Puja Ceremonies for Our Communities

 

Iyengar Yoga communities in the United States were blessed this summer with puja ceremonies performed by V. S. Nataraja Shastrigal, Upadhyaya to Guruji's family.

The upadhyaya is a Brahmin priest who conducts all the religious rituals for a family, including pujas, marriages, funerals, and housewarming, thread, and annual death ceremonies, as Geetaji wrote in a letter advising of Nataraj Shastri's visit. Acquainted with Guruji since childhood, Nataraja Shastri was trained by Sri Radha Krishna Shastri, Guruji's previous upadhyaya. Nataraja Shastri, one of the most highly regarded Vedic scholars in Pune, has been providing Vedic ritual services for 40 years. He is the patron of many temples and has officiated at all the major Vedic rituals conducted at the Iyengar Institute in Pune since 1975. He is perhaps best known to the worldwide Iyengar community for his recording of the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, available from RIMYI.

The timing of Nataraja Shastri's visit coincided with the installation of a newly arrived Patanjali statue at the Iyengar Yoga Institute in Los Angeles. The auspicious timing of the puja, beginning at 5:30 am July 12, coincided with a workshop held by Manouso Manos; the prior evening marked the Institute's annual benefit and summer celebration, which this year honored the memory of Mary Dunn. "Word of the puja ceremony spread," remembers Garth McLean of the Los Angeles association, "drawing people from far and wide–men, women, and children, including one still in the womb, whose parents came for the special vibrational blessings. Their bouncing baby boy was born the first week of August." The event, "a harmonic merging of cultures," says McLean, created "a new beginning, a fresh energy" for the entire local Iyengar Yoga community.

Nataraj Shastri performed rites of purification and sanctification, reciting the mantras of Navagraha Shanti, Purusa-suktam, Sri-suktam, Dhanvantari mantram, Sudarshana mantram, and Shanti mantram. For those who gathered to listen, the continuous chanting of these sacred mantras was a rare opportunity to be immersed in the ancient yogic wisdom of the Vedic sages.

Geetaji, in her letter to the Iyengar Yoga communities where the pujas were held, wrote: "Although the mantras are difficult to understand, if one gives ears to them, listens with attention wholeheartedly, they bring the citta prasadanam.1 They lead one to establish calmness, quietness and peace. It is a kind witnessing of the Vedas and is agama pramana.2

"The jnana comes gradually by listening to them often. As a practitioner or sadhaka of yoga, it is the duty of every student to listen to them patiently, through which manana, chintana, jnana and dhyana become possible… Sravanam (hearing) will lead towards mananam and nidhi dhyasanam."3

Nataraj Shastri also conducted a puja on Guru Purnima day at the home of Patricia Walden in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He chanted the Ganapati Puja, Vishnu Sahasranamam (1008 names of Lord Vishnu), Sri Rudram Chamakam (to Rudra, an aspect of Lord Shiva), Purusa-suktam, Sri-suktam, Devi-suktam, and Shanti Panchakam.


On July 24, Nataraja Shastri performed a puja at the Iyengar Yoga Institute of New York. Geetaji wrote about this program: "Shastri will start with Punyah Vacanam. He will sanctify the water, and this consecrated water will be sprinkled everywhere. Then he will do Ganapati Puja. After Puja he does samkalpam. Samkalpam means the auspicious decision to be taken with oath." Samkalpam was given in honor of the memory of Senior Teacher Mary Dunn and on behalf of all the Institute teachers.

Geetaji's explanation continued: "After Samkalpam he will do Navagraha Shanti and Nakshatra Shanti. The nine planets and 27 stars will be prayed to and pacified so that their blessings will shower on all present there, whose names will be uttered in Samkalpam. The planets and stars are far from us, yet the cosmic energy that has to flow without any obstacle can be obstructed by the planets and stars. Therefore, such pacifying and peace-establishing mantras are uttered and grains and cloths are offered. Each planet has its specific liking regarding particular grain and colour of cloth. The offering is done accordingly.

"Next will be the Ekadasha-Rudra. The Rudra-mantras are very powerful. No creature is free from fear of death. The attachment to life is ever-strong, which we call abhinivesa.4 Shastri is going to recite 11 cycles of Rudraikadashi Mantram in order to eradicate the fear of death, which includes fear of diseases, sufferings and ill experiences of life." Each cycle was accompanied by offerings of water, milk, honey, yogurt, and fruits.

The Rudraikadashi Mantram was followed by chanting of the Purusha-suktam, which has its origins in the Vedas. This was followed by a short break.

After the break, Nataraj Shastri led those assembled in the chanting of the Patanjali Ashtottara Shata Namavalih (108 names of Lord Patanjali). As he explained, Lord Patanjali is considered an avatar of Lord Vishnu. Accordingly, following the call-and-response chanting of the 108 names of Patanjali, Nataraja Shastri chanted the Vishnu Sahasranamam, 1008 names of Lord Vishnu, who represents the all-pervading Supreme, Universal Soul (purusha).

Originally scheduled to follow the Vishnu Sahasranamam was the chanting of the Lalita Sahasranamam (1008 names of the goddess Lalita). Geetaji explained, "Lord Vishnu is the symbol of purusha-shakti and Goddess Mother Lalita is considered as prakrti-shakti. The shakti is energy. In Lalita Sahasranamam 1008 names of goddess Lalita are recited, which consist of the prakriti-shakti which flows in this universe outside as well as in every creature from the small insect to human beings. She is the form of potential power and strength that exists in mountains, trees, oceans, rivers, earth and other planets deciding their orbits in the several known and unknown solar systems.

"Friday is considered a very auspicious day. Especially the female goddesses are invoked on this day. In the yogic point of view she [Lalita] exists in everyone in the form of triguna, tridosha, sapta dhatu, trimala, nadi, sira and dhamani.5 She exists in everyone leading and granting varana-dharma, such as brahma tejas, kshatriya tejas, vaishya tejas and shudra-tejas,6 as well as ashrama dharma as brahmacharya, grhastha, vanaprastha and sannyasa, yielding the tejas required in the ashrama to follow the duty.7 She is the One who awakens kundalini shakti in the chakras as physical, physiological, biological, moral, psychological, mental intellectual, sensual, sexual, spiritual and divine energy."

Because of time limits, Nataraja Shastri did not chant the Lalita Sahasranamam, instead chanting the Durga-suktam and Sri-suktam, which are also dedicated to the female goddesses that are the embodiment of prakrti-shakti. Geetaji wrote, "Suktam is short but potential flow of prose-form sentences, which are further powerful compared to the names in which the nature of the all pervading yet root-cause of this creation (prakrti) is narrated."

Nataraja Shastri concluded with Shanti Panchakam–the five shanti mantras to establish "peace, peace, peace."

We are grateful to Nataraja Shastri for sharing this Vedic wisdom with us, and for gracing the American community of Iyengar Yoga practitioners with his presence. May the awesome and auspicious vibration of these sacred mantras continue to resonate in the walls of our centers and in our hearts for many years to come.

By Richard Jonas with Patricia Walden and Garth McLean. We gratefully acknowledge the generous help of Jarvis Chen in preparing this article for publication.

Photos courtesy of James Murphy

Notes:

  1. citta prasadanam = benevolence of consciousness (see Yoga Sutra I.33: Maitri karuna muditopekshanam sukha duhkha punyapunya vishayanam bhavanatashchitta prasadanam).
  2. agama pramana = right knowledge derived from the testimony of the sacred texts (see Yoga Sutra I.7: Pratyaksha anumana agamah pramanani).
  3. manana = meditation; chintana = reflection; jnana = spiritual knowledge; dhyana = meditation;
    sravanam = hearing; nidhi dhyasanam = profound meditation (See Light on Pranayama, glossary).
  4. abhinivesha = fear of death; clinging to life. See Yoga Sutra II.9: Svarasa-vahi vidusho'pi tatharudho'bhiniveshah.
  5. triguna = three gunas (qualities of nature): sattva (clarity, illumination), rajas (activity), tamas (inertia); tridosha = from Ayurveda: vata, pitta, kapha; sapta dhatu = seven constituents of the body, i.e., rasa (chyle), rakta (blood), mamsa (muscle), meda (fat), asthi (bone), majja (bone marrow), shukra (reproductive fluid); trimala = from Ayurveda: feces, urine, sweat; nadi = subtle energetic channels in the body;
    sira = from Ayurveda: veins; dhamani = from Ayurveda: arteries.
  6. varna-dharma = caste, role in life (see Astadala Yogamala Vol. 1, p. 160); brahmin = priestly class;
    kshatriya = martial class; vaishya = merchant class; shudra = working class; tejas = fire.
  7. ashrama dharma = stages of life (see Astadala Yogamala Vol. 3, pp. 276–279); brahmacharin = student; grhasthin = householder; vanaprasthin = forest dweller; sannyasin = renunciate.