically present at your altar). Mentally share any concerns you have and ask them for help or guidance. Once you have completed your prayers, thanks the deities for everything you’ve been given so far – always remember to have an attitude of gratitude.
7. Meditate. Make sure the flame is ‘safe’ so as not to accidentally cause a fire when you’re not watching it. You may place it on a large metal tray to prevent stray sparks from touching the altar cloth. Once you’re sure the lamp is burning in a safe manner, meditate with your eyes closed for about 10 to 20 minutes. It’s best to sit on a pillow or mat, with your hands in chin mudra or in your lap. You may also do japa chanting with the aid of a rosary.
8. Conclude the puja. Once you’ve completed your meditation, silently ask for permission to end the puja. Then, put out the lamp using a flower (or use a twig to drown the wick and flame in the oil). If you have offered milk, water, fruits or food, you may now remove the items and transfer them to your regular cups and plates for consumption.
Note: If you’d like to perform a more elaborate puja for a special reason, you may want to consider hiring a priest as they are trained extensively in complex Vedic rituals. It does not mean that a simple puja you do yourself is inferior – it’s just more practical due to the complexity of the rituals, especially those done for specific purposes.