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A Hindu Perspective on Ritual

Seeta Lakhani's picture

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The Hindu calendar is filled with many different festivals that are of differing degree of importance to different believers, depending on the form of Hinduism they adhere to and the part of India from which their family originates. There are, however, a number of major festivals that all Hindus participate in, regardless of their particular persuasion. The dates of almost all Hindu festivals are determined by the lunar calendar and so the date in the solar calendar will vary year on year, but as with Easter in the West the variance is within a 28-day period. The main festivals of the Hindu calendar are firstly Diwali (October/November), which is really a celebration of the new year although there are a number of religious elements attached to it, Shiva-ratri (February/March) dedicated to the worship of Shiva, Krishna Janmashthami (August/September) which celebrates Vishnu's appearance on earth as Krishna, and Nava-ratri (September/October), the festival of nine nights dedicated to Parvati, the great goddess. There are many other festivals as well, which may be of greater importance to Hindus who are members of the sub-groups that exist within the wider tradition.


Ritual acts


Hinduism also includes a huge range of ritual acts and has many priests or Brahmins whose main function is to enact the rituals on behalf of the community as a whole. In ancient times, the main ritual performed by the priests was the yajña or havan, the fire sacrifice in which offerings were presented to the Vedic gods through the flames of the sacred fire. Although this ritual is recommended and explained in the Vedas, for Hindus the most authoritative scriptures, it is only occasionally performed today. On special occasions such as weddings or the beginning of new enterprises, Brahmin priests who have been properly trained in the performance of Vedic ritual will still perform the fire sacrifice, but today the real centre of Hindu ritual is the mandir (Hindu temple) or even the home. Here a different kind of ritual is performed that is nor directly derived from the Vedas and involves the worship of sacred images through ritual offerings.


It is hard to say exactly when or why the nature of Hindu ritual changed so dramatically from fire sacrifice to temple worship but it probably had something to do with the rise of monotheistic forms of Hinduism dedicated to Vishnu or Shiva. Images representing these forms of God are created by trained craftsmen and then installed in a temple building. For thousands of years Hindus have been constructing such temples on a large scale and we can still see these magnificent structures today, with their soaring towers and decorated gateways. The south of India in particular is noted for these wonderful monuments of classical Indian architecture.


The murti-puja


Hindus hold a variety of beliefs and attitudes concerning the worship of sacred images, a ritual practice that is known as murti-puja, literally image worship. There are some Hindus who dismiss the practice altogether, arguing that it is not a Vedic ritual and questioning whether God can actually be present in an image composed of matter and created by human beings. Other Hindus believe that although the image worshipped in the temple is not actually a manifestation of God, it can function as a symbol of the divine that provides a focus for our devotions. The nature of God revealed by the Upanishads, the philosophical part of the Vedas, is of an absolute, inconceivable Deity who is completely beyond our range of comprehension. Because we can have no idea of the true nature of God the sacred image provides us with a symbolic representation that we can use as a substitute until we can gain the higher realisation. Those whose spiritual faculties are awakened become aware of the higher divine reality and they no longer need to worship the sacred image, but for the rest of us it is a valuable means of advancing along the path.


Whilst Hindus will frequently confirm this symbolic understanding of murti-puja, the traditional teaching is rather different and there are still many, many Hindus who do believe that the sacred image is an actual manifestation of God. In the ancient Sanskrit texts devoted to temple worship it is explained how the ritual known as prana-pratishtha, the establishing of life, is to be performed. In this ritual the priests request the Deity to become present within the image and it is believed that God will then appear and bring life to the image so that the worshippers can actually enter the divine presence in a temple and can make offerings to the image so as to express their devotion to God. The rituals performed by the priests within the temple consist primarily of the making of offerings to the Deity who is present in his murti form. These offerings take the form of cooked food, water, flowers, incense, jewellery, garlands, clothing and scents. Of course God does not need such offerings, but by becoming present in the form of the sacred image he gives the devotees an opportunity to express their devotion in this overt manner. After they have been presented to the image by the priests, the items used in the worship are considered to be blessed and are returned to the worshippers as sacred items. Every day in the temples, offerings are made at scheduled times regardless of whether or not worshippers choose to attend. The ritual is performed for the service of God and the participation of any congregation is optional. Some may choose to attend the service for its full duration whilst others will come in just for a few minutes to make a personal prayer; for the worshipper it is very much an individual act.


The Hindu practice of image worship has been subjected to criticism from members of other religions for whom rituals of that type are forbidden. Questions are asked as to how a created image can be regarded as a Deity, but the answer is that God agrees to be present in this form as an act of grace to allow the devotees to worship him in an easy and practical manner. Other Hindus will point out that all religions have sacred symbols for their members to revere – holy places, shrines, books, icons, etc – and Hindus are acting in the same way by showing reverence to a physical object that symbolically represents the transcendent God.


The purpose of ritual


Hindus believe in reincarnation and they see the good and bad fortune we experience in this world as the result of previous acts. For the most part, good fortune is regarded as being the result of virtue and moral conduct, but religious rituals are also accepted as efficacious in shaping one's future karma in a positive manner. It is believed that contact with sacred objects can purge an individual of the effects of unrighteous deeds so that he will not have to suffer the future result, and this is one of the reasons why Hindus seek contact with the temple offerings after they have been presented to the image and why they travel on pilgrimage to bathe in sacred rivers. In the Hindu world-view there are places and objects in this world that have been made sacred by the touch of the divine and by bringing ourselves into contact with those places and those objects we can purify ourselves from the effects of wicked deeds that would otherwise return in the form of future misfortune.


In the modern era, one of the main trends in Hindu belief and practice has been a reappraisal of the role and value of traditional rituals. Most Hindus regard ritual acts as an essential part of the life of the community, a way of drawing people together by sharing a common expression of spirituality, but many are today rather sceptical about the spiritual efficacy of ritual acts unless they are accompanied by an equal elevation of spiritual consciousness. Many Hindus today hold to the view that it is spirituality and good deeds on behalf of others that shape one's future karma rather than the rituals performed on our behalf by the priests. Those who follow the path of devotion to Shiva, Vishnu or the Goddess will say that the ritual acts they partake of in the temple are simply expressions of their devotion to the Deity. In the murti they perceive the presence of the God they revere and hence the ritual is a means of enhancing the devotional mood they are seeking to foster.


Hinduism is an immensely complex religious tradition and has a vast array of festivals, celebrations and religious rituals that it provides as a service for its adherents. Different Hindus have different views on ritual life and are drawn towards varying forms of practice, depending on the particular spiritual path they have embraced as an individual.



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