The altar is a place where God "lives". The altar and the objects on it are the place where we can physically express our worship, prayers and devotion to the Almighty, the universal truth. It is also the central place of every temple, ashram, and disciple’s home. Our understanding of God will determine what images and objects the altar will have.
The altar is one of the places where puja is performed. Puja is the act by which we worship the Lord through the chanting of mantras, the singing of prayers and the performance of certain rituals. For a bhakta, puja is a direct relationship with God and Guru. There are many forms and types of puja, but they all have one thing in common – the act of worshipping the Almighty in one of His aspects. One of the most common pujas is the Guru Puja, which is not determined by strict cermonial rules.
On a Hindu altar, the following items may be found:
It is important to note that there are no strict rules in this regard, and every altar does not necessarily contain all of the following.
Images and pictures – On the altar there are usually images of saints and deities. The devotees, bhaktas, have on their altars a picture of their Guru, and of their lineage of enlightened teachers – Guru parampara, to which they belong.
Trident – a weapon and one of the symbols of Lord Shiva. The three prongs symbolize the three Divine Shaktis (powers). Iccha shakti – will power, Kriya Shakti – the power of action and Gyan Shakti – the power of wisdom. They also represent the three main nadis – ida, pingala and sushumna.
Oil lamp – The oil lamp is the only thing required on every altar. The light symbolizes knowledge, and darkness represents ignorance. The light dispels darkness as knowledge dispels ignorance, without any effort, only by its mere presence. The Lord is the principle of knowledge, Chaitanya, consciousness, intelligence, which is the source of all knowledge. The hand of the one who lights an oil lamp is respected as the Lord himself. The knowledge is a permanent inner wealth through which everything is achieved. Therefore, we light the oil lamp as a symbol of the greatest respect towards knowledge, the largest of all wealth. The oil lamp, the pot, is considered a feminine principle, whereas the flame is a male principle. A lighted oil lamp is a union of these two principles, the symbol of enlightenment. A Guru transmits the light from the flame of self-realisation to his devotees, who are the unlit lamps.
Agarbathi (incense sticks) – Scents are "food" for Gods and Raksasas (demons) alike. Pleasant aromas call for good energy, while the smell of blood and alcohol evoke the presence of rakshasas. Scents purify and change the energy of the environment.
The bell (Ghanta) – Ghanta is used in pujas for invoking Gods. The bell’s ringing produces a special sound that represents respect and salutation. It is the sound of Om – the universal name of God. Together with the scents, this favourable sound purifies the environment and our interior. The sound of the bell eliminates any adverse noise or noise that irritates and that could interfere with puja and divine atmosphere and inner peace. The prayer or any type of service is incomplete without the sound of the bell.
Camphor (karpuras) – Karpuras has a unique place in Hindu rituals and traditional puja. It is clean, white, and when burning, it gives a certain colour to the flame. It burns completely without leaving any residue. The lighting of camphor in front of God symbolises the burning of illusions, of the ego; with the fire of true knowledge. Like this we merge with God, leaving no "residue".
Rice – Akshat means unbroken rice grain without the husk. This is offered for one's welfare. It also symbolises strength and the endurance of the brain, and is a symbol of peace. The grain of rice without the husk is a seed that cannot germinate, and symbolically it represents the last birth, the exit from the cycle of rebirth and death through enlightenment. By offering such rice grains in puja we confirm our aspirations towards living a lifestyle that enables us to achieve enlightenment.
Shell – In Vedas it is written: Nada rupa Parabrahma – the form of the Supreme is sound. With its sound, sankha (the shell) symbolises the purity and the beginning. It purifies the environment from all that is bad, from negative energy and disease. The sound and the vibration of the shell represent the sound of Om. The creation of sound by blowing into a shell symbolizes blessing for an auspicious start and end. When we press the shell against our ear, we will hear the sound of Om without any of our effort and action. Likewise, the sound of Om made the creation emerge from the total motionlessness of the sunyakasha (the dormant potential energy, emptiness, latent possibility). The creation started in the way that the divine consciousness manifested itself through the first sound, the sound of Om. In the sound of Om the divine shakti is united in its three elements – Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva.
Prasad – Prasad is also one of the things offered on the altar. It is our offering to the Lord. Usually it is of sweet taste, it can be fruit, nuts, crystallized sugar or different desserts. After being offered to God through prayer and mantras, the food becomes prasad. Likewise, every meal becomes prasad if we prepare it with love, offer it first to God on the altar with prayer, and then share it with others. Such food is nectar and medicine for everyone.
On the altar one can also find Shiva Lingam (representing Shiva, pure consciousness, Purusha), statues or images of Ganesh, Lakshmi, Saraswati.... Flowers are also an essential part of the altar, and besides offering good scent, the flower malas and flower petals decorate pictures of saints and symbolise our love and devotion.