The most fundamental of all rituals in Hinduism is sacrifice. Sacrifice was the primary religious activity of the Vedic period, and although the concept of sacrifice has undergone dramatic transformation as Hinduism has developed over the past few thousand years, it remains the bedrock of the tradition, and Vedic sacrifices continue to be performed throughout the Hindu world.
Vedic sacrifice is a highly structured affair. Strict rules govern the purifying preparations for the Brahmin priests, construction of the altar, the preparation of the offering—in the contemporary world, various vegetable and grain offerings, particularly ghee (clarified butter)—and the performance of the ritual itself. All of this is to satisfy the gods and thereby maintain order, or dharma.
The ascetic challenge to the Vedas, as embodied in the Upanishads, on one level rejected ritual action as not conducive to ultimate salvation. On another level, however, the Upanishadic renouncers took the basic ideology of the sacrifice and internalized it, taking the transformative heat of the fire sacrifice and turning it into the purifying heat of asceticism. And although the Upanishads openly rejected ritual, even the act of becoming a renouncer is itself a significant ritual. When one becomes a renouncer, one essentially performs one's own funeral: the sacred thread is cut, one's normal clothes are exchanged for the ascetic's minimal garb, the hair is shaved, and all of these objects, representing the trappings of worldly life, are burned. This is a symbolic cremation. The ascetic, through this ritual, is now understood to be dead to the world, and when he or she physically dies, no cremation is performed.
Many Hindu rites and ceremonies take place in a temple setting and are directed toward a god or goddess, but by no means do all such rituals take place in the temple; indeed, many Hindu rituals are distinctly domestic affairs, taking place in individual homes. And certainly not all rites and ceremonies are directed toward the gods and goddesses. Virtually every aspect of Hindu life, in fact, is marked by ritual actions.
Death is a critical moment in the life of a Hindu, not only because it marks the end of life, but also because it marks the transition to the next life. The shraddha, funeral rites, therefore, are among the most important rituals in Hinduism. Such rituals are called samskaras, rites of passage. It is utterly important that the rituals associated with death—not only the cremation itself but also the preparation of the corpse and the purification of the surviving family—be performed properly, because if they are not, the deceased may become "stuck" between this life and the next, and remain in the world as a preta, a ghost, to haunt the surviving relatives.
One of the most important rituals associated with death is the pinda pradana, a ritual that is performed at several precise points after death and that involves the offering of small rice balls (pinda), which are thought to feed the deceased prior to his or her rebirth. Additionally, often the family will journey to a tirtha, a "crossing" of a sacred river, at set points after the death and "sink" a portion of the deceased cremated remains, further insuring a safe passage to the next life.
|Sixteen major samkaras|
|Garbhadhanam:||the act of conception|
|Pumsavanam:||the expectant mother consumes barley, grain, and curd|
|Seemantam:||ritual in the fourth month of a woman’s first pregnancy
*the expectant mother is anointed with oil, her hair is parted, and bystanders chant the words “om” and “vyahritis”
|Jatakarman:||birth ritual performed for a male newborn
*the baby receives mixture of ghee, honey, and gold
*on the twelfth day after birth, the father repeats the new name three times
|Nishkramanam:||child leaves the home for the first time
*usually occurs four months after birth
|Annaprasanam:||ritual for giving child solid foods for the first time|
|Choodakaranam:||ceremony of cutting the child’s hair for the first time|
|Karnavedham:||ritual for piercing the ears (boys and girls)|
|Vidyarambham:||beginning of learning
*a child who is between three to five years old receives these words written on its tongue: "Hari sri ganapataye namah avignamastu"
|Upanayanam:||eight-year-old boys begin wearing the sacred thread (Yajnopaveetam)|
|Praishartham:||studying the Vedas and Upanishads|
|Kesantham:||ritual marking a sixteen-year-old boy's first shave|
|Ritusuddhi:||ritual associated with a girl’s first menstruation|
|Samavartanam:||the end of formal education|
|Vivaham:||ritual of first sexual intercourse, performed shortly after the wedding|