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Old June 24th, 2011, 06:10 PM
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Question Why we circumambulate or do pradakshinams

Why we circumambulate
Arun Ganapathy | Jun 24, 2011, 12.00am IST
Why do we go round and round sacred sites, groves and shrines? Find out with Arun Ganapathy, who provides some insight


It is a story as old as the hills and as popular as the tubby, elephant-faced Ganesha himself. Once upon a time, Shiva and Parvati decided to find out which of their sons, Ganesha or Karthikeya, was better. So they decided to settle the issue by giving their sons a test. "Whichever one of you goes around the world and comes back first is the winner," said Shiva to his sons. He had barely uttered these words when Karthikeya got on his peacock and flew as fast as he could around the Earth, while Ganesha found the lazy but clever way out he simply went around his parents thrice.

"Why are you circling us?" asked Shiva of Ganesha.

'"You are my parents and you represent the whole world to me," said Ganesha and of course the elephant god won the contest hands down.

What Ganesha did is what millions of devout Hindus do day in and day out at temples: Pradakshina or Pradakshinam is the Sanskrit word for the practice of circumambulating the sanctum sanctorum housing the temple deity, sacred object or fire.

While the origin of the practice is hazy and lost in time, what is clear are the mechanics of it.

Typically, the devotee enters the temple and offers prayers to the presiding deity, or his ishta devta or deity of his choice in some of the bigger temples. Once this is done, he will start on his circumambulation. In the bigger temples, there is the praharam or pathway around the shrine housing the main deities. The path is circumambulatory. However, in smaller temples, where there is no pathway around the central shrine, devotees just walk around the deity itself.

All the while that they walk around, the deity is to their right. This is on account of using this as a symbol to remind ourselves that we should walk the right path of dharma by leading a righteous life. While walking around in circles, the devotee chants: Om Namah Shivaya, Om Namah Shivaya, continuing to move in a clockwise direction. The exception to this is when the devotee is doing the Somasuktapradakshinam in a Shiva temple on pradosham day, which is the 13th day of the lunar cycle dedicated to the worship of Shiva. In this instance, the pradakshinam or circumambulation is in the anti-clockwise direction.

On completing the pradakshinam, devotees traditionally stand in front of the main deity and slowly turn around in a motion that resembles the earth spinning on its own axis, but in a measured pace at least three times. This is called atma pradakshinam. "Some devotees do this at the temple, but many people who are too old or infirm to make the trip to the temple do the atma pradakshinam at home instead," says Balasubramaniam, secretary of the Vinayaka temple in Mayur Vihar, Delhi. "The atma is a symbol of both the temple and the deities in the temple by going around it, we are simulating the act of going around and worshipping every divine manifestation."

The palms are brought together one last time in prayer and a final namaskaram or prostration is done. Traditionally this means that the devotee should not show his back to any deity so this namaskaram is to the dvajasthambam, which is the flag pole of the temple. The ritual is now complete.

Is there a prescribed number of times to go around?

There is. If the deity is a Ganesha, the minimum number of pradakshinams is one, if it's Shiva, you go around the deity twice, it it is Vishnu you do it three times and in case it is Durga, you go around her no less than six times.

Is the practice of pradakshinam prevalent only in Hinduism? No, not strictly. While the practice of going around a deity is particular to Hinduism the idea of circumambulation is common to quite a few religions across the world.

In Islam, Muslims go round and round the Kaaba, their most sacred site, in a practice they call the tawaf and Buddhists circumambulate the stupa which normally houses relics of the Buddha. Or they go around the Bodhi tree in much the same manner as Hindus do their pradakshinam. All of them believe that the holy spot or image is at the very centre of life and so is the main focus of their existence. The faithful believe that God is at the centre of our existence. So when we do pradakshina or circumambulation, we accept that our actions and thoughts are always centred on God.

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