Any spiritual person with a set of organised beliefs will prayto God or the Almighty. If Hindus call it puja, Christians prayers, Muslims namaz.
Hindu form of worship is based on rites and rituals that occur throughout the year. Though different individuals based on their sect or caste may perform rituals differently all of them do agree in one God.
“Puja” comes from Sanskrit root, ‘P’, for ‘paap’ or sin, and ‘J’, for ‘janma’ or birth. It also means reverence, homage, and worship. Hindu worship usually involves visiting temples. But most basic religious rites and rituals occur at home. Rituals vary in the day or evening. Sandhyavandanam is one such ritual where praying to Sun God is three times a day – sunrise, noon and sun setwhen last prayers are offered.
Usually in orthodox family’s women wake up before dawn, take bath and using rice flour put Rangoli at the doorstep for good luck and divine grace for the family. Thesedaily rituals end in prayers for both men and women. Prayers cannot be in abstract form and therefore when God(s) is worshipped the idol(s)have to be installed accordingly, called prathista. Puja is a ritual involving lighting of lamps, taking aarti with camphor, offering prasadam, reciting prayers and singing bhajans.
In South traditional Hindus priest at dawn recite Veda mantras at temples while for the householder it is the Gayatri Mantra offered as prayers thrice daily to the Sun – dawn, noon and dusk as mentioned earlier. In rural areas usually going to temples is more important where singing community bhajans or satsang is a ritual. Prayers does not mean interaction with God. It can also be to pitrus or deceased ancestors and is called tarpanam done every new moon day (Amavasya) and once a year as shraddh. It is anelaborate affair with homam (lighting the sacred fire) offering water and pindam(rice balls) to ancestors who supposedly bless and protect the householder and his family.
There can no prayer without devotion. Bhakti is fundamental to prayer and is basic tenet of Hinduism. Whichever God a Hindu chooses to worship it becomes his ishta devata (beloved God). Of course, there is no bar worshipping other gods and a Hindu is a polytheistby nature as he believes in more than one deity.
Puja for a layman is ritual offerings to god accompanied with prayers. It has puja vidhi (dos and don’ts according to one’s religion itself). Though a prayer is worship of a deity it can also mean disciplining the five physical senses that wanderaway from spiritual pursuit.
When prayers assume importance, priest come to help. Elaborate ceremonies like marriage or sacred thread ceremony need competent prieststo carry out the detailed procedures. The priests are treated at par with God and given offerings and gifts at the end of the ritual. Those attending the rituals are offered food.
Apart from daily pujas there are innumerable other pujas meant for different occasions viz.,a lady in seventh months of pregnancy, birth of a baby, thread ceremony, marriage, death, funeral and finally, the 13th day after death, a final farewell to the deceased. Later come the annual ritual of shraddh performed for peace and happiness of the departed soul.
Puja is a universal religious medium for all and an option of prayer for everyone.