“If a man prays to Thee with a yearning heart, he can reach Thee, through Thy grace, by any path.” –Ramakrishna
THE SIGNIFICANCE OF ALTARS
The English word “altar” comes from the Latin altare or altarium, which stem from the root altus (“high”). Altare referred to an elevated place or structure, such as a mound or platform on which religious rituals were performed and/or offerings to deities were made. Therefore, since ancient times altars have been sacred places dedicated to worship.
Across the major world religions, altars are seen as “holy tables” on which sacred texts or symbols are elevated. In Buddhism, altars are physical displays made in support of the spiritual practice. On a deeper level, altars are a representation of the goal of the practice. Their images and Buddha statues are reminders that it is possible to follow the path to achieve Enlightenment.
In Catholicism, the “holy table” symbolizes that “the rock is Christ”—the white cloth is His vestment, the candles are His light, and the containers of bread and wine are the sacred vessels of His flesh and blood.
In Orthodox Christianity, the altar is located at the east end of a church, usually behind a screen known as the “royal doors.” The altar is considered a very sacred place and is often referred to as a sanctuary. The altar has multiple symbolic meanings: the “Throne of God,” Golgotha (where Jesus was crucified), and the tomb of Christ. In the center of the altar is the “holy table” upon which all the liturgical objects are placed.
In Bhakti Yoga, an altar is a place of awakening bhakti (“devotion”), expressing bhakti, and reinforcing bhakti. It serves to help us, again and again, aspire to prema (intense devotion to the Divine). As bhakti yogins and yoginis, it is very important to remember that all Bhakti Yoga rituals are not ends in themselves, but tools to cultivate love for the Divine until such time as this love turns into prema, the supreme state of Love—“love-being.”
“There are two stages of bhakti. The first is known as vaidhi-bhakti, or love of God qualified by scriptural injunctions. For the devotees of this stage are prescribed regular and methodical worship: hymns, prayers, the repetition of God’s name and the chanting of His glories. This lower bhakti in course of time matures into para-bhakti, or supreme devotion, known also as prema, the most intense form of divine love. Divine love is an end in itself. It exists potentially in all human hearts, but in the case of bound creatures it is misdirected to earthly objects.”
CREATING YOUR HOME ALTAR
When you decide to install an altar in your home it means that you have listened to an inner calling to literally “elevate” spiritual ideals—making them the priority in your life and the focal point of your home.
A home altar serves many purposes. It is:
- The focal point for your devotional practices
- The spiritual center of your house
- A reminder of spiritual principles
- A spot where the mind is dragged into the Heart
- A place of spiritual power and support
- A sacred space where your spiritual aspiration is nurtured and reinforced
- A hub for your spiritual practice.
Therefore, it is very important to create your altar consciously and to charge it again and again through your practice and devotion. In this way, it becomes a portal to elevated states of consciousness, to Divine Love and Grace.
PRACTICAL ASPECTS OF SETTING UP A HOME ALTAR
With a sincere wish in my heart that you will not forget the true meaning of altars and worship rituals, I’ll share some practical suggestions for setting up an altar. Note that although specific yogic lineages and religious branches may have very detailed instructions regarding the creation of altars, for the mystic or bhakta (“devotee”) there are no hard-and-fast rules. Therefore, below I present some overall principles to consider.
Where should my home altar be located?
Your altar should be placed in the room where you engage in spiritual practice. It should be oriented so you are facing east when you look at it, as this direction is associated with the rising Sun (the symbol of illumination). If you don’t have enough space to place it to the east, you may place it facing a different direction.
Before creating the altar, prepare your room to be a consecrated space—clean and tidy it thoroughly and purify it with sacred fragrances and sounds (smudging and mantras).
How do I purify the space?
Use one or more of the following to smudge your room: sage, frankincense, palo santo, or copal. To smudge, keep the burning aromatic in one hand and encircle the room at least seven times while chanting a mantra to purify the space. I recommend using either AUM or Ganesha’s mantra, OM GAN GANAPATAYE NAMAHA. While chanting this mantra, with devotion invoke the presence of Ganesha in your own heart and let it manifest at the physical level.
On what should I place my altar?
You can place your altar on existing furniture, mount it on a wall, or build a stand from natural materials like wood or stone. The most important aspect to be taken into consideration is its height. As a general recommendation, the altar should be above your heart chakra in the position that you usually practice. What does that mean? It means that if you usually sit on the floor to practice (as is often the case for yogis and meditators), then the platform you use should be higher than the level your anahata chakra while in this position. This placement is symbolic of your aspiration to universality, as represented by the higher chakras.
It is quite common to place the altar behind a curtain or in an “altar house” with doors that can be closed when it is not in use. This protects the altar from curious hands, pets, and accidents, and creates a sense of a sacred, secret place where the intimate relationship between your soul and the Divine is deepened.
What should I put on my altar?
“The formless God is my Father and God with form is my Mother.” –Kabir
Your altar represents the physical expression of your spiritual ideal, the embodiment of your highest spiritual aspiration, and the Divine. Divinity can be represented by your ishta devata, the deity which represents the particular aspect of the Divine that you resonate most with or find most appealing, such as Kali (the Goddess of Time and Transformation), Tara (the Goddess of Compassion), Tripura Sundari (the Goddess of Beauty and Bliss), Ganesha, Shiva, etc. In this way, God with form leads you to discover God without form.
You can also put images of bodhisattvas or enlightened masters, such as Ramana Maharshi, Nisargadatta Maharaj, or Ramakrishna, on your altar.
What you place on your altar is what you become.
How should my home altar be structured?
It’s a good idea to create an altar with three vertical tiers. This represents the hierarchy of your aspirations or your template for enlightenment. You can, for example, place an image of an angel on the first level, an image of a saint or inspiring teacher on the second level, and a symbol of the Absolute (such as a Shiva lingam) or a pointer to the Absolute (such as an image/statue of an enlightened master) on the highest level.
I’m creating a wall altar, are there any special considerations?
If the Divine aspect is to be installed on a wall altar or if it is in the form of an image to be hung (such as a yantra), the wall you choose should be in an auspicious, dignified place where you are likely to see it frequently. It should not face a trashcan or bathroom. If it is a yantra, then you should place it on the wall so that the center (generally represented by a bindu, a dot) is at the level of your ajna chakra when in the practice position.
Can I just use a stone, crystal, or feather as an altar?
I am frequently asked if it is alright to simply use a stone, crystal, feather, or other items as an altar. Well, without the intention of hurting anyone’s feelings, I must state that the answer is a firm “no.” An altar represents the embodiment of the aspiration to higher levels of consciousness. On the scale of evolution, minerals, plants, and animals are lower than humans, even though they have a lot to teach us and often humble us. Therefore, their level of consciousness is below ours.
If you are a genuine spiritual seeker, your altar should represent your longing for Truth, the Absolute, either through a symbol of enlightenment or a universal aspect of the Divine. An altar elevates a specific icon of spiritual virtues as a model for you to emulate, so what you place on the altar is what you become.
Do I need to use a cloth on my home altar?
Just as a red carpet unrolled before a monarch’s steps, an altar cloth is used to honor the aspect of the Divine that is worshipped on your altar. It is an invitation for the Divine to settle in your space and ultimately awaken in your being. In the Hindu tradition, an altar cloth is a very important aspect of the altar, as it represents the most basic adornment, a “shorthand” symbol of the deity and their power.
Which color and material should I use for my altar cloth?
Natural fabrics are preferable for use as altar cloths: cotton, silk, wool, or linen. Usually, the color traditionally associated with the form of the main deity resting on the altar is used. For example, Saraswati (the Goddess of Arts and Knowledge) is particularly associated with the color white, so a white altar cloth is indicated for Her worship.
Generally, the color red (ruby red, scarlet, or blood red) is typical for goddesses because it is the color of feminine, dynamic Shakti. It is also the color associated with agni (the Fire element), a symbol of the transformation and purification of karma. Thus, this color is found on yogic altars for both goddesses and gods. White, yellow, red, gold, cobalt blue, or combinations thereof are also common colors for altar cloths. Generally speaking, bright colors are recommended as they represent the power of life, enlivening the altar and invigorating your aspirations. Dull colors like grey, brown, and black are definitely not recommended.
What should I offer on my home altar?
Offerings made on your altar are expressions of love, devotion, and gratitude to the aspect of the Divine you are worshipping. When you fall in love with someone, you are inspired to give gifts and plan surprises for your lover. These are the offerings of love. In the same way, offerings made on your altar are an expression of the love you feel for your Eternal Lover, the Divine.
Basic devotional offerings usually comprise goods associated with the five elements.
Foods such as fresh fruit, nuts, and rice, or scented items like sandalwood paste
Water (placing containers of fresh or spring water on the altar or sprinkling it with water from the Ganges or another sacred source)
Burning incense or frankincense
Ether (space) element:
Flowers, ringing bells
Important note: Never place rotten food or faded flowers on your altar!
Food that is placed on your altar becomes blessed through its offering (prasad) and you should eat it that day or the next when you make another offering. Do not throw any remains (peels, seeds, etc.) in the trash. They should go back to Shakti (nature), so bury, burn, or throw them in a river or the ocean.
The most important offering is a heartfelt prayer. In other words, your devotional offerings, expressed either as prayer, the chanting of mantras, the singing of devotional hymns or songs, sacred dance, yogic practices, or meditation, are all gifts left at the feet of the Divine, on the altar that becomes your ladder to elevated states of consciousness.
GIVING LIFE TO YOUR HOME ALTAR
The most important part of creating an altar is giving it life. This might also be the most difficult aspect, as it requires your devotion, presence, longing for the Divine, and aspiration. It is the loving breath of your own heart that brings life to the altar.
You can enter a medieval church or Shiva temple with your hands already on your camera or phone, eager to take photos for social media, or you can enter with a deep longing for God, with a sense of sacredness, being open to the Divine presence residing in that place. This makes the difference between a profane approach and a mystical one
Be inspired by Ramakrishna’s words:
“Can you weep for Him with intense longing of heart? Men shed a jugful of tears for the sake of their children, for their wives, or for money. But who weeps for God? So long as the child remains engrossed with its toys, the mother looks after her cooking and other household duties. But when the child no longer relishes the toys, it throws them aside and yells for its mother. Then the mother takes the rice-pot down from the hearth, runs in haste, and takes the child in her arms.”
You have created your home altar, placed all your sacred objects and images on it, and your offerings are ready. Now comes the time to give it life.
- Bring your attention into your own heart and ignite your love, longing, and devotion to the aspect of the Divine you have chosen to worship. To spark that love, you can use a hymn dedicated to your ishta devata, a poem, or simply offer them a prayer with a yearning heart. Let your heart be flooded by love.
- Keep your attention within and use your inner sight to see the image of your ishta devata immersed in your heart’s love.
- After a while, open your eyes and send this deep love to the physical statue/image of your ishta devata. Your devotion serves as an invitation for that Divine aspect to dwell in and animate the statue/image and the entire altar. It is very important to understand that the Divine permeates every single atom of the Universe and all the divine attributes and aspects are present everywhere. It is just that it is not always easy to perceive this. An altar is a focal point of the Divine, serving to remind you to of this vision and inspiring you to apply it everywhere and always. Altars are tantric tools train yourself to see the Divine in everything.
- Make offerings to your ishta devata by placing fruit, flowers, and a jar of water on the altar, lighting the candles, and burning the incense.
- Offer a mantra. If you know the mantra associated with your ishta devata, then it is highly recommended to chant or repeat it mentally 108 times. In the tantric tradition, a mantra is considered the soul of that divine aspect. Therefore, by repeating the mantra associated with a particular divine aspect, you are invoking that aspect in yourself and in your home. A mantra is a very powerful tool.
The practice described above is a very simple but efficient way to bring an altar to life. From this moment onwards, the altar is consecrated as a living focal space of that divine aspect. But, to keep it alive you need to keep offering your devotional practice.
HOW TO KEEP A HOME ALTAR ALIVE
To keep a home altar alive it is important to, first of all, remember to keep it clean, to dust it, and to change the altar cloth regularly. Perishable offerings and flowers should not be left to rot or wilt. Above all, you need to recall that divine aspect that you aspire to every day. Remember, bhakti means mutual love. As a response to your devotion, the Divine will animate your altar, opening and leading you to higher states of consciousness.
Formally, you can do a simple daily puja (ritual), consisting of:
- Offering a flower, a piece of fruit, or a few grains of rice
- Sprinkling water over the altar
- Lighting a candle
- Burning incense
- Chanting the mantra associated with your ishta devata
In this post, I have tried to explain some aspects related to bhakti marga (the path of devotion), but it is truly the practice in itself that will reveal the beauty and the mystical aspects of bhakti—the mystery of your own heart, which is capable of invoking any divine aspect in an inanimate object. You know that kirtan, a Bhakti Yoga practice, is call-and-response chanting. Indeed, it defines bhakti very well—a call-and-response love between the bhakta (devotee) and the Divine.
May these teachings become alive in your heart and your life! May all beings benefit!
“None can say with finality that He is ‘this’ and ‘nothing else.’ […] Compare Brahman to an ocean that is shoreless. Through the cooling influence, as it were, of the devotee’s intense love, the formless water has frozen, at places, into ice blocks. That is to say, God sometimes reveals himself as a Person and with forms to his devotees. Again, with the rising of the sun of knowledge, the ice blocks melt away; then one does not see him as a Person, nor does one see his forms. Who is there then to describe whom? The ego then has completely disappeared.” –Ramakrishna