PanchAyatana Puja

In the thread about the role of Ishwara it was noted that an exclusive approach to God can end up in fanaticism. Yet the opposite extreme, to just lump everything together into one insipid mess is not good either. In the Smarta sampradaya we have a practice that attempts to eliminate both problems--the panchayatana puja. We believe it was established by Shankaracharya himself.

According to the Digvijayas the situation was not good at that time. There were many sects and philosophies that misinterpreted or were completely against the Vedas. Amongst the astikas much energy was misspent in arguing over whether Shiva Bhagawan was superior to Vishnu Bhagawan or both were inferior to Mataji etc. To alleviate this and to get people thinking of the Advaita bhava, this puja was started. 

In this puja all the five major deities of Sanatana Dharma are worshipped:
Shiva, Vishnu, Devi, Surya and Ganesh Bhagawans. 

There are five forms of arranging Them:

Shiva panchayata

Vishnu                Surya


Devi                    Ganesh

Vishnu panchayata

Shiva                 Ganesh


Devi                 Surya

Surya panchayata

Shiva                 Ganesh


Devi                 Vishnu

Devi panchayata

Vishnu                 Shiva


Surya                 Ganesh

Ganesh panchayata

Vishnu                 Shiva


Devi                     Surya

This way the sadhaka can put his own belowed form of God in center stage but he never forgets that He has other forms too.

The important purpose of doing the panchAyatana pUjA is to overcome the bheda-bhAva among the different deities of various sects. Among the different sects of shaivas, vaiShNavas, etc., each views its own deity as the Supreme and makes the others inferior to its main deity. This creates a bheda-bhAva among the deities and this is simply a trick played by mAyA. Says the mAyA-panchaka:

bata virachayya budhAnapi prakAmam.h |
bhramayati hariharabhedabhAvA-
naghaTitaghaTanApaTIyasI mAyA ||

Alas! Even in the indivisible Brahman, it (mAyA) creates differences called BrahmA, ViShNu, and Shiva and deludes or tricks exceedingly even the intelligent into feeling differences of Hari and Hara. mAyA is an expert in making incompatible things compatible!

As advaitins, we should understand that this bheda-bhAva is due to mAyA only. Therefore, we should always view all the deities of the panchAyatana or the shhaNmata as being equivalent to each other. We should worship all of them as equals, not as a hierarchy, as some sects do. The panchAyatana system, however, recognizes that there may be some personal preferences among people and there should be enough freedom to worship one's ishhTa-devatA in a special way. We should not confuse personal preference of a deity with a systematic and deliberate elevation of a deity over others by sects. It is after all human nature to choose a favorite among several good things. If there are some delicacies, such as bisi-beLe-bhAt, hoLige, and, pAyasa, one person may like pAyasa more than the other two, another person may prefer hoLige, and so on. We cannot ask why a person should like pAyasa more than the other two dishes. We cannot blame a person for making a deity his or her favorite as long as the person acknowledges that all deities are in fact the same.