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The word Puja is an amalgam of two Sanskrit roots, P - stands for Paapa - sin and J - stands for Janma - birth. According to another such belief, the word Puja is believed to be derived from the Dravidian word 'pu-chey', (flower action) or worship with the offering of flowers. Some also trace it to the Dravidian word 'pusu', which means to anoint or smear with sandalwood paste or vermilion.
Puja originated as a substitute to homa and other Vedic sacrifices which women and Shudras could not perform and which required animal sacrifices. Due to Dravidian, Buddhist and Jain influences, which preached non-violence, the killing or sacrifice of animals was discontinued and with the development of iconography, idol worship and puja took the place of sacrifice. It was also recognized that worship was essential for all, whatever the gender or caste and therefore puja was formalised as a universal option instead of the exclusive homa.
The term puja is now used to include all forms of ceremonial worship, ranging from the simple daily offerings of flowers, fruit, leaves, rice, sweetmeats and water to the deities in homes or temples, to the sacrifices of goats and chickens in temples dedicated to Kali, Durga and other female deities.
The 'Puja' or Worship
Hindu Puja (worship) of the gods consists of a range of ritual offerings and prayers typically performed either daily or on special days before an image of the deity, which may be in the form of a person or a symbol of the sacred presence. In its more developed forms, puja consists of a series of ritual stages beginning with personal purification and invocation of the god, followed by offerings of flowers, food, or other objects such as clothing, accompanied by fervent prayers.
Some dedicated worshipers perform these ceremonies daily at their home shrines; others travel to one or more temples to perform puja, alone or with the aid of temple priests who receive offerings and present these offerings to the gods. The gifts given to the gods become sacred through contact with their images or with their shrines, and may be received and used by worshipers as the grace (prasada) of the divine.
Sacred ash or saffron powder, for example, is often distributed after puja and smeared on the foreheads of devotees. In the absence of any of these ritual objects, however, puja may take the form of a simple prayer sent toward the image of the divine, and it is common to see people stop for a moment before roadside shrines to fold their hands and offer short invocations to the gods.