Rituals are part of India’s rich cultural heritage. Religion is one of the prime social areas in which rituals function. A ritual may be defined as a type of organized behavior. It acts as a conservative force, binding the members of community. Ritual is mainly of two types: one that is directly related with religious activities, the other being life stage rituals, which polish and refine the individual’s attitude toward society. Here, the discussion centers round the first type, the rituals associated with major forms of worship in India.
In fact, due to a national transition and global communication and interaction, Indian society is now facing change, though there are limits to change. Certain expressions that are the products of age-old beliefs do not change, and these provide the distinctive cultural template for the people of India. These rituals act as mirrors, in which the behavior of the people is reflected.
Common Elements of Rituals Associated With Worship
There are certain elements of rituals that are common to all worship: Mantras, or sacred words; Mudras, or gesture; Nyas, or yogic exercise of breathing; and Bhutsuddhi, the purification of elements. These rituals are performed by the priest at the time of worship.
Mantra: It has been generally believed that mantra is sakti, sacred words that have the power to evoke deities for the welfare and protection of people. These sacred words, mostly in Sanskrit, in verse or in prose, are recited during the time of worship. They can be uttered or recited loudly or visualized mentally. These words vary according to the particular worship. They are central to the ritual traditions of India. The most sacred and common word that is uttered is “Om.” It has been said that this word encapsulates the entire essence of the Veda.
Mudras: These are gestures that act in conjunction with the sacred words. There are varieties of gestures that the priest performs, like invocation or installation of a particular deity. In the invocation gesture, the two hands of the priest are cupped together, palms upward. The installation gesture is the reverse of the above and expresses the entry of a deity. The image of a deity, be it God or Goddess, is constructed by the artisans of a specific caste who earn their livelihood by image making, but there is a particular ritual the Hindus believe converts the lifeless image into a powerful receptacle of divinity. This is known as Pran Pratishtha: The priest inducts the breadth of the deity into the image with the aid of sacred uttering. It is believed that the priest is endowed with divine power at the time of worship. In this ritual, the eyes of the deity play a very crucial and revealing role. In this consecrational ritual, the eyes are painted with a final flick of black ash. And then the image of the deity is ready for intense interactions with devotees.
Nyas: This particular action is not merely yogic excises of breathing; while performing this action, the priest meditates on the particular deity of worship.
Bhutsuddhi: This means purification of the elements of which the body is composed. There are five elements, with centers in the spinal column. The most notable is at the base of the spine, the seat of the power known as Kundalini, or coil in the body. In yoga, this power is roused with the utterance of the sacred word “Om.”
Besides the above, there are certain common items used in most worship. These are oil lamps, incense, camphor, sandalwood, silk clothes, flowers, fruits, and food, raw and cooked. Not only is the deity prepared for the homage, but the worshippers too have a role to play. The concept of purification pervades in any worship. People bathe and fast and wear clean and sometimes new clothes. Here, the priest is the intermediary between the common people and the deity who can perform the full service of the deity. He is well aware of the rules of worship and offerings. But even the priest must go through a series of elaborate purifications in order to perform the worship. Besides the concept of purification, the concept of the vow also plays an important role in this ritualistic performance. This vow is mainly intended to gain divine blessings by observing an austere ritual, particularly observing fasts. It is usually performed for personal gain. This votive ritual may be described as a rite of thanks giving to a particular deity. When someone faces crisis period, such as serious illness or accident, the person or the relative makes a vow to a particular deity. After the concerned person recovers, a votary performs a particular ritual to pay thanks to the deity.
The Cult of the Goddess
The cult of the Goddess is one of the very powerful cults, whose roots can be traced back to the Harappan civilization. This goddess may take different forms, both benign and malevolent. As Saraswati, she is the symbol of learning and culture. As Lakshmi, the divine consort of Vishnu, she represents good fortune and wealth. As Durga or Kali, she is the highest manifestation of divine power. When she is depicted as Kali, she demands blood sacrifice to symbolize her strength as the powerful enemy of the demons. These deities are part of the world as people know it, but when the special festival of a deity is celebrated, the Goddess is treated as a guest coming from the distant land. It is generally believed that Gods and Goddesses live in the Himalayas and travel across the land through the rivers. The worship itself consists of many parts, each of which shows deep reverence toward the deity as guest.
Let us start with the rituals that are associated with Goddess Saraswati. She is the goddess of speech, to whom a great hymn of the Rig Veda is addressed. She is generally compared with the logos of the Greeks. A special ritual is observed during her worship. One who wises to acquire knowledge starts his or her lesson in front of her image. Children’s education starts with her worship.
Goddess Lakshmi represents one of the most important manifestations of female power, who it is believed brings all the worldly riches to people who worship her. Indian philosophy provides explicit sanction for the pursuit of material gain, or wealth. And this material gain or the acquisition of wealth is one of the fundamental goals of life. In Bengal, the goddess Lakshmi is represented by a certain quantity of unhusked rice kept in a basket, and on the basket over a heap of rice, a wooden pot is placed. It is smeared with vermilion and is decorated by cowrie shells. Generally, on the full-moon day, the pot is installed on a platform decorated with flowers by the oldest lady of the house. The above ritual is performed by some communities in West Bengal four times in a year in connection with sowing and reaping of the paddy. In the production of rice, India’s role is praiseworthy, and rice is one of the staples of Indian diet. Goddess Lakshmi is represented as “Corn Mother,” who brings peace and prosperity in every home where she is worshipped daily.
Goddess Durga is worshipped normally once a year during autumn, in the months of September to October. There is a legend that explains the origin of Goddess Durga. It is said that she is the fearsome destroyer of evil and greater than all the male gods, through the pooling of whose powers she came into being. The word Durga originates from the word Durg, meaning “inaccessible.” This suggests that she has all the powers to fight against the evils of the world and in this way protects her devotes. The worship of Durga consists of the rituals of Navapatrika, or nine plants, which reveal her association with earth and the vegetative forces of nature. There, nine plants are tied together with the vines of a flower, named aparajita, meaning “undefeated.” The nine plants are the following: banana plant, kacu (an edible root plant), turmeric root plant, Jayanti (a kind of tree plant), bael plant, pomegranate fruit, asoka plant (a kind of tree twig), arum plant, and paddy, the unhusked rice. In a way, these nine plants symbolize human life and represent items that are necessary for maintenance and happiness. These plants have great significance even separately, and they form the basic ingredients of cooking. All these plants are fit representations of the Goddess; it is through creation that divinity is comprehended.
Besides these nine plants, the other indispensable items of worship are water, flowers, and the ghat, a vessel that plays an important role The vessel is made of clay, and sometimes copper vessel is also used, as copper is regarded as pure. A diagram is drawn on the ground. Then, a swastika sign (symbolizing good fortune) is painted on the vessel using vermilion. After that, the vessel filled with water is placed on said diagram. The open mouth of the vessel is covered with a bunch of five mango leaves and a coconut smeared with vermilion, and a small towel is placed on it. The coconut must come with the stem, as it is regarded as a sign of fruition and creation, symbolic of the Goddess’s function. Here, the vessel is sacred as it symbolizes the abode of Goddess. Then, with the chanting of “Om,”‘ the worship begins. This mystical syllable “Om” represents the essence of the cosmos. By repeating it at the beginning of worship, the devotee moves into a state of readiness for contact with the supernatural. In any worship, man and nature are identified. It is being upheld that the human body is made by five elements of earth, water, fire, wind, and sky. The skin is composed of earth; the tongue is made up of water; fire is represented in the eyes; wind is equivalent to the nose; and sky corresponds to the ears. As these elements are mixed together in symbolic rites, the priest is filled with divine power. Most of the rituals indicate the lifestyle of the local people and their ways of living. There is a custom of submerging the image of deities in water after the worship ceremony. This custom, which is part of the ritual process, is found throughout India. This ritual process has both a theoretical and practical aspect. The Indians, particularly the Hindus, believe that the invisible is reached through the visible; an image is only an instrument to reach the supreme. The immersion ceremony signifies the impermanence of the material things, and moreover, it has the practical effect of keeping artisans who build these images employed every year.
Though Goddess Durga is worshipped once in a year, Goddess Kali is normally worshipped only in permanent temples. In Bengal, the worship of Kali is a regular event. But Kali, like Durga, is also worshipped in Bengal once a year, in a clay image made for this occasion only. Her worship falls on the night of the new moon, following the worship of Durga. Kali is the “Dark Goddess,” a term that originally derives from the word Kala, meaning time, and she has been always identified with death and is regarded as the destroyer of evils.
Like the other festivals, this worship has its own ritualistic performances, which can be broadly divided into two categories, daily and occasional performances. Hibiscus flowers are offered to Goddess Kali. This flower is considered to be the favorite present to Kali because it is the color of blood. Besides flowers, there are rice offerings, arati, waving the oil lamps in a rhythmic fashion in front of the deity, and after an offering of a light meal, the sleeping ceremony follows at night. Among the occasional performances, the ritual of sacrifice is there. But this is not a necessary item, and it depends on the initiative of the pilgrims. The services to the Goddess are part of a reciprocal relationship between human and divine.
In other parts of India, this festival is known as Diwali or Depavali, the festival of lighting the lamps. The main ritual of this festival is to light candles or earthen oil lamps. Due to globalization, many things have changed. But the ritual to light earthen oil lamps with cotton wicks, particularly in front of the deity, still persists. Earthen oil lamps are considered as purest and best. From the sociological standpoint, at least once in a year, these earthen lamps are produced on a massive scale, by those who earn their livelihood as potter.
In India, Diwali has a special importance among the Jainas, the followers of Lord Mahavira. It has been a ritual among the Jainas to observe the lamp festival every year on the very day of Lord Mahavira’s nirvana, his passing away from this worldly life. In fact, since the discovery of fire, its influence is keenly felt in all spheres of life, including the traditional rituals. The flame of lamp is considered in India as the symbol of rebirth, and this is the reason why its ritual use is found in everything connected with death. The mystery of plant life is inextricably associated with the primitive conception of rebirth, and as Dewali is a ritual of death and rebirth, it is likely that it would maintain a relation with plant life. In some parts of Bengal, there is still a ritual of eating 14 kinds of vegetables on the day before the commencement of the Diwali festival. And these vegetables symbolize the herald of new life that follows inevitably after any destruction.
The Cult of the God
Like the cult of the Goddess, there is also cult of the God, and God Shiva plays a very dominant role. Shiva is described as the lord of the universe, seated on the bull, the giver of boons, three-eyed, his body besmeared with ashes, a small drum and trident in his hands, the head marked by the moon, and a serpent on his neck. Besides this image, God Shiva has another form that is very popular throughout India. In the Shiva shrines, it can be observed as devotees carry pots of holy Ganges water, which they pour upon the phallic form of the God, with sandalwood paste, incense, and leaves of bael (Aegle marmelos). The bael leaf, with its trifolicate design suggestive of Shiva’s trident, is considered to be an essential ritual for the worship of the God Shiva. Solitary solemn prayer is one of the important rituals of the whole process.
Besides Lord Shiva, Ganapati is an important deity, and his image is represented with a human body and an elephant’s head. Ganapati is the God of Wisdom, the deity who can remove all obstacles and grant success in our endeavors. His name is invoked before beginning any new venture. Ganapati is very popular all over India, but a special public celebration occurs in the state of Mumbai in the month of August to September, after the end of monsoon. The rituals that are associated with this festival vary, but the general rituals are almost same everywhere and include prayers, lamplighting, offerings of jaggery (from palm sap), grated coconut, cardamom seeds, and dried fruits. There is a social significance behind this festival. During the festival days, people can mix together, forgetting their internal differences, and cultural awareness develops among the younger generations. After the festival, the immersion ceremony occurs, which is very colorful in Mumbai. On this day, the image is installed on a cart, and people in large numbers join the procession and follow along, going down the streets toward the seashore, striking cymbals and gongs, everyone shouting, “Father Ganapati, come again! Auspicious one, come again.” Sometimes, the icon is carried in a palanquin. Chanting of hymns is one of the rituals, while people watching from the roadside shower colored powder on them.
This showering of colored powder resembles another major festival of India, which is known as Holi. Lord Krishna is the incarnation of Vishnu, the Vedic God, in a human form. Krishna as an incarnation is God himself, thus showing a close similarity to Jesus, of Christian theology. This festival is celebrated on the full-moon day of spring, while that of Diwali is on the new-moon night at the advent of winter. Winter and spring symbolize, respectively, the death and revival of the year, and the annual cycle of birth and death in nature. The most remarkable ritual of the festival of Holi is the use of the red powder, smeared on the bodies of the friends and relatives. Other colors are also used. Even strangers are treated as friends on this day, and sweets are offered to all, irrespective of caste and creed. Sometimes, red powder is mixed in water, and then this water is sprinkled on people. It is a festival of enjoyment and fun. In the 21st century, when India is at the crossroads of technological revolution, this age-old ritual is still maintained in some form or other. The red powder that symbolizes the color of blood signifies also the life-giving power. In spring, the growth of new leaves on the trees signifies the revival of new lives in nature, and the spring festival celebrates this renewal.
Another rejuvenated ritual can be observed in the worship of Lord Jagannath, from whom the English word juggernaut originates. This famous chariot festival known locally as Ratha-Yatra, at Puri, in Orissa, a state of India, stands out amidst all the observance of ritualistic performances. From the image making to other associated rituals, this festival deserves special mention. The festival starts a fortnight before the procession of the chariots, on the full-moon day of the month of May to June with the bathing rituals. This ritual ceremony lasts only one day and is followed by the period of illness of the deities. And after that, the chariot journey begins, from the main temple toward another one named Gundicha temple. During the months of June and July, the chariot festival takes place. This is the time of rejuvenating the deities and thereby renewing the bonds between the people and the land. As it has been observed, the images of the deities are normally made of clay, but the deities of Jagannath temple are made of wood. And it is a custom to replace the old wooden images after every 12 years.
On the morning of the bathing festival, the ritual functionaries fetch water from the nearby storeroom of the temple. This water is placed 108 pots, and the ritual functionaries pour water on the wooden deities. After the bath, one temple servant who is the representative of the king performs a ritual called “sweeping.” With a gold-handled broom, the whole area is swept, and then sandalwood powder is sprinkled. After that, huge elephant’s head masks are fastened on the images. Then the deities are offered sixteenfold offerings. The temple cooks bring the food in earthen pots.
After the bathing day, the period of illness of the deities follows. During this “dark fortnight,” there is no beating of gongs or conch shells, and the temple is silent and deserted. At that time, herbal medicine and raw food are offered to the deities. On the 13th day of the dark fortnight, the paintings begin on the images, which were faded due to bathing ritual. On the dawn of the 15th day, the new-moon day, the period of the illness is over, and the gate of the temple is opened for the public. A welcoming ritual is observed in their renewed state. In the second day of the “bright fortnight,” the chariot festival begins. There are three chariots covered with bright colored cloths. The color of the cloths vary according to the deities. Lord Jagannath’s chariot is covered with yellow and red; that of Balabhadra, his elder brother, with green and red; and Subhadra, their younger sister, with red and black. Besides these deities, brightly colored wooden sculptures of side deities are made for this occasion to adorn the chariots. The images are decorated with flowers and other accessories. Then, the deities are placed on the chariots.
Before the procession starts, an important ritual has to be performed by the king. Though the kingdom was gone, the ritual is still there, and it is observed every year by the king’s descendents. The king used to sweep the main road from where the procession started with a gold-handled broom. This is symbolic, to show all are equal. After this ritual, a pair of wooden horses are attached to the front of each chariot. Then, the ropes are fastened, and after the signal, the crowd starts to pull the chariots toward the Gundicha temple, almost 2 miles away from the main temple. In that temple also, elaborate rituals follow including bathing. On the 10th day of the bright fortnight of this same month, the return journey of the deities occurs. The same rituals are repeated. After their return, the deities are placed in their old positions, and daily worship takes place as usual.
Here, in the observance of the above rituals, the deities are treated in an anthropomorphic fashion. The desires of the people are reflected in the decoration of the deities. People want to see the deities as almighty, having all the good qualities, and achieving perfection. As humans are treated with care, so the deities also receive special attention in the period of illness that happens after a long course of bathing. As in the case of humans, so in the case of deities, medicines are applied for cure. After recovering from sickness, the deities are ready to appear among the public with much rejuvenated vigor. The sweeping ritual by the king indicates that no work is inferior.
Cleaning and sweeping are parts of our lives, and as humans, we are all equal. This chariot festival brings the aristocrats and the common men together.
The Personification of River
The rivers, as well as the deities, are worshipped with elaborate rituals. In different states of India, particularly in Benaras and Hardwar, this tradition of worshipping the river is very prominent. The river is treated as a Devi, or Goddess. In Hardwar, a state of North India, located at the base of the Himalayan foothills, where the celestial river Ganges enters the plains, this ritual of worshipping deserves special mention. Amidst the hustle and bustle of daily living, this city witnesses every evening a fascinating event that differentiates the city from other parts of India. As the day wanes and slowly dusk approaches, a typical phenomenon happens near the famed bathing bank, which is locally known as harkipauri, meaning “the Lord’s Stairs.” Innumerable lighted oil lamps can be seen in the hands of the priests coming out from the nearby temples toward the Lord’s Stairs. While standing on the stairs at twilight, chanting prayers, the priests wave the lighted oil lamps in a rhythmic rotary motion known as Ganga Arati, an offering to Devi Ganga, the personification of the river. Thousands of people sit or stand near the stairs and watch this ritual, spellbound, as part of the whole ceremony. After this, there is a ritual of leaf cup offerings of flowers with burning oil wicks; people place them in the water, and they float downstream. This ritual is observed as part of wish fulfillment, as if the flowers are people’s high hopes, sailing along the water. If the leaf cups of flowers with the twinkling oil wicks float straight downstream without sinking, then it is assumed that one’s secret desire will be fulfilled. If they sink at the very start without moving a bit, then one takes it as a bad sign.
Rituals are cultural motifs that reflect the nature of a particular society and the relations among people. Like a compass, they help one chart a course through life. India, a multireligious country, has divergent codes for life. In any religion, rituals have been and continue to be important for establishing social identities that constitute the “maps” for regulating public relations.
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