Customs and Rituals in Hindu way of Life

Most of the Hindu customs are acts followed with a feeling of religiosity. From the cradle to the cremation ground, and for a time even after the body has been cremated the life of a Hindu is a round of customary rituals and ceremonies known as samskaras (sacraments). Regarding the exact number of these samskaras there is a great divergence of views among the smrti writers [ Ancient Hindu law-givers such as Manu, Gautama, Yajnavalkya and others.]. According to some, sixteen samskaras, as they are nitya (usual) must be performed, and the rest twenty-four as they are naimittika (special) ones are left to choice. They are observed by almost all castes, with the use of Vedic text by Brahmans and others, and with Pauranic text by the rest. The chief of these customary rituals are those at birth, thread-girding, marriage, pregnancy and death. The garbhadhana (girl-wife’s coming of age) ceremony, which used to be once performed separately and with great pomp as then girls were married at an early age, has now become a part of the marriage rite and receives scant attention.

Birth.

For her first confinement the young wife generally goes to her parents’ house. It is her privilege to do so. As a rule a pregnant woman is given whatever food she desires for and her longings (dohale) are noticed and promptly satisfied by the family elders. She is, however, advised to abstain from abnormally hot or hard- to-digest food. At the inception of labour-pains she repairs to an inner chamber in the house which has been swept clean and kept warm, dim-lighted and free from draught. A midwife generally known to the family and reputed for her skill in midwifery is called in and she attends the parturient from then onwards for ten or more days. The delivery usually takes place on the floor, no cot being used. After delivery, the position of the mother is not changed for some time. If the child is a boy the midwife beats a metal dish and the joyful news is carried to friends and kinsfolk with distribution of packets of sugar. When parturition is delayed so to cause anxiety, it is still a practice among the ignorant to solicit help of bhagats or mantriks for their esoteric charms or specific prescriptions. As soon as the child is born cold water is sprinkled over it to ‘awaken’ it. After a while the midwife ties the child’s umbilical cord with a cotton thread a few inches away from the navel and severs it with a knife, touches the wound with ashes and lays the child on a supa (winnowing fan). She then rubs the mother and child with turmeric and oil, bathes them with hot water, swathes the child in cloth bandages and leaves them to rest on a cot under which a small fire of live coals is set. The mother is given butter and myrrh pills, and the child is dosed with a few drops of castor oil and honey. Myrrh-incense is burnt and waved all over and the mother is purified with a fumigation of Vavding (Embelia ribes) and Balant-shopa (anise) in the room. All visitors sprinkle some drops of cow’s urine on their feet before entering the lying-in room as a precaution against evil spirits trying to enter with them. The after-birth is put in an earthen pot with a pice, a little turmeric and red powder, and buried in a hole dug outside the mother’s room and near the bath-water drain. The mother starts suckling the child only from the fourth day and the child is for the first three days nursed by giving it the end of a rag resting in a saucer of rice-broth and molasses to suck. During the period the mother is fed on saltless vegetarian diet. On the fourth day the mother and the child undergo a special bath and thence the mother starts suckling the child, herself taking to a full nutritious diet.

Panchavi and Sathi.

The first ritual as such in an infant’s life comes on the night of the fifth or sixth day after birth. The ceremony is known as the worship of Pancavi (Mother Fifth) and Sathi (Mother Sixth) and is observed among all communities. It is not a Vedic samskara and as such the configuration worshipped and the offerings made differ according to region, community and family. But a common belief exists that those nights are full of danger to the new-born child, and only by worshipping Mother Fifth and Sixth can the child be saved from convulsive seizures and most other forms of disease which are believed to be the work of evil spirits lurking in the lying-in room to attack the child.

The mother is held impure for ten days and no one except the midwife touches her. The family observes suher (ceremonial impurity) for the period. On the eleventh day the mother and the child are given a purificatory hath, their clothes washed and the whole house is cleaned. The walls and the ground of the lying-in room are smeared with a mixture of cowdung and water, the bathing place is washed and turmeric, red powder, flowers and lighted lamp are laid near it. The midwife is presented with a lugade, coli and money. The mother is cleansed of the impurity by a sprinkle of pancagavya or tulasi water, and men change their sacred thread. Many of these practises, however, get naturally avoided in case the woman has her delivery in a modern nursing home or lying-in hospital which now-a-days forms part of urban life and necessity.

In rural parts the mother worships the well when she goes thereto fetch water for the first time after her parturition. She offers turmeric and red powder to the well, makes obeisance and returns home with a well-cleaned pot filled with water.

The Naming.

The barse or naming ceremony which is generally held on the 12th day in the evening after birth is an important event in the child’s life. The karnavedha (boring of the ear-lobes) ceremony may take place in the morning that day or it may be postponed to the sixth or twelfth month. In the evening women neighbours, friends and kinswomen who are invited to attend the naming drop in, each with a present for the child and the mother. The child is then ceremonially cradled and named and the function closes with the distribution of boiled gram and packets of sweetmeat to the assembled.

Chaula.

The next ritual consists of the hair-cutting ceremony known as caula or cudakarana as mentioned in the Hindu Samskaras. It is also customary with many Hindu backward communities to give ceremonial attention to the first shaving or cutting of the child’s hair (javal) and is based on the belief that the hair with which the child is born are impure. At present among Brahmans the rite is usually gone through in the case of boys at the time of upanayana (thread-girding).

Among the well-to-do it is customary to celebrate the child’s birthday every month during the first year and then annually for some years. Even the various stages of development in the child, such as, learning to turn on one side, crawling, sitting, standing, etc., are sometimes celebrated by the family with feasting.

Thread-girding.

The thread-girding ceremony or munja as it is popularly known is a samskara prescribed for all Hindus claiming a place in the first three varnas (caste-groups). In essence it is a purificatory rite initiating a boy to bramhacaryasram (stage of student-hood). In Kolaba the castes besides Brahmans which are supposed to gird their boys with sacred thread are Prabhus and Sonars. Recently the ceremony is found to have been observed by Varus. Marathas generally are not known to perform the ceremony but some wear the sacred thread renewing it yearly in the month of Sravana. The Caukalshis wear the sacred thread during the marriage ceremony but at no other time.

On going through this ceremony the boy becomes a brahmacari (an unwed religious student) and from then one should pursue Vedic study at the feet of his guru for some years, completing which, should undergo the samavartana (return) ceremony. But, as the present custom goes, the samavartana or the sod-munj ceremony as it is called, follows the thread-girding without much lapse of time, the whole ceremony coming to a close within a day.

In order to convey an idea of the rites of upanayana in the days of the grhya sutras the ceremony as contained in the Asv. gr. sutra (which is among the shortest) is set out here in full: “Let him initiate the boy who is decked, whose hair (on the head) is shaved (and arranged), who wears a new garment or an antelope skin if a brahman, ruru skin if a ksatriya, goat’s skin if a vaisya; if they put on garments they should put on dyed ones, reddish-yellow, red and yellow (for a brahmana, ksatriya, vaisya respectively), they should have girdles and staffs (as described above). While the boy takes hold of (the hand of) his teacher, the latter offers (a homa of clarified butter oblations) in the fire (as described above) and seats himself to the north of the fire with his face turned to the east, while the other one (the boy) stations himself in front (of the teacher) with his face turned to the west. The teacher then fills the folded hands of both himself and of the boy with water and with the verse ‘we choose that of Savitr’ (Rg. V. 82.1) the teacher drops down the water in his own folded hands on to the water in the folded hands of the boy; having thus poured the water, he should seize with his own hand the boy’s hand together with the thumb (of the boy) with the formula ‘by the urge (or order) of the god Savitr, with the arms of the two Asvins, with the hands of Pusan, I seize thy hand, oh! so and so; with the words ‘Savitr has seized thy hand, oh so and so’ a second time (the teacher seizes the boy’s hand); with the words ‘Agni is thy teacher oh so and so’ a third time. The teacher should cause (the boy) to look at the sun, while the teacher repeats ‘God Savitr! this is thy brahmacari, protect him, may he not die’ and (the teacher should further) say ‘Whose brahmacari art thou? thou art the brahmacari of Prana. Who does initiate thee and whom (does he initiate?) I give thee to Ka (to Prajapati). With the half verse (Rg. III 8.4.) ‘the young man, well attired and dressed, came hither’ he (the teacher) should cause him to turn round to the right and with his two hands placed over (the boy’s) shoulders he should touch the place of the boy’s heart repeating the latter half (of Rg. III. 8.4). Having wiped the ground round the fire the brahmacri should put (on the fire) a fuel stick silently, since it is known (from sruti) ‘what belongs to Prajapati is silently (done)’, and the brahmacari belongs to Prajapati. Some do this (offering of a fuel stick) with a mantra ‘to Agni I have brought a fuel stick, to the great Jatavedas; by the fuel stick mayst thou increase, Oh Agni and may we (increase) through brahman (prayer or spiritual lore), svaha’. Having put the fuel stick (on the fire) and having touched the fire, he (the student) thrice wipes off his face with the words ‘I anoint myself with lustre.’ ‘May Agni bestow on me, insight, offspring and lustre; on me may Indra bestow insight, offspring and vigour (indriya); on me may the sun bestow insight, offspring and radiance; what thy lustre is, Oh Agni, may I thereby become strong; what thy consuming power is, Oh Agni may I thereby acquire consuming power. Having waited upon (worshipped) Agni with these formulas, (the student) should bend his knees, embrace (the teacher’s feet) and say to him ‘recite, Sir, recite, Sir, the Savitri’. Seizing the student’s hands with the upper garment (of the student) and his own hands the teacher recites the Savitri, first pada by pada, then hemistich by hemistich (and lastly) the whole verse. He (the “teacher) should make him (the student) recite (the Savitri) as much as he is able. On the place of the student’s heart the teacher lays his hand with the fingers upturned; may Brhaspati appoint thee unto me’. Having tied the girdle mind follow my mind; may you attend on my words single minded; may Brhaspati appoint thee unto me’. Having tied the girdle round him (the boy) and having given him the staff, the teacher should instruct him in the observances of a brahmacari with the words ‘a brahmacari art thou, sip water, do service, do not sleep by day, depending (completely) on the teacher learn the Veda’. He (the student) should beg (food) in the evening and the morning; he should put a fuel stick (on fire) in the evening and the morning. That (which he has received by begging) he should announce to the teacher; he should not sit down (but should be standing) the rest of the day.” [P. V. Kane, History of Dharmahastra, Vol. II, Part 1, p. 281.]

Marriage.

Hindus consider vivaha (marriage) as one of the sarirasam-skaras (sacraments sanctifying the body) through each of which every man and woman must pass at the proper age and time, and as such they think it is obligatory on every person to marry. As a sacrament a marriage can be established only after undergoing certain rites and ceremonies, and these marriage rituals, at least among the higher castes are the same as elsewhere with minor variations. The present-day customs and ceremonial practices observed by Hindus regarding marriage fall in three broad classes, viz., (1) The traditional form generally used by professional priests for conducting marriage ceremonies of Brahmans and allied Classes. It is mainly based on rites prescribed in the grhyasutras and in it Vedic mantras are freely used. (2) The pauranika form which is essentially the same as (1) but in it Puranic mantras instead of Vedic ones are used. (3) Modern forms which are variants of (1) and (2) and preached by sponsors of movements of reformism or revivalism among the people [ Following instituted bodies are known to have preached such forms:- (1) Arya Samaj, (2) Prarthana Samaj, (3) Satya Shodhak Samaj, (4) Hindu Dharma Nirnaya Mandal, and (5) Hindu Missionary Society.]. Even when the ceremony is celebrated in the traditional way, the general tendency now-a-days, is towards curtailing ritualistic details to the extent of winding up the ceremony in a day or two thereby aligning it with the modern form.

A marriage alliance is arranged or settled generally by the parents or guardians of the groom and the bride concerned, and as Kanyadana or giving a daughter in marriage is considered meritorious among the higher castes, it is always the bride’s parents or relatives that take the initiative in the match-making. Social conditions, however, among advanced classes have now changed a great deal. Among them a practice of letting the would be couple to go for a walk and be together to know each other is followed. But this is an innovation and not the people’s custom. The custom of consulting and comparing horoscopes of the girl and the boy is gradually falling into disuse, as the parents of the couple hold that considerations of dowry or good looks are more important than the agreement of stars, and settle the marriages according to the pritivivaha or love form in which no consultation of horoscopes is required. Monetary considerations almost invariably dominate a marriage settlement. But regarding it no uniform rule prevails. Some castes put a price on the bride, others on the bridegroom and there are some who do not put a price on either of the two. Generally among higher castes hunda (dowry or property which a woman brings to her husband) is paid by. the bride’s parents to the bridegroom. Among castes not in the first flight the bride’s parents usually take deja (bride-price). It may be noted here that the dowry demanded from the bride’s father is under the guise of vara daksina-money the donee receives from the donor to fulfil the purpose of a dana (gift). In some communities, especially among the middle class educated families of the Kayastha Prabhus in the district, dowry forms a supervening consideration in a marriage settlement. Among high class Marathas marriage is very costly. The bride’s father must give a large dowry to the bridegroom, and in return the bridegroom’s father must present valuable ornaments to the bride. Even the well-to-do gets harassed if he has many daughters. In proportion to the position of the family, the father has to spend on his daughter’s marriage, running into debt from which he seldom frees himself.

Marriage Rules.

According to the orthodox way of life there exist a number of restrictions on a marriage selection. Rules of endogamy (i.e., rules restricting marriage within the group) prohibit marriage outside the caste or sub-caste; rules of exogamy which operate within the endogamous group prohibit marriage between sapindas (blood relations), sagotras and sapravaras (same eponymous groups). Brahmans and allied communities generally claim gotras and pravaras and abide by gotra and pravara exogamy. Non-Brahman communities have kuli (stock), devak (totem) and surnames as exogamous divisions. Maratha families have devaks or sacred symbols, which appear to have been originally totems, and affect marriage to the extent that a man cannot marry a woman whose devak reckoned on the male side is the same as his own. The religious restriction on sapindas is extended to seven degrees on the father’s side and five degrees on the mother’s side, but the prohibited degrees of kindred for marriage beyond the agnates (related on the father’s side) vary according to the custom of the community. Marriages among families of the same gotra are now made permissible under the Hindu Marriage Act, 1955, but marriages among, sapindas are totally prohibited by law as well as by custom. As regards cross-cousin unions, except that of the brother’s daughter with the sister’s son which is tolerated or even preferred among some castes other types are generally disallowed. Marriage with a wife’s sister is allowed, and brothers may marry girls who are sisters. Polygamy, which was once allowed and practised, is now prohibited by law [Social usage in relation to these marriage rules is being considerably affected by recent legal enactments, namely, (1) the Child Marriage Restraints Act of 1929, as amended by Act XIX of 1938, which prohibits marriage of boys under 18 years of age, and girls under 14 years of age; (2) the Hindu Marriage Disabilities Removal Act (XXVIII of 1946), which validates marriages between parties (a) belonging to the same gotra or pravara or (b) belonging to different sub-divisions of the same caste; and now the extensive alterations made by legislation embodied in the Hindu Marriage Act, 1955, abrogates and over-rides all the rules of Hindu Law concerning marriage previously applicable to Hindus.].

Wedding.

When primary negotiations are complete the formal ceremonies of vadhu pariksa (inspection of the bride) and sakharpuda (betrothal) are gone through. On an auspicious day a select party on the boy’s side arrange to visit the girl’s house with due notice, and there at a tea-party on interviewing the girl make her a present of an ornament and new cloth (sadi, etc.,) and distribute sweets among the assembled as a mark of their approval. The fathers of the bride and the bridegroom settle the dowry (vara daksina) and the presents (varopacara) to be given to the bridegroom by the bride’s father. These items may be entered into an agreement and its copies marked with kunkum and exchanged between the two fathers. The muhurta auspicious day and hour for the wedding, is then determined. and fixed giving due consideration to the tdrdbala, candrabala (i.e., the happy and powerful influence of the birth-stars) of the wedding couple.

The friends and relations of the bride and the bridegroom now start giving each kelvan (congratulatory) feasts. Lagna-mandaps, marriage pandals, are erected at both the houses. Printed invitation cards or letters are distributed or posted, and a formal invitation ceremony and procession called aksat may take place a day or two before the marriage. Halad, i.e., besmearing the boy and the girl with turmeric powder is considered as an important ceremony among the lpwer castes.

On the marriage day or on the day previous, as a prelude to the vivaha (wedlock) ceremony a number of propitiatory rites are gone through both at the bride’s and the bridegroom’s. Punyahavacana (holy day blessing) which is conjoined with devakasthapana (guardian-enshrining) and in which the boy and his parents (and the girl and her parents at the girl’s house) participate is performed at about seven in the morning. This is followed by nandi-sraddha, an auspicious rite requesting the spirits of the forefathers to be present in the house and bless the wedding, and mandapa-devata pratistha, i.e., establishing the booth-spirits. When the time for marriage draws near, the girl’s father accompanied by his priest goes to the boy’s house, and gives him formal invitation to his house to hold the marriage.

Meanwhile the bride who may be clad in the orthodox fashion in yellow sadi known as astaputri or vadhuvastra and a short sleeved backless bodice, sits before Gaurihar (the marriage god which is an image of Siva and his consort Gauri) in the house, throws a few grains of rice and sesamum over the image, and prays with words, “Gauri, Gauri grant me a happy wifehood and long life to him who is coming to my door.”

In the actual marriage ceremony, there are numerous stages of which, the following are the principal:-(1) Simantapujana, i.e., reception and adoration of the bridegroom at the entrance of the town. (2) Vadhugrha-gamanam, i.e., going to the place of the bride. (3) Madhuparka, i.e., a respectful offering made to a guest or the bride-groom on his arrival at the door of the father of the bride. (4) Parasparaniriksna, i.e., the ceremony of gazing at each other through the screen called antarpat, and of garlanding the bride-groom by the bride. (5) Kanyadana, i.e., the ceremony of giving the girl in marriage. (6) Vivahahoma, i.e., offering of oblation by throwing ghee into the sacred fire in honour of the marriage. (7) Panigrahana, i.e., ceremony of taking by the hand. (8) Lajahoma, i.e., throwing parched grains into the consecrated fire. (9) Saptapadi, i.e., the ceremony of bride and bride-groom walking together seven steps round the sacred fire after which the marriage becomes irrevocable.

The vivahahoma ending in saptapadi is the operative and essential portion of the ceremony. On completion of the last step the actual marriage is considered to be complete. The concluding ceremonies that follow are varat, the homeward return of the bridegroom with the bride in a procession, and grahapravesh, i.e.. the ceremonial home-entering of the newly wed.

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