Rituals and Traditions

Now you know.
You know that you should do
what the holy books say is
right and good.
(Gita 16:24)

The Vedas prescribe the manner in which ceremonies, known as pujas, should be performed. The earliest described sacrificial rituals were undertaken to appease forces of nature, spirits, demons, and gods. Later they evolved into rituals dedicated to the worship of the absolute God. Today pujas remain an important center of Hindu life. They are festive events where God is respectfully given offerings of sweetmeats, fruit, flowers, and incense.

At large ceremonies, participants and visitors dressed in their finest clothes and adorned with jewelry come to homes and temples in happy moods. Most attendees enjoy worshipping with their friends and family and then sharing the treats that follow. They are attentive to the proceedings for a while, but not bound to absolute silence and many hope that the priest will move things along at a brisk pace.

An entire Veda, the Sama Veda, was dedicated to ceremonies in which the cannabis-like soma plant, similar to marijuana, was honored and used to modify states of consciousness. While partaking of this plant, ground up in milk or mixed into food, is no longer a current practice, the puja is still meant to be a pleasurable experience that brings about feelings of well-being. Religious ceremonies, whether elaborate or simple, belong to Hinduism’s living and growing memory.

Long standing cultural practices that link the present to the past become tradition. The practices of some persons reflect strong beliefs whereas those of others are more of habit. Certain traditions, like arranged marriage, have enduring effects while others, like eating sweets before undertaking a journey, are symbolic gestures.

It may take a great deal of effort to follow some traditions, like learning the language of one’s ancestors, or giving up meat, or going on distant pilgrimages. On the other hand, following other traditions, like wearing a particular gem stone for good luck, can be easy, enjoyable, or comforting. Traditional practices among Hindus vary from person to person, from family to family, from region to region, and from one community to another.

One could say that each Hindu follows a self-designed path that becomes his or her personal tradition. Although traditions are well established, they adapt to the times and circumstances. In the past, Hindu joint families were the norm. Work was passed down from father to son and a family was like a small commune where everyone worked for the common good.

Now, in India and worldwide joint Hindu families are breaking up and nuclear families are increasing in number. Children develop different skills and travel to study and to find work. Opportunities for a joint family to thrive as a single economic unit are becoming limited and less inclination exists to participate in a lifestyle that does not afford much privacy.

While Hindu practices are not cast in concrete, the beliefs underlying the practices have remained stable over the ages. People find the means to uphold traditions and to pass them along to successive generations. Hindus seek out lessons, classes, teachers, and media programs that reach out and teach the young new ways to preserve old ideals and ideas. Like-minded friends gather together and make purposeful efforts to preserve their valuable heritage and to pass it along to their children.

Hindu traditions touch most aspects of daily life. Language, dress, use of symbolic markings like a dot on the forehead or red powder in the hair parting, wearing the sacred thread or special bracelets, greeting others in a particular manner, praying, engaging in meditation or yoga, following astrological recommendations, observing dietary restrictions or fasts, respecting certain superstitions, visiting temples and shrines, or using particular Hindu names are some of the many traditions that are a part of Hindu life. People follow some traditions wholly and consistently while they follow others in part or from time to time. Not everyone in a family observes the same traditions, as not everyone finds every tradition relevant to his or her personal values or beliefs. However, everyone is expected to respect the traditions that their loved ones do observe.

Read more on Hindu Traditions in On Hinduism by Irina Gajjar