The History of Hindu Rituals

The Aryans, like most religious people throughout the world, considered ritual much more important than doctrine and belief. The Veda itself was a manual of ritual, not of creed statements or theology. We’ll examine the kinds of rituals the Aryans practiced, the purposes for which they were intended and the persons who performed them.

I will talk about three basic kinds of rituals. Of course, this is an idealized explanation. In practice, Aryan ritual was undoubtedly more complex. I’ll talk about rituals of the home, shamanic rituals and rituals for special occasions.

Home Rituals

We know very little about home rituals. The Veda itself was more concerned with other types of ceremonies. Home rituals were probably simple sacrifices at the domestic fires, where the father served as priest by offering food to the devas in the morning and evening. The purpose was to honor the gods and to acknowledge one’s dependence on them. Perhaps even to ensure that the gods will continue being generous.

Today, still the home is the focus of devotion in Hinduism. Virtually every Hindu devote has some Shrine space wether small or large dedicated to a god or goddess.

Shamanic Rituals

A ritual specialist called an Atharvan performs the shamanic rituals. Aryan families call upon this priest to provide help during times of crisis, such as sickness; times of transition, such as birth, naming, initiation; and during auspicious days, such as harvest time. The name Shaman is a term used cross-culturally to refer to those persons who have special access to the spiritual world and are able to use that connection for the benefit of others.

In some African traditions this Shaman might be called a with doctor. In some Native American traditions a medicine man or medicine woman. As these names suggest, one of the principal functions of the Shaman is healing the sick.

Like Shamans in other cultures, the Atharvan priest cured with rites involving incantations, herbs and fire. But the Atharvan could do more than just heal. He provided protection from demons and snakes. He promoted good luck in gambling. He could cause misfortune for one’s enemies.

The Atharvaveda is the text that contains the mantras that were used to effect these desired things. A passage from the Atharvaveda provides a rather amusing instance of a curse for destroying a man’s virility while holding a special herb that probably resembled a penis.

The kinds of rituals enacted by the Atharvan priests are still important in popular Hinduism today, even though the Atharvan as such is not a familiar figure. There are many persons who conduct similar sorts of rituals for healing, providing protection from devils and foretelling the future through astrology and other means.

Sacrifices for Special Occasions

The most important sacrifices for Aryan religious life may have been the fire sacrifices. These rituals were much more elaborate than other rituals and were performed with less frequency, yet much of the Veda was concerned with this type of ritual.

They were conducted for different occasions. Only members of the priestly cast were able to enact this kind of rituals. They required great skills and only those with a training of a Brahmin had the needed expertise. Indeed, as these rituals grew in importance for the Aryans, the Brahmins grew in power and prestige.

A typical fire sacrifice involves a team of Brahmins, each charges with different responsibilities. Setting up and performing the sacrifice might take several days or even weeks. Under Brahmin supervision workers created a sacred space outdoors by erecting a temporary canopy using very precise measurements. Under the canopy altars were created to contain the sacred fires. Three altars corresponded each to a component of the Trilaka (earth, midspace and heaven).

The ritual performance began with the purification of the sacrificer. The sacrificer, by the way, was not the Brahmin but the person who paid to have the ritual conducted on his behalf. The sacrificers presence was necessary even though they did not have a specific role in the ritual.

Once the ritual was under way the gods were invited to attend. An animal such as a goat was sacrificed and cooked. Then the sacred food was offered to the gods and eaten by the participants. The most important aspect of the sacrifice, however, were the hymns sung by the Brahmins. These were the verses of the Veda, and it was essential that they be chanted correctly. One Brahmin’s sole responsibility was to be sure that the sacred words were correctly uttered and correct any mistakes made by the others.

Mistakes rendered the ritual ineffective and perhaps even dangerous. Hence the Brahmins placed great importance on the exact memorization of the Veda.

These rituals were performed for a variety of reasons but ordinarily they had very worldly aims. Sacrifices sought to improve the relationship of the sacrificer to the gods in order to achieve a greater success in business, to bring more and better cattle, to produce manly sons and to promote health and longevity.

The attainment of a pleasant afterlife in heaven might also be included in this list but they are secondary to the other reason. As I mentioned before, the Aryans held many different and sometimes contradictory views on the fate of humans after death. Aryan religion does seem more oriented towards practical concerns of the here and now rather than the hereafter.

The Power of the Word

In the early Vedic period, the Aryans believed that this kind of rites effectively persuaded the gods to act on behalf of the sacrificer. Persuasion came on the form of flattering songs sung on a deivas’ honor and offering pleasant food such as meat and Soma. Over time, however, they came to think that by manipulating the objects of the sacrifice, specially by uttering the powerful words, they were controlled the cosmic powers associated with the elements of the ritual. Thus, the sacred words themselves came to be seen as powerful.

The creative power of the sacrifice even acquired a technical name, that is Brahman. The similarity of names with Brahmin is intentional here. So important is the spoken word that the later vedic tradition personified voice as a goddess. The personification of voice reflected the view that language itself has a divine origin. The words we hear and speak are only partial manifestations of an eternal meaningful and inexhaustible reality.

Vedic creation myths even suggest that the ancient Rishis brought the gods into existence by naming them. Later sources tell of how the entire universe is created from the primordial mantra “OM”.

Today, Hinduism retains much of this emphasis on spoken word. Throughout India scriptures are often recited in villages and towns over loud speakers, sometimes beginning at four o’clock in the morning. Even if no one hears or listen to the recitation it is considered meritorious because it generates communal blessings for the entire society.

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