An Altar of My Own
Despite my teenaged rebellion, I've come to embrace my father's way of worshipping and even set up my own home altar.
family has moved many times over the years. Every time we packed our bags and moved to a new home, we'd scope out the new digs, each with our own priorities in mind. My sister and I would call dibs on the rooms we liked. My mother would check out the kitchen, to see if it was big enough for our needs. And while we were worrying about size and comfort, my father would scope the house for a particular spot or room to assign as the home altar.
In the larger houses, my father would check out the rooms that faced north or east, while in the smaller apartments, he calculated which corner of the master bedroom faced northeast. That's because, according to Vaastu Shashtra, the ancient Indian system of architecture, the northeast direction is considered auspicious. It's said to be the direction of Isaana, the lord of all quarters, associated with religion, luck, and faith.
Once he'd chosen the spot, my father would then arrange that room or corner with all the objects that made up our puja, our home altar. (Although the word puja refers to the act of worshipping, our family truncates pujasthana--place of worship--to puja.) In the Hindu tradition, a home altar is considered an important part of a household. There are no specific how-to's or rules for creating it--you pick a spot and then outfit it with as much or as little as you want, depending on your interpretation of the faith. The altar exemplifies the idea that Hinduism is more a way of life than a codified religion.
My grandparents were quite religious, and they passed on those values to their children--my parents and many aunts and uncles. We belong to the Brahman caste, the priestly section of Hindu society, whose members are considered keepers of the scriptures. My extended family took this role, which includes offering prayers to the gods, seriously. (Although the caste system is usually considered to be unchanging, passed on through the generations, some believe that caste assignation is based on virtues and deeds, rather than being hereditary. According to ancient scholar and etymologist Yasaka, Brahmam eti janati Brahmanam--He who knows Brahman, the Supreme being, is a Brahmin.).
In their time, my grandparents conducted the daily rituals while the family came together every night at the altar to pray together. The prayers, called the aarti, were made up of several hymns to the gods, accompanied by a clanging bell and a traditional candle made up of a cotton wick soaked in oil. This ritual is today carried out by most of my uncles and aunts, and many of my cousins have established altars in their homes.
In our home, my father conducts the daily puja in the morning and evenings, an elaborate hour-long service that includes 30 minutes of meditation, followed by aarti and some religious shlokas (Sanskrit couplets). When I was younger, the family sang together at the altar during the evening aarti.
I grew up with a mild aversion to this ritual, as much as a child would have for any chore. I didn't mind some parts of my involvement. When I was 10 and we lived in New Delhi, my father would ask me and my sister to fetch flowers on weekend mornings, especially in the summers. The flowers were offered to the gods, and I loved this chore. The early mornings were cool and we took a little basket, much like Little Red Riding Hood, to collect flowers from the nearby park.
Other chores were not so pleasing. My father insisted that we study for as long as he meditated, and he often positioned our study tables next to his prayer space. Even with his eyes closed in deep meditation, he would somehow know when we passed notes or didn't study seriously. The beginning of the aarti signalled a break from our studies, which we appreciated.
During our teenage years, the 30 minutes spent singing hymns seemed to grow increasingly pointless, and my sister and I eventually rebelled. At first, our father tried to force, even cajole, us back into the routine. But he soon gave up in face of our obstinacy.