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Hindu Rites & Rituals

Life-Cycle Rituals

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A detailed series of life-cycle rituals (samskara, or refinements) mark major transitions in the life of the individual. Especially orthodox Hindu families may invite Brahman priests to their homes to officiate at these rituals, complete with sacred fire and recitations of mantras.

Most of these rituals, however, do not occur in the presence of such priests, and among many groups who do not revere the Vedas or respect Brahmans, there may be other officiants or variations in the rites.

Pregnancy, Birth, Infancy
Ceremonies may be performed during pregnancy to ensure the health of the mother and growing child. The father may part the hair of the mother three times upward from the front to the back, to assure the ripening of the embryo. Charms may serve to ward off the evil eye and witches or demons.

At birth, before the umbilical cord is severed, the father may touch the baby's lips with a gold spoon or ring dipped in honey, curds, and ghee. The word vak (speech) is whispered three times into the right ear, and mantras are chanted to ensure a long life.

A number of rituals for the infant include the first visit outside to a temple, the first feeding with solid food (usually cooked rice), an ear-piercing ceremony, and the first haircut (shaving the head) that often occurs at a temple or during a festival when the hair is offered to a deity.

Upanayana: The Thread Ceremony
A crucial event in the life of the orthodox, upper-caste Hindu male is an initiation (upanayana) ceremony, which takes place for some young males between the ages of six and twelve to mark the transition to awareness and adult religious responsibilities.

At the ceremony itself, the family priest invests the boy with a sacred thread to be worn always over the left shoulder, and the parents instruct him in pronouncing the Gayatri Mantra. The initiation ceremony is seen as a new birth; those groups entitled to wear the sacred thread are called the twice-born.

In the ancient categorization of society associated with the Vedas, only the three highest groups - Brahman, warrior (Kshatriya), and commoner or merchant (Vaishya) - were allowed to wear the thread, to make them distinct from the fourth group of servants (Shudra).

Many individuals and groups who are only hazily associated with the old "twice-born" elites perform the upanayana ceremony and claim the higher status it bestows. For young Hindu women in South India, a different ritual and celebration occurs at the first menses.

NEXT: Life-Cycle Rituals: The Marriage Ceremony

SOURCE: Library of Congress Country Studies
Data as of September 1995

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