“When offerings are made in worship, with or without proper knowledge, I will receive them gladly, and also the fire offerings made in a similar way.”
– Devi Mahatmyam 12.11
In this verse from the twelfth chapter of Devi Mahatmyam (also Chandi Path or simply the Chandi), the Goddess tells us that She accepts all worship, regardless of whether it is performed with proper knowledge. What is proper knowledge? The “right” mantras, the “right” procedures, the “right” pronunciation, the “right” gestures, the “right” understanding. There is another kind of “right” understanding, which is quite personal and flows from pure devotion.
This verse should not be taken as a command to dispense with ritual formulas completely. Elsewhere in this chapter, the Goddess states that proper recitation of Her praises as contained in the Chandi will bring blessings, health, prosperity, and protection to those who recite it, and even gives appropriate days and places for its recitation. Proper intonation and ritual performance only serve to make the worship more and more powerful, to resonate more and more clearly.
However, no one should be chastised for performing worship “incorrectly,” especially when they have no knowledge or only limited knowledge of how worship “should” be performed. We must start where we are. When a little child approaches the Devi and sings Her praises, and offers worship at Her feet, do we chastise the child for her devotion, even if she performs the words and procedures not quite correctly? No! We say, “how wonderful, this little child recognizes the divine and is performing Her worship so beautifully!” In the same way, we are all little children at our Mother’s feet. Taking the attitude of a child, we lay aside pretense and offer worship from our hearts. And in this way, we can more fully begin to recognize our total oneness with Her, that She is not actually separate from us, that She guides us.
Such sincere worship is free from ego and attachments. Today, anyone can go on the internet and find mantras that were kept secret for hundreds of years or longer. You can learn secret mantras that in many traditions require many levels of initiation to learn properly. There are also lots of books, which people buy, memorize from without any guidance (from the gurus who published them or otherwise), and then tout themselves as ritual experts! Is this sincere worship? What is the real goal here?
Taking the attitude of a child, we lay aside pretense and offer worship from our hearts.
The kind of worship the Goddess is talking about is not the kind of commodified worship that rapaciously accumulates mantras and rituals by hopping from guru to guru and website to website and book to book, or that takes liberties to appeal to the masses for personal gain. No – the worship the Goddess is talking about is pure devotion from the heart, without entitlement, without attachment to knowledge, authority, position, or fame.
The internet is a good tool, however, and can bring us a lot of insight and knowledge, if we have a strong foundation. If we don’t, it can bring confusion and uneasiness. The same is true of books and teachers. But it is never too late to establish a good foundation, and to look upon all who brought you to that place – whether they are the holiest people, the most unscrupulous, or anywhere in between – with gratitude for how they brought you closer to Devi.
This verse tells us, then, that it is actually never too late to begin working to defeat the wily ego, and to simply offer the best you can with the knowledge and understanding you have at the time, not trying to posture or claim authority but simply saying, “this is the very best I have to offer, and it is from my heart… please accept it!”
This is also why it is so important that when one takes a guru and learns how to perform rituals, mantras, mudras, and so on, that they practice it diligently and daily so that it becomes second nature. If one wishes to have knowledge, then they should be diligent. After hundreds or thousands of times performing these mantras and rituals, only then does one begin to become comfortable with the words and procedures, and then can rest in them. For most people, this takes years of continuous effort and struggle against boredom, doubt, entitlement, and fear, until it is known backwards and forwards, inside and out, as if it is an extension of one’s self.
Once you can rest in the practice, then a whole new world begins to open – a world of new understanding and insight that cannot open otherwise. A good guru knows this, and pushes us along the way toward that insight, destroying false confidence and barriers to progress, cultivating humility, and building up strength of spirit, capacity to love, and openness to divine wisdom.
In the end, we are all like little children in the arms of our Mother. If we can remember this in every moment, even if we are the most accomplished of sadhakas, we can cultivate more compassion for ourselves, and more compassion for everyone around us as we make our ways through life, forgiving those who have wronged us and finding guidance and insight in the most unlikely of places. The greatest saints were totally committed to their sadhanas (rigorous spiritual routine practices) – whether it was performance of Vedic ritual, performance of puja and homa, the performance of meditation, renunciation, or the composing and performance of ecstatic poetry. All of these served to elevate and expand their consciousness to the extent that it also had a positive effect on the consciousness of everyone around them, even hundreds of years after their time. Many of these saints were illiterate, low caste, or had no formal training in ritual or scripture.
So don’t let lack of knowledge keep you from offering worship to the Mother. Perform puja and homa to the best of your ability, and acknowledge that you know nothing, but offer it sincerely. Humility and grace go together hand in hand, and when we offer the best we can with humility, Mother showers us with Her grace.
Photo credit: Mahiṣāsura-mārdinī at Maligaon Durga Puja (Guwahati, Assam, India), courtesy of Kulasundari Devi