HINDU RITUALS AND MYTHOLOGY
Discourse by N.R. Srinivasan 2010
Everything in creation is essentially divine. It is given to man only to fully manifest the Divinity within him and become divine in all his beings. Then alone he attains perfection and becomes a real man distinct from all other beings. Hinduism teaches that God is present everywhere. He is also in our hearts. We are driven by nature. But divinity lies deep in our being. We do not perceive it so long our unclean mind stands in the way. Just as light cannot be seen through smoky chimney, so God cannot be seen through an unclean mind. All the while he is in us, and every where around us. If we want to see light we have to cleanse the chimney; so if we want to bring out the Divinity in us, we have to clean our mind. As our mind becomes purer, we grow wiser and get more strength and more joy. Hindu rituals, Kirtans, discourses based on Hindu mythology (Puraanas) lead us in cleansing our mind and prepare for the spiritual growth.
Spiritual truths underlying Hinduism are highly abstruse. For spiritual growth, one has not only to understand the truths but also govern one's life and conduct in their light till truths are realized. This can be achieved only through a pure heart. One's mind has to be thoroughly cleansed before this is possible. Mere intellectual grasp of the spiritual truth will lead us no where.
We are all endowed with the intuition of a pure heart. But it remains clouded in an unclean mind. Spiritual truths are realized only when the mind is pure. The sole business of rituals is to help cleansing of one's mind. Then Truth realization will naturally follow. Herein lays the proper understanding and utility of both rituals and mythology (Puraanas).
Hindu temple worship and home rituals are designed to purify the mind. They seem to have no other objective in view.
Of course, some Hindus practice unedifying rituals which may very well be called magic rites. These have come into vogue since the days of Atharva Veda and prescribed later by Tantra. These Tantric practices are intended either for crushing one's foe or for gaining coveted object, for curing maladies or for averting misfortunes. These Tantric rites practiced by the people with good intentions are not harmful as long as the end in view has the sanction of Shastras. The foe for example, may be an antisocial element who has to be crushed for the well being of the society. Then they cannot degrade one spiritually. But these may be abused by unclean and weak minds which result in spiritual degradation, such as meeting selfish and nefarious ends.
All other rituals, leaving those mentioned above are conducive to well being. The root cause of all mental impurities is the ignorance or Avidya about the Self within or our essential Divinity. Anything that helps to reduce this ignorance certainly goes to purify the mind.
Contemplation on the God and on the divinity of our soul goes to eliminate ignorance and is an effective purifier of mind. Abstract contemplation as suggested in Upanishads however is a very difficult job, beyond the capacity of many. But it becomes easy enough for all when it is made concrete through temple worship or rituals.
Iconic usage in the form of images and symbols to represent God comes in handy here. When one worships before an image or a symbol, one is surely thinking of God and none else. Human mind is so constituted that it cannot grasp an abstraction. It requires something concrete to hold on. Even those who are up against forms of God cannot do away with forms altogether in spiritual practice. The very reference to God by the pronouns "He" or "She", the very description of his or her abode in heaven with the particular structures of our places of worship as well as details of rituals, rest entirely on concrete form. The process of vitalizing an image (Praana-pratishtaa) shows clearly how rituals can help the gradual assimilation of the idea of the divinity of the soul. This sort of concretization is highly effective even to intellectuals.
One of the outstanding spiritual truths preached by Hinduism is that God manifests himself as nature. When one's mind becomes absolutely clean one sees God everywhere and in everything. The rivers, seas and mountains are the bodies of their presiding deities who are worshipped by the Hindus. These deities are superior manifestations of God. All pervading God appears to be thinly veiled as it were in cities and towns like Vaaraanasi, Puri, Ujjain, Kanyaakumaari which are holy places for pilgrims to resort to. Even the very dust on the streets of these places is said to be holy. Then certain trees, herbs, grass, wood, flowers leaves, metals, stone etc. are considered holy.
In the course of the worship, the deity has to be bathed in water drawn from various sources or mixed with scores of things which are all considered holy. This thought is to extend the devotee's vision of holiness to every corner of the world. This thought of all pervading holiness sanctifies one's own mind, purges it of all evil propensities and makes it gradually fit for realizing the Divine immanence in nature.
Thought about the purity of the devotee's own body and mind and everything about him, what may be said to be the psychological background of all Hindu rituals comes first prior to contemplation of God, his immanence in nature and the divinity of the soul. A few examples from the rituals connected with Tantrik worship may well illustrate this point. Before going in for worship, the devotee has to bathe, preferably in some holy water, cleanse his body thoroughly and then put on a clean set of clothes often set apart for the purpose. The place of worship must have a holy association; it may be within a temple or under a sacred tree or in the shrine attached to one's household. The place together with all articles to be used in worship has to be scrupulously cleaned. Before proceeding to the place, the devotee has to turn his mind towards God through contemplation, hymns and repetition of his holy name (Japa).
Just before its precincts he is to pray for getting his mind purged of all impurities. Then inviting some deities he is to purify himself by what is called aachamana. Then he purifies the water to be used in worship by a sacred mantra. Then this water is used for purifying the accessories used in the ritual. This follows the contemplation connected with the step known as "Bhutasuddhi". Through these concrete forms the devotee is induced to believe that his mind has become spotlessly clean. If we insist on thinking that we are pure, we become pure. It is a kind of self hypnosis. The physical body is divinized through the process called "Nyaasa".
After this process of self purification the devotee proceeds to worship God through an image or symbol. The deity is welcomed, offered a seat, bathed and dressed, and then regaled with flowers, incense and dainty dishes. Thus divinizing himself by preliminary process of self-purification, and humanizing the Divine through this course of entertainments, the devotee lives during the period of worship as close to as possible to God in a mood of Holy Communion.
This is followed by "aaraadrika" to emphasize the glory of God. It consists of waving before the image of the Lord light, water, cloth, flower and the "chaamara" (a whisk made of the bushy tail of the yak). This appears to stand for the five elements, namely, fire, water, ether, earth and air. The cloth having numerous pores symbolizes ether; and smell being a special property of earth, it is best represented by the flower. The whole universe represented by its elementary constituents is thus offered symbolically to the Lord by way of his worship. Thus the devotee's mind from the humanized view of the Lord is lifted to the super cosmic view. This is closed by "homa", the fire ritual quite often. Through Agni, the presiding deity of fire, the offerings of the devotee are conveyed to the Lord of the universe, obviously, survival of Vedic worship.
We all go to temple once a week at least as well as on special festive occasions for external form of ritualistic worship. Visiting temples is not obligatory for Hindus.Each Hindu usually has a shrine in his or her house where daily prayers are offered. Temples in India usually have only religious activities. There are separate organizations serving the cause of spiritual advancement in towns and cities. But in countries outside, Hindu temples are also hubs of social activity. Hindu temples outside India also organize, Kirtans (devotional singing), reading Puraanas, arrange religious discourses and often spiritual teachings for the local immigrants.
Hindu temple priests are salaried employees hired by the temple authorities to perform ritualistic worship. Temples outside India also follow this pattern. The priest's duty is to perform rituals on behalf of the temple trustees. They are not to be compared with "Swamys" (all renouncing Sanyasins or Vedantins), who do not work for money. Hindu priests are family men who are adept in ritualistic worship trained in the methods of worship as prescribed in Saiva aagamas or Pancharaatra Samhitaas.
During worship the priest offers various services to God, just as one would do in regard to someone who is highly loved or adored as an honored guest. As the human mind cannot think other than in human terms, God is looked upon as a person, no matter how glorified, and offered food, drink, flowers, perfume etc. The priest is fully aware that God does not need any of these things, nevertheless they are offered as a token of love and adoration. The consecrated food called Prasaadam is freely distributed, most of the times. Eating Prasaadam is considered spiritually beneficial; therefore devotees sometimes go to temples especially for the food. The bath water of the deity is considered holy. Small quantities of that water are drunk by devotees for their mental and physical purification. This water is called Charanaamrita.
Yajnas are performed at temporary altars constructed as per Tantric laws. These altars are made exclusively for Yajnas, and as soon as the Yajna is over the altar is destroyed. Yajna involves no image or idol of God. A special Yantra (complex geometrical figure) is drawn on the altar and this Yantra personifies the deity of worship. Most of the Yajna rituals involve simultaneous chanting by many Brahmin priests.
There are two kinds of Yajnas, one done exclusively for public welfare and the other done for the good of the householders. Public Yajnas used to be sponsored by several Hindu kings, but they are now sponsored by several Hindu temple managements and socio-religious organizations. One of the most popular domestic Yajnas is Ganpati Homam or Sudarshana Homam. This Yajna in done once a year by a very capable Brahmin priest, in most Hindu homes.
Yajna is usually done for material human welfare. Of course, by performing Yajnas, a devotee is indirectly brought closer to God, for he fully understands the power of God in his day-to-day affairs.
One of the very ancient rituals is known as Rajasuya Yajna or horse sacrifice. It is a Vedic ritual usually done during the coronation of kings. The term Rajasuya means "king–engendering". It is said in the Mahabharata that the Pandavas conducted the Rajasuya ritual under the guidance of Lord Krishna. In its entire course, this ritual lasts two years. Even though this ritual is associated with the coronation of kings, it also stresses the continuance of the cosmic rhythm of birth and life. Agnihotra is another domestic ritual still practiced by orthodox Brahmins.
Apart from all the rituals described above, there are a number of Vedic rituals collectively known as Samskaras, meaning "refinements". Actually, the closest word in English to the word Samskara is "sacrament". The Samskaras consist of all rituals from the time of birth to the time of death. There are at least sixteen Samskara rituals.
All rituals, have the objectives—physical and mental purification. This can be achieved only by active participation in spiritual teachings and discussions. If ritualistic worship is done with proper understanding, devotees gradually open their vision for spiritual growth and become ready for mental worship or meditation which is the best form of worship.
A religious or social function is very often followed by a dramatic presentation of Hindu mythology, or a recital and exposition of the same by an expert known as Kathaka or Haridasa (one who narrates). Thus through ages, the lofty ideas and ideals of Hinduism have been conveyed through impressive stories and inspiring historical facts to every stratum of the Hindu society. Such a technique was in use even as early as the days of the Vedic Brahmanas. In the Brahmana are found mythology and legends (Itihasas), Puraanas (cosmogony myths), Gaathas (epic song verses) and Naaraasamsi(songs in praise of heroes). In course of time these grew up and swelled in volume comprising what is known as Hindu Mythology. The bulk of this literature may be classed as narrative poetry—some like Ramayana, Mahabharata.
Besides presenting in brilliant colors the cardinal virtues through countless tales, the mythological Hindu literature contains brilliant and lucid discourses on philosophy and practical religion between the main narratives. A dramatic setting together with lucid style makes these discourses interesting, easy and impressive. It is from these that bulk of the Hindus take their lessons on religion and philosophy. The Geeta and Chandi (Devi Mahaatmyam), easily the most popular of the Hindu Shaastras of this day, are such interludes of discourses within the main narratives of the Mahabharata and the Maarkandeya Puraana respectively.
Mythology aims at inspiring, through precepts and laudable examples, to strive to pitch one's life to the highest ideal. It consists of stories, parables, and legends, with or without any historical basis. Some of these are allegorical, some are full of poetic imagery, and some are narrations of certain events of the legendary past. The abstract and subtle ideas of Hinduism are successfully conveyed to the mass mind, through them all.
Through mythology, consistent and stupendous effort has been made at least through six thousand years, for universal religious education amongst Hindus. Hindu mythology acts like a lever lifting up the mass mind to spiritual heights. Hindu mythology presents abstract Hindu ideas regarding God, soul and nature through concrete imagery. The story of Creation is an invariable theme of the mythological literature of India. Narayana (God), the blue bodied one with four hands in yellow robes, lying still with closed eyes on a hydro-headed serpent (Ananta Naaga), floating on all pervading, fathomless sea is a pictorial representation of Creation. This is the picture of Pralaya. On the eve of Creation, out of Narayana's naval springs a lotus flooding the entire sea with its luster and on this lotus appears Brahma, the red deity with four faces and four hands.
By the Lord's command Brahma meditates on the past cycle (Kalpa) and then proceeds to create the universe accordingly. From the mythological version the truths announced by the Vedas regarding Pralaya and Shrishti (Creation) are imprinted on one's mind.
God with his holy consort (Shakti)) is sole source of Creation. He is both its efficient and material cause. This pictorial representation of mythology stays on the mass mind the fundamentals of Hindu thoughts on God, nature and soul.
Rama, Krishna, Arjuna, Yudhishtira, Bheeshma, Vasishta, Vidura, Nala, Harischandra, Karna, Gaandhaari, Sita, Savitri, Lakshmana, Bharata, Hanuman, Buddha and Mahaaveera may be mentioned among the numerous ideals that live up to this day as perennial sources of spiritual inspiration for molding Hindu life and conduct on correct living.
Righteousness is sure to triumph in the end; greed, lust, jealousy, pride, and all that evil brood cannot hold for long and must go down in the end. This spiritual law is engraved in one's mind by most of the stories. The might of the warrior must be backed by right living and right conduct; he must always take up arms for a righteous cause; else his fate is sealed in spite of his extraordinary military prowess. The presence of Rama and Krishna as divine incarnations in the legends of Ramayana and Mahabharata has imparted a spiritual value to all their contents.
Another interesting and instructive feature of the mythological stories is that through them one gets wonderful solutions of puzzling situations out of an apparent conflict of duties. Rama's duty towards his wife is outweighed by his duty towards subjects; Bharata's duty towards his ambitious and jealous mother is superseded by that towards his righteous brother; Vibhishana's duty towards his lustful brother is cancelled by that towards their righteous divine foe. Through hundreds of such episodes the Hindus have been given practical guidance with regard to the choice of duties in embarrassing situations. In every case the individual is directed to rise above the demand of flesh and of narrow selfishness and soar towards the spirit, path of Dharma. Thus mythology through its pictorial representations of the highly abstract and subtle teachings of the Vedas, its impressive character painting, instructive stories and illuminating discourses go a long way to spiritualize Hindu outlook on life.
This lecture has been prepare by suitably extracting, abridging and editing from following sources for the Vedanta Class at Sri Ganesha Temple, Nashville, by N.R.Srinivasan which is gratefully acknowledged.
- S. Bhaskarananda, The Essentials of Hinduism, Ramakrishna Math, Mylapore, Chennai, India.
- Swami Nirvedananda, Hinduism At A Glance, Ramakrishna Math, Calcutta Student's Home, India.
- Ed. Viswanathan, Am I A Hindu? Rupa & Co., New Delhi, India.