The most notable feature in religious ritual is the division between purity and pollution. Religious acts presuppose some degree of impurity or defilement for the practitioner, which must be overcome or neutralized before or during ritual procedures.
Purification, usually with water, is thus a typical feature of most religious action. Avoidance of the impure--taking animal life, eating flesh, associating with dead things, or body fluids--is another feature of Hindu ritual and is important for repressing pollution.
In a social context, those individuals or groups who manage to avoid the impure are accorded increased respect. Still another feature is a belief in the efficacy of sacrifice, including survivals of Vedic sacrifice. Thus, sacrifices may include the performance of offerings in a regulated manner, with the preparation of sacred space, recitation of texts, and manipulation of objects.
A third feature is the concept of merit, gained through the performance of charity or good works, that will accumulate over time and reduce sufferings in the next world.
The home is the place where most Hindus conduct their worship and religious rituals. The most important times of day for performance of household rituals are dawn and dusk, although especially devout families may engage in devotion more often.
For many households, the day begins when the women in the house draw auspicious geometric designs in chalk or rice flour on the floor or the doorstep.
For orthodox Hindus, dawn and dusk are greeted with recitation from the Rig Veda of the Gayatri Mantra for the sun--for many people, the only Sanskrit prayer they know.
After a bath, there is personal worship of the gods at a family shrine, which typically includes lighting a lamp and offering foodstuffs before the images, while prayers in Sanskrit or a regional language are recited.
In the evenings, especially in rural areas, mostly female devotees may gather together for long sessions of singing hymns in praise of one or more of the gods.
Minor acts of charity punctuate the day. During daily baths, there are offerings of a little water in memory of the ancestors.
At each meal, families may set aside a handful of grain to be donated to beggars or needy persons, and daily gifts of small amounts of grain to birds or other animals serve to accumulate merit for the family through their self-sacrifice.
NEXT: The Worship of Personal Gods
SOURCE: Library of Congress Country Studies
Data as of September 1995