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.
Over the years, as my father's shrine grew, accommodating more idols and pictures of gods and gurus that he'd met, my interest in keeping up with the home altar diminished. It wasn't that I didn't believe in praying, but I defied his method. While my father's altar expanded, my approach became more minimalist. I figured that since God is omniscient, when I prayed, I could just face the sun or choose a spot for no other reason than it offered the view of a beautiful hibiscus tree. Or sometimes, in New Delhi, I just visited my favorite temple, which offered spots of tranquility and the soothing smell of sandalwood incense.
However, over the years, some parts of the ritual became ingrained in my memory. I came to know the aartis and bhajans by heart. I even memorized a chapter or two of the Bhagavad Gita. And every time my father was out of town for a business trip, I--despite my religious rebellion--was charged with the daily ritual of bathing the deities and offering the prayers. That this role was entrusted to me made me feel important; I knew its intricacies, from making the sandalwood paste to fashioning the wick out of cotton in my father's way.
A few years after we moved to Canada in 1998, I moved into an apartment with a roommate. To my own surprise, I established a small altar in one corner of my new home. In the face of change, it was a way for me to keep in touch with my upbringing and identity. My roommate also had some deities, which I set up alongside mine. I tried to offer daily prayers, but kept the more elaborate rituals, such as bathing the deities, a weekly affair.
I got married last November and moved in with my in-laws. I've married into a Hindu family, but they do not have a home altar. Offering prayers is not a habitual affair for them, although they do pray on Diwali. At that time my grandmother-in-law takes out the pictures of deities she's kept somewhere in storage and makes a temporary altar. When I moved in, I mostly prayed in my room. But I've been meaning to set up a small home altar in my new home.
But when I asked my maternal grandmother about buying some deities, she warned me: You must take care of the deities if you get them. She tried to dissuade me, telling me to wait.
"You can't abandon the gods," she told me, explaining her concerns. "You have to bathe them, pray to them. Why do you want to take on that responsibility now? Enjoy your life. Go to a nearby temple, when you want to. After a few years, when you are ready, you can set up your own puja."
Nevertheless, during my post-marriage trip to India earlier this year, an elderly aunt gave me a beautiful brass representation of Ram, Sita, Lakshman, and Hanuman as a wedding gift. When I asked my father about purchasing some deities, he gave me two idols of Ganesh and Lakshmi. An elderly family friend in Toronto had also given me a traditional painting of Krishna.
When I came back to Toronto, I almost immediately set up my puja with the deities I had received. I have not dismissed my grandmother's advice. In fact, it's a helpful reminder whenever I want to skip the ritual.
My home altar has become my sanctuary, my sacred space in my new home. Moving in with a new family has its joys and challenges. My new family has welcomed me with much affection, but they have a different lifestyle. My home altar has become my touchstone for the values I have grown up in.
And the practice of spending time praying in the morning allows me space to be with myself. I think of it as my auspicious start to the day. The time allows me to reflect on what I need to do, whether it's during that day or in life generally. I acknowledge all the good things that are happening. It can also be a time to think through my difficulties.
At the moment, my daily routine isn't very elaborate. I spend about 15 minutes meditating, then I chant the sacred Gayatri mantra, and softly sing the aarti. I will likely soon acquire other paraphernalia to enhance my worship, such as a small bell, an oil wick stand, an incense holder, and maybe even a conch. I am not sure whether I will spend an hour each day at my home altar, like my father does. But I will find my own way to pray at my home altar.