In today’s multicultural society we are increasingly likely to meet and become friends with people from different religious backgrounds, and to find ourselves attending an unfamiliar ceremony. When this happens, there can be few of us who know exactly what to expect, or are confident about how to behave. This chapter from Do I Kneel or Do I Bow? will tell you everything you need to understand and take part in a Hindu ceremony.
About the Author
She has practiced as a psychotherapist, both privately and within Britain’s National Health Service. Her corporate background was in senior human resource management. She is an effective and experienced executive coach, trainer, seminar speaker, and EAP counsellor, specializing in Emotional Intelligence and Stress Management. She has written for a variety of publications, and her book How to Do Life–Powerful Pointers for Powerful Living became one of the most popular self-help titles in the United Kingdom.
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The Simple Guide to Attending Hindu Ceremonies
By Akasha Lonsdale
Bravo LtdCopyright © 2011 Kuperard
All rights reserved.
WHAT HINDUS BELIEVE
Hinduism has evolved over millennia, with roots going back to the civilizations of the Indus Valley in the third millennium BCE. The spiritual path and way of life that emerged in India became the Vedic Dharma (the Divine Knowledge), also known as Sanatana Dharma (the Eternal Law) and later as Hinduism. Today India and Nepal are, formally, secular countries, but the majority of Indians and Nepalese are Hindus, and there are Hindu communities around the world.
Hinduism is a complex religious system, but, contrary to appearances, is a monotheistic faith, with belief in a Supreme Being. This universal spirit, or ultimate reality, is Brahman, or Nirguna-Brahman, meaning 'without attributes', sometimes referred to as 'That'. The visible manifestations of Brahman are called saguna, meaning 'with attributes'. Three forces arise out of Brahman. Known as the the Trimurti, these are often depicted as a three-headed image. They are Brahma, the creator; Vishnu, the sustainer; and Mahesh or Shiva, the destroyer. The female principle of Shiva is Shakti, worshipped in her own right, and sometimes known as mata (mother) or devi (goddess).
Their respective consorts – some say, the representations of their feminine attributes – are Saraswati, goddess of learning, knowledge and the arts; Lakshmi, goddess of beauty and prosperity; and Parvati, goddess of love and devotion, although her darker sides are represented in Durga, goddess of overcoming difficulties, and Kali.
The incarnations of the Trimurti are known as avatars. Vishnu has had numerous mythical avatars, the best known being Lord Krishna, whose consort is Radha. Followers of Vishnu, also known as Narayan, are called Vaishnavites, and sometimes wear sandalwood paste in vertical stripes on their foreheads. Two of Shiva's incarnations are Pashupati, champion of animals, and Nataraj, king of the dance. Shaivites wear ritual ash in horizontal stripes on their foreheads.
Another key aspect of Hinduism is the Jivatman, the soul, or divine consciousness residing in each individual. This is part of the eternal Atman, the Supreme Self – with a capital 'S', to distinguish it from the Ahamkara, the small 'ego-driven' self that experiences human suffering. This concept is what makes Hinduism a non-dualist religion, believing as it does that we are Brahman (God/Atman) and Brahman is ourselves, that is, there is no separation: we are 'one'. The goal of meditation, chanting and devotion to spiritual practice is therefore to reconnect with the Supreme Self that we always have been and always will be.
SAMSARA, KARMA, DHARMA, MOKSHA
Hindus believe in samsara, or the transmigration of souls, and life is lived with awareness of karma, the law of cause and effect. This means that what you do in this lifetime will be stored up as sanskaras (imprints in the non-physical body) that return with each rebirth and influence how well, or otherwise, your life goes next time round. It is said that each lifetime brings the opportunity to burn past sanskaras by living a righteous life of dharma (truth) and following spiritual practices. It is hoped that this minimises the number of rebirths, or improves their quality, and ultimately leads to moksha – freedom from the cycle of life, death and rebirth.
Human beings seem to need a focus for devotion, and Hinduism accommodates this by including human attributes in that focus. For example, Hindus might pray to Saraswati, the goddess of knowledge and learning, for a good outcome in an exam; to Lakshmi, the goddess of prosperity, for financial abundance; and to Ganesh, the popular elephant- headed god, and son of Shiva and Parvati, 'the remover of all obstacles and Lord of auspicious beginnings' at the start of a new venture. Thus Hinduism could be summarised as 'one reality, many paths', which makes Hindus very tolerant of other religions and beliefs.
PURUSARTHA: THE FOUR GOALS
The four aims of a Hindu's life are:
Dharma, following the path of righteousness and adhering to social and religious law
Artha, concerned with worldly success in the pursuit of work, wealth and possessions
Kama (not to be confused with karma), enjoyment in life, desire and the pursuit of pleasure
Moksha, liberation from the cycle of life, death and rebirth
While there is no single holy book that can be considered a final authority, the scriptures known as the Vedas, which stretch back some eight to ten thousand years, form the foundation of all Hindu belief, and are believed to have been divinely revealed to rishis (visionaries) as sruti ('that which is heard'). For thousands of years the Vedas were an oral tradition, and those who held this knowledge, and transmitted it from father to son, became the Brahmin, or priestly, caste. All other scriptures, such as the later Puranas, which contain mythological accounts of ancient deities, are considered smriti ('that which is remembered').
In time, they were written down in Sanskrit, the classical, sacred language of Hindu literature, and contain the Upanishads, the philosophical texts at the end of the Vedas. Probably the two most famous and extensive teachings that evolved from the Vedic texts are contained in the epic spiritual poems of the Mahabharata (telling of the rivalry between two families, and the pending battle of Kurukshetra). This includes the Bhagavad Gita (the dialogue between Vishnu's incarnation, Lord Krishna, and his devotee, Prince Arjuna, before the battle), and the Ramayana (the story of how Lord Rama, said to be an incarnation of Vishnu, rescues his kidnapped wife, Sita, from the evil, ten-headed King Ravana, with the help of Hanuman, the monkey god). All three poems are deeply philosophical and contain guidance for righteous living.
A sometimes controversial aspect of Hinduism is that of the caste system, a social hierarchy originally consisting of four varnas, or colours. This does not refer to skin colour, but has been likened to a diamond that reflects light in different colours; the diamond is the Divine, and the radiated lights are the different reflections of divinity created as social orders, of which the most influential were the Brahmin priestly families. The second level, the Kshatriyas, were the warrior, or ruling class and the third, the Vaishyas, were artisans and traders. The Shudras, as servants and unskilled labourers, formed the fourth and lowest level, but below them were the Untouchables, who were literally 'outcaste'. Mahatma Gandhi, of the Vaishyas (Gandhi means 'greengrocer'), renamed the Untouchables 'Harijan' (children of God), and they have now been reclassified as Panchama, the fifth varna, with some of them fighting for their rights in groups calling themselves Dalit (oppressed). While the caste system is now illegal in India, it persists in practice, particularly in regard to marriage.
SCHOOLS OF YOGA
Yoga means 'union' (with Brahman). Within Hinduism four different paths of yoga have emerged that seem to meet the needs of different personality types.
Raja yoga is a very disciplined and classical yoga, also known as Ashtanga (eight limbs) yoga. Patanjali, a respected author, wrote in the Yoga Sutras (c.150 BCE), that practice of the eight limbs of yoga – yama (restraints); niyama (observances); asana (posture); pranayama (breath control); pratyahara (detachment); dharana (concentration); dhyana (meditation) and samadhi (union, wholeness) – would lead to the ability to cease the fluctuations of the mind, and to the discovery of the real Self.
Jnana yoga is the yoga of knowledge, using the mind to transcend the mind, and includes reading and reflecting on sacred text, so as to understand its deeper wisdom and profound meanings, and gain insight and inner 'awakening'.
Karma yoga was quite radical as it was open to everyone, regardless of caste, placed an emphasis on improving social and economic conditions, and embraced an interest in the exploration of science and medicine. It promotes a holistic approach and believes that the ability to live fully in the present, rather than the past or future, comes with the recognition that the constant cycle of desire does not bring fulfilment. It is the path of selfless action and service, as embodied in the life of Mahatma Gandhi. Hatha yoga, which focuses on posture and breathing, comes from this path.
Bhakti yoga is a path of love and devotion to a chosen deity, or to a guru (spiritual teacher, from the words gu, dark, and ru, light). A guru helps a devotee to evolve from the dark of ignorance to the light of truth, through various spiritual practices that include reading sacred texts, chanting and meditating. Outside India the best- known followers of Bhakti yoga are the saffronrobed Hare Krishna movement, whose constant chant of devotion is 'Hare Krishna'(Hare is a Krishnaivite term for God).
Modern Hindu movements that have popularised yoga as a form of body/mind balance in the West include those of Transcendental Meditation of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi; Osho; Mother Meera; Sai Baba and Ramana Maharshi.CHAPTER 2
PLACE OF WORSHIP
A Hindu temple is generally referred to as a mandir. A purpose-built mandir is designed according to guidelines laid down in the priests' manual Vastu Shastra, which includes instructions on space, direction, allocation of areas – much like the Chinese Feng Shui – and when to build, but in the West many mandirs are adapted from existing buildings, including redundant churches.
Generally, a mandir outside India will have been created and funded by the local community, and will have a full management structure, from chairperson to caretakers. The key religious person is likely to be a swami (the respectful title for a Hindu monk) or a pandit, a scholar of sacred Hindu text. Their role is to lead satsang (collective prayer), give readings and discourses, counsel worshippers and conduct rituals and ceremonies. Swamis are sometimes called sadhus. Although this term is usually associated with the holy men with matted hair who gather in India every three years for the sacred Khumb Mela pilgrimage, sadhus are holy men and women who follow an ancient tradition of never remaining in one place long enough to become attached.
Other places of worship are ashrams – retreats following Hindu monastic tradition where devotees go for varying periods of time to deepen their sadhana (spiritual practice). Part of this is seva (selfless service). Seva can range from administration to cleaning bathrooms, but, regardless of the task, the emphasis is on the spirit of willing service.
At home, Hindus will also have a shrine or altar for daily puja (devotion) and while this might just be a simple fabric-covered shelf with an image of a favourite god or goddess, incense and a candle, it could also be a dedicated room containing a murti, or statue of a deity. Meditation is a strong focus of devotion, as it is believed to be the inward path of reconnection to Atman, and will usually include the silent repetition of the universal and most ancient mantra (sacred Sanskrit sound syllable) 'Aum', or 'Om' (pronounced to rhyme with 'home').
INSIDE A MANDIR
Each mandir is unique, and while some have simple welcome areas with wooden floors, others have carpets and a few have grand marble halls. On entering, however, you are always likely to find a calm atmosphere, a smell of incense and a great many pictures of the different deities, together with framed writings, Sanskrit verses and other sacred images.
Within the prayer area are a number of colourfully decorated garbhagrhas (shrines) with oil lamps, incense sticks, flowers and plates or bowls of food, such as fruit and nuts, placed in front of a murti. Key deities will usually be grouped in twos or threes at the front; some murtis, such as Ganesh, will be contained within individual shrines at different locations in the temple. If the temple follows a particular guru, there will usually be a murti of that guru. Above each shrine will be a sikara (tower symbolising a mountain), as it is believed that this directs the deity into both the shrine and the devotees. At large mandirs, such as the Neasden Temple in London, a sikara is part of the outer roof structure.
A murti is specially made to detailed rules, and once consecrated by a Brahmin priest is considered to embody the deity represented. It is therefore treated with the utmost reverence, which includes daily bathing, clothing (in colourful and majestic garments) and the offering of food.
Mandirs vary in how they arrange their services, but satsang is held every day of the week, sometimes both morning and evening. Because most people live busy lives, Sunday is the day when the greatest numbers are likely to gather at the mandir to meditate, chant and listen to readings or teachings from sacred texts. In some temples on certain Sundays, perhaps the first of each month, devotees come together to sing bhajans (hymns), which are sung in every language of India, including Sanskrit. After oil lamps are lit, the pandit or the elders will lead the singing, accompanied by a floor-level harmonium and other musical instruments.
In the shrine area, silence is maintained, apart from chanting, to respect those who might be meditating or reflecting. When not standing, both men and women sit cross-legged on the floor, sometimes in separate areas.CHAPTER 3
FESTIVALS AND HOLY DAYS
THE HINDU CALENDAR
The Hindu calendar uses the sun and moon, the brightest objects in the sky, as time markers. The sun heralds the return of each of the six ritus (seasons), while the new moon marks the start of each month, which is divided in two. Amavashya is the auspicious night of the new moon, and Purnima is the night of the full moon. The months therefore do not coincide with the Western calendar.
Festivals and holy days are very important in Hindu culture, and there are a great many of them. Those listed here are the main festivals celebrated both in India and by Hindu communities around the world. All these celebrations are greatly influenced by cultural context, but have certain fundamental elements in common.
The use of the lunar calendar means that, year by year, the dates of the festivals and holy days change in relation to the Western calendar. Here we give the date within the relevant Hindu month and whether it falls in SP or KP. Dates for each year can be found on Hindu websites.
If you visit a mandir or ashram during festivals and holy days, you might see a rangoli, an elaborate and colourful mandala (sacred geometric design) made from sand, powder or flowers, on the ground outside. It is known by different names in different traditions, and its designs might include the Hindu symbol for the universal mantra 'Om'; the sacred lotus flower (the national flower of India), whose unfolding petals represent purity and suggest the expansion of the Self, growing as it does from the mud into the light; and also the swastika (not to be confused with that used by Nazi Germany). The swastika represents the four goals of Hinduism and the four directions; the centre point represents creation, the centre being the mystical point of neither creation nor non-creation, and the lines emerging from it the movement of creation from that centre. The bent arms extending from these lines signify our movement from one goal to the next in an eternal flow of birth and rebirth.
People also create rangolis outside their homes on special occasions, as symbols of welcome and hospitality. One might also be painted permanently on the floor of a temple as an auspicious yantra (picture of power) to which prayers would be directed.
Every month there are two important and auspicious dates for visiting the mandir. These fall on the eleventh day after both the new and the full moon, and are called the Ekadashi (which means one plus ten). For those who are able, these are often waterless fasting days, on which grain and beans are avoided from sunrise to sunset.
Navaratri means 'nine nights,' and there are two festivals of this name. The first falls in spring, in the month of Caitra, which in northern India is the beginning of the Hindu calendar, and the second, considered to be the more auspicious, in the autumn month of Asvina. Both festivals are also known as Durga Puja and the Festival of Joy.
On each successive night at the mandir, which will be brightly decorated with coloured lights and flowers, all forms of the three major goddesses, Saraswati, Lakshmi and Durga, are worshipped and their exploits recounted from the Devi Mahatmaya (the Great Story of the Goddess). This celebrates the power of the divine feminine, and women will be dressed in bright clothes and jewellery, much of which will be newly bought for the occasion.
In Gujarati communities, from western India, women perform the traditional Garba and Dandia circle dances, clashing short sticks in time to foot-tapping music.
Falling on 9 Caitra (SP), Ramnavami celebrates the birth of Lord Rama, the first human incarnation of Vishnu, and a ruler associated with a peaceful and righteous reign. This is a day of fasting, which begins in the early morning with a prayer to the sun, and is followed at noon, said to be Lord Rama's time of birth, with a special prayer or chant.
In parts of India, especially in the north, there is a grand procession with a richly decorated chariot and four people dressed as Lord Rama, Sita, his queen, his brother Laxman, and his devotee, Hanuman, the monkey god.
Hanuman symbolises strength, selfless devotion and energy, and is worshipped in his own right with temple prayers, fasting, chants and readings, particularly on his Jayanti (birthday) which also falls in Caitra, although this month varies in different regions.
This precedes Ramnavami and, in a few Hindu communities, is the time when the whole of the Ramayana, the life story of Lord Rama, will be recited, together with Ramlila, a dramatic reenactment of the ten-day battle between Lord Rama and the evil Ravana, who had abducted his wife, Sita. This is a favourite with children, who join in wholeheartedly, and is a powerful way of bringing this sacred story alive. The temple will be colourfully decorated, with prasad and additional food being donated by different families each night.
Excerpted from The Simple Guide to Attending Hindu Ceremonies by Akasha Lonsdale. Copyright © 2011 Kuperard. Excerpted by permission of Bravo Ltd.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
About the Author,
WHAT HINDUS BELIEVE,
Samsara, Karma, Dharma, Moksha,
Schools of Yoga,
PLACE OF WORSHIP,
Inside a Mandir,
FESTIVALS AND HOLY DAYS,
The Hindu Calendar,
Raksha Bandan, Rakhi Bandan,
Diwali, Deepawali, Dival,
RITUALS AND CEREMONIES,
Coming of Age,
Death and Mourning,
SOME USEFUL WORDS AND PHRASES,