Customs and Classes of Hinduism

 Rites and Rituals

Rituals of Sanatana Dharma can be seen as two different phases. The Vedic religion of the earlier period used sacrifice (Yajna, Yaga) as their basic rites. Later period Hinduism used worship (puja) as the mode of their basic rites. The god is worshipped as an icon (archa) and the devotee is thearchaka. The rite performed is archana. It is believed that the archa (icon, idol) is divine once special rites have sanctified it. The divine that resides in the icon is prayed to daily in a ritual. The puja consists of more than prayer. The god is first bathed and purified in a daily routine after he is woken to the sound of music in the morning. He is treated like an honored guest and offered flowers and betel leaves. He is then decorated and dressed. He is honored with flower garlands, incense and sandalwood paste. Swinging lamps are circled (arati) in front of the god twice a day to the sound of bells and blowing conch. He is offered rice and fruits, of which he eats the subtle part, leaving the rest to the worshippers. He is fanned with ox-tail fans and allowed to rest after his meals. At night he is given the time to rest and sleep. Once a year, on festival days he is paraded through the city in a magnificent chariot-like vehicle, pulled by dozens of devotees, again to the sounds of music, band and conches.  

Congregational worship is in the form of group singing, in praise of the god (bhajana). Generally a worshipper goes to the temple alone or in a family group. The devotees usually witness the daily puja and arati, twice a day in most temples. Temple is also used as a community hall to arrange group discourses and recitals of the epics or puranas. 

Animal sacrifice that was common during the Vedic period has vastly disappeared. Rare among the Vaishnavites, it may still be present among devotees of Durga (Kali) and some Shaivites. The ritual slaughter is justified by the doctrine that the soul of the victim went straight to heaven. 

The followers of female divinities, especially Shakti, follow another form of worship called Tantra. This so-called Tantric sect goes through a long initiation process before embarking on the ceremony. They meet in small groups, frequently in the cremation grounds. They sit in a circle with a drawing on the ground, of a large circular diagram called Mandala or yantra. This being occult worship, they propitiate ghosts as part of their ritual. Then they indulge in the five M's (pancha-makara):madya (alcohol), mamsa (meat), matsya (fish), mudra (hand gestures used in dance that has the capacity to convey emotions) and maithuna (sexual intercourse). The practice of Tantra is shunned as reprehensible by the orthodoxy.

The Hindu Society and Family

Four distinct classes of people arose in the society. In the Vedic period class differentiation was more strictly enforced than today when the lines are more blurred. Basically there are four classes, namely, Brahmin, Kshatriya, Vaishya and Shudra, collectively called as Varnashrama (originally the class distinctions were made based on color, hence the term Varna). Each class has its own duty to perform. Brahmin to study and teach, Kshatriya to protect and rule, Vaishya to till the land, trade and lend money and Shudra to serve the other three classes. The mythical king Manu implores every class to perform their duties and their duties alone (Swa-dharma). It is better to do one's own duty badly than another's well. So strict were the rigid rules. This principle is also demonstrated in the Bhagavad-Gita (A fretful Arjuna was consoled by Krishna in the battlefield that fighting a war with his relatives and teachers would not amount to sin because as a Kshatriya it was his dharma to fight). Below the Shudra class was the class of untouchables, who were the outcasts of the society. They performed menial and dirty work and also worked in the cremation grounds as well as carried executions (chandalas). This class of untouchables (later called Harijans by Mahatma Gandhi) still exists in all parts of India. In some parts of the country they are called Dalits, though they are not treated in the same manner any more. 

The orthodox Brahmin class was also classified according to Gotra, roughly meaning clan (literal meaning, 'a herd of cows'). All Brahmins were believed to be descendents of one of eight Rishis of Vedic times. Thus there are eight gotras and all the Brahmins identify themselves as belonging to one of these clans. They are: Kashyapa, Vashishta, Bhragu, GautamaBharadvaja, AtriVishvamitra and Agastya. Later many more gotras were added to include names of other sages. Marriage between two members of the same gotra was forbidden. Some of the other castes have adopted similar clan distinctions e.g. the non-Brahmin community in South Kanara has bali(ancestral lineage) instead of gotra and fourteen Kattus and sixteen Kattales, which serve as laws for the society. Kshatriyas and Vaishyas took the same gotra names of their Brahmin priests that performed their domestic rituals, as they were not believed to be direct descendents of the sages. Brahmin class also mentioned the names of other sages in their daily worship, usually three to five that are said to be names of remote ancestors. These are called as Pravaras. Again, marriage was not permitted between families that had even one Pravara name, common between them. 

The family inheritance is patriarchal and patrilinear. There are exceptions in certain sects such as in Kerala (called Marumakkattayam) and South Kanara district in Karanataka (among the Bunt community called Aliyasantana), where a matrilineal system is followed. The father is the head of the house and administrator. The family usually lived as an extended group of parents, children, grandchildren, uncles and their descendents. The group is bound together and linked with three generations of ancestors through a ceremony called Shraddha. The ritual consists of offering balls of rice called pinda to the ancestors. Sons, grandsons and great grandsons participate and three generations of deceased are believed to participate in the benefits of the ceremony. 

While Varna describes the four castes, Ashrama discusses the four stages of life of a Hindu. A child is not a member of the society or any caste until his initiation (Upanayana). Only the Shudra class could not undergo the initiation ritual. Apart from the physical birth, this is called as the second birth. On his initiation ofUpanayana and wearing of the sacred thread, he enters the stage of Brahmacharya ashram, leading a celibate and austere life of a student in his teacher's home, eating from handouts given by the generous neighbors. When he has accomplished his studies of the Vedas, he enters the Grahastha ashram, a married man becoming head of his household. In advanced middle age when his grandchildren are born and he has firmly established his lineage, he leaves home to become a hermit. During thisVanaprastha ashram, he meditates and frees his soul from material things. When he is very old, he becomes a homeless wanderer with all his earthly ties broken. This last stage is called Sanyasa ashram.


The ultimate goal of every Hindu is to attain Moksha. This can only come throughatma-vidya, which is knowing one's self, through thought and introspection. To attain this, the scriptures give some guidelines. The first step is to master eight characteristics. These called atmagunas are:

  1. Compassion (daya)
  2. Forgiveness or patience (kshanti)
  3. Absence of jealousy (anasuya)
  4. Cleanliness (sauchyam)
  5. Not feeling mental strain or doing work with effortless ease (anayasa)
  6. Auspiciousness (mangala)
  7. Non-miserliness (akarpanya)
  8. Non-grasping or non-desiring nature (asprha).

Toward cultivation of these characteristics, the Vedas also give guidelines as to the rituals to be performed over one's lifetime. Sixteen such rituals are collectively calledShodasha Samskara. Samskara denotes purification ritual. Starting from the time when the child is in the womb, these sixteen rituals end in the final journey of the body into the afterlife. They can be divided into those performed during five different stages of life i.e. prenatal, childhood, student, adult life and old age or wisdom years. Forty rituals are discussed but sixteen are still in practice.

  1. Garbhadana samskara: 
    performed by a married couple when conceiving a child. This important samskara raises the act of conception to a sacred occasion, and is powerfully purifying and uplifting for the unborn child. 
  2. Pumsavana samskara: 
    usually performed between the second and fourth month of pregnancy. Its purpose is, first, to promote the birth of a male child (for perpetuation of the family line and tradition); second, to insure the good health of the fetus and the proper formation of its organs, regardless of gender.
  3. Simantonoyana samskara: 
    In the fourth or fifth month of pregnancy, the mind of the fetus begins to develop. This is when simantonoyana samskara is performed. Its purpose is to protect the fetus -- especially its newly forming mind -- from all negative influences, and also to stimulate the development of the unborn child's intellect.
  4. Jatakarma samskara: 
    is the ritual performed at the birth of a child. It awakens the child's intellect, gives it strength and promotes long life for the child. 
  5. Namakarana samskara: 
    On the 11th day after the child's birth, namakarana samskara is performed. In this ceremony, the child receives its name.
  6. Nishkramana samskara: 
    The baby's first outing into the world, beyond the confines of the home, is the occasion of nishkramana samskara. 
  7. Annaprashana samskara: 
    The first feeding of solid food to the baby, usually in the sixth month after birth, is the occasion of Annaprashana samskara. 
  8. Karnavedha samskara:
    usually performed in the sixth or seventh month after birth, consists of the piercing of the baby's ear lobes, so earrings may be worn.
  9. Chudakarana samskara: 
    At the end of the first year, or during the third year, the child's hair is shaved -- all but a tuft on the top of the head. This ritual shaving of hair, performed with ceremony, prayers and Vedic chanting is for both boys and girls. 
  10. Vidyarambha samskara: 
    This samskara begins a student's primary education by ceremonially introducing the child to the alphabet.
  11. Upanayana samskara: 
    Initiates the formal study of the Vedas. It is one of the most important and esteemed of the samskaras. Upon performance of upanayana, a boy traditionally moves from home to live in the ashram of the Guru. (See later)
  12. Samavartana samskara: 
    With samavartana samskara the disciple graduates from his Vedic studies and returns from the house of his Guru. Thereafter, the disciple will marry and raise a family, and so enter the stage of householder, grihasthashrama.
  13. Vivaha samskara: 
    The traditional Hindu wedding ceremony. It is considered by many to be the most important of all the samskaras.
  14. Panchamahayajna samskara: A married couple performs these five great sacrifices daily. In this samskara, one honors, in turn, the rishis (ancient seers of Truth), the gods, the ancestors, humankind and all created beings. (See later for details)
  15. Vanaprastha samskara: According to the Vedic tradition, vanaprastha is the third stage of life, following brahmacharya (Vedic student/disciple) and grihastha (householder). Here, a man leaves behind his life in the world and retires to the forest (with or without his wife), to live an ascetic life devoted to study of the scriptures and to meditation.
  16. Antyeshti samskara: The final sacrament, the funeral rites.

*From Amritapuri.org

Initiation or Upanayana

The initiation ceremony called the Upanayana or the second birth is a very ancient practice. The boy who undergoes the ceremony is said to be twice born or Dvija. He is also now considered an Aryan. The ritual consists of wearing a sacred thread called Yajnopavita with the utterance of the sacred mantra, which goes as follows:

'Om yajnopaveetam paramam pavitram prajapateryat sahajam purastaat.
Aayushyamagryam pratimuncha shubhram yajnopaveetam balamastu tejah.'

'The sacred thread is great and pure. 
It came to existence along with the birth of Brahma. 
It is as old as He is. 
May it, which is blessed by celestials, give us long life, strength and radiance. '

The sacred thread is hung over the left shoulder and under the right arm. The cord is not to be removed once placed unless it is defiled by death or birth in the family. The cord was made of three threads, each of nine twisted strands made of cotton, hemp or wool, for Brahmin, Kshatriya and Vaishya classes respectively. At this ceremony the boy (called Vatu) is taught the sacred Gayatri Mantra, whispered in his ear by his father and Guru (called Brahmopadesha). Only the higher classes can recite this mantra. It is as follows:

'Om Bhuh, Om Bhuvah, Om Suvah,
Om Maha, Om Janah, Om Tapah, Om Satyam,
Om, Tat Savitur vareniam, Bhargo devasya dhimahi,
Dhiyo yonah prachodayat.'

'Om Earth, Om Sky, Om Heaven,
Om Middle Region, Om Place of Births,
Om Mansion of the Blessed, Om Abode of Truth,
Let us think of the lovely splendor of God Savitur (Sun)
that he may inspire our minds.'

The Gayatri Mantra can also be translated as 'That Eternal God or Creator, Independent Reality, the Worshipful, One who has no Beginning, Light of Wisdom and Truth. That Lord who manifests through the Sun (Savitur), propitiated by the highest Gods; One who bestows wisdom, bliss and everlasting life; we meditate on that Light. May that Light of God illuminate our intellect.'

A long time ago, most Kshatriyas and Vaishyas ceased to perform the initiation ceremony in its full form. The term 'twice born (dvija)' came to be applied more and more to the Brahmin class.

Once married the householder might devote himself to three ends of life. These are:Dharma, Artha and Kama. Dharma is the gaining of religious merit through following the Sacred Law. Artha is gaining wealth through honest means and Kama is the gaining of various kinds of pleasures. These are of descending order of importance. One who follows these three ends of life rites throughout his life, with devotion, will attain liberation (Moksha).

Performance of numerous religious duties consists of proper following of one's Dharma. These are the bounden or obligatory karma of a Hindu. There are five great sacrifices (Pancha-mahayajna). These are to be performed thrice daily at sunrise, noon and sunset. They consist of:

  • Brahmayajna, the worship of the Brahman the World Spirit, by reciting the Vedas:
  • Pitryayajna, the worship of the ancestors, by libations of water and periodical Shraddha
  • Devayajna, the worship of the gods, by pouring ghee on the sacred fire.
  • Bhutayajna, the worship of all living things, by scattering grains and food for the animals and spirits.
  • Purusayajna, the worship of men, by showing hospitality.

Kama was a legitimate branch of human activity and physical love was not disparaged. Though the term generally means desire, the word has definite sexual connotation. The Hindu literature, both religious and secular, is full of sexual allusions and symbolisms. The temple carvings of the Middle Ages are full of couples in full embrace and sexual positions. Vatsyayana's Kamasutra is the most famous text dedicated to Kama. It is a remarkable work giving detailed instructions of erotic technique and aphrodisiac recipes and charms. There is emphasis on mutual gratification and foreplay. There are at least sixteen types of kisses detailed! In the historical perspective it gives a great insight into the life of Hindu upper class of the times.

It is important to remember the difference between similar sounding words. 'Brahman' is the Universal World Soul mentioned in the Vedas. 'Brahmanas' are the appendices to Upanishad where the sacrificial rituals are carefully delineated. 'Brahmin'or 'Brahmana' is the priest class of Hindus, which is one of the four castes. 


More by :  Dr. Neria H. Hebbar

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