Category Archives: a. Puja


The devotional rite of puja is regarded as highly significant in the Hindu tradition, as the core Hindu ritual (Fuller 57). Through the practice of worship, individuals demonstrate their adoration and reverence towards one or more deity’s images; this act is pleasing to the gods and goddesses in Hinduism. Regardless of the type of puja conducted, temple, home, or festival worship, all share similar fundamental structures and goals of respectful honouring. This widespread rite of worship is fundamentally performed by Hindus across all castes and classes. It is conducted in temples by Brahmin priests or at home by laypeople, allowing all to actively practice their religion. Faithful puja dismisses the hierarchy between the Divine and the individual, resulting in the primary ambition of spiritually unification.


Overview of Puja

In Hinduism, suffering, despair, and societal complications are believed to be the result of unfaithful and untimely worship (Fuller 69). Deity worship is often performed to achieve protection and prosperity for one’s household, community, or region, and it is believed to bring about blessings, grace, and divine virtue. The response of the deities is solely based on their own discretion and will, as one’s devotion may influence the deities but does not offer any guarantees. For some, the act of puja is solely an act of loving devotion (bhakti), where they do not expect or hope for anything in return (Rodrigues 2006: 233; Fuller 70-71). Worshiping with the heart of personal gain is generally frowned upon, yet commonly practiced.

The meanings attached to offerings and practices of puja are also often viewed differently by the various schools of Hinduism; primarily, two perspectives are taken. First is the idea that deities are self-sufficient and are not in need of being washed and fed, etc. However, the sense of reverential honoring expresses the worshiper’s devotion. This practice of hospitality towards the gods and goddesses as though they were dependent on the offerings is pleasing to the divine. The second perspective is that the deities are wholly dependent on the offerings and practices making these actions necessary for their persistence. This perspective displays the interdependence of the deities and people on one another (Fuller 69-71).

Overall, both perceptions install the ideology that divinities are gratified by the ritual pious acts of ceremonial practices and services (upacaras) that make up puja. Symbolized by the camphor flame, the unity and identity of the deity and worshiper is one of the most sought-after goals of puja (Fuller 82), eliminating hierarchical separation between them. Taken together, the significance of puja is to create a relationship among the god or goddess and the individual. This may be done in the anticipation that their sanctified acts of tribute will promote security and favour from the deity.


Practices of Puja (Upacaras)

Puja is performed as an act of reverence towards the deities whose power is housed within iconographic pictures, statues, or symbols of the particular divine being. Each image containing the spiritual manifestation of the deity (murti) is specialized according to proportion, form, and features, and are typically man-made out of bronze, stone, clay, glass, or printed ink photographs. Within the rite of puja, the power of the deity is ritually consecrated into the image before the procession of the upacaras commence. This is done because the image itself is empty until employed with the power. The object of worship is not the image itself but the sacred power of the god or goddess.

The puja ritual varies greatly in terms of simplicity, size, and occasion. Regardless, all puja upacaras have the same general structure, involving a standard total of sixteen (sodasa), ten (dasa), or five (panca) upacara which are grouped into four phases (Rodrigues 2003: 253; Fuller 67). These services are accompanied by 16 verses of the Sukta and/or other additional Vedic mantras. To begin, the deity is summoned and installed within the murti. This phase consecrates the image making it divine. Next is the offering of a seat and water for the washing of the feet, head, mouth, and body. Third, the image is bathed, outfitted, decorated (with flowers), given the sacred thread, wafted with incense, illuminated by a lamp, and given offerings of food. This phase is commonly known as the heart of the ritual, where the image is glorified and adorned. Lastly, the deity is displayed signs of respect (such as the namaskara gesture) and is dismissed (in temples and homes this action does not take place once the puja is complete) (Rodrigues 2006: 228). Other additional acts of worship such as signing, dancing, prayer, and the chanting of mantras may accompany puja (Fuller 63). The upacara practice is seldomly completed in full and may only consist of a single camphor flame offering, known as arati, and a single food offering. Although partial practice is considered less good, synecdochally the entire ritual is produced since the overall structure and connotation of puja is maintained. Puja is specialized for each different deity based on their preference of offerings; offerings are also altered based on the means an individual has accessing materials due to their placement in society (Buhnemann 66). Unlike Vedic sacrifices, puja is inclusive to all, regardless of their gender and class, allowing for women to participate also (Michaels 2016: 9). This act of worship displays one’s hospitality and adoration for the deity, treating them like royal guests given their utmost respect.


Temple Worship

Temple worship is the process in which Hindus pay homage to certain deities permanently housed in a sacred temple space, such as the main shrine. The images within temples are usually immoveable (mula murti) and made of bronze or stone (Fuller 58). Within larger temples puja is conducted frequently (daily), where as lesser temples may perform puja semi-frequently (weekly) (Fuller 62). Devotees stand before a deity’s murti, particularly in temples, to perform/engage in darsana, meaning “vision.” Darsana is the process of going to see the deity and be seen by the deity, thus absorbing some of their power through an intimate union and gaining a promising blessing. Many individuals attend temples in the mornings, just after the deity has been awoken to enhance their fruits of darsana (Fuller 59).

 Puja begins in the morning with an elaborate ceremony to wake the murti, conducted by a Brahmin priest (purohita) known as a Pujari (the one who performs the ritual), on behalf of all (Buhnemann 56; Fuller 62 ). The appropriate offerings are made, and the god or goddess is bathed. The water poured over the Divine is considered sacred and can then be used as a prasada (blessing) by devotees throughout the day (Rodrigues 2006: 230). The priest’s ignition of the flame (dipa) and passing it before the murti is known as arati, and is the climax of the ritual. The boisterous sounds of bells, drums, and cymbals can be heard within the temple neighbourhood, marking this segment of the worship rite. Subsequently, the flame is passed amongst the devotees, allowing them to cleanse themselves of their sins with the consecrated smoke, which is done by wafting the smoke over their bodies. With the conclusion of arati, worshipers are invited to make their offerings (typically purchased at the entrance) through the officiant following the washing of their hands and removal of shoes (Rodrigues 2006: 231).

In certain temples, puja involves the participation of various ministrants in addition to the Pujari: the Benare (one who recites mantras), the Haridas (one who recites the aratis), the Paricarak (Pujari’s assistant), the Dingre (one who places the mirror), the Divte (one who transfers the torch), and the Dange (the mace carrier) (Buhnemann 63). In the afternoon the deity may be given a period of rest, in which the inner sanctum is temporarily closed (Rodrigues 2006: 231). Otherwise, rituals take place throughout the day, until the deity is put to sleep later in the evening, around 11 p.m. which entails another prominent puja. In sum, temple worship communally gathers large crowds of devotees. These individuals are free to participate in their own individualistic worship of expressing prayers and performing gestures towards the particular deity, as well as engage in the devotional ritual of puja.


Home Worship

Worship conducted in the home, although very different in terms of scale and simplicity compared to temple worship, maintains a similar structure and intent overall. Home worship takes place before a home shrine in which many icons are present, and the principle image is centrally placed (Jhala 106). The permanent installation of the divine within one’s home shrine can be done by a priest or by one’s self through frequent acts of service and adoration which eventually invoke the deity. Home shrines include various icons that were either gifted, inherited or bought, and which may symbolize or picture different deities, vehicles, gurus, and ancestors (Jhala 109). The arrangement and collection of these icons illustrates the vast network and history of the Hindu family, bringing about awareness of their collective interdependence and relationships with the deities and others.

The wealth of an individual’s family dictates the elaboration of the shrine. The wealthiest of families may have their own small temple or various shrine rooms within their home. They may also invite Brahmin priests into their home and pay them to perform the puja rituals daily (Rodrigues 2006: 228). More commonly, laypeople of any class/caste preform the ritual upacaras on their own, although only the upper three castes may recite Vedic literature. Similar to temple worship, home puja is characteristically performed daily in the morning, but depending on the family’s schedule and degree of personal pollution due to deaths, childbirths, and menstruation, puja can be postponed, shortened, or prolonged (Jhala 117).

The Pujari in home worship is usually the head of the household or the most significant member of the family. Once the ritual is complete, the rest of the family is invited into the shrine room to bow and present their gifts (Buhnemann 56). However, the idea that puja can be taken jointly rather than individually is controversial since some believe it is a personal formality, to be done privately by all (Jhala 123). Prior to taking part in puja, it is customary to bathe in order to purify oneself before entering the shrine room. The shrine usually consists of a cabinet symbolizing a temple, a shelf, or a lowered table flooded with adorned images and icons. Directly across from the shrine on the ground is a gadi, which is a large cushion, that the Pujari is to be seated cross legged on during the ritual (Jhala 111). Furthermore, the upacaras of puja are to be performed on the favoured principal deity. The doors of the cabinet are opened during the puja and then shut when it has ended.


Festival Worship

Separate from temple worship and home worship where the deity’s power is fixed within the image, festival worship involves the installation of the deity, veneration and worship, and release of the deity with each extravagant devotional event (Buhnemann 191-200). The movable images involved in festive pujas are known as utsava murti, which are either cast of bronze or made of painted clay (Fuller 58). A good example of festival worship is the Durga Puja, an elaborate festival which admires the Great Goddess Devi (i.e. Durga), the aggregate of all goddesses who possesses an immense array of attributes.

The commemoration begins on the sixth day of the larger festival, Navaratra (Rodrigues 2003: 37). The purohita who acts as the Pujari, prepares for the ritual through a series of preliminary obligations, concluding with a hymn. Moving forward, the Durga Puja commences the awakening of the Great Goddess through the bodhana rite. This process fixes the Goddess’ power (sakti) into a clay jar, topped with a coconut, swathed in a sari, and anointed with sandalwood paste (Rodrigues 2003: 38-39). Followed by the transformation/purification process, the technique of Kundalini Yoga is used to arouse Devi. The adhivasanam ritual of anointing takes place next, accompanied by procedures that eventually install the Goddess’ sakti into a clay figurine. Ritual bathing of Durga enveloped in numerous forms follows the next day as part of the Mahasaptami (Great Seventh) rite. As the Mahasaptami is drawn to completion, the Great Goddess Durga is filled with “life,” taking up her dwelling within as a living icon and marking her full arrival (Rodrigues 2003: 46-50).

Similar to conventional puja, the next portion of the service is the sixteen upacara where Durga is showered with extravagant devotional offerings of honor. The bathing rites (Mahasaptami) are then repeated in a process known as the Mahastami (Great Eighth). There after, the Sandhi Puja occurs between the eight and ninth lunar day when the Goddess is presented a blood sacrifice (a goat’s head) whilst another series of the elaborated sixteen step practice is conducted; this marks the pinnacle of the Durga Puja. Once again, a variation of the Mahasaptami rite, labelled the Mahanavami, is performed with the inclusion of homa a Fire Oblation ritual. Finally, to conclude the Durga Puja, one last ten-part ritual is held dismissing Devi (Vijaya Dasami). Her clay image is then immersed in the Ganga signifying the Great Goddess’ ultimate departure. Through this illustration of festival worship, comparisons and contrasts between daily puja and occasional puja are exemplified in terms of the structure, simplicity, and magnitude of the worship ritual.


Final Remarks

The devotional practice of puja is central to Hindu worship. Through the acts of deity adoration and respect, an individual expresses their devoutness to unify themselves with the Divine. Essential to puja, the power of the deity is invoked into an image, transforming it into murti, thus allowing for darsana and worship to take place. Another fundamental characteristic to puja, regardless of its size, is the demonstration of revealing one’s reverence to a deity through the use of offerings. These two processes of installation and veneration characterize the core elements of upacara within puja. Additionally, specific to festival worship the release of the deity also follows. Puja’s universality allows for it to be performed on a small and simple scale within the home by laypeople, or also on a massive and elaborate scale in temples or during festivals by qualified priests. Although the magnitude, amplification, and occasion vary, the structure and meaning of puja remains constant.


References and Further Reading

Buhnemann, Gudrun (1998) Puja: A Study in Smarta Ritual. Vienna: Institut fur Indologie der  Universitat Wein.

Eck, Diana (1981) Darsan: Seeing the Divine Image in India. Chambersburg: Anima Books.

Ciraulo, Jonathan M. (2013) “The divine image: Hindu murti and Byzantine iconography.” Journal of Ecumenical Studies 48: 505-522. Accessed October 28, 2018.

Fuller, Christopher J. (2003) The Camphor Flame: Popular Hinduism and Society in India.   Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Hawley, John S., and Donna Wulff (1996) Devi: goddess of India. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Jhala, Jayasinhji (2000) “Puja, Pujari, and Prabhu: Religious Worship in the Hindu Home.” Visual Anthropology 13:103-128. Accessed October 28, 2018.   doi:10.1080/08949468.2000.9966793

Michaels, Axel (2004) Hinduism: Past and Present. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

______ (2016) Homo Ritualis: Hindu Ritual and Its Significance for Ritual Theory. New   York:   Oxford University Press.

Prasad, Birendra N. (2011) Monasteries, shrines, and society: Buddhist and Brahmanical  religious institutions in India in their socio-economic context. New Delhi: Manak Publications.

Rodrigues, Hillary P. (2003) Ritual Worship of the Great Goddess: Liturgy of the Durga Puja      with Interpretations. Albany: State University of New York Press.

______ (2006) Introducing Hinduism. New York: Routledge.

Yelle, Robert A. (2003) Explaining mantras: ritual, rhetoric, and the dream of a natural language in Hindu tantra. E-Book: Routledge.


Related Topics for Further Investigation:


Durga Puja




Hindu Shrines




Great Seventh

Great Eighth

Great Ninth

Vijaya Dasami





Kundalini Yoga

Caste/Class System



 Noteworthy Websites:

This article was written by: Hailey Rausch (Fall 2018), who is entirely responsible for its content.

The Durga Puja

Durga Puja is an annual festival that celebrates the Great Goddess, better known as Durga. Although the true origin of the worship of Durga is still unknown, today’s form of the Durga Puja festival can be dated back to the 16th century, during the Mughal era (Banerjee 31). During this time, the mythical figure of Rama and his worship of Durga in the Ramayana were brought to the center of attention. The Ramayana says that Rama wanted to destroy the evil demon, Ravana, but needed aid because he was not strong enough to kill the demon on his own. By worshipping Durga, she provided him with the strength he needed to win against Ravana (Ghosha 14). This epic brought a large amount of influence to Raja Udaynarayan and he held the first Durga Puja to show his strength against the Mughals. Although many historians believe that he was not successful against the Mughals, the festival began to spread and quickly became one of the most important festivals (Banerjee 31-32). Many believe that the reason this epic had such a great influence was due to the resistance many kingdoms, on the Indian sub-continent, had against Mughal rule (Rodrigues 19). This epic also changed the time when the festival was to be held. It is said that Rama worshipped the Great Goddess during the autumn instead of the spring months, done by King Suratha (Banerjee 2). Therefore Raja Udaynarayan held the festival in autumn in the16th century causing the festival to be held in the autumn month of Asvina, during the nine-day Navaratri festival, today.

Puja, a form of devotional worship, is normally only performed for one or two days; the Durga Puja spans over a four-five day period (Banerjee 18). During this period, many complex rituals are held in the worship of Durga. The Great Goddess is not a particular goddess but is a single supreme form of divine femininity. This causes the Great Goddess to have many names; for example the most popular names used are Devi, Ma, or Sakti (Rodrigues 17). Therefore, all goddesses are worshipped during this time and every temple that houses a goddess is lively and closely attended too. Expensive home pujas are also put within each home for personal worship. Clay images (murti) and temporary shrines (pandals) are even more closely attended to and observed at this time because they are the focal points for worship (Rodrigues 10). Many pujas, forms of worship, are needed each day during this festival for ritual worship. Each day has a different assortment or food, cloth and puja items, such as flowers, iron, shells, or bark. These items are needed each day to invoke the Great Goddess her for aid among the people and the community.

This time is also known as an important to restore old items and relationships; it is an important time built on caring for others, sharing when one is in need, and keeping a strong bond with family members (Banerjee 61). Many married daughters are able to come home to their parents and spend time with their families; most women live with their husband’s family, once they are married, due to Hindu tradition (Rodrigues 28). Much time is spent worshipping the Great Goddess hoping to invoke her upon the things that not only a single person needs but also the things others and the community is in need of. One of the most important figures during these rituals is the purohita, the central role to the entirety of the pujas (Rodrigues 29). The purohita prepares and purifies water (jala suddhi), flowers (puspa suddhi), his seat (asana suddhi), and the elements (bhuta suddhi) as his preliminary duties in preparing for the rituals to come (Rodrigues 38). The purohita uses this purification ritual to create a link with the divine nature and enables the Great Goddess to manifest in the purohita; he then transfers her into different abodes (Rodrigues 277). This creates a strong bond between the Great Goddess and the people observing and worshipping her.

Another sacred ritual is that of an animal sacrifice in order to keep cosmic stability. This ritual is used as a re-enactment of the battle between Durga and Mahisa in which the cosmos was regulated by Durga once she slayed the beast (Kinsley 112). In today’s Durga Puja, blood sacrifice is disappearing and many communities are substituting fruits, such as melons, for animals. Even though melons are used, Hindus go to great lengths to change the melons, such as put vermilion paste and effigy on them, to ensure it represents a blood sacrifice. Blood sacrifice is also representative of the most important food offering to the Great Goddess. Even though true blood is not always spilt, it is meant to symbolically represent the beheading of Mahisa (Rodrigues 278).

As Durga Puja spans over four to five days during the Navaratri festival, it adds two very different central roles to the Great Goddess and why she is being worshipped at this time. This most popular depiction of Durga is that of a strong warrior, wielding many weapons and is victorious over evil. One of the most popular legends that this depiction arises from is of Durga battling the powerful buffalo-headed demon, Mahisa, to regulate the cosmos, which she comes out victorious by killing him. This depiction causes many people to associate the worship of Durga with military success and victory of good over evil. Military success is also attributed to the month of Asvina itself because it occurs at the end of the rainy season, in which the season of warfare begins. During this season of warfare, the worship of weapons, ayudha-puja, and the worship as Aparajita are conducted. The ayudha-puja takes place in the temples of Devi and is done by soldiers and military rulers, as it marks the beginning of military campaigns. Durga is also worshipped as Aparajita, she who is invincible, to invoke the power of Durga that cannot be conquered or controlled to ensure military success among the people (Rodrigues 290). Durga in all forms in representative of formidable power and how it is to be wielded; to battle adversity and conquer what is in the way of ones path to succession (Rodrigues 289).

Durga is symbolically represented in many different forms; the most important of these forms are the jar (ghata), the cluster of nine plants (navapatrika), the clay image, and the virgin girl (kumari). The jar (ghata) is the most recognizable of these forms and Devi’s embodiment in the jar resembles a pregnant woman. The jar is composed of two natural elements, the earth and the divine waters; these elements have been associated with the Great Goddess for a long period of time. This natural element within the jar and the representation of the pregnant woman symbolize Durga as the form of the mother of creation and she is giving birth to the cosmos. Other elements, such as flowers, earth, fruit, water, and fragrant paste, are placed around or on this form of Durga to be served as the beauty of nature that comes from creation (Rodrigues 262). Next, the cluster of nine plants (navapatrika) and a wood-apple tree branch, to serve as the breasts of the Great Goddess, are placed with the jar for worship within the house. Where as the wood-apple branch symbolizes Durga herself, the cluster of plants represents the different aspect of the Great Goddess and the feminine identity. These aspects incorporate different goddesses and their symbols as aspects of the Great Goddess such as the Nim tree and the Tulasi plant that serve as an embodiment of goddesses (Rodrigues 264).

The most striking and influential of these forms is the clay image. The clay image is the Great Goddess as a young and beautiful goddess. She has a strong and beautiful body that showcases the femininity of her character but she also wields the weapons of the male gods with her ten arms to exemplify her unconquerable power. In the clay image is also the human form of Mahisa as Durga impales him with her spear (Rodrigues 265). A large amount of blood is also portrayed in this image and shows the importance the blood sacrifice and to re-enact the spilling of the evil blood. Ganesa and Kartikeya are also presented within the clay image as aspects of the Great Goddess. Ganesa is worshipped as the Lord of Obstacles and Kartikeya is worshipped as the divine warrior. These aspects put together are representative of Durga as a strong warrior that is a great obstacle that stands in the way of her opponents (Rodrigues 266). This clay image in very complex and represents the whole of the different aspects of Durga. The last form of Durga is served as a virgin girl. Any pure, young girl can serve as this form of Durga and is used as a vehicle for the manifestation of Durga in human form. The use of a virgin girl is also linked to the blood sacrifice and gathering of women. During this time, women of all ages, including married daughters, come together to celebrate this festival. This showcases all the stages of a woman, from a virgin girl, to a young married woman, to an older mother or grandmother. The blood sacrifice is also representative of the stages in a woman’s life as well. Whereas a young virgin girl represents youth, the blood sacrifice also represents the fertility to come into the girl’s life, as she grows older. This is represented by Durga during the virgin girl embodiment as well as she is a young beautiful girl that causes the flow of blood (Rodrigues 297).

These rituals create a bond with Durga, the divine, and the people. As Durga embodies these different forms it creates a high level of devotional worship among the devotees. The embodiment of a virgin girl creates a strong link between the Great Goddess and the people because they recognize Durga as a daughter and someone they have a strong relationship with (Banerjee 87). This festival also brings families together once again to celebrate fertility, power, and success together. The Durga Puja is one of the few festivals that adjust to the changing times and but also keeps and passes down the sacred rituals to ensure the festival remains.


Banerjee, Sudeshna (2004) Durga Puja: Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow. Rupa and Co, Calcutta.

Ghosha, Pratapachandra (1871) Durga Puja: With Notes and Illustrations. Calcutta: Hindoo Patriot Pres.

Kinsley, David (1987) Hindu Goddesses. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass.

Rodrigues, Hilary Peter (2003) Ritual Worship of the Great Goddess: The Liturgy of the Durga Puja with Interpretations. Albany: State University of New York Press.












Article written by: Kaitlynn Poworoznyk (March 2017) who is solely responsible for this content.

Blood Sacrifice in Hinduism

The concept of sacrifice (yajna) in the form of offerings to the gods (Klostermaier 316) is one of the main tenets of Hinduism. The nature of offerings made to the gods tends to vary based on the function associated with the deity and the caste hierarchy of individuals. For the sake of ease, the various offerings given to the gods can be categorized by nature or type. The Baudhayana Srauta Sutras provides five types of “oblatory matter:  plants (ausadha), milk (payas), animal victims (pasu), soma, and clarified butter (ajya or ghrta).” The Yajna Paribhasa Sutras, on the other hand, distinguish between two groups, namely, “vegetal oblations [… and] animal oblations,” which includes blood or lohita (Malamoud 37). The Vedic term yajna often “conjures up the image of the offering of animals [but] contemporary homa rites [offerings into the fire] rarely involve offerings of flesh and blood” (Rodrigues 28). This review aims to discuss some deities that receive blood sacrifices, the reasons for these sacrifices, and the intricacies of the deity-devotee relationship.

The term bali refers to blood offerings and/or animal sacrifice (Fuller 84). These offerings are often designated for inferior or non-Sanskritic gods (Harper 227). Generally, within a village’s pantheon of gods, rural lower gods are given the names of Sanskritic gods but their functions do not become merged with the higher Sanskritic gods. This does not mean that there are no (superior) Sanskritic gods who receive blood and flesh sacrifices. Usually when blood sacrifice is mentioned it refers to the blood of an animal, as suggested by the term bali (that is, offerings of flesh and blood).  In urban Bengal, atmabali meaning ‘self-offering’ is amongst the rarest forms of bali that requires that an individual offer the god blood from his/her chest. Atmabali is performed during times of intense personal crisis and its purpose is to carry the individual through a difficult time (Samanta 783-784).

In order to comprehend the division of gods within the various levels and classification of Hinduism it is important to note that there is an “order and classification of supernaturals” (Harper 227). In the case of the village Totagadde in South India, the members of different castes venerate different deities in the Hindu pantheon. For example, in Totagadde there are thirty different local deities and spirits, which can be classified according to categories. The members of this village use a three-tier system that also correlates to the various castes. These classes of gods are: devaru (receive vegetarian offerings), devate (local deities who are known as meat-eating), and devva (those who are referred to as ‘blood demanding’). The first and second class of gods are those that are usually not represented iconographically. Harper, in his discussion of village deities, explains that these non-Sanskritic supernatural beings are often named after Sanskrit gods (2).

Blood Sacrifice in Hinduism (Beheaded goats lie beside the yoke where they are tethered when offered to the goddess Kamakhya at Nilachal in Assam)
Blood Sacrifice in Hinduism (Beheaded goats lie beside the yoke where they are tethered when offered to the goddess Kamakhya at Nilachal in Assam)

Among these village deities, the class that concerns the inhabitants of Totagadde are the local deities known as devates, as they believe it is crucial to abide by the desires of these deities in order to avoid ill-fated events. The gods demanding blood sacrifice are most commonly described as “fierce, violent and ‘hot’” (Fuller 85). The gods who fall under this category are dark forms such as Durga, Kali, and village goddesses, such as Sitala Mata, Mariyamman, Bhairava and Narasimha. Some lower level gods are named after major deities such as Siva, Visnu, Kali and Durga (85). Mariamman, a goddess of disease in South India [also known as or equated with Shitala Devi in some areas], is the goddess of “smallpox, cholera, and plague” (Harper 230). She is the only goddess who is worshipped by all the residents of Totagadde and to whom they ascribe a lot of power especially because she is the only deity who is believed to have the power to keep epidemics diseases at bay (230-1). The goddess of disease can choose to either protect people from illness or cause illness. For this reason, she is given blood offerings “periodically at an elaborate festival (habba)” (230).

The devotees regard the village goddesses, like Durga and Kali, as human mothers and as such, in some areas they are called Amman meaning “mother, mistress, or lady” (Kinsley 198). The village is considered to have been created by the goddess.  Thus, it also belongs to the goddess. The relationship between the two is unique because it is comprehended as a “marriage-like arrangement is the village itself rather than a male deity. The two, the goddess and the village, are tied to each other, dependent on each other; in short, they are married to each other and nourish each other” (199). The devotees worship her and in return, she “ensures good crops, timely rain, fertility, and protection from demons, diseases, and untimely death” (200). There is a correlation between the “relationship of an epidemic or a disaster to the invasion of the village by hostile demons from outside” (205). Disasters or epidemics symbolize demons attempting to invade the village. Thus, during festivals, the goddess “confronts and overcomes the demons, and in this struggle she is helped by the villagers. While the villagers are struck down and overcome by the demons and suffer fever and sometimes death, the goddess too is said to become possessed, afflicted, or somehow invaded by the demons.” This points to a duality in the festival and the offering of blood sacrifice, which is “perhaps, the central dramatic event of village-goddess festivals” and so the “sacrifice may also be understood from two points of view.” That is, either the sacrifice is a gift that can represent the defeat of the demons or as something, which diffuses the goddess’ anger. Either way, what is clear is that the blood presented to the goddess either works to “appease her wrath or to invigorate her in contest with demons” (205).

Durga, a Sakti goddess [a superior Sanskritic goddess], is believed to be replenished with blood (Harper 785). In addition, although it is rare but the greater gods such as Ganesha, Skanda are also offered bali (Fuller 85). A bali sacrifice is claimed to hold the ability to calm an angry deity or calm those who simply crave blood. The blood, for a blood-craving god, serves the purpose of alleviating their anger and provides relief from the threat of the onset of an illness or worse (Fuller 85 and Harper 230). In North India, during the harvest season, Durga Puja is conducted as part of the festival called Navratra. The Durga Puja not only emphasizes the dual role of the goddess as a battle queen but also reinforces and celebrates her position as a divinity that restores the cosmic order. Additional themes embedded in Durga Puja are highlighted in the puja are her role as a harvest goddess. She is propitiated as the “power of plant fertility” (Kinsley 111). For these reasons, she is “invoked both as the power promoting the growth of agriculture grains and as the source of the power of life with which the gods achieved immortality.” She is addressed as “she who appeases the hunger of the world” (112). For these reasons, it becomes clear why the blood offerings are favoured by the goddess [“the animal sacrifices and the ribald behaviour that is specifically mentioned in certain religious texts as pleasing to the goddess” (112)]. Moreover, other forms of Durga, like Kali, also receive blood offerings in their temples.

The power and emotion attached to these goddesses is easy to understand when their true understanding is grasped. The Mahavidyas, for example, are a group of ten goddesses. The most significant aspect of this group of goddesses is “Devi’s tendency to display or manifest herself in a great variety of forms” and these appear “from time to time to maintain the order of dharma” as well as the “creator and maintainer of cosmic order” (Kinsley 161). The ten Mahavidyas are Kali, Tara, Cinnamasta, Bhuvanesvari, Bagala, Dhumavati, Kamala, Matangi, Sodasi, and Bhairava (162). Their descriptions relate that “they are meant to be fearsome deities” (Kinsley 163). It is true that this mythological definition deals primarily with the fearsome and destructive nature but at the same time it is crucial to note that this is “related to the context in which they are propitiated “especially in Tantrism” (164). Consider Cinnamasta, a goddess whose representation symbolizes and highlights the relationship between “life, sex, and death” (173) and so “sacrificing oneself to her is a way of acknowledging that one is obliged to give life back to her because one has received life from her. These images convey the truth that the goddess is ever hungry and demands blood in order to remain satisfied.” Although the goddess is never depicted feeding on the blood of another but her own, her mythology conveys the same realities as Kali and Durga (175).

Sacrificial Yoke and Goat Sacrifice (Kamakhya Devi Temple, Kamarupa, Assam)

The Tantric cult of Candi, which is very prominent in Bengal, involves blood sacrifice to the goddess (Fuller 86; see also Samanta 1994). Candi, who is a form of Durga and/or Kali [See Fuller (86) and Kinsley (117)] is a bloodthirsty goddess who represents fierceness but also embodies motherly characteristics. She is venerated and offered blood by Sabras, among others, who are a tribe of primitive hunters (Kinsley 117). If her thirst is quenched and she is provided the offerings that she craves, then the rewards of her puja can be great. In Calcutta, in addition to the dark side of Kali, she is also understood to be the “ideal and protective mother” (Samanta 780). Worshipping Kali, for the residents of Calcutta, means pleasing a goddess that can offer protection against all sorts of evil and ill-luck.  A successful sacrifice is “critical to the wellbeing (mangal) of the sacrifice” whereas a failed ritual can have catastrophic effects because the failure to conduct a proper and successful ritual could mean death, disease, poverty or any other forms of great ill-fortune (783-4). Kalighat temple is another place of worship where Kali is regarded as a mother figure. The devotees come to her with a variety of problems and desires ranging from domestic issues to prosperity (McDermott and Kripal 60-62). At this temple in Kalighat, other goddesses are also integrated into the temple worship of Kali. These include, Sasthi, the protector of children, Shitala and Manasi the snake goddess (64-65). In Nigama-Kalaputra, Picchila-, Yogni-, Kamakhya-, and Nirattra-tantra she is regarded as the greatest of the manifestations (vidyas) of the Mahadevi (Kinsley 122). The holistic understanding of Kali in Tantrism is that of a goddess who presides over death and destruction (124). For example, in the Karpuradi-Strotra she “makes gestures with her two right hands that dispel fear and offer boons…she grants the boons of salvation…she is here not only the symbol of death but the symbol of triumph over death” (125-126).

In Hindu belief, simply performing the act of giving blood to a divinity will not always appease the god and guarantee protection. The ritual or sacrifice requires the incorporation of honour and devotion toward the particular deity. Another significant fact is that the sacrificer symbolically identifies with the god as well as the sacrifice that is offered (Fuller 85). Samanta’s (1994) discussion of balidan offered to Kali (789-9) is helpful in explaining this point. The sacrificer is offering to the goddess his/her own demonic or animal-like characteristic. Just as Kali as the powerful goddess mythically kills demons and offers them to Durga, the sacrifice offers to the divinity the malevolent characteristics within the sacrificer’s own self. Thereby, the sacrifice purifies or rid themselves of those characteristics. This places an increased emphasis on the values of “inner purity and selflessness” (Samanta 799).

Many sociological functions are embedded in the act of offering sacrifice to gods. Bali is one form of the many types of gifts given to the gods. Blood sacrifice can appease major deities such as Kali, but is also offered to minor deities whose purpose sometimes appears only to be as disturbers of peace. This highlights the fact that deities are often upholders of extreme polarities. Consider Sitala and Mariyamman, as the two are “remind people that their tightly ordered worlds may be reduced to chaos at any moment. To pay attention to such goddesses, however, is to make one’s view of reality less fragile, less prone to being shattered by sudden death” (Kinsley 211). Both major and minor deities point to the cyclical, unpredictable, and short-lived nature of the material world. The worships, festivals and the reliance of devotees on the gods indicate this aspect of human life. In addition, the types of sacrifices such as the vegetal and animal offerings to gods who are, for some, associated distinctly with vegetarian and/or non-vegetarian devotees (and their respective gods) show the need for a society to engage in rituals that permit entering into non-normative practices. According to Victor Turner, a festival held for a goddess and the ritual, such as offering of blood, delves the “dimension of reality, the dimension that remains outside social norms and expectations but that is capable of enlivening and nourishing the realm of social order and normality” (Kinsley 207). It is clear that blood sacrifice, in Hinduism, is an offering of utmost significance as it symbolizes life and all of its dynamic aspects such as the taking of life or death. It also shows that the divine have the power to do as they choose, rightfully so, for they are the creators and upholders of order, hence, the necessity on the part of devotee to be humble and grateful in his/her worship of the god(s).







References and Further Recommended Reading

Babb, Lawrence A. “Marriage and Malevolence: The uses of Sexual Opposition in a Hindu Pantheon.” Ethnology 9 no 2. 1970. University of Pittsburgh- Of the Commonwealth System of Higher Education. p. 137-148. Accessed on March 12, 2010.

Fuller, C. J. (2004) The Camphor Flame: Popular Hinduism and Society in India. Revised and Expanded Edition. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

_____ (1988) “The Hindu pantheon and the Legitimation of Hierarchy.” Man, New Series, 23 no 1. Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland. p. 19-39. Accessed on March 12, 2010.

Harper, Edward B. “A Hindu Village Pantheon.” Southwestern Journal of Anthropology 15 no 3. 1959. University of New Mexico. p. 227-234. Accessed on February 22, 2010.

Hillary, Rodrigues (2006) Introducing Hinduism. New York: Routledge.

Kinsley, D. (1986) Hindu Goddesses: Visions of the Divine Feminine in the Hindu Religious Tradition. Los Angeles, CA: University of California Press.

Klostermaier, Klaus K. (2007) A Survey of Hinduism. 3rd ed. Albany: State University of New York.

Malamoud, Charles. (trans. by White, David). (1998) Cooking the World: Ritual and Thought in Ancient India. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

McDermott, Rachel Fell & Kripal, Jeffrey J. Eds. (2003) Encountering Kali: In the Margins, at the Center, in the West. Los Angeles, CA: University of California Press.

Mittal, Sushil & Thursby, Gene, Eds. (2008) Studying Hinduism: Key Concepts and Methods. New York: Routledge.

Samanta, Suchitra “The ‘Self-Animal’ and Divine Digestion: Goat Sacrifice to the Goddess Kali in Bengal.” The Journal of Asian Studies 53 no 3. 1994. Association for Asian Studies. p. 779-803. Accessed on February 22, 2010.

Srinivas, M. N. “A Note on Sanskritization and Westernization.” The Far Eastern Quarterly 15 no 4. 1956. Association for Asian Studies. p. 481-496. Accessed on March 12, 2010.

Tailhet, Jehanne H. “The Tradition of the Nava Durga in Bhaktapur, Nepal.” A Journal of Himalayan Studies Khatmandu. 1978. Accessed on March 12, 2010.

Whitehead, Henry. (1988) The Village Gods of South India. New Delhi: Asian Educational Services.





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Animal Sacrifice



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Durga puja


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Article written by: Sumaiya Rizvi (April 2010) who is solely responsible for its content.