The word prasada means “mercy” or “blessings.” Therefore something coming back to the worshipper after being offered to a Deity is the mercy or blessings of that Deity. The counterpart of prasada is bhoga, which are the items being offered to the Deity. You might think, bhoga in prasada out. The word bhoga literally means “enjoyment.” Therefore anything enjoyable is a bhoga. So in effect, when we offer bhoga to a Deity we are offering enjoyment, nice things, to the Deity and we receive prasada, blessings in return. Many people think bhoga and prasada are food items alone. This is not true. Anything offered to the Deity and returned to the worshiper is bhoga and prasada, which includes flowers, incense, a flame and even shringar, Deity outfits. In ordinary language, food is called bhoga because it is enjoyable! The scent of the offered incense or flowers is a prasada. The light of the lamps that is “touched” by the hands and then “bathed” over the eyes and head is a prasada. The sound of the devotional prayers are a prasada and, of course, the offered food coming back is a prasada. Indeed, the whole point of a puja, archana, yajna or havan is the creation of prasada, blessings to the devotees. Puja, therefore, is an exchange of love between the devotee and the Deity. The devotee offers various bhogas to the Deity, which, in effect, convey the love of the devotee to the Deity, and the Deity reciprocates by sending His or Her love back to the devotee in the form of blessings, prasada.
In Sanskrit the name for the marks worn on the forehead is tilaka, which literally means, “ornament.” In Hindi the word is shortened to tika. There are three basic uses for the tilaka marks: The mark worn by ladies as part of their makeup; the red “dot” that is applied during puja; and the mark worn by priests and other religious people. In a form of yoga called kundalini-yoga certain places on the body are known as chakras or places of “psychic openings.” The most important of these places is the space between the eyes just above the eyebrows. This is sometimes called the place of the third eye, and this is the main place where the tilaka is worn.
Ladies will commonly mark their forehead with a makeup mark called a bindi. This bindi is usually “stick-on” and comes in all different shapes and colors to match dress and makeup.
Similarly, during puja a priest will commonly apply a dot of red powder called kukuma at this same location to both man and ladies. Sometimes this form of puja tilaka mark is explained: God has given us two eyes by which we see the physical world, now this tilaka is a symbolic third eye by which we can see spiritual reality.
The tilaka marks worn by priests and other religious people has a completely different purpose. Essentially the lines of tilaka are sectarian marks that indicate which school of Hindu theology (sampradaya) the person is coming from. So these kinds of tikala are identification marks. There are three categories indicating the three basic grouping within Hunduism. Horizontal lines for followers of Shiva, vertical lines for followers of Vishnu and straight on marks for followers of Devi. Within each of these categories of devotees there are many variations, black lines, red lines, yellow lines, curved lines, rounded lines, and so on. Each of these configurations indicate the particular school of theology within each group, and there are many many designation even within a single group.
“Namaste” is made of two words, namas and te. Namas comes from the verbal root nam which means to bow and so namas is a bow or salutation. Te means, to you. And so namaste literally means, bowing to you. There is a variation of this in the form namaskara. The Sanskrit word “kara” means, doing. So namaskara literally means, doing salutations. Many Hindus say that when they do namaste they are bowing to the soul (atma) and God (paramatma) within and not to the body without. By contrast shaking hands is a gesture of respect to the body, whereas in Hinduism bowing to the soul within is considered more important. Hence, namaste is made with two hands held together at the heart where the soul is said to reside.
Why do we bow before parents and elders?
Bowing to parents, elders, or for that matter, all seniors including teachers and saintly people, is an important matter within Hinduism. Children are taught to bow to elders from an early age. Bowing is a sign of submission and a way to show respect. In addition, the act suggests the hierarchical nature of Hindu society where juniors submit to seniors. But there is still more involved. Bowing is not just bowing one’s head. To bow generally means touching the feet of seniors, and feet hold a powerful symbolism within Hindu culture. From a child’s perspective, parents, teachers and elders are considered “gods” therefore bowing to the feet of seniors is the way showing the highest respect.
Why no shoes in a Temple
Feet hold powerful symbolism within Hindu culture. You take off your shoes when you enter a temple. Sitting in a temple you never point your feet towards the altar or other worshippers, especially seniors. The feet of people are considered low. In fact, one of the greatest insults you can make is to throw shoes at someone. And yet the feet of God are special. God’s feet are often called “lotus feet” and in some temples even a small set of symbolic shoes representing the feet of the Deity is touched to the head of worshippers as a blessing. This blessing implement is called a shathari. Worshippers even drink the feet-bathing water of God as a prasada. This is called charanamrita or charnam for short.
The basis for feet symbolism goes back to the Vedic conception of the universe as the body of God. Just like a body has high and low parts so this universe has high and low, pure and impure places. Up is high, down is low. Feet touch the ground, which is low, and so when you enter a temple you leave your low part at the door. We take off our impure part, our feet, symbolized by leaving our shoes at the door as we enter sacred space. You might say we leave our materialistic side at the door when we enter spiritual space.
Why do we not touch papers, books and people with the feet?
Along with this question one might also add ask: Why do we not blow out a flame with our breath? The answer to both these questions has to do with one of the most fundamental features of Hinduism, namely personification. Hinduism personifies virtually every aspect of life. The wind is not just air blowing from high pressure to low pressure. It is a god, Vayudeva. The sun is not just a great nuclear reaction in space. It is the sun god, Suryadeva. Similarly, the rain is a god, the moon is a god, all the planets are gods and every other aspect of reality is subject to personification. Therefore, all things of learning: papers, books, musical instruments, pens, typewriters and even computers can be seen as an aspects of the Goddess of learning, Saraswati Devi. And we since already know the symbolism of feet in Hindu culture, it is obvious why we do not touch our feet to these items. Similarly, we do not blow a flame with our breath because it would be impolite. The flame is Agni, the fire god, and to blow in his face is impolite! To the Western mind this may seem difficult to understand, but there is great power in personification. Personification gives one the ability to communicate with the god and therefore perhaps control or at least get favors from the Deity. Personification is the basis of puja.