Gurudev, there are so many different prayers in Hinduism. Some for Devi, some for Vishnu. In each prayer it is said that with regular recitation of the prayer one will be benefited. Now all prayers say the same thing, how do we know which one to follow?
See, the first thing to understand is that God is One. No matter by what name you may call him, he is One. That is one thing.
Secondly, it is not true that God is pleased by listening to His Stuti (devotional songs or hymns sung in praise of God).
When you open the windows of your house, the sunlight just comes inside, isn't it?
If you close the windows of your house, do you think the sun will get angry with you? Will the sun suddenly stop giving sunlight if you do this? No!
Whatever prayer we do, we do it for our own happiness. We pray to uplift our own selves. We do not pray to please God.
People who think that they can please God by fasting are foolish. It is sheer ignorance.
Now, do not think that God will give you something very special if you worship him and pray. Yes, if you pray, you will surely get the fruits of your prayer because that is the law of nature. Just like how, when you open the windows, the sunlight will surely come into the house and when the sunlight comes you will get the benefits for sure.
See, God anyways loves you very much. But to grow to love God just as He loves you, that is what devotion really is and this is the essence of prayer.
Pooja means that which is born out of fullness and completeness. To express a heart which is overflowing with so much gratitude and joy, Pooja is done.
‘Dear God, I am so grateful and blessed. You have given me so much in abundance’ – to express this feeling, we do Pooja.
When such a feeling arises within us, then some action inevitably gets linked with it also. One simply cannot resist expressing this deep feeling of gratitude.
For example, when you meet a very close friend of yours, you shake hands and pat his back to express your affection. This is very common in Punjab (a state in North India). So in this way, we express our love towards each other by doing some sort of action.
In the same way, when a devotee is so in love with the Divine, he wishes to do something or give something to the Divine. This is why our ancestors developed the various rituals and methods of performing Pooja. So, whatever we have received from the Divine, we offer it back to him.
God has given you flowers, so you also offer flowers back to Him with a prayer that may our hearts also blossom just as abundantly towards Him. God gave us water, so we offer water to Him during Pooja, with the feeling that we too should become humble like water and bring coolness to everyone. Like water, we too should have a foundation in life (just as water is the vital element and basis of life). So we pray that our life too becomes like this.
We also offer Akshat (whole unbroken rice grain) to the Divine because it is a symbol of never ending abundance. The rice grain does not break ever. Scientists have said that matter and energy can never be created nor be destroyed. Similarly also for the rice grain because it never gets destroyed or damaged. When we eat rice, it provides energy and nourishment to us and is absorbed by our body. And upon death, when our body is cremated and returns to the Earth element, the same rice grain after sometime grows from the Earth and becomes ready as food for consumption. When the body turns into ash, the ash becomes food for many fishes which in turn become the food for many other human beings again. So this happens again and again in Nature. When you bury the body under the Earth, the body dissolves away into the five elements.
Similarly we offer Chandan (sandal paste) also, with the feeling that its fragrance spreads everywhere. All our five senses which bring sensory experiences and pleasure to us – the eyes, the ears, the nose, the tongue and the skin have certain sense functions and substances associated with them. So all the substances and objects that bring joy or pleasure to these five senses are also given as sacred offering in the Pooja. We ring the holy bell during the Pooja because due to the sound that is produced, the mind is freed of all thoughts from here and there, and settles in the present moment. Then the mind comes in harmony with the Naad – the single sound in the environment during the Pooja. Therefore, to focus and channel the mind, many drums, trumpets and cymbals are also played during the Pooja. Such a loud sound causes the mind to come into the present moment.
Camphor is burnt to perform Aarti (circular movement or display of the lamp in reverence before the deity or the idol) before the deity. Just as God rotates the sun and the moon around you, you imitate the same and thus offer and move the small camphor lamp before God to bring joy to you. This is also to express the prayer that the light of our life should never go astray from God and should always be centered and revolve around God. It is with this deep feeling that you perform aarti. In the whole of India, people everywhere perform the aarti but do not know the deeper meaning behind it.
Aarti means the highest and the greatest possible bliss. It represents the fact that the Divine is the greatest source of joy. When our hearts overflow with such intense love and devotion that every particle of our body is soaked in it, then that is what aarti really is. Aarti is that which gives you total contentment. It is made up of two parts: ‘Aa-’ and ‘rati’. ‘Rati’ means joy, bliss and ecstasy. So when we are full of such kind of devotion and bliss - that is called Aarti. So we perform aarti with the prayer that our lives should also be filled with the ecstasy of devotion, such that we see God everywhere we look. This is called Pooja. Pooja is never done to flatter or please God.
But in our country, people go and feed sweets to the idol of the deity, so much so that the face of the deity is spoilt. Then you are unable to see the eyes, nose and the mouth of the idol. Furthermore, they offer flowers to every deity’s picture or idol with fear and guilt that if they offer to a flower to Lord Hanuman and not to Lord Shiva, then Lord Shiva will get angry and punish them. All sorts of superstitions arise in the mind. This is why it is said that you must have only one Ishtadevta (referring to the tradition of having a prime or central deity for worship and devotion). All others deities are simply divine forms of the same Divinity. The essence is to see One Divinity in everyone and everyone as part of One Divinity. That is what it is.