With the voice of an angel, the boy sang a song from the Tevarum, poems written many centuries ago by Tamil poet saints in south India—haunting evocative notes, rising to heaven. He sang at the conclusion of the puja (devotional service) done at the Grove school, in Chennai, Tamil Nadu, for the senior students who were about to take their final exams, that they might be blessed with success.
An hour and a half earlier, the ceremony had started as five priests began the yagna, which means sacrifice or offering.
Viewing this from a western perspective, one might think, watching the puja, that this must be some sort of a traditional religious school—but nothing could be farther from the truth. The classes are all taught in English, and the curriculum is very modern and up-to-date.
The Grove School is an excellent school, one of the best in India, and it does a spectacular job of preparing students to take their place in the modern world. Students come from a wide variety of backgrounds, and though Indian culture and history form an important part of their studies, freedom of thought and religion is very much respected. The puja intrigued me as a visitor to India, for no other reason than that it is, if you like, a glimpse of India – where faith is not excluded. It is neither excluded, nor promoted. It simply is – as a part of life. Prayers are allowed in Indian schools, as they were in American schools when I was a child. They seem normal and natural, and there is absolutely nothing compulsory about them.
To exclude worship from Indian life would be like trying to banish water from the sea.
And also, I found the puja intriguing – more intriguing than a math class – which is the main reason I have chosen to write about it.
A beautiful fire burned during most of the puja. The flames, contained in a metal rectangle about three feet long, flickered, growing ever higher. Dressed in the traditional white dhoti, the priests sat on boards around the flames, chanting vedic hymns — songs of praise to deities — one was an invocation to Saraswati, the Goddess of learning and culture. The chants from the Rig Veda have been sung, exactly the same, for thousands of years.
As the priests sang, they put offerings into the fire – with a long wooden spoon a priest repeatedly poured ghee (clarified butter) into the flames. Others put in herbal leaves and twigs, and cubes of sugar. Two priest added twigs and sticks to the fire, which burned brighter and more intensely. Agni, the fire, is the God who carries prayers to heaven – who ultimately, over the course of time and at the end of time, carries all beings and all souls back to their origin.
Flowers, grasses, and fruit are the sacred gifts of nature that are offered to the Gods, and, just as rain and the sun have bestowed on plants life-giving energy, returning the fruits of the earth to the Gods reaffirms the unity of heaven and earth.
It is these age-old traditions, preserved and protected over thousands of years, that have given Sanatana Dharma (Hinduism), the primary faith of India, the continuity and beauty carried through so many centuries that is as alive and vibrant today as ever in the past.
Beyond the fire, placed on a shrine, were bowls each holding a coconut, each coconut garlanded with flowers. There were twelve of these deities; nine represented the nine planets who influence the course of earthly lives.
Seated on the floor were around thirty students who would soon be taking their exams. Like nearly all Indian people, young or old, they seem to be able to sit easily and naturally in a yoga position for any length of time. For the first hour they were quiet. As the chanting went on for an hour and a half, they began to chat quietly among themselves, but never loudly or in an intrusive way.
The teachers, the principal, and school officials, sat on chairs around the sides of the room. Several times during the puja, everyone stood, as one of the priests walked by with a small fire. People put both hands toward the fire, then up to their faces, as a blessing. This is done in a similar way in every Hindu temple, whenever a puja is performed.
Bananas, apples, flowers, herbs, and grasses were the offerings on the shrine; the smoke rising from the fire was filled with sweet-smelling incense.
Through the open windows lining the hall, birds could be seen, flitting among the giant trees.
At the close of the puja, the students lined up to be given a thread, to be tied on their right wrist as a bracelet. Not all the students at Grove School are Hindu. Many are Muslims; a few are from other backgrounds. No student was required to attend the puja, but most of them did, whatever background they were from, because everyone can use an extra blessing before an important final exam. They were given a certificate too, and they left smiling, perhaps with a bit of extra confidence to carry along with them, which never hurts.
The puja brought an atmosphere of peace and reassurance. One could not help but feel the sense that one is part of the eternal Cosmos, accepted and guided through life.
© Text, Sharon St Joan, 2014
Top photo: Nvvchar / A puja taking place at the Gunjanarasimhaswamy Temple at T. Narasipur, a town near Mysore in South India.
Second photo: Courtesy of the C.P. Ramaswamy Aiyar Foundation / The Grove School
Third photo: Flickr user © Claude Renault /A woman praying to Hanuman in the Madurai Meenakshi Temple.