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종교 탐방

V. Rituals, social practices, and institutions

의례, 사회적 관례 및 제도들



Although the Vedic fire rituals were largely replaced in Puranic and modern Hinduism by image worship and other forms of devotionalism, many Hindu rites can still be traced back to Vedism. Certain royal sacrifices--such as the rajasuya, or consecration ritual, and the horse sacrifice (ashvamedha)--remained popular with Hindu kings until very recently. Other large-scale Vedic sacrifices (shrauta) have been regularly maintained from ancient times to the present by certain families and groups of Brahmans. By and large, however, the surviving rituals from the Vedic period tend to be most clearly observed at the level of the domestic (grhya) ritual.

1) Domestic rites.

The Vedic householder was expected to maintain a domestic fire into which he made his offerings. Normally he did this himself, but in many cases he employed a Brahman officiant. In the course of time, the family priest was given a large part in these ceremonies, so that most Hindus have employed Brahmans for the administration of the "sacraments" (samskara). The samskaras include all important life-cycle events, from conception to cremation, and are the main constituents of the domestic ritual.

The sacraments are transitional rites intended to make a person fit for a certain purpose or for the next stage in life, by removing taints (sins) or by generating fresh qualities. If the blemishes incurred in this or a previous life are not removed, the person is impure and will acquire no reward for any ritual acts. The sacraments, while sanctifying critical moments, are therefore deemed necessary for unfolding a person's latent capacities for development. Shudras are allowed to perform some samskaras if they do not require the use of Vedic mantras.

i) Samskaras: rites of passage.

In antiquity there was a great divergence of opinion about the number of rites of passage, but in later times 16 were regarded as the most important. The impregnation rite, consecrating the supposed time of conception, consists of a ritual meal of pounded rice (mixed "with various other things according to whether the married man desires a fair, brown, or dark son; a learned son; or a learned daughter"), an offering of rice boiled in milk, the sprinkling of the woman, and intercourse; all acts are also accompanied by mantras. In the third month of pregnancy the rite called pumsavana (begetting of a son) follows. The birth is itself the subject of elaborate ceremonies, the main features of which are an oblation of ghee (clarified butter) cast into the fire; the introduction of a pellet of honey and ghee into the newborn child's mouth, which according to many authorities is an act intended to produce mental and bodily strength; the murmuring of mantras for the sake of a long life; and rites to counteract inauspicious influences. There is much divergence of opinion as to the time of the name-giving ceremony; in addition to the personal name, there is often another one that should be kept secret for fear of sinister designs against the child. (see also Index: birth rite)

In modern times most samskaras (with the exceptions of impregnation, initiation, and marriage) have in many areas fallen into disuse or are performed in an abridged or simplified form without Vedic mantras or a priest. This tendency was encouraged by the accommodating spirit of the Brahmans, who allowed their clients easy atonements for the nonobservance of rites. The important upanayanainitiation is held when a boy is between the ages of eight and 12 and marks his entry into the community of the three higher classes of society. In this rite he becomes a "twice-born one," or dvija. Traditionally, this was also the beginning of a long period of Veda study and education in the house under the guidance of a teacher (guru). In modern practice, the haircutting ceremony--formerly performed in a boy's third year--and the initiation are usually performed on the same day, the homecoming ceremony at the end of the period of study being little more than a formality. (see also Index: initiation rite, coming-of-age rite)

Wedding ceremonies, the most important of all, have not only remained elaborate--and often very expensive--but have also incorporated various elements--among others, propitiations and expiations--that are not indicated in the oldest sources. Already in ancient times there existed great divergences in accordance with local customs or family or caste traditions. However, the following practices are usually considered essential. The date is fixed only after careful astrological calculation; the bridegroom is conducted to the home of his future parents-in-law, who receive him as an honoured guest; there are offerings of roasted grain into the fire; the bridegroom has to take hold of the bride's hand; he conducts her around the sacrificial fire; seven steps are taken by bride and bridegroom to solemnize the irrevocability of the unity; both are, in procession, conducted to their new home, which the bride enters without touching the threshold. (see also Index: marriage)

Of eight forms of marriage recognized by the ancient authorities, two have remained in vogue: the simple gift of a girl and the legalization of the alliance by means of a marriage gift paid to the bride's family. In the Vedic period, girls do not seem to have married before they had reached maturity. Child marriage and the condemnation of the remarriage of widows, especially among the higher classes, became customary later and have gradually, since the mid-19th century, lost their stringency.

The traditional funeral method is cremation (a family affair), burial being reserved for those who have not been sufficiently purified by samskaras (i.e., children) and those who no longer need the ritual fire to be conveyed to the hereafter, such as ascetics who have renounced all earthly concerns. An important and meritorious complement of the funeral offices is the sraddha ceremony, in which food is offered to Brahmans for the benefit of the deceased. Many people are still solicitous to perform this rite at least once a year even when they no longer engage in any of the five obligatory daily offerings. (see also Index: sacrifice)

ii) Daily offerings.

There are five obligatory offerings: (1) offerings to the gods (food taken from the meal); (2) a cursory offering (bali) made to "all beings"; (3) a libation of water mixed with sesame offered to the spirits of the deceased; (4) hospitality; and (5) recitation of the Veda. Although some traditions prescribe a definite ritual in which these five "sacrifices" are performed, in most cases the five daily offerings are merely a way of speaking about one's religious obligations in general.

iii) Other private rites.

The morning and evening adorations (sandhya), being a very important duty of the traditional householder, are mainly Vedic in character, but they have, by the addition of Puranic and Tantric elements, become lengthy rituals. If not shortened, the morning ceremonies consist of self-purification, bathing, prayers, and recitation of mantras, especially the Gayatri mantra (Rigveda 3.62.10), a prayer for spiritual stimulation addressed to the Sun. The accompanying ritual includes (1) the application of marks on the forehead, characterizing the adherents of a particular religious community, (2) the presentation of offerings (water, flowers) to the Sun, and (3) meditative concentration. There are Shaiva and Vaishnava variants, and some elements are optional. The observance of the daily obligations, including the care of bodily purity and professional duties, leads to mundane reward and helps to preserve the state of sanctity required to enter into contact with the divine.

2) Temple worship.

Image worship in sectarian Hinduism takes place both in small shrines in each house and in the temple. Many Hindu authorities claim that regular temple worship to one of the deities of the devotional cults procures the same results for the worshiper as did the performance of one of the great Vedic sacrifices, and one who provides the patronage for the construction of a temple is called a "sacrificer" (yajamana).

i) Temples.

Southern gopura of the Shiva temple at Chidambaram, Tamil Nadu, India, c. AD 1248
P. Chandra

The erection of a temple, which belongs to whoever paid for it or to the community that occupies it, is a meritorious deed recommended to anyone desirous of heavenly reward. The choice of a site, which should be serene and lovely, is determined by astrology and divination as well as by its location with respect to human dwellings; for example, a sanctuary of a benevolent deity should face the village. The construction of a temple is, because of its symbolic value, described in great detail. There is much diversity in size and artistic value, ranging from small village shrines with simple statuettes to great temple-cities whose boundary walls, pierced by monumental gates (gopura; see photograph), enclose various buildings, courtyards, pools for ceremonial bathing, and sometimes even schools, hospitals, and monasteries. From the point of view of construction there is no striking difference between Shaiva and Vaishnava sanctuaries, which are easily recognizable by the image or symbols in the centre, the images on the walls, the symbol fixed on the finial (crowning ornament) of the top, and Shiva's bull, Nandi, or Vishnu's bird, Garuda (the theriomorphic duplicate manifestations of each god's nature), in front of the entrance. Services, which may be held by any qualified member of the community, are neither collective nor carried out at fixed times. Those present experience, as spectators, the fortifying and beneficial influence radiating from the sacred acts. Sometimes worshipers assemble to meditate, to take part in chanting, or to listen to an exposition of doctrine. The puja (worship) performed in public "for the well-being of the world" is, though sometimes more elaborate, largely identical with that executed for personal interest. There are, on the other hand, many regional differences, and even significant variations within the same community.

ii) Puja.

Hindu worship (puja) consists essentially of an invocation, a reception, and the entertainment of God as a royal guest. It normally consists of 16 "attendances" (upacara): invocation by which the omnipresent God is invited to direct his attention to the particular worship; the offering of a seat, water (for washing the feet, for washing the hands, and for rinsing the mouth), a bath, a garment, a sacred thread, perfumes, flowers, incense, a lamp, food, and homage; and a circumambulation of the image and dismissal by God.

The Pañcaratra Vaishnavas in South India introduced the songs of the Dravidian poets into their temple cult and regard these poets and their great teachers as incarnations of God, even to the point of worshiping their images. The Shaivas also have songs of their own but were, generally speaking, more open to Tantric elements and to the admission in their cult of dances executed by dancing girls. In both religious groups, some communities cling to the traditional Sanskrit mantras while others also use other languages.

The first phase of worship is the reverential opening of the temple door and the adoration of the powers presiding over it: according to the Vaikhanasa Vaishnavas, the symbolic opening of heaven; and to the Shaivas, an act to secure the building's protection. The divine powers whose images are carved in the doorjambs promote the process of transmutation without which man cannot even enter into the presence of God, whose image is established in the cella (garbhagrha). This image is honoured with gifts, notably flowers, fruit, and perfumes. Small portions of the consecrated food (prasada) are given to visiting worshipers. The offering into the fire (homa) of Vedic origin has been retained in nearly all extended puja ceremonies. The main purpose of the rites is the meditative identification of the worshiper with the divine Presence; the enactment, in a gradual process of development, of the realization of the union of the worshiper's soul and God. The Vaikhanasas distinguish between the transcendent and unanalyzable Brahman and its immanent and analyzable aspect and invoke God to descend out of compassion from the immovable image--the permanent "seat" of the former--into a movable cult image in which he converses with the world, represented by the worshiper. Those denominations (both Shrivaisnavas and Shaivas) that adopted Tantric practices believe that God comes, during these ceremonies, also out of the worshiper's heart or that the worshiper's soul leaves his body to reach God's feet in heaven, to descend from there in a new body that is meditatively created. (see also Index: Shaivism)

A remarkable rite of yogic-Tantric origin, also used in other ritual contexts, is the transmutation of water into the elixir of life and immortality (amrta), the essential element of which is drawn from the spot between the worshiper's eyebrows, regarded as the seat of Shiva's highest aspect.

Shaivas transform themselves into Shiva by means of complicated preparatory rites, because, they say, "Shiva alone can worship Shiva." Some authorities also enjoin a mental worship and sacrifice, without which "exterior" rites are rendered senseless. The merit of the performances is often said to be entrusted to God's keeping for the sake of the worshiper. Many Vaishnavas emphasize that puja is meant to propitiate God disinterestedly.

3) Shaiva rites.

Ascetic tendencies were much in evidence among the Pashupatas, the oldest Shaiva tradition in North India, the last adherents of which now live in Nepal. Pashupatas often gave offense because of their customs and ritual practices. Their yoga, consisting of a constant meditative contact with God in solitude, required that they frequent burning places for cremated bodies. More extreme groups carried human skulls (hence the name Kapalikas, from kapala, "skull") which they used as bowls for liquor into which they projected and worshiped Shiva as Kapalika, "the Skull Bearer," or Bhairava, "the Frightful One," and then drank to become intoxicated. Their belief was that an ostentatious indifference to anything worldly was the best method of severing the ties of samsara.

The view and way of life peculiar to the Virashaivas, or Lingayats (lingam-bearers), in southwestern India is mainly characterized by a deviation from some common Hindu traditions and institutions such as sacrificial rites, temple worship, pilgrimages, child marriages, and inequality of the sexes. Initiation (diksa) is, on the other hand, an obligation laid on every member of the community. The spiritual power of the guru is bestowed upon the newborn and converts, who receive the eightfold shield, which protects devotees from ignorance of the supremacy of God and guides them to final beatitude, and the lingam (phallic symbol). The miniature lingam, the centre and basis of all their religious practices and observances, which they always bear on their body, is God himself concretely represented. Worship is due it twice or three times a day. When a Lingayat "is absorbed into the lingam" (i.e., dies), his body is not cremated, as is customary in Hinduism, but is interred, like ascetics of other groups. Those Lingayats who have reached a certain level of holiness are supposed to die in the state of emancipation.

Shaivism, though inclined in doctrinal matters to adoptive inclusivism, inculcates some fundamental lines of conduct: one should worship one's spiritual preceptor (guru) as God himself, follow his path, consider him to be present in oneself, and dissociate oneself from all opinions and practices that are incompatible with the Shaiva creed. Yet some of Shiva's devotees also worship other gods, and the "Shivaization" of various ancient traditions is sometimes rather superficial. Like many other Indian religions, the Shaiva-siddhanta has developed an elaborate system of ethical philosophy, primarily with a view to preparing the way for those who aspire to liberation. Because dharma leads to happiness, there is no distinction between sacred and secular duties. All deeds are performed as services to God and with the conviction that all life is sacred and God-centred. A devout way of living and a nonemotional mysticism are thus much recommended. Kashmir Shaivism developed the practice of a simple method of salvation: by the recognition (pratyabhijña)--direct, spontaneous, technique-free, but full of bhakti--of one's identity with God.

4) Vaishnava rites.

The day of the faithful Shrivaisnava Brahman is usually devoted to five pursuits: purificatory rites, collecting the requisites for worship, acts of worship, study and contemplation of the meaning of the sacred books, and meditative concentration on the Lord's image. Lifelong obligations include the performance of sacrifices and other rites, restraint of the senses, fasting and soberness, worship, recitation of the scriptures, and visits to sacred places. In addition, to those who aspire to liberation, Ramanuja recommends concentration on God, a virtuous way of living, and insensibility to luck and misfortune. According to Madhva (c. 1199-c. 1278), a faithful observance of all regulations of daily conduct--including bathing, breath control, etc.--will contribute to eventual success in the quest for liberation. Devout Vaishnavas are inclined to emphasize God's omnipotence and the far-reaching effects of his grace. They attach much value to the repeated murmuring of his name or sacred formulas (japa) and to the praise and commemoration of his deeds as a means of self-realization and of unification with his essence. Special stress is laid on ahimsa as a virtue.


1) Festivals.

Hindu festivals are combinations of religious ceremonies, semi-ritual spectacles, worship, prayer, lustrations, processions (to set something sacred in motion and to extend its power throughout a certain region), music, dances (which by their rhythm have a compelling force), magical acts--participants throw fertilizing water or, during the Holi festival, coloured powder at each other--eating, drinking, lovemaking, licentiousness, feeding the poor, and other activities of a religious or traditional character. The original functions of these activities are clear from ancient literature and anthropological research: they are intended to purify, avert malicious influences, renew society, bridge over critical moments, and stimulate or resuscitate the vital powers of nature (hence the term utsava, meaning both the generation of power and a festival). Because such festivals relate to the cyclical life of nature, they are supposed to prevent it from stagnating. These cyclic festivals--which may last for many days--continue to be celebrated throughout India.

Such festivals refresh the mood of the participants, further the consciousness of their own power, and help to compensate for their sensations of fear and inferiority concerning the unknown forces of nature. Such mixtures of worship and pleasure require the participation of the entire community and create harmony among its members, even if not all participants are now aware of the original character of the festival. There are also innumerable festivities in honour of specific gods, celebrated by individual temples, villages, and religious communities.

An important festival, formerly celebrating Kama, the god of sexual desire, survives in the Holi, a saturnalia connected with the spring equinox and in western India with the wheat harvest. The lower classes observe it in its boisterous and licentious form. There are local variants: among the Marathas, heroes who died on the battlefield are "danced" by their descendants, sword in hand, until they believe themselves possessed by the spirits of the heroes. In Bengal, swings are made for Krishna; in other regions a bonfire is also essential. The mythical tradition that accounts for the festival describes how young Prahlada, in spite of his demonic father's opposition, persisted in worshiping Vishnu and was carried into the fire by the female demon Holika, the embodiment of evil, who herself was believed to be immune to the ravages of fire. Through Vishnu's intervention, Prahlada emerged unharmed, while Holika was burned to ashes. The bonfires are intended to commemorate this event or rather to reiterate the triumph of virtue and religion over evil and sacrilege. This explains why objects representing the sickness and impurities of the past year--the new year begins immediately after Holi--are thrown into the bonfire, and it is considered inauspicious not to look at it. Moreover, people pay or forgive debts, reconcile quarrels, and try to rid themselves of the evils, conflicts, and impurities that have accumulated during the preceding months, translating the central conception of the festival into a justification for dealing anew with continuing situations in their lives. The New Year festival, according to another Indian calendar, Diwali, though celebrated by all classes of society, is traditionally believed to have been given by Vishnu to the Vaishyas (traders, etc.); it takes place in October, with worship and ceremonial lights in honour of Laksmi, the goddess of wealth and good fortune; fireworks to chase away the spirits of the deceased; and gambling, an old ritual custom intended to secure luck for the coming year. The nine-day Durga festival, or Navaratri, is, especially in Bengal, splendid homage to Shakti, and in South India, a celebration of Rama's victory over Ravana.

2) Pilgrimages and fairs.

Like processions, pilgrimages (tirthayatra) to holy rivers (tirtha) and other places were already known in Vedic and epic times and are even now one of the most remarkable aspects of Indian religious life. Many sections of the Puranas eulogize temples and the sacredness of places situated in beautiful scenery or wild solitude (especially the Himalayas). The whole of India, and especially Kurukshetra (presumed to be the scene of the great war portrayed in the Mahabharata) in the northwest, is considered holy ground that offers everyone the opportunity to reach emancipation. The number of places of pilgrimage of regional significance amounts to many hundreds, but some of them (Ayodhya, Mathura, Hardwar, Varanasi [Benares], Kanchipuran, Ujjain, and Dwarka) have for many centuries possessed exceptional holiness. The reason for such sanctity derives from their location on the bank of a holy river, especially of the Ganges, from their connection with legendary figures of antiquity who are said to have lived there, or from the local legend of a manifestation of a god. Many places are sacred to a specific god; the district of Mathura, for example, encompasses many places of pilgrimage connected with the Krishna legends. Visits to holy places may bestow special benefits upon pilgrims; temples or ponds dedicated to Surya (the Sun) are visited in order to recover from leprosy, other places to escape from astrological threats. Pilgrimages to Gaya (Bihar state)--where visitors are escorted around the sacred centres by Brahman temple priests who maintain certain ritual connections with their clients--are undertaken for the sake of the welfare of deceased ancestors. In most cases, however, the devotee hopes for worldly rewards (health, wealth, children) or for spiritual rewards such as deliverance from sin or pollution, preservation of religious merit, rebirth in a heaven, or even emancipation. The last prospect is held out to those who, when death is near, travel to Varanasi to die near the Ganges.

On special occasions, be they auspicious or, like a solar eclipse, inauspicious, the devout crowds increase enormously. Most important shrines also organize gatherings (melas), that are partly fairs, partly religious demonstrations. These journeys, which are undertaken by individuals or groups in order to discharge a vow or to please a god, confirm the devotees in their faith, provide them with an opportunity for spiritual retreat, or bring their inner life nearer to a state of perfection. They have contributed much to the spread of religious ideas and the cultural unification of India.


Some observers have claimed that Hinduism is as much a way of social life as it is a religion. The caste system, which has organized Indian society for many millennia, is thoroughly legitimated by and intertwined with Hindu religious doctrine and practice. Four social classes, or varnas--Brahmans, Ksatriyas, Vaishyas, and Shudras--provide the simplified structure for the enormously complicated system of thousands of castes and subcastes within Indian society. Although it is not certain whether a society limited to four classes was ever more than a theoretical ideal, there is a sense in which they map out socioreligious reality. Such is evident from the Purusa hymn (Rigveda 10.90), in which the statement that the Brahman was the Purusa's mouth, the nobleman (Ksatriya) his arms, the Vaishya his thighs, and the Shudra his feet, gives an idea of their functions and mutual relations.

The Brahmans, whatever their worldly avocations, claim to be by virtue of their birth a perpetual incarnation of the dharma, guardians and dispensers of divine power, entitled to teach the Veda, sacrificing for others and accepting gifts and subsistence; the term alms is misleading, and the daksina offered at the end of a rite to a Brahman officiant is not a fee but an oblation through which the rite is made complete. Brahmans are held to be the highest of all human beings because of their preeminence, the superiority of their origin, their sanctification through the samskaras (rites of passage), and their observance of restrictive rules. The main duty of the nobility (the Ksatriyas) is to protect the people, that of the commoners (the Vaishyas) to tend cattle, to trade, and to cultivate land. Even if a king (theoretically of Ksatriya descent) was not of noble descent, such an upholder of dharma was clothed with divine authority. He was consecrated by means of a complex and highly significant ritual; he was Indra and other gods (deva) incarnate. The emblems or paraphernalia of his office represent sovereign authority; the white umbrella of state is, for example, the residence of Shri-Laksmi, the goddess of fortune. All three higher classes, claiming Aryan descent, had to sacrifice and to study the Veda, although the responsibilities of the Vaishyas in sacred matters were less demanding. (see also Index: sacred kingship)

While this tripartition seems, in the main, to have been inherited from Indo-European times, the fourth class (the Shudras), whose sole duty it was "to serve meekly" (Manava Dharmashastra 1.91) the other classes, are partly descended from the subjugated non-Aryans, a fact that accounts for their many disabilities and exclusion from religious status. According to Hindu tradition, the Veda should not be studied in their presence, but they may listen to the recitation of epics and Puranas. They are permitted to perform the five main acts of worship (without Vedic mantras) and undertake observances, but even today they maintain various ceremonies of their own, carried out without Brahmanic assistance. Yet a distinction is often made among Shudras. Some are purer and have a more correct behaviour and way of living than others, the former tending to assimilate with higher castes, the latter to rank with the lowest in the social scale, who, often called candalas, were at an early date sweepers, bearers of corpses, or charged with other impure occupations. Ritual purity was indeed an important criterion; impure conduct and neglect of Veda study and the rules regarding forbidden food might suffice to stigmatize a "twice-born man" as a Shudra. On the other hand, in later times the trend of many communities has been toward integrating all Shudras into the Brahmanic system. The Brahmans, who have far into modern times remained, on the whole, a respected, traditional, and sometimes intellectual upper class, were generally (until the 1930s) much in demand because of their knowledge of rites and traditions. Although Ksatriya rank is claimed by many whose title is one of function or creation rather than of inheritance, this class is now rare in many regions. Moreover, for a considerable time none of the four varnas represented anything other than a series of hierarchically arranged groups of castes.

1) Castes.

The origin of the caste system is not known with certainty. Hindus account for the proliferation of the castes (jatis, literally "births") by the subdividing of the four classes, or varnas, due to intermarriage (which is prohibited in Hindu works on dharma). Modern theorists, however, tend to assume that castes arose from differences in family ritual practices, racial distinctions, and occupational differentiation and specialization. Many modern scholars also doubt whether the simple varna system was ever more than a theoretical socioreligious ideal and have emphasized that the highly complex division of Hindu society into nearly 3,000 castes and subcastes was probably in place even in ancient times.

In general, a caste is an endogamous hereditary group of families, bearing a common name; often claiming a common descent; as a rule professing to follow the same hereditary calling; clinging to the same customs, especially regarding purity, meals, and marriages; and often further divided into smaller endogamous circles. Moreover, tribes, guilds, or religious communities characterized by particular customs--for example, the Lingayats--could easily be regarded as castes. The status of castes varies in different localities. Although social mobility is possible, the mutual relationship of castes is hierarchically determined: local Brahman groups occupy the highest place, and differences in ritual purity are the main criteria of position in the hierarchy. Most impure are the untouchables, or, to use modern names, the exterior or scheduled castes, which, however, have among themselves numerous divisions, each of which regards itself as superior to others.

Traditional Hindus are inclined to emphasize that the ritual impurity and "untouchability" inherent in these groups does not essentially differ from that temporarily proper to mourners or menstruating women. This, and the fact that some exterior group or other might rise in estimation and become an interior one, or that individual outcastes might be well-to-do, does not alter the fact that the spirit of exclusiveness was in the course of time carried to extremes. The scheduled castes were subjected to various socioreligious disabilities before mitigating tendencies helped bring about reform; after independence, social discrimination was prohibited, and the practice of untouchability was made a punishable offense (it was not abolished, however). Scheduled castes were barred from the use of temples and other religious institutions and from public schools. These groups also had many disabilities in relations with private persons. From the traditional Hindu point of view, this social system is the necessary complement of the principles of dharma, karma, and samsara. Corresponding to hells and heavenly regions in the hereafter, the castes are the mundane, social frame within which karma is manifested. A low social status is the inevitable result of sins in a former life but can, by virtue and merit, be followed by a better position in the next existence.

2) Religious orders and holy men.

Those members of the various denominations who abandon all worldly attachment enter an "inner circle" or "order" that, seeking a life of devotion, adopts or develops particular vows and observances, a common cult, and some form of initiation.

i) Initiation.

Generally speaking, Hindus are free to join an order or inner circle, and once they have joined it they must submit to its rites and way of living. The initiation (diksa), a sort of purification or consecration involving a transformation of the aspirant's personality, is regarded as a complement to, or even a substitute for, the previous initiation ceremony (the upanayana that all twice-born Hindus undergo at adolescence), which it strikingly resembles. Such religious groups integrate ancient, widespread ideas and customs of initiation into the framework of either the Vaishnava or Shaiva patterns of Hinduism. Vaishnavism emphasizes their character as an introduction to a life of devotion and as an entrance into closer contact with God, although happiness, knowledge, a long life, and a prospect of freedom from karma are also among the ideals to which they aspire. Shaivas are convinced of the absolute necessity of initiation for anyone desiring final liberation and require an initiation in accordance with their rituals. All communities agree that the authority to initiate belongs only to a qualified spiritual guide (guru), usually a Brahman, who has previously received the special guru-diksa (initiation as a teacher) and is often regarded as representing God himself. The postulant is sometimes committed to a probationary period, to training in yoga mysticism, or to instruction in the esoteric meaning of the scriptures. The initiate receives a devotional name and is given the distinctive mantras of the community, which, because they are sacred, must never be misused. (see also Index: initiation rite, Shaivism)

There are many complicated forms of initiation: the Vaishnavas differentiate between the members of the four classes; the Shaivas and Tantrists take into account the natural aptitude and competency of the recipients and distinguish between first-grade initiates, who obtain access to God, and higher-grade initiates, who remain in a state of holiness.

ii) Yoga.

The initiate guided by his guru may apply himself to yoga (a "methodic exertion" of body and mind) in order to attain, through mortification, concentration, and meditation, a higher state of consciousness in which he may find the supreme knowledge, achieve spiritual autonomy, and realize his oneness with the Highest (or however the ultimate goal is conceived). Yoga may be atheistic or combined with various philosophical or religious currents. Every denomination attempted to implement yogic practices on a theoretical basis derived from its own teachings. There are many different forms of yoga, and the practices vary according to the stage of advancement of the adepts. All serious yogis, however, agree in disapproving the use of yogic methods for worldly purposes.

iii) Sectarian symbols.

The typical Hindu ascetic (sadhu) usually wears a distinctive mark (pundra) on his forehead and often carries some symbol of his religion. (see also Index: asceticism)

If he is a Vaishnava he might possess a discus (chakra) and a conch shell (sankha), replicas of Vishnu's flaming weapon and his instrument of beneficent power and omnipresent protection, or a shalagrama stone or a tulasi plant, which represent, respectively, Vishnu's essence and that of his spouse Laksmi. If he is a Shaiva, he might impersonate Shiva and carry a trident (trishula), denoting empire and the irresistible force of transcendental reality; wear a small lingam; carry a human skull, showing that he is beyond the terror inspired by the transitoriness of the world; or smear his body with apotropaic (supposed to avert evil) and consecratory ashes. These emblems are sacred objects of worship because the divine presence, when invoked by mantras, is felt to be in them.

The attitude toward asceticism has always been ambivalent. On the one hand, there is a genuine regard for hermits and wandering ascetics and a desire to gain spiritual merit by feeding religious mendicants. On the other hand, the fact that fringe members of society may find a sort of respectable status among Shaiva ascetics often led to a decline in the moral reputation of the latter. 


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