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.