The sacredness inherent in nature has been extolled in India—through both the spoken and written word—since at least the Vedic times. During the period when the Vedas were being composed, from approximately 1500 to 500 BCE, there were no temples and no images of God in India. Instead, it was mountains, oceans, rivers, trees, the wind, the sun, the moon, and other forces of nature that were worshipped year in and year out.
The great sages and saints drew upon the example of nature to impart to their disciples the knowledge of the Self. They explained how the universe comprises various forms of divinity that can be worshipped. One of the verses of the Shrimad Bhagavata Purana, a text of ancient stories and teachings, says:
खं वायुमग्निं सलिलं महीं च
ज्योतींषि सत्त्वानि दिशो द्रुमादीन्।
सरित्समुद्रांश्च हरेः शरीरं
यत्किं च भूतं प्रणमेदनन्यः॥११.२.४१ ॥
khaṁ vāyum agniṁ salilaṁ mahīṁ ca
jyotīṁṣi sattvāni diśo drumādīn ।
sarit-samudrāṁś ca hareḥ śarīraṁ
yat kiṁ ca bhūtaṁ praṇamed ananyaḥ ৷৷
One should honor everything—space, wind, fire, water, earth, the celestial bodies, all living things, the directions, trees and plants, rivers and oceans—as the body of the Lord, who is no different from oneself.1
The sages of the Puranas recognized that this entire cosmos arises from the Lord’s own being and is not different from the Lord. Therefore, one way to honor God is to pay homage to God’s creation. We can express our reverence to God by performing rituals of worship and by showing respect to everything in this world. We can offer our salutations to the Lord by acknowledging the divinity in all people and creatures.
The word puja in the Sanskrit language means “worship,” and it derives from the root puj, which means “to worship and honor.” To perform puja is to offer reverence, adoration, and respect. It is a way to give homage, to recognize the sacredness and sanctity of someone or something. In essence, puja is a means of honoring, of expressing love, gratitude, and devotion to one’s ishta-devata, or chosen deity—one’s beloved form of the Divine.
Through the ritual of puja to their chosen form of the Absolute, the worshiper connects with the presence of the Divine in daily life and invokes blessings. It is a ritual that requires a continued—and very beautiful and symphonious—engagement with the Divine. The sadhana of puja gives the mind a very clear focus. The worshipper must be fully present and attentive to and careful about how each step of the puja is performed. As a result, the mind has less of an opportunity to wander or escape.
In the Guru-disciple tradition, the preeminent form of puja is puja to one’s own Guru. In a doha, Saint Kabir eloquently describes the bhava, the inner disposition, a disciple holds in relation to their Guru:
गुरु गोविन्द दोऊ खडे़ काके लागूं पांय।
बलिहारी गुरु आपकी जिन गोविन्द दियो बताय॥
guru govinda doū khaḍe kāke lāgū̃ pā̃y ।
balihārī guru āpakī jin govinda diyo batāy ৷৷
My Guru and the Lord are both standing before me.
To whom should I bow first?
O Gurudev, I give myself completely to you.
You are the one who has shown the Lord to me.2
Saint Kabir tells us that Shri Guru, embodying infinite compassion, should be worshipped foremost, since it is the Guru who imparts teachings about the Divine and guides disciples to the experience of that divinity.
In 1972, I was traveling as a seeker throughout India when I was told by someone in the Himalayas about a great Guru who resided in Gurudev Siddha Peeth, the Siddha Yoga Ashram in India. Not long after, I realized that I did wish for and need a Guru, and so I decided to go to Gurudev Siddha Peeth. I was still somewhat of a skeptic when I arrived; nonetheless, I received Baba Muktananda’s darshan and shaktipat-diksha, divine initiation. And that—to make a long story short—propelled me into Siddha Yoga sadhana.
Since then, Guru-puja has been one of my constant practices. By offering puja, I can express my profound reverence and love to my Shri Guru for all that I have received and continue to receive. When I was in India, I was able to learn the rituals for offering puja to the Guru. In Gurudev Siddha Peeth especially, worship of the Guru is happening around the clock.
That being said, there are specific days on which the offering of puja is of particular importance. It is said in the scriptures and stories of India that when puja is performed on these holidays, the benefits of worship magnify exponentially.
I have laid out for you the steps to offer Guru-puja. And if, for some reason, you’re not able to set up or offer worship at a physical altar, you may do manasa puja; this is mental worship, wherein you envision doing all the steps of worship. It is just as powerful as offering the worship outwardly.
Each of the puja offerings has specific and manifold meanings. I’ve explained a few of those meanings below so that you can hold this knowledge in your awareness as you perform worship. In this way, your actions will not be rote; they will be imbued with meaning.
The elements of worship can be simple and elegant. Let them be of a quality that inspires devotion and love in you.
- You may prepare by bathing beforehand and wearing neat and clean clothes. Cleanliness represents purity, and it expresses our intent to offer the best of ourselves for worship.
- Be sure the space for puja is also clean and neat.
- Create an altar with an image of the Guru and, if you have a pair of the Guru’s padukas, or sandals, place them in front of the image.
- Offer fruits by placing them on the altar.
- The fruits represent the attainments we achieve, with the Guru’s grace, as we perform spiritual practices. We offer the fruits as a gesture of detachment and gratitude.
- Begin the puja by invoking the Guru’s grace. You can say: “Sadgurunath Maharaj ki Jay.”
- Behold the Guru’s image and the Guru’s padukas with the understanding that you are receiving darshan.
- Offer fragrance by waving an incense stick three times—or more, as you wish—in front of the image of the Guru. Wave the incense stick in a circle in a clockwise direction.
- Then, wave an arati tray that holds a small candle or ghee lamp in front of the Guru’s image and the padukas three times—or more, as you wish. First wave the tray to your left, then make a half circle to the right, and make a dome by waving the tray in a full circle in a clockwise direction.
- The flame represents the light of the Divine, the light of the Guru, the light of the Self.
- On the tray, you can place small amounts of turmeric, kumkum, rice, and flowers. Position the flowers so that they face the Guru’s image.
- The yellow turmeric represents vigor, radiance, and knowledge.
- The red kumkum represents Shakti and auspiciousness.
- The white rice represents nourishment, purity, prosperity, and that which is indestructible. In the context of Guru-puja, this indestructible quality translates to how the relationship between Guru and disciple is eternal; this bond is unbroken and unbreakable.
- The flowers represent our innate goodness: we offer the excellent qualities that have blossomed in us.
- After waving the arati tray, place it on the puja altar. If you are using a ghee lamp, the flame can stay lit until it goes out naturally. If you are using a candle, you can extinguish the flame after the puja is over. (Do this by covering the flame, rather than by blowing it out.)
- Now offer your prayers. There are many ways to do this. You can formulate your own prayer, practice mantra japa, or recite one of the invocations in your Siddha Yoga chanting book, such as Shri Guru Paduka Panchakam or Jyota se Jyota Jagao.
- After praying, offer pranam to the Guru in front of the altar and sit quietly for a while. Just be there, open to receiving teachings from the Guru now that your heart is completely open after the worship.
- Offering puja is a wonderful prelude to meditation, since your mind is at peace. Your mind is content. Your mind is filled with devotion.
May the Guru-puja you offer bring forth the goodness in you. May the Guru-puja you offer fortify your sadhana. May the Guru-puja you offer bring blessedness to this world.