Category Archives: f. Worship Rituals and Festivals

The Sacred Lotus Symbol

The lotus is an iconic flower, originating in Southern Asia, which has claimed a place as a prominent symbol in ancient history, remaining as such today. It is through a combination of religious and symbolic connotations, nutritional and medicinal applications, and sheer aesthetics and laudability in its natural life cycle that have facilitated the lotus’s significance. While there are many species of lotus flowers across Asia, the Hindus’ Sacred Lotus is scientifically known as the Nelumbo nucifera. This perennial flower grows in the muddy waters of shallow pools throughout Asia (Kew n.d.). It possesses a unique nanostructure of its leaves which provides an uncanny self-cleaning ability, allowing the flowers to emerge from the mud without tarnish (Kew n.d.). This natural trait has facilitated symbolic reference towards the flower; rising out of the mud, untouched by the filth, resonated with ancient thinkers, philosophers, and religious peoples. Furthermore, beyond its life cycle, the lotus holds many unique properties which benefit human nutrition and health. Studies have found that this ancient plant, consumed throughout Asia, is highly nutritious and retains a number of medicinal properties from gastrointestinal regulation to bad breath remedy to insomnia reduction (Zhang et al 323,324). The relevance to health and wellness worked well with the divine reference in ancient Vedic scripture, where the lotus gained connections to the gods, to build the foundations of an icon.

Even as far back as the holy sruti texts of the Rgveda, the lotus finds its home in Hinduism’s spiritual origins. One translation of the Rgveda expresses the first mention of the lotus in the form of a metaphor (RV 5.LXVIII.7-9). The verse seems to describe a well wish for an unproblematic delivery of a child. One interpretation is that the metaphor of the wind ruffling the lotuses evokes auspiciousness in regard to the delivery (Garzilli 295). The lotus also appears in connection to the birth of Agni in Rgveda hymn XVI (Garzilli 300). There Agni is recognized as one of the two most worshipped gods of the scripture alongside Indra, God of Thunder. This initial reference to birth and divinity can be seen as a starting point for the symbolism of the lotus in later literature and practice. Although its presence in the sacred text elevates it to a status of divinity, its connection with the gods does not end with Agni and the Rgveda; rather it appears again and again throughout Hindu scripture.

Laksmi is the consort of Visnu, one of the most renowned gods in the Hindu pantheon, and she appears in each of Visnu’s reincarnations as his wife, should he have one. She is seen by the followers of Visnu as the “mother of the world” (Kapoor 1083), and maintains a close connection with the lotus, having her abode within the flowers themselves (Mahabharata LXVI). The Hindus Encyclopedia of Hinduism details the story of her birth: from the great churning of the sea, Laksmi was brought forth inhabiting the lotus and was “…covered in ornaments and bearing every auspicious sign…” (Kapoor 1083). She held lotus flowers in each hand and was called the Goddess Padma, meaning Lotus. Laksmi holds many names and many titles, just as the sacred flower does; she is the goddess of wealth, auspiciousness, fortune and luck. The auspiciousness of the lotus may be due in part to the connection between the flower and the great goddess of luck. Indeed, followers of Vaisnavism, one of the main sects of Hindusim, hold Laksmi in high regard, believing she is the very power of Visnu to govern and protect the universe (Encyclopedia of Asian History 1988). As the goddess of the Lotus, this symbol becomes specifically significant to the Vaisnavas, although its significance is by no means confined to them.

Beyond the auspiciousness and fortune of the lotus in its connection to Laksmi, the creator god Brahma ties in early references of the lotus to the concept of rebirth. Though there are many stories regarding the origins or birth of Brahma, one depicts the god being born on a lotus flower from the navel of Visnu, the great unifying principle (Coulter and Turner 105-106). In fact, it is common for Hindu gods and goddesses to be depicted sitting on a lotus throne, as a gesture of divinity, purity, and a power (Lee and Nadeau 69). Even beyond its connection to the creator god, the lotus is one of Visnu’s four attributes, standing as a symbol of creation (Timalsina 70). Furthermore, the sacred plant and deity, Soma, is believed, by some, to be the Sacred Lotus (MacDonald 150-152). Referenced in the Rgveda, (RV 8. XLVIII.3-4,11) Soma is deified, worshipped, and even expressed as offering immortality.  There are numerous theories on the true identity of Soma and the Lotus would indeed be a likely candidate with its medicinal properties and previously established connection to the divine.

Each of the factors mentioned have played a role in the Sacred Lotus becoming an icon of Hinduism. The flower’s natural life cycle and biological properties make it both admirable and valuable. Its presence in the Vedas and its connection to popular deities, including its potential identity as a deity (i.e. Soma), make it sacred and spiritual; these aspects, and more, have elevated the wild flower of Asia to an icon of the Hindu faith. And yet, beyond its religious connotations, the sacred symbol of the lotus has spread, with the Hindu tradition, into the very culture of India.

In Indian art and architecture there are 8 symbols of auspiciousness. Among other key symbols like the conch shell (sankha) and the wheel (cakra), the lotus (padma) is incorporated into Indian art, bearing powerful symbolism in regard to divinity, purity, and auspiciousness (Gupta 30). Throughout numerous temples and shrines erected to worship various gods such as Siva and Surya are stone carvings, motifs, and statues accents by the image of the lotus (Harle 139, 144). Beyond the presence of lotus imagery, there is a further, subtle connection between Hindu architecture and the lotus in the very structure of Hindu temples. Rising up in tiered domes, or buds, the temples are said to resemble Mount Meru, a sacred cosmic center in Indian religions (Gupta 30). The mountain itself holds extensive symbolic reference to the cosmic lotus, standing as point of origins of creation and divinity (Mabbett 71,72). The intertwining of lotus imagery and symbolism into such a vast range of concepts as mountains to temples to health to the divine creates a picture of the depth of the symbol’s place in Hinduism.

As the powerful symbolism of the lotus transcends the centuries, it ultimately finds its place in the modern day as an icon for businesses, a symbol of peace or tranquility, a reference to Indian religion, and more contemporarily so, as an image of a movement sweeping Indian politics. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is a popular political party in contemporary India with a unique platform of defining “. . . Indian culture in terms of Hindu Values. . .” (Britannica 2014). The party poses the lotus as their logo, utilizing the religious symbol to gain the favor of Hindus (Malik and Singh 321). For the Hindu population, standing behind a banner bearing the Sacred Lotus of India, a central icon in the ancient tradition, may mean standing behind Hindutva, or Hindu national identity, embodied in the sacred meaning of the lotus. This connection between the divine flower and the national identity of India reveals just how deep the roots of the lotus symbol are. Even before the rise of the BJP party, the lotus held the title of national flower for its sacred symbolism, according to the Government of India (Government of India 2016). The connection between the Indian subcontinent and the lotus, beyond any single faith, expresses the significance of the flower even beyond its place as a religion icon.

To this day, the lotus stands as a symbol related not only to Hinduism, but also to numerous other religions, historical and modern alike. The lotus appears historically in ancient Egyptian religion where it held connections to birth, including that of the sun god, Ra (Renggli 220), and was used as an apparent hallucinogen (Sayin 291). Buddhists adopted symbolic meanings of the lotus very similar to the Hindus, viewing it as a representation of one’s personal journey through the muddy waters of samsara towards blossoming, pure and perfect, into Nirvana (Prasophigchana 103-104). The lotus is also representative of enlightenment through the idea that those who have attained it will rise above the world like a lotus rises above the muck and filth. Jains also view the lotus as a sacred symbol of purity and power. Within the tradition are 14 auspicious dreams and eight auspicious marks, the lotus claiming a place in both lists (Fischer and Jain 22). The Jains also maintain the portrayal of their founders (tirthankaras) as seated or standing on lotus blossoms, as seen Hinduism with respect to their gods (Lee and Nadeau 69). As the religions of India spread across the globe, the iconic image of the lotus continued to diversify and grow, maintaining its significance while transforming with the times. From the Rgveda to Indian Politics, the sacred flower of Hinduism has certainly left its mark on history and continues to do so today.

Bibliography

Coulter, C.R. and Turner, Patricia (2000) “Brahma.” Encyclopedia of Ancient Deities pg 105-106. North Carolina: MacFarland & Company Inc. Publishers.

Brittanica (2014) Bharatiya Janata Party. Encyclopaedia Britannica Online.  http://www.britannica.com/topic/Bharatiya-Janata-Party

Fischer, Eberhard and Jain, Jyotindra (1978) Jaina Iconography. Part 12: 22. Leiden: Brill

Garzilli, Enrica (2003) “The Flowers of Rgveda Hymns: Lotus in V.78.7, X.184.2, X.107.10, VI.16.13, and VII.33.11, VI.61.2, VIII.1.33, X.142.8. Indo-Iranian Journal. Volume 46, Issue 4: 293-314. Dordretch: Kluwer Academic Publishers.

Government of India (2015) “National Symbols.” National Portal of India. New Delhi: National Informatics Center.  http://india.gov.in/india-glance/national-symbols

Gupta, Swarajya Prakash (2002) Elements of Indian Art. 29-30. New Delhi: D.K. Printworld Ltd.

Harle, J.C. (1994) The Arts and Architecture of the Indian Subcontinent. Connecticut: Yale University Press.

Kapoor, Subodh (2000) “Laksmi.” The Hindus Encyclopedia of Hinduism. Volume 3. Edited by Subodh Kapoor. 1083-1087. New Delhi: Cosmo Publications.

Kapoor, Subodh (2000) “Symbolism.” The Hindus Encyclopedia of Hinduism. Edited by Subodh Kapoor. Volume 4: 1171-1714.  New Delhi: Cosmo Publications.

Kew (n.d.) “Nelumbo nucifera.”  Kew: Royal Botanical Gardens. Surrey: Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. http://www.kew.org/science-conservation/plants-fungi/nelumbo-nucifera-sacred-lotus

Lee, Jonathan H.X. and Nadeau, Kathleen M. (2011) Enclypedia of Asian American Folklore and Folklife. Edited by Jonathan H.X. Lee and Kathleen Nadeau. Volume 1: 22. Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO.

Mabbett, I.W. (1983) “The Symbolism of Mount Meru.” Chicago Journals. Volume 23, Issue 1: 64-83. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Macdonald, Andrew (2004) “A Botanical Perspective on the Identity of Soma (Nelumbo Nucifera Gaertn.) Based on Scriptural and Iconographic Records.” Economic Botany. Volume 58: 147-150. Texas: Economic Botany.

Mahabharata. “SECTION LXVI. Sambhava Parva.” Translated by Kisari Mohan Ganguli (1883-96). http://www.sacred-texts.com/hin/m01/m01067.htm

Malik, Yogendra K. and Singh, V. B.  (1992) “Bharatiya Janata Party: An Alternative to the Congress (I)?” Asian Survey. Vol. 32, Issue 4: 318-336. DOI: 10.2307/2645149

Prasopchigchana, Sarunya (2011) “Symbolic Representation in Buddhism.” International Journal on Humanistic Ideology. Volume 4, Issue 2: 101-111. Cluj-Napoca: International Journal on Humanistic Ideology.

Renggli, Franz (2002) “The Sunrise as The Birth Of A Baby: The Prenatal Key to Egyptian Mythology.” Journal of Prenatal & Perinatal Psychology & Health. Volume 16, Issue 3: 215-235. Forestville: Association for Pre & Perinatal Psychology and Health.

Rgveda. “HYMN LXXVIII. Aśvins.” Translated by Ralph T.H. Griffith (1896). http://www.sacred-texts.com/hin/rigveda/rv05078.htm

Rodrigues, Hillary (2006) Hinduism the Ebook. Pennsylvania: Journal of Buddhist Ethics Online Books, Ltd.

Sayin, H. Umit (2014) “The Consumption of Psychoactive Plants During Religious Rituals.” Neuroquantology. Volume 12, Issue 2: 276-296. Bornova Izmir: Nova Science Publishers.  DOI: 10.14704/nq.2014.12.2.753

Timalsina, Sthaneshwar (2012) “Reconstructing the Tantric Body: Elements of the Symbolism of Body in the Monistic Kaula and Trika Tantric Traditions.” International Journal of Hindu Studies. Volume 19, Issue 1: 57-91

_____ (1988)”Vaishnavism.” Encyclopedia of Asian History. Charles Scribner’s Sons (1988). World History in Context.

Zhang, Yi , et al, (2015) “Nutritional composition, physiological functions and processing of lotus (Nelumbo nucifera Gaertn.) seeds: a review.” Phytochemisrty Reviews. Volume 14, Issue 3: 321-334. Netherlands: Springer. DOI: 10.1007/s11101-015-9401-9

 

Recommended areas of Research:

Padma (Sanskrit word for Lotus)

8 symbols of auspiciousness

Visnu & Laksmi

Mount Meru

Soma

Nelumbo nucifera

 

Useful Websites:

Sacred-texts.com

http://ic.galegroup.com.ezproxy.alu.talonline.ca/ic/whic/home?u=leth89164&p=WHIC

 

Useful Books:

The Art and Architecture of the Indian Subcontinent by James C. Harle

Elements of Indian Art by Swarajya Prakash Gupta

 

 

Article written by: Jessica Knoop (April 2016) who is solely responsible for its contents.

 

Dasanami Samnyasins

The development and the components of Hindu monasticism may appear complex. Sankara, the famous Indian philosopher, founded a Hindu monastic federation referred to as the Dasanami Order (Wade nd). Hindu monks, known as samnyasin, were divided into ten lineages which trace back to Sankara and compose the Dasanami Order. The ten different monk/renouncer groups were then divided up among the four monasteries founded by Sankara (Clark 2). The four monasteries (mathas) are located in the east, west, south, and north of India and they are respectively called Govardhan, Sarada, Srngeri, and Jyotir (Clark 115). This order is the most respected and influential in the Hindu tradition (Werner 148).

Historically, it has been viewed that the four monasteries are representative of Sankara’s travel and his spiritual authority. Sankara’s life is regarded as somewhat legendary. He lost his father at a young age and he was an admirer of the samnyasin life style. Sources claim that at the age of eight, Sankara was captured by a crocodile while he bathed in a river. Sankara told his mother that if he did not receive her blessing to become a samnyasin the crocodile would have taken his life (Pande 31). Historians believe that three factors contribute to why Sankara is held in the highest regard. It is said that Sankara was an incarnation of Siva (Pande 73). His strong connection to and the belief in his embodiment of Siva could be due to Sankara’s connections to miracles. Secondly, the implementation of authentic practices was to emphasize the social and spiritual claims of the reorganized monasteries. The final aspect which made Sankara legendary was the expansion of the Advaitic and non Advaitic schools (Pande 73). The rationales behind legends of his incarnation have been to fortify the Vedic faith and help spread the spiritual way of living across India (Pande 82).

Samnyasin (renouncing) is the final stage of one’s life. One may renounce after they have completed the householders’ stage grahastha (Miller 3). However, some Hindus enter renunciation earlier, once they have completed their education, though such young renouncers are less common. A renouncer is considered to be a wise holy man. He is expected to withdraw from society. From that point on, his life is dedicated to the attainment of moksa (Werner 147). A renouncer’s withdrawal from society is theoretical because, he may live in close proximity to society and interact with its members however, physical detachment is essential (Olivelle 272). One must leave their family and possessions in order to discover the meaning of life and gain inner peace (Burghart 635). Renouncers are placed outside of the caste system and are highly valued. A renouncer who receives offerings and praise from Hindus is not uncommon.

Once Hindu monks formally renounce, they are categorized in relation to the method of initiation and their way of life (Wade nd). Renouncers may fall into one of three distinct categories: the dandis, nagas, or paramahamsas. However, all Dasanami consider themselves as Siva (Clémentin 2). Many Dasanami renouncers decorate themselves with rudrāka beads and put three white horizontal stripes on their forehead to embody the symbolism of Siva and Visnu (Clémentin 3). Each type of renouncer group is affiliated with one of the four monasteries. To formally renounce, a monk must attain a new identity. He is given one of the ten surnames which made him a part of that particular spiritual lineage. The name one receives is linked to the monastery they are associated with and reflects their caste as well as their renouncing lifestyle. The monasteries from the south and west are mainly composed of dandi renouncers. The lineages commonly assigned to these monks, once they formally renounce include: Bharati (speech), Sarasvati (learning), Tirtha (sacred bathing), and Asrama (hermitage). Puri (town) and Giri (hill) are lineages linked to naga renouncers. Other names, sometimes received by all types of renouncers include: Vana (woods), Aranya (forest), Parrata (mountain), and Sagara (ocean) (Dazery na). Receiving a new name is significant because it symbolizes the relationship one has under a guru which acts as an investiture. An opportunity for the new renouncers to teach and ordain followers is given (Clémentin 16). Once a name is received, one is able to initiate another person into the samnyasin stage of life. All three branches of the Dasanami (dandi, nagas, and the paramahamsa) have networks of mathas (monasteries) spread across India.

The dandis traditionally come from a high caste background and hold knowledge of the Sanskrit language. They are the wanderers who usually carry a staff. The staff may be embellished with a saffron cloth with an axe head under it (Clark 28). Generally, dandi renouncers were previous householders, have short hair, and believe that they are the true samnyasin (Clark 41). Their initiation ceremony is completed by a guru and the name given depends on what matha one is affiliated to (Clark 41). One of the four brahmacari names is given at the ceremony either being Svarup, Prakasa, Ananda or Caitanya (Clark 42). The second ceremony a dandi partakes in is called the viraja home (Clark 89). A short sacred utterance that presumably encapsulates the essential wisdom of Vedanta from the monk’s monastic lineage is spoken (Wade nd).

Renouncers, who fall under the paramahasa grouping, discard all belongings including their staff, perform the most asceticism and obtain the highest amount of respect (Clark 102). They more frequently live in mathas and are affiliated to an akhara. However, paramahamsan monks are not deeply connected to the akharas life compared to the nagas (Clark 42).

Lower caste members form the naga renouncer group (Clark 39). Some scholars refer to them as “naked fighting monks” (Wade nd).  The naga have been known to travel nude and they cover their entire bodies (sometimes just their private areas) in ash, especially on festive holidays (Clark 35). The nagas are organized into seven akharas (Clark 48). To be initiated into the akhara as a naga, one must go through a third process referred to as the tang tode (Clark 98). This is a unique initiation among the three groups.

Typically, males are the ones who enter the stage of renunciation. However, women renouncers have recently been reported. About ten percent of female renouncers belong to the Dasanami (Clark 31). However, women may become brahmacarini, but they cannot enter the second stage of initiation in becoming “full” samnyasin (Clark 33). Women remove all jewelry as a symbol of their renunciation. The majority of women belong to the paramahamsa renouncer group. Two known monasteries exclusively admit women. The least number of women belong to the naga group (Clark 34).

A life apart from society cultivates detachment through a community which shares similar perspectives (Clémentin 2). Some renouncers may choose to join a monastic community (Tambiah 300). Monastic communities provide a shared living space between many samnyasin monks. It is where asceticism is ingrained through tradition (Clémentin 2). This concept of communal settlement was introduced by Sankara, and is referred to as the matha system (Miller 4). The purpose was to create a sense of solidarity through group support. The matha was a larger unit comprised of temples, a traditional Sanskrit school, a library, and a shelter for lay followers (Clémentin 4). The caste system was embedded into the institution. Individuals were born to specific gurus. Gurus raised money to support children’s education for their caste (Aya 58). Donations from patrons allow for monks to teach, provide medical care, and help feed the community (Miller 5). Service to the community was viewed as important and resembled Hindu cohesion. Monks may continue traveling, but if they remain in a community for an extended period of time they are less respected, except if it is the rainy season (Olivelle 271).  Clémentin addresses that, “the important point to stress is that they do not owe their allegiance to a monastery, but to a lineage of spiritual succession” (3). Sankara’s successor, a Sankaracarya (head of 1 of the 4 monasteries) essentially becomes “the teacher of the world” by representing the founder of his lineage (Clémentin 6). Sankaracaryas have substantial spiritual power and settle disputes within the matha by helping with court cases (Clark 79). For example, cases may include initiation and personal affairs, adultery, abuse, and caste pollution. Sankaracaryas help decide the punishment of a fine, a fine, forms of social exclusion, and sometimes even excommunication ceremonies (Clark 80).

The origins of the Dasanami Samnyasin illustrate the prominence of Sankara’s philosophical influence in creating the order. Spiritual lineages of the samnyasin monks are traced back to Sankara. The samnyasins aquire a new religious identity in which they abide by certain roles, codes, and practices (Clark 2). The different groupings of renouncers across the four cardinal directions are symbolic of Sankara’s spiritual journey and the prominence of Brahman (Wade nd). The caste system is significant to the Dasanami Order because it allows for different renouncer groups to exist. Subtle differences exist among the samnyasins such as, their appearance, initiation process, status, and their affiliation to a distinct lineage (Clark 39). The matha system was important for the development of education and philosophical ideas for the samnyasin and their lay followers (Clémentin 4). Life consisted of days of expressing bhakti in prayer, meditation, and lectures (Werner 147). Overall, evidence suggests that the Dasanami Order has been very influential and is a representation of Sankara’s philosophy. 

 

References and Further Recommended Readings

Burghart, R., (1983) “Renunciation in the Religious Traditions of South Asia”. Man18(4), 635–653. http://doi.org/10.2307/2801900

Clark, Matthew (2006) Dasanami Samnyasis. Boston: Brill Academic Publishers.

Clémentin-Ojha, C. (2006) “Replacing the Abbot: Rituals of monastic ordination and investiture in modern Hinduism”. Asiatische Studien, Etudes Asiatiques, Vol.60, 535- 573.

Ikegame, A (2012) “The Governing Guru”. The Guru in South Asia: New Interdisciplinary Perspectives, London & New York, NY: Routledge 5, 46.

Miller, D. M., & Wertz, D. C (1976) Hindu monastic life: The monks and monasteries of Bhubaneswar. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s Press-MQUP.

 Olivelle, P. (2001)”The Renouncer Tradition”. In The Blackwell Companion to Hinduism,  G. Flood (Ed.). Oxford: Blackwell Publishing  271-287.

 Pande, G. C (1994) Life and thought of Sankaracarya. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass Publishers.

 Tambiah, S. J. (1982) “The renouncer: his individuality and his community”. Contributions to Indian Sociology, 15(1), 299-320.

Wade, D. (2012) “Dasanamis.” In Brill’s Encyclopedia of Hinduism. Edited by Knut A. Jacobsen, Helene Basu, Angelika Malinar, Vasudha Narayanan. Retrieved March 23, 2016, from <http://referenceworks.brillonline.com/entries/brill-s-encyclopedia-of hinduism/dasanamis-BEHCOM_9000000043>

Werner, Karel (2013) Love Divine: Studies in bhakti and devotional mysticism, London & New York, NY: Routledge 147-152.

 

Topics for Further Investigation

The Ramanadi Order

Bhakti

Guru

The Four Monasteries

Akharas

Pitha

 

Noteworthy Websites

http://dashnami.blogspot.ca/2009/11/history-of-dashnami.html

http://www.amritapuri.org/14530/sampradaya.aum

http://www.dlshq.org/saints/sankara.htm

http://www.mahavidya.ca/hindu-asceticism/

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dashanami_Sampradaya

 

Article written by: Miranda Deringer (March 2016) who is solely responsible for its content.

The Dasain Festival in Nepal

Dasain (Dashain) or Mohani is the largest, longest and most important festival in Nepal (Gellner 148; Levy 523; Bista 12). Throughout South Asia, the Dasain festival is also known as the Durga Puja or Navaratras and is a distinctly Hindu festival. In Nepal, Dasain festivals are ritually pluralistic, mostly filled with Hindu traditions while incorporating Buddhism and maintaining indigenous ancestor worship, animism, local myths, beliefs and practices that are prominent within different regions of Nepal (Fisher 112; Campbell 232). The heterogeneity of different beliefs and practices that take place during Dasain exemplifies the diversity of Hindu traditions throughout Nepal (Fisher 110). In the Kathmandu Valley, Newars celebrate Dasain as a religious holiday centred around animal sacrifice and the worship of mandalic goddesses; festivities are filled with indigenous ancestor worship mixed with Hindu practices (Levy 525). In other areas of Nepal, Dasain can be seen predominantly as a national holiday, scattered with religious customs from Hinduism, Buddhism and Animism. Others tie Dasain festivals more to agricultural celebrations, with festivities converging upon the end of the monsoon season and the completion of harvesting rice crops, and some groups choose to follow secular customs of socializing and feasting, rejecting anything religious in nature (Levy 523; Savada 82; Allen 320; Fisher 112).

Dasain festivals in Nepal take place at the end of the monsoon season and at the end of the harvesting of rice, around the September new moon and the October full moon, depending on the region. Dasain festivities last anywhere from ten to fifteen days and are celebrated by all caste groups (jats) (Teilhet 81; Chamberlain 2001: ii & 4; Savada 12; Fisher 112). Dasain festival activities and rituals symbolize the importance of agriculture, fertility, family, and the power of royalty and lineage (Gellner 148; Bista 27). Preparations for Dasain begin several weeks before festivities start; houses are cleaned, walls whitewashed and even re-plastered (Iltis 122; Fisher 124; Chamberlain 2001: 4). In Bhaktapur, where the Nava Durga (Nine Durgas) celebration of masks is performed during Dasain, masks are prepared months in advance and preparation requires commissioning priests who recite mantras and perform ritual worship (puja), so that materials can be found and masks can be fabricated (Teihet 85-91). For those celebrating Dasain as a spiritual/religious festival, among Hindus this is a very auspicious time celebrating the victory of the Great Goddess Durga over the buffalo demon (Chamberlain 2002: 28; Savada 60). In keeping with the Hindu traditions of Dasain, each day of the festival is named after one of the Nine Durgas; the myth of Durga’s defeat against the buffalo demon is told through stories, songs, and dramatizations each day throughout the festival (Teilhet 81; Chamberlain 2001: 5).

The paramount version of this story is found in the Devi Mahatmya; it is believed that demons once terrorized the world and Durga was born through the union of male deities such as Siva, Visnu, and Brahma who were unsuccessful at stopping the demons. Consolidation of these male deities’ energies, led to the conception of Durga. Through her multiple manifestations, Durga defeated the demons, including the great buffalo demon (Mahishasura) (Chamberlain 2001: 5). Dasain festivities and the telling of the myth celebrate Durga as the ultimate source, the mother of the universe who liberated the people, and it is believed that listening to the recitation of the myth will free one from mental, physical and emotional suffering (Chamberlain 2001: 4-6). Each day of the festival is named after, and dedicated to, one of the nine Durgas. Each manifestation is a representation of Durga; they are: Brahmani, Mahesvari, Kumari, Vaisnavi, Varahi, Indrani, Mahakali, Mahalaksmi and Tripurasundari (Chamberlain 2002: 29; Levy 155). Each of the nine goddesses also represents one of nine plant forms; the plant that embodies the goddess that is worshiped that day is used in many rituals to appeal for her protection (Chamberlain 2002: 29). The Nine Durgas are also connected to each of the nine planets in the solar system; worship of these goddesses helps to protect the people of Nepal from negative cosmic influences (Chamberlain 2002: 29). All nine days of the Dasain festival are also divided into three sets: day one through three are devoted to Durga’s creativity, the next three to Laksmi, representing Durga’s beauty and abundance, and the last three days are devoted to Kali, representing death and transformation (Chamberlain 2002: 29).

Within the Kathmandu Valley, Hindu practices and traditions of Dasain are permeated with indigenous beliefs. The Newar Dasain festivals are a complex sequence of events centred around dangerous goddesses (Levy 523). The entire ten day festival is a dramatization of the story of Devi (Durga), with astrological significance, temple worship and a procession to different pithas of the Nine Mandalic Goddesses around the city (Levy 531 & 155). On the first day of Dasain, barley sprouts are planted, and Brahmani is worshiped. A procession takes place as individuals leave their homes to visit the pitha of the goddess Brahmani; within homes and temples puja is performed offering grains, rice and flowers (Chamberlain 2002: 29; Levy 525). Barley is planted in clay pots; in other areas, it is planted on the floors of special rooms (Nala) set aside for Dasain where special puja takes place (Levy 527). Astrological attention is given in the timing of the planting of the barley, which is planted at the most auspicious time. In the Taleju temples of Kathmandu, Patan and Bhaktapur, planting the barley is governed by the Royal Astrologer (Chamberlain 2002: 29; Levy 527). Barley symbolizes the importance of the peoples’ connection to agriculture and is representative of the goddess Durga’s generative properties. The first day of planting is called the Ghata-sthapana (installation of the sacred vessel); on the following days of Laksmi, which represents abundance, the barley leaves will become visible and on the tenth day, the day of victory, tika (red mark on forehead) paste is made from the barley leaves (Puri 7; Bista 94). Days two through six are similar to the first day, with processions going to a new worship site where a new mandalic goddess is worshiped. Following morning worship rituals, Bhagavati (Durga) is worshipped in homes and then everyone goes about their daily activities (Levy 531). During the last four days of the Dasain festival, festivities and rituals escalate; day seven sees special temple preparations being made at the Taleju temple for the festivities that will take place on day eight. The first goat is sacrificed on day seven by a chief Brahmin and there is a procession honouring an image that represents the importance of lineage and royalty (Levy 533). The eighth day is the beginning of devotion of Kali; representations of the battle are performed, and what is known as the “bloody night of sacrifice” takes place; many goats, chickens and buffalo are sacrificed, and later feasted on during the celebration of the transformation on the tenth day (Levy 534; Bista 60).

At the Taleju temple, one hundred and eight buffalo are sacrificed in honour of the Goddess Durga and her victory over Mahisasura; sacrificing the buffalo also epitomizes two days of great battles that were fought. The story of these battles is recounted on this day from the Devi Mahatmya (Levy 534; Chamberlain 2002: 29-30). Goats, buffalo and other animals must be sacrificed with a single blow to the top of the neck; the blood of these animals is then splattered on different icons representing the Great Goddess, around the floors of the temple and on special ritual clothing (Levy 337; Gellner 341-42). With participation in reenactments of Durga’s battles and the worship of the nine manifestations of Durga, individuals become, hypothetically, the deity themselves (Levy 563). Sacrifices continue into day nine, the day centered around the worship of Tripurasundari, who is full creator deity, symbolizing the culmination of the Nine Durgas. In the evening of day nine, people make offerings of flowers and will view the masks of the Nine Durgas, which illustrates their reappearance after a long sleep (Levy 539). Day nine is also dedicated to the worship of Kumari (maiden goddess); a young girl representing the Kumari makes a public appearance and she receives offerings from the people, is worshiped by the people, and they receive prasada (gift) from her (Levy 542). In Bhaktapur, the Kumari is worshiped, by worshipping all young girls of premenstrual age at the “living Kumari”; making it possible for there to be more than one Kamari in each home. These young girls of premenstrual age are worshiped are not worshiped as themselves but are seen as “vehicles [that] bring the Goddess Kumari to the homes of the people” (Levy 540).

Day ten is a very auspicious day, on this day large feasts, drinking, and gambling festivities, that have been going on since the beginning of Dasain, escalate in nature (Bista 117). On this day, families travel and meet in the homes of senior family members, married women return to their paternal homes and the younger generations are given tika and blessed by senior members (Manadhar 7). Tiak, a red past which is placed on the forehead and blesses individual with abundance, is given by a senior male to his family, and is seen as a way to help build respect for senior generations from younger generations (Mandhar 7; Gaenszle 361). The giving of tika is also seen as a celebration of royal power and hierarchy within the lineages of the people of Nepal. The King is given tika by the priests and the King will give tika to his people as well (Gellner 147). Tika is just one representation of how Dasain legitimizes hierarchical power; power is also shown by Durga shrines being placed in all police stations (Gellner 147). Dasain celebrations are just one attempt through ritual and practice to form national unity based on lineage and power; this has recently lead to groups within Nepal who do not identify as Hindu to oppose the Dasain festival.

Along with the major Hindu traditions of Dasain, there are many secular traditions as well. Dasain, for many, is a time for families to be re-united; it is a celebration of the end of a very difficult harvest season and a holiday filled with rest and relaxation (Savada 117; Allen 317 & 405). People purchase and wear their best clothing throughout the festival, but in most regions the last few days of Dasain sees an increase in festivities that include larger feasts, gambling, kite flying, fairs, making flower garlands, putting up swings and the cooking of special foods (Levy 525; Fisher 112; Allen 317). Everyone tries to go home for Dasain, shops close and business stops for the duration of the festival; people travel to visit with relatives and pay respects to ancestors. Gifts are also exchanged with family members (Chamberlain 4). In Western Nepal, the Thakali perform rituals that include features from Hinduism, Buddhism and Animism. However, Dasain celebrations tend to be less about religious practices and more of a national holiday. The Thakali clean in preparation for the festival just as other jats do, but the focus is on family and feasting (Fisher 112 & 124). For the Thulung there is an intense agricultural presence to the Dasain festivities; it is a celebration of a long harvest coming to an end (Allen 317). Feasting, cleaning homes, making garland flowers, preparing special meals, drinking, gambling and family are the most important practices, while adhering to the general constructs of Hindu practices (Gaenszle 362). Some groups in Nepal, like the Yakha, have four main days of public ritual that include slaying of model animals that are made of fruits and vegetables with straw, the straw representing the swords used in battle. Animal sacrifice still takes place, and to protect the home, a small boy from each household places his hands and feet in the blood of a sacrificed animal. He is, then, carried to his home and his hand and foot prints are placed in blood on the entrance to the home as protection (Russell 342). Throughout Nepal, it is easy to see inter-group similarities and differences within the practices, rituals and festivities of Dasain (Russell 331). For those who take part in the festival, it is the prime festival of the year. Whether Dasain symbolizes harvest, fertility, power, national unity, or religiosity, it remains one of the largest and longest celebrated festivals of Nepal.

 

References and Further Recommended Readings

Allen, N. J. (1997) “Hinduization The Experience of the Thulung Rai.” In Nationalism and                        Ethnicity in a   Hindu Kingdom: The Politics of Culture in Contemporary Nepal, edited by David N. Gellner, Joanna Pfaff-Czarnecka and John Whelpton 303-323. Amsterdam: Hardwood Academic.

Bista, Dor Bahadur (1972) People of Nepal. Kathmandu: Ratna Pustak Bhandar.

Campbell, Ben (1997) “The Heavy Loads of Tamang Identity.”  In Nationalism and Ethnicity in a Hindu Kingdom: The Politics of Culture in Contemporary Nepal, edited by David N. Gellner, Joanna Pfaff-Czarnecka and John Whelpton 205-235. Amsterdam: Hardwood Academic.

Chamberlain, Laura K (2002) “Durga and the Dashain harvest festival from the Indus to Kathmandu Valleys.” ReVision 25, no. 1.

Chamberlain, Laura K (2001) “Embodying the Goddess Durga: A Pilgrimage to the Mother Goddess of Paradox.” Master’s thesis, California Institute of Integral Studies.

Fisher, William (2001) Fluid Boundaries: Forming and Transforming Identity in Nepal. New York: Columbia.

Gaenszle, Martin (1997) “Changing Concepts of Ethnic Identity Among the Mewahang Rai.” In                 Nationalism and Ethnicity in a Hindu Kingdom: The Politics of Culture in Contemporary Nepal, edited by David N. Gellner, Joanna Pfaff-Czarnecka and John Whelpton 351-378. Amsterdam: Hardwood Academic.

Gellner, David N (1999) “Religion, politics, and ritual. Remarks on Geertz and Bloch.” Social                    Anthropology, 7(02), 135-153.

Iltis, Linda L (1980) “An Ethnohistorical Study of Bandipur.” Contributions to Nepalese Studies, 8(1), 81-145.

Levy, Robert (1990) Mesocosm. Berkeley: University of California.

Manandhar, Tina (n.d.) “Digu Puja: A Ritual to Revitalize Family Among the Newars.” Tribhuvan University.

Puri, K (2014) “Being a Hindu in a multicultural context of Stavanger, Norway.” Master’s thesis, The School of Mission and Theology.

Russell, Andrew (1997) “Identity Management and Cultural Change: The Yakha of East Nepal.” In Nationalism and Ethnicity in a Hindu Kingdom: The Politics of Culture in Contemporary Nepal, edited by David N. Gellner, Joanna Pfaff-Czarnecka and  John Whelpton 325-350. Amsterdam: Hardwood Academic Publishers.

Savada, Andrea M (1993) Nepal and Bhutan: Country Studies. Washington, D.C: Government        Publishing.

Teilhet, Jehanne H. (1978) “The Tradition of the Nava Durga in Bhaktapur, Nepal.” Journal of      Himalayan Studies 6, 81-98.

 

Related Topics for Further Investigation

The Devi Mahatmya

Durga Puja

Navaratras

Mohani

Mandalic Goddesses

Newars

Jats

Mantras

Puja

Nava Durga (Nine Durgas)

Kumari

Ghata-sthapana

Tika

Thakali

Yakha

 

Noteworthy Websites Related to the Topic

http://oursansar.org/dashain-lets-celebrate-the-largest-and-longest-festival-in-nepal/

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dashain

http://singitour.com/festivals-of-nepal.php

http://www.kailashtrips.com/nepal/nepal-general-information/festival-in-nepal.html

 

Article written by: Erin Davis (April 2016) who is solely responsible for its content.

Cidambaram Temple

Cidambaram Temple, also known as the Thillai Natarajah Temple is a sixteen hectare temple complex (Smith 4) located in the center of the city of Cidambaram in Tamil Nadu in south-eastern India, and was built and expanded between the 10th and 14th centuries. The official name of the temple is Sabhanayaka (Lord of the Hall) temple (Cush, Robinson, and York 143). This temple venerates Siva as Nataraja (Lord of Dance) in Sanskrit or Thillai Koothan in Tamil (Spencer).

The temple is famous for the veneration a 3 foot tall bronze statue of Siva (Srinivasan 433) in a dancing position and the local myth that inspired the depiction and the worship of Siva in that form in Cidambaram. The statue is meant to be used as an utsava murti (processional image) in festivals (Cush, Robinson, and York 366), but is usually located in an inner gold-roofed sanctum called the Cit-Sabha or Hall of Consciousness (Srinivasan 433, Smith 5). Siva is also represented in the form of a traditional lingam, and in the form of an empty alcove representing akasa (ether, space, or sky) and transcendence (Srinivasan 433). It is said that the Cit-Sabha embodies Siva as well (Ferro-Luzzi 516). Other deities worshipped at the temple include Sivakamasundari, Ganesa, and Visnu among other deities connected with Siva. The depictions of each deity can be found in alcoves and ambulatories around the edges of the temple.

This temple is one of five temples in south India dedicated to Siva which each represent elements and the supposed geographic locations where Siva has appeared and performed miracles. These temples collectively are called the Panca Bhuta Sthalam, (Spencer 233, Isaac 16, Dey 49) and Cidambaram temple represents the element of akasa.

 

Temple History

The Nataraja temple at Cidambaram was built in the 10th century during the reign of Cola ruler Vira Cola Raja and is among some of the oldest temples in south India (Sullivan 58). Cidambaram temple has been the center for the worship of Siva in a dancing form since the seventh century (Smith 1), however the depiction of Siva as Nataraja was popularized by the Saiva Siddhanta school of orthodox bhakti Saivites sometime later (Cush, Robinson, and York 799).

Cola rulers through the 10th to the 13th centuries considered Siva, especially as Nataraja, to be their family deity and sponsored massive expansions of the Cidambaram temple complex and other Saivite temple complexes in south India. Along with the level of temple construction and renovation, they also made efforts to increase the scale and organization of worship at these temples (Davis 16). Vikrama and his military minister Naralokaviran are credited with renovating and adorning the Cidambaram temple, as well as sponsoring and developing services and facilities to encourage patronage and worship such as grand festivals, lit processional walkways, ocean pavilions, etc. with the goal to secure the Cidambaram Nataraja temple as the capital of Saivite worship in south India (Davis 19).

Cidambaram temple is sometimes simply referred to as “the temple”, and the entire city is sometimes referred to as a temple in literature (Spencer 240). Historically in the Saivite temple culture throughout south India, the main keepers and collectors of information were travelling saint-poets called nayanmars (Spencer 234), who were advocates of bhakti (devotionalism), and whose Tamil (Sullivan 195) devotional hymns are still sung today (Sullivan 211). However, there were multiple schools of thought in place in the area in medieval times who each would have a variation on thought and their own canon. For example, the accepted canon for Saiva Siddhanta philosophy was the Agamas (Srinivasan 432). Numerous nayanmars are remembered and venerated at the temple, and their poems have been passed down orally through generations. Recently, the process has begun of writing the poems and stories down for posterity. The veneration of priests, saints, and poets at Cidambaram is hierarchical with more well-known figures such as Umapati Sivacarya who wrote the poem Kuncitanghristava or “The Hymn of Praise to Nataraja’s Curved Foot” (Ferro-Luzzi 515) being remembered and praised more often than lesser saints which included women and Dalits (Spencer 235). The lineages of Saivite saints, priests, and teachers is hard to decipher because of a patchy record and an initiatory re-naming tradition (Davis 9).

 

Temple Mythology

Cidambaram is considered the center of the universe (Smith 2), as well as the place where Siva first performed the anandatandava, or dance of bliss (Srinivasan 432, Smith 1), in the presence of his consort Sivakamasundari, and three sages who were awaiting his arrival in Cidambaram while worshipping a lingam (Cush, Robinson, and York 143). Cidambaram is said to be the sky temple in the series of five temples in south India which represent elemental forms of Siva, the Panca Bhuta Sthalam (Dey 49). Each temple in this collection of temples is said to have a connected story of Siva appearing at that location in the presence of devotees to perform a miracle in a new form. At Cidambaram the miracle was the anandatandava and the form that Siva assumed was that of Nataraja or Lord of Dance (Smith 1). The traditional lingam which would usually stand in the inner sanctum of the temple, the Cit-Sabha, is replaced in this temple by a bronze statue of Siva performing the dance (Cush, Robinson, and York 143). The representation of the figure of Siva performing the anandatandava is steeped in symbolism.

The speed of the dance is said to determine whether it will be creative or destructive, with a slower pace being creative and a faster pace being destructive (Cush, Robinson, and York 143). Siva as Nataraja is depicted with 4 hands, each having a specific meaning. The hand raised up in the abhaya-mudra (Cush, Robinson, and York 799) represents refuge, while the downward-pointing hand represents escape from samsara shown by the surrounding ring of fire (Cush, Robinson, and York 160). The other two hands hold a drum used for keeping time while dancing and a ball of fire, which each represent creation and destruction; fire can be creative in a Vedic sense by creating favor from the gods and the drum can be interpreted as destructive by marking the passage of time (Smith 1, Cush, Robinson, and York 160, Sullivan 148). In the 14th century in Cidambaram, the priest Umapati Sivacarya devoted a poem to the depiction of Siva in anandatandava entitled Kuncitanghristava, “The Hymn of Praise to Nataraja’s Curved Foot” (Ferro-Luzzi 515), the foot on the statue of Siva as Nataraja is said to grant anugraha (blessing) and salvation (Ferro-Luzzi 516). Siva’s other foot steps on a smaller person or demon named Apasmarapurusa in Sanskrit or Muyalaka in Tamil (Nayagam 120) which represents ignorance (Smith 1).

 

Temple Structure

The style of southern Indian temples is distinct from northern Indian temples. In the southern style, the gopuram (main towers) are raised high above the gates of the temple and set into the walls that encircle the inner sanctuaries, the walls are usually highly decorated and ornate (Sullivan 227). Cidambaram temple is one of the largest in south India, with the gopurams measured at 49 meters high (Sullivan 58).

The walls of the Cidambaram temple have been decorated with depictions of 108 Bharata Natyam (traditional Indian dance) poses (Cush, Robinson, and York 160). This style of classical dance is said to have originated in the surrounding area of Tamil Nadu and especially within Saivite temple culture (Tiruvalluvar 1201), and the temple also boasts a large performing arts hall shaped like a chariot called the Nrtta Sabha (Sullivan 58).

The Cidambaram temple is also set apart by the golden roof of the Cit-Sabha, extensive processional routes, and lamped walkways all added on by Cola rulers (Davis 19). Cit-Sabha, the innermost hall or sanctum of the temple contains three alcoves, the main alcove contains the three foot tall bronze statue of Siva Nataraja, with the other two alcoves containing the stone lingam usually representative of Siva and an empty space representative of Siva as the element akasa (Srinivasan 433). Several shrines to other deities are featured in the temple, most of whom have some connection to Siva in Hindu literature (Sullivan 58). All of the elemental Saivite temples are built in the same southern style but differ in their decorations and size.

 

Festivals

The main festival at temples dedicated to Siva is Mahasivaratri (Great Night of Siva) or simply Sivaratri (Sullivan 211). This festival is held yearly on the thirteenth night and fourteenth day in the dark half of Phalguna, the month that takes place in February to March in the Gregorian calendar (Sullivan 130). The festival is widely popular and devotees of many different deities attend. The festival consists of a night vigil at the temple which involves devotional hymns, darsana (auspicious viewing) of images of Siva either in statue or lingam form and highly decorated (Sullivan 130), and puja offerings which include sandalwood paste, flower petals, bilva and bel leaves, milk, curd, ghee, honey, rose water, and vermillion paste (Dwivedi 30, Sullivan 130). A drink made of cannabis, milk, and almonds is also said to be consumed at this festival (Dwivedi 30). The second day of the festival is a celebratory day reserved for feasting rather than solemn worship (Sullivan 130). The Mahasivaratri has many origin stories including Parvati venerating a lingam in Siva’s absence, a hunter accidentally venerating a lingam when out in the wilderness, and the gods Brahma and Visnu finding a pillar of fire which is revealed to be Siva in a different form (Dwivedi 72).

Other festivals include occasional processional temple festivals called mahotsava or brahmotsava in Sanskrit and tiruvila in Tamil. These festivals can last up to two weeks and involve the use of utsava murti (processional images) of deities used in festivals and temple rites (Cush, Robinson, and York 366). The icons are dressed in finery like silk, flowers, and gold ornaments and led down the streets either on the shoulders of followers, or pulled in chariots by devotees holding hemp ropes. There are also animals and musicians involved in these parades, which stop occasionally along the procession to allow people to view the gods and make offerings to them which is seen as very auspicious (Davis 15). Bronze figures and accompanying inscriptions show that this form of festival worship has been taking place in south India since at least the 9th century (Davis 16).

This festival takes place in Cidambaram as well with the obvious addition of the Nataraja statue. Other differences in the Cidambaram mahotsavas are the length and scale of the festival which is always very long, around fifteen days, and features two parades each day with the deities riding on different vahanas (vehicles). This culminates in the ratha-yatra where the deities are paraded on chariots which are much like individual moving shrines (Davis 15). At the beginning of any festival period devoted primarily to Siva, the temple flag is raised with the image of a bull on it which represents Siva’s vahana Nandi (Davis 30). Another practice which sets Cidambaram apart is the practice of applying a black balm to the statues, priests, servants, and lay people in hierarchical order if the festival is venerating Nataraja (Davis 51).

 

Staff and Important Persons

Important persons connected to the temple include the Saiva Siddhanta school of orthodox bhakti Saivites who popularized the veneration of Siva as Nataraja, as well as the other numerous lesser-known philosophical schools which helped inform the literature in medieval south India (Cush, Robinson, and York 799). Also of great importance were the travelling saint-poets called nayanmars (Spencer 234), whose Tamil devotional Saivite hymns recorded the mythology and chronology of the area and whose stories were passed down orally and are still told and sung today creating a rich illustration of the history of the area (Sullivan 211). Some of these poets became priests or teachers or gained fame from their writing which creates a useful image of the social landscape of the time.

The temple staff at Cidambaram are called diksitars because they undergo the initiatory process of diksa. This process involves numerous rites to be performed at different prescribed times before the initiate is accepted. The nitya-karman are the daily rites and show Saivite piety if they are done on one’s own behalf (atmartha), this category includes the nityapuja (veneration of a lingam), nityahoma (a small fire sacrifice), and suryapuja (sun worship). Daily rituals need to be completed before other rituals, they are the prerequisites. Naimittikarman, or occasional rites include pavitrosava and damanotsava and they are the prerequisites for the last set of rituals. The last set of rituals, on completion, marks the initiation of a diksitar as part of the Saivite community and released of earthly bondage. These rituals are therefore held in high regard as transformative. The initiate is consecrated as either a sadhakadiksa (mantra-adept), or as an acaryadiksa (priest) through a series of upanayana-like rituals including a mock cremation on the receiving of a special mantra (Davis 7).

 

References

Aghorasiva (1157) A Priest’s Guide to the Great Festival. Translation and notes by Richard H. Davis (2010) New York: Oxford University Press.

Cush, Denise, and Catherine Robinson, and Michael York (2008) Encyclopedia of Hinduism. New York: Routledge.

Dey, Nando L. (1979) The Geographical Dictionary of Ancient and Medieval India. New Delhi: Cosmo Publications.

Dwivedi, Anil K. (2007) Encyclopedia of Indian Customs & Rituals. New Delhi: Anmol Publications.

Ferro-Luzzi, Gabriella E. (1996) “Reviewed Work: The Dance of Siva. Religion, Art and Poetry in South India by David Smith” East and West 46:515–17. Accessed February 5, 2016. http://www.jstor.org/stable/29757302.

Isaac, Eric (1960) “Religion, Landscape, and Space” Landscape 9:14-18.

Nayagam, X.S. Thani (1970). Tamil Culture and Civilization. London: Asia Publishing House.

Smith, David (1996) The Dance of Siva: Religion, Art and Poetry in South India. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Spencer, George W. (1970) “The Sacred Geography of the Tamil Shaivite Hymns.” Numen 17:232–44. Accessed February 5, 2016. doi:10.2307/3269705.

Srinivasan, Sharada (2004) “Shiva as ‘cosmic dancer’: On Pallava origins for the Nataraja bronze.” World Archaeology 36:432-450. Accessed February 5, 2016. doi:10.1080/1468936042000282726821.

Sullivan, Bruce M. (1997) Historical Dictionary of Hinduism. Lanham: Scarecrow Press.

Tiruvalluvar (2000). The Handbook of Tamil Culture and Heritage. Chicago: International Tamil Language Foundation.

 

Related Topics

  • Bhakti
  • Diksa
  • Bharata Natyam
  • Saivitism
  • Viasnavism
  • Cola Dynasy
  • Tamil Poetry
  • Poet-saints
  • South Indian Architecture
  • Processional Festivals

 

Related Websites

http://www.chidambaramnataraja.org/

http://templenet.com/Tamilnadu/panchabhoota.html

http://www.religiousportal.com/Pancha_Bhoota_Temples.html

http://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/39328

https://www.khanacademy.org/humanities/art-asia/south-asia/hindu-art/a/shiva-as-lord-of-the-dance-nataraja

Article written by: Katherine Christianson (March 2016) who is solely responsible for its content.

 

 

 

The Vastu Tradition in Hinduism

The vastu tradition is said to be the ancient science of designing and constructing buildings and houses with a corresponding plot of land. The root word vas in vastu means to dwell, live, stay, and reside (Gautum 17) (Kramrisch 82). The vastu-shastra is the manual used for the architecture on how sacred or domestic building must be constructed. The vastu-purusa-mandala is a metaphorical expression of the plan of the Universe and depicts the link between people, buildings and nature it is used to position a building on potential plots of land (Patra 2006:215-216). This mandala is so universal that it can be applied to an altar, a temple, a house, and a city.  Hindu temples are meant to bring humans and gods together.

The vastu shastra is found originating in the Vedas the most ancient of sacred Indian text, tracing back to at least 3,000 B.C.E., if not earlier. The knowledge of constructing and designing a building is found specifically in the Sthapatya Veda, which is a sub heading in the Artharva Veda which is the fourth Veda. Principles of vastu-shastra can be found in several other ancient texts such as Kasyapa Silpa Sastra, Brhat Samhita, Visvakarma Vastu Sastra, Samarangana Sutradhara, Visnu Dharmodhare, Purana Manjari, Mayamata, Aparajitaprccha, Silparatna Vastu Vidya (Patra 2006:215). Hindu literature also cites that the knowledge of sacred architectural construction of buildings was present in the oral traditions since before the Vedic Period. According to Indian experts the vastu is possibly the oldest sacred architectural construction in the world up to date (Osborn 85-86). The oldest master known for vastu is Maya Danava, acknowledged as the founder of this ancient sacred Indian architectural tradition (Osborn 87). It is said that “man can improve his conditions by properly designing and understanding the location, direction, and disposition of a building that have a direct bearing on a human being” (Patra 2014:44). Based on the experience of several generations it has proved that the building and arrangement of villages and capitals in ancient India gave health and peacefulness. The principles regarding the construction of buildings that are in the vastu-shastra are used to please the vastu-purusa; they are explained by the mandala vastu-purusa-shastra. 

There are five basic principles of the sacred science of sacred architecture, the first of which is the doctrine of orientation (diknirnaya), which related to the cardinal directions: north, east, south, west. Second is site planning which uses the vastu-purusa-mandala and is the examination of the soil through categories such as taste, color, etc. Third is the proportionate measurement of the building (mana, hastalakshana), which is divided into six sections: measurement of height, breadth, width or circumference, measurement along plumb lines, thickness, and measurement of inter-space. Fourth there are the six canons of Vedic architecture (ayadi, sadvarga), base (aadhistaana), column (paada or stambha), entablature (prastaara), ear or wings (karna), roof (shikara) and dome (stupi). Fifth is the aesthetics of the building (patakadi, sadschandas) which deals with the nature of beauty such as principles of texture, color, flow, the interaction of sunlight and shadows, these are some principles of aesthetics (Patra 2014:44). The most important requirement in the manual is that the site of a new building must be placed where the gods are at play (King 69). If the temple is unable to be built by a tirtha (a sacred ford or a crossing place that must be by sacred water) then another suitable site should be found. This can be a riverbank, a river junction, a lake, or a seashore. It can even be mountains, hilltops, or forests/gardens. It can also be placed in populated areas like towns, villages, and cities (King 69 and Osborn 87). Water was said to be a fundamental part of the gods’ play, therefore a sacred temple must be near water but if no water was present then man-made a water source. Directions also hold a particular significance (north, northeast, east, southeast, south, southwest, west, and northwest) they help to clarify the principles of the vastu-shastra.

Once the land has been chosen with appropriate knowledge the ground is then prepared properly using the geometrical design known as vastu-purusa-mandala. Then before the mandala is placed a Priest must perform a number of mantras a sacred utterance that urges all living creatures in the plot to leave so that the new land for the building will not kill any living things (King 69). The soil in the desired area of land must undergo some tests to show whether it is suitable or not. One test that occurs is a pit is dug in the ground and then is filled with water, and the soils strength is then judged by how much water is remaining when the next day arrives. Of course with this in mind before these tests can be done the soil must be examined in the following categories: smell, taste (whether it is sweet, pungent, bitter, astringent), color (white for brahmanas, red for kshatriyas, yellow for vaisyas, black for sudras, the color of the soil and the caste correspond with each other), sound, shape or consistency. After all that is done and if the soil is suitable, then the fertility of the soil must also be tested by plowing the ground and planting seed and recording the growth at 3, 5, and 7 nights. Then according to the success of growth, it is decided whether the soil is fertile and helps decide if this is a good place to build using the mandala (Kramrisch 13-14).

It does not matter whether the building is going to be a house, office, or a school the knowledge from the vastu-shastra must be taken into consideration in order for the execution to be successful. The walls that strengthen the temple are known as prakaras and they may vary in size and number in regards to the size of the temple. When building larger temples like the one in Srirangam they are occasionally surrounded by seven concrete walls that represent the seven layers of matter: earth, water, fire, air, either, mind, and intelligence.

 

The geometry and measurements of the vastu (blueprint) planned site is a very complex science. The shape must be a square that is a fundamental form of Indian architecture; its full name is vastu-purusa-mandala [the sacred diagram by which a temple is configured (Rodrigues 2006:568)] consisting of three parts vastu, purusa, and mandala. Purusa is a universal essence, a cosmic man representing pure energy, soul, and consciousness whose sacrifice by the gods was said to be the creation of all life. Purusa is the reason that buildings must be created using a mandala of him, which means a diagram relating to orientation. A mandala can also be referred to as a yantra (a cosmological diagram). The vastu-purusa-mandala adopts the shape of the land it is set on so it can fit suitably wherever it is placed. The mandala therefore accepts transformation into a triangle, hexagon, octagon, and circle if the area is consistent and it will maintain its symbolism. Even though the ideal shape is a square, its acceptance of transformation in shape shows the inherent flexibility of the vastu-purusa-mandala (Kramrisch 21 and Patra 2014:47). When configuring a temple they use this mandala of purusa to enable them to place the proper things in the proper directions and proper places (i.e. north, west, etc.) such as where the worship places or bedrooms must be and so forth. If the rooms in these buildings are appropriately placed this will keep the building healthy and keep the people in it happy (Patra 2014:47).

Another thing that the vastu-shastra states is that the layout for residences be placed based on caste; the brahmins (priestly class) are placed in the north, the kshatriyas (the warrior class) in the east, the vaishyas (the merchant class) in the south, and the sudras (the lower class) in the west.  When the land is purified and sanctified the vastu-purusa-mandala is drawn on the site with all the subdivisions helping to indicate the form of the building. The mandala is divided into 64 (8×8) squares and is meant for construction of shrines and for worship by brahmins, or 81 (9×9) squares and is meant for the construction of other buildings and for worship of kshastriyas (kings). These squares (nakshatras) are said to be the seats of 45 divinities that all surround a central open space that is ruled by Brahma (Chakrabarti 6-7 and Kramrisch 46). The square is occupied by the vastu-purusa his very shape of his body. His body with its parts, limbs, and apertures is interpreted as having the same boundaries or extent in space, time, or meaning and is therefore one with the 81 squares of the plan. The mandala is filled with magical effectiveness and meanwhile the body of man is the place of insight by the practice of the discipline of yoga (Kramrisch 49). The vastu-purusa-mandala is the vastu-purusa, his body is together with the presence and actions of the divinities located in the mandala, which is their yantra, the center is the brahmasthana and designates the center point of a building (it is a giant skylight) and its superstructure is the temple (Kramrisch 63).

The brahmasthana is the principle location in the temple because this is where the seat of the godhead will eventually be placed. A ritual is performed at this space in the vastu-purusa-mandala called garbhadhana, which invites the soul of the temple to enter the radius of the building. In this ritual a brahmin and a priest place a gold box in the earth during the ceremony of the first ground breaking. The interior of this box is an exact replica of the mandala squares and each square is filled with dirt. The priest then places the correct mantra in writing to call on the presence of the matching deity. When the base is complete the external features of the temple are brought to life through meticulously sculpted figures and paintings, these arts are generally conveyed as the forms of the divine entities (Osborn 90-91).     

It is said that the vastu-shastra is a very powerful ongoing tradition in India today and is in no threat of becoming extinct. The post secondary schools in India have classes to teach students about the variation of skills and techniques required in the science of sacred architecture. In these classes the literature is all written in Sanskrit, therefore in order for the students to learn the correct knowledge they must know how to read Sanskrit. They are taught everything required for vastu-shastra such as geometry, drafting, stone sculpture, bronze casting, woodcarving, painting, and so much more. When the students gain the correct knowledge and skills to be an architect in India they then graduate with a degree and then receive the title sthapati [(temple architect and builder) this title is named after Sri. M. Vaidyantha Sthapati a master architect, he was the designer and architect of some very popular temples and other Hindu buildings]. India has the most examples of sacred architecture that exist compared to all other countries in the world combined (Osborn 87). One of the more important requirements for vastu-shastra that is used today is the orientation of where parts of the buildings needs to be situated based on the points on the vastu-purusa-mandala. Hindu temples back in the nineteenth century were located at the heart of the city.  With that in mind today if one desires to go to a temple the most important temples are now all found in the suburbs, but they still have the same purpose, to bring human beings and gods closer together.

 

References and Further Recommended Reading

Boner, Alice (1966) Slipa Prakasa Medieval Orissan Sanskrit Text on Temple Architecture. Leiden: Brill Archive.

Chakrabarti, Vibhuti (2013) Indian Architectural Theory and Practice: Contemporary Uses of Vastu Vidya. New York: Routledge.

Gautum, Jagdish (2006) Latest Vastu Shastra (Some Secrets). New Delhi: Abhinav Publications.

King, Anthony D. (ed.) (2003) Building and Society. New York: Routledge.

Kramrisch, Stella (1976) The Hindu Temple, Vol 1. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass.

Meister, Michael (1976) Mandala and Practice in Nagagra Architecture in North India.” Artibus Asiae, Vol.99, No.2: p.204-219.

Meister, Michael (1983) Geometry and Measure in Indian Temple Plans: Rectangular Temples. Artibus Asiae. Vol.44, No.4: p.266-296.

Michell, George (1977) The Hindu Temple: An Introduction to its Meanings and Forms. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Osborn, David (2010) Science of the Sacred. Raleigh: Lulu Press Inc.

Patra, Reena (2006) Asian Philosophy: A Comparative Study on Vaastu Shastra and Heidegger’s Building, Dwelling and Thinking. New York: Routledge, Vol.16, No.3: p.199-218.

Patra, Reena (2014) Town Planning in Ancient India: In Moral Perspective. Chandigarh: The International Journal of Humanities and Social Studies, Vol.2,  No.6: p.44-51.

Rodrigues, Hillary P. (2006) Introducing Hinduism-The eBook. Pennsylvania: Journal of Buddhist Ethics Online Books, LTD.

Rodrigues, Hillary P. (ed.) (2011) Studying Hinduism in Practice. New York: Routledge.

Trivedi, Kirti (1989) Hindu Temples: Models of a Fractal Universe. Bombay: Springer-Verlag.

Vasudev, Gayatri D. (Editor) (1998) Vastu, Astrology, and Architecture: Papers Presented at the First All India Symposium on Vastu, Bangalore. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass.

 

Related Topics for Further Investigation

Mandala

Vedic Period

Vedas

Tirtha

Caste System

Brahmanas

Kshatriyas

Vaisyas

Sudras

Vedic Gods (divinities)

Purusa Legend

Brahmasthana

Yantra

Sthapati

 

Noteworthy Websites Related to the Topic

http://architectureideas.info/2008/10/vastu-purusha-mandala/

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vastu_shastra

http://www.vastushastraguru.com/vastu-purusha-mandala/

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/V._Ganapati_Sthapati

http://www.vaastu-shastra.com

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yantra

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mandala

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hindu_temple

 

Article written by: Brandon Simon (March 2015) who is solely responsible for its content.

The Karva Chauth Vrata

Of the various duties of a women (stridharma) the most important is a religious observance (vrata), which has fasting as a central element (Denton 24-31). Usually lasting from a day or two to a couple of weeks, vratas may involve group chanting, recitation of religious stories and or the creation of elaborate designs using colorful, powdered rice, but the most important element of the vrata is the fasting component (Denton 30-31). Dharma tends to elevate one feature of stridharma above all else and that is pativrata, the worshipful service of one’s husband (Denton 32). Vratas are mostly carried out by women for their husbands (suhag), the right to preserve their auspicious married state (saubhagya), or for their children (Pearson 78).

Although it may seem as if women are performing these vratas for the well-being of their family, that is not typically the case. According to the Manusmrti, being born a woman is considered the result of sins committed in one’s past life or lives. Being born sinful, a women is thought to be weak and impure, thus women should be “protected” at all stages of her life by male guidance who play an authoritative role in their lives. For example, when a girl is born, she is protected by her father and when she is married she is protected by her husband. Therefore, the Manusmrti declared that no sacrifice, vrata, and fast should be performed by a woman without her husband (Pearson 79-80). Nevertheless, women are considered ardhangani, or “half the body” of a male. The three goals of a householder dharma, artha, and kama are incomplete without the cooperation of one’s wife and therefore a women is essential to the welfare and dharmic duties of the male householder (Pearson 80). After marriage, women are considered to be responsible to perform all types of special vratas for the welfare of one’s husbands.

Taking place during the fall, Karva Chauth is an important observance followed by married Hindu women of Northern India. On this day, prayers are offered to Siva, Parvati, Ganesa and to Chandrama (God of the Moon) in return for the welfare, prosperity and longevity of their husbands. This vrata consists of a daylong fast obtained by the woman, where one is not allowed to consume water nor food (Melton 497). Over the years, this vrata is being recognized as a joyous occasion celebrated by all members of the family, as opposed to a duty forced upon women. Every year, on the fourth day of the waning moon in the Indian Hindu month of Kartika (October in the Western/Gregorian Calendar), the Karva Chauth festival is held. Women wake up early in the morning, before dawn, and enjoy a bite to eat with the other women of the household. Throughout the day, more preparations are made for the evening (Melton 497-498).

Henna is an important factor of this vrata. In some societies, henna is considered to be a very sensual, beautifying agent. Throughout this vrata, moments of one’s wedding day are reminisced. On wedding days, brides’ arms and feet are decorated with henna. Henna is said to bring good luck. In some societies henna is also seen as a cleanser to ritually “clean” the bride during the week of celebrations prior to the wedding. In the old days, henna was said to be emblematic of the blood stained sheets of the virgin bride after the consummation of her marriage (Monger 150). Amidst the preparations for the evening, applying henna to your arms is of significance to this vrata. It has been passed down for generations that the longer the henna stays on the girl’s hands, the longer her husband will love her (Monger 150).

Among these preparations, gift-giving among family members, especially the spouses, has become a common gesture. Mothers of wedded women will give gifts known as “Baya” (Melton 498). A husband giving a piece of jewellery or some kind of other gift to his wife is also common nowadays. The Karva Chauth vrata becomes a celebration by the evening. Women from neighboring homes and families related to the household come over and together the rest of the activities are carried out. Women adorn themselves in their finest jewellery and either dress up in their wedding dresses or in a new dress that is comparable to their wedding dress. After everybody is ready, before the moon comes out, women gather in a circle around the storyteller, who recites the story behind the vrata of Karva Chauth.

The Karva Chauth vrata is associated with many myths. The most popular myth is called The Kings Daughter (Beck and Claus 48-49). This myth consists of betrayal, repent, and sorrow. There was once a king with seven sons and the youngest of them all was a daughter who was very dear to everyone, especially her brothers. As would happen to any individual, the daughter grew up and got married. When the day came to keep a vrata for her husband, the daughter did as any other married women was to do, but the daughter was very delicate and weak and soon she became pale. This sight was unbearable to her brothers, so they hatched a plan to help their sister out of her misery. The brothers managed to create a fake moon, and the trick their sister into thinking it was the real moon so that she would break her fast and eat. The princess, unfortunately, believed her brothers and broke the fast by completing all the necessary rituals, but as fate has it, the next day her husband fell very ill. As days passed on his health got worse and no medication was effective. When she had no choice, the princess called the priests and asked what else could be done. The pandita (religious priests) informed the princess of how she had broken her fast before the moon had arose and therefore, her husband fell ill and has been waning since. Before leaving, the pundits advised the princess to wait until the next fourth day of the waning moon in the month of Kartika. They informed her to complete the vrata this time, fully. The princess did as she was told. She kept the fast until the moon was up and her husband’s health started getting better. The princess and her prince then lived happily ever after. [There are many interpretations of this myth depending on the region in India. One version, different from the one provided can be found in Melton (2011)].

In the evening the women of the house gather for the final rituals of the fast. Surrounding them will be a metal urn (karva) filled with water, a mud pot which is symbolic of the deity Ganesa, a statue of Parvati (Gaur Mata) and food items to offer the gods as well as the person selected to tell story (Melton 498). While waiting for the moon to arise, the women will listen to a version of the myth. The myth is told by a chosen older women with experience of the vrata. Upon seeing the moonlight, the women pass around the karva and offer water to Chandrama and ask for his blessings. These women then pray for their husband’s well-being and then worship their husband as if they were worshipping a deity (Melton 498). After worshipping their husbands, the husbands help break their fast, and they then enjoy a meal. During this time, and out of appreciation for their full day’s efforts, husbands tend to gift their wives jewellery or a new article of clothing (Melton 498).

The Karva Chauth vrata is undoubtedly one of the harder vratas due to the no consumption of food or water rule, which lasts from dawn until moonlight. Married Indian women are deemed to be responsible to complete vratas. Completing vratas is considered a way of cleansing one of their sins but according to the Manusmrti, for a women, there is no way to completely purify yourself. According to the Manusmrti the biggest sin is being a women.  (Pearson 79-80). Women were considered completely impure, and bad luck, which explains why in the older days baby girls were immediately disposed of after their birth. Nowadays women are more in power due to the growth of feminist point of views. With this, views on women have changed. Nowadays in bigger cities, women will be less interested in keeping vratas for their husbands. Women of this generation might worry about their body or may not believe in the concept of vrata. As time passes by, the role and rituals of women have changed. There are many women that still live in India that perform this and many other vratas for the well-being and safety of their husbands. Even people who live outside of India perform this vrata as it is not a difficult to perform. Karva Chauth is one of the more important vratas that is to be fulfilled or accomplished by women of an Indian household.

 

REFERENCES AND FURTHER RECOMMENDED READING

Beck, Brenda E. F (1987) Folktales of India. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Bose, Mandakranta (2010) Women in the Hindu Tradition: Rules, Roles, and Exceptions. Oxon: Routledge.

Channa, V.C (1984) Hinduism. New Delhi: National Publishing House.

Denton, Lynn Tesky (2004) Female Ascetics in Hinduism. Albany: State University of New York Press

Leslie, Julia (1991) Roles and Rituals for Hindu Women. New Jersey: Associated University Presses.

Monger, George P (2004) Marriage Customs of the World: From Henna to Honeymoons. California: ABC-CLIO, Inc.

Pearson, Anne Mackenzie (1996) Because It Gives Me Peace of Mind: Ritual Fasts in the
Religious Lives of Hindu Women.
Albany: State University of New York Press.

Pintchman, Tracy (2007) Women’s Lives, Women’s Rituals in the Hindu Tradition. New York: Oxford University Press.

Rinehart, Robin (2004) Contemporary Hinduism: Ritual, Culture, and Practice. California: ABC-CLIO, Inc.

Related Topics for Further Investigation

Teej Festival
Siva
Parvati
Ganesa
Chandrama
Manusmrti
Hindu Calendar System
Saivite Community
Ahoi Ashtami
Concept of stridharma
Caturmas
Ekadashi

Noteworthy Websites Related to the Topic
http://www.karwachauth.com

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Karva_Chauth

http://hinduism.about.com/od/festivalsholidays/p/karwachauth.htm

http://www.karwachauthgifts.com/karva-chauth-customs.html

Article written by: Nidhi Patel (March 2015) who is solely responsible for its content.

Thaipusam

Thaipusam is a religious festival celebrated by Tamils that originated in South India, but is now particularly popular in Malaysia and Singapore. It is one of the largest festivals in Malaysia, even though Indians make up less than 10% of the population (Ward 317). It begins on the first day with a full moon during the month of Thai in the Tamil calendar (January to February) and lasts for three days. This time of the year is a powerful occasion due to the austerity associated with the astrological signs of the full moon.

There are several versions of how the celebration originated, but the most widely accepted one includes the defeat of the evil demon Surapadma by the god Murugan, son of Parvati and Siva. It was believed that Surapadma victimized and hurt people, so the people asked Parvati to send her son to help them. However, she was unable to grant their request because Murugan was practicing asceticism in isolation. Not deterred by this, the people proceeded to where Murugan was living, who was touched by their journey and decided to help the people. On the day worshippers now celebrate Thaipusam, Parvati had given him a sacred lance to use as a weapon that aided in his defeat of Surapadma (Collins 63). Another, less popular, origin story claims that Murugan was taken away from his place of asceticism to be married in a temple. By accident, the priest polluted the auspicious ceremony by sneezing, so the marriage had to be postponed until the following year (Collins 77). Even though Hindus have differing opinions on how Thaipusam originated, they collectively celebrate it in the same way.

The celebration comprises of a three-day festival and has a particularly busy schedule for followers. Before the sun rises on the first day of Thaipusam, a Pandaram, a non-Brahmin priest, meets other festival committee members at a shop-house, which holds a chariot and a murti (image) of Murugan. The festival usually begins at 4:00AM when the Pandaram performs puja (worship) on the image, anointing and dressing it, and passing flaming lights before the image (arati). At 8:00AM, a chariot procession begins. Behind the chariot, about twenty men and a couple of boys carry wooden arches called kavadis on their shoulders with a pot of milk suspended at either end. They walk without shoes because of the sacred journey they are beginning. Large throngs of worshippers gather around the chariot to make offerings to Murugan and to touch sacred ash to their bodies.

While the chariot, murti, and the garments worn by celebrants are physically and elaborately decorated, the festival is also embellished artistically through dance and music. Along the journey, kavadi dances (kavadi attam) take place, where dancers form in circles and seem to enter a trance as the music intensifies and their dancing becomes more complicated. Sometimes, individuals are seen dropping to the ground in a faint, overcome with the spiritual presence of the god. Fan-bearers follow, along with musicians playing drums and other instruments (Collins 62-68).

The procession is usually finished by 10:00PM and the murti is brought into the innermost chambers of a temple, where it is kept for two days. Immediately after the murti is placed there that night, devotees make a pilgrimage up a large hill or temple steps. In Malaysia, a full night of walking takes Hindus up almost three hundred steps to the Batu Caves, an essential component of Thaipusam.  The caves serve as shrines and relate to the story of how Murugan conquered Surapadma. The second day of the festival is spent at this sacred place, where Murugan is worshipped and vows are received (Ward 319). That night, they make their way back down and the Pandaram, temple committee, musicians, and other worshippers take Murugan’s image out of the temple. They proceed back to the shop-house that holds the chariot, murti, and kavadis where the festival started. There, one last puja is performed before the festival is over and everyone heads home (Collins 88).

Prior to their time in the Batu Caves, Hindus will make vows in anticipation that they will be fulfilled symbolically through the act of the rituals performed throughout the length of the festival. Rituals encourage festival celebrants to leave material pursuits in preference for spiritual devotion and thanksgiving, representative of Murugan’s asceticism. Most Hindus are motivated by these vows, where they make an offering for a specific period of time and in turn, their vows are fulfilled. Thaipusam devotees often ask for requests that involve marriage, health and financial concerns, and educational wishes (Ward 318-319). Asceticism has many expressions, ranging from generic rituals to the more radical rituals. One simple ritual often associated with Thaipusam is head-shaving (pirarttanai mudi), which allows the devotee to become free of sin by removing hair, which acts as a pollutant.  More complex rituals usually include body piercing. Worshippers will sleep on the ground in the temple courtyard the night before the festival, then take a ritual bath and have incense passed before their faces, ensuring that the presence of Murugan is strong. They will go into a trance and have hooks and skewers inserted into their bodies. The power of Murugan is believed to be the reason why blood is rarely shed and celebrants report that they feel little to no pain during mortification of the flesh. The most extreme part of this ritual an individual may perform includes pulling a chariot by the hooks pierced into one’s back, while carrying milk pots from the chest and from a six foot long lance, pierced through the cheeks (Collins 80-82).

The trances can affect humans biologically, psychologically, and physiologically. Similar impacts from trances are seen wherever they are practiced, even across different cultures (Simpson 21). This altered state of consciousness is defined as a change in the typical pattern of how an individual mentally operates (Ward 308). It can occur in many different ways, with forms including religious ecstasy and spirit possession more difficult to study empirically compared to forms like sleep and hypnosis. However, trances are typically demonstrated by changes in facial expressions and posture of the individuals, and there is still a conscious awareness of their surroundings, posing little harm to themselves or others (Kiev 134).

During Thaipusam, trances are strongly induced by sensory stimuli. Sanskrit prayers are heard chanted by religious followers and a pujari (temple priest), while burning incense is in the air. Trances are also aided physiologically by the feeling of light-headedness from fasting before the festival (Ward 320). Field observations suggest that the chanting, music, and dancing stimulate the right hemisphere of the brain and disrupt the autonomic nervous system. The parasympathetic system will dominate, causing muscle tension and decreases in breathing rates. This is responsible for inducing and maintaining the altered state of consciousness (Ward 312, 323). Individuals often report that after coming out of their altered state of consciousness, which is also associated with feelings of floating and extreme emotions, they experience a sense of exhilaration and rejuvenation (Ward 322). This lack of pain that they feel is suggested to be from the release of endorphins, blockage in the sympathetic nervous system, or modification of the physiological process from previous experience (Prince 310-311).

Positive psychological benefits of trances include prestige and respect paid to the individual by others, in addition to the ability to release emotions that may have been previously held in due to shame.  Interpersonal relationships across different classes that would otherwise be frowned upon can also be formed. On a more encompassing level, these trances can encourage cohesion within a subculture by tightening social structure and interaction between the community and individuals (Ward 316-317). Despite possible pain and bleeding, both individuals and groups of people can benefit from the piercings as a release of emotions and a way for a community to fulfill status needs (Ward 331).

Individuals have had to find different ways to personally worship Murugan because of the politics in Malaysia throughout history. During the colonial period, the British administration banned all Malaysians from celebrating Thaipusam, worried that it could be used as a cover for violent acts. In the 1960s, the ban was retracted because the authorities viewed religion as a way to bring peace (Collins 89). While these celebrations are still banned in India, over the years there has been a significant increase in the number of people celebrating Thaipusam in Malaysia (Ward 324). In a matter of only 20 years, beginning in 1980, the number of people participating at the Batu Caves increased from 500 to over 3 000 (Collins 89). There are several reasons for the increase in number, one being that it provided a more egalitarian aspect. A festival to an Amman (village goddess) was meant for vow fulfillment and celebrated in various Malaysian cities. Everyone had an important role, including the Untouchables, to ensure that the community did not bring disgrace to their goddess. Gradually, as more estate owners discouraged participation in the festival, labourers headed to the Thaipusam festivals for a sense of equality with others (Collins 91-92). In addition, temples eventually became accessible to “Untouchables” and transportation was more widely available, resulting in the resurgence of people worshipping Murugan (Clothey 115-116).

Furthermore, an increase in crowds due to tourism has been observed at Thaipusam festivals. While it can be an attractive tourism activity for foreigners, it is meant to be a sacred religious time for devotees, and the challenge is to balance both of these aspects (Weidenfeld and Ron 358). The possibility of a large amount of profit should not affect the spiritual acts of worship and celebration; however, domestic travel in Malaysia alone has increased just from Hindus travelling to the Batu Caves for a few days every year. While some practitioners report that they do not mind tourists, others think that their presence can be disrespectful, especially when tour operators and foreigners are said to not have the consideration to dress appropriately or to abstain from smoking on temple grounds. Tourists often come to the celebration to witness the remarkable event, and worshippers may feel pressured to meet those requirements, which could lead them to stray away from the authenticity of the festival. Another negative force on the worship from the increase in the festival’s popularity is the large number of crowds in the limited space at the caves. The Batu Caves are particularly popular; followers explain that the environment of being surrounded by people at a splendorous temple, elevated high on a hill, makes them feel closer to their god. In order to alleviate congestion in these temple centres, better management on transport could be implemented, or people could be encouraged to visit the other various temples spread throughout the country (Kasim 444-452).

The festival has generated controversy among different groups of people in today’s society. In recent years, the authorities in Singapore banned music from the festival altogether. Celebrants argue that both music and dance are essential in religious expression (Kong 241-242), and it is noted that the loud beating of drums in the lion dance performed on the streets on Chinese New Year is still allowed. However, people may argue that the Thaipusam ceremonies focus on the ostentatious aspect of body piercing. Some devotees spend up to $300 for kavadis, and there have been regulations put into place in Malaysia, specifically Penang, prohibiting the use of cheek skewers longer than eight feet (Ward 325). Piercing bodies with hooks and skewers also raises questions about the safety of participants. During the 1970s and 1980s, the methods of body mortification became more dangerous, like wearing shoes made out of nails (Jegindo et al. 174). To what extent should the authorities control the acts of religious worshippers for the safety of everyone? Even with these differing opinions, the festival becomes an increasingly popular time of year when over a million Hindus take part in both the joyous and sacred aspects of the festival dedicated to Murugan.

 

REFERENCES AND FURTHER RECOMMENDED READING

Clothey, Fred (2005) The many faces of Murukan: the history and meaning of a South Indian God. New Delhi: Munshiram Manoharlal Publishers Pvt. Ltd.

Collins, Elizabeth (1997) Pierced by Murugan’s Lance: Ritual, Power, and Moral Redemption among Malaysian Hindus. DeKalb: Northern Illinois University Press.

Jegindo, Else-Marie, Lene Vase, Jens Jegindo, and Armin Geertz (2013) “Pain and Sacrifice: Experience and Modulation of Pain in a Religious Piercing Ritual.” The International Journal for the Psychology of Religion, Vol. 23, No. 3: 171-187.

Kasim, Azilah (2011) “Balancing Tourism and Religious Experience: Understanding Devotees’ Perspectives on Thaipusam in Batu Caves, Selangor, Malaysia.” Journal of Hospitality Marketing and Management, Vol. 20, No. 3-4: 441-456.

Kiev, Ari (1961) “Spirit Possession in Haiti.” The American Journal of Psychiatry, Vol. 118, No. 2: 133-138.

Kong, Lily (2005) “Religious Processions: Urban Politics and Poetics.” Temenos, Vol. 31, No. 2: 225-249.

Prince, Raymond (1982) “The Endorphins: A Review for Psychological Anthropologists.” Ethos, Vol. 10, No. 4: 303-316.

Simpson, George (1964) “The Acculturative Process in Trinidadian Shango.” Anthropological Quarterly, Vol. 37, No. 1: 16-27.

Ward, Colleen (1984) “Thaipusam in Malaysia: a psycho-anthropological analysis of ritual trance, ceremonial possession and self-mortification practices.” Ethos, Vol. 12, No. 4: 307-344.

Weidenfeld, Adi and Amos Ron (2008) “Religious Needs in the Tourism Industry.” Anatolia, Vol. 19, No. 2: 357-361.

 

Related topics for Further Investigation

Murugan

Kuala Lumpur

Batu Caves

Penang

Puja

Yajna

Siva

Parvati

Tamil

 

Noteworthy Websites Related to the Topic

http://www.wonderfulmalaysia.com/malaysia-thaipusam-hindu-festival.htm

http://video.nationalgeographic.com/video/malaysia-thaipusam-pp

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thaipusam

 

Article written by: Michelle Kwan (April 2015) who is solely responsible for its content.

Sraddha: Death Rituals and Ancestral Rites

Sraddha is a Sanskrit word meaning ‘faith’ and can be perceived as a state of mind employed when performing Vedic rituals (Cush, Robinson and York 822).  There are in fact two different meanings for the term sraddha, which differentiate themselves by the position of the long vowel on the ‘a’. To best understand the term sraddha, it is essential to highlight the associations between the two words, as they are to an extent intertwined. Sraddha, without intonation of the ‘a’ has been found in many Vedic writings, including a Vedic hymn where sraddha is referred to as a “goddess whom fire is kindled and offerings made, who is invoked at morning, noon, and sunset” (Cush, Robinson and York 822). It can be noted, that sraddha in this instance is referred to as a goddess, to whom ritual offerings are expected to be made morning, noon, and sunset. The Sanskrit commentator Ramanuja in the Bhagavagita describes sraddha as “zeal in a course of action, based on confidence that it will produce a desired result.” (Cush, Robinson and York 822). This is a reference to ‘faith’ in a desired ‘result’, alluding to the second meaning of sraddha as an ‘action’ with the same result. As mentioned in the Mahabharata and Visnu Purana, sraddha is the daughter of daksa and wife of dharma, who represents generosity to brahmanas. This example emphasizes the representation of sraddha as the giving of gifts or offerings to the brahmana who symbolize the dead. These periodical offerings to the dead occur twelve days after a death and annually on the anniversary of the death. This meaning of sraddha that is the topic of this article, the first given with the intonation on ‘a’,is translated to ‘belonging to sraddha’ refering to the ritual offerings to the deceased but also intertwined with ‘faith’ in the goddess sraddha, who can be understood as the source of these rituals (Cush, Robinson and York 822).

Furthermore, sraddha can be understood as rites for the dead or ancestral worship, consisting of texts, prayers and food offerings, and oblation of pindas (rice balls) to the deceased and their forefathers (Krishan 97). Sraddha rituals can thus be perceived as comparable to the last of the samskaras or life-cycle rituals, akin to antiyesti or the ‘final sacrifice’ of a ‘twice-born’ Hindu male.  Sraddha is regarded as inauspicious, meaning a certain level of impurity surrounds a deceased person. Impurity is thought to develop through direct contact with the body,that connects the living family members to the spirit of the deceased as they are buried (Nicholas 374). Impurity, pollution, and release from these apprehensions are the questions that surround the sraddha rites.

To fully understand sraddha one must first investigate the significance behind death and what it symbolizes in the Hindu religion. Belief in bhutas and pretas, meaning spirit and soul respectively, is the base of the sraddha rite. It is believed that after death, the soul wanders the earth aimlessly, unable to attain rebirth or reach the realm of the ancestors (pitr-loka) until the prescribed rites are performed (Krishan 97). Death is understood as one of the single most polluting actions that will affect the deceased and their relatives. Sraddha is used to amend this, as it prescribes the appropriate purifications of the corpse, cremation as an offering to the sacred fire, and the appropriate ritual actions to be performed after death. Rodrigues states that “in a world view that sees existence as cyclical, death marks a transition to another state of existence, and as such needs to be commemorated and guided through ritual action” (Rodrigues 87). This emphasizes the importance of sraddha in death, guiding ritual action.

Certain restrictions surround sraddha rites, including who may perform and receive them. The rites may only performed for those who have died a natural death, yet even then women and children are not as likely to be honored as are adult males. Through sraddha, the natural dead become ancestors sustained through annual rituals and sacrifice until they are reborn. Some Hindu cults ‘deify’ those who were victims of violent deaths, died prematurely, or who sacrificed themselves which qualifies as dying a ‘hero’s death’. This differs slightly from classical sraddha ceremony, but is still similarly intertwined, as the family moves from worship of an ancestor to worshipping the deceased as though they are god-like. In this case, ancestral shrines evolve into cult centers for clan gods. Sraddha rituals are often deemed more complicated than the details of ritual god worship (Crooke 265). Deification offers insight into the interpretations that people of different regions and backgrounds may take towards ancestral worship, similar to the fine lines and restrictions that surround the sraddha practice itself.

To further expand upon the specific details and goals of the sraddha ritual, the decacesed person or preta, is in need of a bodily vehicle to continue its transcendence into the realm of the ancestors. The rites themselves are thought to be auspicious, as sraddha is performed for the benefit of the deceased. The pinda (food offering) is fed to the spirit or preta, giving it strength for its upcoming journey to the ‘next’ realm. If the spirit is not properly fed, then it will linger in the human realm, reminding the living of their presence (Nicholas 374). This body or vehicle known as pinda, made of barley or wheat flower, symbolizes the various body parts or bodily needs of the preta, ranging from finger nails to legs, and hunger to thirst. The sraddha ritual is meant to span a year but has since been condensed to twelve days. It is prescribed that the pinda be prepared for each of the twelve days after cremation, but often the ritual offering is performed only on the tenth day. Many symbolic actions ensue, including the release of a bull or cow that symbolizes the freeing of the preta to cross over to the next realm. Priests of particular jatis are often invited to these rites and asked to eat part of a pinda containing some of the diseased relatives ground up ashes and bones to aid in removing the sinfulness or impurity of the deceased spirit (Rodrigues 88). In doing so, it symbolizes that the priest takes on and transmutes any of the sinfulness that remained in the dead person.

There are three principal types of sraddhas. Parvana sraddha or anvaharya sraddha is the first model of sraddha in which Brahmins are given the food offerings made monthly by male descendants of the deceased. Ekoddista sraddha differs from parvana: the ritual is perfomed monthly for a full year after the death of the individual, Brahmins are not invited and the ceremonies can be performed by women. Finally, sapindikarana is a mix of parvana and ekoddista sraddha (Krishan 97).

The sapindikarana rite, which takes place on the twelfth day after death, has been highlighted by multiple scholars. This sraddha can be described as the blending of the deceased with his forefathers (Knipe 111). The symbolization of sapindikarana has been emphasized as elevating the preta from disembodied spirit to member of the ancestral realm. By elevating the newly deceased spirit, the father, grandfather, and great-grandfather are each moved up, pushing the latter beyond the ancestral realm. Each ancestor, aforementioned, receives a pinda, including the newly deceased which symbolizes the bodily vehicle of the ancestor. These pindas are divided into three and joined equally, symbolizing the preta being joined or merged with the other three ancestral spirits, acknowledging the newly received preta with ancestral status. Once this status is received through sapindikarana, the ancestor is no longer at risk to wander the world of the living, to haunt the living, or to fall into a demonic realm or an unfortunate rebirth. The ancestor is eligible to receive worship regularly, typically at the anniversary of their death and specified days during the year, including Pitr-Paska which occurs September and October (Rodrigues 88). The cycle begins with death and cremation, and ends with the deceased release.

Impurity and pollution are apprehensions that surround death rituals and ancestral rites and have been considerably investigated by scholars. In the family, births and deaths are both impure actions. Impurity does not always affect all the members of a family, sometimes only a select few. Birth mainly affects the mother, while death can follow all the relatives of a family wherever they may be, thus providing a reason for the cleansing rituals and worship that embody sraddha. Like most samskara or life-cycle rituals, rites vary regionally, by caste, socially, and linguistically. The impurity (asauca) that surrounds sraddha rites is not an exception.  Duration for birth-impurity and death-impurity vary between castes or varnas. For the Brahmins, impurity lasts ten days, in the Kshatriya caste twelve days, in Vaishya caste fifteen days and in Shudra caste thirty days (Nicholas 368). These time periods would qualify as full-impurity, where partial-impurity can also occur in shorter durations. Special cases of impurity durations ensue in accordance with different kinds of deaths. If a women miscarries a baby, it is only the mother that is affected by impurity for the duration of the time of her pregnancy. For the death of a child, impurity varies on caste and time of death of the child. If the child dies shortly after birth during the birth-impurity time then the parents have only one day of impurity. Differences in impurity due to sex are also noted. A girl is considered less closely related to her relatives and ancestors than a boy would be, so the rituals would incorporate less of her kinsman (Nicholas 372). As exemplified, impurity can touch all members of a family for variable amounts of time due to death but the appropriate performance of sraddha rites cleanses the deceased of impurity and, therefore, the relatives of the deceased.

Overall, the sraddha rituals are rich in tradition and unmask the Hindu conceptions towards death, impurity, and what realms lie outside of the living. Sraddha rituals are an establishment of the relationship between the living and the deceased. With death comes initial shock, quick preparations of the body, followed by cremation, and resolved finally with sraddha rituals the following day. The rituals begin with symbolic assembly of the deceased body as vehicle for travel into the ‘next’ realm, followed by the appropriate prayers and ritual offerings for the prescribed amount of time. The sraddha rituals provide the family with a means and a sanctioned period of time to mourn their loss. They provide assurance that the deceased will successfully transition into the realm of the ancestors, where they will continue to be remembered and appropriately worshipped for generations to come.

References and Further Recommended Readings:

Crooke, William (1909) Death; Death Rites; Methods of Disposal of the Dead among the Dravidian and other Non-Aryan Tribes of India. Sankt Augustin: Anthropos Institute.

Cush, Denise, Catherine Robinson and Michael York (2008) “Sraddha (Faith)” Encyclopedia of Hinduism (p. 822). New York: Routledge.

Knipe, David M. (1977) “Sapindikarana: The Hindu Rite of Entry into HeavenIn Frank E. Reynolds, and Earle H. Waugh eds., Religious Encounters with Death (p.111). London: Pennslyvania State University Press.

Krishan, Y. (1985) The Doctrine of Karma and Sraddhas. Pune: Bhandakar Oriental Research.

Ralph, W. Nicholas (1982) “Sraddha, Impurity and relations between the living and the dead” In: Way of Life: King, Householder, Renouncer: Essays in Honour of Louis Dumont (p.368-374). New Delhi: Montilal Bonarsidass.

Rodrigues, Hillary (2006) Introducing Hinduism. New York: Routledge.

Noteworthy Websites of Related Topics:

http://www.hinduism.co.za/rituals.htm#The%20ritual%20of%20sraddha

http://www.beliefnet.com/Faiths/Hinduism/2001/02/Rites-Of-Transition-Hindu-Death-Rituals.aspx?p=3

http://hinduism.about.com/od/deathdying/a/Pitri-Paksha-Annual-Ancestor-Worship.htm

http://www.hinduismtoday.com/modules/smartsection/item.php?itemid=1428

http://www.drikpanchang.com/shraddha/info/shraddha.html

http://www.dadabhagwan.org/scientific-solutions/relationship/death-and-relationships/understanding-shraddha-ceremony/

 

Related Topics for Further Investigation:

Samskaras

Antiyesti

Sapindikarana Sraddha

Bhutas

Pretas

Pitr-loka

Parvana Sraddha

Ekodistana Sraddha

Asauca
Article written by Elisha Hunter (March 2015) who is solely responsible for its content.

Festivals and Vratas of the Hindu month of Kartik(a)

Kartik(a) is the eighth month of the Saka Calendar, the calendar employed in India, falling between the Western Calendar months of October and November (Melton 398). Kartik is seen by some Hindus as one of the three most popular and widely anticipated months of the Hindu calendar for its hospitable weather and religious importance (Pintchman 2004;23). The term vrata appears in various Hindu texts including the Vedas, first appearing in the Rgveda, the Puranas, and is even discussed in the Hindu epic, the Mahabharata (see Pearson 1996;45-84). In the Rgveda, vrata is associated with maintaining the cosmic order (dharma), and may be different from one person to another, or from one god to another (see Pearson 45-46). Vrata are viewed as a way to express one’s faith and attain auspicious benefits (Pearson 62).  Auspiciousness is a very important attainment in Hinduism and is related to health and happiness and may be achieved through partaking in certain vrata (Pintchman 2003:330). Generally, vrata is defined as a religious vow or observance requiring abstinence, or restriction, from various activities, such as eating (Pintchman 2004:23). However, vrata may also require the performance of certain behaviors or activities, such as snana (bathing) (Pintchman 2004:23).

Vrata performed during the auspicious Hindu months of Kartik (Skt. Kartika), Vaisakh (Skt. Vaisakha) and Magh (Skt. Magha), are perceived to yield more benefits than vrata performed during other months (Pearson 91). As a result a great multitude of vrata, especially month-long vrata, are emphasized and practiced during these months (Pearson 91). The month long vrata include ritual bathing (snana), Hindu worship (puja), recitation of religious texts, or of texts that contain a narrative specific to the vrata or puja, charity, and abstinence from food (fasting) (Pearson 91). A great number of vrata and puja practiced during Kartik are specifically dedicated to the Hindu deity Krsna, a popular avatar of Visnu. However, there also exists puja dedicated to other Hindu deities, such as Laksmi (Hindu goddess) and Lord Brahma during Kartik.

A great number of vrata are largely conducted by women, which has to do with the connection between women and vrata. Though men and women are both equally allowed to partake in vrata, women tend to take over the carrying out of the vrata because of the connection between vrata and maintaining the health and well being of the family, which is largely the role of women in Hindu society (Pearson 126). Popular Kartik vrata include the Kartik puja and Kartik snana, which are done in observance of the Kartik vrata. These specific puja and snana are widely performed in the Indian city of Banares and are largely conducted by female votaries and dedicated to Krsna. During the month long Kartik vrata in Banares, women perform daily snana (bath) in the Ganges before sunrise, as this is dictated to increase meritorious benefits (Pintchman 2004:23). This portion of the vrata is viewed to be crucial to the Kartik vrata, even more important than the fasting portion of the vrata (Pintchman 2004:23). After the daily snana, a portion of female votaries partake in Kartik puja, which is also done in observance of the Kartik Vrata and includes the construction of murtis, singing, offerings and ends with the marriage of Krsna to Tulsi, the basil plant goddess (see Pintchman 2004:23-24). After the snana, female votaries build murtis (icons) of Hindu deities, including Krsna, while the other murtis constructed are also seen to partake in worshipping Krsna alongside the votaries (Pintchman 2004:24). For the first portion of the month long vrata Krsna is viewed as an infant, and the women see themselves as the gopis (female cowherdesses) who looked after Krsna during his childhood in Vrindavan (Pintchman 2004:24). The Kartik puja includes replicating the Krsna rasa-lila, a mythological dance circle in which Krsna multiplies himself and then has intercourse with each of the gopis, and singing and bathing the icons in the Ganges (Pintchman 2004:24). This replication of Hindu mythology is a part of many puja and vrata, and is referred to as vrat-kautha, the story of the vrata (Pintchman 2003:150). Halfway through the month of Kartik the women bring in a Brahmin priest, the first involvement of a male in the vrata, to perform the sacred thread ceremony on Krsna (Pintchman 2004:24). The sacred thread ceremony marks Krsna’s transition into manhood, and for the occasion the women make a new brass murtis of Krsna (Pintchman 2004;24). For the second half of the Kartik vrata Krsna is understood to be a man, no longer an infant, and the women spend the remainder of the month planning Krsna’s marriage to the Tulsi, the basil plant goddess, who is also viewed to be auspicious (Pintchman 2004:24). The wedding between the two Hindu deities takes place on Prabhodani Ekadashi, the day that Visnu awakens from a four month long slumber, which also contributes to the auspiciousness of Kartik as a month (Pintchman 2004:24). The month long Kartik vrata ends on the last day of Kartik, the night of the full moon (purnima) on which Krsna and Tusli depart for Krsna’s parents’ home (sasural) and consummate their marriage (Pintchman 2004:24).

Other ceremonies performed during Kartik in specific worship of Krsna is Gyana Panchami, also referred to as Knowledge Day, a day of Jain worship which occurs on the fifth day during Kartik (Melton 454). The worship includes visiting temples and reading Jain scripture (Melton 454). Another celebration during Kartik is Kartika Purnima, told in Matsya Purana and centers on the first avatar of Visnu, Matsya (Melton 493). A popular vrata observed on the fourth day of the waning moon in Kartik is Karwa Chauth, when married women pray for the health of their families, specifically their husbands, and includes fasting for the day (Melton 497-498).

Though Kartik is largely known as a Hindu month, there also exists a Hindu warrior deity Kartik, whom has specific puja dedicated to him. A group of women perform the puja, Usha Bhasani, during the month of Kartik in observance of this deity (Choudhury 341). The puja is performed in the Cachar district of Assam and takes place on the last day of the month of Kartik (Choudhury 341). Usha Bhasami includes a Brahmin priest, but primarily focuses on the growing of a miniature garden in which an effigy, a figurine made of dirt or cloth and, in this case, made to look like a crude bride, is hidden in the garden (Choudhury 341). The effigy is placed alongside a picture of Kartik (as the Hindu warrior deity) and then immersed in the closest body of water (Choudhry 341). Usha Bhasami includes vrat-kautha, a narrative of the mythology behind the puja. Single women are not allowed to partake in the puja.

Although a large portion of puja conducted during Kartik center on Krsna, there are puja dedicated to other Hindu deities, such as Laksmi (Hindu goddess) and Lord Brahma. Laksmi puja is performed in Benares during Kartik, again by women votaries, and includes cleaning and white washing the home (Pearson 87). The women will then take rice powder and trace footprints with the powder leading from the door of the household to the center of the house (Pearson 87). The footprints are seen as outlines of the goddess’ feet, and are drawn leading into the home to try and entice the goddess into bringing her auspiciousness and good fortune into the home until the next Laksmi puja is conducted in the following year (Pearson 87).

Another observance during Kartik is Bhaiyaduj, or “Brother’s Second”, in which sisters pay tribute to their brothers (Pearson 87). The Karva Cauth Vrat is usually observed during this time as well, and is conducted by women for the well being of their husbands (Pearson 87).

While Kartik is widely known for the many vrata and puja carried out during the month, a large number of festivals and celebrations are also carried out during the month. Kojagari is festival occurring on the first night of the Kartik full moon (purnima) and is done in honour of Laksmi (Pintchman 2003:330). The festival involves both men and women, with participants staying up well into the night to receive blessings from Laksmi, who travels the night asking “ko jagarti”, which translates to “Who is awake?” (Pintchman 2003:330). Divali is another popular festival conducted during Kartik which takes place between the dark and light fortnights in the middle of Kartik (Pintchman 2003:330). During the festival, Laksmi re-roams the earth and observers light lamps to guide the goddess, once again, into people’s homes (Pintchman 2003:330).

A large pilgrimage, the pilgrimage to Pushkar Lake for the Kartik Full-Moon Fair, also takes place during Kartik and includes snana, competitions, circuses, holy men and a large amount of sociabilizing (see Jacobson 8-14). The pilgrimage follows the creation story of Pushkar Lake, which was created by Lord Brahma (creator of the universe) when he cast a lotus blossom to earth creating the lake [Pushkar also means lotus] (Jacobson 8). Pushkar is considered a sacred place and in the Hindu epic the Mahabharata, the ideal pilgrimage is dictated as beginning at Pushkar (Jacobson 8). The pilgrimage and festival brings together various groups of Hindus, and has a highly celebratory atmosphere, including the a performance of the Murwarj Khel, a dramatic musical based on traditional Hindu stories (see Jacobson 8-14). The festival culminates on Kartik Purnima [full moon], and during that day, before the full moon, participants take what is considered a very auspicious snana early in the morning (see Jacobson 8-14).

Kartik is an auspicious month in which a multitude of vrata, puja, festivals and even pilgrimages occur. These religious and festive events help to strengthen the Hindu community, uniting worshippers together through religious observances, specifically through the practice of vrata. These practices help to re-affirm valued Hindu institutions, such as marriage, and to celebrate the roles of women in Hindu society, such as the role of women as protector of their family’s health and well being (see Pintchman 2003:23-32).

 

REFERENCES AND FURTHER RECOMMNEDED READING

Choudhury, Sujit (1997) “Kartik worship in the Cachar district of Assam.” Folklore 18 #11       (November): 341-347.

Fruzzetti, Lina (1982) The Gift of a Virgin: Women, Marriage, and Ritual in a Bengali society.    New Brunswick, N.J: Rutgers University Press.

Jacobson, Doranne (1979) “Pilgrimage to Pushkar.” Asia 2 #3 (September-October): 8-14

Melton, J. Gordon (2011) Religious Celebrations; An Encyclopedia of Holidays, Festivals,  Solemn Observances and Spiritual Commemorations. Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO.

Mishra, Nihar Ranjan (2004) Kamakhya; A Socio-Cultural Study. New Delhi: D.K. Printworld.

Pearson, Anne Mackenzie (1996) “Because It Gives Me Peace Of Mind,” Ritual Fasts in the             Religious Lives of Hindu Women. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Pintchman, Tracy (2004) “Courting Krishna on the banks of the Ganges: gender and power in a            Hindu women’s ritual tradition.” Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the  Middle East 24 #1: 23-32

____(2003) “The month of Kartik And Women’s Ritual Devotions to Krishna in Benares.” In The Blackwell Companion To Hinduism. Gavin Flood (ed.). Pintchman: Blackwell. pp. 327-342.

Pintchman, Tracy (2003) Guests At God’s Wedding: Celebrating Kartik Among The Women of           Benares. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Pintchman, Tracy (2011) Woman and goddess in Hinduism: reinterpretations and re-envisionings. New York: Palgrave Macmillon.

Pintchman, Tracy (c2007) Women’s Lives, Women’s Rituals in the Hindu Tradition. Oxford;  New York: Oxford University Press.

Rhodes, Constantina Eleni (2010) Invoking Lakshmi; The Goddess of Wealth in Song and Ceremony. Albany: State University of New York.

Related Topics for Further Investigation

Visnu

Krsna

Laksmi

Lord Brahma

Tulsi

The Mahabharata

Durga

Gopis

Sankalp

Aksaya Navami Puja

Krsna Lila

Auspiciousness

Vedas

Noteworthy Websites Related to the Topic

http://www.bbc.co.uk/religion/religions/hinduism/deities/vishnu.shtml

http://www.hinduwebsite.com/history/krishna.asp

http://www.freeindia.org/biographies/gods/lakshmi/page2.htm

http://www.asia.si.edu/pujaonline/puja/background.html

http://www.bbc.co.uk/religion/religions/hinduism/worship/worship.shtml

http://www.bhaktivedantamanor.co.uk/home/?page_id=642

http://bhrigumantra.com/kartik-damodara-kartik-maas-the-holiest-month-in-the-hindu-lunar-calendar/

Article written by: Stephanie Blencowe (March 2015) who is solely responsible for its content.

 

The Thaipusam Festival

Every year in late January or early February, Hindu worshippers celebrate the festival of Thaipusam. Thaipusam is a popular event that draws out crowds of people, as they are spectators or participants in this Hindu festival. Thaipusam is celebrated throughout various regions of Malaysia; The Batu Caves of Kuala Lumpar is the most widely recognized site of Thaipusam. However, it is celebrated in various Malaysian states including Penang, Perak, and Melaka. It is said to be the biggest, and most intense religious event to take place in Malaysia (Kasim 449). Devotees of the Hindu deity Murugan gather together as they are pierced in various parts of their bodies (including tongue, cheeks, forehead, and back) and barefooted, they carry a statue of Murugan, an altar prepared for him, or a chariot, up to a sacred temple to worship and give offerings, such as milk, coconut, flowers, and incense to this supreme deity (Collins 80).

Although Thaipusam was traditionally festival of the Tamil people, it now draws in many different groups: Hindus from various backgrounds, Sikhs, members of the Sinhalese community in Malaysia, as well as Chinese devotees (Kasim 446). It continues to grow each year in popularity. More devotees are attending the festival, as well as more curious onlookers. They gather in late January or early February, depending on the time of the full moon; this is known as the Hindu month of Thai (Collins 79). Numbers attending the festival have grown over the years. Approximately one million people gather for this yearly event (Kasim 445).

One must ask, what is the importance of Murugan? Why has it become an annual tradition to celebrate this Hindu deity? The creation of Murugan is explained in a myth that contains Siva, Parvati, asuras [demon enemies of the gods], and the pleas from various other gods.

Separated from Parvati, Siva granted the asura brothers the power to rule the universe as they pleased. The asuras took power in a destructive way that oppressed other Hindu gods. The oppressed gods pleaded with Siva to create a son who would be able to destroy the asura brothers. Siva agreed, and Murugan was created. Parvati returned to Siva’s side and helped to raise the new god. As a child, Murugan was said to be playful, and exhibit great force. As he aged into manhood Siva and Parvati equipped Murugan with weapons including the vel, which is widely recognized today as a symbol of Murugan. Murugan is always pictured with his vel: a sharp spear-like weapon that is said to be strong enough to destroy an illusion, and help man to understand his truth. As the myth has it, Murugan, armed with weapons, and his vel, managed to annihilate the asuras and restore cosmic order. He was then worshipped as a supreme deity (Handelman 134-135). It has also been documented that Murugan is a deity who is associated with many various aspects, including hunt, war, love, and divine beauty. His name is said to stem from the word muruga meaning “tenderness, youth, beauty” (Collins 19).

When asked the significance and what Thaipusam means to them, devotees express that it is a joyous day, which allows them to be reborn, renewed from past sins, and purified (Kasim 447). Before the festival, the devotees participating in the pilgrimage endure a month-long cleansing period. This cleansing period is said to allow the devotees to prepare themselves for the endurance required for the festival. During this month they are denied sex, alcohol, and tobacco, and they meditate more frequently. This prepares them to mentally prepare for the journey that lies ahead (Kasim 447). In the days before the festival, devotees can be found sitting silently in temples, sharpening the hooks and skewers that will be used during the festival. Some devotees construct elaborate kavadi, which are square based altars that rest on a person’s shoulders and are secured around their waists with a belt. A picture of Murugan is placed in the altar, which is then decorated with various ornaments. Others construct small chariots, known as ratam, which are pulled through the pilgrimage attached to the devotees back by hooks that penetrate their skin (Collins 80). They begin their three-day procession, which starts by escorting a statue of Murugan to the temple, shrine, or cave.

One can easily spot a devotee who is partaking in the pilgrimage of Thaipusam. They are dressed in saffron colored cloth, and have white ash put upon their bodies. The devotee stands in a stance of prayer that is interrupted when a priest comes and passes incense in front of their face. This is said to invoke the presence of Murugan. The devotee then goes into a state of trance. During this trance some devotees begin to wildly dance, some faint, some grow rigid, and others remain calm. Once the devotee is in a calm, controlled trance, they are pierced with a vel, which resembles the vel of Murugan. Curiously, it is said that no blood is drawn while their skin is being penetrated with hooks and skewers. While being pierced, the devotee appears to feel no pain and shows no suffering that one may suspect would follow the extreme body piercing (Collins 80-81). Once pierced and prepared, the devotees, in their state of trance, will make a pilgrimage to show their devotion to Murugan. During this pilgrimage many of the devotees carry their offerings to Murugan attached to the hooks and vels that are penetrating their skin. For example, men will attach pots of milk to hooks that penetrate their chests. When a devotee of Murugan offers milk to the deity, it is a supposed symbol of a mother’s love. This is suggesting that just as an infant is in need of a mother, a human soul is in need of, and longs for a god (Collins 151-152). However, it is important to remember that symbols can be interpreted many different ways. How one individual interprets something can be completely opposite from how another would interpret it.

Why do the devotees pierce themselves with Murugan’s vel? The piercing of the body with Murugan’s lance demonstrates that the devotee is worthy in the eyes of God. It also displays Murugan’s power over his devotees (Collins 102). “Devotees who are pierced with the lance/vel of Murugan thus symbolically represent their victory over the demonic part of the self. However, this symbolic act may have different meanings for particular individuals” (Collins 131). It is in honor of Murugan’s famous weapon, his lance, that influences these devotees to allow their skin to be penetrated with hooks and skewers. Whether pierced through their cheeks, tongue, forehead, or back, the different piercings are said to have different meanings. For example, piercing of the tongue symbolizes control over sexual desires. The tongue is believed to be a phallic symbol, related to one’s sexuality and desires. “The fact that it is a red pointed organ, with dangerous potentialities, capable of self movement, usually discreetly concealed but capable of protrusion (as in the defiant and forbidden exhibitionism of children), which can emit a fluid (saliva) that is a common symbol for semen” (Collins 145). Elizabeth Fuller Collins writes that for some devotees, piercing of the tongue with a vel may symbolize that the devotee has been able to control, deny, or destroy unacceptable sexual desires (Collins 145). The main symbolism associated with the act of piercing the body in Thaipusam is the subduing of inner demons (Collins 176).

While piercing is one extreme form of vow fulfillment, there are vow fulfillments in the Thaipusam festival that are said to be less spectacular. For example, many parents bring their babies to the festival to have their heads shaved. These parents, and many other Hindus, believe that hair is a form of pollution and a symbol of sin. Thus they believe that shaving the head will help to purify the individual. When a child’s life is threatened by illness, or the birth of another child is desired, some parents make the pilgrimage to the shrine carrying their child in a sling that is suspended from sugarcane stalks, supported by their shoulders. If a woman or girl is making a milk offering, she will usually carry it in a brass pot upon her head. Some women make a vow to prepare cooked sweet rice or curry to feed the worshippers. Piercing of the women is not as extreme as the piercing of the men, but some women are pierced in areas such as the skin of their forehead or their tongues (Collins 82-83).

Once pierced, the devotees begin their trek to the temple, which is said to be the highlight of the event. It is a long trek that requires endurance; however, due to the trance that the devotees are under, the journey does not seem to tire them nor pain them. The journey’s length can be measured in different ways. Kasim provides us with the knowledge that the journey to the Batu Caves is two hundred and seventy-two steps long (Kasim 446). Once the pilgrimage has been completed, offerings are made to Murugan and his devotees worship him in the sacred temple.

Once the journey is finished, the devotees come out of their trance. Some do not remember their pilgrimage, while others remember only glimpses of the activities. How well they have performed their worship is important to the devotees. Whether they remember their adventure or not, the devotees are pleased with themselves that they have done what they believe to be the proper worship for a supreme deity.

 

 

References and Further Recommended Reading

Collins, Elizabeth Fuller (1997) Pierced By Murugan’s Lance: Ritual, Power, and Moral Redemption among Malaysian Hindus. DeKalb: Northern Illinois Press

Handelman, Don (1987) “Myths of Murugan: Asymmetry and Hierarchy in a South Indian Puranic Cosmology.” In History of Religions . Vol.27, No.2 pp 133-170. The University of Chicago Press.

Kasim, Azilah (2011) “Balancing Tourism and Religious Experience: Understanding Devotees’ Perspectives on Thaipusam in Batu Caves, Selangor, Malaysia.” In Journal of Hospitality Marketing and Management. Vol. 20, No. 3-4. Taylor &    Francis Group

Kent, Alexandra (2004) “Transcendence and Tolerance: Cultural Diversity in the   Tamil Celebration of Taipucam in Penang, Malaysia”. In International Journal of Hindu Studies Vol.8, No.1/3 pp 81-105. Springer

Singhan, E.V. (1976) Thaipusam. E.V.S. Enterprises

 

Related Research Topics

Murugan

Asura

Siva

Parvati

Hindu Festivals

Batu Caves

Penang

Perak

Melaka

Possession

Hindu Symbolism

 

Noteworthy Websites Related to the Topic

http://www.aryabhatt.com/fast_fair_festival/Festivals/Thaipusam%20Festival.htm

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thaipusam

http://video.nationalgeographic.com/video/places/culture-places/festivals-celebrations/malaysia-thaipusam-pp/

http://www.yoursingapore.com/content/traveller/en/browse/whats-on/festivals-and-events/thaipusam.html

 

Article written by: Shannon Jarvie (March 2013) who is solely responsible for its content.