Hinduism: Practices and Expressions

Image by Dean Moriarty from Pixabay

In order to achieve the Four Aims of Life, and especially Moksha, realisation of the unity underpinning all things, a wide variety of practices are undertaken. On this page we will look at the importance and significance of particular places, times, and actions for people who are trying their best to live in accordance with ultimate goodness and truth.

Sacred Time and Space

Practices of dedication, worship, and meditation can happen at any time and in any space in Hinduism. Many things offer paths to divine realisation, and can potentially be used as a point of connection with the divine. Many families or individuals might have personal shrines that they use to perform their own ritual acts of worship whenever they see fit. For communities on a larger scale a local site that holds home historic or aesthetic significance may host a Mandir, or temple, which performs the same function for the community writ large. Such places are usually dedicated to a particular god or goddess as a space for them to call home.

On an even grander scale, specific times and places over time have come to hold even greater significance. And over time, due to their unique history and the layers of repeated actions in the same space, some sites have come to be seen as holy, meeting places between divinity and humanity, and rituals that take place there have grown into full blown festivals that see millions of people participating in them from across the Indian subcontinent and the world. 

Mountains

Foundational to the creation of these sites are the divine forces at play in the form of India’s mountains and rivers. Mountains have always been seen as the homes of the gods, reaching high into the sky, Mount Kailash is thought to be the home of Shiva. Across the world, mountains are seen as places which provide refuge and protection for people trying to escape the endless conflict and distraction that happens in the valleys. This is no different in Hinduism. According to Hindu cosmology, reality itself rotates around Mount Meru, the central point of the universe. Day and Night are caused by the sun passing in front of and then behind the mountain.

Rivers

Then, snaking down from the heavens themselves; rivers, providing life and food for the lands stretching to the cosmic ocean. In Hinduism, these rivers, the most famous of which being the Ganges, are spoken of as Goddesses; ‘Mother Ganges’. Providing the cradles of civilisation, the potential for agriculture, and the promise of cleansing not just the body but the soul.

Image by Ton W from Pixabay

Along the banks of these rivers, cities and towns mark the places where gods and goddesses were born, travelled, taught, fought, fell in love, and departed. These sites are remembered through festivals and pilgrimages that keep humanity in communion with divinity, and allow for the promise of Moksha, final liberation. 

Holy Sites

Seven Ancient Holy Towns in particular have risen to prominence throughout history as being the homes and sites of special events in history and the festivals that commemorate them. They are:

  1. Ayodhya. Birthplace of Ramachandra, 7th Avatar of Vishnu. Home to many Scriptures. Festival, Ram Navami. Hanuman Temple, Hanuman Garhi. The Nageshwarnath Temple is another sacred place established by the son of Rama called Kush. The temple was the only place of survival when Ayodhya was left until the time of Vikramaditya. A major Shivratri festival is held in the temple. 
  2. Mathura. Birthplace and home to Lord Krishna. Festivals Jamnastami and Holi
  3. Haridwar. Significant destination for Pilgrims. Home to the Kumbha Mela Festival, Kanwa Pilgrimage. Other sacred pilgrimages held here are known as the panch Tirth which include Kushawart, Bilwa Tirtha, Neel Paryat and Gangadwar.
  4. Varanasi. Particularly important for Shiva, famous for the opportunity for ritual bathing.
  5. Kanchipuram. Famous for many ancient temples. Particularly important for dedication to Vishnu. Vaishnavites and Saivites have a pilgrimage site in the city of Kanchipuram.
  6. Dvaraka. Named by Krishna. Hindus normally congregate in the Dvaraka city in the month of August and September to celebrate the Janmashtami festival. 
  7. Ujjain. The city is a Hindu pilgrimage site and is one of the sites in the country where the Kumbh Mela is hosted. Has ties to the god Ganesha.
Image by Murtaza Ali from Pixabay

While a festival may have a special link with a particular place, the celebration of each festival happens all across India and the world. Other festivals such as Diwali, Navaratri, Dussehra, and Raksha Bandhan fall into this category. These festivals, as well as more day-to-day acts of devotion, tend to follow certain patterns. It is this that we turn to in our next section.

Prayer and Meditation

Central to many forms of worship is the attempt to focus, remove distractions, and form a connection with something greater. Hinduism has developed many techniques for enabling this. They are presented here as variations on a few key themes.

Fire

Fire is a common symbol for divinity. The ancient view in India is that in anything that burns, in any fuel, there is something trapped which is then liberated by the flames and is then able to approach the heavens. The word ‘Nirvana’ comes from the Sanskrit word meaning to extinguish; liberation only comes when all the fuel has been released. Fire is used in offerings and as a tool to focus in the following ways.

  • Havan – Also Homa, from the sanskrit word root hu, to consume. At its most basic it is a ritual involving burning symbolic offerings in a fire. Can be a large communal ritual, or a small act by an individual. The fire is sacred, the smoke is seen to purify and protect the participants and their environment. These are therefore very adaptable rituals and can be performed in many situations and as part of many ceremonies. 
  • Arti –  The offering of a light to the deity, usually an open flame. This is usually done in darkness to amplify the strength of the light. The light is usually processed around the deity and waved in front.  Through this ritual the flame becomes a meeting point as both the object of the participants focus and the offering for the divine. It is linked to, and might derive from Homa rituals.

Image

The use of an image, not just to focus but to form a connection, is a common theme in Hindu practices. Everything from the artwork and images that pervade the day to day, to temple architecture and paintings, are designed towards this purpose. This can be seen in the significance afforded to a few forms of devotion.

  • Puja – from the Sankrit word for honour or respect. Communication with the divine through the use of a sacred image. The image represents the god and is treated as a proxy for receiving the deity as a guest in the space in which the ritual takes place. Can be performed in temples or in private homes. The image is there to help with focus. Concentration on the divine, forming a connection. Lights are laid out alongside flowers, food, and water as offerings. It is either sat or stood, and can be done in numerous circumstances. They vary widely in how elaborate and long they are depending on where, when, why, and by who they are being performed. The shortest can be simply daily prayer offered upon waking. The longest can last days and involve dressing, feeding, bathing and putting to rest, the image or statue that is playing host to the god. Puja is a very broad term and can involve the other, more narrowly descriptive items in this section. 
    • A pujari is a person who attends, looks after, a god, goddess.
  • Darshan –  From the sanskrit word for viewing. The viewing or sighting of a divinity or holy person. Most commonly in the form of a statue while it is being processed between temples, or viewed at the end of a pilgrimage. The viewing is thought to be reciprocal. The most famous examples of these are monthly Rathayatras. It is an opportunity to form a link between the follower and leader; whether that leader is a holy person, a person of great power and influence, or a god. It is seeing divinity with one’s own eyes, if one manages this, they are thought to be blessed.
Image by Steffen Zimmermann from Pixabay

 Voice

The use of the voice in acts of devotion takes on many forms; as varied as the voices themselves. Hindu theology provides a rich tradition from which to draw for inspiration. Much of the scripture is thought to have been composed in an oral tradition, epic poems are a large part of the cultural heritage. There are even theological traditions that link the act of creation itself to a celebration of song and dance. It is not surprising then that there are various channels for the use of voice and music in worship.

  • Bhajan – Devotional song, from the Sanskrit for reverence. Topics, style, and form vary. Truly any sung piece of music that is dedicated to a deity can be described as a Bhajan.
  • Kirtan – Sanskrit for praise or eulogy. These are more commonly based on stories or scripture. However, at least in its performative aspect, it is similar to a Bhajan. It is most commonly a chant that involves call and response. Kirtans can even be in the form of light theatre or a folk song.
  • Japa – from the Sanskrit ‘to utter in a low voice, mutter, repeat internally. Recitation of mantras in a meditative state. Not necessarily spoken out loud. Can be performed alone or in groups. Doesn’t have to be a mantra, could be a divine name, word, sound, or phrase.
    • A Japamala is a string of prayer beads used when performing a Japa.

Yoga

The previous three subsections are all relevant not just for worship but for meditation. This leads us to Yoga, perhaps the most famous practice to come from Hinduism. The most important thing to note about Yoga is that it is much more than the poses and physical practice that it has become associated with in the minds of many people around the world. One way of viewing Yoga, perhaps the most useful for our current aims, is to look at Yoga as a process of preparation for the practice of meditation.

Perhaps the most famous of these systems of preparation is Ashtanga Yoga; the Eight Limbs. By looking through them, it becomes clear that it is much more than the physicality, the third Limb, and that it is all orientated, like Hinduism more generally, towards cultivating a union with the divine.

  • Yama. Universal Moral commandments that transcend boundaries. How you behave towards others.
  • Niyama. Self-purification by discipline. Disciplines. Peaceful acceptance. How you behave towards yourself.
  • Asana. Physical posture. 
  • Pranayama. Breath control. Regulation of energy and life force through rhythmic control of breath.
  • Pratyahara. Withdrawal of senses. Emancipation of the mind from the senses. Getting rid of distractions.
  • Dharana. Concentration or complete attention. Often on a single point, item or object.
  • Dhyana. Meditation. 
  • Samadhi. A state in which the aspirant is one with the object of their mediation, the supreme spirit. And experiences unutterable peace and joy.
Image by Андрей Бетев from Pixabay

Even the Ashtanga is one interpretation of what is an entire school of thought within Hinduism. With varieties that are too numerous to detail in these pages. Having said that, by returning to the Bhagavad Gita, a text that is foundational to the practice; the one constant goal of Yoga is evenness of mind. Cultivating an attitude of non-attachment based on knowledge of the way things really are which leads to skill in actions, acting without desire. Three aims can be derived from this text:

  • Jnana; Wisdom, knowledge. Sacred knowledge from meditation on the higher truths. In Yoga, the way towards realisation and union with the divine. This is meditation heavy.
  • Karma; Works, Action. Aim for the stage where you’re acting without desire for the fruits or consequences of your actions. Evenness of mind, acting in harmony.
  • Bhakti; Worship, Adoration. The way towards union through adoration. Focus upon and imaging divinity in order to enter into proper unity.

‘You are only entitled to the action, never to its fruits. Do not let the fruits of action be your motive, but do not attach yourself to non-action.’

Krishna; Chapter 2, verse 47; Lars Martin Fosse translation

As mentioned above. Yoga is recognised as an entire school of thought within Hinduism. Its practice, as well as the others explored here are endlessly adapted and applied as part of many different schools of thought and theological traditions. The same can be said of any of these practices which have been adapted, interpreted, and reinterpreted throughout the long history of Hinduism. This is especially true of the Hindu view of how society should be organised. This is what we now turn to.

The Caste System and Hindu Society

The Hierarchy of a society is determined by who has control over that society’s theology; the priesthood. In different theological systems entry into the priesthood is conceived of differently. This is also true for Hinduism, as we have said before; Hinduism is diverse. This is reflected in the Guru system, which is very un-systematic. It is largely merit based and lacks a universally recognised center. Each Guru belongs to their own tradition, school, and has their own followings.

Having said that, the diversity does not mean that the social structure itself is fluid. This is evident when we consider the Caste System in Hinduism. In most of the other great theological traditions of the world, the Priesthood is something that is, at least in its perfect form, open for anyone to join. Different systems have different requirements, but in all the hierarchy is malleable or even fluid. This is not true of the Caste System in Hinduism.

It is important to note two things. First, that rigid social hierarchies are to be found everywhere. Second, while it is uncommon for social hierarchies to be part of a theological tradition, even this is not unheard of, China offers a good example. I mention these things to explain why we are including this section. The Caste system is an interesting and uncommon part of this theological tradition. But it’s inclusion here is not a commentary or criticism of Hinduism as a tradition.

According to the Caste system, most people fall into one of four Castes. A Caste is an immutable and in some interpretations eternal role that defines a person’s place in the socio-theological hierarchy. The four castes relate to the body of Brahma, the Creator god of the Trimurti. They are as follows:

  • Brahmins: Priests, Teachers, and Bards occupying the metaphorical role in society of Brahma’s head. These are the people in charge of the narrative that defines society and gives it shape.
  • Kshatriyas: Warriors and Rulers occupying the metaphorical role of Brahma’s arms. These are the people who wield physical power and control over land and people.
  • Vaishyas: Farmers, Traders, and Merchants occupying the metaphorical role of Brahma’s legs. These people provide the avenues by which wealth is created, they are innovators and problem solvers.
  • Shudras: Labourers, occupying the metaphorical role of Brahma’s feet. These people provide the effort and hard work that make the rest of the society possible.

There is also a name for people who do not fit in any of the Castes: Dalit. Also known as ‘Untouchables’ or Outcasts. These people are often given jobs in society that are deemed unclean or the other people. 

In some conceptualisations these Castes are further subdivided into specific occupations, numbering in the thousands, to clarify to a tremendous level of detail the role cut out for every person in the society.

This can be seen as relating to a theological principle that evil comes from a disordering of the ‘proper’ order of the world. Evil becomes an external threat against which the only protection is a perfectly ordered society where everybody knows their place and the role they are expected to fulfill. This extends in some readings of Hinduism across the cycle of reincarnation. The aim of life for someone who belongs to the Shudra class is not to perform their role well so that they can someday be reborn as a Brahmin. In this system performing your role in society well is its own reward because it brings about a safe and harmonious society.

This is of course controversial. In the Indian constitution, which was produced in part by campaigners against discrimination based on Caste, most prominantly B. R. Ambedkar, it is illegal to discriminate against somebody based on their Caste. There is also debate about how seriously these roles were taken throughout history. It is clear that for some Caste was taken very seriously, with people unable to marry or associate with those outside their caste. But how important these distinctions were for Hindus across the Indian subcontinent and over the thousands of years of history, is not so clear. It is possible that for many the system was not so all encompassing as it has been made to seem, especially by the British who used the Caste system themselves to control the Indian population. There is little doubt that the Caste system as we know it is less an ancient Hindu stratification of society and more a colonial tool for dividing a conquering a massive population.

What this point highlights for our purposes is that societies cannot exist without hierarchies, and different theologies provide for different ways of conceptualising and enforcing those hierarchies. The same system of Caste has no doubt changed over time. Like any theological idea it evolves as it is repurposed to shape society in the image of those who have the means to control the theological narrative. This process is ongoing around the world. This is seen best by analysing different Practices and Expressions, as we have been doing on this page. The better we understand these practices, the better we can see how different Priesthoods use these symbols for whatever purpose; be it selfless or selfish. Our next page tries to do this by looking at the Hindu tradition as a whole, and how it has developed through its long history.

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