Who Leads the Hindus in Worship?

A priest performs a puja service in March 2013.
... Suhaimi Abdullah/Getty Images News/Getty Images

Although Hindus primarily worship individually, some Hindu services are led by a pujari (trained priest) or a head of household The worship service, known as puja, is a ceremony where Hindus express devotion to a god or other divine being through prayer, rituals and music. Out of Hinduism’s seemingly infinite number of gods, each Hindu chooses one god to be their Ishta Devata, a spiritual guide that a Hindu makes deep connections with during worship. The god is symbolically represented through an object, such as a painting, during puja. Devotees generally present the deity an offering and then remain seated during the worship service.

1 Pujari

Trained priests, or pujaris, reside in Hindu temples and typically perform puja at sunrise, noon, sunset and midnight. Each temple typically includes at least one shrine to one of Hinduism’s many deities. During puja, the priest uses the shrine to symbolically connect with the temple’s deity. The priest generally begins with a purification process. Then they chant in Sanskrit, make hand gestures to symbolically attract the deity through an image, make an offering to the deity, dress the deity’s icon in new clothes, wave a lamp over the icon and then carry the lamp over the devotees in order to bless them. Afterwards, the priest distributes offerings, such as ash and sandalwood paste, to the worshipers.

2 Head of Household

Most Hindu homes have a shrine to the deities that each family member worships. The shrine can be any size, such as an entire room or just a picture taped to a wall. While worship at the home can be done individually at any time of day, some families pray together and are sometimes led by the head of the household. This person chants prayers to the deities and conducts rituals similar to those performed by pujaris in temples. Daily worship at home is traditionally done three times per day and is believed to make a connection to the deities that protects the home dwellers from suffering.

3 Guru

Some Hindu denominations consider gurus to be spiritual leaders that can help devotees break out of the reincarnation cycle and achieve the liberated state known as moksha. Other Hindus even revere gurus as the embodiment of God. While the guru doesn’t necessarily lead puja, some Hindus show their devotion to God by worshiping a guru’s feet. Some Hindus do this in order to absorb the spiritual essence that gurus are said to draw from God. This worship is generally conducted by prostrating with the body facing down and the hands stretched out to the guru’s feet.

4 Pandit

Hindu worship services can also be performed by priests who are known as pandits. This specific label is generally for a teacher who has mastered Sanskrit and has a deep, scholarly knowledge of Hinduism’s sacred texts, rituals and culture. “Pandit” is often bestowed as an honorary title.

Errol Manguso is based on the East Coast. Since graduating with a B.A. in Journalism and English from the University of Minnesota nearly 10 years ago, he has written for a wide variety of publications such as Spin, The Art Newspaper, American Songwriter, and many others.