Often I come across people who say things like: “I’m not religious but I’m spiritual,” “I like the philosophy of Hinduism but I don’t know why we have all these rituals,” or “If we can rid our religion of all superstitions and rituals, then it would become relevant.” I must confess that at one point of time, I too had similar thoughts.
I grew up watching my grandmother clean the floor with cow-dung after we finished eating and the banana leaves were discarded. We were taught to clean up thoroughly after a visit to the toilet, but then we’d see the floor being wiped with shit. Only later I realized that it was an age-old practice carried out when people lived in houses with mud floors. The cow-dung acted as a sort of disinfectant. But the cow-dung on the tiled floor of my grandmother’s house looked like anything but a disinfectant. The context of the ritual was forgotten but the practice remained. This is true of many rituals that we find around us.
While the practice might have become irrelevant in some cases, the rituals themselves have a certain beauty in and by themselves. If we can understand their significance, then we will be able to upgrade the practice without letting go of the sentiment. But if we don’t, then we would either blindly follow it or abandon it altogether – in both cases, it is our loss.
An important set of rituals in Hinduism is the sixteen samskaras (loosely translates into “sacraments” or “rituals of preparation”). These are a set of rituals at significant points of time in a person’s life. As you read through this list, consider the value of each ritual and see if you could replace the practice with something more relevant to modern times.
- Vivaha / Marriage – This is considered the most important samskara in the Hindu tradition and is conducted in many ways, depending on the community.
- Garbhadhana / Prayer for children – This is a prayer before conception (typically after menstruation). The wife invites her husband to have sex with her and give her good offspring.
- Pumsavana / Prayer for the fetus – Once the woman finds out that she is pregnant, her husband serves her a special dish, praying for the healthy growth of the baby.
- Simantonnayana / Baby shower – In an advanced stage of pregnancy, relatives and friends of the expectant mother come together to bring her cheer.
- Jatakarma / Celebrating birth – Once the child is born, a ritual is performed to welcome the child to the world. The father whispers a prayer into the ear of the newborn, telling the child to suck the truth as if it were his mother’s milk.
- Namakarana / Giving a name – On the tenth or eleventh day after birth, the relatives and friends come together; during this ceremony the name of the child is formally announced.
- Nishkramana / First outing – In the third or fourth month, the child is first taken outside the home and shown a sunrise or a sunset (or taken to a temple).
- Annaprashana / First meal – In the sixth month, once the teeth begin to develop, the child is given solid food for the first time.
- Karnavedha / Piercing the ear-lobes – In the seventh month, the ear-lobes of the child are pierced accompanied by prayers that ask for the child to hear bliss through her ears.
- Chudakarana / Shaving the head – When the child is a year old, the head is shaved and nails are cut. This rite symbolizes the child’s entry into personal hygiene.
- Vidyarambha / Beginning of education – When the child is about five years old, she is introduced to the letters of the alphabet. This might also include prayers to goddess Sarasvati and lord Ganesha.
- Upanayana / Entry into school – When the child was about eight, he would be given a sacred thread to wear and taught the Gayatri mantra. This marked his entry into formal education.
- Vedarambha / Introduction to the Vedas – For those who were allowed to study the Vedas, this rite (typically a yajna conducted along with the guru) marked the student’s entry into Vedic knowledge.
(Note: For those who were not allowed Vedic education, there might have been similar rites to mark the entry of the child into a school.)
- Keshanta and Ritushuddhi / Puberty rites – In the case of boys, shaving their facial hairs and in the case of girls, the celebration of menarche.
- Samavartana / Graduation – After spending about twelve years in the house of the teacher, the student would graduate. A ritual bath marked the completion of his education.
- Antyeshti / Funeral rites – Upon death of the person, the dead body is typically consigned to flames on a wooden pyre. The rituals accompanying the death go on for thirteen days after the death.
The numerous Dharmashastra texts vary greatly with respect to the details of the samskaras as well as which ones are to be performed. Often the practice depends on the customs of the different communities. The outstanding feature of these detailed rites and practices is that our ancients had such reverence towards every significant moment in a person’s life. Human life was seen as a grand celebration and prayers were recited to ensure that there are no obstacles to the celebration.
While today’s world doesn’t offer much time for elaborate rituals, it is definitely worthwhile to consider celebrating the wonderful moments in our lives with our loved ones. And even on a daily basis, one might not have the time or the inclination to engage in elaborate worship or prayers but at least we might consider 10-15 minutes of alone time either for meditation or for reflection or to dip ourselves into some form of art. By doing this, for those brief minutes, we disconnect ourselves from the rush of the mundane world and become one with something more timeless!
This article was first published in Daily O as part of my column Commonsense Karma.