Hindu Rituals and Routines
Why do we follow them?
by Swami Chinmayananda
Hinduism is not a religion but a way of life. Unlike other religions, Hindu dharma has many specialties. This is not known as a religion, it is known as the dharma; Sanaathana Dharma. Sanaathana means, according to Bhagavath Geetha, which cannot be destroyed by fire, weapons, water, air, and which is present in all living and non living being. Dharma means, the way of life which is the ‘total of all aachaaraas or customs and rituals’
Sanaathana Dharma has its foundation on scientific spirituality. In the entire ancient Hindu literature we can see that science and spirituality are integrated. It is mentioned in the 40th chapter of the Yajurveda known as Eesaavaasya Upanishad that use scientific knowledge for solving problems in our life and use the spiritual knowledge for attaining immortality through philosophical outlook.
Remember that in each and every aachaaraa there will be a component of spirituality in it. Without spirituality, nothing exists in Sanaathana dharma. Generally everyone bear a wrong impression that this spirituality is religion. Spirituality is different in Hindu dharma. Here the question of religion does not exist at all, because Hindu dharma was not created by an individual, prophet or an incarnation. Spirituality is a part of every Hindu custom in the normal life of a Hindu.
Aachaaraas are to be followed based on their merits available from the self experience; you need not blindly follow a teacher or someone who gives advice without reasoning. All these aachaaraas are mentioned for the prosperity of the human beings and it should be the prime focus for practicing the Hindu aachaaraas
Achaaryaath paadam aadatthe
paadam sishya swamedhayaa
paadam sa brahmachaaribhya
sesham kaala kramena cha
This is an important advice given in smruthies. It means a person can get only one quarter of knowledge from Achaarya - the teacher, another quarter by analyzing self, one quarter by discussing with others and the last quarter during the process of living by method addition, deletion, correction, and modification of already known aachaaraas or new aachaaraas
Aachaaraath labhathe hi ayu:
aachaaraath labhathe suprajaa:
aachaaro ahanthya lakshanam
Aachaaraas are followed for the psychological and physiological health and long life; Aachaaraas are followed for prosperity and wealth; Aachaaraas are followed for strong family and social bondage and following the Aachaaraas give a fine personality, dharmic outlook and vision, says our dharmasaastra.
In India everyone followed Aachaaraas for the above mentioned psychological, physiological, family relation, social benefits and national integration based benefits. It is your right and duty to understand scientifically, rationally and logically the meaning of each and every Aachaaraas and follow the same in your life systematically
1. Why do we light a lamp?
In almost every Indian home a lamp is lit daily before the altar of the Lord. In some houses it is lit at dawn, in some, twice a day – at dawn and dusk – and in a few it is maintained continuously - Akhanda Deepa. All auspicious functions commence with the lighting of the lamp, which is often maintained right through the occasion.
Light symbolizes knowledge, and darkness - ignorance. The Lord is the "Knowledge Principle" (Chaitanya) who is the source, the enlivener and the illuminator of all knowledge. Hence light is worshiped as the Lord himself.
Knowledge removes ignorance just as light removes darkness. Also knowledge is a lasting inner wealth by which all outer achievement can be accomplished. Hence we light the lamp to bow down to knowledge as the greatest of all forms of wealth.
Why not light a bulb or tube light? That too would remove darkness. But the traditional oil lamp has a further spiritual significance. The oil or ghee in the lamp symbolizes our vaasanas or negative tendencies and the wick, the ego. When lit by spiritual knowledge, the vaasanas get slowly exhausted and the ego too finally perishes. The flame of a lamp always burns upwards. Similarly we should acquire such knowledge as to take us towards higher ideals.
Whilst lighting the lamp we thus pray:
Deepa sarva tamopahaha
Deepena saadhyate saram
Sandhyaa deepo namostute
I prostrate to the dawn/dusk lamp; whose light is the Knowledge Principle (the Supreme Lord), which removes the darkness of ignorance and by which all can be achieved in life.
2. Why do we have a prayer room?
Most Indian homes have a prayer room or altar. A lamp is lit and the Lord worshipped each day. Other spiritual practices like japa - repetition of the Lord’s name, meditation, paaraayana - reading of the scriptures, prayers, and devotional singing etc are also done here. Special worship is done on auspicious occasions like birthdays, anniversaries, festivals and the like. Each member of the family - young or old - communes with and worships the Divine here.
The Lord is the entire creation. He is therefore the true owner of the house we live in too. The prayer room is the Master room of the house. We are the earthly occupants of His property. This notion rids us of false pride and possessiveness
The ideal attitude to take is to regard the Lord as the true owner of our homes and us as caretakers of His home. But if that is rather difficult, we could at least think of Him as a very welcome guest. Just as we would house an important guest in the best comfort, so too we felicitate the Lord’s presence in our homes by having a prayer room or altar, which is, at all times, kept clean and well-decorated.
Also the Lord is all pervading. To remind us that He resides in our homes with us, we have prayer rooms. Without the grace of the Lord, no task can be successfully or easily accomplished. We invoke His grace by communing with Him in the prayer room each day and on special occasions.
Each room in a house is dedicated to a specific function like the bedroom for resting, the drawing room to receive guests, the kitchen for cooking etc. The furniture, decor and the atmosphere of each room are made conducive to the purpose it serves. So too for the purpose of meditation, worship and prayer, we should have a conducive atmosphere - hence the need for a prayer room.
Sacred thoughts and sound vibrations pervade the place and influence the minds of those who spend time there. Spiritual thoughts and vibrations accumulated through regular meditation, worship and chanting done there pervade the prayer room. Even when we are tired or agitated, by just sitting in the prayer room for a while, we feel calm, rejuvenated and spiritually uplifted.
3. Why do we do Namaste?
Indians greet each other with namaste. The two palms are placed together in front of the chest and the head bows whilst saying the word namaste. This greeting is for all - people younger than us, of our own age, those older than friends, even strangers and us.
There are five forms of formal traditional greeting enjoined in the shaastras of which namaskaram is one. This is understood as prostration but it actually refers to paying homage as we do today when we greet each other with a namaste.
Namaste could be just a casual or formal greeting, a cultural convention or an act of worship. However there is much more to it than meets the eye. In Sanskrit namah + te = namaste. It means - I bow to you - my greetings, salutations or prostration to you. Namaha can also be literally interpreted as "na ma" (not mine). It has a spiritual significance of negating or reducing one’s ego in the presence of another.
The real meeting between people is the meeting of their minds. When we greet another, we do so with namaste, which means, "may our minds meet," indicated by the folded palms placed before the chest. The bowing down of the head is a gracious form of extending friendship in love and humility
The spiritual meaning is even deeper. The life force, the divinity, the Self or the Lord in me is the same in all. Recognizing this oneness with the meeting of the palms, we salute with head bowed the Divinity in the person we meet. That is why sometimes, we close our eyes as we do namaste to a revered person or the Lord – as if to look within. The gesture is often accompanied by words like "Ram Ram,” "Jai Shri Krishna", "Namo Narayana", "Jai Siya Ram", "Om Shanti" etc - indicating the recognition of this divinity
When we know this significance, our greeting does not remain just a superficial gesture or word but paves the way for a deeper communion with another in an atmosphere of love and respect.
4. Why do we prostrate before parents and elders?
Indians prostrate before their parents, elders, teachers and noble souls by touching their feet. The elder in turn blesses us by placing his or her hand on or over our heads. Prostration is done daily, when we meet elders and particularly on important occasions like the beginning of a new task, birthdays, festivals etc. In certain traditional circles, prostration is accompanied by abhivaadana, which serves to introduce one-self, announce one’s family and social stature.
Man stands on his feet. Touching the feet in prostration is a sign of respect for the age, maturity, nobility and divinity that our elders personify. It symbolizes our recognition of their selfless love for us and the sacrifices they have done for our welfare. It is a way of humbly acknowledging the greatness of another. This tradition reflects the strong family ties, which has been one of India’s enduring strengths.
The good wishes (Sankalpa) and blessings (aashirvaada) of elders are highly valued in India. We prostrate to seek them. Good thoughts create positive vibrations. Good wishes springing from a heart full of love, divinity and nobility have a tremendous strength. When we prostrate with humility and respect, we invoke the good wishes and blessings of elders, which flow in the form of positive energy to envelop us. This is why the posture assumed whether it is in the standing or prone position, enables the entire body to receive the energy thus received.
The different forms of showing respect are : Pratuthana:
Rising to welcome a person.
Paying homage in the form of namaste
Touching the feet of elders or teachers.
Prostrating fully with the feet, knees, stomach, chest, forehead and arms touching the ground in front of the elder.
Returning a greeting.
Rules are prescribed in our scriptures as to who should prostrate to whom. Wealth, family name, age, moral strength and spiritual knowledge in ascending order of importance qualified men to receive respect. This is why a king though the ruler of the land, would prostrate before a spiritual master. Epics like the Ramayana and Mahabharata have many stories highlighting this aspect.
5. Why do we wear marks (tilak, pottu and the like) on the forehead?
The tilak or pottu invokes a feeling of sanctity in the wearer and others. It is recognized as a religious mark. Its form and colour vary according to one’s caste, religious sect or the form of the Lord worshipped.
In earlier times, the four castes (based on varna or colour) - Brahmana, Kshatriya, Vaishya and Sudra - applied marks differently. The brahmin applied a white chandan mark signifying purity, as his profession was of a priestly or academic nature. The kshatriya applied a red kumkum mark signifying valour as he belonged to warrior races. The vaishya wore a yellow kesar or turmeric mark signifying prosperity as he was a businessman or trader devoted to creation of wealth. The sudra applied a black bhasma, kasturi or charcoal mark signifying service as he supported the work of the other three divisions.
Also Vishnu worshippers apply a chandan tilak of the shape of "U,” Shiva worshippers a tripundra of bhasma, Devi worshippers a red dot of kumkum and so on).
The tilak cover the spot between the eyebrows, which is the seat of memory and thinking. It is known as the Aajna Chakra in the language of Yoga. The tilak is applied with the prayer - "May I remember the Lord. May this pious feeling pervade all my activities. May I be righteous in my deeds.” Even when we temporarily forget this prayerful attitude the mark on another reminds us of our resolve. The tilak is thus a blessing of the Lord and a protection against wrong tendencies and forces.
The entire body emanates energy in the form of electromagnetic waves - the forehead and the subtle spot between the eyebrows especially so. That is why worry generates heat and causes a headache. The tilak and pottu cools the forehead, protects us and prevents energy loss. Sometimes the entire forehead is covered with chandan or bhasma. Using plastic reusable "stick bindis" is not very beneficial, even though it serves the purpose of decoration.
6. Why do we not touch papers, books and people with the feet?
To Indians, knowledge is sacred and divine. So it must be given respect at all times. Nowadays we separate subjects as sacred and secular. But in ancient India every subject - academic or spiritual - was considered divine and taught by the guru in the gurukula.
The custom of not stepping on educational tools is a frequent reminder of the high position accorded to knowledge in Indian culture. From an early age, this wisdom fosters in us a deep reverence for books and education. This is also the reason why we worship books, vehicles and instruments once a year on Saraswathi Pooja or Ayudha Pooja day, dedicated to the Goddess of Learning. In fact, each day before starting our studies, we pray:
Saraswati namasthubhyam Varade kaama roopini Vidyaarambham karishyaami Sidhirbhavatu me sadaa
O Goddess Saraswati, the giver of Boons and fulfiller of wishes, I prostrate to You before starting my studies. May you always fulfill me?
7. To touch another with the feet is considered an act of misdemeanor. Why is this so?
Man is regarded as the most beautiful, living breathing temple of the Lord! Therefore touching another with the feet is akin to disrespecting the divinity within him or her. This calls for an immediate apology, which is offered with reverence and humility.
8. Why do we apply the holy ash?
The ash of any burnt object is not regarded as holy ash. Bhasma (the holy ash) is the ash from the homa (sacrificial fire) where special wood along with ghee and other herbs is offered as worship of the Lord. Or the deity is worshipped by pouring ash as abhisheka and is then distributed as bhasma.
Bhasma is generally applied on the forehead. Some apply it on certain parts of the body like the upper arms, chest etc. Some ascetics rub it all over the body. Many consume a pinch of it each time they receive it.
The word bhasma means, "that by which our sins are destroyed and the Lord is remembered.” Bha implied bhartsanam ("to destroy") and sma implies smaranam ("to remember"). The application of bhasma therefore signifies destruction of the evil and remembrance of the divine. Bhasma is called vibhuti (which means "glory") as it gives glory to one who applies it and raksha (which means a source of protection) as it protects the wearer from ill health and evil, by purifying him or her.
Homa (offering of oblations into the fire with sacred chants) signifies the offering or surrender of the ego and egocentric desires into the flame of knowledge or a noble and selfless cause. The consequent ash signifies the purity of the mind, which results from such actions.
Also the fire of knowledge burns the oblation and wood signifying ignorance and inertia respectively. The ash we apply indicates that we should burn false identification with the body and become free of the limitations of birth and death. This is not to be misconstrued as a morose reminder of death but as a powerful pointer towards the fact that time and tide wait for none.
Bhasma is specially associated with Lord Shiva who applies it all over His body. Shiva devotes apply bhasma as a tripundra. When applied with a red spot at the center, the mark symbolizes Shiva-Shakti (the unity of energy and matter that creates the entire seen and unseen universe).
Tryambakam yajaamahe Sugandhim pushtivardhanam Urvaa rukamiva bhandhanaan Mrytyor muksheeyamaa amrutaat
"We worship the three-eyed Lord Shiva who nourishes and spread fragrance in our lives. May He free us from the shackles of sorrow, change and death – effortlessly, like the fall of a rip brinjal from its stem."
9. Why do offer food to the Lord before eating it?
Indians make an offering of food to the Lord and later partake of it as prasaada - a holy gift from the Lord. In our daily ritualistic worship (pooja) too we offer naivedyam (food) to the Lord.
The Lord is omnipotent and omniscient. Man is a part, while the Lord is the totality. All that we do is by His strength and knowledge alone. Hence what we receive in life as a result of our actions is really His alone. We acknowledge this through the act of offering food to Him. This is exemplified by the Hindi words "tera tujko arpan"– I offer what is Yours to You. Thereafter it is akin to His gift to us, graced by His divine touch
Knowing this, our entire attitude to food and the act of eating changes. The food offered will naturally be pure and the best. We share what we get with others before consuming it. We do not demand, complain or criticise the quality of the food we get. We eat it with cheerful acceptance (prasaada buddhi).
Before we partake of our daily meals we first sprinkle water around the plate as an act of purification. Five morsels of food are placed on the side of the plate acknowledging the debt owed by us to the Divine forces (devta runa) for their benign grace and protection, our ancestors (pitru runa) for giving us their lineage and a family culture, the sages (rishi runa) as our religion and culture have been "realised", aintained and handed down to us by them, our fellow beings (manushya runa) who constitute society without the support of which we could not live as we do and other living beings (bhuta runa) for serving us selflessly.
Thereafter the Lord, the life force, who is also within us as the five life-giving physiological functions, is offered the food. This is done with the chant
praanaaya swaahaa, apaanaaya swaahaa, vyaanaaya swaahaa, udaanaaya swaahaa, samaanaaya swaahaa, brahmane swaahaa
After offering the food thus, it is eaten as prasaada - blessed food.
10. Why do we fast?
Most devout Indians fast regularly or on special occasions like festivals. On such days they do not eat at all, eat once or make do with fruits or a special diet of simple food.
Fasting in Sanskrit is called upavaasa. Upa means "near" + vaasa means "to stay". Upavaasa therefore means staying near (the Lord), meaning the attainment of close mental proximity with the Lord. Then what has upavaasa to do with food?
A lot of our time and energy is spent in procuring food items, preparing, cooking, eating and digesting food. Certain food types make our minds dull and agitated. Hence on certain days man decides to save time and conserve his energy by eating either simple, light food or totally abstaining from eating so that his mind becomes alert and pure. The mind, otherwise pre-occupied by the thought of food, now entertains noble thoughts and stays with the Lord. Since it is a self-imposed form of discipline it is usually adhered to with joy
Also every system needs a break and an overhaul to work at its best. Rest and a change of diet during fasting is very good for the digestive system and the entire body
The more you indulge the senses, the more they make their demands. Fasting helps us to cultivate control over our senses, sublimate our desires and guide our minds to be poised and at peace.
Fasting should not make us weak, irritable or create an urge to indulge later. This happens when there is no noble goal behind fasting.
The Bhagavad-Gita urges us to eat appropriately - neither too less nor too much - yukta-aahaara and to eat simple, pure and healthy food (a saatvik diet) even when not fasting.
11. Why do we do pradakshina (circumambulate)?
We cannot draw a circle without a center point. The Lord is the center, source and essence of our lives. Recognizing Him as the focal point in our lives, we go about doing our daily chores. This is the significance of pradakshina.
Also every point on the circumference of a circle is equidistant from the center. This means that wherever or whoever we may be, we are equally close to the Lord. His grace flows towards us without partiality
Om Tat Sat