What is Abhishekam actually about?
The word itself ‘Abhishekam’ or Abhishek is a Sanskrit term that literally means to wet around and involves the ritual bathing of consecrated images. In the Bhakti devotional traditions, temple worship forms a central practice. Hindus regard the different murthis (sacred images) as living manifestations of Divinity. Devotees meditate upon the murthis and honour them with mantras or hymns. The murthis are regularly served through different ceremonies such as Abhishekam. Ritual worship is an opportunity for the devotee to express one’s love for their deity. It is a chance to physically interact with God, to relate to him on an intimate human level.
In ancient Indian tradition, there is a verse from the Taittiriya Upanishad ‘atithidevo bhava’ which means the guest is God. Whenever someone comes to your house, they are venerated as if God Himself has come. The act of Abhishek has its roots in this very concept. When a guest, after travelling a long time in the heat and dusty roads arrives, it is customary to welcome them, offer a seat, wash their feet and mouth and allow them to refresh themselves with a bath and adorn new attire. The guest is given utmost priority, all delicacies and gifts are offered first and foremost to him and then to others.
Spiritual Benefits of Abhishekam
Generally, there are five main items which are used to bathe the consecrated image:
- Milk (Water) (taste)
- Yoghurt (Earth) (touch)
- Ghee (Fire) (sight)
- Honey (Ether) (hearing)
- Sugar (Air) (smell)
These five together are known as the ‘Panchamritam’ or the five nectars. Each of them is linked to one of the five elements and indeed one of the five senses. The five elements form the substratum of this material existence and the five senses dictate how we all individually perceive it.
When devotees offer the Panchamritam, they are essentially asking Divinity to purify and balance the external physical world around as well as their own subjective perception of it. When each item is poured over the image there is a vibrational effect which transforms the surrounding environment as well as the individuals who are witnessing it. This is why Abhishekam is not just beneficial to the performer, but also to anyone who is present in the congregation. The positivity and spiritual energy created effortlessly uplifts everyone who attends the ceremony.
Veneration of the Deity
Imagine now that God Himself has come to your house. It is with this in mind that the rituals are carried out. The deity is bathed in different items such as milk, yoghurt and honey. Every act is a veneration of this divine guest, a token of our utmost respect and love.
The Abhishek mantras that are chanted are in Sanskrit. This ancient language is said to be the language of the Gods as each syllable carries with it potent vibrations which are capable of uplifting and energising. The whole purpose is to create an uplifting ambience which is pleasing to the deity that has graced us with His presence.
History of Abhishekam
It is difficult to pin down exactly when the Abhishekam ritual emerged. Image worship, in general, has been at the forefront of Indian spiritual practice for thousands of years. Temple worship is a science which has been used to invite God into a tangible image form.
The philosophy and process of how this science should be implemented are found in the sacred Agama shastras. In these scriptures, we see the step by step process of how to build temples, how to install and consecrate images, and how one should perform the various rituals such as Abhishekam. As well as this we find the various Abhishek mantras that should be chanted alongside the ceremony. Realised masters and seers laid down these Agama scriptures. They understood the power and correct process of inviting and sustaining Divine vibration and energy. As a result, any temples and images installed using their wisdom become reservoirs of spiritual potency.
The Outer and Inner Experience of Abhishekam
But as well as a strong metaphysical effect, Abhishekam creates a strong devotional connection. To those who deeply absorb what is happening, every act that is outwardly performed is happening on an inner level. When we welcome the deity by washing His feet, that same deity is being welcomed into our hearts. When we honour Him by bathing Him in the Panchamritam, this too is happening within. The outside events become a deep meditation which profoundly nurtures our loving relationship with God. Divinity is no longer a distant reality but instead becomes an intimate and deep experience.
Abhishek Items and Significance
Abhishekam is not limited to just temples, it can also be done at home. Here is an Abhishekam items list which outlines the main things needed for worship:
- Cups and plates for warm water and panchamrit items
- A draining plate to catch whatever has been poured
- A conch and bell
- Clothes and Jewellery
- Chandan and Kumkum paste
- Tulsi/bilva leaves
- Incense and ghee wick lamps
- Food to be offered.
Anyone can perform Abhishek. However, not all images of deities can necessarily be worshipped in this way. Those that have been consecrated, that is those which have undergone an installation ceremony known as ‘prana pratishta’ where Divinity has been invoked to reside in the image, are ready for worship. There are specific stones such as saligrams which naturally have this Divine potency within them and so the installation ceremony for them is not needed.
Ideally, the different utensils for worship should be kept separate to those used for general use. There will be a number of containers that would be needed to contain the different elements of the Panchamritam.
Depending on the size of the deity, a bowl or draining plate will be needed to contain the different items which have poured. Collecting the different items after they have been offered is important. Anything that has contacted the deity is seen as ‘prasad’ or having been sanctified. As a result, the panchamrit and water can be distributed and consumed afterwards.
As the different elements are poured, a conch is often blown and a small bell is often rung. After the Abhishek is finished, the deity is dried with towels. Perfume is applied, as well as specific clothes and jewellery. Fresh chandan and kumkum (red powder) paste is also used to adorn the deity.
Once this has been completed, then tulsi leaves, which are especially sacred are offered along with other flowers. Then fragrant incense is burnt and a flame is shown. Next various food items are presented and are also taken as Prasad. Finally, more prayers are uttered before the closing ceremony of arati is done.
Almost every step has a set of prayers signaling what is happening. Right from requesting permission for worship, to the offering of food there are set Abhishek mantras. As mentioned these are not considered ordinary words, but powerful sound vibrations which invoke and elevate the energy of the whole ceremony. Below are some of the mantras which are usually chanted:
Abhishek mantra for milk offering:
oṁ kāmadhenu samut panaṁ sarva saṁtoṣa kārakam payastubhyaṁ pracacāmi snānārthaṁ pratigṛh yatām oṁ śrī (name of the deity) namaḥ payaḥ snānaṁ samarpayāmi
We offer milk for your bath from Kamadhenu, the wish-fulfilling cow, which will bring you all kinds of joys in life, O (name of deity) please accept this milk.
Abhishek mantra for honey offering:
oṁ divyaiḥ puṣpaiḥ samud bhūtaṁ sarvaguṇa samanvitam madhuraṁ madhu na madhyaṁ snānārthaṁ pratigṛh-yatām oṁ śrī … namaḥ madhu snānaṁ samarpayāmi
We offer this honey for your bath, which has been extracted from divine flowers. It has in it great medicinal qualities and is full of sweetness. O (name of deity) please accept this honey.
Which specific Deities is Abhishek done to?
There are no specific restrictions as to which deity should have Abhishek and which should not. But generally speaking, Vishnu, Shiva and Devi are the three mains forms of the divine worshipped. Each of the three has a number of different manifestations. As mentioned, the exact procedure for ritual worship is taken from the Agama scriptures.
Vaishnavas (Vishnu worshippers) have their own Agamas, as do the Shavities (Shiva worshippers) and the Shaktas (Devi worshippers). As a result, one can often find variance between them in the Abhishek procedure as well as differences in the Abhishek mantras.
Added to this, there are certain things that are considered to be especially auspicious in each tradition. For example, Vaishnavas see the saligramas as a natural manifestation of Vishnu and readily worship these. Vaishnavas offer tulsi leaves to Vishnu, which are seen as particularly dear to Him. Shaivites, in contrast, worship the Linga which is seen as the closest form to the formless Shiva. Instead of tulsi leaves, they offer bilva leaves which are seen as particularly auspicious.
What can I expect to experience at Abhishekam in London?
Bhakti Marga UK devotees and followers perform Abhishekam every Friday in London. They worship the deity Lakshmi Narasimha, which is a manifestation of Vishnu. Hindus consider Vishnu to be the great protector against negative influences as well as the great destroyer of ignorance that holds us back on the spiritual path. Devotees chant full Vaishnava mantras and simultaneously perform kirtan or devotional music during the Abhishek ceremony. Prasad (food) is distributed to all those who attend the Abhishekam. For those looking for an uplifting experience and an intimate introduction to the Abhishekam ritual, it is an excellent event to attend.