Sonia Sumitra Thakar
In today’s busy world where science and reasoning dominate, religious rituals for the most part are considered outdated, founded in superstition, and simply obsolete. While some participate in the more colourful traditions for the mystical aura that surround them, several do so out of habit or religious obligation and yet others take part just to keep the peace (with elders, society, etc.). Let us try and re-explore the essence of Hindu philosophy.
Rituals in Hinduism date back 10,000 years. They have their origin in the Vedas. Hinduism, also known as Sanatan Dharm, is more a way of life rather than a religion. It advocates the practice of various traditions and rituals in order to reach the ultimate goal of the spiritual path, which is moksha or liberation.
The Four Stages of Life
Hinduism divides life into four stages.
- Brahmacharya (the celibate student) – the stage in which one pursues education and enhances one’s character.
- Grihastha (the householder) – the stage of married/family life and earning one’s living or building a career.
- Vanaprastha (retirement) – the stage in which, having fulfilled one’s family duties, one can concentrate on spirituality and seva.
- Sanyasa (renunciation) – the stage in which one gives up the material life and lives simply with the view to attaining liberation.
Most of the rituals in Hinduism stem from the pursuit of what the goals of life as a ‘householder’ are:
Artha (money), Kama (desire) and Dharma (righteousness/duty). They are a means to accumulate good karma to prepare oneself for the stage of renunciation and, ultimately, liberation from the cycle of birth and death.
Why Rituals are Important
Hinduism advocates that rituals and traditions are actually the bridge between earth and heaven. They are a way for us to communicate with the gods, gratify them and attain their blessings. In fact, it is believed that the gods are dependent on human rituals for nourishment. If performed according to the prescribed guidelines, they can unleash great power and help fulfil our desires and bring us peace and prosperity. But, all rituals are not simply to overcome an obstacle or fulfil a want. There are many that are obligatory and several have an aspect of service and sacrifice attached to them too. They, thus, help cultivate discipline, responsibility, selflessness, etc.
Rituals Add Purpose
Performing certain rituals can add structure and purpose to our lives. There are certain simple traditions that most Hindus follow on a daily basis such as lighting the lamp, surya namaskar, nitya pooja (daily worship) and wearing a religious mark (tilak) on the forehead. Then there are others that may be conducted weekly, monthly, annually, according to a season, or on special occasions.
The scriptures lay down elaborate rituals associated with birth, initiation, marriage, death, etc. While simple practices can be done by oneself, we often require the assistance of a priest to perform more extravagant ones such as havans and yagnas in order to adhere to the precise procedures given in the Vedas and maximise their efficacy.
Outward rituals are an integral part of the Hindu philosophy. But, they should not become an end in themselves. In fact, the Upanishads caution us not to get caught up and over-do it with rituals as it may hinder our spiritual progress. After all, they do not directly lead to transformation of the mind.
It is, therefore, most important to remember that we should adopt rituals, not as mechanical practices, but imbibe their significance and practice them in order to elevate ourselves.
To read more about the significance and rationale behind various common Hindu rituals click here.