Hindu religious customs

Traditional Hindus believe in sanatana dharma (worshiping many deities). Hindus have an elaborate system of rituals for everything related to a religious function, be it performing a simple puja (worship), conducting a complex sacrament ceremony, fasting, celebrating festivals and fairs, bathing in sacred rivers or lakes, going on a pilgrimage, or conducting a complex ceremony marriage. In addition, Hindus have the largest number of vrata (fasts) and festivals; according to P. V. Kane, there are about one thousand religious activities during the Hindu calendar year, the chief of which is Mahashivratri, dedicated to Lord Shiva.

Every date in the Hindu calendar and every day of the week are marked for some kind of worship. For example, the weekdays are named after seven of nine planets to be worshiped. These nine planets, called “Navagrahas,” are the Sun, Moon, Mars, Mercury, Jupiter, Venus, Saturn, Rahu, and Ketu. The seven days of the week have derived their names from the first seven planets; Rahu and Ketu are the ascending and descending nodes of the moon. Among these nine planets, Saturn, Rahu, and Ketu are considered inauspicious and maleficent; thus, they need to be propitiated.

Hindus regard these planets as having the greatest astrological significance, influencing a person’s life cycle in many ways. Thus, in all rituals these planets are invoked and worshiped. In addition, each day of the week is named after a planet; for example, Sunday is for the Sun God, Monday is for Lord Shiva and the Moon, Tuesday for Hanuman and Mars, Wednesday for Mercury, Thursday for Jupiter and Gurus, Friday for Venus and various goddesses, and Saturday is named for Saturn planet and Shani God, the son of Sun God. Moreover, in every month several auspicious occasions call for a special worship and fasting; for example, the eleventh day of the Hindu calendar is called “Ekadashi” and is a day when fast is kept and puja is done in the late afternoon or early evening. Such days are frequently combined with celebrations and vratas for Mahashivratri. There does not appear to be any object on Earth or in heaven that a Hindu is not prepared to worship; these objects include the planets, rocks, mountains, trees, shrubs, rivers, seas, reptiles, birds, wild animals, domesticated animals (especially cows and bulls), good or evil demons, bad spirits, ghosts, spirits of ancestors, any number of divine entities and deities, and departed souls. Although there is regional variation and worships and rituals specific to areas or villages, Hindus perform their rituals with great thoroughness. For example, the traditional marriage ceremony starts at midnight and continues for hours.

There are four forms of rituals: (1) Japa is repeating the name of a deity or a mantra to invoke a deity. Generally it is done privately in a home, a temple, or in some sacred place where a devotee repeats the name of a specific deity or a mantra. Japa is of three kinds. In the first, the devotee speaks the name of the deity or the mantra; in the second, the devotee speaks the name or the mantra, but no one hears; and in the third, nothing is spoken, but the name or the mantra is repeated in the mind. Generally, a devotee uses a mala (rosary) for this purpose. (2) Homa is offering oblations (offerings) into a sacred fire by invoking deities; this ritual can be a part of a specific worship in a home, a part of group worship, or a part of some sacrament ceremonies. (3) Puja is a worship service conducted with sixteen steps. The role of a priest is important in suggesting the appropriate and most auspicious day and time (the priest also acts as astrologer) for conducting a specific worship. (4) Pitra-tarpan (ancestor worship, also called “shraaddha”) obligates Hindus to honor their ancestors at least once a year when a fortnight is reserved for this purpose around the months of September and October. The service is conducted generally at the bank of a river or lake by offering at the minimum libations of water to one’s deceased parents and other ancestors; the service is similar to the one performed at the time of cremation, although less rigorous. In addition, one should visit Gaya (Bihar Province) after the death of one’s parents to perform this service.

The most important of all Hindu rituals is called “shodasha-upachara-puja” (worship-service which can be performed in several steps). However, before performing these steps, one should perform five preliminary steps after the priest has announced to all present the purpose of the ceremony: (1) symbolic purification (aachaman) of one’s body and the place of worship by the priest and the host or couple for whom the service is being performed. The priest then consecrates the ritual utensils, flowers, bell, and other items needed for the service. (2) Seeking the blessing of the Mother Earth to begin the service. (3) Worship of Lord Ganesh (the deity to remove obstacles), which is always done at the beginning of a puja. (4) Kalash-puja (consecration of water in a jug). (5) Invocation of the nine planets to come and take their Hinduism seats at the service. In some instances, Matrikapujan (worship of seven mother-goddesses) is done just before the start of the main sixteen-step worship service. This takes on a special tone at temples during the Mahashivratri festival.

After the five preliminary steps the sixteen steps of shodasha-upachara-puja are performed: (1) performing aavahan (invoking the deity); (2) performing aasana (offering deity a place of honour at the ceremony); (3) offering Arghya water to drink; (4) offering water to wash the hands and feet of the deity (padya); (5) performing snana (bathing of the deity, either with Ganges River water or with five items called “panchamrita”: milk, yogurt, ghee (clarified butter), honey, and sugar); (6) anointing the deity with fragrance; (7) performing abhisheka (anointing with water); (8) performing vastra (offering of new garment); (9) performing pushpa (offering of flowers); (10) performing dhupa (offering of incense); (11) performing deepa (offering of light by a lamp); (12) performing naivedya (offering of food); (13) offering tambula (betel leaf with nuts, clove, and spices); (14) performing parikrama (offering a reverential salutation by circling the divine image clockwise or, if the worshiper cannot circle the divine image, by standing still); (15) performing aarati (salutation to the deity by waving a lamp); and (16) offering flowers to the deity and praying for its return. For example, the ketaki is not to be offered to Shiva even on the night of Mahashivratri.

After this service the priest applies a vermilion paste to the foreheads of the host and his family members, and wraps a sacred thread around the hands of the host and his family. The sixteen steps are the mirror image of the welcome accorded to a guest by a Hindu family in ancient times. The guest was called “Atithi-Deva” (a godly person whose arrival was unknown). Of course, there are regional and linguistic variations in these steps. If a person is not able to perform such an elaborate worship service, a puja can be done in five or ten steps. The five-step puja (panchupachara) consists of offering water, flowers, incense, light, and food; the ten-step puja consists of washing the feet of the deity, bathing and anointing the deity with fragrance, and offering garment, flowers, incense, light, food, and prayer. Each step has its own mantra, which is recited by the priest. In case of an emergency or the unavailability of material for worship, there is a provision for labdha-upachara, which is worshipping with whatever is available (such as water or flowers). These steps are performed not only to offer proper respect to the deity but also to carry out a vow that the host (yajman) took to get his wish fulfilled. Thus there is the story of Gurudruha, who unknowingly worshiped Shiva on the auspicious night of Mahashivratri.

Sixteen to forty rites (sansakars) are prescribed for Hindus. The following sixteen are considered important: (1) garbhadhana (conception of the child), (2) punsavana (consecration of the child in the womb), (3) simantonnayana (parting the hair of the pregnant woman), (4) jatakarma (birth of the child), (5) namakarana (naming the child), (6) nishkramana (taking the child out of the home for the first time), (7) annaprashana (feeding the child solid food for the first time), (8) chudakarna (giving the child’s first haircut), (9) karnabedha (piercing the child’s ears), (10) vidyarambha (the child going to school), (11) upanayana (sacred-thread ceremony), (12) vedarambha (study of Vedic literature), (13) keshanta (shaving of the boy’s beard), (14) samavartana/snana (end of the child’s education), (15) vivaha (marriage), and (16) antyesthi (cremation rite). For each of these sacraments scriptures have prescribed elaborate rituals. However, in the course of time these rituals have declined because individuals have been unable to perform some lengthy procedures and have incurred heavy expenses.

Of these sixteen four are to be performed before the birth of the child, but nowadays practically no one performs them. Of the remaining twelve the following six are considered crucial and are observed by many Hindus: (1) name giving, (2) offering of solid food to the child, (3) the child’s first haircut, (4) the sacred-thread ceremony, (5) marriage, and (6) cremation. Of these six the sacred-thread ceremony, marriage, and cremation require extensive rituals. For example, the marriage ceremony has about thirty-four steps, starting with the invocation and invitation of all deities so that the ceremony is concluded without any problem (the presence of deities indicates a divine witness). Then come the welcome of the bride and groom and his family and guests, confirmation of the wedding by the exchange of garlands between the bride and groom, gauri-pujan (worship of goddess Gauri and Parvati, consort of Lord Shiva by the bride, gifts to the bride from the groom’s family), panigrahana (giving away the daughter), agni-pradakshina (going around the fire by the couple), saptapadi (taking seven steps to promise each other [to be friends for life, to take care of each other in sickness and health, etc.]), and placing of mangalsutra (a necklace on the wife [a symbol for married women]). Before the marriage party departs for the groom’s house, several other ceremonies are performed. However, due to constraints of time, many of these steps have been shortened; nevertheless, an abbreviated marriage ceremony still takes about two hours. While the marriage ceremony is being performed, songs and dances are performed, and an atmosphere of gaiety and fun with food and drinks continues.


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