Hindu Rituals and Practices for Worldly People

Yajna, Fire Sacrifice

by Jayaram V

Question: Hindu rituals seem to be so complicated. Why Hindus have so many rituals? Can't they just do away with them?

Summary: This essay explains the types of Hindu rituals and their importance in the ritual and spiritual practices of Hinduism.

In Hinduism if you are a householder (grihasta), you may have to perform rituals as a part of your duty and obligation. You can ignore them, but it is a bad karma. An ascetic or a renunciant do not have worldly duties and obligations. Therefore, they can ignore them, but not those who have taken up householder duties. Even ascetics ​at times may have to participate in few rituals to honor their tradition or follow the instructions of their gurus. However, for them they are not obligatory.

Hinduism has both ritual and spiritual practices. The ritual practices involve physical effort and materials. The spiritual practices are mental and internal and do not require physical exertion or the use of any materials. The ritual practices are part of the triple aims of human life (Purusharthas) namely Dharma, Artha and Kama. The spiritual practices are meant for the fourth aim namely Moksha or liberation.

Rituals add structure and purpose to the lives of people. They make them live responsibly, reminding them of the need to live according to the ideals of Hindu Dharma and think about themselves beyond this life. The inspiration for Hindu rituals comes from God himself.  The Rigveda states that in the beginning of creation the Cosmic Being (Purusha) performed a great sacrifice to create the worlds and beings.

The Vedas affirm that gods are the objects of the sacrifice. They participate in Vedic rituals to accept offerings. Humans are the subjects, or the hosts, who make the offerings. The priests are the intermediaries, who establish the communication and the predicate relationship through hymns and ritual worship. The materials for the rituals come mostly from plants and animals. Thus, a Hindu ritual such as a yajna is a collective effort or a joint project in which gods, humans and animals participate. Therefore, the rituals cannot summarily be ignored or rejected without incurring negative consequences.

In today’s world, the word ritual has lost much of its significance due to misuse and overuse, which is probably why this doubt has entered your mind. A ritual generally means a mechanical act, which is performed rather ceremonially or perfunctorily to keep people happy or avoid their criticism. In Hinduism, rituals constitute duty (Dharma). Therefore, Hindu rituals cannot be treated with such lackadaisical attitude. For a devout Hindu, rituals are important because Hinduism is considered a way of life in which every action is considered an offering to God.

Hence, however superfluous they may appear to be, rituals have a bearing upon the ultimate aim of human life, which is liberation or Moksha. Ignoring certain rituals is a bad karma, and not performing them with required care and sincerity is also sinful karma. It is not necessary that one has to perform every ritual which is mentioned in the scriptures. Most of them are outdated and no more relevant. However, one must cultivate discretion to know which ones are important and relevant and which ones can be safely ignored.

Karma kanda and Jnanakanda

Hindu ritual practices are collectively called karmakanda. Karma means actions, and kanda means that portion of the Vedas which deals with the ritual knowledge. The first two parts of the Vedas namely the Samhitas and the Brahmanas deal with it. The remaining two, Aranyakas and the Upanishads, deal with the knowledge of the Self and is known as Jnanakanda (the knowledge section). Of the two, the knowledge part is superior since it leads to the highest aim of human life, which is liberation.

A Hindu householder cannot ignore either of the two, since he has to pursue all the four aims of human life in the four phases of his life, without ignoring any. Life is a sacrifice in itself, in which both external and internal rituals are important. One should not become lost in the pursuit of worldly pleasures at the expense of their spiritual welfare. As the Isa Upanishad warns, by performing sacrificial actions as an offering to God one should hope to live for a hundred years. Those who pursue only the sacrificial rituals, ignoring the spiritual knowledge enter the dark world. Those who pursue knowledge only, ignoring the rituals enter still darker worlds. It is by performing rituals and pursuing the knowledge of liberation, one should hope to transcend death and enter the world of Brahman.

As stated before, Hindu rituals can be performed both physically and mentally. While the physical rituals, which constitute karma kanda, require prior preparation and even the help of priests, the mental or internal rituals, which form part of the jnana kanda can be performed by oneself. Some complex internal rituals may require the assistance of a guru or a qualified teacher. However, even then the effort has to come from within, and one has to rely solely upon oneself or the help of God. The Vedas declare that internal rituals are far superior to external rituals, in which the body becomes the sacrificial pit and thoughts and actions the offerings. They lead to the purification of the mind and body and self-absorption.

Yajna or yaga, homa, puja, vrata, aradhana, charya, kriya, nitya-karma, archana, japa, arathi, dhyana, nidhi-dhyasana, etc. are some of the words associated with Hindu rituals. In Hinduism, external rituals have a place. However, they do not constitute the only religious practice. People have to focus upon both external and internal rituals, knowledge, accumulated merit of past lives and many self-transformative practices to achieve liberation or self-realization.

Who receives the offerings?

In Vedic sacrificial ceremonies the offerings are made to various deities. They vary according to the type and objectives of the sacrifices. In external rituals, the offerings are first made to the fire god, Agni, who in turn passes them to various deities according to their respective share. The Upanishads state that in the internal rituals, the offerings (usually food and water) are first accepted by breath (prana), which in turn passes them to the various deities (organs) in the body. For example, the following is a list of deities found in the Grihyasutras to whom offerings are made during the morning and evening oblations.

  • The deities of the Agnihotra, Soma Vanaspati, Agni and Soma, Indra and Agni, Heaven and Earth, Dhanvantari,  Indra, Visvadevâs and Brahman.
  • The waters, herbs and trees, the house, domestic deities and deities of the ground (on which the house stands).
  • The presiding deities of the four quarters namely Indra and Indra's men, Yama and Yama's men, Varuna and Varuna's men, Soma and Soma's men.  Brahman and Brahman's men in the middle,
  • The Visvadevas or gods of commonality
  • The day walkers and the night walkers.
  • The Rakshas—thus to the North.
  • Ancestors or forefathers (i.e., Manes)

In present day ritual practices of Hinduism, ritual offerings are made to various other deities such as Shiva, Vishnu, Ganesha, Hanuman, Krishna, Rama, Skanda, Shakti, their consorts and associate gods, emanations and vehicles, seers and sages, serpent deities and so on.

The magical powers of the rituals

The Hindu ritual practices are derived mostly from the Vedic and Tantric traditions. They are believed to possess magical powers which manifest when the rituals are performed according to the prescribed procedure. The source of that power is Brahman himself, who is mover of all. Just as Brahman in his aspect as Isvara (the Lord of the Universe) performs five main functions, they too perform the five functions namely creation, preservation, concealment, revelation and destruction. These powers manifest according to the needs and desires of those who perform them and the gods who participate in them. For example, the domestic rituals (paka yajnas) may help people in the following five ways.

  1. Create peace and prosperity.
  2. Preserve health and Wellbeing.
  3. Conceal worshippers from public scrutiny, envy or hostility.
  4. Reveal hidden paths or timely solutions to vexing problems.
  5. Destroy enemies and evil forces.

Depending upon to whom they are made, the sacrificial offerings are divided into three classes namely the huta, the prahuta and the Brahmana. In the huta type, the offerings are made to the fire and in the prahuta without fire, while in Brahmana, they are made to the Brahmanas. According to Asvalayana Grihyasutras any offering which is made during the worship constitute the sacrifice.

Thus, placing wood in the sacrificial pit, the offering of prayers, speech, knowledge, wealth or intelligence during the worship constitute a yajna only. The scripture further declares that learning the Vedas and simple adoration of gods also constitute sacrifice only. By this definition, even a simple prayer or a reverential salutation qualifies as a sacrifice. This confirms the assurance given by Lord Krishna in the Bhagavadgita that whatever is offered to him by a devotee with love and devotion, be it a leaf, flower or water, he accepts them with love.

The types of rituals

From birth until death, Hindu rituals define the life of a person. Each important event in his or her life is marked by a ritual. Depending upon the frequency at which they are performed, Hindu sacrificial rituals may also be classified as daily, fortnightly, monthly, seasonal, annual and special. The last ones have no timeframe, but performed according to the need or to  mark a special occasion such as the marriage of gods, victory of gods in a war or an important celestial event. Hindu sacramental rituals such as those related to concept, birth, initiation, marriage, etc. are meant to be performed to mark important events in the life of an individual. Death marks the final sacrificial ritual (antyeshti) in the life of a person upon earth in which the body is consigned to the flames as an offering to Agni.

Considering the purpose or the intention, Hindu rituals can be divided into five main categories namely obligatory, purificatory, expiatory, curative and destructive. These rituals may be performed alone for a singular purpose or combined with others for a broader purpose. Some composite rituals may also have elements of more than one category and fall into intermediary categories. The following is a brief explanation of each.

Obligatory rituals

These are related to the duties and obligations of human upon earth towards others and the world in general. They are caste, age, gender, birth specific. They cannot be ignored since doing so will have severe consequences to one’s karma and rebirth. In the Bhagavadgita, Lord Krishna urges people to practice karma yoga to perform their obligatory duties to escape from the consequences.

Purificatory rituals

They are meant to purify people, places and objects. Hindu scriptures contain many prayers, mantras and formulae to purify the mind and body, to remove casts and spells, to neutralize birth and karma related impurities (dhosas) to sanctify houses, temples and religious places, to purify ritual objects such as the idols, ritual tools, offerings and so on. Since they promote charity, in itself they help people overcome bad karma.

Expiatory rituals

As the name suggests, expiatory rituals are meant to atone for past sins, mistakes in the performance of obligatory duties, omissions and commissions in performing sacrificial rituals, and excesses in one’s conduct and behavior. Vedic sacrificial ceremonies mostly end with expiatory ceremonies, with an appeal to the deities to forgive the worshippers for their intentional or unintentional mistakes in propitiating them. Expiatory rituals are also prescribed by Hindu law books to deal with criminal conduct and as a punishment.

Curative rituals

They are meant to seek the help of gods through invocations, conciliation, expiation and propitiation for protection against sickness, accidents, disease, calamities and death, and healing and helping those who are suffering from them. The Vedas contain many hymns seeking the protection and the healing of power of gods such as Rudra. They beseech gods to protect the worshippers and their cattle by pouring strength into them and preventing accidental deaths caused by snakebites, etc.

Destructive rituals

They are mainly meant to distract and destroy enemies or weaken rivals by casting spells upon them to take away their strength or weaken their resolve. The Vedas contain many hymns and references rituals and their procedures for this purpose. It is important to note that such rituals are not without harmful karmic consequences for those who engage in them. Hence, the tradition does not encourage their use, except in exceptional circumstances to protect and uphold Dharma.

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