The religious life of many Hindus is focused on devotion to God (perceived as Brahman, Shiva, Vishnu, or Shakti) or several gods. This devotion usually takes the form of rituals associated with sculptures and images of gods in home shrines. More philosophically-minded Hindus ignore the gods altogether and seek Realization of the Self through intense meditation. Still others focus primarily on fulfilling the social and moral duties appropriate to their position in life.
These various approaches are regarded as equally valid, and in fact are formally recognized as three paths (margas) to liberation: bhaktimarga (the path of devotion), jnanamarga (the path of knowledge or philosophy), andkarmamarga (the path of works and action).
Hindu religious practices center on the importance of fulfilling the duties associated both with one’s social position and one’s stage of life. With regard to the latter, traditional Hindus are expected to pass through four stages(ashramas) over the course of their life:
- Brahmacharga, which takes place during the school years, is focused on acquiring knowledge and developing character;
- Grastha, the middle years, is focused on worldly pursuits and pleasures such as marriage, family and career;
- Vanaprastha, when one’s children reach adulthood, is a time of increased focus on spiritual things; and in the last years of life, one may abandon the world entirely for a life of contemplation.
All stages of life for the Hindu, however, involve religious rituals and practices. Some of the major Hindu practices are described in the articles below.
The daily ritual of puja is performed in a sacred corner in a worship room of the home. It is done to keep Hindus aware of their family gods and mindful of their duties as individuals. The ritual of puja has three steps. The first is seeing the family deity (darshana). A small statue or picture of the god is placed in the sacred corner. The second step is the worship of the god, or puja. The worshiper offers the god flowers, fruits, and cooked food (bhog). The third step is retrieving the blessed food (prasada) and consuming it. This is thought to bring the deity down to earth and brings the person closer to them.
There are special rituals that only the priests, or brahmin, can perform. These are called the shrauta rituals and are very complex and elaborate sacrifices to the god Agni. These “fire-sacrifice” rituals are to bring out the central element of power of gods and nature through the fire. In some cases, the brahmins are paid by individuals to perform these sacrifices for the buyer’s benefit.
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Rites of passage rituals are the most common special occasion rituals performed by Hindus. These are usually performed by individuals rather than brahmins and are conducted within the family. Hindus believe that there are four stages in life. Those being childhood, youth, middle age, and old age. These rituals are called samskars.
Samskars at birth begin even before a child is born. Garbhadana (conception) is the fervent prayer for a child. This is done in order to fulfill the parental duties to continue the race.
Punsavana (fetus protection) is performed during the third or fourth month of pregnancy before the fetus is conscious. The prayers hope to invoke divine qualities in the child.
Simantonnyana (satisfying the craving of the pregnant mother) is similar to a baby shower. It is performed during the seventh month, and prayers are offered for healthy physical and mental growth of the child.
Jatakarma is performed at the birth of the child. It is done to welcome the child into the family. Mantras, or verse prayers, are recited for a healthy, long life. The goal of this samskar is to provide a comfortable atmosphere for the child and mother.
The naming ceremony, or namakarna sanskar, is done according to scriptural procedures. Also at this time is the nishkarmana, or taking the child outdoors for the first time.
The next samskar for childhood is the Annaprasana, or giving the child solid food for the first time. Detailed instructions are followed from the scriptures (Grihyasutra) regarding what food to give and how to give it. This is done in the Fifth or Sixth month after birth.
According to the Grhya Sutras, Chooda Karan or Mundan samskar should take place at the end of first year or before the expiry of the third year, but the later authorities extend the age to the seventh year. The child’s hair is shorn, frequently leaving only the śikhā or cūḍā, a tuft at the crown of the head.
For boys in the upper three castes, a second birth ceremony is performed. This is known as the thread ceremony or upanayan. During this ritual, boys eat a final meal with their mothers, and then are introduced to man hood. After this ceremony, boys are expected to eat with the men and take on more responsibilities. They “die” of their young self, and are “born” into their new, older self.
Marriage (vivaha) is the middle age passage. The Hindu marriage is much more than an exchange of vows and rings. Before and during the nuptials, many rites are performed in the presence of family deities.
These rites show the importance of a strong bond between a husband and wife. The Vivaha is considered incomplete without the blessings of a spiritual or divine element. The Sagai, or ring ceremony, starts the marriage off. Here, the families ask the gods for blessings, the groom’s family welcomes the bride into the family, rings and garlands are exchanged between the couple, and the groom’s family gives a verbal promise of marriage and feeds sweet to the girl’s family to confirm engagement.
The next step is Mehndi, or painting of the hands and feet with henna. This is to signify the strength of love between a couple in marriage. A special musical party, or Sangeet Party, is held. Music and dance are performed by professionals and is a festive time.
Special pujas are performed to worship the nine planets, and the Ghauri Puja is done as the main rite of passage. The actual wedding ceremony is performed by the priest and signifies the joining of the souls. The blessing by the priest completes the marriage ceremony and is called Ashirwaad.
The final rite of passage is Antyesti Sanskar (death). In the Hindu tradition, individuals are cremated and special rites are done to ensure a good after life.
Other special rituals include the Griha. These are domestic rites that are taught by priests for use in the home. They celebrate new and full moons, changing of the seasons, first fruits of the harvest, the building of a new house, birth of a child, and the above-mentioned, rites of passage
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