Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Our Traditions And Our Culture by Swamy Chinmayananda

1. Why do we light a lamp?

In almost every Indian home a lamp is lit daily before the altar of
the Lord. In some houses it is lit at dawn, in some, twice a day –
at dawn and dusk – and in a few it is maintained continuously
(Akhanda Deepa). All auspicious functions commence with the lighting
of the lamp, which is often maintained right through the occasion.

Light symbolizes knowledge, and darkness, ignorance. The Lord is
the "Knowledge Principle" (Chaitanya) who is the source, the
enlivener and the illuminator of all knowledge. Hence light is
worshiped as the Lord himself.

Knowledge removes ignorance just as light removes darkness. Also
knowledge is a lasting inner wealth by which all outer achievement
can be accomplished. Hence we light the lamp to bow down to
knowledge as the greatest of all forms of wealth.

Why not light a bulb or tube light? That too would remove darkness.
But the traditional oil lamp has a further spiritual significance.
The oil or ghee in the lamp symbolizes our vaasanas or negative
tendencies and the wick, the ego. When lit by spiritual knowledge,
the vaasanas get slowly exhausted and the ego too finally perishes.
The flame of a lamp always burns upwards. Similarly we should
acquire such knowledge as to take us towards higher ideals.

Whilst lighting the lamp we thus pray:
Deepajyothi parabrahma
Deepa sarva tamopahaha
Deepena saadhyate saram
Sandhyaa deepo namostute

I prostrate to the dawn/dusk lamp; whose light is the Knowledge
Principle (the Supreme Lord), which removes the darkness of
ignorance and by which all can be achieved in life.

2. Why do we have a prayer room?

Most Indian homes have a prayer room or altar. A lamp is lit and the
Lord worshipped each day. Other spiritual practices like japa
(repetition of the Lord's name), meditation, paaraayana (reading of
the scriptures), prayers, and devotional singing etc is also done
here. Special worship is done on auspicious occasions like
birthdays, anniversaries, festivals and the like. Each member of the
family - young or old - communes with and worships the Divine here.

The Lord is the entire creation. He is therefore the true owner of
the house we live in too. The prayer room is the Master room of the
house. We are the earthly occupants of His property. This notion
rids us of false pride and possessiveness.

The ideal attitude to take is to regard the Lord as the true owner
of our homes and us as caretakers of His home. But if that is rather
difficult, we could at least think of Him as a very welcome guest.
Just as we would house an important guest in the best comfort, so
too we felicitate the Lord's presence in our homes by having a
prayer room or altar, which is, at all times, kept clean and well-

Also the Lord is all pervading. To remind us that He resides in our
homes with us, we have prayer rooms. Without the grace of the Lord,
no task can be successfully or easily accomplished. We invoke His
grace by communing with Him in the prayer room each day and on
special occasions.

Each room in a house is dedicated to a specific function like the
bedroom for resting, the drawing room to receive guests, the kitchen
for cooking etc. The furniture, decor and the atmosphere of each
room are made conducive to the purpose it serves. So too for the
purpose of meditation, worship and prayer, we should have a
conducive atmosphere - hence the need for a prayer room.

Sacred thoughts and sound vibrations pervade the place and influence
the minds of those who spend time there. Spiritual thoughts and
vibrations accumulated through regular meditation, worship and
chanting done there pervade the prayer room. Even when we are tired
or agitated, by just sitting in the prayer room for a while, we feel
calm, rejuvenated and spiritually uplifted.

3. Why do we do Namaste?

Indians greet each other with namaste. The two palms are placed
together in front of the chest and the head bows whilst saying the
word namaste. This greeting is for all - people younger than us, of
our own age, those older than friends, even strangers and us.

There are five forms of formal traditional greeting enjoined in the
shaastras of which namaskaram is one. This is understood as
prostration but it actually refers to paying homage as we do today
when we greet each other with a namaste.

Namaste could be just a casual or formal greeting, a cultural
convention or an act of worship. However there is much more to it
than meets the eye. In Sanskrit namah + te = namaste. It means - I
bow to you - my greetings, salutations or prostration to you. Namaha
can also be literally interpreted as "na ma" (not mine). It has a
spiritual significance of negating or reducing one's ego in the
presence of another.

The real meeting between people is the meeting of their minds. When
we greet another, we do so with namaste, which means, "may our minds
meet," indicated by the folded palms placed before the chest. The
bowing down of the head is a gracious form of extending friendship
in love and humility.

The spiritual meaning is even deeper. The life force, the divinity,
the Self or the Lord in me is the same in all. Recognizing this
oneness with the meeting of the palms, we salute with head bowed the
Divinity in the person we meet. That is why sometimes, we close our
eyes as we do namaste to a revered person or the Lord – as if to
look within. The gesture is often accompanied by words like "Ram
Ram", "Jai Shri Krishna", "Namo Narayana", "Jai Siya Ram", "Om
Shanti" etc - indicating the recognition of this divinity.

When we know this significance, our greeting does not remain just a
superficial gesture or word but paves the way for a deeper communion
with another in an atmosphere of love and respect.

4. Why do we prostrate before parents and elders?

Indians prostrate before their parents, elders, teachers and noble
souls by touching their feet. The elder in turn blesses us by
placing his or her hand on or over our heads. Prostration is done
daily, when we meet elders and particularly on important occasions
like the beginning of a new task, birthdays, festivals etc. In
certain traditional circles, prostration is accompanied by
abhivaadana, which serves to introduce one-self, announce one's
family and social stature.

Man stands on his feet. Touching the feet in prostration is a sign
of respect for the age, maturity, nobility and divinity that our
elders personify. It symbolizes our recognition of their selfless
love for us and the sacrifices they have done for our welfare. It is
a way of humbly acknowledging the greatness of another. This
tradition reflects the strong family ties, which has been one of
India's enduring strengths.

The good wishes (Sankalpa) and blessings (aashirvaada) of elders are
highly valued in India. We prostrate to seek them. Good thoughts
create positive vibrations. Good wishes springing from a heart full
of love, divinity and nobility have a tremendous strength. When we
prostrate with humility and respect, we invoke the good wishes and
blessings of elders, which flow in the form of positive energy to
envelop us. This is why the posture assumed whether it is in the
standing or prone position, enables the entire body to receive the
energy thus received.
The different forms of showing respect are :

Pratuthana - rising to welcome a person.
Namaskaara - paying homage in the form of namaste
Upasangrahan - touching the feet of elders or teachers.
Shaashtaanga - prostrating fully with the feet, knees, stomach,
chest, forehead and arms touching the ground in front of the elder.
Pratyabivaadana - returning a greeting.

Rules are prescribed in our scriptures as to who should prostrate to
whom. Wealth, family name, age, moral strength and spiritual
knowledge in ascending order of importance qualified men to receive
respect. This is why a king though the ruler of the land, would
prostrate before a spiritual master. Epics like the Ramayana and
Mahabharata have many stories highlighting this aspect.

5. Why do we wear marks (tilak, pottu and the like) on the

The tilak or pottu invokes a feeling of sanctity in the wearer and
others. It is recognized as a religious mark. Its form and colour
vary according to one's caste, religious sect or the form of the
Lord worshipped.

In earlier times, the four castes (based on varna or colour) -
Brahmana, Kshatriya, Vaishya and Sudra - applied marks differently.
The brahmin applied a white chandan mark signifying purity, as his
profession was of a priestly or academic nature. The kshatriya
applied a red kumkum mark signifying valour as he belonged to
warrior races. The vaishya wore a yellow kesar or turmeric mark
signifying prosperity as he was a businessman or trader devoted to
creation of wealth. The sudra applied a black bhasma, kasturi or
charcoal mark signifying service as he supported the work of the
other three divisions.

Also Vishnu worshippers apply a chandan tilak of the shape of "U",
Shiva worshippers a tripundra of bhasma, Devi worshippers a red dot
of kumkum and so on).

The tilak cover the spot between the eyebrows, which is the seat of
memory and thinking. It is known as the Aajna Chakra in the language
of Yoga. The tilak is applied with the prayer - "May I remember the
Lord. May this pious feeling pervade all my activities. May I be
righteous in my deeds." Even when we temporarily forget this
prayerful attitude the mark on another reminds us of our resolve.
The tilak is thus a blessing of the Lord and a protection against
wrong tendencies and forces.

The entire body emanates energy in the form of electromagnetic
waves - the forehead and the subtle spot between the eyebrows
especially so. That is why worry generates heat and causes a
headache. The tilak and pottu cools the forehead, protects us and
prevents energy loss. Sometimes the entire forehead is covered with
chandan or bhasma. Using plastic reusable "stick bindis" is not very
beneficial, even though it serves the purpose of decoration.

6. Why do we not touch papers, books and people with the feet?

To Indians, knowledge is sacred and divine. So it must be given
respect at all times. Nowadays we separate subjects as sacred and
secular. But in ancient India every subject - academic or spiritual -
was considered divine and taught by the guru in the gurukula.

The custom of not stepping on educational tools is a frequent
reminder of the high position accorded to knowledge in Indian
culture. From an early age, this wisdom fosters in us a deep
reverence for books and education. This is also the reason why we
worship books, vehicles and instruments once a year on Saraswathi
Pooja or Ayudha Pooja day, dedicated to the Goddess of Learning. In
fact, each day before starting our studies, we pray:

Saraswati namasthubhyam
Varade kaama roopini
Vidyaarambham karishyaami
Sidhirbhavatu me sadaa

O Goddess Saraswati, the giver of
Boons and fulfiller of wishes,
I prostrate to You before
starting my studies.
May you always fulfill me?

7. To touch another with the feet is considered an act of
misdemeanor. Why is this so?

Man is regarded as the most beautiful, living breathing temple of
the Lord! Therefore touching another with the feet is akin to
disrespecting the divinity within him or her. This calls for an
immediate apology, which is offered with reverence and humility.

8. Why do we apply the holy ash?

The ash of any burnt object is not regarded as holy ash. Bhasma (the
holy ash) is the ash from the homa (sacrificial fire) where special
wood along with ghee and other herbs is offered as worship of the
Lord. Or the deity is worshipped by pouring ash as abhisheka and is
then distributed as bhasma.

Bhasma is generally applied on the forehead. Some apply it on
certain parts of the body like the upper arms, chest etc. Some
ascetics rub it all over the body. Many consume a pinch of it each
time they receive it.

The word bhasma means, "that by which our sins are destroyed and the
Lord is remembered". Bha implied bhartsanam ("to destroy") and sma
implies smaranam ("to remember"). The application of bhasma
therefore signifies destruction of the evil and remembrance of the
divine. Bhasma is called vibhuti (which means "glory") as it gives
glory to one who applies it and raksha (which means a source of
protection) as it protects the wearer from ill health and evil, by
purifying him or her.

Homa (offering of oblations into the fire with sacred chants)
signifies the offering or surrender of the ego and egocentric
desires into the flame of knowledge or a noble and selfless cause.
The consequent ash signifies the purity of the mind, which results
from such actions.

Also the fire of knowledge burns the oblation and wood signifying
ignorance and inertia respectively. The ash we apply indicates that
we should burn false identification with the body and become free of
the limitations of birth and death. This is not to be misconstrued
as a morose reminder of death but as a powerful pointer towards the
fact that time and tide wait for none.

Bhasma is specially associated with Lord Shiva who applies it all
over His body. Shiva devotes apply bhasma as a tripundra. When
applied with a red spot at the center, the mark symbolizes Shiva-
Shakti (the unity of energy and matter that creates the entire seen
and unseen universe).

Bhasma has medicinal value and is used in many ayurvedic medicines.
It absorbs excess moisture from the body and prevents colds and
headaches. The Upanishads say that the famous Mrityunjaya mantra
should be chanted whilst applying ash on the forehead.

Tryambakam yajaamahe
Sugandhim pushtivardhanam
Urvaa rukamiva bhandhanaan
Mrytyor muksheeyamaa amrutaat

"We worship the three-eyed Lord Shiva who nourishes and spread
fragrance in our lives. May He free us from the shackles of sorrow,
change and death – effortlessly, like the fall of a rip brinjal from
its stem."

9. Why do offer food to the Lord before eating it?

Indians make an offering of food to the Lord and later partake of it
as prasaada - a holy gift from the Lord. In our daily ritualistic
worship (pooja) too we offer naivedyam (food) to the Lord.

The Lord is omnipotent and omniscient. Man is a part, while the Lord
is the totality. All that we do is by His strength and knowledge
alone. Hence what we receive in life as a result of our actions is
really His alone. We acknowledge this through the act of offering
food to Him. This is exemplified by the Hindi words "tera tujko
arpan"– I offer what is Yours to You. Thereafter it is akin to His
gift to us, graced by His divine touch.

Knowing this, our entire attitude to food and the act of eating
changes. The food offered will naturally be pure and the best. We
share what we get with others before consuming it. We do not demand,
complain or criticise the quality of the food we get. We eat it with
cheerful acceptance (prasaada buddhi).

Before we partake of our daily meals we first sprinkle water around
the plate as an act of purification. Five morsels of food are placed
on the side of the plate acknowledging the debt owed by us to the
Divine forces (devta runa) for their benign grace and protection,
our ancestors (pitru runa) for giving us their lineage and a family
culture, the sages (rishi runa) as our religion and culture have
been "realised", aintained and handed down to us by them, our fellow
beings (manushya runa) who constitute society without the support of
which we could not live as we do and other living beings (bhuta
runa) for serving us selflessly.

Thereafter the Lord, the life force, who is also within us as the
five life-giving physiological functions, is offered the food. This
is done with the chant

praanaaya swaahaa,
apaanaaya swaahaa,
vyaanaaya swaahaa,
udaanaaya swaahaa,
samaanaaya swaahaa,
brahmane swaahaa

After offering the food thus, it is eaten as prasaada - blessed

10. Why do we fast?

Most devout Indians fast regularly or on special occasions like
festivals. On such days they do not eat at all, eat once or make do
with fruits or a special diet of simple food.

Fasting in Sanskrit is called upavaasa. Upa means "near" + vaasa
means "to stay". Upavaasa therefore means staying near (the Lord),
meaning the attainment of close mental proximity with the Lord. Then
what has upavaasa to do with food?

A lot of our time and energy is spent in procuring food items,
preparing, cooking, eating and digesting food. Certain food types
make our minds dull and agitated. Hence on certain days man decides
to save time and conserve his energy by eating either simple, light
food or totally abstaining from eating so that his mind becomes
alert and pure. The mind, otherwise pre-occupied by the thought of
food, now entertains noble thoughts and stays with the Lord. Since
it is a self-imposed form of discipline it is usually adhered to
with joy.

Also every system needs a break and an overhaul to work at its best.
Rest and a change of diet during fasting is very good for the
digestive system and the entire body.

The more you indulge the senses, the more they make their demands.
Fasting helps us to cultivate control over our senses, sublimate our
desires and guide our minds to be poised and at peace.

Fasting should not make us weak, irritable or create an urge to
indulge later. This happens when there is no noble goal behind

The Bhagavad-Gita urges us to eat appropriately - neither too less
nor too much - yukta-aahaara and to eat simple, pure and healthy
food (a saatvik diet) even when not fasting.

11. Why do we do pradakshina (circumambulate)?

We cannot draw a circle without a center point. The Lord is the
center, source and essence of our lives. Recognizing Him as the
focal point in our lives, we go about doing our daily chores. This
is the significance of pradakshina.

Also every point on the circumference of a circle is equidistant
from the center. This means that wherever or whoever we may be, we
are equally close to the Lord. His grace flows towards us without

12. Why is pradakshina done only in a clockwise manner?

The reason is not, as a person said, to avoid a traffic jam!
As we do pradakshina, the Lord is always on our right. In India the
right side symbolizes auspiciousness. So as we circumambulate the
sanctum sanctorum we remind ourselves to lead an auspicious life of
righteousness, with the Lord who is the indispensable source of help
and strength, as our guide - the "right hand".

Indian scriptures enjoin - matrudevo bhava, pitrudevo bhava,
acharyadevo bhava. May you consider your parents and teachers as you
would the Lord. With this in mind we also do pradakshina around our
parents and divine personages.

After the completion of traditional worship (pooja), we customarily
do pradakshina around ourselves. In this way we recognize and
remember the supreme divinity within us, which alone is idolized in
the form of the Lord that we worship outside.

13. Why do we regard trees and plants as sacred?

The Lord, the life in us, pervades all living beings, be they plants
or animals. Hence, they are all regarded as sacred. Human life on
earth depends on plants and trees. They give us the vital factors
that make life possible on earth: food, oxygen, clothing, shelter,
medicines etc.

Hence, in India, we are taught to regard trees and plants as sacred.
Indians scriptures tell us to plant ten trees if, for any reason, we
have to cut one. We are advised to use parts of trees and plants
only as much as is needed for food, fuel, shelter etc. we are also
urged to apologies to a plant or tree before cutting it to avoid
incurring a specific sin named soona.

Certain trees and plants like tulasi, peepal etc., which have
tremendous beneficial qualities, are worshipped till today. It is
believed that divine beings manifest as trees and plants, and many
people worship them to fulfill their desires or to please the Lord.

14. Why do we ring the bell in a temple?

Is it to wake up the Lord? But the Lord never sleeps. Is it to let
the Lord know we have come? He does not need to be told, as He is
all knowing. Is it a form of seeking permission to enter His
precinct? It is a homecoming and therefore entry needs no
permission. The Lord welcomes us at all times. Then why do we ring
the bell?

The ringing of the bell produces what is regarded as an auspicious
sound. It produces the sound Om, the universal name of the Lord.
There should be auspiciousness within and without, to gain the
vision of the Lord who is all-auspiciousness.

Even while doing the ritualistic aarati, we ring the bell. It is
sometimes accompanied by the auspicious sounds of the conch and
other musical instruments. An added significance of ringing the
bell, conch and other instruments is that they help drowned any
inauspicious or irrelevant noises and comments that might disturb or
distract the worshippers in their devotional ardour, concentration
and inner peace.

As we start the daily ritualistic worship (pooja) we ring the bell,

Aagamaarthamtu devaanaam
gamanaarthamtu rakshasaam
Kurve ghantaaravam tatra
devataahvaahna lakshanam

I ring this bell indicating
the invocation of divinity,
So that virtuous and noble forces
enter (my home and heart);
and the demonic and evil forces
from within and without, depart.

15. Why do we worship the kalasha?

First of all what is a kalasha? A brass, mud or copper pot is filled
with water. Mango leaves are placed in the mouth of the pot and a
coconut is placed over it. A red or white thread is tied around its
neck or sometimes all around it in a intricate diamond-shaped
pattern. The pot may be decorated wit designs. Such a pot is known
as a kalasha.

When the pot is filled with water or rice, it is known as
purnakumbha representing the inert body which when filled with the
divine life force gains the power to do all the wonderful things
that makes life what it is.

A kalasha is placed with due rituals on all-important occasions like
the traditional house warming (grihapravesa), wedding, daily worship
etc. It is placed near the entrance as a sign of welcome. It is also
used in a traditional manner while receiving holy personages. Why do
we worship the kalasha? Before the creation came into being, Lord
Vishnu was reclining on His snake-bed in the milky ocean. From His
navel emerged a lotus from which appeared Lord Brahma, the creator,
who thereafter created this world.

The water in the kalasha symbolizes the primordial water from which
the entire creation emerged. It is the giver of life to all and has
the potential of creating innumerable names and forms, the inert
objects and the sentient beings and all that is auspicious in the
world from the energy behind the universe. The leaves and coconut
represent creation.

The thread represents the love that "binds" all in creation. The
kalasha is therefore considered auspicious and worshipped. The
waters from all the holy rivers, the knowledge of all the Vedas and
the blessings of all the deities are invoked in the kalasha and its
water is thereafter used for all the rituals, including the

The consecration (kumbhaabhisheka) of a temple is done in a grand
manner with elaborate rituals including the pouring of one or more
kalashas of holy water on the top of the temple. When the asuras and
devas churned the milky ocean, the Lord appeared bearing the pot of
nectar, which blessed one with everlasting life.

Thus the kalasha also symbolizes immortality. Men of wisdom are full
and complete as they identify with the infinite Truth (poornatvam).
They brim with joy and love and respect all that is auspicious. We
greet them with a purnakumbha ("full pot") acknowledging their
greatness and as a sign of respectful and reverential welcome, with
a "full heart".

16. Why do we consider the lotus as special?

The lotus is the symbol of truth, auspiciousness and beauty (satyam,
shivam, sundaram). The Lord is also that nature and therefore, His
various aspects are compared to a lotus (i.e. lotus-eyes, lotus
feet, lotus hands, the lotus of the heart etc.).

The lotus blooms with the rising sun and close at night. Similarly,
our minds open up and expand with the light of knowledge. The lotus
grows even in slushy areas. It remains beautiful and untainted
despite its surroundings, reminding us that we too can and should
strive to remain pure and beautiful within, under all circumstances.

The lotus leaf never gets wet even though it is always in water. It
symbolizes the man of wisdom (gyaani) who remains ever joyous,
unaffected by the world of sorrow and change. This is revealed in a
shloka from the Bhagwad-Geeta:

Brahmanyaadhaaya karmaani
Sangam tyaktvaa karoti yaha
Lipyate na sa paapena
Padma patram ivaambhasaa

He who does actions, offering them to Brahman (the Supreme),
abandoning attachment, is not tainted by sin, just as a lotus leaf
remains unaffected by the water on it.

From this, we learn that what is natural to the man of wisdom
becomes a discipline to be practiced by all saadhakas or spiritual
seekers and devotees. Our bodies have certain energy centers
described in the Yoga Shaastras as chakras.

Each one is associated with lotus that has a certain number of
petals. For example, a lotus with a thousand petals represents the
Sahasra chakra at the top of the head, which opens when the yogi
attains Godhood or Realisation. Also, the lotus posture (padmaasana)
is recommended when one sits for meditation. A lotus emerged from
the navel of Lord Vishnu. Lord Brahma originated from it to create
the world. Hence, the lotus symbolizes the link between the creator
and the supreme Cause.

It also symbolizes Brahmaloka, the abode of Lord Brahma. The
auspicious sign of the swastika is said to have evolved from the

17. Why do we worship tulasi?

In Sanskrit, tulanaa naasti athaiva tulasi - that which is
incomparable (in its qualities) is the tulasi.

For Indians it is one of the most sacred plants. In fact it is known
to be the only thing used in worship, which, once used, can be
washed and reused in pooja - as it is regarded so self-purifying.

As one story goes, Tulasi was the devoted wife of Shankhachuda, a
celestial being. She believed that Lord Krishna tricked her into
sinning. So she cursed Him to become a stone (shaaligraama). Seeing
her devotion and adhered to righteousness, the Lord blessed her
saying that she would become the worshipped plant, tulasi that would
adorn His head.

Also that all offerings would be incomplete without the tulasi leaf -
hence the worship of tulasi.

She also symbolises Goddess Lakshmi, the consort of Lord Vishnu.
Those who wish to be righteous and have a happy family life worship
the tulasi.

Tulasi is married to the Lord with all pomp and show as in any

This is because according to another legend, the Lord blessed her to
be His consort. Satyabhama once weighed Lord Krishna against all her
legendary wealth. The scales did not balance till a single tulasi
leaf was placed along with the wealth on the scale by Rukmini with

Thus the tulasi played the vital role of demonstrating to the world
that even a small object offered with devotion means more to the
Lord than all the wealth in the world.

The tulasi leaf has great medicinal value and is used to cure
various ailments, including the common cold.

Yanmule sarvatirhaani
Yannagre sarvadevataa
Yanmadhye sarvavedaascha
Tulasi taam namaamyaham

I bow down to the tulasi, At whose base are all the holy places, At
whose top reside all the deities and In whose middle are all the

18. Why do we blow the conch?

When the conch is blown, the primordial sound of Om emanates. Om is
an auspicious sound that was chanted by the Lord before creating the
world. It represents the world and the Truth behind it.

As the story goes, the demon Shankhaasura defeated devas, the Vedas
and went to the bottom of the ocean. The devas appealed to Lord
Vishnu for help. He incarnated as Matsya Avataara - the "fish
incarnation" and killed Shankhaasura. The Lord blew the conch-shaped
bone of his ear and head. The Om sound emanated, from which emerged
the Vedas.

All knowledge enshrined in the Vedas is an elaboration of Om. The
conch therefore is known as shankha after Shankaasua. The conch
blown by the Lord is called Paanchajanya. He carries it at all times
in one of His four hands.

It represents dharma or righteousness that is one of the four goals
(purushaarthas) of life. The sound of the conch is thus also the
victory call of good over evil.

Another well-known purpose of blowing the conch and the instruments,
known traditionally to produce auspicious sounds is to drown or mask
negative comments or noises that may disturb or upset the atmosphere
or the minds of worshippers.

Ancient India lived in her villages. Each village was presided over
by a primary temple and several small ones. During the aarati
performed after all-important poojas and on sacred occasions, the
conch used to be blown. Since villages were generally small, the
sound of the conch would be heard all over the village. People who
could not make it to the temple were reminded to stop whatever they
were doing, at least for a few seconds, and mentally bow to the
Lord. The conch sound served to briefly elevate people's minds to a
prayerful attitude even in the middle of their busy daily routine.

The conch is placed at the altar in temples and homes next to the
Lord as a symbol of Naada Brahma (Truth), the Vedas, Om, dharma,
victory and auspiciousness. It is often used to offer devotees
thirtha (sanctified water) to raise their minds to the highest
Truth. It is worshipped with the following verse.

Twam puraa saagarot pannaha
Vishnunaa vidhrutahakare
Devaischa poojitha sarvahi
Panchjanya namostu te

Salutations to Panchajanya
the conch born of the ocean
Held in the hand of Lord Vishnu
and worshipped by all devaas

19. Why do we say shaanti thrice?

Shaanti, meaning "peace", is a natural state of being. Disturbances
are created either by others or us. For example, peace already
exists in a place until someone makes noise.

Therefore, peace underlies all our agitations. When agitations end,
peace is naturally experienced since it was already there. Where
there is peace, there is happiness. Therefore, every one without
exception desires peace in his/her life.

However, peace within or without seems very hard to attain because
it is covered by our own agitations. A rare few manage to remain
peaceful within even in the midst of external agitation and
troubles. To invoke peace, we chant prayers. By chanting prayers,
troubles end and peace is experienced internally, irrespective of
the external disturbances. All such prayers end by chanting shaanti

It is believed that trivaram satyam - that which is said thrice
comes true. For emphasizing a point we repeat a thing thrice. In the
court of law also, one who takes the witness stands says, "I shall
speak the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth".

We chant shaanti thrice to emphasise our intense desire for peace.
All obstacles, problems and sorrows originate from three sources.

Aadhidaivika : The unseen divine forces over which we have little or
no control like earthquakes, floods, volcanic eruptions etc.

Aadhibhautika: The known factors around us like accidents, human
contacts, pollution, crime etc.

Aadhyaatmika : We sincerely pray to the Lord that at least while we
undertake special tasks or even in our daily lives, there are no
problems or that, problems are minimised from the three sources
written about above.

May peace alone prevail. Hence shaanti is chanted thrice.

It is chanted aloud the first time, addressing the unseen forces. It
is chanted softer the second time, directed to our immediate
surroundings and those around, and softest the last time as it is
addressed to oneself.

20. Why do we offer a coconut?

In India one of the most common offerings in a temple is a coconut.
It is also offered on occasions like weddings, festivals, the use of
a new vehicle, bridge, house etc. It is offered in the sacrificial
fire whilst performing homa. The coconut is broken and placed before
the Lord. It is later distributed as prasaada.

The fibre covering of the dried coconut is removed except for a tuft
on the top. The marks on the coconut make it look like the head of a
human being. The coconut is broken, symbolising the breaking of the
ego. The juice within, representing the inner tendencies (vaasanas)
is offered along with the white kernel - the mind, to the Lord.

A mind thus purified by the touch of the Lord is used as prasaada (
a holy gift). In the traditional abhishekha ritual done in all
temples and many homes, several materials are poured over the deity
like milk, curd, honey, tender coconut water, sandal paste, holy ash
etc. Each material has a specific significance of bestowing certain
benefits on worshippers. Tender coconut water is used in abhisheka
rituals since it is believed to bestow spiritual growth on the

The coconut also symbolises selfless service. Every part of the
tree -the trunk, leaves, fruit, coir etc. Is used in innumerable
ways like thatches, mats, tasty dishes, oil, soap etc. It takes in
even salty water from the earth and converts it into sweet nutritive
water that is especially beneficial to sick people. It is used in
the preparation of many ayurvedic medicines and in other alternative
medicinal systems.

The marks on the coconut are even thought to represent the
three-eyed Lord Shiva and therefore it is considered to be a means
to fulfill our desires.

21. Why do we chant Om?

Om is one of the most chanted sound symbols in India. It has a
profound effect on the body and mind of the one who chants and also
on the surroundings. Most mantras and vedic prayers start with Om.

All auspicious actions begin with Om. It is even used as a greeting -
Om, Hari Om etc. It is repeated as a mantra or meditated upon. Its
form is worshipped, contemplated upon or used as an auspicious sign.

Om is the universal name of the Lord. It is made up of the letters A
(phonetically as in "around"), U (phonetically as in "put") and M
(phonetically as in "mum"). The sound emerging from the vocal chords
starts from the base of the throat as "A". With the coming together
of the lips, "U" is formed and when the lips are closed, all sounds
end in "M".

The three letters symbolize the three states (waking, dream
and deep sleep), the three deities (Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva), the
three Vedas (Rig, Yajur and Sama) the three worlds (Bhuh, Bhuvah,
Suvah) etc. The Lord is all these and beyond.

The formless, attributeless Lord (Brahman) is represented by the
silence between two Om Chants. Om is also called pranava that
means, "that (symbol or sound) by which the Lord is praised". The
entire essence of the Vedas is enshrined in the word Om. It is said
that the Lord started creating the world after chanting Om and atha.
Hence its sound is considered to create an auspicious beginning for
any task that we undertake. The Om chant should have the resounding
sound of a bell (aaooommm).

Om is written in different ways in different places. The most common
form symbolizes Lord Ganesha's. The upper curve is the head; the
lower large one, the stomach; the side one, the trunk; and the semi-
circular mark with the dot, the sweetmeat ball (modaka) in Lord
Ganesha's hand. Thus Om symbolizes everything - the means and the
goal of life, the world and the Truth behind it, the material and
the Sacred, all form and the Formless.

22. Why do we do aarati?

Towards the end of every ritualistic worship (pooja or bhajan) of
the Lord or to welcome an honored guest or saint, we perform the
aarati. This is always accompanied by the ringing of the bell and
sometimes by singing, playing of musical instruments and clapping.

It is one of the sixteen steps (shodasha upachaara) of the pooja
ritual. It is referred to as the lighted lamp in the right hand,
which we wave in a clockwise circling movement to light the entire
form of the Lord.

Each part is revealed individually and also the entire form of the
Lord. As the light is waved we either do mental or loud chanting of
prayers or simply behold the beautiful form of the Lord,
illumined by the lamp. At the end of the aarati we place our hands
over the flame and then gently touch our eyes and the top of the

We have seen and participated in this ritual from our childhood. Let
us find out why we do the aarati?

Having worshipped the Lord of love - performing abhisheka,
decorating the image and offering fruits and delicacies, we see the
beauty of the Lord in all His glory. Our minds are focused on each
limb of the Lord as the lamp lights it up. It is akin to silent open-
eyed meditation on His beauty. The singing, clapping, ringing of the
bell etc. denote the joy and auspiciousness, which accompanies the
vision of the Lord.

Aarati is often performed with camphor. This holds a telling
spiritual significance. Camphor when lit, burns itself out
completely without leaving a trace of it. It represents our inherent
tendencies (vaasanas). When lit by the fire of knowledge which
illumines the Lord (Truth), our vaasanas thereafter burn themselves
out completely, not leaving a trace of ego which creates in us a
sense of individuality that keeps us separate from the Lord.

Also while camphor burns to reveal the glory of Lord, it emits a
pleasant perfume even while it sacrifices itself. In our spiritual
progress, even as we serve the guru and society, we should willingly
sacrifice ourselves and all we have, to spread the "perfume" of love
to all. We often wait a long while to see the illumined Lord but
when the aarati is actually performed, our eyes close automatically
as if to look within. This is to signify that each of us is a temple
of the Lord.

Just as the priest reveals the form of the Lord clearly with the
aarati flame, so too the guru reveals to us the divinity within each
of us with the help of the "flame" of knowledge (or the light of
spiritual knowledge). At the end of the aarati, we place our hands
over the flame and then touch our eyes and the top of the head. It
means - may the light that illuminated the Lord light up my vision;
may my vision be divine and my thoughts noble and beautiful.

The philosophical meaning of aarati extends further. The sun, moon,
stars, lightning and fire are the natural sources of light. The Lord
is the source of this wonderous phenomenon of the universe. It is
due to Him alone that all else exist and shine. As we light up the
Lord with the flame of the aarati, we turn our attention to the very
source of all light, which symbolizes knowledge and life.

Also the sun is the presiding deity of the intellect, the moon, that
of the mind, and fire, that of speech. The Lord is the supreme
consciousness that illuminates all of them. Without Him, the
intellect cannot think, nor can the mind feel nor the tongue speaks.
The Lord is beyond the mind, intellect and speech. How can this
finite equipment illuminate the Lord? Therefore, as we perform the
aarati we chant;

Na tatra suryo bhaati na chandra taarakam
Nemaa vidyuto bhaanti kutoyamagnib
Tameva bhaantam anubhaati sarvam
Tasya bhasa sarvam idam vibhaati

He is there where the sun does not shine,
Nor the moon, stars and lightning.
then what to talk of this small flame (in my hand),
Everything (in the universe) shines only after the Lord,
And by His light alone are we all illumined.

Swami Chinmayananda


At April 18, 2006 4:12 AM, Blogger Known Stranger said...

oh my good ness what a big post it is.


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