Monday, March 22, 2010

Puja and the Pagan/Christian/Hindu boundary

Many years ago, one of my Hindu students, Saheli, asked me quietly and confidentially "why Westerners care so much about which God to worship?" I had to laugh and admit that I was, probably, not the best person to ask about this! I tried to explain that really most Christians say they believe in one God, and that however much I might not really understand, that I had to accept that my friends saw their religious beliefs that way.

Saheli was not stopped. "Then why, professor, do their Gods all sound so different?" Since we were in the UK at the time, I didn't tell her that in the States, the God of the Southern Baptist Church also sounded quite a bit different than the God in the Church of England, but I didn't go there. I again explained, that despite how it might seem to outsiders, Christians believe there is only one God. (I hope, Christians reading here, that I explained that correctly).

I have been lucky over the years to have many Hindu/Christian friends, both in the United States and in the UK. Since I have also watched many, many, many (did I say lots and lots?) of Pagan/Christian fighting, especially in LGBT and women's groups, the ease with which my Hindu friends flit from seemingly disparate religious systems has long intrigued me.

Another friend, here in the States, explains to me that it is the focus of puja that defines her as a Hindu, and that puja to Jesus is utterly allowed in her traditions. Now I love puja, the ceremony of honoring a deity, guest or distinguished person, often with food, candles, water, prayers, incense, and flowers. I attended my first puja, a Durga puja, years ago at the Center for Women and Religion. From the Hindu perspective of my friends, the Christian God and Jesus, as well as Saints and the Holy Spirit, are all just one more deity in a wide smorgasbord of worship possibilities.

That extends to paganism as well. In the UK I attended the best Celtic myth classes at the University of Birmingham. My professor, Prof. Jindal, spoke very openly as a scholar coming to myth from her Hindu background. She never used the term "god" or "goddess" to talk about beings in Celtic myth, instead preferring the Hindu term "deva." She, like Saheli, wondered why this preoccupation with deities in Western religious thought. So much of Celtic worship centered around tossing things into pools, springs, wells, lakes and rivers, Prof. Jindal questioned why Westerners didn't see Celtic belief in the context of puja! Excellent question!

What this means for women and men exploring the Pagan/Christian borderland is fascinating. To my Hindu friends, to be Wiccan and to keep puja to Jesus is by no means a contradiction. Nor is worship to the Morrigan and to Bridget - Goddess, saint or deva. Nor is puja to a Trinitarian God and a Celtic Goddess. Puja is an action, a making of reverence, so in no way contradicts one's religious beliefs.

And the actions of puja, saying prayers, lighting candles and incense, offering food and libation, all can be incorporated into many, many traditions. I use Catholic holy cards on my shrine to the deva Brid, for example. Pagan candles can focus a prayer to Jesus. Within the context of puja, there is no contradiction.

Many times now, I answer questions about my own beliefs with a new Americanized word. I puja to Bridget.

So who do you puja to????


  1. Hurray! At last I have a word to describe something I've been doing ever since I can remember. I puja to a pretty wide range of manifestations of spirit; I just haven't had a way to talk about it that might make sense to most folks. I found the following in an online definition: "An essential part of making a spiritual connection with the divine." ( Exactly! Thank you for expanding my spiritual vocabulary!

  2. Some people are quite clear on the connection to "puja," however.

    Read Michael York's Pagan Theology (New York: New York University Press, 2003) for some thoughtful connection-making.