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What we can learn from domestic rituals of Hinduism

Rohini Bakshi
Rohini BakshiSep 10, 2015 | 21:32

What we can learn from domestic rituals of Hinduism

In a previous article I argued that the dharma tradition is eminently capable of generating solutions to perceived ills in our society. Ostensibly immutable, I tried to demonstrate that its practical application was seen to vary from text-to-text, from region-to-region and from time-to-time. That far from being petrified, it was adaptable and accommodating. That unpalatable and obsolete beliefs were jettisoned without disrespecting or disregarding the tradition. That contradictions did not call into question the validity of individual rules. Lest you thought the barrel had been scraped, today I would like to share with you an exploration of Hindusaṃskāras and see if it doesn't lead to the same conclusion.


One of the greatest sources of pride for a Hindu like me is that the rituals we follow can be traced in an unbroken line all the way back to the Ṛg Veda. What our ancestors did to sanctify special occasions 5,000 years ago, we are faithfully doing even today. Of course, we added to and formalised the process. Our vivāhasaṃskāras, antyeṣṭi and garbhādhāna are direct descendants of the wedding (RV 10.85), funeral (RV 10.14,16,18) and conception hymns (RV 10 183, 184). Saṃskāras, says Benares Hindu University (BHU) scholar Rajbali Pandey, are "purificatory rites and ceremonies [to sanctify] the body, mind and intellect of and individual so that he (sic) may become a full-fledged member of the community". From the moment you are conceived to the moment you die - and beyond - at every landmark, you are reconfirmed as a practising member of the community.


These ceremonies which feature in radicle form in the early Vedic texts (saṃhitās, brāhmaṇas, upaniṣads) were first formalised in the gṛhyasūtras in the late Vedic period (circa 600-200 BCE). They continue to find expression in later texts. They are repeated in the epics and purāṇas, and in the ritual literary tradition comprising pariṣiṭas (addenda) kārikās (versified presentations), prayogas (practical handbooks) paddhatis (outlines) and commentaries. In short, there is a continuous stream of ritual literature from the most ancient times to the present day expressing the sanātanasaṃskāras of sanātana dharma. Closer examination shows us that the "eternal" beliefs and practices are far from being uniform or static, as some conceive of them. In fact, much like the closely related and overlapping dharma tradition, they are varied and demonstrably capable of adapting to new circumstances and sensitivities.


I'm going to focus on the concept of kali varjya (to be excluded, shunned or avoided, that forbidden in kaliyuga) which creates the theoretical possibility that any practice or mind set which is no longer in tune with prevailing views should be forbidden or at least eschewed. Let us begin with niyoga (levirate). Starting with RV 10.40.2 ancient literature has not scant references to levirate. Manu (9.59) and other smṛitikāras like Yajñavalkya (1.68) allow the widow or wife of an impotent or invalid person to bear children not just from the brother of her husband, but even from a sagotra, sapiṇḍaor a brāhmaṇa. We are all familiar with the Mahābharata story of Satyavati calling upon her son Veda Vyāsa to impregnate the widows of her dead son. Niyoga had implications on the garbhādhānasaṃskāra (the ritual impregnation of the wife). Was anyone other than the husband allowed to perform it? In ancient times, evidently so. But it is no longer acceptable today, being kali varjya.


Let us look at annaprāśana, the first feeding of a baby, to be done starting in the sixth solar month after the birth. Depending on the kind of child one wanted, the gṛhyasūtras recommended different foods. Some prescribed a mixture of curd, honey and ghee, some milk and rice. Different kinds of meats were recommended. If the father fed the child with the flesh of a Bhārdavāja (skylark) bird, itwould surely have fluency of speech. If he sought abundance in nourishment, the child was given the flesh of Kapiñjala (cuckoo) and ghee, fish for swiftness, Kṛkaṇa (pheasant) for long life, partridge for holy lustre, with ghee and rice for brilliance, with curd and rice for strong senses and with all of the above if he desired everything for the child. Before impregnating the wife, Brihadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad 6.4.18 recommends the couple eat rice and the meat of a young or a fully grown bull (औक्षेण वार्षभेण वा) to beget a son who is learned and famous, a captivating orator, who will master all the Vedas and live out his full life span.


These ritual prescriptions from the most revered and respected ancient texts find absolutely no place in a Hindu home today. In fact many Hindus (who have never read the ancient scriptures) would react with shock and disgust. Because they are kalivarjya (inappropriate for the yuga) they have long fallen in disuse and been forgotten by the community. But without any disrespect or disregard for the ancient texts that contain them. And therein lies the future. If we can go from feeding our six month old meat as a first food to being pure vegetarian and being horrified by the idea, why can we not duplicate that process to jettison old practices which are oppressive and derogatory to sections of the community? What stops us from adopting a new mind set, a new outlook, squarely within the tradition?

The only thing that is eternal about our eternal dharma is change. At one time polygamy was accepted. The revered Upaniṣadic sage Yajñavalkya had two wives. So did Pāṇḍu. Rāma's father had three. Medieval smṛitikāra Devala even regulated how the husband should approach his many wives for garbhādhāna. I don't see anyone justifying polygamy today because it was once done. ŚatapathaBrāhmaṇa testifies to the recognition of marriage within the third or the fourth degree of separation. That did not stop Manu and other smṛitikāras from prohibiting marriage closer thanthe seventh degree (Manu 3.5, 5.60). And neither of these rules invalidates the deśācāra (regional custom) which permits the marriage of a girl to her maternal uncle, current in parts of India even today. The procedure and approach to the marriage ceremony in the dharma and gṛhyasūtras is very structured and formal, removing all agency from the girl and the boy. Compare this to the Strīkarmaṇi of the Atharva VedaKauśikasūtras, and it stretches the imagination that the two could belong to the same tradition. But they do.And we are permitted to model our responses to modernity on the basis of either.

As yet I haven't even mentioned that fact there hasn't always been a set number of saṃskāras. Gautama enumerates 40, Manu 13. In other gṛhyasūtras like Āśvlāyana, Baudhāyana and Pāraskara, the numbers and names of the saṃskāras fluctuate. Sometimes 12, sometimes 18. And I hadn't mentioned it because it is the least important aspect of saṃskāras. The critical message I would like you to take away is the elasticity and tensile strength of Hinduism. And that our ṛṣis and sages far from being regressive, are ever able and ready to respond to changed socio-cultural requirements.The texts themselves are evidence of this.

Writing in 1949 Rajbali Pandey observes, "Many old customs that had become obsolete or obnoxious to the society were tabooed under kalivarjya by the Brāhma and Ādityapurāṇas… In new states of society old provision are outdated and new ones urgently needed… [Commenators] can do this through interpretation, extension, restriction and over-ruling. Really speaking, commentators are more important than the texts, since Hindus follow prevalent commentary." But for the custodians of our tradition to respond, for new texts or commentaries to be written, we have to show them that the time for change is urgently at hand. Not by disrespecting tradition, but by studying it and demanding change based on it.

For those who want to learn more about Hindu saṃskāras:

1. Pandey, R, Hindu Saṃskāras.

2. Swami Dayanand Saraswati, The Sanskar Vidhi.

3. Oldenberg, H, trans. The Gṛhyasūtras (This is an old translation, but available free online. If you suspect its veracity, please learn Sanskrit and read the original yourself.)

4. Radhakrishnan, S, trans. Principal Upanishads

Last updated: September 11, 2015 | 17:38
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