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Saturday, October 31, 2009

Rituals and Practices - 1


Photo of a homam: courtesy of Sharanya

Dear Asha, Ajay, Ravi,and Ariana

Rituals are symbolic languages of cultures. The root word for ritual is ritus in Latin, which means “to fit together”. The symbols of all cultures of the world are made of common elements: fire in the form of candles or lamps or open fire; water to pour or sprinkle; earth or stone or products of earth such as rice; and air in the form of sound (chanting or bell). These elements are combined with an altar and special gestures to complete the rituals.

Just as images help us visualize the formless, rituals connect us with the Universal principle. In addition, rituals help us connect with others in our society and rest of the humanity since these are practiced by members of a group.

People of Vedic (Hindu) religion follow several rituals, practices and sacrifices in their daily life. All of them are symbolic of certain beliefs current at one time in the history of the tradition. For example, samskaras are purification rites performed at crucial stages of one’s life such as first birthday, introduction of solid food, marriage etc. Another practice consists of special rites performed on new moon day or during eclipse for helping our ancestors. The reason was that our ancestors (pithru) were supposed to live in the chandraloka (moon) after death and we give them offerings to help them ease out of cycles of birth and death.

It is clear to me from my readings that the Tantric system has been the source of many rituals and taboos during prayers and pujas. The Tantric system is separate from the four major Vedas and has influenced both Hinduism and Buddhism.

Rituals and practices have become embedded in our culture and upbringing. They have become part of our tradition. Many of them have lost their meaning or relevance (for example, special rites on the day of eclipse). We do not know the symbolic meaning of many other practices and yet observe them. For example, I notice that Sudharsana Homam has become fashionable among the immigrant Indians in US. Did you know that Sudharsana is a meta-representation of Vishnu’s disc (chakra) which itself is a meta-representation of our mind?

Many of these rituals were prescribed to obtain specific benefits, such as success in studies, success in business, harvest bounty etc. We practice them because we wish to succeed and these rituals give us extra strength. Many of them are followed also because of fear of bad consequences if we do not observe them. Some of our ancient texts suggest severe consequences for the non-observers. For example, Baudhayana Dharma shastra says: “jaayamaanau vai brahmanah thribih runava jaayathey”. The meaning of this statement is that brahmins are born with 3 debts – one each to the Rishis (sages), Gods and the manes (ancestors). If one does not perform sacrifices to pay off these debts, it will lead to bad results (akaraney prathyavaaya). No wonder that these sacrifices were followed by our ancestors with diligence.

In this section, I take a few rituals and explain their symbolic meaning. I am not a vedic scholar. Nor am I a Sanskrit scholar. However, when I read many of our Upanishads and other books, I keep looking for passages that explain the meaning of symbols and rituals. The following explanations are based on passages I have read for myself. I will be glad to share the names of the texts and passages with interested readers.

Yagna/Sacrifice

Our ancestors performed several types of sacrifices (yagnas). Those mentioned in the Sruthi’s (Vedas) such as Asvameda Yagna and Vaajasneya yagna are not in vogue anymore. Wealth and power were required of the performers of these sacrifices. Usually Kshatriya kings performed these yagnas with the help of Brahmin priests. However, several other kinds of sacrifices mentioned in the smrithis and puranas are still being practiced.

Most of the yagnas are performed with agni (fire-god) at the center and as the conveyor of our offerings and oblations to the appropriate deity. There are several hundred such fire rituals. But, all sacrifices do not need agni in the center.

The primary idea is that we should be grateful to the Divine Power for all that has been given to us in our lives and we should express our gratitude by performing sacrifices. According to Manu Smriti there are five such sacrifices – panchayagnas. First is brahmayagna to satisfy the rishis. Study and teaching of the Vedas accomplishes this duty. Devayagna is to satisfy the deities. This is accomplished by the practice of pujas (daily worship) and fire rituals called homa. In the homa, one invokes the fire God (agni) and one makes offerings into the fire to various gods while uttering mantras and prayers. Pitru yagnam is meant to repay our debts to our ancestors. This is accomplished by a ritual called tarpanam and also the practice of shraardha (performed every year at the anniversary of the death). Shraardha is performed with fire in the center. Feeding the hungry, giving food to others, to the birds and animals is called bhuta yagna. The final and fifth is athithi yagna which is the duty to a guest who comes unannounced (athithi).

In addition, the vedic tradition recommends the practice of several purification rites called samskaras . These are meant to make the individual become aware of the sanctity of life and his connection to the cosmos. Some of them are meant to be performed every day (nithya karmas such as agnihotram), some are occasional (naimittika karma such as upanayanam) and some are performed for specific purpose, to gain a specific result. Many of these samskaras are performed with an altar of fire in the center.

Why is agni (fire-god) so important in many of these rituals?

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