Rituals in Religion
There are rituals in every kind of society. Christians have baptism while the Jews have their circumcision and Bar Mitzvah at adulthood. The Muslims also have circumcision besides the ritual of fasting during Ramadan. Rituals are celebrated throughout one’s life and continue even after one’s death when there are burial services or cremation services depending upon one’s religion. For the Hindus, the Vedas, the oldest spiritual scriptures in the world have shaped our rituals that are performed even today.
The origin of Rituals
To find out the origin of rituals we have to turn to our old religious literature. One of the best literatures in this sphere that the world has relates to the Vedas. The Vedas, a fine collection of hymns and rituals go back thousands of years before Christ. The exact date of its creation is perhaps difficult to determine since before these priceless books were written, their contents were communicated orally through several generations. Not much is known about the authors of the Vedas since the focus in those days was more on the ideas and not on the authors. Also it was an oral tradition.
The Vedas and Rituals
The Vedas are religious books and convey the mind of the priestly class existing in ancient India. Since the priests in those days were concerned with nature and its forces such as the wind and fire it was natural to attach godly qualities to them and deify them so to speak. It is therefore during the Vedas that the first Hindu gods were born. With the birth of the gods of nature came the rituals that were created to worship the forces of nature. It was on these lines that the Samhita or collection of the four Vedas was created. These were Rig, Sama, Yajur and Atharva Vedas.
Though the Vedas no doubt dealt with various aspects of the Aryan life as it existed then, clothing and food as well as the social fabric, the basic thrust did have a religious bias. The religion that evolved attached a very strong significance to the animistic worship of the spirits that dwelled in animals and trees, streams and mountains besides stars. Although majority of the spirits were good, there were some that were evil. These evil spirits needed to be controlled. You will therefore find mention in the Atharva Veda of spells to obtain kids or to avoid abortion. There are spells to prolong life and to ward off evil and even to destroy one’s enemies.
Indra and Agni and Rituals in Vedic Times
There is a fair amount of attention given in the Rig Veda to gods such as Indra and Agni besides Soma. Indra remained at the very top of the hierarchy of gods according to Hinduism as the god of storms, lightning and war. He was the bearer of Vajra, the bolt of thunder and lightning and held the power of releasing the force of water. Here lies the fundamental philosophy of water being vital for the community and the role of Indra as the god to release these waters was to be revered. Over a period of time people started the ritual of worshipping gods such as Indra and Agni to seek support for maintaining a life of peace and prosperity.
Agni, similarly, was and is today one of the most important gods according to the Hindu scriptures. You will find Agni playing the central role in just about any religious function at home or society. These rituals start with the birth and end with the death of the individual. As a matter of fact even after death the Sraadh ceremony that follows each year is intimately associated with the use of Agni. The Hindu will use Agni during the Upanayana ceremony as well as the wedding ceremony. Actually, during the wedding Agni is used in all the associated functions too such the tilak or the mandap ceremony. If one includes the lighting of the diya or incense not only at special occasions but also as an essential part of the day’s religious activities, one can appreciate the reverence the Hindu has for Agni.
Nowhere is Agni more visible than in the ubiquitous aartis. The word aarti itself has been derived from the Rig Veda which refers to it as the highest indication of love for God. Aarti is the closing ritual of a prayer. One will see the aarti in just about any kind of private or public worship of the deity in a Hindu temple or home, a pandal or a public area where hawan has been organized. Aarti symbolizes and reinforces the Hindu belief that God is at the centre of all levels of existence. In a way the ritual of aarti is symbolic of our reverence for The Master while also celebrating the joy of living. But, it is also true that fire is associated with worship in other religions as well. One will see fire in the form of candles inside a church while in Zoroastrian philosophy fire is supreme. As a matter of fact fire has been associated with religious and animist ideas reaching back to around 8, 00,000 years. According to Yoga, nutritive oil enhances the positive energy levels and in this way the use of Agni or light serves to raise our positive energies when the light or diya is used in conjunction with such oil in different gatherings.
Perhaps cremation itself is symbolic of the finest offering made to Agni in a Hindu ritual. Cremation is an essential part of the Hindu’s psyche wherein he acknowledges that the body is but a clothing to be discarded at death while the soul never dies and moves on to either its new life as reincarnation or moksha, the ultimate desire for union with The Master.
In Vedic times rituals were introduced to maintain the order of cosmos. There were ceremonies that needed to be carried out in order that things ran smoothly. For this reason sacrifices and other rituals were carried out such as Yagna and Hawan. All these were performed in return for protection and prosperity. This did result in disputes between the king and the priests when things did not go the way they were expected to. However, the Brahmin priests ultimately had the upper hand and could make changes in the rituals in order that their privileges were not reduced in any way.
Therefore, in Vedic times rituals were performed to be rid of unfriendly influences while attracting those that were beneficial. The result it was hoped would mean material and spiritual progress without any obstructions. The material benefits expected included livestock and children as well as wealth and a long life. The performance of rituals and sacrifices increased the status of the Aryan in his society.
Rituals that started in Vedic times therefore kept undergoing changes and texts were added to the Vedas so that the gods could be propitiated suitably and kept benign. This led to the birth of those who would question the meaning of rituals and sacrifices. There were those that lived the life of hermits away from materialistic concerns. These non conformists propagated a philosophy that was compiled into The Upanishads. The external fire of The Vedas became the internal fire of The Upanishads.
A new concept of philosophy entered the field where The Vedas once flourished. This field was introduced by those that were ascetics. The philosophy was therefore one of self-denial. These ascetics introduced practices or rituals such as meditation, fasting and celibacy. Some of them argued that it was the spiritual aspects that were at a higher plane and mere rituals did not really matter. Therefore, going through the rituals step by step in one’s mind was just as effective as actually carrying out the actions. The Brahmanic tradition had subtly changed with the coming of the Upanishads. The new collection of texts remains as proof of the spectacular power of the Hindus. This wonderful collection came as suggested by the word Upanishad which literally means sitting at the feet of the enlightened teacher in a spiritual discourse. However, although Upanishads are spoken of as one entity, in reality they are unlike chapters in a book. There is no common thread running through them. Each is complete in itself. This is because The Upanishads are a composite of brilliant thoughts and philosophy of individuals expressing their opinions and experiences.
The birth of The Upanishads was probably sometime between 800 and 500 BCE. This was also the later Vedic period going onto what has come to be known as the early classical period. Packed in the 200 Upanishads are concepts that include an integration of opposing views in philosophy and spiritual ideology. They talk at once of the inadequacy of the intellect in combating with life’s greatest mysteries pertaining to the infinite and the eternal. The Upanishads present rituals in a more universal manner. This is unlike The Vedas that treated rituals as being pertinent to a certain culture. This therefore represents the true strength of The Upanishads that make them as relevant today as they were more than two thousand years ago.
There were reasons why the Vedas moved onto the Upanishads. The accent during the Vedic period was on rituals that comprised of sacrifices. These were not affordable by other than the rich since these were very elaborate and therefore expensive. Further, Sanskrit was not understood by the masses as it was a refined language spoken and understood by the Brahmins or the rich and intelligentsia. This way the Vedic religion gradually became irrelevant to the masses. The fact that the Brahmin priests made the rituals very complex added to the problem as the masses drifted away from the rituals and sacrifices and therefore the Vedic gods. The unfair caste system further added to the problem and this ultimately gave birth to Buddhism and Jainism. With the advent of Buddhism and Jainism there was a serious threat to the expansion of Hinduism and even its existence. Brahmanism had to expand or perish. The Upanishads therefore heralded the end of the Vedic era and are therefore also known as Vedanta. Vedanta is essentially a summary of the Vedic religion but the thrust was no longer on the sacrifices and the rituals. The thrust moved on to the principles of Samsara, Karma, Dharma and Moksha.
Effect of the Upanishads on Rituals
Some of the most significant principles introduced by The Upanishads dealt with the concept of an indestructible soul and the philosophy of Karma that led to the reincarnation or Samsara as well as Moksha or the eternal union with The Master. Instead of worshipping nature in the form of Indra and Agni for the deliverance from calamities the new generation took to a religion with an accent on attaining everlasting union with God. In this religion “Atman” the self merged with “Brahman” the Absolute Being after completing the cycles of birth and death in successive reincarnations to end finally in Moksha or liberation and release.
It was appreciated that rituals need not be complex or involve sacrificial offering. The State also stepped in progressively and sacrifices were banned in due course. The poor now found it possible to offer their pujas without incurring huge costs.
It is not as if the concept of reincarnation was not accepted by the west. Intellectuals such as Pythagoras believed in this concept. It is understood that Pythagoras also founded a religion based on this philosophy. It is possible that Plato also mentioned reincarnation in his dialogue called Timaeus.
The Upanishads exhort all to look inwards. They tell us that meditation helps all to find Atman or The Self. They also affirm that ultimately at the time of Moksha, Atman returns to the Brahman for everlasting peace. In The Upanishads the Vedic gods are present but they are all represented as different features of the Brahman. The new rituals were performed no longer to satisfy the gods so that we are rid of the demons. The rituals now help attain salvation.
There is yet another interesting feature of The Upanishads. The Upanishads ask that we break the veil of Maya. This task demands that man shed his very identity, false attributes and worldly pleasures and finally renounce Karma itself. At the ultimate level therefore The Upanishads would have man dispense with all rituals.
Hindu Rituals Today – The Samskaras
A Hindu is supposed to follow 16 key sacred ceremonies (originally there are 40) from birth till death at different phases of life. These are called ‘samskaras’ or sacraments. These commence from the time a child is born and there are rituals for every major occasion in a man’s life. Below are the most important ones in order. The very first one is called garbhadhan, the impregnation of the mother of a child. At fifth spot is called namakarana or naming sacrament after the birth of the child. Seventh one is the annaprasan when the child is served with the first cereal at the age of six. Eleventh one is the sambartana or graduation from school. Twelfth is vivah or marriage. Sixteenth is antyesthi or sradh or funeral.
The final ritual at the time of his death and repeatedly after that on the death anniversary there is Sradh ritual that is performed by his son. The three most-practiced ones during life time are described below.
Annaprasna is performed when the child is about six months old. Scriptures prescribe the kind of food a six-month old child must take once it is weaned from its mother’s milk. Biologically, mother’s milk is inadequate for the baby when it is six months of age. It needs nutritious food so that it can grow in both body and mind. This is one ritual that is rational and supported by scientific reasoning as well.
Here it is appropriate to mention that according to the Hindu philosophy there are four ashrams in man’s life. These are Brahmacharya, the stage where one is a student, the Grihastha where he becomes a householder, Vanaprastha where he becomes a hermit and Sanyasa where he dons the role of an ascetic and leaves the materialistic world. Upanayana can be considered the student’s stage where as a young man he is expected to concentrate on his studies. Without going into the detail of different types of Upanayana depending upon the caste, it is sufficient to say that this ritual prepared the young man to take up his studies in a determined manner so that he could discharge his duties of a citizen responsibly.
After completing his studies man must be readied for Grihastha or a householder. Vivaha prepares him for this role. In the days gone by there were no inter-caste marriages and one was required to marry within his caste. This ensured the need of harmony and the continuance of discharge of duty of one’s caste. Vivaha was for procreation and the continuation of the species.
Each of the foregoing rituals is performed according to the Shastras by a priest who is trained in supervising them. A considerable study had gone into defining these rituals whether it is the Annaprasna, Upanayana or Vivaha. The stress is always on a regimented code of conduct wherein man learns of his responsibilities at each stage in his life. If he is introduced into the right kind of food at Annaprasna, he is guided into a scholarly life by Upanayana. In Vivaha he takes up the responsibility of his wife and the children that follow so that he can join society as a responsible adult.
The Transformation in Indian Society from Vedic Age
After the arrival of The Upanishads there have been several changes in which the Indian society looks at the concept of rituals. It is not as if all the rituals from the Vedic times have disappeared. On the contrary, there are several rituals that have survived from those times. However, there are distinct changes in which these rituals exist today. The average Hindu household therefore continues to worship Shiva, Vishnu and Shakti (in the form of Durga or Vaishno Devi) among several other gods. Each household worships these forms in one way or the other. However, there is also a growing section of Hindus that has taken the meditation and yogic route while reducing the accent on Personal gods. There is yet another section of Hindus that is today involved in discharging its social and moral responsibilities. Of course, in a majority of the cases there is a percentage of mix in the attributes of each section. Therefore, those that have taken the meditation route will probably worship one of the gods as well while those that are engaged in discharging their social responsibilities will generally visit their favorite temples. In most cases the essential Vedic rituals such as Annaprasna, Upanayana and Vivaha as well as Shraddha are observed. But, there is a clear divide today as we see three paths emerging. These paths are those of devotion or bhakti, knowledge or jnana and action or karma.
Culture Induced Changes in Rituals
There have been several rituals that have been changed due to the individual cultural traditions. One such ritual is that of Vivaha or wedding. Today’s Vivaha rituals are often grand affairs stretching on for days. There are marriages especially in the northern parts of India where Vivaha is split among Tilak Ceremony, Engagement, Sangeet, Mehndi, Var Mala and Mandap Ceremony besides Vidai and finally the Reception Ceremony. While all these rituals are no doubt very enjoyable especially if both the sides, bride and bridegroom, have plenty of money, these rituals may be very expensive for the less fortunate. There is also a fair amount of display of wealth and this at times detracts from the solemnity of the occasion. In the desire to make the occasion spectacular one often sees a fair amount of wastage and this is hurtful for the environment.
Rituals and Environment
In the days gone by idols were always made of earth while the paints were vegetable dyes. Both of these materials were friendly to the environment. Modernity has made many rituals harmful to the environment and it is time we get back to our lost traditions.
Hindu rituals are environment friendly. This is because ever since the birth of Hinduism the accent has been on worshipping the elements such as wind, sun and water as well as agni besides the trees, the rivers and the mountains. The Vedas, as mentioned, are replete with invocations for Indra and Agni. All Vedic rites insist on personal hygiene and clean environment. Fire or Agni is used in just about every ritual that will require the use of Havan (fire altar) such as in Vivaha and pujas connected with the worship of Vishnu.
Today scientists have confirmed that fire rituals have positive impact on the environment (The Hindu June 14, 2011). In this report scientists studied a specific fire ritual that was conducted in a village in Kerala in April 2011. In their study the scientists concluded that the ritual had positive effects on the atmosphere as well as the soil and the micro-organisms contained in the soil. Typically, it was observed that the growth of plants was highest in seeds that were planted close to the place of havan or fire altar. This growth rate, in cases, was as much as 2,000 times faster than in the other places. This was attributed to the positive vibrations that radiated from the fire altar all through the Agni ritual.
A typical Indian home uses products such as fragrant oils from sandalwood, pure water, fire, incense and flowers. All these ingredients are soothing and are said to improve the energy levels in our environment. There are positive effects also from the use of images for worship, the utterance of mantra and the very act of meditation.
All religions celebrate their rituals. This is true for Hindus also. The origin of rituals for Hindus goes back to the time of The Vedas. Our forefathers were nature worshippers basically. The Upanishads however brought in the concept of Moksha and reincarnation. The rituals thereafter shifted from animistic to Karmic. Today the modern Hindu does worship Vishnu during rituals as his forefathers used to worship before him. However, the modern Hindu also appreciates meditation and his obligation to society even while observing all the tradition rituals. Hindu rituals have been environmentally oriented since Vedic times. Today also a Hindu ritual will not hurt the environment.
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