Just as any other child, I was always inquisitive about the various customs and practices of Indian tradition.
‘Why do we apply chandan on our forehead’, ‘Why do we circumambulate around the temple‘, ‘ Why do we wave arati to the Lord at the end of prayer’, ‘What does the shanti mantra imply?’, and so on and on…
When I was in my graduation years, I had a course ‘Cultural education’. This course gave me quite some insight to these customs. I always believed them to be religious practices, and was quite apprehensive to follow it. Somewhere I knew, there was meaning to all these. The following are some of the answers to the why’s. This is my understanding, please feel free to add in your points in the comments.
Why do we apply chandan/kumkum/basmam on our forehead?
Each of it has its own significance. They are usually applied at the point where both the eyebrows meet, where the Ajna chakra is located.
Chandan (sandalwood paste) when applied at this point, cools your forehead. Since the action organ associated with Ajna chakra is the mind, it calms your mind, thus bringing in serenity.
Basmam (ash) is applied to remove the false identification to the body and its limitations, and to make us aware of the fact that, one day we will all die and become ash.
Kumkum (red vermilion) represents Goddess Parvati’s (female) power. It is usually applied (not restricted to ) by married women, as a prayer to protect their husbands, and for their longevity.
Why do we circumambulate around the temple?
This relates to the story of Lord Ganesha and Muruga. Once Lord Shiva and Parvati asked their sons to go around the world 3 times. The one who comes first, gets a mango. Lord Muruga immediately sat on his vahan, the peacock and began to circumambulate the 3 worlds. Lord Ganesha, instead, just took 3 rounds of his Mother and Father. Because his parents were his world. Similarly, we circumambulate around the temple seeing the whole world in the sanctum and with reverence to the creator and the entire creation. Usually, while circumambulating, the Lord is on the right side, implying that was must always be righteous and follow our dharma.
Why do we wave arati to the Lord at the end of prayer?
This is performed at the end of all prayers. Camphor is lighted and is waved in front of the deity. It is done with a prayer that, ‘May this light which was shown to each part of your body, may it enlighten my vision and thoughts.’ With this prayer, the eyes(vision) and head(thoughts) are touched with the hands.
Why do we pray/sing bhajans in the evenings?
It is said that the atmosphere is polluted with negativities in the evenings. Hence, its good to sing bhajans and do prayers at that time. Singing Bhajans is one of the simplest way to get yourself attuned to the Lord.
Why do we chant the shanti mantras?
The shanti mantras such as ‘Lokah samastah sukhino bhavantu‘ are usually chanted at the end of prayer. You pray for the well being of the entire universe. It is said when you pray for others, the whole world prays for you.
‘Om shanti shanti shantihi‘ is also chanted along. The significance of saying it 3 times is you first pray that may there be peace in circumstances that you have absolutely no control, such as natural disasters. Secondly, you pray for circumstances that you have slight control, such as resolving a fight. Third and finally, you pray for peace of your own mind, something that you have absolute control.
It is said God’s grace is always there, but what we need is the grace of the mind.
When we try to go into deeper depth, we understand the significance and experience its meaning when practiced sincerely.