Hinduism Ritual in Hinduism
by
Axel Michaels
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 November 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399318-0187

Introduction

Due to ritual traditions preserved in normative texts from Vedic times until the present, but also due to its great variety of local and regional practices, South Asia offers a vast richness of textual and ethnographic material on Hindu rituals. Since the Hindu gods are not always present at fixed places, they have to be invoked and addressed, and rituals and prayers are the favorite means for that. In nearly every Hindu household, people, mostly women, worship “their” gods daily; in cars, Gaṇeśa is invoked, while shopkeepers adorn a picture of the goddess Lakṣmī with flowers and incense. Along with this lively everyday religiosity, there are special religious occasions for rituals—festivals, pilgrimages, or life-cycle rituals. There are elaborate rituals with a long tradition involving many well-educated Brahmins, but also a great number of small, folk rituals performed by individuals; there are old Vedic rituals that are still performed today, but also modern semi-religious rituals such as the Republic Day parade. Tradition differentiates between three salvational forms or paths (mārga; unless otherwise noted, all non-English terms in the following are from Sanskrit) of religiosity: the path of ritual and of sacrifice (karmamārga), the path of knowledge (jñānamārga), and the path of devotional participation (bhaktimārga). To this, the path of honor and heroism may be added (vīramārga, see Michaels 2016, cited under Theory). All these paths include more or less ritual elements. Major types of Hindu rituals include life-cycle rituals (saṃskāra), especially initiation, marriage, and death and ancestor rituals; worship and prayer (pūjā); sacrifices, especially Vedic fire sacrifices (yajña, iṣṭi, homa) and blood sacrifices; collective and individual festivals (utsava) and processions (yātrā, tīrthayātrā); and individual vows (vrata). Highly ritualized is also the giving of a gift (dāna). In recent years, special rituals for and by women have received more attention. Most of these rituals are based on Brahmanical handbooks in Sanskrit and the vernaculars. Ritual theory in general has been greatly inspired by Indian material. This holds especially true for theories about sacrifice, performance, ritual grammar, and the meaning or meaninglessness of rituals. Hinduism is the only non-Western culture that produced a complex indigenous theory of ritual, the Pūrvamīmāṃsā system.

General Overviews and History

The most comprehensive overview of Brahmanical Vedic and Smārta rituals and their histories is Kane 1930–1962. That should be complemented by Gonda 1977 and Gonda 1980, which give a concise and almost comprehensive listing of texts and their contents. Hillebrandt 1921 is the more compressed overview. However, these works mostly leave out overviews of folk rituals, for which see Abbott 2000 and especially Claus, et al. 2003 (cited under Reference Works and Bibliographies).

  • Abbott, Justin. Indian Ritual and Belief: The Keys of Power. New Delhi: Manohar, 2000.

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    This book was first published in 1932 under the title The Keys of Power: A Study of Indian Ritual and Belief. It is a study on powers of man, woman, evil eye, fire, trees, animals, and so on, which, according to the author, must be controlled through rituals.

  • Gonda, Jan. The Ritual Sūtras. Wiesbaden, Germany: Otto Harrassowitz, 1977.

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    Presents a descriptive overview of the main Vedic ritual texts and their commentaries, especially Śrautasūtras and Gṛhyasūtras, as well as a chapter on the transmission of these texts.

  • Gonda, Jan. The Non-Solemn Rites. Wiesbaden, Germany: Otto Harrassowitz, 1980.

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    The book treats the ancient Vedic rituals and presents a thorough description of ancient Indian domestic and public rites based on the extensive Sanskrit literature.

  • Hillebrandt, Alfred. Ritualliteratur: Vedische Opfer und Zauber. 2d ed. Strassburg, France: Karl J. Trübner, 1921.

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    Slightly outdated but still very useful summary of the main Brahmanical rituals and their literature. Addresses mainly Vedic rituals and includes a chapter on witchcraft (rituals).

  • Kane, Pandurang Vaman. History of Dharmaśāstra. 5 vols. Poona, India: Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute, 1930–1962.

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    A monumental compendium in five volumes and eight parts of all major Vedic rituals, especially in Vol. II (2 parts, 1st ed. 1941, 2nd ed. 1974), focusing on life-cycle rituals, sacrifice, gift-giving, and temple consecrations; Vol. IV (1st ed. 1953), with chapters on pilgrimage and ancestor rituals; and Vol. V (2 parts, 1st ed. 1982 and 1962), on vows and festivals. Several reprints.

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