|Hindu Dharma an Introduction - page5|
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B2 Samskāras: Sacraments to Mark Passages
Sacraments called samskāras punctuate the life cycle of the individual and have greater religious significance than pūjā. A standard list cites 16 samskāras, but in other sources samskāras range in number from a maximum of about 40 to a minimum of 2, marriage and death. The number varies with varna and gender.
The samskāras cluster in the early phases of life, including the prenatal phase. Four samskāras occur between birth and the beginning of studies at about age five. At birth a simple ceremony welcomes and blesses the newborn. The naming of the child, a significant event, occurs shortly after birth. Then come the taking of the first solid food and the first ritual shaving of the head. When the child is ready to study the Vedas (sacred Hindu scriptures), the major samskāra of upanayana occurs. In the course of it, the child receives a sacred thread and chants a mantra whispered into the child’s ear: “Let us meditate on the glorious splendor of enlivening Sun-god. May he inspire our minds.” In early times, a Hindu boy traditionally moved to the home of a guru (teacher) to study the Vedas after the upanayana samskāra. After completing study of the Vedas, the student shaved the hair and was ready for marriage.
A Hindu wedding consists of ceremonies performed over several days, culminating in the joining of the bride and groom. As part of the marriage samskāra, a knot is tied to join the bride’s and the groom’s garments, after which they walk around a sacred fire seven times. The sacred fire serves as a witness to the vows exchanged between the bride and the bridegroom. They then take seven steps together, symbolizing friendship and emphasizing the idea of companionship in marriage. To strengthen the union, the bride and groom place their right hands on each other’s heart; the groom then recites a prayer from the Vedas, “I give you my heart. May our minds be as one.” At the end of this ritual the pair become man and wife. Additional rites before and after the main Hindu marriage ritual vary from region to region.
The sacrament of death calls for cremation (burning of the dead body), at the end of which the ashes are collected and deposited, usually by the side of or in a river. For ten days after cremation, family members offer rice balls to the person who has departed. This offering provides a good example of the persistence of ritual in Hindu tradition: The rice symbolizes growth and is meant to provide the person with a body in which to dwell in the world of the ancestors. The alternative, while waiting for the next birth, is the less pleasant prospect of wandering in the world of ghosts. These actions are required only of the Hindu householder and do not apply to the renunciate.
B3 Other Domestic Rituals
Some Hindu rituals are performed to obtain a specific reward, according to instructions in the Vedas. Such rewards include securing a suitable life partner, conceiving a child, or attaining wealth, as well as warding off negative outcomes.
C Communal Worship
Household religious activities involve the family or an individual member of the family. Other Hindu religious activities involve a larger community. A cluster of families may have a shrine where they worship periodically. Beyond the family and the cluster of families lies the village. At the village level, worship of the favored deity of the village dominates. From the village level, worship moves to public rituals, which may be performed at temples and other sacred sites or at sacred times.
C1 Temple Worship
Rituals performed at temples, like household rituals, may be described as those that take place daily, nitya; those performed on specific occasions, naimitikka; and those performed voluntarily, kāmya. Hindu temples are dedicated to a deity or several deities who are believed to preside over the temple. Hindus visit temples to worship the temple deity or to worship another deity of their choosing by means of these three types of rituals. As at household shrines, they worship sculptures or painted images of the presiding deity and make offerings.
Basic rituals performed daily at most Hindu temples include rousing the deity from sleep at dawn, making the deity available for worship and offerings by visitors at midday, and putting the deity to bed at dusk. At some temples, the additional rituals of bathing and feeding the deity take place between dawn and midday. These rituals express the personal nature of Hindu love of and devotion to their deities.
Naimittika at temples is an occasion for carrying about the image of the temple deity. For example, a festival at the temple of Jagannātha in the town of Puri celebrates the god Jagannātha’s annual visit to his birthplace, the temple site, in his chariot. More than 4,000 celebrants pull the god’s wooden chariot, which stands about 14 m (45 ft) high. The English word juggernaut comes from Jagannātha. Public processions and festivals at the temples of Rāma and Krishna mark the birthdays of these avatars of Vishnu.
Kāmya pūjā is typically performed at temples to gain a specific end. A visitor to a temple might request the performance of pūjā, or daily prayers, at the temple and make a donation for that purpose.
C2 Sacred Sites
Hindus consider the entire Earth, as well as the Indian land mass known as mother India (Bhārata Mātā), to be sacred. This view once found expression in such practices as visiting the four corners of India as represented by the pilgrimage sites of Badrinath to the north, Puri to the east, Rameshvaram to the south, and Dwarka to the west. Hindus make pilgrimages to sacred sites in the hope of cleansing themselves of sins and lessening their karmic debt.
Certain parts of India are held in special veneration. For example, Hindu tradition regards seven cities as holy: Ayodhyā (the birthplace of Rāma); Mathurā (where Krishna grew up); Haridwār (where the Ganges River widens onto a plain); Kāsī (sacred to Shiva); Kāñcī (associated with the Hindu philosopher Shankara); Avanti or Ujjain (site of the temple of Mahākāla); and Puri (associated with the later life of Krishna).
Other sacred Hindu locations involve rivers and events in Hindu epics. Particular regions also have their own sacred locations. Certain sites in India are sacred because of their association with the Great Goddess, Devi, who takes many forms. In the form of Devi Satī, according to legend, her dismembered body parts fell on 51 locations that became sacred to worshipers of Shakti (the female aspect of the divine). The Jvālā Mukhī Temple near Jullundur, for example, is said to represent her tongue. Worshipers visit the Kāmākshya Temple in Assam to partake of her cosmic energy.
C3 Sacred Times
Religious festivals dot the Hindu calendar. A number of them commemorate events in the great Sanskrit epic Rāmāyana (Way of Rāma) or in the life of Krishna. The timing of these festivals is related to the movements of the Sun and the Moon.
An important festival known as the Dassera marks the victory of Prince Rāma over the demon king Rāvana in a struggle between good and evil that is related in the Rāmāyana. Dassera takes place in September or October and is followed by Diwāli (also known as Deepvali), the festival of lights. Diwāli commemorates events that restored truth and light in early times: the victorious return of Rāma with his bride Sītā to Ayodhyā in the north and the victory of Krishna over the monster Narakāsura in the south.
The festival of Holi celebrates the arrival of spring in February or March. During this festival people spray each other with colored powders and colored water, forget the cares of winter, and rejoice in the onset of spring. A popular family festival, Raksābandhana, occurs in July or August and renews the bonds of affection between brothers and sisters. Sisters tie lucky threads around the wrists of brothers and are rewarded with gifts. Other important festivals are Shiva-ratri, the night sacred to Shiva when worshipers recite prayers to be freed of sins, and Ganesha-Chaturthi, dedicated to the elephant god Ganesha, when worshipers recite prayers to remove obstacles in their lives. Shiva-ratri falls in the winter months, and Ganesha-Cahturthi in August or September. Among the major regional festivals are the Dolāyātrā, a spring festival in the eastern state of Orissa; Pongal, a winter festival in southern India; and Onam, a harvest festival in the southwestern state of Kerala.
C4 Satsanga: Fellowship
A popular form of participation in religious life is the satsanga, which literally means keeping company with sat (truth and goodness). The satsanga may consist of Hindus who gather for discussions of Hindu scripture or of a circle of devotees who have formed around a saintly figure. A saint (“sant” in Sanskrit) in Hinduism in someone who has realized the truth and attained recognition from the community for doing so. Other forms of worship that occur at satsangas are chanting or singing, especially devotional songs called bhajans. On religious occasions the chanting the om sound is considered particularly holy.
C5 Om: Sacred Symbol and Sacred Sound
The sacred syllable om or aum functions at many levels. Hindus chant it as a means of meditating on the ultimate reality and connecting with the innermost self (ātman) and Brahman. At one level, om possesses a vibrational aspect apart from its conceptual significance. If pronounced correctly, its vibrations resonate through the body and penetrate the ātman. At another level, the three sounds that constitute the syllable—a, u, and m—have been associated with the states of waking, dreaming, and deep sleep, states to which all life can be reduced. Thus, by repeating the syllable the chanter passes through all three states. Other associations of the three sounds are with the three states of the cosmos—manifestation, maintenance, and dissolution—and with the three aspects of Ishvara who preside over these cosmic states: Brahmā, Vishnu, and Shiva. Om thus functions at a practical level as a mantra and at a cosmic level as signifying the trinity.
C6 Guru: Teacher
Spiritual authority in Hinduism flows from enlightened sages called gurus. The guru is someone who has attained realization and acts as a guide for other human beings. He or she guides the individual seeker of truth and self-realization to the appropriate deity, practice, or yoga within Hinduism. The disciple’s goal is to transcend the need for a guru through direct experience of the divine and self-awareness. Having a guide is considered critical for traversing the complexities of spiritual practice and self-discovery. The guru thus constitutes an important center of spiritual activity in Hinduism. Numerous Hindu hymns express adoration for the guru.
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