Hindu Symbols, Rituals and Festivals
Some Interesting Questions about Hinduism… (Part 8)
- Hindu Symbols, Rituals, Festivals
Over a period of time, the followers of Hindu way of life developed a some symbols and icon which, for them, represent the sacred and ultimate power running the universe, in day-today way of life in terms of art, architecture, literature and worship. These symbols gain their meaning from the scriptures, sacred history or cultural traditions. Om is one such symbol – which is suppose to be representative of the almighty God power (Para Brahma). Swastika sign (not to be confused with the one used by Hitler, that’s completely opposite of Hindu Swastika sign) symbolises auspiciousness. These two symbols have now grown to represent Hinduism. There are some other symbols also easily associated with Hinduism world over e.g. the markings of Tilak (a small vertical line on the forehead representing the third eye or the intellect) the Lotus flower, Chakra – the circle with a number of spokes inside it.
The worshiping practices in Hinduism generally involve seeking awareness of the Supreme being and also seeking blessings from Gods/Goddesses/Devatas (manifestations of various natural elements). Therefore, Hinduism has developed numerous practices meant to help one think of divinity in the midst of everyday life. Hindus can engage in worship (called Puja) either at home, at a temple, office, close to nature (river, sea, mountains, forest) or anywhere else for that matter. There may be some physical image of deity in front or it could even be without it. At home, Hindus often create a shrine with a number of icons/ idols/ statues dedicated to their chosen form of Gods/Goddesses. Even the forefathers (parents, grandparents, members of the family) who have passed away are considered as holy souls and their image can also find place next to the image of Gods/Goddesses. Temples are usually dedicated to one primary deity, by that name the Temple is known (like Shiva Temple, Ram Temple, Krishna Temple, Hanuman Temple, etc.) but there would be a number of other deities who would also find honorable place within that temple. Hindu Gods/Goddesses are not one single person or a solitary hero/heroines, actually they just like us, having their own family, parents, spouse, kids, etc., and even pets (which sometime work like their personal vehicles), hobby tools and favorite arms. For example Shiva’s wife Parvati herself a goddess and so is their son Ganesha who has a pet mouse. Shiva always carries a small/ portable drum (called Damru) as well as snakes around his neck. There is also distinctive personality of each of the Gods/Goddesses e.g. Shiva loves to smoke and drink while his son Ganesha is a foodie.
Neither Visiting the temples, nor worshiping the Gods/Goddesses is not compulsory. There is no concept of blasphemy, its alright if you do not want pray to some Gods/Goddesses, everyone is free to pick and chose the entity they want to worship. Even worship is not a compulsory thing, one may do it daily or once in a blue moon, one will remain a Hindu even she/he does not pray at all. Visit temples during religious festivals is also not mandatory, one can do worship anywhere at home or at the place of work.
Worship can be done with or without the idols/ icons/ statues (Murtis). For many the idol/ icon serves as a tangible link between the worshiper and God but there are sub-set within Hindu religion so do not believe in worshiping idol/icon/statues. Generally for most Hindus, the image is considered a manifestation of God/Goddess, since he/she is immanent. Mantras are invocations, praise and prayers that through their meaning, sound, and chanting style help a devotee focus the mind on a holy thoughts or express devotion to God/Goddess.
Gayatri Mantra (ॐ भूर्भुवः॒ स्वः ।तत्स॑वितुर्वरे॑ण्यं ।भ॒र्गो॑ दे॒वस्य॑ धीमहि। ।धियो॒ यो नः॑ प्रचो॒दया॑त्॥ Oṃ bhūr bhuvaḥ svaḥtát savitúr váreṇ(i)yaṃ bhárgo devásya dhīmahidhíyo yó naḥ pracodáyāt) meaning “May we attain that excellent glory the god represent: So may she/he stimulate our prayers.” is one of the most basic mantra, many Hindu start the day remembering this mantra.
Some scriptures recommend ritualistic chanting of mantra as the greatest duty of Hindus in the current time period of the world (Kali Yuga or the dark age) – it is also known as Japa form of devotion, many Hindu adopt Japa as their primary spiritual practice, the other tool to maintain physical and spiritual well being is Yoga – helps in a disciplined life, trains a person’s consciousness for tranquility, health and spiritual insight. This is done through a system of postures and exercises to practice control of the body and mind.
Music is a integral part of worship in Hinduism. Music is as old as the Sanskrit literature itself and as a written science, the Hindu system of music is the oldest in the world. Songs written in the praise of Gods/Goddesses are called Bhajan.
Rituals are another part of Hindu culture like offerings to Gods/Goddesses through fire (Agni). Most Hindus observe religious rituals at home but this varies greatly among regions, villages, and individuals. Some perform daily rituals such as worshiping at dawn after bathing (usually at a family shrine, and typically includes lighting a lamp; burning incense sticks, and offering the food/fruits/milk/water first to Gods/Goddesses by putting it before their images/idols/statues and then accepted a part of it as their blessings, recitation from religious scripts, singing devotional hymns, meditation, chanting mantras, reciting scriptures, etc.
A notable feature in Hindu religious ritual is the division between purity and pollution. Religious acts presuppose some degree of impurity or defilement for the practitioner, which must be overcome or neutralised before or during ritual procedures. Purification, usually with water, is thus a typical feature of most religious action.
Other characteristics include a belief in the efficacy of sacrifice and concept of merit, gained through the performance of charity or good works, that will accumulate over time and reduce sufferings in the next world. Vedic rites of fire-oblation (yagya) are now occasional practices, although they are highly revered in theory. Most important milestones of a person’s life like, Birth, Marriage, Death, are all marked with yagya and chanting of Vedic mantras, often involving elaborate sets of religious customs.
These religious ceremonies/ rituals start with the birth, the naming ceremony (Namakarna) for the baby needs to be carried out within a few weeks of birth. The first letter of the name is based on the birth chart of the baby which is prepared by a Purohit (Brahman priest) using Indian traditional astrology. The birth chart (Janmapatri) is shared with the parents along with the first word and some suggested names. For the initial months after the birth, the baby is totally dependent on mother’s milk (which even modern science advocates and recommends). Annaprashan is the ceremony held when the baby is about 6 month old (baby’s first intake of solid food). Traditionally, many Hindu celebrate their birthday by carrying out Yagya/ special worship ceremonies/ charity towards religious organizations. Upanayanam ‘sacred thread ceremony’ is carried out among the male kids of upper-caste Hindu to as their initiation into formal education. For most people in India, the betrothal of the young couple and the exact date and time of the wedding are matters decided by the parents in consultation with astrologers. An elaborate Yagya is an integral part of Hindu marriage ceremony, sacrificial offerings are made to the Gods through Fire (Agni), the Bride and Groom take their marriage vows in front of Fire and circle seven times around the fire as a commitment to remain with each other for the next seven birth (a marriage is for lifetime, not just one life but for the next seven as well).
In Hindu religion death of a person is not considered as the ultimate end of that person, it is the time of transformation and a new beginning and marked as such in the ritual that are carried out. On death, cremation is considered obligatory for all except Sanyasis, Eunuchs, and Children under five. Cremation is typically performed by wrapping the corpse in cloth and burning it on a pyre. As soon as a person takes last breath, the soul leaves the body and moves towards its next destination – heaven/hell/next birth or in case of that elusive moksha back to the supreme God power – based on the performance/ actions (Karma) when alive . What remains in terms of physical body needs to be return back to the nature. Cremation ceremony is a form of Yagya where the physical body of the person is return back to the 5 basic elements of the nature – Fire (which burns the physical body), Air and Sky (Where the smoke from the burning pyre goes), Earth (which claims the ashes of the burnt pyre) and Water (where the Asthis, the remains of the physical body, separated from ashes, are submerged). Even after the death, religious ceremonies involving Yagya and chanting of Vedic mantra continue to mark the death anniversary of the person, for as long as her/his lineage continue.
In the Hindu calendar dates are usually prescribed according to the lunar calendar. In vedic timekeeping, a tithi is a lunar day. The Hindu festivals are typically occasions to celebrate events from Hindu history and ancient timelines, often coinciding with a natural event e.g. seasonal changes. There are festivals which are primarily celebrated only by specific sections of people or only in certain regions. The Sanskrit word Utsava comes from the word ‘ut’ meaning “removal” and ‘sava’ which means ‘worldly sorrows’ or ‘grief’ so basically a Utsav or festival is an occasion to get out of the day-today drudgery of life and enjoy the moment. Hindu festivals are generally observed with acts of worship, offerings to deities, fasting, feasting, vigil, rituals, fairs, charity, celebrations, Puja, Yagya, Aarti etc. Mostly celebrated as a community event, Hindu festivals spread throughout the year and provide that important break from regular boring life and an opportunity to remember the Gods/Goddesses, meet relatives and friends, eat seasonal fruits and food, share happiness all around.
Some key Hindu festivals in the order of their tentative arrival as per the calendar are:
- Lohri, Sakranti, Pongal – Harvest Festivals, celebrated as Lohri in North, Sakranti in north-central-east-west and as Pongal in southern India in the middle of January every year. It also marks the auspicious beginning of Uttarayan (sun’s journey northwards).
- Vasant Panchami, Saraswati Puja – Celebrated on the fifth day of the waxing moon of Magh as per the Hindu Calendar in North and East India to seek blessings from the Goddess of Wisdom and Art – Ma Saraswati.
- February/ March
- Maha Shivratri – the 13th night of the waning moon in the month of Magh as per the Hindu Calendar is celebrated as the Mega Night dedicated to Lord Shiva – the destroyer. Devotees (specially female) keep fast and submit water/milk/fruits as offering to Lord Shiva and pray to have a powerful companion like Shiva in their real life.
- Navratri – Sanskrit word literally means ‘nine nights’ celebrated at different times and different regions of India – Its a festival to keep fast, worship female form of God (Shakti), music and dance.
- Ram Navami – Ram Navami is the celebration of the birth of Lord Rama, the incarnation of Vishnu and one of the most revered Hindu Gods, an ideal personality who lived up to all the virtues of an Ideal human being in all the roles e.g. as a Son, Husband, King, Friend, Father and even as a Foe.
- March/ April
- Holi – Full moon in the month of Phalgun as per Hindu Calender is celebrated as the festival of Colors and Fun, Food, Music and Drinks. Specially popular among the youngesters, it is one day in the year dedicated to full musti (fun) and frolics by throwing colors at each other (Dry, wet or just the Colored water with Flowers and Perfumes). It is the most popular spring festival in India. The night before the festival of Holi is commemorates as the slaying of the demoness Holika by Lord Vishnu’s devotee Prahlad and celebrated by having a bonfire. the festival’s name is derived from the Sanskrit words ‘Holika Dahanam’, which literally mean ‘burning of Holika’
- Gudi Padva/ Ugadi – According to the Brahma Purana, this is the day on which Brahma created the world. It is celebrated on the first day of the first month of Hindu calendar Chaitra month – the New Year’s Day, as Gudi Padva by Marathis & Kokanis (state & Goa states in western India). Ugadi means ‘the start of an era’ in Kannada, and celebrated as the New Year’s Day by Kannadigas (Karnataka state in south India) and Telugus (Andhra state in south India).
- May/ June/ July
- Jaganath Rath Yatra – Chariot festival is celebrated specifically in Orissa and many other places across India when the idol of Lord Jaganath (Krishna) is paraded on a chariot
- Guru Purnima – Devotees offer prayers to their Teacher (Guru) to commemorate the the day when Veda Vyasa, author of the Mahabharata was born.
- August/ September
- Onam – Also known as Vamana Jayanthi, state festival of Kerala, commemorates the Vamana avatar of Vishnu and the subsequent homecoming of the legendary Emperor Mahabali.
- Raksha Bandhan – On the full moon of the month of Shravana as per Hindu Calendar, Raksha Bandhan/ Rakhi is celebrated to recognize the the strong bond of love between a brother and a sister.
- Janamashtmi – Eighth day of waning moon in the Hindu month of Bhadrapad is celebrated as Birth Day of Lord Krishna.
- Ganesh Chaturthi – Fourth day of the waxing moon of Hindu month Bhadrapada is celebrated as Ganesh Chaturthi to mark the arrival of Ganesh (son of Lord Shiva and one of the most popular contemporary deity among Hindus) on the earth.
- October/ November
- Navratri – First nine nights of the waxing moon of Ashvin. The 2nd occasion in the year when the female form of God (Shakti) is worshiped through fasting during the day and Music and Dance during the night for nine days.
- Durga Puja/ Vijaydashmi/ Dushehra – A celebration of victory of Good over Evil is celeberated on the Tenth day of waxing moon of the Hindu month of Ashvin. In North, Cental and Western India the killing of demon king Ravana by Lord Rama is celebrated whereas in Eastern India its in commemoration of and killing of demons by Ma Durga
- Deepawali/ Diwali – 20 days after the festival of Vijasdashmi, Lord Rama returned to his kingdom Ayodhya after defeating the Evil/Demon king of Lanka – Ravana and his return after 13 years of exile is celebrated by lightening up the dark new moon night of Ashvin. It is one of the most eagerly awaited festivals by Hindus across the world. The day is considered extremely auspicious, many Hindu businessmen follow the October to September as their financial year and worship their accounting books on Deepawali Day. Its also the the peak of festive season when working people get bonuses, buy new things, 2 days before Deepawali is called Dhanteras, a day when every Hindu household is suppose to shop for at least one new thing.
- Bhaiyyadooj – Second day of the waxing moon of Kartik, is celebrated as Bhaiyyadooj by Hindus, generally, on the second day of Deepavali. A festival of brothers and sisters to meet and strenthen their bonding, its similar to Raksha Bandhan but no tying of rakhi involved.