Hindu Rituals

When I first introduced the concept of karma I mentioned that its original meaning was ritual action, later it acquired moral connotations. I talked in another article about how rebirth might be improved by following the moral law. Now it is time to explore how positive karma may be produced by meritorious religious activity. Participating in these activities creates the karmic merit that yields favorable future lives.

The Daily Rituals

Almost all Hindus practice daily rituals of some sort, depending on caste, family custom and geographical region. A typical pious householder would rise before the sun and utter the name of his personal god, his ishta devata. He touches the earth and then bows to the images of the deities in his room. Almost every Hindu home contains sacred images of the gods, particularly of those who one is most devoted.

The guidelines for rituals prescribe a bath. This is widely practiced. Besides serving the purposes of hygiene, the bath helps to remove pollution that one might accumulate during the course of a day. After this, one applies forehead markings using color paste to indicate one’s devotion to a particular god and to a religious community. These markings are important, without them rituals are ineffective.

Following the bath, the householder recites a morning prayer comprised mainly of the repetition of an ancient mantra, called the Gayatri Mantra. This prayer is repeated daily by million of Hindus. This is followed by hymns, readings from sacred texts, worship performed by burning incense and prostrating. This form of worship is known as puja. Varied forms of puja are prescribed by each religious community. The morning rituals are followed by similar but less elaborate rites that happen at noon and at the evening.

The Rituals for the Stages of Life

Hindus celebrate and ritualize the moments of transition in the life of an individual. These events are more than just occasions for individuals. They are intended for the entire community to recognize the significant changes that individual members undergo. Hindus mark the changes of life with a series of celebrations known as samskaras. Some Hindu communities observe as many as sixteen different samskaras. The most significant ones for all Hindus are those that concern birth, initiation, marriage and death.

The rituals of birth include samskaras that are celebrated before and after the child arrives. Some Hindus conduct a “parting of the hair” ritual to ensure a safe and healthy pregnancy. For this rite, the husband parts his wife’s hair and applies red powder to protect her and the child from evil spirits. Ten days after the child is born a naming ceremony is performed. Even the first haircut, when the child is about three, is frequently the occasion for a ritual.

Initiation usually occurs when a child reaches the teen years. We already discussed the initiation of upper caste boys. As you may recall, the initiation marked a boy’s second birth and his entrance into student-hood. Although the orthodox traditions of the Brahmins do not prescribe an initiation for girls, many Hindu communities in fact celebrate a girl’s passage to womanhood. The rite often consists of a period of seclusion, a ritual bath and a feast.

Wedding rituals signify what many Hindus consider the most important rite of passage in life. We already discussed this ceremony in the article about the role of women in Hinduism. By way of brief review let me remind you that the wedding rites are always grand and frequently expensive. They are celebrated in various ways throughout India with each region contributing its own distinctiveness to the ritual. The ceremonies are conducted by a priest and involve the giving of a wedding necklace and the circumambulation of the sacred fire.

The final samskara in any individual’s life is the funeral. Cremation is by far the most common funeral custom. Only very small children, sannyasins (wandering ascetics) and members of small and atypical sects are buried rather than burned. Ordinarily, the funeral rites begin almost immediately after the person dies. After the body is washed and clothed is taken by a procession to a cremation ground. Funeral processions are a common sight throughout India. The body is surrounded by flowers. There is usually no coffin, so the body is not hidden from view.

At the burning grounds, often located near a river, untouchables take charge of the cremations. If it is near sacred rivers, such as the river Ganges, the corpse is immersed and placed on a pyre wood. Such wood is scarce in India. Funerals can be expensive. Many times poor people can’t afford a funeral and just place the corpse in the river. The cremation fire is usually lit by the eldest son, who prays to the fire god Agni to transport the soul to the place of the ancestors. After the cremation, the family members turn and without looking back take a purifying bath and return home. The ashes are later committed to the river.

The Role of Women in Hinduism

Historically, the female life cycle in Hinduism has been different from that of males. In the classical, medieval and most of the modern periods, females have followed a three-stage pattern. Today, the roles of women in Hindu society are changing, as they are throughout the world. Increasingly, the life pattern of females resembles the stages of life for males.

The basic principles governing the roles of girls and women in Hindu history were set forth in the Laws of Manu. This ancient code specified that women must be honored and adorned by their fathers, brothers, husbands and brothers-in-law who desired their own welfare.

“Where women are honored, there the gods are pleased. Where they are not honored, no sacred rite yields rewards.”

In the Vedic world, women were required to be present for the rituals to work, even though they had no official role to play in them. Manu continues:

“Day and night, women must be kept dependent to the males of their families. If they attach themselves to sensual enjoyments, they must be kept under one’s control. Her father protects her in childhood. Her husband protects her in youth. Her sons protect her in old age. A woman is never fit for independence.”

These final sentences implicitly sets forth the three life stages for the female.

The Early Stage

As a girl, the female lives under the watchful protection of her parents, who are jealously concerned with protecting her virginity. She is considered pure but inauspicious, because she lacks a life-giving power. When she marries, she becomes impure but auspicious. The impurity is caused by sexual intercourse and menstruation.

For most of Hindu history, the girl was not allowed to have the same kind of education as her brother. Boys left home to receive their education from a guru. Girls always had to be under their fathers’ watchful eye. What education she got came from her parents. She spent most of her time learning domestic skills from her mother, as well as some ritual aspects of religion. She was not considered capable of studying the Veda.

The Arrangement of Marriage

In classical medieval and modern times, girls often married early in life, thereby entered the second stage, that of the householder. Today, young Hindu women do not usually marry until their twenties, but this has not always been the case. Frequently, the arrangement of marriage took place just after the girl was born, or some time later in her childhood. Occasionally, the marriage would be arranged to a boy who was relatively close in age, but it was not uncommon for a young girl to be matched to a much older man, perhaps twenty or thirty years her senior.

A girls’ parents had interest in arranging her marriage as early as possible because of the great concern with virginity. When girls’ marriage was arranged when they were young, their purity became the responsibility of the groom’s family.

Obviously, marriages meant something quite different in Hindu society that it does in the present day Western world. In India, marriages has been regarded as alliances between families for the purposes of reproduction and economic stability, not so much an avenue for personal enrichment as they are often considered in the West.

Accordingly, Hindu marriages had historically been arranged by the groom’s and bride’s older relatives. Bride and groom did not meet until shortly before the wedding, or at the wedding itself. In seeking a suitable spouse for one’s son or daughter, family members took more into account than simply personal compatibility between the man and the woman. Certainly, the prospective families’ wealth and social standing, caste and sub-caste, health, the prospective spouse’s occupation and the compatibility of the pairs’ astrological charts were issues of prominent concern.

It’s worth noting that marriages in India historically and to the present day rarely end in divorce. This is in due in part to Indians’ view of the purpose of marriage and in part to the social, economic and legal pressures impending on the marriage. Getting a divorce was extremely difficult and socially stigmatized. Yet, it is worth reflecting whether having marriages arranged by one’s elders might not also have contributed to its longevity. Having seen many happily married Hindus whose marriages have been arranged, I marvel at the success of this custom.

A New Life

Historically, the onset of menstruation was a girl’s right of passage. It marked her change in status from inauspicious to auspicious. Shortly afterward, her wedding would take place on a day and time determined by a reputable astrologer. Even if her marriage has been arranged much earlier, she would not actually move to her husband’s house until after the wedding.

Specific wedding rituals vary from region to region, but they are usually conducted by a priest and usually involve circumambulating a sacred fire. This is a practice probably dating back to Vedic times.

Following the wedding, the new bride goes to live with the husband’s family. The pattern in traditional India was for male children to continue to live with their parents until the parents’ death. As a result of this pattern, grandparents, parents, brothers and their wives and children all lived together under the same roof.

Entering the new home, the bride becomes subject to her mother-in-law. The young wife is expected to obey her mother-in-law and contribute to the well being of the family. The mother-in-law-daughter-in-law relationship still is a notoriously painful one in India. The transition to marriage could be terribly traumatic for the young woman. One day she was in the affectionate and protective atmosphere of her parents’ home, and the next day she finds herself in the home of strangers, where she is often treated no better than a servant.

The Duties of the Wife

As a wife, the Hindu woman was expected to live up to the ideals of the Stri Dharma, the duties of the good wife. According to Stri Dharma, a wife should regard her husband as a god. She should serve him, follow him, pray for his well being and eat after he eats. She shares his karma and his destiny, for this reason she sometimes should fast and go on pilgrimages to ensure her husbands’ long life and success. If he dies prematurely, it was often regarded as her responsibility, her bad karma.

The husband should provide for his wife’s material needs, her security, protection and social status. The husband should also revere his wife as a goddess. The Laws of Manu tell husbands that the happiness of the wife is the key to the stability of the family. According to Manu, where women are honored, there the gods are pleased.

Today, in many places throughout India, there are special public buses for women only. Women are allowed to avoid waiting in lines by going to the head of long queues to purchase such things as train tickets.

If a woman gave birth to a son her status was even further enhanced. Giving birth to sons vastly improves her standing with her mother-in-law and with the rest of her husband’s family. A proverbial blessing for a woman among Hindus is “may you be the mother of a hundred sons”.

Popular Hinduism has even produced “male producing rituals” to help a couple ensure the birth of a son. There are not corresponding female producing procedures. A recent study about abortions in Bombay showed that 999 out of 1000 abortions where performed on female fetuses. The economic liability of female is sighted as the rationale.

In the past, female infants were even abandoned. Today this is rarely the case. Even though it is clear that most couples want boys more than girls, once a child arrives it is loved for its own sake, whether male or female. Hindus have great affection for babies and there are even lullabies about infants as gifts from gods.

Following Her Husband to Death

The death of her husband is a crisis for every Hindu wife, and marks her entrance into the third stage of life. As a result of the sometimes great disparity in the ages of husband and wife he almost always is gone first. Up until the 19th century, this crisis often meant a choice between two undesirable realities: sati or widowhood.

Sati is the name for the ritual in which the wife burns alive on her husband’s funeral pyre. According to traditional belief of many Hindus, for a woman to immolate herself at her husband’s cremation guaranteed great rewards for the family and an opportunity to be with her husband in the next life. Even the place where the sati occurred was consecrated and often became a pilgrimage site.

The term sati is taken from an epic story of Sati, who was one of the wives of the great god Shiva. In the myth, Sati’s own father insulted Shiva. Sati burst in rage. In her anger, she burst into flames and dies. When Shiva returns he finds the corpse and in his grief, he picks it up and carries it aimlessly all over India. As he wandered, parts of the goddess’ remains fell to earth. At the locations where they fell temples were built to honor those body parts.

The story is often told to suggest that a good wife would follow her husband to death. Yet, there is great debate about the extent women actually chose this fate for themselves. There is a good deal of evidence that many women were thrown on to the burning pyre against their will by their sons or other family members. In other cases, they were drugged or intoxicated when they performed sati.

The British outlawed sati in the 20th century when they ruled India. Since that time the ritual is extremely rare. Some scholars have suggested that some women may have chosen sati when they considered the alternative, which was widowhood.

The Hard Life of the Widow

The life of the widow historically has been very difficult. Even a horrible death might seem preferable. Generally, widows could not remarry. This has been the case even in modern times. Forbidding marriage to widows has been an important issue of concern because many women were widows in their 30’s and even 20’s. Usually a widow was required to shave her head to be unattractive to other men. Often she was given the hardest household tasks to perform and was forbidden to eat with the rest of the family. The widow was viewed as unlucky, inauspicious and dangerous, the embodiment of all negative qualities in women.

Some families have even reportedly taken their widows on pilgrimages to the city of Vrindavan, a city known for its widows. Then, they abandoned them there. An estimate made in the year 2000 indicated that there are between 25 and 35 million widows in India. Their luck in life has been so rough that there are movements within Hinduism today seeking to make their lives better. There is evidence that these movements are having positive effects.

In fact, there are ongoing movements throughout India seeking to improve the situations of all areas of women’s lives. These changes could not be made simply through legislation. The vast majority of Hindus live in villages and laws made in New Delhi are often hard to enforce. Changes in lives of women and men therefore must be encouraged at the local level.

Women in Politics

Women’s access to political power has also had a positive effect on the general treatment of women. With models such as Indira Gandhi, females have had images of successful women working in what has traditionally been a man’s realm of responsibility. Interestingly, powerful women in politics are common throughout the Indian subcontinent. The countries of Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka have all had women Prime Ministers.

Although these movements indicate the roles of men and women are changing, perhaps more today than even before in India’s history, social changes in India evolve slowly. Patterns of behavior are deeply edged in the soul of Hindu India.

The Role of Men in Hinduism

When we talked about the caste system we observed how in classical Hinduism there are particular dharmas or duties for individuals according to their standing in society. At about the same time in Hindu history, specific expectations also arose concerning one’s sex, resulting in different patterns of life for men and women.

Regulations formulated in classical Hinduism prescribe particular stages of life to be followed by upper caste men and women.

The same text that specifies dharmas to each of the castes, the Laws of Manu, also set forth an ideal pattern of life for upper caste males. The Laws of Manu were written by and for these men. At about the same time, a parallel pattern begins to emerge for females of high castes. Most ideals were based on the notion of stages, a very common way of thinking about an individual’s life: from childhood to old age. It is important to keep in mind that these stages of life were regarded as ideals and pertaining to the three upper castes. For that reason, they did not necessarily described the life cycle of each and every member of Hindu society.

They did, and they still do to a large degree, depict the way life should be lived according to the believe of millions of Hindus.

According to Manu, males undergo four orders or Ashramas during the course of a life time.

The Brahmacharya or the “Student Stage”

This Ashrama begins when the boy is initiated into the “twice born” through a special ritual in which he would receive a sacred thread (read about the caste system to learn more about this). This thread signifies his standing as an upper caste member, although this does not indicates to which caste he belongs.

The Laws of Manu specify that initiation should take place when the boy is seven if he were a Brahmin, ten if he were a Kshatriya, or eleven if he were a Vaisya. This initiation is what constitutes the second birth.

In the classical and Medieval period of India’s history, the initiation would mark the time when the initiated left home to live and study with a guru. During this period, the young man lived a highly disciplined life and studied the Vedas and religious rituals.

The teacher would teach him the ways of personal purification, morning and evening devotions to the gods, and sacrificing. He was expected to be completely devoted to his teacher and his studies. The Laws of Manu forbade specific things: honey, meet, perfumes, spicy foods, girlfriends, dancing, singing, playing musical instruments, gambling and even looking at women. All of these things were believed to pollute or to detract attention from studies.

A young man remained a student until it was time for him to marry and to become a productive member of society. Marriage was regarded as the natural state for adult men and women. To deviate from this path was considered unusual and shameful.

The Household Stage

The student entered the household stage in his early twenties. During this period, the young man would rise a family, pursue an occupation appropriate to his caste, establish himself as financially independent and as a responsible contributor to society.

Due to the householders’ importance to the well-being of the social order, the Laws of Manu proclaim this is the most excellent stage. It is at the householder stage that we see life of males and females most closely intertwined. Indeed, this is the only stage of life that the two sexes share, according to this patterning.

The Third and Fourth Stage

The Laws of Manu go on to specify a third and fourth stage for men beyond the householder stage. These final two Ashramas pertain to the pursuit of religious objectives. In the third stage, that of the “forest dweller”, a man and possibly his wife move to a more modest dwelling, usually to the edge of a village near a forest. Here he, and perhaps she, begin to withdraw from active social life in order to become more introspective and devoted to the life of the spirit. It is important to note that this stage begins only after a man has raised a family, earned an income and discharged his obligations to society.

The Laws of Manu were very interested in keeping men in their prime at the householder stage, where they could be productive members of society. It seems that these codes were a response to what had become something of a problem: Young men leaving off searching religious experience before they could be of any use to society. In this sense, the Ashramas were intended to regulate religious behavior by delaying religious experience until one’s later years.

The fourth stage of life is an specially interesting one. It is a stage of rigour and austerity that few men would embark upon it. This is the Ashrama known as Sannyasa, or “renunciation”. When a man enters this stage, he renounces his former identity and everything associated with it: his name, his wife and family and all material goods. He lives his remaining days as a wandering solitary ascetic. He performs no rituals, no works and subsists only on the generosity of others. Those who contribute to the well-being of the sannyasi could accumulate good karma by doing so.

With no incumbencies, the sannyasi is free to devote full energies for the search of god and salvation. Today, these holy persons are a familiar sight in India, easily recognized by their orange robes.

Further reading:

The Founder of Hinduism

One of the most frequently asked questions about Hinduism (or any other religion), is who was its founder? Who was the founder of Hinduism? Who started this religious tradition that today has around one billion followers?

Although in other major world religions like Buddhism, Christianity and Islam we can trace the origin of the tradition to a single man, Hinduism is so ancient and complex that it is impossible to find that historical person. In fact, it is unlikely that such an individual even existed.

What we can do, however, is to trace the origin of Hinduism to various historical and cultural sources. There are two main sources which influenced the emergence of Hinduism as we know it today: the culture of the Indus Valley civilization and the culture of the Aryan civilization.

The Indus Valley Influence

The Indus Valley civilization is considered one of the great cultures of the ancient world. Although Hindus would not regard the Indus Valley civilization as part of their sacred history, there is evidence that elements from this culture contributed to the great amalgam of Hinduism.

One of the most important aspects that Hinduism inherited from this great civilization is its sense of purity and pollution. Great concern with cleanliness is evidenced throughout the Indus Valley civilization. Large cities had large central baths with public access. These baths were not only build with hygiene in mind, but specially to maintain ritual purity.

In these baths, people came to restore the pristine order that may have been disrupted by inappropriate behavior or simply by coming into contact with a person that is seen as unclean. This tradition is still present today in Hinduism, as many people regard certain things and persons as unclean, as we see with the caste system.

The Aryan Influence

The second important source that influenced Hinduism is the Aryan civilization. The Aryans were very different from what we know about the Indus Valley dwellers. The Aryans were nomads rather than settled down agriculturalists. They didn’t build great cities like the Indus Valley civilization.

Since the Aryans were migratory, they left in the way of archeological evidence. Almost everything we know about them is based in what is now a collection of writings called the Vedas. These writings are considered Hinduism’s holy book.

The Veda is a rather unusual collection of literature. It is not narrative like the Bible. It tells no grand story of gods and humans. The Vedas are more like a liturgy manual. It includes hundreds of hymns addressed to various deities, as well as myths, some spells and a bit of philosophical speculation.

According to the beliefs of most Hindus today, the Vedas existed prior to this world and embodies an eternal law that transcends even the gods. The words of the Vedas, according to traditional conviction, were revealed to ancient sages called Rishis in a distant past.

Today, the Veda is regarded as the most authoritative and sacred Hindu scripture. So important is the Veda that Hinduism is sometimes called Vedic Dharma: the religion of the Veda. Acceptance of the authority of the Veda has been a criterion for determining which schools of Indian thought are orthodox and which are heterodox.

Further Reading:

Copyright © Hinduism Beliefs
Template by bloggertheme