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Hindu Rituals & their Significance
Prof. K. Srinivas
In this world of impermanence nothing is immutable. As aptly pointed out by the great Indian dialectician and the propagator of Advaita Vedanta, Sankara, the nature, animate and inanimate, is sensed through the limitations (upadhis) of the intellect such as space, time, cause and change. Consequently, the social reality which is very much part of this changing nature cannot remain static. As time advances, there is a certain degree of transformation in human societies with regard to their culture, traditions, customs, values, religion, and standard of living. In this ever-changing society an individual has to adjust himself in accordance with the existing social conditions. If one does not compromise with the existing social conditions, then that society may brand him a communalist or a fundamentalist or a reactionary or even go to an extent of calling him insane.
A modern Hindu is caught up in such a predicament. On the one hand he wants to remain loyal to his tradition, and on the other hand, he wants to be a man with modern outlook. Thus he oscillates between traditionalism and modernity. In the words of Swamy Nikhilananda, “the religion practised in the daily life by the average Hindu is, to all outward appearances, different from what is taught in the Upanishads and the Bhagvad Gita”.
1-It is also true to some extent that a modern Hindu is unaware of the significance of many rituals that he carries out in his day to day life. It has become mere routine work. Some Hindus do not attach any importance to these rituals as they have “become static and stultified and have lost their power of elasticity and adaptation. The time and ideology under which they had evolved have been left far behind and new social and religious forces are operating in the society, which do not fully conform to old social and religious institutions”.
2-Most of the Hindu rituals can be traced back to the Vedas. But the Vedism in India disappeared long ago. However, some of the principles underlying the Vedic rituals are preserved and expanded in the Upanishads, the Dharmasutras, and the Grhyasutras. Thus the Vedas are considered to be the chief sources of Hindu rituals.
Vedas as the Pillars of Hinduism
The Vedic literature is the only authentic source of Hinduism.
3- The Hindus swear by the Vedic authority. According to historians, “the history of Hinduism practically begins in the dim past with the composition of the hymns recorded in the Rig-Veda. In these hymns we have the most astonishing record of the march of the mind of man from the half personified forces of Nature like fire, wind, and rain to the realisation of the absolute spirit, of which we as well as the worlds with which we are surrounded, are only broken fragments”.
4- It is not all that misleading if we say that Hinduism is a Vedic religion. Though many prefer to call it a sanatana dharma or a pantheon. The four vedas.
5- namely, the Rig, the Yajur, the Sama, and the Atharva are not of human origin (apauruseya). In fact, “the ultimate Being has manifested Himself in the form of Vedic hymns and the seers are no more than the media chosen by the Being for this purpose. It explains the attitude of the astika Indian Philosophers, who considered the Vedas to be the ultimate authority. The Vedas according to them, enshrine the eternal and ultimate truths. These truths have been preserved through the unbroken chain of the teacher pupil from time immemorial. Therefore, they are christened sruti”.
6.-Thus Hinduism does not have any founder.
All the four Vedas contain a single compendium of knowledge. Their division into the Rig, the Yajur, the Sama, and the Atharva is made on the basis of the subject matter contained in each Veda. The hymns of the Rig-Veda are merely the verses of praise recited by the “Hotr”. The hymns of the Sama-Veda are sung by the ‘Udgatr’. The mantras of the Yajur Veda are muttered by the ‘Adhvaryu’ at the time of making sacrifices, while those of the Atharva-Veda are pertinent to natural objects. The subject matter of the Vedas is broadly classified into Karma-kanda, and Jnana-kanda.
The former is concerned with actual conduct, whereas the latter is concerned with the knowledge of highest kind. According to some Indian philosophers “the Mantras, the Aranyakas, the Brahmanas, and the Upanishads are part of the Vedas. The Mantras are the metrical psalms of praise.
The Brahmanas are the manuals of rituals and prayers for priestly guidance. The Aranyakas are the treatises meant for hermits and saints: Lastly, the Upanishads are the mystical doctrines with utmost metaphysical importance. The Mantras and the Brahmanas constitute Karma-kanda, whereas Aranyakas and the Upanishads constitute Jnana-kanda. The interpretation of the hymns in the Vedas differs from one Veda to the other as they deal with a diversity of subjects such as religion, magic, and science. For instance, Rig-Veda does not contain much information about the rituals, though there are some indirect references to them.
The hymns in the Rig- Veda are mainly used for invoking the help of gods in the events public and private which were of immediate interest to the Vedic people. According to Radhakrishnan: “In the main, we say that the Rig-Veda represents the religion of an unsophisticated age. The great mass of the hymns are simple, and naive, expressing the religious consciousness of a mind yet free from the latter sophistication.”
8- As a matter of fact, the hymns in the Atharva-Veda are more elaborate than those of any other Veda. To put it in other words, “Atharva-Veda reflects the faith and rites of the common people rather than the highly sophisticated religion of the priests”
9-In Fact, each Veda discusses various rites. Some of them are very important, and others are obligatory or optional. The obligatory rites are performed to overcome the sins committed in the past. The important rites are performed to spiritualise the important events of human life from birth to death. The optional rites are performed by the individuals to get their desires fulfilled Thus the philosophy of the Veda is the base for the Hindu religious super-structure”
10-Rituals and their Significance
The above analysis of the contents of the Vedas reveals us that the rites are as old as the Vedas. Etymologically the term “samskara” is derived from the Sanskrit toot “kr’, and the prefix ‘sam’ is added to that. It corresponds with the Sanskrit word “karman” or religious act. It does not have an English equivalent, though it is often translated to mean a rite or a ritual or a sacrament or a ceremony.
The word “samskara” can be defined as a religious act that exhibits outward or visible expression of inward and spiritual grace. The rituals are discussed elaborately in the Grhyasutras and the Dharmasutras. These works are compiled by the great seers and sages, who had the Vedic knowledge. In all, there are sixteen rituals.
11- They can be grouped under five important heads. They are: (1) Pre-natal rituals, (2) rituals of childhood, (3) educational rituals, (4) marriage rituals, and, (5) funeral rituals. The pre-natal rituals include conception (garbhadana), quickening of male child (pumsavana), hair-parting (simantonnayana).
The rituals of childhood include birth ceremonies (Jatakarma), naming giving (namakarana), first outing (niskramana), first solid food feeding (annaprasana), tonsure (chudakarana), and boring the ears (karnavedha).
The educational rituals include learning of alphabets (vidyarambha), initiation (upanayana), beginning of the Vedic study (Vedarambha), shaving of beard (kesanta), and the end of the studentship (samavartana). The rituals of marriage include all those ceremonies related to marriage (vivaha). The last rites or funeral rituals include all those connected with the death.
The Hindus believe that by performing the rituals they can get rid of hostile influences and at the same time can attract beneficial ones so that they may progress in their life materially and spiritually without any impediments. The material aim of the rituals is to gain cattle, progeny, long life, wealth, strength, and intellect.
From the standpoint of hygiene, by performing the various rituals, especially those connected with the birth, all seminal and uterine impurities are washed out.
12 It is also believed that “the upanayana, and vivaha samskaras with Vedic hymns entitled a person to perform all kinds of sacrifices befitting an Aryan and increasing his status in the society.
13 Thus Hindu rituals have multipurpose. They nave material, spiritual, health, and social purpose. Apart from this, the rituals also have moral purpose as they lay down the rules of conduct that should be followed by a disciplined individual. These rules of conduct in turn help an individual to develop his personality as a complete man. The rituals constitute the elements such as fire (Agni), prayers, appeals, and blessings, sacrifices, lustration, orientation, and symbolism.
The rituals cannot be performed without fire. The fire god (Agni) is regarded as the lord of the house. He is the mediator between the gods and men. All the rituals are witnessed by Him, since he is considered the director of rites and the guardian of morality. Agni is the symbol of will. Hindus give a lot of importance to Agni because one cannot attend to his day-to-day affairs without fire. One who does not use fire in his day-to-day life is as good as a beast.
Prayers, appeals, and blessings
During the performance of the rituals, prayers are offered, appeals are made, and blessings are sought by the performers to achieve their desired goals.
At times sacrifices are offered to deities during the rituals to appease and propitiate gods who preside over a particular period of life of every individual.
Lustration takes place in the course of a ritual in the form of a bath, sipping water, and the sprinkling of water over people. Hindus believe in general that water has a purifying effect. According to them, some of the lakes, springs, and rivers have miraculous healing power. Not only that, there is no life without water.
According to Hindu mythology, the East is associated with light, warmth, life, happiness, and glory. The West is inauspicious as it is associated with darkness, chill, death, and decay. It can also be interpreted in a different way. Since the Sun rises in the East, it is associated with light, warmth, and life, and sets in the West which results in darkness, chill, and decay.
Symbolism plays an important role in the rituals. Hindus believe that similar things produce similar effects. For example, stone is considered to be a symbol of fixity. Seasmum and rice are symbols of fertility and prosperity. Eating together indicates unity.
Thus the Hindu rituals are an admixture of social customs, and rules about eugenics, ethics, hygiene, science, and medicine. The rituals are the combination of physical, mental, and spiritual aspects that make an individual a perfect human.
Let us take up a few important rituals that are commonly practised by an average Hindu, and their significance. They are: (1), naming ceremony (namakarana), (2) first solid food feeding (annaprasana), initiation (upanayana), and marriage (vivaha).
Naming ceremony (namakarana)
This ritual is normally performed on the tenth or the twelfth day after the birth of a child.
Some name their child after their family deity or ancestors or the month deity. However, the child retains his or her family name. The name should be easy to pronounce and pleasant to hear.
It should also indicate the sexual difference. A male child’s name should have an even number of syllables, while that of a female child should have an uneven number.
The name should indicate the caste of the child. For example, a Brahmin must have a suffix ‘Sarma’, a Ksatriya ‘Varma’, a Vysya ‘Gupta’, and a Sudra ‘Dasa’. This clearly shows that caste system was deep-rooted in ancient India, though they claim that the so called caste (varna) is meant to remind the people of their duties as a citizen. However, there is no hard and fast rule that a particular name should be reserved for a certain caste. In some cases repulsive and awkward names are given to children when their parents have lost their earlier issues. The belief is that these names will drive away the demons, goblins, disease and death. This superstition still prevails among the people.
Hindus believe that a person without a name is not recognised as a human being. A man earns his fame because of his name. According to Brhaspati, “Name is the primary means of social intercourse, it brings about merits and it is the root of fortune. From name, man attains his fame. Therefore, naming ceremony is praiseworthy.”12- It also helps us in distinguishing races, cultures and so on of mankind.
First Solid food feeding (annaprasana)
This ritual is performed in the sixth month of the child’s birth. The ingredients of the food to be given are also prescribed by the scriptures. This is mainly to facilitate the child for better development of body and mind. All the flavours should be mixed together and given to the child. This is a symbolic expression of the life that he is going to lead. He has to undergo
experiences of different sorts. After six or seven months the body of the child requires more food for better growth. Mother’s milk is insufficient for the proper growth of child. Not only that, it is not good for mother’s health to allow baby to drink milk as it weakens her physically. Overfeeding of milk to a child may lead to various digestive troubles. Thus annaprasana is a timely caution for both mother and child.
It is considered to be the most pious of all the rituals. After the initiation an individual is considered twice-born (dwija). The object of initiation is to prepare an young man to become a respectable citizen, and to preserve the importance of his own clan. Initiation is prescribed for the Brahmins, the Ksatriyas and the Vysyas. It is not meant for the Sudras. However, there are exceptions. According to Manu, “The three twice-born classes are the sacerdotal, the military and the commercial; but the fourth, or the servile, is once-born, that is, has no second birth from the Gayatri, and wears no thread. Nor there is a fifth pure class”
13- But the Goldsmiths and the Weavers also wear the sacred thread (yajnopavetam). Therefore, it not safe to conclude that all those wearing the sacred thread must belong to one of the three classes.
Further it should be noted that the caste of the wearer is determined by the type of thread that he wears. To put it in the words of Manu “The sacrificial thread of a Brahmin must be made of cotton, so as to put on over his head, in three strings; that of a Ksatriya, of sana thread only; that of a Vysya of woolen thread”.
14 This ritual mainly enables one to distinguish the higher castes from the lower ones. According to Manu
15 a Brahmin child must be invested with the sacred thread at the age of five, a Ksatriya at the age of six, and a Vysya at the age of eight.
The main purpose of this ritual is to train the individual to be a disciplined young man who can pursue his studies. To accomplish this goal, an individual has to be steadfast with determination. In fact, in the olden days there were no secular agencies to enforce compulsory education to the masses. With the help of this particular ritual the Hindu’s of the past enforced education upon the masses.
After the completion of studentship an individual is expected to be fit for grhastasrama. Marriage life is regarded as essential for the growth of an individual’s personality in many ways. At the same time he has to undertake many responsibilities as an householder (grhasta). Marriage is a family affair rather than a personal one.
It is also a happy union between husband and wife. To produce healthy offspring the qualifications and disqualifications for the bride are prescribed.
It is mentioned that, “let him not marry a girl with reddish hair, nor with any deformed limb; nor one troubled with habitual sickness; nor one with no hair or with too much; nor one immoderately talkative nor with inflamed eyes. Let him choose for his wife a girl whose form has no defect; who has an agreeable name; who walks gracefully like phenicopteros, or like an young elephant, whose hair and teeth are moderate respectively in quality and size; whose body has exquisite softness”.
16 It is also stated that inter-caste marriages are not permitted. However, there are some exceptions. According to Manu, those who have inclination to marry again should abide by the following conditions. They are, “a Sudra woman must only be the wife of Sudra; she and Vaisya of a Vaisya; they two and Ksatriya of a Ksatriya; those two and a Brahmin of a Brahmin.”
17 But it is rare to happen in Hindu families. Perhaps inter-caste marriages were not encouraged as every caste has a definite duty to perform in the society. Marriage is a kind of bondage and mutual understanding between husband and wife. The husband is considered to be one half and the other half is his wife. It is a lifelong companionship. The primary function of marriage is racial, that is, the continuation of race through procreation. Marriage is not a license for sexual indulgence. It is rather a social change and sacrifice. It also regulates a number of sexual and social problems by laying down certain rules of conduct. It also aimed at the establishment of family and kinship. Not only that, it provides security to women.
To sum up; the Hindu rituals have many purposes. They facilitated the individuals for the better development of personality and purification of human life in many ways. They were mainly solutions to many social problems confronted by the individuals in society. They educated the individuals with regard to sex-hygiene to eugenics. They revealed the importance of education. This education is not mere accumulation of knowledge, but also involved strict discipline and code of conduct.
These rituals also laid down the rules to ensure worthy generation through marriage. They are a wonderful combination of family and social hygiene. In short, they represent the natural and social aspects of human science. However, they have certain demerits. Since the Hindu society is patriarchal in nature, women were not given much importance. For example, women were denied education. They cannot choose their husbands. In other words, they were deprived of many things in society.
Same is the case with the Sudras. Education is not recommended for them. Like women, they too were deprived of many things in society. Why was there such a discrimination? Though the rituals were introduced with a good intention, due to certain obvious reasons they lost their significance on account of later developments. Added to this, the advent of modern science has reduced them to mere ceremonies without any significance.
It is true that one should adapt himself to the changing social environment. This does not mean that one should ignore his own tradition and get alienated from it. The greatness of any individual lies in his ability to accommodate his tradition within the given social environment. What is new cannot completely annihilate the old, but the important elements of the latter get assimilated into the former. Thus tradition and modernity cannot be antithetical to each other, rather they are complementary to each other. What is modern now becomes obsolete and traditional in due course of time. But tradition is something that ought to be preserved understanding the spirit of it and its plus points.
Swamy Nikhilanda, Hinduism, 1959, p.161.
R.B.Pandey, Hindu Samskaras, 1976, p 278.
Hinduism is one of the oldest religions in the world and is the dominant religion of the Indian sub-continent. This does not mean that all Indians are Hindus, and all Hindus are Indians. The Hindus only constitute the majority of the Indians. In fact, the term “Hinduism” is not derived from anyone of the indigenous languages of the sub-continent. The term “mind” is derived from the Greek, later on it became “Hind” in Persian. According to modern historians, those inhabitants of the of the banks of the river Indus, who did not accept Islam or Christianity or Zoarastrianism as their religion were called Hindus.
D.S. Sharma, Hinduism Through the Ages, 1973, pp.3-4.
The term “Veda” is derived from the Sanskrit root word “vid” means knowledge. According to Manu, there are only three Vedas. They are: the Rig, the Yajur, and the Sama. The Atharva-Veda is latter on added to the list. It mainly reflects the faith and rites of the common people rather than the highly specialised rituals of the priests.
R.N. Sharma, Indian Philosophy, 1972, pp. 16-17.
Ibid., p. 28.
S. Radhakrishnan, Indian Philosophy, 1983, Vol. I, p. 69
R.B.Pandey Hindu Samskaras, 1976, p.4.
Swamy Nikhilananda, Hinduism 1959, p. 165.
The actual number of rituals differs from source to source. The Samskara Vidhi of Swamy dayayananda Saraswati contains only sixteen.
R. B. Panday, Hindu Samskaras, 1959, p. 78.
Cited from J .E. Padfield, The Hindu at Home, 1896, p.71.
R. B. Pandey, Hindu Samskaras; 1959, p. 119.
J. E. Padfield, The Hiudu at Home, 1896, p. 111.