Satyanarayana Puja: A Hindu Prayer Service in South Louisiana

By Daria Woodside


In Annavaram, in the East Godavari district of Andhra Pradesh in India, a two-tiered temple sits atop a hillside. There, Hindu pilgrims come to worship Sri Veera Venkata Satyanarayana Swami, or Lord Satyanarayana. They come from every state and every language group in India to worship this aspect of God, known as the Lord of Truth. In South Louisiana, that same devotion to Sri Veera Venkata Satyanarayana Swami is practiced in temples in both Baton Rouge and New Orleans, as well as private homes, in the form a special prayer service called Sri Satyanarayana Puja.

Sri Satyanarayana Puja is performed for the full moon and for auspicious occasions like marriages, blessing a new home, birthdays, or opening a new business. It is believed to bestow good health, prosperity, success, and happiness on those who practice it. In August 2006, Sanjay and Prerma Kumar family of New Orleans performed Satyanarayana Puja to celebrate their daughter Jasmin's first birthday. "We want the Lord's blessing for this special day," Prerma Kumar said. Some also claim that performing this puja can help infertile couples conceive. Hira Duvuri of Baton Rouge tells of a good friend who could not conceive, but after performing Satynarayana Puja had a child. This worship service is also performed to help alleviate suffering and for protection. Meera Seth of Baton Rouge relates that her husband and the husband of a friend both underwent heart surgery at the same time. She and her friend pledged that if both men came through surgery successfully, they would perform Satyanarayana Puja. Both men did, and the women fulfilled their promise.

Slideshow: Satyanarayana Puja at Sri Venkata Satyanarayana Temple, Kenner, and Datta Temple, Baton Rouge, Summer and Fall 2006.

In South Louisiana, Sri Satyanarayana Puja is performed on every full moon day in the Datta Temple in Baton Rouge and at the Sri Venkata Satyanarayana Temple in New Orleans, as well as in numerous private homes throughout each month.

Diversity abounds in Indian culture, and among the approximately 5,468 Indian immigrants in Louisiana, that multiculturalism is represented by just about every Indian state and language group. Here in South Louisiana, immigrants from Gujarat, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Orrissa, Bengal, and other Indian states do not hesitate to gather together to celebrate this special form of worship in their homes and in the local temples. Srinivas Galuru, a priest at the Datta Temple and Hall of Trinity in Baton Rouge, says that one of the most frequent ways that Indians in South Louisiana gather in private homes to worship is for this ceremony. Satyanarayana Puja is performed in private homes for a variety of reasons, including the blessing of a new home, anniversaries or birthdays, or other special personal occasions. Shastry says that each month it is common for local priests to visit homes to help facilitate this practice, although any individual can perform the puja without the help of a priest. However, it is more than just the kinship of all being Indians in a foreign land that draws them together; even in their motherland, you will find this cross-cultural commingling for Satyanarayana Puja for four very special reasons.

First, it is not only language and state affiliation that distinguishes Indian immigrants living in South Louisiana. It is also religion, and in this population can be found Hindus, Sikhs, Jains, Muslims, and Christians. However, by far the largest Indian religious group in South Louisiana is the Hindus. Like Christianity, Hinduism has various sects such as Vaishnavites, who worship Vishnu, Shaivites, who worship Shiva, Krishna devotees, followers of Dattatreya (an incarnation of the Hindu Trinity of Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva), and those who worship Durga, the Mother Goddess. During a recent survey of how Indian immigrants maintain their culture in Louisiana, many interviewees spoke of ways in which their South Louisiana neighbors misunderstood their religion. Many "westerners" or Anglo-Americans perceive Hinduism as a polytheistic religion, but Hinduism is a monotheistic faith, with the pantheon of multiple Gods seen as different aspects of one God. In fact, Hindus also see Jesus as divine and worthy of their worship. It is this acceptance of all names and forms of God throughout different religions that makes it possible for this diverse community to share this prayer service. Meera Seth remembers that during her childhood in India, in her grade school, children were taught to respect Jesus just as much as they were taught to respect and worship Vishnu or Shiva. "We are taught that all Gods are one," she says.

Secondly, Lord Satyanarayana is the main focus of this ritual. Satyanarayana was a real individual who lived in Annavarnam in the East Godavari district of Andrah Pradesh sometime before 400 CE. He was believed to be an incarnation of the God Vishnu, who is the preserver aspect of the Hindu Trinity. The Bhagavad Gita, one of the primary sacred texts of Hinduism, teaches that whenever evil rises in the world, God incarnates to destroy that evil and protect the weak and righteous and restore order. These multiple incarnations of the Hindu Trinity to help humanity also lead to the idea of polytheism, however there remains for Hindus only one divine energy. What makes Lord Satyanarayana particularly special to all Hindus is that he can be seen not only as an incarnation of Vishnu, but also as the embodiment of the whole Hindu Trinity, thereby crossing even the different sects in Hinduism. Sri Sharmamanchi, chief priest of the Datta Temple in Baton Rouge, explained that if one visits the Sri Veera Venkata Satyanarayana Temple in Andhra Pradesh where Lord Satyanaryana lived, this connection to all aspects of the Hindu Trinity becomes apparent because all three aspects of the Hindu triune, Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva are worshiped in this temple. This embodiment of the whole trinity eases the way for those from differing sects to worship together during Satyanaryana Puja.

Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, Satyanarayana Puja breaks caste boundaries. Originally, in the early Vedic system the four societal divisions-the Shudras, who are servile to the other castes, the Vaishyas, who are the business caste, the Kshatriyas, who are the political caste, and the Brahmins-who are the spiritual leaders, were formulated to reflect the basic goals inherent in human life. However, the system degenerated into a strict social system which created much prejudice and injustice. While the caste system continues in many areas in India, much is being done to alleviate its affects. One rule of the ancient caste system was that religious and spiritual practices were under the authority of the Brahmin caste, who served as priests and religious teachers. However, these rules are broken with Sri Satyanarayana Puja; anyone, from any caste, can perform this ritual.

A unique aspect of the performance of Satyanarayana Puja is the reading of a series of folktales at the end of the ritual. It is considered mandatory to listen to these stories in order to gain the full blessing and merit of performing or attending Sri Satyanaryana Puja. Why? Because each of these tales relates to a different group in the caste system, and relates not only to the benefits of performing the ritual (prosperity, good health, success, and happiness), but also to the fact that each caste can and should perform this puja and will gain by doing so. Contained in these tales is the teaching that all castes are able to worship God equally. Repeatedly listening to these stories at every Sri Satyanarayana Puja reinforces this idea of equality in the minds of attendees.

Even as early as the time of Sri Satyanarayana's birth, people were fighting against the inequalities of the caste system. The folktales told at Sri Satyanarayana Puja, which are found in the Skanda Purana, reflect this sentiment. The Puranas are a collection of 18 Hindu religious scriptures that were written between c. 400-1000 CE, which contain stories of creation, destruction and recreation of the universe, the genealogy of the Gods and a number of parables. For the full text, see Sri Satyanarayana Puja Folktales from the Skanda Purana. These stories teach not only the power of faith, but important social lessons about equality. Within each of these five chapters are represented the various castes, and these tales are a reminder that all people should be treated equally and with respect.

The altar created for Satyanarayana Puja is beautiful to see. Flower garlands decorate colorful pictures of Lord Satyanaryana and Lord Ganesh. Sheets are spread on the floor surrounding the altar where plates full of flower petals, fruits, rice and colored powders are placed to be used during the ritual as offerings. As participants arrive, they also place food offerings on the altar and sit cross-legged on the floor surrounding the ritual space. As the priest chants mantras, those hosting the puja offer the rice and flowers and lighted lamps to the Lord Satyanarayana. At the end of the ceremony, attendees take turns reading the chapters of the story associated with the puja aloud. After the final blessing is completed, participants take feast on the food offerings in a community meal. If a priest is not present, either the head of the household or the couple hosting the event will lead the puja together.

Satyanarayana Puja begins with prayers to Lord Ganesh. It is traditional in all Hindu rituals to begin by praying to this elephant-headed God because he is the remover (and giver) of obstacles. So all rituals begin with prayers to Ganesh, so that any obstacles that might keep the puja from being performed properly are removed. Satyanarayana Puja is performed with slight variations depending on whether it is being done by Indians from the Northern or Southern region of India. If being performed by South Indians, the puja continues with what is called, Pancalok Palakapuja. This consists of prayers honoring the major deities of Hinduism consisting of Ganapati, Brahma, Vishnu, Rudra (Shiva), and Gauri (Mother Goddess). Next, comes the Navagraha Puja, or prayers worshipping the nine planets. A special pattern is created with the layout of grains or powders of different colors to represent each of the planets and the sun and the moon. Special mantras are recited to invoke these cosmic forces. This is followed by prayers to each of the eight directions. The addition of these special pujas to the process of Satynarayana Puja adds more impact to the ritual. The worship of the nine planets is a ritual in itself. Its performance during Satyanaryarana Puja is believed to help remove any negative aspects that participants might be facing in their astrological charts that could be causing difficulties. Once these pujas are performed, the main puja to Lord Satyanarayana begins.

Puja consists of 27 main steps, which on the surface reflect Indian hospitality by enacting the steps one would use to honor a guest visiting a home, but they also contain deeper meanings for meditation. The aspect of God who is being worshipped, in this case Satyanarayana, is invited to be present and offered a seat. Then the worshipper imagines washing the God's feet as water is offered. This process continues with ritual offerings of flowers, rice, water, sandal paste, lights, and food. The priest symbolically offers Satyanarayana a bath, new clothing, a meal, etc., all in an effort to make the deity a welcome guest in participants' home and hearts. Once these steps are completed, the 1000 names of Lord Satyanarayana are chanted, and participants are given an opportunity to make their petitions to God. Once the prayers to Lord Satyanarayana are completed, some of those present take turns reading the stories. the Prasad, or offering, to be given to guests is blessed, final prayers are said, and the Prasad is distributed.

The all-important Prasad, which the scriptures say must be eaten at the end of the puja to receive the full merits of the ritual, has its own special recipe. It is sweet in flavor and made from semolina (Cream of Wheat or Cream of Rice), sugar, milk, ghee, cardamom, cashews, and golden raisins. Indian women pride themselves on being able to make the Prasad in the proper way.

Satyanarayana Puja is a beautiful ritual. The ornate decoration of the altar with flowers and colored pictures appeals to the external senses. The beautiful handmade flower garlands and colorful pots of food reflect the love and devotion of participants. The telling of the stories appeals to the mind, and the warmth of gathering in prayer to remember God and his mercy appeals to the spirit. Perhaps the most beautiful and unique aspect of Satyanarayana Puja is not that it is a gift from God to fulfill one's desires, but that it is a constant reminder in the telling of its folktales that all are equal in the eyes of God, and that we should interact with each other with that belief in our hearts. There are far too few rituals that teach this wonderful lesson.

Daria Woodside is an independent researcher and college educator in Baton Rouge. This article was prepared in 2006 as part of the New Populations Project. It is included as part of the Baton Rouge Folklife Survey. See a related article, Dancing in the Light: The Nine-Day Festival of Navaratri in South Louisiana.