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Religion Library: Hinduism

Rites and Ceremonies

Written by: Jacob N. Kinnard

The actual number of samskaras varies considerably, but by any count there are dozens. These include death, as well as birth, naming, the taking of the sacred thread (for the top three castes), marriage, etc. UpanayanamThe taking of the sacred thread, or upanayana ritual, is a particularly important samskara, because it marks the point at which a person becomes a full and responsible participant in Hindu life, a dvija or "twice born." Only the top three castes—Brahmin, Kshatriya and Vaishya—perform this samskara. (In this sense, the caste system thus confines the lowest caste, the Shudras—as well as the outcastes—to a kind of non-Hindu status.) In significant ways, the upanayana ceremony is similar to the bar or bat mitzvah rites in Judaism, or first communion, in Catholicism. Typically the young Hindu—almost always only a male—goes through a series of symbolically charged ritual acts in order to become a brahmacari (brahmacaryan), the first of the Hindu ashramas: his hair is shaved (symbolizing his purity); he is given a staff (symbolizing his ascetic journey for knowledge); various mantras are chanted; and his sacred thread is put on.

Ashrama (station in life)Duties
StudentLearn duties of his caste
HouseholderRaise a family
Forest dwellerStudy sacred texts

The Hindu marriage is also a significant samskara. Marriage is a highly elaborate affair that involves all manner of religiously significant rituals and ceremonies. Marriages are typically arranged according to caste, and the proper match is determined on the basis of astrological charts and with the help of a pundit, a particularly learned Brahmin. Hindu weddingMarriage often begins with a ceremony focused on the god Ganesh, the remover of obstacles, weeks before the actual ceremony. The marriage ceremony itself is long and involves dozens of steps, nearly all of which are religious significant. One religiously important aspect is the kanya dana, during which the bride's father pours out sacred water, and the groom recites Vedic hymns (particularly to the god Kama, the god of love) and promises to help his bride attain three of the four sacred ends of life: dharma (duty), artha (purpose), and kama (love). Moksha (salvation) is the fourth sacred goal, but is not attained through marriage.

In the modern western world, the separation between the sacred and the secular, between aspects of life that are and are not religious, is taken for granted; in Hinduism there is no such separation. Life is fundamentally religious, and religion is fundamentally about life—all aspects of life, from the most mundane to the most sublime.

Study Questions:
1.     Why is sacrifice one of the most fundamental Hindu rituals?
2.     Why is death ritualized?
3.     What are the samskaras? Give a few examples, and explain why they are ritualized.
4.     How do Hindu ceremonies eliminate the dualism of sacred and secular?


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