HINDU CUSTOMS AND RITUALS
Hindu customs in the main originate from the so called
samskaras laid down in their Dharmasastras. An individual right from the conception to the death, has to pass through a number of samskaras which are essential ceremonies of initiation held indispensable to constitute his perfect purification. Principally, they are oblations to fire, or customary offerings to idols and are prescribed for all. They have to be performed also for the females in order to sanctify the body, in their proper order and at proper times, only with this difference, that the sacred mantras are not to be recited on these occasions. In the same way, the sudras, like women, can go through the samskaras, without the recitation of sacred mantras.
The number of these samskaras differs according to different authorities. It will be sufficient for us to consider here the more important of these in connection with the ceremonial practices among the Hindus regarding puberty, pregnancy and birth, marriage and death.
Puberty samskaras which were once keenly observed among the Hindus receive now but scant attention. The chief puberty samskaras are those in connection with a girl's first menstruation. During the period of menstruation a woman is in a state of taboo. She may not touch anybody, draw water or sleep on a cot made of cotton thread. This state of semi-seclusion lasts for a period which varies in different castes from 5 to 11 days but is usually between 3 and 7 days.
When infant or child marriages were in practice the occurrence of the signs of puberty was usually the signal for the performance of ceremonies for handing over the girl to her husband. The husband was sent for and in higher castes a
ceremony called Rtu-santi was performed which included
special mantras and a fire sacrifice. Then the Garbhadana samskara or the foetus-laying ceremony initiating the
consummation of marriage" was gone through.
Hindus consider it to he the duty as well as the honour of a wife to hear a child and all sorts of methods are resorted to avoid barrenness and to obtain a child, especially a son. Dharmasastras prescribe to that end various samskaras; these are Punsavana, worship to secure the birth of a male child to be performed at the expiration of the third month of pregnancy, or on signs of vitality in the embryo; Anavalobhana, a ceremony to be performed on the third month which is much the same as the preceding, but, as the term implies, is intended to obviate miscarriage (an, not, avalobhana, disappointment); Simantonnayana parting of the hair on the head of the pregnant women by the husband in the 4th, 6th or 8th month of her first pregnancy both reciting mantras to secure long life to the child; Visnubali a sacrifice to Visnu on the 7th month of pregnancy.
Besides these samskaras, a number of magico-religious practices may be popularly resorted to with the similar end in view.
A woman in pregnancy is considered to be in a state of taboo and peculiarly liable to the influence of magic and in some respects dangerous to others. She is exempt from the observance of fasts, her longings (dohale) are carefully looked after; she is allowed any food she fancies and a feast (dohale jevan) is held especially in the 7th month when she is fed with sweets and all sorts of rich food. She is subject to a large number of restrictions in her ordinary life with a view to avoiding anything that might prejudice or retard her delivery. Superstitions to that effect widely prevail; she should not visit her neighbours' houses or sleep in open spaces. She should avoid all red cloths or red things of any sort such as would suggest blood till the 3rd or the 4th month when conception is certain. She would not cross running water, as it might cause premature delivery, nor would go near a she-buffalo or a mare lest delivery be retarded, since a mare is 12 months in foal. She should not finish during pregnancy any work, such as sewing, previously begun nor should her husband thatch the house or repair his axe. An eclipse is particularly considered dangerous to the unborn child and she must not leave the house during its length. Under no circumstances must she touch any cutting instrument, as it might cause her child to be born mutilated.
The young wife generally goes to her parents for her first confinement. In rural areas where the services of a trained midwife are not available, generally during the later stages of the labour the barber's wife watches over the case, but as delivery approaches she hands over the patient to the recognised midwife, usually a Basorin or Chamarin. Among the commoner people of the lower castes and the tribes circumstances force
them to give scant attention to delivery and women are
required to get back to their work within a few days of the
birth of the child. Among the more delicate women of the
higher castes, they are carefully looked after.
When a child is born, the event may be heralded by the beating of a brass tray to scare away evil spirits. Substances such as mustard-seed, apart, rock-salt, wheat-bran, hair, etc., all of which are known to be powerful averters of evil, may be waved seven times around the head of the mother and child, and then consumed in the brazier which stands in the lying-in room near or under the patient's cot. Among agricultural castes the child is usually placed after birth in a winnowing basket. The placenta and the navel cord are separated by means of a razor handed over to the Basorin for which she receives a small reward, and are buried in the corner of the lying-in room in a shallow hole. The child is then bathed with warm water and when dry fumigated with smoke of ajvan seeds thrown on the brazier in the lying-in room, and is rubbed over with castor oil to keep out the cold. Soon after birth, the ceremony of jatakarma may be performed. There is common belief among the people that the first ten days in particular, following the birth of a child, are full of danger both to the new-born and the mother and precaution has to be taken to guard them against evil influences. Among higher castes every evening the family priest recites Santipath or Ramaraksa over a pinch of ashes or angara which is then rubbed on the brows of the mother and the child. Among some lower classes the room is guarded from evil spirits by a line of ashes drawn across the door and a leather rope used for binding the plough is tied round the cot.
The special Goddess of birth is believed to be Satvai, and she is generally worshipped on the 5th and the 6th day, with offerings of cakes and flowers. On this day Satvai is supposed to write the destiny of the child on its forehead.
Name-giving is a ceremonial rite among Hindus performed on some auspicious day after the 10th day after birth. The ceremony varies greatly in different castes, in higher castes it being elaborate and among the lower ones more simple. A Brahman may be called in who proposes certain names which are auspicious in view of the astrological circumstances of the child-birth; the cradling ceremony takes place in the evening when invited friends and kinswomen gather, each with some presents for the mother and the child.
In observation of the samskara of karnavedha (piercing of the ear-lobes) a ceremony may be performed among higher castes on the morning of the ' name-giving'. Nose-piercing is some-times performed in girls at the same time as ear-piercing, but although the wearing of nath (nose-ring) is common in all the better Hindu castes no ceremonial feeling is attached to nose-piercing.
Among better class Hindus a ceremony called Annaprasana celebrates the first feeding of the child. It takes place usually in
the sixth or eighth month after birth, but, some castes may perform the rite for a male child in the seventh month and for a
female in the sixth month.
The rite of cudakarana, vernacularly Caula or the ceremony of tonsure, shaving the head all but one lock, which is the cuda or crest has a place in the Hindu samskaras. It should be performed in the first or third year, and not delayed beyond the fifth, although this is sometimes disregarded. As a purificatory rite it is also prescribed for girls. At present the rite is usually gone through in the case of boys at the time of upanayana (thread-girding). However, it is still customary for backward communities to perform an allied ceremony called javal, the belief being that the hair the child is born with is impure and has to be removed with some ceremony.
Hindus claiming a place in the first three varnas consider upanayana, known as munj, as perhaps the most important of all the samskaras. As a rite it principally consists of investiture with the sacrificial or sacred thread, which is worn over the left shoulder and under the right arm crossing the body to the hip. It is said to effect the second or spiritual birth of the first three varnas, thence termed dvija (twice-born). For a Brahman the ceremony has to be performed at the 8th year from conception, and not to be delayed after the 10th, for the Ksatriya in the 11th year and for the Vaisya in the 12th, and is not to be later than the 22nd and 24th severally. The important ritualistic observations to be followed in the Samskara are: (1) Sankalpa, (2) Agnisthapana, (3) Acaryavaranadi, (4) Upanayan, (5) Savitri Upadesa and (6) Vrata Bandha.
The ceremony, Upanayana, in common parlance known as munj, with its sequence in Samavarlana commonly known as sod-munj which once stood for the Vedic Hindus as the mark of initiation and completion of Vedic studies, has now lost its priestine significance. The ceremony is at present indulged in more as an occasion for social celebration than as an essential ritual. Even among Brahmans it is sometimes found as neglected or postponed and then hurriedly gone through prior to marriage as they believe that to enter in Grahasthasram (householder's stage) without going through Brahmacaryasram is a religious anomaly. Even as a social ceremony it now rarely runs the course of four days as of old but gets curtailed to the extent of a few hours covering both the ' initiation to' and the completion of the Vedic studies.
For the Hindus, marriage ceremony marks the individual's entry to Grahasthasrama, and as a samskara it could only be established after going through certain rituals which have their basis in the grhya sutras. It is generally considered obligatory for every Hindu to marry, for, it is believed that ones progeny is considerably connected with and instrumental to happiness both in this world as well as hereafter. The birth of a son not
only enables one to obtain moksa, but is conceived to be parti
cularly contributory towards helping the father to execute his
pitrrna or obligations which are due to the departed ancestors.
Moreover, the Hindu Sastrakaras, though they enjoin that
every male should marry, they are especially particular about
the Vivaha of a woman. As Manu opines the Vivaha of
maidens should be performed as soon as they attain the
marriageable age, and the father or other guardian who is not
careful enough to give a girl in marriage in proper time incurs
a great sin.
Many customs and superstitious beliefs gather round the last of the Hindu samskara known as the antyesti or the funeral rite.
Hindus who follow Vedic or Puranic rites usually cremate their dead. Backward communities such as Dhangar, Cambhar, Ghisadi, Kanjaras, Koli, Vaidu, etc. either burn or bury or some burn the married dead and bury the unmarried. Dhors, Mahars, Mangs, as a rule, practise burial. The Jains cremate while the Lingayats bury their dead. Some tribals have peculiar funerary customs. Sanyasis when they die receive a ceremonial burial called Samadhi. Infants who have not cut their teeth, and among lower castes persons who have died of small-pox or leprosy, are buried. When fuel is scarce and dear the poorer sections of the community often bury, in other cases the dead are usually burned. The bones and ashes of the dead arc generally thrown into the sea or a river, and sometimes a part of the bones is kept preserved to be consigned to the waters of a sacred river like the Ganga. Except that they do not use mantras, the main funerary observances of the lower class Hindus are similar to those in a Vedic cremation.
When a person is on the point of death his nearest kin, son or wife sits close to him and comforts him, assuring that his family will be well cared for. A small piece of gold and a tulsi leaf is laid in his mouth and a few drops of Ganga water are poured into it. When life is extinct the body is removed from his bed or cot and laid with the head to the north on ground washed with cowdung water; holy water is sprinkled on it and a wreath of tulsi leaves is put round its neck. The chief mourner has to undergo a purificatory bath, while the priest chants some mantras. If the deceased is an ascendant, the chief mourner and other mourners of the same degree are expected to have their heads (except the top-knot) and moustaches shaved. Having done this, he offers oblations of rice-balls (pinda) in honour of the dead. The corpse is bathed in warm water and wrapped up in a new dhotar or lugde according as the dead person is male or female. Women who die before their husbands are dressed in a green robe and bodice, their brow is marked with vermilion, their hair is decked with flowers and some of their customary ornaments put on. Widows receive no such honours and are treated in the same way as men. All the relations present, men and women, bow to the dead. Finally the corpse is laid on a bamboo ladder-like bier, on the back with
the face to the sky, is shrouded in a new white sheet, and then borne by four persons on their shoulders to the cremation
ground. The priest and the chief mourner (who holds in his
hand an earthen fire-pot hanging from a string) lead the funeral
party. The body is released from the bier and laid on the
pyre or a pile of wood. Each of the mourners symbolically puts
a piece of fuel on the pyre. With the help of the live charcoal
brought along a fire called mantragni is prepared and the chief
mourner ignites the pyre with it. When the body is almost
consumed by the fire, the chief mourner carries an earthen pot
(the one in which the fire was brought) filled with water on his
shoulders and walks thrice round the burning pyre, a man who
walks with him at each turn piercing with a stone called the
asma or life-stone a hole in the jar out of which water spouts on
the burning corpse. He finally throws the trickling water-pot
backwards over the shoulders spilling the water over the ashes.
He then to cool the spirit of the dead which has been heated
by the fire pours libations of water mixed with sesamum on the
asma or life-stone (which is thenceforth carefully preserved for
ten days) and the mourners follow suit. When the body is
completely consumed the party returns. During the first ten
days all persons belonging to the Gotra of the deceased observe
The spot on which the deceased breathed his last is smeared with cowdung and a lighted lamp (with a single wick) is set on it. Generally, on the third day the rite of asthi-sancayana (bone-gathering) is performed and the chief mourner initiates the post-funeral rites on the day, the asma (life-stone) being attended to as representing the deceased.
The sraddhas and funeral obsequies are the only ceremonies performed for the salvation of the ancestors. A special ceremony called Narayan bali may be performed for those that have died of accident, but in case of one dying childless no departure from the ordinary rites takes place. The funeral obsequies are performed during the first thirteen days after death. Oblations of rice are offered every day, in consequence of which the soul of the deceased is supposed to attain a spiritual body limb by limb till on the thirteenth day it is enabled to start on its journey. Oblations are also offered on the twenty-seventh day and sometimes thereafter on the day of the death once in every month for a year, of which the six-monthly and the bharani oblations i.e. the sraddha performed on the fifth of the dark half of the month of Bhadrapad are essential; and after a year has elapsed, the oblations of the first anniversary day are celebrated with great solemnity. The annual sraddha is performed on the day corresponding to the day of death, in the latter half of the month of Bhadrapad. Where the deceased's family can afford it, a sraddha is also performed on the anniversary day, which is known as Ksayatithi. While performing the sraddha for one's deceased father, offerings are also made to other ancestors and to deceased collaterals. Women dying in the life-time of their husbands have special oblations offered to
them during their husbands life-time. This takes place on the ninth day of the pitrapaksa which is known as Avidhava Navami.