Category Archives: Other Rituals

The Kula Ritual

An important text that has been used to fully introduce the Kula ritual is Dupuche’s book entitled: Abhinavagupta: The Kula Ritual: As Elaborated in Chapter 29 of the Tantraloka (2003). The Kula ritual is cited within the Tantraloka and therefore falls within tantric Saivism, particularly the Trika Saivism sect (Dupuche 8). Research of Abhinavagupta and his contributions to Trika Saivism is an important part of fully grasping what the Kula ritual includes and the ideologies that are related to it. Abhinavagupta wrote the Tantraloka, which is still an extremely important treatise within the Tantric tradition (Rodrigues 283). It is essential to note that Abhinavagupta did not fully reject the Vedic tradition, however his work is not considered to belong to Hindu orthodox work (Dupuche 8). The orthodox Vedic traditions emphasize living a pure life and then has a host of items, actions, foods, etc. that would be considered impure. The Kula ritual does not have a preference for purity or impurity. Dupuche’s even states that it “uses forbidden foods and forbidden women” (Dupuche 9).

Overall, the general idea and structure of the Kula Ritual is the ‘secret ceremony.’ It is shrouded in mystery, but at the very root of the Kula ritual; it is the worship of Perfect Beings. Dupuche describes Perfect Beings as: beings that “occupy a place midway between gods and mankind” (Dupuche 80). He further explains that these beings enjoy siddhi and try to lead others to the same state (Dupuche 80). A paper written by Karel Werner tries to explain the complicated and confusing factor of the Kula Ritual. The writer continues to suggest the “aim of the Kula Ritual is to overcome every day common dualisms” (Werner 117). Tantric tradition seeks to go beyond dualisms, which equivocate to spiritual ignorance (Rodrigues 399).  Werner goes on to explain that another overarching theme of the Kula Ritual the idea of finding one’s true self (Werner 117). The ritual has various separating factors that include: qualified and unqualified persons, men and women, niracara and sacara, pure and impure, and initiated and not initiated persons.

The elaboration of those that are qualified to practice the Kula ritual and those who are unqualified simply fall under the categories of disciple and guru or simple layperson. The category seems rather arbitrary because it implies that anyone who wishes to practice the Kula ritual would simply need to search for a guru and become his disciple. Only those that have a specific “seed” that are related to the Kula tradition may be considered qualified. Since the “seed transmission” is implied to the transfer of semen, it implies that only men can be considered a qualified, initiated guru. Abhinavagupta lists “six qualified gurus” and “six unqualified gurus” (Dupuche 74). He further goes on to dichotomize the transmission of seed and the transmittance of vibrating power of Siva. The transmission of seed is the transfer of semen (Dupuche 74). Those who do not have potent seed are seen as not functioning and therefore do not have disciples and must remain celibate. Those that do have proper functioning seed are qualified to practice the Kula tradition. Even so, the Kula ritual allows for both male and female practitioners. To understand how women are seen within the Kula ritual, one needs to be aware of how niracara and sacara are related to religious philosophy. The term niracara speaks toward those who are not attached to any ritual and the term sacara defines those who are attached to or emphasize ritual practice. Many of the qualified women that are part of the Kula ritual are considered to be niracara and therefore should be seen and treated as goddesses (Dupuche 77). The ‘officiate’ of the ritual is the guru, typically male, and because of his role with the ritual he is seen as the sacara aspect of it.

Abhinavagupta composed Tantraloka 29 in eight different sub-topics. The Tantraloka is a text that is found within the Saivism sect. It outlines a series of rituals and practices. However, Tantraloka 29 discusses the topic of the Kula Ritual. It explains specific rituals that an individual who practices the Kula ritual abides by. These topics are grouped under rituals for those who are initiated and rituals for those who are not initiated. However, as a prelude to the sub-topics there are preliminary rituals. “The Essence [of the Kula ritual procedure]” (Dupuche 70) is an important subsection within the prelude. The section has been speculated to truly be the essence of the Kula ritual as it is the opening of the Tantraloka 29 and sets the tone for the entirety of the chapter. The structure is ultimately laid out in three categories: daily, occasional, and optional rituals (Dupuche 85). Daily rituals, as with many other religions, are set to happen every day at the same time. Occasional rituals are performed during certain and specific events. Optional rituals happen at times when the practitioner chooses. While there are clearly defined rituals for the initiated and not initiated, the sub-topics are not evenly distributed. However, before the start of the categorized sub-topics there is an Opening Ritual that is involved. There stands to be four sub-topics that are involved with the initiated rituals and three sub-topics that are involved with the not initiated.

The opening ritual is a separated ritual that also serves as an introduction to procedure of the chapter (Dupuche 93). The mechanics of a ritual is important- and Abhinavagupta goes through it quite comprehensively. Similarly to the Vedic traditions, purity is an important part of ritual. So, to mirror certain practices one must bathe prior to the start of the ritual. The practitioner is also required to cleanse instruments that are to be used in the ritual. He mentions that after cleansing procedures, two important stages take place (Dupuche 94). The first step that a practitioner must come to is an achieved state of bliss that is called a “state of Bhairava” (Dupuche 94) and “sprinkles himself… with droplets taken from the vessel” (Dupuche 94). The droplets may be related to alcohol (wine). A further continuation of the opening ritual starts to deviate from the Vedic traditions. Many rituals within the Vedic traditions are done in the public eye. In contrast, the Kula Opening Ritual is meant to be private- to never be seen in public, to avoid societal influences may contribute to. However, while the ritual is not meant to be in public, it is also not meant to in the private space that is considered the home (Dupuche 94).

There are three great mantras used within the Opening Ritual. As previously mentioned there is a strong tie between external manifestation and the state of Bhairava. The three mantras are used as a “form of bath the external sort of which is discounted in the Kula rituals” (Dupuche 100). A keystone of the opening ritual is the filling of the Vessel. The practitioner is responsible for filling the vessel with various forbidden items such as: wine, meat, and sexual fluid (Dupuche 101). The items lead to bliss, which is considered to be one of the highest realities (Dupuche 101). However, the bliss that is mentioned within the document is related to consciousness. Within the literature, there is great implication that sacrifice is an act that is a manifested within the individual’s consciousness. Dupuche supports this claim by stating “[t]hree inter-related internal acts may be considered here since they are the essential method of all the Kula sacrifices,” and that “[i]t brings into reality the object which exists only as a desire” (Dupuche 102). By participating in the Opening ritual, the practitioner realizes his state as Bhairava and is now able to engage in Sacrifices (Dupuche 104). Within his text, Dupuche highlights the sacrifices one, two, and three. Dupuche quickly brushes over each subject. Sacrifice one is considered to be the “external celebration of splendor of consciousness” (Dupuche 105).

Sub-topic three is part number two of the rituals for the initiated. It is entitled “the Ritual of Adoration.” Sub-topic three and Sacrifice two are closely related. Sacrifice two is related to the dualism of the term sakti. It relies on the idea and philosophy that sakti is the female principle and is the principle that is seen as responsible for all activity in the world. Due to the nature of the tantric tradition, one may assume that the term refers to an actual woman. However, within Dupuche’s text, he explicitly states, “it does not refer to an actual woman” but rather “is based on the “internal sakti.” The Ritual of Adoration is concerned with sacred sites (pitha) and four stages of Krama (Dupuche 113). The sacred sites that are being referred to correspond to the sites on the practitioner’s own body, and note external landmarks, rooms, etc. These pitha correspond to spaces on the “sexual dimensions on the body” and the pitha symbolize the “sacred union of ‘the faculty and its object’ (Dupuche 115). The four stages of Krama include: emanation, maintenance, reabsorption, and a section entitled “Nameless.” The first step (emanation) is considered the “installation of the sites” (Dupuche 116). It ensures that these sacred sites are defined. The male reabsorption starts from his hands and slowly moves down his body and ends in his toes. The nine women that are to be included within the ritual are to be considered ritually impure within the classical Vedic traditions (Dupuche 117).

Sub-topic four is entitled: The Ritual with the Sexual Partner. There are two defined sub-sections. The main sections within this particular sub-topic are participants and the ritual. Within the Vedic tradition, brahmacaya is the student phase that promotes celibacy. Within the Tantraloka 29, Abhinavagupta describes brahman as “the bliss between Siva and sakti” (Dupuche 125). There are elements of sub-topic four that have been focused upon within Tantraloka 28. One of the key elements of Tantraloka 28 is the circle sacrifice. The circle sacrifice within the context of the Tantraloka 29 refers to the “theatrical aspect of the gathering” (Dupuche 129). This circle ritual aspect also advocates for consent of all those involved, as well as searching for the true interpretation of sakti. The ritual has three emissions that include: emanation, reabsorption, and blending. The emanation of the ritual has three trajectories in which can be viewed as subsections of emanation. The first trajectory is “Emphasis on Action” in summations focuses on the erotic nature of the Kula ritual and tries to explain the bond between bliss, Siva, and sakti. The second trajectory is Emphasis on Knowledge. This section goes on to explain differentiated though “leads to absorption and the emission of the fluid” (Dupuche 138).  The final trajectory is entitled “Emphasis on the sakti.” This section starts with defining the important of sakti and the “immediacy of her impact” (Dupuche 139). It further goes on to state that sakti goes beyond the other two trajectories and is much more complex. As a closing statement to the third trajectory, Abhinavagupta state that “sexual fluid… results from consciousness” (Dupuche 140). After the three trajectories that are housed under the first emission are explained, the second and third emissions are briefly summarized. Reabsorption (the second emission) explains the “a human of flesh and blood” reach a state of bliss, rest, and then ultimately fall into a state of non-bliss. At this point of time the circle ritual that is described above is stopped. The final emission, the “Union” or “Blending.” There are various sexual connotations and it seems that the over-all reason for such emissions is to conceive a child that would be the counterpart of Rudra (Dupuche 147).

The last ritual for those that have been initiated is “The Ritual of the Secret Teaching” or sub-topic five. The fifth sub-topic focuses on sacrifices four, five, and six. Sacrifice four is based on the body, the fifth on the Subtle-breath (prana), and the sixth is based on the mind. In a way it does make sense that all three of these sacrifices are closely related to one another. Within sacrifice four, Abhinavagupta explains that human bodies are akin to the mandala (Dupuche 148). The fifth explains that the satiation that is found within the third sacrifice also satiates the fifth sacrifice (Dupuche 149). Lastly, the sixth sacrifice is simply stated that at the highest level it is consciousness that has been obtained (Dupuche 150).

The next three sub-topics are considered to be rituals for those that need to be initiated. The first of these three is sub-topic six. There are two types of initiation: Ordinary Initiation and Initiation as the Son. After the two types of initiation are explained, Abhinavagupta goes on to explain a section entitled “On the Son who Desires Enjoyment.” The reason for ordinary initiation does not focus on the “external events” but rather focuses on the reabsorption of energy (Dupuche 154). It also is the search for the balance between liberation and sexual pleasures. It is the first step toward being initiated as a Son. After one goes through ordinary initiation, one may be able to initiate as a son. This proves to be the next step toward becoming a master within the rituals. In order to be initiated as a son one must be able to be “brought to liberation and only then can he be properly receive the enjoyment which penetration procures” (Dupuche 158). However, as this is only initiation into the Kula ritual, the initiate focuses on himself rather than the sexual aspect of the ritual (Dupuche 162). Sub-topic seven simply discusses anointing the adept and the master (Dupuche 164). Finally Sub-topic eight focuses on the penetration. This form of penetration concerns breaking through various bondages that a person find himself naturally in.

The Kula ritual is a ritual and tradition that is shrouded within a lot of mystery and secrecy. It is split between two groups of people: Those who are already initiated and those who still have yet to initiate into the ritual. There are various sexual themes that are associated with the ritual.



Basu, Srishchandra (2004) The Esoteric Philosophy of The Tantras. New Delhi: Cosmo Publications.

Dupuche, John R. (2003) Abhinavagupta: The Kula Ritual: As Elaborated in Chapter 29 of the Tantraloka. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass Publishers.

Muller-Ortega, Paul E. (1997) The Triadic Heart of Siva. Delhi: Sri Satguru Publications.

Rodrigues, Hillary. (2006) Introducing Hinduism. New York: Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group.

Sastri, Gaurinath (2002) Rituals and Practice of Tantra Vol. I. India: Cosmo Publications.

Sastri, Gaurinath (2002) Rituals and Practice of Tantra Vol. II. India: Cosmo Publications.

Werner, Karel. (2005) “Review of Books.” Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society 15#1 (April): 116-118.


Related topics for further investigation


Tantraloka 29








Noteworthy Websites Related to the Topic


Article written by: Jessica Mariano (March 2016) 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.



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
Hindu Calendar System
Saivite Community
Ahoi Ashtami
Concept of stridharma

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Article written by: Nidhi Patel (March 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:


Related Topics for Further Investigation:



Sapindikarana Sraddha




Parvana Sraddha

Ekodistana Sraddha

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

The Agnicayana Ritual

In earliest forms of Aryan religion [1000 BCE] there are Vedic hymns, the oldest being the Rg Veda Samhita, which consists of over 1000 hymns in praise (Rg) of various deities. Two other samhitas were produced through the Rg Veda Samhita, being Sama Veda Samhita and Yujur Veda Samhita, which together count as early orthodox Aryan scripture. The Sama Veda Samhita contains mainly scriptures of the Rg Veda which explained ways of sacrificial offerings and Vedic rituals performed with chanting (saman) performed by a certain group of priests (udgatrs) (Rodrigues 54). Included in the majority of the rituals in the sacrifice of soma, a hallucinogenic plant, and the construction of fire altars. The Agnicayana ritual exemplifies the Rg Veda chants requiring the construction of a fire altar (agni) as a gateway to pour sacrifices into over a twelve day period where it is believed that to have the host performing the sacrifice for personal gain[wealth, offspring, vitality, etc] (Rodrigues 64). It has been dated as originating around 1000 B.C., however it has been an on again-off again ritual, and has only been captured and observed once in 1975. The ritual has been best translated from the Vedic Yajnavalkya section of the Satapatha Brahmana (SB), stating that the Agnicayana rite is for a yajamana (the patron of sacrifice) to instill an immortal body on himself, in the rebuilding of the “unstrung” body of the god Prajapati (Converse 83).

A fire altar must be built in order for the Agnicayana ritual to take place. The preparation can take up to a year before the ritual can fully take place, and the timing of the ritual must be precise as well. The ritual must take place in between the time of the new moon and the full moon in spring (Rodrigues 64-65), and then preparations for the ritual space must be concise and made in sequences “The ritual site is a recon­struction of the cosmos itself, whose dimensions are mirrored in that of the human microcosm. One sees, in this ancient rite, early applications of the astronomical sciences in the necessary timings of each event, of mathematics, in its computations and structural geometries, and of the physical sciences in the casting of bricks, the making of fire, and the offering of oblations” (Rodrigues 65). The fire altar can be made into different shapes, however the most common shape is that of the bird of prey (syena) that is dedicated to the god Agni. Agni has been described as eating the forest, a killer of demons and enemies, and although a god, he is never disengaged from his element, fire. Agni is closely interconnected with the home/family/clan/rituals, being represented by domestic fires that burn constantly; Agni guards the home and all within it (Staal Vol. I). Through the Agnicayana ritual, one prays to Agni to help in the desired outcome of the ritual.

Agnicayana is the building of the fire alter, which is an important part of the ritual. The fire altar includes placing of a minimum of 10 800 kiln-fired bricks, placed in a specific and detailed layout, in five layers with the sacrificial layer placed on top. Fire altars in other rites are normally made of packed earth.  The Agnicayana ritual uses bricks, and every brick is placed with a special mantra attached to each individual one; with special actions carried out, and the religious meanings of each part of the rite carefully explained (Converse 83). Recently, the most common shape of the alter is that of a falcon, syena or suparna; even though the altar can be made into different shapes, the bird shaped alter is most common. The altar dimensions and brick pilings have been considered to be partly based on the cosmos, where every piece has a number and that number signifies a time and place, which fits into the ‘astronomical code’ or symbolic associations with shapes and time. The bricks are classified into two different kinds: ordinary (lokamprna) and special (yajusmati). For the yajusmati bricks, each brick is shaped a certain way and labeled/marked in a unique way, and the total of the bricks made is to be 396. This aids in the symbolism, as there are 360 days in a year and then the additional 36 days left as the days of the intercalary month. The first layer laid out with the yajusmati bricks has 98, the second 41, and third 71, the fourth 47, and the fifth 138; all containing certain equations within each of the numbers and together to form the number of days in a lunar year, half year, and a naksatra year. For the lokamprna bricks, there are a total of 10 800, and this refers to the number of muhurtas in a year, and are divided up in 3 ways for the layout: 21 go into the garhapatya, 78 to the eight dhisnya hearths, and the rest to the ahavaniya altar (Kak 7(1995)). The five layers of the bricks indicate the five divisions of the year, the five physical elements, and five senses (Kak 1 2005). Many of the sequences and numbers are grouped together in triples; this symbolizes the relevance to the cosmos during the Agnicayana ritual. At the home, the patron will have three altars: one circular (earth), half-moon (atmosphere), and the last square (sky), which symbolizes the head, heart, and body of the Cosmic Man (purusa). During the Agnicayana ritual, the two altars representing the sky and the atmosphere will be built to the east end of the ceremony (Kak 2 (2005)). After the five layers a wooden mortar is placed on top (a ‘sixth layer is the heavenly world’), and on top of the mortar the ukha will be placed (which represents a ‘seventh layer, immortality’) (Kak 3 (2005)). The connectedness of the cosmos with the construction of the fire altars are very precisely practiced and honored during the Agnicayana ritual.

After all the preparation and during the correct time, the Agnicayana ritual is officially held over a twelve day period, where each day signifies the beginning of a new layer to the altar and sacrifices given to certain deities. The first day begins with the yajamana (patron of sacrifice) and 17 different priests carrying three sacred fires in different pots (Staal Vol. I); the ukha pot, the main ritual vessel which symbolizes Sakti, the womb of all creation, is prepared from clay. The yajamana goes through various rites of passage [one instance has the yajamana given a sacred garment and staff to wear for the remaining twelve days until the final bath on the twelfth day (Staal Vol. I)], and a vow of silence for the remainder of the ritual aside from during the Vedic prayers (Rodrigues 66). During the second day the mahavira pot, the main vessel of the Pravargya, is prepared from clay, and on the third day measurements of mahavedi and the bird-shaped offering altars are laid out in the east of the enclosure. The fourth day consists of the starting of the construction of the first layer of the fire altar, where mantras are spoken to each brick by the advaryu priest on behalf of the yajamana; a new domestic altar is constructed to replace the old hearth; soma, a hallucinogenic plant, is purchased while the subrahmanya priest invites Indra, Agni (as Rudra), and other Brahmins to join the Soma ingestion on the sutya day; and the first Pravargya (offerings of boiled milk) and Upasad (offerings and oblations of clarified butter (ghee)) are executed in the morning and at night. On the fifth, sixth, and seventh day a morning practice of the Pravargya and Upasad is performed, followed by the building of a new layer to the altar accompanied by prayers and hymns, and then closes with the Pravargya and Upasad. On the eighth day the Pravargya and Upasad open the morning with the laying of the fifth layer to the altar while the yajamana prays for the original desires of the ritual for himself, and a oblation of substances are made into the fire for Rudra (Agni) with the Udgata priest singing chants around the altar, and then closes with the evening Pravargya and Upasad. The ninth day opens the same, with the Pravargya and Upasad performed, and then the mahavira pot and other things used in the Pravargya are put down on the new offering altar in the shape of a man; the ukha pot is placed in the middle of the bird shaped altar; oblations of ghee are made into the sacrificial fire with a large wooden ladle (preseka) called the ‘flow of wealth’ and is followed by many more offerings and oblations; and the Agnisomiya animal sacrifice is performed. From the tenth – twelfth day the pressing of the Soma is conducted and ceremonies will continue for two days and nights with the constant consumption and offerings of Soma to the priests and gods; fires are installed on the hearths in the sadas; eleven animals are sacrificed for various deities; the yajamana and his wife and the priests take the avabhrtha bath; a final goat is sacrificed for Mitra-Varuna. In closing, the yajamana and his wife go back home bringing with them three of the fires from the ceremony where he will then place them in the home, and keep performing the morning and evening Agnihotra for the rest of his life (Staal Vol. I). The last step helps in the patron keep the connection with the gods and his promise to them he had made throughout the Agnicayana ritual.

The Agnicayana ritual was traditionally performed as an important aspect to the Vedic literature in India, and preserves the earlier features of India’s culture in distinguishing between Buddhism and Hinduism (Staal Vol. I).

References and further recommended readings

Converse, Hyla S. (1974) History of Religions: the Agnicayana Rite: Indigenous Origin?. The

University of Chicago Press.

Kak, Subhash C. (1995) From Vedic Science to Vedanta. Louisiana: Adyar Library.

Kak, Subhash C. (2005) The Axis and the Perimeter of the Temple. Los Angeles: Sangama 2005.

Rodrigues, Hillary (2006) Hinduism – the Ebook: An online introduction. Journal of Buddhist

Ethics Online Books, Ltd.

Staal, Frits (1983) Agni: The Vedic Ritual of the Fire Altar. Vol. I. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass


Tull, Herman W. (1989) The Vedic Origins of Karma: Cosmos as Man in Ancient Indian Myth

and Ritual. New York: State University New York Press.

Related Topics




















Article written by: Erica Wendland (2010) who is solely responsible for its content.

The Krsnashtami

Krsnashtami, also known as Krsna Janma Ashtami celebrates the date on which Krsna (as an avatar of Visnu) was born. In the Hindu religion, Krsna is said to be Visnu in human form, thus Krishna is not only revered as an avatar (of Visnu), but is claimed to be equal to Visnu in god form (Leslie 100). Krsna’s birth takes place in the Dwapara Yog at the exact moment the moon enters Rohini (Constellation of five stars) on the eighth day of Shravan. It is celebrated over a two day period by devotees of Visnu. Krishna’s birth is considered one of the holiest days in the Hindu religion, particularly by Vaishnavas, who devote most of their faith to Visnu and his avatars.

On Krsnashtami, vratas (vows) are performed by devotees to honour the birth of Krsna. Devotees are encouraged to undertake a partial sor, a complete state of fasting. Devotees in a partial state of fasting are allowed to consume a single meal of milk and fruits. When in a fast, the devotee is restricted from having any source of food and drink (including water) for twenty four hours. Different sects control their fast according to their specific calculation and interpretation of time. There is contention between the sects on whether to begin the vratas before or after midnight.

Vrata (vow) is intimately related with bhakti (devotion) as it is a form of Bhakti practices. On Krsnashtami, a mother would perform a vrata with the intentions of giving Krishna her full attention and devotion, in return for blessings (good health for her child). On Krsnashatmi, devotees can recite mantras from the Agnipurana such as “Grant me children, grant me wealth, long life, good health and progeny, and grant me righteousness, pleasure, and marital felicity, heaven and liberation” (Mukherji 75).

A substantial narrative of Krishna’s myth is found in the Bhagavad Purana, although other stories have also been found in the Brahma Vaivarta Purana and Hari Vamsa. The story is important as it reveals the roots of why Krsna is worshipped in different forms (baby, child and man). The story also offers clues as to why Hindu woman use this celebration to perform vrata.

In the city of Mathura (in northern India), before the birth of Krsna, Kansa the king of Mathura had already planned for the murder of Krsna. As Kansa drove the chariot of his newlywed sister Devaki, he heard an ethereal voice from the heavens warning him that Devaki’s eighth child will bring him to his end. This prophecy urged Kansa to kill Devaki through instinct (thinking that by doing so, he could avoid the prophecy from happening) but was quickly interrupted by Devaki’s husband, Vasudeva. Vasudeva offered Kansa all his children in return for Devaki’s life. Years passed as Devaki was about to have her eighth child, Vasudeva also heard a voice from the heavens telling him that the eighth child will be the incarnation of Visnu. The voice also stated that through every action he took to save this child, he would be divinely favoured (Mukherji 102). At midnight of that day, the baby was born. Directly out of Devaki’s womb, his dark skin tone (generally portrayed by blue skin) led him to receive the name Krsna (translated to  as “black”). The kingdom was placed under a yoga-nidra (hypnotic spell induced by a supernatural force), enabling Vasudeva to easily sneak Krsna out of the kingdom. Vasudeva knew in a neighbouring palace, the daughter of Nanda was born at the exact time of Krsna’s birth. Vasudeva immediately took Krsna in his arms and swiftly crossed the river Yamuna (which attempted to grab Krsna into her arms) to Nanda’s house in Gokul. Vasudeva silently replaced the baby (Nanda’s daughter) with Krsna while Yasodha (the mother of Nanda’s daughter) was asleep, returning to Mathura with no time to waste. The sound of a baby weeping woke up the royal guards not to soon after Vasudeva had put the baby into Devaki’s arms. The guards wasted no time in sending this news to Kansa, who quickly disposed of the child by throwing her at a stone slab. In Kansa’s mind, the prophecy had been fulfilled. The same voice he heard years ago from the heavens cursed Kansa for being so cruel and selfish and also announced that the baby he sought to kill was still alive. Little did Kansa know that the baby that he had thrown at the stone slab was in fact Yogamaya (the goddess of Illusion). Yogamaya had taken the form of an infant for the sole purpose of saving Krsna’s life. Kansa then ordered his army to look for a young infant with a dark skin tone and an abnormally handsome appearance. When found, he was to be executed on the spot. Krsna grew up safely in the care of Nanda. Krsna assumed revenge by killing Kansa in his own palace.

On Krsnashtami, devotees worship Krsna in different forms based on the different stages of his life. Krsna can be regarded as a baby (often depicted in a wooden cradle); as a child (Bala-Krsna); King of Gujarat; counsellor of Arjuna. In his child form, Krsna is portrayed as a naughty child with incredible love for ghee (butter). His divine powers consist of tremendous strength and wit, described in short stories of his child-hood. Devotees on the day of celebration will carry out a pilgrimage to Dwarka (Gujarat) which was said to be where Krsna was king. In India there is a clear distinction among Krsna’s different forms (age). Faithful devotees generally prefer Krsna as a child over his older counterpart as they believe praying to him in child form is a broader path of devotional love (Mukherji 108). Mothers in particular favour Krsna as a child as it not only shows devotional love but also maternal love. Devotees conceive that Krsna in his manhood is portrayed more of an aid to Arjuna then a spiritual medium. Evidence of this hierarchy can be found in Vaisnava temples where Krsna is depicted as a child (rather than man).

During this vrata, orthodox devotee may also devote a fraction of their time to worshipping Krsna as an infant. Singing and music is common during this time. Offerings of milk and sweets are given to Krsna (as mentioned before, Krsna had a love for dairy products). Children may be given vast amounts of sweets as an act of worship. Births (male) that take place on the asterism of Rohini (Mukherji 110) may herald a superstitious Hindu to believe that the child’s uncle may be subjected to danger (or death).

Amoung Vaishnavas, Krsnashtami is considered one most sacred celebration. For woman, Krsnashtami is an opportunity to perform a vrata to one of the most revered figures in the Hindu religion.

Reference and Further Recommended Reading

Mukherji, A. C. (1989) Hindu Fasts and Feasts. India: Vintage Books

Leslie, Julia (1992) Roles and Rituals for Hindu Women. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass Publishers Pvt. Ltd.

Sarma, Deepak (2008) Hinduism a Reader. India: Blackwell Publishing

Related Topics for further Investigation

Somavara Vratas

Devotthan Ekadashi

Durga Puja




Ganesha Chaturthi






Bhagavad Gita


Noteworthy Websites Related to the Topic

Article written by: Tim Ho (March 2010) who is solely responsible for its content.

The Asvamedha Ritual

The Asvamedha, otherwise known as the Indo-Aryan Horse Sacrifice, is a ritual that closely resembles an Indian fertility rite. The earliest mention of the Asvamedha is found in the Rg Veda (Stutley 254). The ritual is often defined by three different phases of Indo-Aryan expansion in Upper India, with each phase representing a different pattern of settlement. The development of the Asvamedha is dependent on the occurrence of these patterns. Therefore, the Asvamedha would not have been introduced without the representation of the phases. By putting the three sections into chronological order, a time-line is given for the creation of the Asvamedha ritual. The three phases include the Aryavarta, the Madhyadesa, and the advance of the tribes. The Aryavarta phase is the first phase that occurs in the time-line, and it includes the initial north-west settlement of the Aryans. During this time most of the Rg Veda was written. The Madhyadesa phase, otherwise known as the second occurring phase in the development of the Asvamedha, is about the expansion of the Aryans to the middle-land. The other three Vedas were constructed during the Madhyadesa phase, along with some of the Brahmanas. The final phase, known as the advance of the tribes, represents the first historic evidence of the formation of a caste system. Kings and priests were the most dominant figures during this time. This phase also concentrated on the introduction of a legal code. The three phases or periods in Hindu history are defined by important rulers. The ruler for the West was known as Svaraj, the North was named after Viraj, the middle country was Raja and finally the East was known as Samraj (Stutley 253).

According to the Rg Veda, a king performs the Horse Sacrifice in order to gain wealth, power, offspring, horses, and to “fulfill the rivers”. The Vajasaneyi Samhita also expresses similar requirements to those of the Rg Veda. In contrast, the Taittirya Samhita and the Brhad-Aranyaka Upanisad have quite different requirements (Stutley 255-256). Specifically, the Satapatha Brahmana divides the Asvamedha into two distinct parts, the preparatory rite, which includes a military challenge, and the culminatory rite, representing a celebration of the former’s success (Stutley 256).

The preparatory phase is described in the Satapatha Brahmana. It begins with a specific person who is made to do the sacrifice, usually a king. The king is to select a stallion to be offered to the gods. The horse that is chosen must be a good stallion, as it is representative of the king himself. The horse is purified by darbha (another name for kusa). The horse is then offered to various gods such as Agni (fire god), Soma, to the waters, Savitar, Vayu (wind-god), and is eventually offered to Visnu, Indra, Brhaspati, Mitra, and Varuna. The horse is now able to wander around for one full year and is escorted by armed followers of the king (Stutley 256). This year of wandering can be seen as a ritualized conquest. The armed escorts are to make sure that the ruler of the land that the horse wanders onto recognizes the authority of the king that is performing the sacrifice. The Asvamedha, therefore, is seen as a very dangerous ritual; both by neighbouring areas and by the king himself (White 284). Neighbouring rulers can either keep the horse, initiating warfare, or may choose to leave the horse and submit. If the rulers decide to keep the horse, then the escorts are already there, fully armed, and ready to fight. The escorts are to guard the horse throughout the entire year to prevent any complications with the ritual. If any complications should occur, alternative offerings are to be made to the gods. Additional offerings are routinely made to the gods such as Savitar during the horse’s time of wandering in order to sustain the horse. Prayers are repeated every eleven days by the hotar priest. When the horse finally returns home the king’s consecration has begun (Stutley 256-257). Significant people are placed in specific places around the area in which the ritual is taking place. Specifically, there are four separate groups of one hundred and one people that surround the area. The groups represent the four directions, North, South, East and West, along with kinship ties. The surrounding people are representative of the kingdom and the world (White 298). A symbolic “four eyed dog” is killed in hopes to drive away evil spirits from the horse. The horse itself is now representative of the evil enemy. After the horse has wandered to neighbouring lands and has met with the neighbouring enemies, it is no longer seen as a symbol of the king. The horse is now thought to be possessed with papman, and therefore must be slain. It is believed that when the dog is slain, the papman is also being killed. [White (1989) describes the papman as the name of a demon or cosmic evil; the origin of papman comes from Prajapati’s incest with his own daughter Rohini]. The sacrificial instrument that is used to kill the dog is made of sidhraka wood (White 297). The ritual of killing the four eyed dog serves as a sort of “pre-sacrifice” in some ways. The dog is to be killed first, in preparation for the sacrifice of the horse. However, in some texts the idea of a four eyed dog is regarded as non-sense. For example, the Taittiriya Brahmana describes the additional eyes as two light spots above the eyes of the dong (White 284-285). In continuation of the ritual, the king, along with three other companions, are strapped to a chariot with the horse. The horse is then killed on a golden cloth, laid on the ground. The Queen Consort is expected to lie down beside the horse to mimic copulation. This act, in turn, is believed to result in fertility and offspring (Stutley 259). The horse is then dissected, and offerings are made to various gods, such as Prajapati. The ritual ends with a purifying bath and gifts are often presented to the priests (Stutley 260).

There are various symbols that are used to represent significant figures and ideas in the Asvamedha ritual. The four eyed dog, for example, is killed to hopefully drive the evil spirits from the horse. The dog is often also regarded as “the embodiment of evil and misfortune” (Stutley 257-258). By binding and killing the dog, the king is symbolically beating his enemies and future peril. After being killed, the dog is sent to float south, which is known as the direction of death. By sending the dog in the direction of death, the rite is concluded (White 300). The god Yama (god of death) is believed to have two dogs of his own named syama and sabala. Each of the dogs is said to have four eyes. By relating the sacrificial four eyed dog to Yama, the dog becomes a symbol of death (White 285). A phrase that describes the four eyed dog used in the Asvamedha is “catur-aksa svan”. Catur simply means “four”, and svan means “dog”. Aksa has multiple meanings, one being eye, and in another context can be taken to mean “die”, as in the singular form of dice, which can be brought to the conclusion that “dice” is another symbol in the Asvamedha ritual (see White 287). The meaning of the dice has gradually come to be lost in the ritual. One explanation for the use of dice in the Asvamedha is similar to Einstein’s; “God plays dice with the universe”. A second interpretation of the meaning of dice is that “The gods move around like dice throws which give us wealth and which take it away”. This explanation insinuates that the universe plays dice with the gods (White 288). Another significant symbol used during the sacrifice is the ewe, which is offered to the goddess Sarasvati. The ewe is placed under the horse’s jaws, displaying the ongoing dependence of women on men (Stutley 258). The “body-encircling” animals are the fifteen different animals which are used in the sacrifice of the horse to represent varja (the magical thunder bolt) [Stutley (1969) Varja is believed to be representative of power and vigour to repel evil]. Knives are also important symbols during the Asvamedha. The knife that is used to slaughter the horse is gold, representing royalty. A copper knife is used on the “body-encircling” animals to represent chiefs, heralds, and minor aristocracy. Finally, an iron knife is used to kill the remaining animals, representing the commonalty (Stutley 258).

Work Cited

Stutley, Margaret (1969) “The Asvamedha or Indian Horse Sacrifice” Folklore, Vol. 80, No. 4, p. 253 – 261.

White, David Gordon (1989) “Dogs Die” History of Religions, Vol. 28, No. 4, p. 283 – 303: The University of Chicago Press.

Related Topics for Further Investigation

–       The Rg Veda

–       Svaraj

–       Viraj

–       Raja

–       Samraj

–       The Vajasaneye Samhita

–       The Taittirya Samhita

–       The Brhad-Aranyaka Upanisad

–       The Satapatha Brahmana

–       Savitar

–       Agni

–       Visnu

–       Vayu

–       Indra

–       Mitra

–       Varuna

–       Prajapati

–       Papman

–       Yama

Noteworthy Websites

Article written by: Dallyn Giroux (April 2010) who is solely responsible for its content.