Hinduism: Rituals | 13



Hindu temple rituals are complex, and in many temples there may be a celebration almost every other day. Ritual worship is divided into daily, fortnightly, monthly, and annual cycles.

On ritual occasions in Southern India the deity is taken in a procession through the streets near the temple in special floats or enormous chariots.

Most of the larger temples take notions of ritual purity seriously, and therefore women are not allowed to worship during the time of menstruation.

In many South Indian temples there is not much gender segregation during the rituals. Worship is individual rather than congregational, and the modes of prayer are dictated by many texts.

Frequently the priest—a male member of the Brahman caste—offers the prayers on behalf of the devotee. Usually only the priests are allowed to enter the inner shrines of a temple.

After the ritual prayer a lamp or camphor light is waved in a circle in front of the deity in a ritual called Āratī, and in Northern India a special song is sung at this time.

Rituals performed in the home are generally called puja (literally “worship”).

Worship of the deity or of a spiritual teacher at a home shrine is one of the most significant ways in which Hindus express their devotion. Many Hindu households set aside some space (a cabinet shelf or an entire room) at home where pictures or small images of the deities are enshrined.

Puja may involve simple acts of daily devotion, such as the lighting of oil lamps and incense sticks, recitation of prayers, or offering of food to the deity.

In home worship simpler versions of some temple rituals take place.

In daily worship family members lead the rites, but more elaborate or specialized rituals of worship, such as the ones to Satya-Nārāyaṇa (a manifestation of Vishnu) on full-moon days, may involve the participation of a priest or special personnel.

The concept of appropriate hospitality guides home worship. The image of the deity receives the hospitality accorded to an honoured guest in the home, including ritual bathing, anointing with ghee (clarified butter), offerings of food and drink, lighted lamps, and garlands of flowers.

Domestic rituals by women may be performed on a daily, recurring, or occasional schedule:

While many of the well-known rituals are performed for the welfare of the family and for earthly happiness, a few are performed for personal salvation or liberation.

Many rituals, such as pilgrimages, worshiping at home shrines or temples, and singing devotional songs, are similar to patterns of worship practiced by men, but some are unique to married women whose husbands are alive.

Underlying many of the rites is the notion that women are powerful and that rites performed by them have potency. While many rituals conducted by Hindu women share certain features, there are significant differences among the many communities, castes, and regions.

Perhaps in no rite within the Hindu tradition is there more regional variation than in a wedding ceremony:

Choosing the right spouse for a daughter or son is usually accomplished with the help of an extensive family network and sometimes by advertising in newspapers or on the Internet.

In many communities, after the prospective couple’s caste, community, economic, and educational compatibility is addressed, the detailed horoscopes of the bride and bridegroom are matched.

Apart from the several regional and community rites that accompany it, the sacrament of marriage involves several basic features for it even to be considered legal:

These include:

- the Kaṇyā dāna (the gift of the virgin by the father),
- pani grahaṇa (the clasping of hands),
- sapta padi (taking 7 steps together around fire, which is the eternal witness), and
- maṅgala dhāraṇa (the giving of auspiciousness to the bride).

In addition to these, the bride and bridegroom exchange garlands.

The ceremony itself lasts several hours and may involve several changes of elaborate clothing for the bride, who is adorned with expensive jewellery. Often the couple sits on a platform with a fire nearby, to which offerings are made.

The bride’s parents have an active role to play, as do specific relatives (the groom’s sister and the bride’s brother and maternal uncle) at particular moments in the ritual, but the hundreds of guests are free to come and go as they please.

In one of the central rituals the bridegroom’s family presents the bride with “the gift of auspiciousness.” The gift is a necklace or string, called the Maṅgala sūtra (string of auspiciousness or happiness):

It may be a gold necklace, a string of black beads, a yellow thread, or anything else that the woman may wear around her neck. The necklace is adorned with the insignia of the god the family worships.

The South Indian bridegroom ties this string or places the necklace around the bride’s neck as her symbol of marriage. It corresponds to a wedding ring in Western society.

There is no equivalent symbol for the bridegroom, but in the castes in which a man wears the sacred thread, married men wear a double thread.

The central rituals are to take place only near a sacred fire.

Death causes a state of pollution for the family:
This pollution is observed for a period that may last from 12 days to almost a year.

The body is usually removed from the home within a few hours. In most communities cremation is the final sacrament, and the eldest son usually performs these rites. In a few communities, and for people in certain stages of life (such as an infant or an ascetic), the body may be interred.

Until the body is removed and the cremation fire is lit, no fire is to be lit or tended in the house where death occurred. Each religious community has its own list of scriptures from which to recite. These include portions of the Vedas and the Bhāgavad Gītā.