The early morning wore the fragrance of sandalwood incense purifying the house. In the backyard by the kitchen, the helpers of the main priest who was to preside over the puja were carving small plates out of the bark of banana trees where they would later serve the prasadam. Although it was just 7 in the morning everyone in the house had bathed. My father who was to sit in the ceremony wore the Dhoti and Gamusa. The holy thread that hung across his chest held testimony to the fact that he held an understanding of the Vedic rituals that were to be performed. We were to host the Satyanarayana Puja at home. It was an important yearly function and every year family and friends gathered for the puja. Coming from an Assamese Brahmin family, I had grown up the traditional way, but somehow I always struggled to understand God. I could feel the vibration of our home rise to a spiritual level when we held the Satyanarayana Puja at home. I loved this feeling although I did not understand it.
The highlight for me was of course the food and the prospect of meeting well-loved cousins who came over for the occasion. Ours was a small town and the same family priest presided over the religious functions in the neighborhood. The priest therefore was just like an extended part of the family. Pujas started the moment the priest arrived. The whole house vibrated with the chants and the chiming of bells that seemed to me to purify every corner. Aunts and friends who came over gathered in our kitchen to help out with the cooking. Yes, it was a small close knit gathering where if you are to take part, you take part like one family. The concept of guest and hosts seemed to evaporate on this day. The house felt like a heady mix of religious chants and the aroma of fluffy puris that have had a dip in pure desi ghee for the occasion. The plates of prasadam with the choicest of fruits and goodies stood as an offering where the puja was held. The diyas that stood gracing the occasion where the puja was performed added a sense of divinity to the occasion with their warmth and flutter. We could either choose to sit and watch the puja progress or hang around anywhere without disturbing the rituals.
The Puja always ended with a Shankhnaad. It was the most powerful thing that I have heard. It somehow seemed to pierce the atmosphere and cleanse the house of everything impure, well on an energy level. After the puja was over, we were to seek blessings. The whole family gathered around where the puja was performed and bowed in reverence. The priest then blessed everyone by sprinkling Gangajal as we stood head bowed.
I had grown up in the midst of rituals and pujas. But I have also seen my parents bow down with the same reverence when people of other faiths prayed. I could never belong to where I was born. There were unanswered questions and there still are. God is still a mystery to me. I do not know how to pray. But I know one thing that the presence of God can be felt. Not explained. Every Satyanarayana Puja, when I woke up to the smell of sandalwood incense, heard the chants and chiming of bells and heard the Shankhnaad, I could feel something inside me being purified. Interestingly, the same feeling was evoked in me once when I paid an exorbitant price to a beggar because I had promised to God that I would do that if he helped me with my wish. This is how unevolved or rather cheap was my relation with God a few years back despite me having grown up in such a spiritually charged home. God however did fulfill my wish and I paid the beggar, who held the note to the sky and thanked God in a mix of tears, gratitude and happiness. As I watched him, I was transported to the freshness of the sandalwood incense, the chiming of bells and the Shanknaad and went through the same form of purification that I had felt when our home hosted the Satyanarayana Puja. Interestingly, people say that if the needy come asking for alms to a house that hosts this puja on the very day, it is a good sign. These are actually Gods in disguise and feeding them is believed to evoke the blessings of God. The central idea of the Satyanarayana Puja is that every human has God as their essence. So the way you treat another human is directly felt by God. Though it might seem surreal, every Satyanarayana Puja, we had one or two beggars coming over and sitting near our gate asking for alms. Of course they were served food. I still do not know, how they got to know which house is performing the puja or was it a divine co-incidence? The reason why I wonder is because this Puja is held inside the house without any fanfare or hint to the outside world except for those who we inform. I do not understand God, but the Satyanarayana Puja that were held in our house did hint that God resides in generosity, kindness and things that touch the heart. Maybe this is what religion is all about? Don’t they say the same thing? I am yet to find out.