The ringing of Bells in Temples
When entering a temple, most of them have one or more bells hung from the ceiling. The devotee rings the bells as he or she enters, then proceeds for darshan to see the Deities. The ring of the bell produces a sound similar to Om, the universal name of the Lord. This helps create an atmosphere of auspiciousness when entering the temple.
This is also a reason why a bell is rung by a priest, pujari while doing the arati ceremony. Ringing the bell, blowing the conch, and engaging in the kirtan or singing holy songs, are all ways to worship the Lord and keep away all inauspicious and irrelevant noises and thoughts that might disturb or distract the worshipers from their devotions and inner peace.
The significance of Arati Ceremony
The arati ceremony is the offering of a ghee lamp to the Deity or object of respect. These lamps usually have five or more flames on them. Arati is performed in the temples to the Deities several times a day. It is also offered to special guests and holy saints. It is also accompanied by ringing a bell, singing or playing musical instruments.
In offering the lamp to the Deity, it is held in the right hand and waved in a clockwise motion, 4 times to the feet, 2 times to the waist, and seven times around the whole body. It is a way of adding an intensity to the prayers and the image of the Lord. Besides, the aroma of the burning ghee is quite pleasing. Afterward, the ghee lamp is passed around the room so that everyone can place their hands over the flame that has been offered to the Deity, accepting it as holy remnants, pPrasad and then touch the hands to the eyes or head.
This is a gesture of accepting the light of knowledge, and the light which revealed the Lord. We use the lamp to light the form of the Lord who is in fact the source of all light. This was particularly significant before there was electricity and when temples were lit by lamps. The arati ceremony would especially provide light to various parts of the Deity when the priest would wave the lamp in front of it. Some of the older temples in India are still like this today.
We also accept this lamp as a symbol of lighting our own vision and thoughts with hopes that they may be divine and noble. Sometimes camphor is also used in place of ghee. This also presents a pleasing scent. The ghee or camphor also represents our inherent tendencies that are being offered to the fire of knowledge, which reveals the form of the Lord and thus increases our mental and physical purity in service to the Lord.
Reason Lamp or Diya are lit
In many homes and temples, there are lamps that are lit. And many special functions start with the lighting of a lamp. Light symbolizes knowledge which keeps us free from the darkness of ignorance. Knowledge removes ignorance just as light removes darkness. Therefore, the lamp is lit and we bow to it as this knowledge is the greatest form of wealth.
It is kept lit during special functions as a guide and witness to our thoughts and actions. Of course, now lamps are not as necessary with the use of electric bulbs, etc. But the lamp is the traditional instrument which represents our vasanas or negative inclinations, while the wick signifies our ego. As the lamp burns, it also represents the burning away of our bad habits and bodily ego. The flame burns upward, as knowledge also takes our views higher.
Why Conch Shell is blown
Whether in temples or in our household temple rooms, the conch shell is blown three times before the arati ceremony or puja, worship. It is kept on the altar as a symbol for Truth, dharma, auspiciousness, and victory. It also was blown before a battle or after the victory of an army.
Blowing the conch emanates the sound of Om, which contains all the knowledge of the Vedas. It is an auspicious sound and represents the truth behind the illusion. It also can purify the atmosphere, as well as the minds of those who hear it. It also represents dharma or righteousness.
So it is appropriate for it to be blown before the arati or puja. The sound of the conch draws one’s attention to the presence of the Lord and the Vedic sound vibration. It thus drowns out the negative noises that may distract us from the sacred atmosphere or disturb our minds. This is also why sometimes devotees bow to the sound of the conch when it is blown.
The tradition relates that there was once a demon named Shankhasura who had defeated the devas (demigods) and stole the Vedas from them. He then hid at the bottom of the ocean. The devas prayed to Lord Vishnu for assistance. He incarnated as Matsya and killed the demon. The Lord blew one of the conch shells that hung from His ears and the Om resonated, from which the Vedas returned. For this reason, the conch is also called shankha after Shankhasura. The Lord’s conch shell is named Panchajanya.
Why Coconuts are offered
One of the most common items that are offered to the Deities in the temple is the coconut. You will also see it being used to start special occasions, like weddings, festivals, etc., when it is offered and then broken. You may also see it sitting on top of a pot with mango leaves. This is a representation of Lakshmi devi, the goddess of fortune, or sometimes Lord Shiva. The coconut is offered to the Deity as a representation of the body (the coconut shell), mind (the white fruit) and soul (the milk). All these are offered to the Deity, and then it is broken to let out the milk and fruit. This indicates the breaking of the ego.
Then, after it is offered to the Lord, what remains is accepted as remnants from the Lord, as prasada. This represents a complete circle in which God accepts our offering of the body, mind and soul and gives back the mercy, prasada, of the Lord.
Purpose of Circumambulating Temple or Dieties
Another thing that you may see is when devotees circumambulate and go around the Deities in the sanctum of a temple, or even around the temple itself, or around sacred places, like special hills or even holy towns. This is called pradakshina. This is a means of recognizing the center point of our lives, the center of the circular path we take in honor of the Deities of the Lord, or something connected with Him. This is done in a clockwise manner so to keep the Deity on our right, which is the side of auspiciousness.
So in a way, it is a reflection of going through life while keeping God in the center. Walking around holy sites is another way of undergoing austerities for spiritual merit. It is accepted that each step takes away some of our material karma, and thus helps us get free from the mundane affairs and worldly consciousness which causes us to undertake the actions which create our karma, which helps free us from further rounds of birth and death. Respect can be shown to our superiors or parents by circumambulating them three times as well.
Purpose of offering food to God before eating
We often see that food preparations are offered to the Deities during the worship. Or even in homes of devotees, food is prepared and then offered to the Deities in the family temple room before anyone else accepts it. Then it is taken as prasada or mercy of the Deities or God as spiritualized food. Even in many western homes food is taken only after observing a prayer. This is a recognition that whatever blessings we receive in life is a result of the Lord’s arrangement.
After all, everything is God’s property, and we are merely borrowing it. So we offer to God whatever we accept before taking it ourselves. We can especially do this with food. Furthermore, it has been detected that the particles of food change when prayers are said over it. So offering the food increases the high level of energy that goes into it that would otherwise not be there.
Basic Hindus worship
Sometimes, especially during a homa ritual, there is a special pot or kalasha, topped with a coconut, that is given special attention. The pot may be made from brass, copper or mud, and filled with water. Tied around its neck may be a red and white string. The pot often has designs on its sides. It may be used for special occasions like weddings, or set near entrances of homes, etc.
The water in the kalasha symbolizes the waters of creation when the cosmic manifestation appeared with the arrangements of Lord Vishnu and Brahma. The leaves and coconut represent the creation, while the string indicates the love that is the foundation of the whole creation. When prayers are offered to the kalasha, it is considered that all the holy waters, the Vedic knowledge, and the blessings of the Deities are invoked in it.
The purified water within is then used in the rituals. At other times, the prayers are used to invoke the energy of the Goddess of Fortune, Lakshmi Devi, and the kalasha becomes a representation of Lakshmi.
Why Tulasi Tree is worshiped
Respect for plants and the resources that we depend on is a basic premise of the Vedic culture. In fact, one of the ways of doing social service is to plant trees for shade along the paths that people regularly use. Another point is to use only as much of the plants or trees that is needed, whether it be for food, shelter or fuel.
Indeed, cutting trees unnecessarily is considered a sin or way of accumulating bad karma. So respect for trees is naturally a part of the Vedic path. In fact, some trees have such good medicinal qualities and benefits that they remain highly regarded till this day.
However, there are some specific plants that are given more respect for particular reasons. The tulasi tree is very special. It is not unusual to find it in many temples in India in the courtyard, or even in homes. In fact, it is considered a part of worship to take care of it, water it and circumambulate it.
The whole plant, and even its soil, is considered sacred. A leaf from the tulasi plant is placed on the food that is offered to Lord Vishnu or Krishna. It is His favorite tree. The tulasi is considered an incarnation or expansion of a pure devotee of the Lord. This is based on a long traditional story in the Vedic literature. She also symbolizes Goddess Lakshmi, and once a year there is the festival of the marriage ceremony between tulasi and the Lord. This is because the Lord also blessed her to be His consort. So the worship of the tulasi tree is a part of the devotional service to Lord Krishna and Vishnu.
Lotus a Scared Flower
The lotus, besides being India’s national flower, is a symbol of truth, beauty and auspiciousness. The Lord is also compared with these principles and its beauty. You can easily find it in many parts of India adorning ponds and lakes. The lotus grows out of the water but raises above it. It remains beautiful and untainted regardless from where it grows. In this way, it shows that we too can remain unaffected by the world of trouble and doubt around us.
The Vedic literature has numerous references to the beauty of the lotus, and it is a common architectural motif. Lord Vishnu and Goddess Lakshmi both carry a lotus in their hands. A lotus also emerged from the navel of Lord Vishnu during the process of universal creation, from which Brahma originated. Thus, the lotus also indicates the link between the Creator and the creation. So the lotus is highly regarded.
Purpose of Fasting
Devotees sometimes fast on certain and special days. This sort of fasting is called Upavaasa, which means to stay near. This is in regard to staying near the Lord in the mental disposition by spending more time in the thought of God without using the time and energy in procuring items of food to prepare, cook and eat.
Food does certain things to us according to its quality. Some of it will heighten our awareness while other types may indeed make our minds clouded and dull. So on special days, a devotee may save time and conserve energy by either eating very simple and light foods, or even by not eating at all. Thus, one’s mind can remain alert and absorbed in thoughts of God, and not be pre-occupied thinking of what to eat.
On a more mundane level, it is also a way of giving the body and digestive system a break, and letting it get cleaned out. Fasting also helps bring control and discipline over the senses and calms our mind. However, fasting for some other reason based on ego or politics will not bring the same results. And one should not become unnecessarily weak by long fasts.
This can become counter productive in keeping the mind and senses equipoised for developing meditative spiritual awareness and love for God if we become too weak, or focused only on desiring food to eat. Lord Krishna advises us in the Bhagavad-gita that we should take the middle path of not eating too much nor too little, but to eat purely, simply and healthily for keeping body and soul together for spiritual purposes.