Hindu, Hinduism and Hindustan: Part LVII

Rites and Rituals in Sanatana Dharma

Continued from Part LVI

If the extant mankind civilizations in various parts of the world is considered, the Hindus are known for indulging in elaborate rites and rituals in their day to day life routine. In fact, all communities in the world are associated with it in varying degree in some or the other way and the process starts right at the birth and continues till the death of the person. However, Hindus are particularly associated, and often criticized for their elaborated practices. Many of these rites and rituals in the Sanatana Dharma (Hinduism) have their genesis in the Vedic age inculcating the feelings of religiosity and devotion to Ishwar (God) with the spirituality at the centre of the human life. Collectively, they are also called Karmakanda in Hinduism and the householders are particularly mandated to discharge many such responsibilities as devout Hindus from the dawn to dusk in everyday life.

Though there may be different views and arguments on the subject, the main reason behind the age-old rites and rituals appears to lie in the very nature of the human evolutionary pattern. Many civilizations such as Hindu, Greek, Roman, Sumerian, Egyptian, Assyrian and Chinese had evolved in different parts of the world in isolation yet nearly most of them practiced polytheism in some or the other form by following natural gods and goddesses in various ways in their social and religious life, with the intended purposes of the well-being of self, own families and tribes, and the practice involved elaborate rituals. However, while most other civilizations in the world were replaced globally by much later evolved Abrahamic religions, despite constant invasions, immorality and violations, the Hindu civilization could survive this onslaught with even many Vedic practices intact till modern age. The author proposes to briefly explore such rites and rituals in the present piece of writing.

Common Ritualistic Practices

Many Vedic rites and rituals are still significant part of the Hindu way of social and religious life. While Vedas prescribed Brahman as one Universal Consciousness or God, the Vedic people believed in several natural deities and sacrifices to them was an integral part of the human life, which was considered necessary to be performed with regularity for the purpose of cleansing own body and mind as also the safety and wellbeing of the self, family and society. Although the Vedic Hindu society followed many rituals and sacrificial ceremonies but it mostly involved offerings through Agni to various deities, departed souls, humans and other living beings. Also, the periodicity of such offerings was daily, weekly, monthly, annually, or even once in a lifetime. Many of these practices passed the test of times through various ages and have continued as Karmakanda of devout Hindus through the modern age.

For illustration, many customs have considerably changed under the influence of the Western education and life styles yet many devout Hindus perform daily sacrifices, make oblations, or even simple offerings of water to deities in day-to-day life. In many cases, the morning sacrifices include self-purification by bathing, applying ash or other religious marks on the forehead/body parts, offering prayer to the Sun, chanting Gayatri or some other holy mantras, japa, and so on. The common daily rituals in many Hindu households include silent prayer or ritualistic puja of the deity, devotional singing (bhajan), recitation of scriptures like Srimad Bhagavad Gita or Puranas, reading of the Ramayana or other religious books, chanting of mantras dedicated to the particular deity, yoga, meditation, Satsang (religious discourse), attending to some charitable work, visit to temple or some holy place, and so on.

The aforesaid daily observances are particularly relevant to householders though more common in the upper class/castes under the erstwhile prescribed Varnashrama system. Hindu sanyasins (ascetics) of the different sects and denominations follow their own prescribed daily rites and rituals, which may be different from those of the householders. Japa as the form of popular devotional practice and periodical Yajnas for the intended deities is a common practice among the householders. Hindus practice diverse rituals according to their value system, social status, family traditions, personal beliefs and even availability of time among other factors. Many ancient rites and rituals have been discarded too or complied by only a small population under the Western influence. Similarly, use of religious symbols and marks have also considerably reduced among Hindus, except bindis by women more as a fashion statement. However, certain essential periodical and one-time rituals linked to mundan, upanayan, initiation, betrothal, marriage, death, etc. are invariably followed by all Hindu families, irrespective of class or caste, under the guidance of qualified priests.

Traditional (Vedic) Rituals and Beliefs

According to Vedic belief, the gods were the objects of the sacrifice in Yajna, who participated in such rituals to accept offerings, while the humans as the subjects or hosts made such offerings. The priests served as the intermediaries to facilitate communication with gods through hymns and ritual worship, and the material for these rites and rituals came usually from the plants and animals. Thus, the Vedic Yajna was a joint or collective effort to please gods with the combined efforts of humans and other living beings. This practice has continued through various ages and is still observed by the most Hindu families in the modern age with minor changes and aberrations. The Yajna or Yagya literally means sacrifice, worship or offering, and commonly refers in Hinduism to a ritual carried out in front of the sacred fire (Agni), mostly with recitation of the relevant hymns/mantras. This Vedic tradition is described in the Vedic literature called Brahmanas and Yajurveda, wherein sacred fire serves as the medium of offering oblations and libations to various deities.

The Vedic Yajnas were typically performed by four categories of priests, namely the Hota, Adhvaryu, Udgata and Brahma. The Hota was chief priest who would recite invocations and litanies from the Rigveda using the introductory, associated and benediction verses. The Adhvaryu served as assistant of the chief priest in-charge of all material details like measurement of ground, building of alter and offering oblations. Then the Udgata did the chanting of hymns as per set melodies and music while the Brahma was in-charge of supervision of the entire Karmakanda including corrections, if any. The Hindu rituals essentially comprise of two components viz. physical and mental. The physical or external part of rituals usually requires prior preparation and assistance of priests, though some qualified people can do it themselves, while the mental or internal rituals are performed by the person or seeker himself; the former category is the part of the Karmakanda and the latter of the Jnanakanda. The Vedas held the mental rituals to be superior to physical, where the body becomes the substitute of the sacrificial pit and thoughts and emotions as the offerings.

In Vedic Yajnas, typically one, or three, fires were lit in the centre of the offering ground and oblations offered into the fire. The usual ingredients offered as oblations included ghee, milk, grains, cakes and soma. The other ingredients could comprise of the milk products, fruits, flowers, cloth and even money; however, when these articles are offered, the ritual is called homa or havan. Incidentally, the nature of the Vedic Yajnas has been retained as such till the modern age. Various types of Yajnas are prescribed according to the occasion and purpose of the Yajnas in the Hindu Kalpa Sutras and Grihya Sutras. However, five more important sacrifices are Bhuta-yajna, Manushya-yajna, Pitr-yajna, Deva-yajna and Brahma-yajna as per following brief description:

  • Bhuta-yajna is a sacrifice for the sake of the living beings including animals and birds, in which food cakes are offered on daily basis;
  • Manushya-yajna is a sacrifice for the self and fellow human beings, in which alms and water are offered as a service or charitable cause on regular/daily basis;
  • Pitr-yajna is carried out as sacrifice to the departed father/forefathers with libations and water on day-to-day basis;
  • Deva-yajna is sacrifice to gods with firewood before Agni and other stuff on daily basis;
  • Brahma-yajna relates to the sacrifice to Brahman (God, Ultimate Reality) by reciting Vedas, sacred hymns as per obeisance and convenience of the seeker.

The length and periodicity of a Yajna ritualistic sacrifice depends on its type; some last a short duration of only few minutes while others may last over a period of hours, days or even months; some are privately performed while others could be community event; in some, for instance a Hindu marriage, physical witness of Agni is a must while in other, for instance offerings to Brahman (God), the mind itself can play sacrificial role. Traditionally, the ritual fire has played an important role in individual and community Yajnas with chanting of mantras. In such sacrifices, the deity Agni, or the god of fire, is deployed as the messenger of gods. The devotional songs and hymns are constantly recited by the priests, and even seekers, while the oblations are offered into the sacred fire and it is believed that the offerings are carried by Agni to the intended gods, who in turn might provide boons and benedictions to the seeker(s). In a way, the sacrificial ritual serves as spiritual exchange between the god(s) and human being(s).

In Hinduism, many of the ritualistic duties (Dharma) still continue with its roots in the Vedic life. Many of these rituals are criticized by the priests and faithful of some later evolved but now dominant religions in the world without understanding or following the deep meaning or methodology behind such age-old rituals. In the process, they even forget that every action taken by them in pursuance of their socio-religious practices is also part of some ritual only, however simplified. In Hinduism, every rite and ritual is based on a logical and well-meaning principle which can be understood and appreciated through deep learning only. For Hindus, the prescribed rituals are important because Hinduism itself is more than anything a way of life. Also, it is not mandated that every one should perform every ritual; instead, people must use wisdom to learn and do what is important and relevant for them and the rest could be discreetly overlooked.

The Vedas talk of the Karmakanda and Jnanakanda: Nearly all Hindu ritualistic practices collectively fall under the former category while pursuance of the spiritual knowledge of Self (Atman) under the latter category. The Karma means action, Jnana means knowledge (of Self) and kanda implies to the parts of the Vedas dealing with the relevant discipline. As already explained in the earlier parts, the Vedas are comprised of four components. The first two components are called Samhitas and Brahmanas which deal with ritualistic knowledge while the latter two components namely Aranyakas and Upanishads deal with spiritual conduct i.e. the knowledge of the Self and Brahman. The Hindu householders have been advised by the scriptures not to ignore any of the two components in pursuance of the four goals (Purushartha) in the four phases (Varnashrama) of life.

Rituals and Recipients: Then and now

The common Hindu ritual include terms and actions like Yajna or Yagya, Homa, Puja, Vrata, Aradhana, Charya, Kriya, Nitya-karma, archana, Japa, Aarthi, Dhyana, Nidhi-dhyasana, etc. Though many of them have a religious connotation but all of them are not essentially religious in nature. Similarly, as mentioned earlier, they could be both external and internal; those which are physical and associated with the Karmakanda are external rituals while the ones mental and associated with Jnanakanda come under the category of internal rituals. These rites and rituals are collectively performed as means of general security, safety and wellbeing of self, family, community and now even nation as a whole as also with an aim of the transformation of self with the end goal of self-realization and liberation.

Now the question arises as to who is the actual recipient of the offerings. In Vedic age, the sacrificial ceremonies were offered to various natural deities like Indra, Surya, Agni, Vayu, Varuna, Mitra, Aditi, Yama, Soma, Sarasvati, Prithvi, Ushas, Rudra, etc. for the safety, well-being and prosperity of people. As per the standard practice in external rituals, the offerings were made to the fire god, Agni, who in turn passed it to different deities as per prevailing belief. The object of the internal rituals was Brahman, the Ultimate Reality, manifesting the entire universe. The Kalpa Sutras and Grihya Sutras provide an illustrated list of the natural deities whom daily offerings were made during the morning and evening oblations. With the passage of time, offerings to the natural deities gradually declined and ritualistic offerings are now commonly made to Vishnu, Shiva, Shakti, Krishna, Rama, Ganesha, Hanuman, etc., their consorts and associated deities, who are all considered manifested forms of Brahman, the Ultimate Reality only.

It is a fact that the ritualistic practices in Hinduism have been mostly derived from the ancient Vedic and Tantrik traditions. This is also undeniable fact that the overwhelming majority of the believers of these traditions have a resolute and unshakeable faith and their miraculous power to heal and return intended results. While the associated Karmakanda and beliefs have undergone many changes over the millennia so also the understanding thereof but those who has knowledge also know it that these rites and rituals have certain credible logic and scientific base. For illustration, while the dominant Abrahamic religions treat natural objects like Sun, Moon, Agni (fire), Jal (water) and Vayu (air), etc. as also other animal and plant life as objects created by God for the consumption of the believers (human beings) and their right to use it, the philosophy of Hinduism treated Brahman as the Ultimate Reality with powers of creation, preservation and destruction with the qualities of revelation and concealment as due and all universe as His material and spiritual extension. It is for this reason that many creations of God are revered as deities, sought their blessings through ritualistic offerings and utmost value is attached to non-violence.

In essence, the ritualistic offerings are believed to usher in peace and prosperity, good health and well-being, secure the seekers from evil eyes, envy and hostility, provide guidance for solving bothersome issues and vexing problems, and deter and eliminate enemies and evil forces. Sacrificial offerings are usually of three kinds, namely the Huta, Prahuta and Brahmana, depending upon the same made through the fire, without fire, or direct to the Brahmanas, respectively. In that context, the wood and other material placed in the sacrificial pit as also prayers, dissemination of the spiritual knowledge and giving away wealth, all fall in the category of Yajna. Scriptures say that even learning and dissemination of the knowledge of Vedas also fall under the sacrifice only. Shree Krishna has also revealed in the Srimad Bhagavad Gita that anything that is offered to Him by the devotee with devotion, even a flower, leaf or water, is acceptable with love.


Categories of Rites and rituals

Hindu householders indulge in various rites and ritual since birth to the death of the person, and in fact thereafter too for the liberation and peace of the departed soul. Apart from umpteen daily rituals, almost every significant event of the person’s life is marked by a specified ritual. Accordingly, depending upon the frequency of occurrence and significance of the event, the sacrificial rituals are categorized as daily, weekly, fortnightly, monthly, seasonal, annual and special. The important life events include sacramental rituals related to birth, initiation, marriage, after death, etc. Among Hindus, the Agni plays important role even after death as the mortal remains of the dead body is consigned to the flames as the last offering to Agni. Accordingly, the Hindu rituals could broadly be divided under five categories as follows:

1. Obligatory rituals:
Certain obligatory rites and rituals have been prescribed in Shastras about the duties and responsibilities of people depending upon their age, gender, birth and class/caste towards self and others in the world. They are considered mandatory and inescapable with its bearing on the person’s Karmic cycle. Accordingly, even Shree Krishna insisted on Karmayoga in Srimad Bhagavad Gita that essentially relates to sincerely perform obligatory duties with equipoised mind to escape karma-based consequences. Rituals associated with birth, initiation, marriage, death, etc. are obligatory ones.

2. Purificatory rituals:
Hindu scriptures prescribe many prayers in the form of hymns and mantras for the purification of the body and mind. These prayers with the associated rituals are believed to neutralise birth and karma related impurities and defects, sanctify homes, temples and other religious places, and so on. These rituals are believed to purify people, places and objects. Specifically prescribed Yajna and sacrificial offerings are associated with it.

3. Expiatory rituals:
The expiatory rituals are intendeds for the atonement of the past mistakes and sins committed while performing the obligatory duties, including the omissions and commissions in the sacrificial rituals, and/or outrageous conduct and behaviour. Ordinarily, seeking forgiveness from the deities is an essential part of the Vedic sacrificial ceremonies mostly towards the end of the ritualistic practice. Many Hindu law books also prescribe expiatory rituals in lieu of punishment to deal with criminal conduct of the individual. Yajna, Japa, Dana (Charity), etc. are done as expiatory rituals.

4. Curative rituals:
The curative rituals are usually carried out by the qualified priests to seek the intervention of gods to seek healing and protection of the people against illness, calamities, accidents and death, etc. The Vedas contain several hymns/mantras to invoke specific gods seeking their healing power and protection for the benefit of people suffering from various maladies.

5. Harmful rituals:
Although such rituals find mention in some Vedic hymns/mantras but they are predominantly carried out in the Tantric traditions of Hinduism. The intended objective of these rituals is to weaken the position of the rivals and adversaries by reducing their strength or weaken resolve or even to harm and destroy the enemies. As such rituals may carry harmful karmic effects on doer(s) too, their use is not recommended in normal circumstances. Many tantric rituals are carried out with destructive purpose in mind.

Relevance and Purpose of Sacrificial Rituals

In Hinduism, Samskara (sacrament) and rituals are closely intertwined together into human life. They are not only inseparable but also constitute an important component of the Hindu way of life. For illustration, the use of holy fire (Agni) in Hindu weddings is an inseparable feature and it cannot be held valid unless the relevant hymns/mantras are recited by the priest in the presence of Agni followed by the bride and groom together taking certain prescribed wedding rings around the holy fire. The spirit behind this ritual is that the gods serve as subtle witness along with family members and close relatives and friends so that the wedding partners are united through a divine covenant to ensure subsequent marriage obligations. Somewhat similar way various rituals are also associated with the birth, upanayana (thread ceremony), initiation, etc.

Hindu civilization has a fairly well recorded and verifiable history of over five thousand years in the post-Vedic period alone while the rituals are part of the Hindu way of life since the Vedic age. The association of gods by offerings through various rituals is also a way of ensuring that the human beings thereafter could not easily abandon their Dharma, which according to Hinduism was nothing but righteous duties and moral obligations. The moral fear of incurring displeasure or furry of gods certainly serves as deterrent to human beings in many cases to abide by the prescribed socio-religious codes and ethics. The obtaining rituals in Hinduism particularly serve the purpose of abiding and achieving first three goals of human life as prescribed under Purushartha, namely Dharma, Artha and Kama. However, as the physical rituals are the part of Karmakanda, they are not of much help in the pursuit of the last goal of life i.e. Moksha (liberation), as the mental rituals (Jnanakanda) are mandatory requirements in pursuit of the spiritual progress leading to liberation.

Notwithstanding the aforesaid limitations, the rites and rituals continue to play an important role in the life of common Hindus as obligatory duties of the human being in the world. The justification of the ritualistic practices come right from Vedas, the original and chief source of reliable Brahmanic knowledge in Hinduism. If we look from the Vedic perspective, rituals link human beings on the earth with the world of gods and ancestors while looking merely from the human perspective, the rituals enable them to fulfil their desires and objectives. To communicate with gods for the aforesaid purposes, human beings use Mantra, Yantra and Tantra (explained in earlier Part 37&38), which ensure the magical quality while the purity of thought, speech and action of seekers ensure the efficacy part. Another important purpose served by the ritualistic practices is to ensure that Hindus engage in dutiful Karma instead of selfish Karma by associating gods.

The continued relevance and importance of the sacrificial ceremonies among Hindus could be learnt in the following points:

  • This is indisputable in all religions of the earth that the world is a creation of God, where all the living and non-living things are closely linked and interdependent for their survival and existence. For instance, while human beings seek happiness and prosperity from gods, in turn, the latter also depend on the former for the food and water, which they receive through sacrifice made by humans. Human beings thus please gods through supplications and offerings. This is a deep philosophy which only Hindu rishis and seers could perceive and disseminate, and in turn enriched human beings with this knowledge and wisdom through scriptures.
  • The rituals by the householders are also a way to serve the needy and dependents in the world. The needy may include the poor and resourceless people while the dependents include the departed ancestors, sages and seers, and Brahmins/priests, who remain largely depended on the householders for their nourishment. The prescribed rituals serve as right medium and forum for the householders to provide food and other necessities through daily/periodical offerings.
  • In Hindu Shastras, human beings, particularly householders, are obligated to perform daily sacrifices by making offerings of food, water, clothes, etc. as a charitable cause to poor, destitute, weak and diseased, including even birds and animals. For the same reason, charity has been made an important aspect of Hindu rituals.
  • Human beings have evolved as the masters of the living world controlling nearly all resources. Consequently, they have also become by temperament self-centred and desire-ridden exploiting all-natural resources. Many mandatory rituals in Hinduism make it obligatory for them to part with a portion of their exploits through sacrifices for the welfare and livelihood of the less privileged beings. Also, in a way, this helps them to transcend their selfishness and attachment to worldly possessions through charity and philanthropy.
  • Hindu rituals also serve as a constant reminder that there is an almighty God in the universe above everything and overseeing everything. Thus, beyond just a stereotype action, the ritualistic practices under the influence of Dharma inculcate and enforce a sense of order and regularity for the common fear or reverence towards the God. The usual fear is that if they do not follow the prescribed scriptural guidelines for observing the code of conduct, that might bring misery and sufferance in life.
  • When people do sacrifices under the scriptural injunctions, this also ensures commonality of approach and conduct of the human beings in terms of the fellow feeling and cooperation among the various sections of the society leading to an all-round stability and general well-being of people and their families. 


Though the followers of some other dominant religions constantly criticize the traditional ancient rites and rituals of the Vedic age, many of which are still followed by the people in Hinduism, it is mainly because of their misplaced notions and oversimplification of the socio-religious concepts besides making it dogmatic by not allowing even any meaningful dialogue or discussion in the matter. The Vedic rituals are based on concrete logic and the material as well as spiritual science behind it and this is the reason that many of these practices have continues till date passing the tests of time. This averment is justifiably vindicated through many submissions made in the foregoing paragraphs about the categories, purposes and relevance, however briefly though.

The Sacrificial ceremonies and ritual worship are a means for the householders to perform their duties and meet their obligations, and not the end in themselves. In Upanishadic knowledge, Karmakanda are part of human lifecycle since birth but not the ideal means of Moksha (liberation). To strive for liberation, one needs to control desires rather than indulging in worldly comforts and pleasures and sincerely endeavour to refine Self through internal rituals (Jnanakanda). In Srimad Bhagavad Gita too, Shree Krishna has advised people to achieve the state of equanimity through an equipoised (desireless) mind while carrying out the worldly duties. Two other prescribed paths of liberation are Jnanayoga and Bhaktiyoga, the latter being the simplest in completely surrendering to God with the body and mind.

Continued to Part LViII


More by :  Dr. Jaipal Singh

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