1 Theologically, a term expressing the free choice, or action, of a deity, or power, to favour a devotee with the means to liberation (e.g. knowledge), or liberation itself. This idea that the liberation of the individual depends, ultimately, not on their own actions (karma), but on a power beyond them, characterized as ‘grace’ (prasāda) appears in the Kaṭha (2.20f.) and Śvetaśvatara Upaniṣads (3.20; 6.21), and the Bhagavadgītā (e.g. 18.56, 58), and is subsequently taken up by various theistic devotional movements. It probably receives its most sophisticated theological treatment in the Viśiṣṭādvaita of Rāmānuja and the works of the Śrī Vaiṣṇava theologians who follow him. Whether surrender (prapatti) to the deity is sufficient to incur liberation through his or her grace (which can wipe out the effects of karma), or whether works (karma) are required too, remains a point of constant tension—one that perhaps finds a material resolution in the other major use of the concept of prasāda (2).
2 At the end of a pūjā, the deity's (or the object of worship's) favour, or prasād(a), is materially conveyed to the devotees through the distribution, by the priest or priests, of food, and a wide range of other previously made offerings. This is shared among the participants, regardless of their place in the social hierarchy, and either consumed, or, in the case of non-foodstuffs, worn on the body. Because of their proximity to the deity, such left-overs (themselves known as prasāda) are considered to be ‘blessed’—that is to say, imbued with the deity's power and grace. It is these qualities which are then physically transferred to the devotees, bringing about their temporary identification or merger with the god. Typically, prasāda takes the form of a piece of fruit, cooked rice, water, or sweets. Flowers may also be returned, as may ornamentation from the image of the deity, such as sandalwood paste, kuṃkum (to Goddess worshippers), and bhasman (ash) (to Śaivas), which is then applied to the forehead or smoothed into the hair. The extent to which societal hierarchical relationships, based on commensality, are mirrored, or transcended, in the offering and consumption of prasāda has been much debated by scholars, but remains ambiguous.