Kali Puja: The Art of Seeing God
By Swami Bhajanananda Saraswati and Swami Ambikananda Saraswati
Inside, the hush of anticipation is intense. The temple, drenched in predawn murkiness, is full of all types of devotees, diverse souls seeking the same sanctuary at this early hour. Monks sit silently at the foot of the altar, their orange robes almost glowing in the dimness—their fire defies the shadows. No image is to be seen. The large wooden double doors on the altar remain shut. But the light coming from the crack under those doors tells you that something is about to happen. In an instant the hallowed sound of the blowing conch pierces the silence, and as the single note fills every corner of the hall, the doors are opened, light spills everywhere, and a thunderous tumult of bells, gongs and drums announces the glorious awakening of the sleepless, all-powerful Lord. As the eyes of the divine image fall upon you, you fall to your knees, head to the floor, bowing. Then you rise, and the clamor of instruments glides into a natural rhythm as the pujari offers flame, flower, water, perfume and cooling breeze to the living God. The devotees know without a doubt that they have seen God, and that God has seen them. This is darshan, the grace and beauty of the Hindu temple: you do not have to be a saint to see God.
This scene is repeated morning after morning in thousands of temples throughout India. Most of the world’s major religions teach that God is everywhere and ever-present. Yet these same religions recognize the power and importance of sacred sites; temples, mosques and churches are unlike other buildings. The house of worship holds within it a special manifestation of divinity. Call it an “atmosphere” or a “presence”, or whatever you like—it is a quality, immediate and unmistakable, and powerful enough to remind us that the Truth felt within those walls is indeed outside as well. The lens held up to the sunlight will focus the all pervading rays into a beam powerful enough to burn. If the temple is the lens through which divinity is focused, then within the Hindu temple, the image of the deity is that blazing point of total convergence.
It is surprising that some practitioners of religions who accept the divine presence within the sacred site often have great difficulty in accepting the same presence within the sacred image, and they will usually resort to derisive tones, calling it “idolatry.” But to recognize the false, we must have some notion of the true. How does a thing become sacred? What brings about that quality? Why will the devotee trample across one stone presumably to worship another stone? The answer lies within an object’s connection to the divine.
...There are symbols and symbols, the real ones and the false ones. The mirage has got the appearance of water, but it is a delusive phenomenon which has nothing to do with water; whereas, the wave may be recognized as a true symbol of the ocean, because it rises out of it, is in touch with it, and also gets merged in it. Like the ocean, it is made of the same substance, water.2
The images in Hindu temples are not arbitrary; they are not made up on a whim. These are divine forms, revealed forms, possessing the necessary attributes that separate them from other forms, in the same way that a hundred dollar bill possesses the particular elements that separate it from just another scrap of paper.
While it is true that you do not have to be a saint to see God, there are gradations to darshan. Inside the temple, the saint will not see the deity in the same way as the scoundrel. Just as we all have different physical eyesight, so we all have different spiritual vision. But there is hope, and therein lies the incentive. Although our corporeal vision generally deteriorates as we age, our spiritual vision should only improve. It must improve, and become perfect: that is the goal of sadhana, spiritual practice.
If God is everywhere and ever-present, then why is it that we are not continuously stunned in divine rapture? We are not always conscious of the Divine presence. The devotional schools of Hinduism stress the importance of invoking this presence through prayers, chanting and worship.
It is perhaps best to begin a discussion of the elements of traditional worship with the One being worshiped. There are 33 million gods and goddesses in the Hindu pantheon. The label-loving Western mind will immediately assume that “Hinduism”, itself a label for Sanatana Dharma, the eternal religion of India, is polytheistic—or perhaps henotheistic. Dictionaries and encyclopedias will describe with anemic brevity the “Hindu god of [fill in blank]” or the “goddess of [fill in blank]”. Yet if asked, a devout follower of one of those gods or goddesses will say, “I am only worshiping God” (with a capital “G”). As the Rig Veda declares: “Truth is one; sages call it by many names.”3 The same mountain will appear differently when approached from different directions. Theologically speaking, this is a revolutionary thought—even for so-called “sophisticated” modern minds. As a result, we have the concept of the ishta devata, or chosen deity. The devotee chooses the face of Truth that is dearest to his or her heart and begins to cultivate a relationship of love, reverence and surrender. We may look upon God as our mother, father, child, friend, or lover. Because the Supreme Being is supremely gracious, we are allowed to approach and to worship that Being in so many beautiful ways. It is this revelation which allows for the incredible richness, variety and complexity within Indian religion.
Before we can truly see everything as divine, we must adopt an attitude of treating everything as divine. But this is not pretense; this is process. The mind and heart must be transformed. One of the easiest ways to purify our heart and mind is to call to the Lord from the depth of our being. God’s presence must be invoked and sustained by our heartfelt prayers and adoration. This is called puja. Puja can be as simple as offering your love and aspiration as a flower to the lord of your heart or as intricate as the ritualized worship in public temples.
Each of these approaches carries with it its own unique form of puja. Puja varies according to the deity worshiped, and naturally, the region of practice. Yet there are striking similarities as well, since certain elements of all forms of puja have their collective roots in Tantra. Tantra is the esoteric science of transforming consciousness through dynamic spiritual practices. These elements were absorbed into the Vedic system, eventually finding new expression.
Even in modern times diverse traditions continue to influence and enrich one another.
The heart’s need for the divine vision is by no means exclusive to India. It is universal. Kali Mandir in Laguna Beach is a traditional temple dedicated to bringing all the beauty and sanctifying power of traditional ritualistic worship to the West. It is a temple of the Divine Mother of the Universe as the loving-fierce form of Goddess Kali. Since its beginning in 1993 Kali Mandir has grown into a beautiful blend of sincere Indian and Western devotees from different lineages, as well as aspirants with no formal affiliations—all attracted by the tangible living presence of the Divine Mother.
Worship is performed daily to the awakened image of Ma Dakshineshwari (the Goddess from Dakshineshwar). The puja performed at Kali Mandir follows the ritualistic tradition of the Dakshineswar Kali Temple, located in Bengal, just outside Kolkata. This temple is renowned as the place where Sri Ramakrishna Paramahamsa lived, taught, and worshiped the Divine Mother with an awe-inspiring intensity. Dakshineswar has been a beacon for the universality of religion for over a century.
Once a month at Kali Mandir, crowds of Ma’s children gather for a special worship held on amavasya, the mystic night of the dark moon, an auspicious time for Kali worship. Sincere devotees from far and wide come for this event. They come from all over the state, some driving over four hours to see Her and sing Her names. There are pious Indian families, who come together, sometimes four generations, bowing before Ma simultaneously. Mendicant Hindu monks sit silently, their very presence infusing the atmosphere with sanctity. Young devotees from Los Angeles, pierced, dyed and tattooed, whose purehearted sincerity will bring tears to your eyes, sit together waiting with anticipation. Old, young, spiritual geniuses and the slightly crazy—they all find their way to Mother’s feet. A glimpse of the devotees can change your life as quickly and thoroughly as a glimpse of the Mother.
The puja is performed by a pujari, someone who is trained in the technical nuances of traditional ritual. The pujari’s main function is to call forth Divinity, to make the Divine Presence felt. To do this he or she must first awaken the Divinity within through a sequence of purifying acts, each one operating on increasingly subtler levels.
With our actions, mind and speech, we have no other goal than You, Who by dwelling within, witnesses all beings, O Supreme Goddess.
This prayer, recited at the end of the puja, beautifully conveys the essence of devotional worship. The act of puja is a conscious redirecting of our mind and the senses toward the ever-present Divinity. Our speech becomes purified through the recitation of the sacred mantras used in puja; our actions become purified through the use of hand gestures (mudra), breath control (pranayama), and the physical offering of gifts to the Divine. Our thoughts become purified through the various meditations and visualizations occurring throughout the worship. Redirection, purification, and transformation: this is the process by which the Divine is awakened.
Dusk has settled. The altar is sparkling clean and exquisitely decorated. Garlands of marigolds adorn the images, while trays piled with flowers await offering. The lamps and incense are lit. The pujari comes before the altar, bows, and sits down to meditate for a short time before starting. The outgoing mind must now withdraw and patiently focus on the inner world.
As if being cued, everyone present settles down and begins to withdraw. It is now so quiet you could hear a feather drop. Once in a while we encounter moments so peaceful, they seem like the soft pause between the breaths of life itself. This is one of them.
Serene silence, the flickering of oil lamps, and the gentle curling of fragrant incense: God is waiting.
Slowly the pujari puts his hands together and begins to pray:
May auspiciousness come from our Divine Guru.
May auspiciousness come from our Divine Mother.
May auspiciousness come from devotees of the
Lord. May auspiciousness come from all the worlds.
This prayer helps to remind us that devotion is a gift. Remembering this helps develop the humility necessary for spiritual advancement. It is by the grace of our teachers, the devotees, and the Divine Mother Herself that we are blessed with the privilege and opportunity to worship Her. The pujari, on behalf of the assembled devotees, therefore invokes their blessings before beginning the puja.
All the mantras used in puja are spoken in Sanskrit. Each mantra is a sacred formula, divine consciousness as sound vibrations. In linguistics there is the concept of the speech act. For example, the speaking of a marriage vow is itself the act of becoming married. When spoken with a focused will, words have a tremendous power. Considering that ordinary words possess the power to win or break hearts, topple governments, and transform civilizations, what can be said of the power of sanctified speech?
The pujari then begins the first stage of purification. Three times, he pours a spoonful of water in his right palm, infuses it with the name of Vishnu, and sips. The scriptures stress the importance of sipping water charged with mantras (acamana), for purification at the beginning of any religious act. The worshiper feels that this consecrated water, like the Ganges, is flowing from the holy feet of the Lord.
Water is a central element in puja. This water receives its purifying power through mantra. In front of the pujari is the copper vessel and offering spoon that represents the womb of the Divine Mother. The pujari fills this vessel with water and begins to show a series of mudras. His hands hover and glide, like birds, over this water, as if speaking fluently in some beautiful sign language. The sacred rivers (Ganga, Yamuna, Godavari, Saraswati, Narmada, Sindhu, and Kaveri), all of them personified Goddesses, are invoked into this water which will now serve as an important purifying agent throughout the rest of the puja.
Puja contains syntax unique unto itself, employing sacred conventions to express spiritual intentions. The mudra is an example of one such convention. Mudras are hand gestures that, like mantras, embody certain energies. The hands naturally express emotions and ideas: we make fists when angry, throw up our hands when frightened or disgusted, wave, point, etc. Similarly, certain hand gestures can express spiritual ideas. Mudras also help concentrate the mind by unifying body, mind and vital force (prana).
Shifting into a position almost resembling the Catholic genuflection, the pujari recites the sankalpa, the formal declaration of pure intent. This keeps us mindful of our purpose in performing the ritual. It is extremely dangerous to worship God with selfish motives.
Sri Ramakrishna would pray, “Oh Mother! I do not crave bodily comforts. I do not want name and fame. I do not seek the eight occult powers. I only want pure love for Thy Lotus Feet!”
The pujari now draws a yantra with water under his seat, and offers it flowers, honoring and sanctifying Mother Earth. Then the altar and articles of worship are subtly purified with sprinkling of water and chanting of mantras. The system of puja is a tradition handed down from guru to disciple. The pujari invokes his lineage of gurus (sampradaya), connecting himself with this unbroken chain of grace and placing himself at a specific point within sacred time. The pujari next places himself at a specific point within sacred space. Through the sanctity of the worship itself, the place of worship becomes the holy yantra or realm of the Goddess. This yantra has ten main entrance points: the eight cardinal directions, and above and below. It is through these that energy can enter and leave the yantra. The pujari moves his hand around his head, snapping his fingers while uttering the protective mantra “phat”, sealing these points, in order to contain the divine energies invoked during the worship.
Pouring water from the palm of his hand around himself, the pujari imagines being protected by a ring of fire. As our concentration deepens and our hearts begin to open up, we become sensitive to negative energies and astral entities. This process creates a safe environment for performing the internal practices that follow.
As these opening rituals continue, one of the many expert musicians begins to sing to the accompaniment of harmonium, drums and hand cymbals. Some devotees continue to meditate throughout the kirtan. This call-and-response devotional chanting is a great way to personally experience the transformative power and beauty of God’s many holy names.
Meanwhile the pujari begins performing pranayama. Prana refers to the vital force that animates our body and mind, and manifests outwardly as our breath. Ayama means control and expansion. Pranayama is the practice through which this vital air is consciously controlled or directed. While mentally chanting a mantra, the breath is inhaled, held and exhaled through alternating nostrils in a series of sequential durations. This quiets the mind and purifies the 72,000 subtle nerves in the body, allowing the free flow of prana and the awakening of kundalini shakti, the Divine Mother as the power of consciousness residing in the body.
As only diamond can cut diamond, the Tantric scriptures declare that “Divinity alone can worship Divinity.” The body and mind need to be divinized. All the purification that has taken place so far goes to support the following practice, one of the most crucial in puja, known as bhutashuddhi. Consciousness, divine by nature, has no material form or shape, but rather takes on the qualities of its container. Therefore the whole process of bhutashuddhi is to purify the container, the body and mind. According to Tantra, this body and mind are composed of five gross elements (earth, water, fire, air, ether), and three subtle elements (mind, intelligence, ego). In bhutashuddhi, all of these principles undergo total purification.
With the body and mind now purified, the Divine Mother can be invoked within the heart through the appropriate mantras and mudras. The pujari now creates a proper spiritual body for Her, in place of his own. The Maha-Lakshmyashtakam states, “The form of the Goddess consists only of mantra (mantra murti sada devi).” According to Tantric philosophy, creation begins with vibration. The supreme vibration is the universal sound Om, which then differentiates Itself into the fifty unique sounds of the Sanskrit alphabet. These sound-letters join to create the world of name and form. Each letter is recognized as a matrika, or mother-goddess. Through the process of nyasa, each matrika is placed and worshiped within the pujari’s body.
The excitement continues to build as the pujari begins the traditional preliminary worship. The guru is honored first, since the guru is the human channel of divine grace. Next Lord Ganesha, the elephant-headed son of Shiva and Parvati, is worshiped as the remover of our material and spiritual obstacles. Then the five Vedic deities (Shiva, Vishnu, Surya, Durga, and Agni) are honored, connecting us with ancient tradition. As perfume, flower, incense, light, and sweets are offered, the music of the kirtan becomes intoxicating. The drums and cymbals beat faster, and the singing falls into harmony with the pujari’s chanting.
Reciting a verse (dhyana-mantra) that describes the vision of Mother Kali seen by the sages, the pujari places a flower on his head and mentally worships the Goddess within his heart. He now prepares for the invocation of the all-pervading Mother into the image. This is the moment of prana pratishtana, when God is humbly asked to come, sit, and face the assembled devotees. These mantras and mudra are some of the most powerful ones used in the puja, and it is not difficult to perceive the manifestation taking place. That transcendent Reality, in the form of the Goddess, now stands before us to receive our worship.
This is the magic moment. She is here! The devotees feel Her presence. The Subtle One has become obvious. The Absolute Existence, Knowledge and Bliss, invoked within the pujari’s heart and projected into the holy image can be seen and experienced. The devotees, all different and unique, offer their love, prayers, concerns, complaints and aspirations to their Mother. Does She listen? Is it only imagination? The full hearts and shining faces of Her devotees give the answer.
The pujari raises his hands before the Divine Mother, beckoning Her to sit. He offers Her welcome, washes Her feet, and gives Her water and sweet milk to drink. He bathes Her, clothes Her, gives Her bangles and other ornaments, perfume, hibiscus (Ma’s favorite flower), garlands, incense and light. These external offerings are the symbolic tokens of our inner love, devotion and respect. We want relationship. We want to see God.
Assistants clear space on the altar, making room for Mother’s meal. Trays and trays of cooked foods, sweets, fruits, and refreshing spices are brought and laid before Her. The mood suddenly changes and the devotees sing soulful songs while their dear Mother enjoys Her meal. When She is finished, the trays of food are taken back to the kitchen. This food having been partaken by God is now prasad and is considered purified and blessed. The devotees will feast on Her mercy after the puja.
The pujari stands and blows the conch. All rise for the concluding arati. The air is now electric. Every voice in the temple is glorifying the Divine Mother, chanting Jai Ma Jai Ma Jai Ma Jai Ma! (Victory to the Mother!), while every pair of hands, every bell, drum, and cymbal, claps and clangs in unison. The pujari offers a ghee lamp with five wicks, gently circling it around Her image. Then he offers a spoon of burning camphor, water from a bathing conch, cloth, flower, and fan. The conch is blown again three times, declaring spiritual victory, as all bow to Ma. Symbolically, the elements of the material universe are being offered back into their Source. But for the devotees present, this is simply the natural way to adore the Mother—the art of seeing God.
1 This article was co-authored with Swami Ambikananda Saraswati, and first appeared in Light of Consciousness Magazine, Winter 2001.
2 Swami Yatiswarananda, Meditation and Spiritual Life, (Ramakrishna Math, Bangalore, 1995), p. 383.