Category Archives: a. Hindu Rites of Passage (Samskara)

The Hindu Dowry System (Origins)

Although the tradition of a bride/groom price is not common in the Western world, many different religious groups still continue to practice it. Currently, the dowry refers to the wealth that the bride brings with her into her marriage. This wealth can vary from gifts to material goods, in addition to anything the groom and his family may ask for. It usually occurs within patriarchal societies. Despite the establishment of laws prohibiting such practices, the dowry tradition still occurs in the Hindu religion. It is quite surprising that it is prevalent (in South Asia), since the sex ratio is skewed towards males. In turn, it can also result in abortions (of female fetuses), infanticide, and parents holding the belief that females seem to be a burden (Arunachalam and Logan 1). If families are not able to live up to the expectations of the groom and his family, weddings can be broken off and cause humiliation for the bride and her family (Sharma 137). This makes it hard for the bride to remarry in the future.

Not only has the practice of dowry been incorporated within the ancient Indian traditions of marriage, but scholars also believe that its practice is constantly legitimized by references made to ancient texts of the Hindu religion. It is also believed that the misinterpretations of some of these historical texts lead to the continued practice of such a tradition (Sheel 33). The first occurrence of the dowry practice (in South Asia) dates back approximately 2,000 years to Manu asserting stridhan (Arunachalam and Logan 2006:10), which is distinguished from the modern dowry. Kishwar explains that the stridhan consists of gifts that are voluntarily and exclusively given to the bride from her household. Therefore, it is seen as the bride’s parents signing off part of their will to her. Although the dowry is prohibited in India, the notion of stridhan is not what makes it difficult for people to distinguish the two (121). Historians trace back the tradition of dowry to the kanyadana concept along with the moral basis of stridhana. The kanyadana practice arose from the dana tradition which held the belief that gift giving was one of the ways to achieve high cultural and spiritual recognition. Initially, marriage incorporated kanyadana in the sense that the father presented his daughter as a gift to the groom at the time of their marriage. In addition to the bride, the accompanying of gifts enhanced the social status of the bride’s family; however, it was not necessary (Sheel 19).

The early origins of the dowry practice suggest it was used as a form of inheritance from the father to the bride for security purposes (Arunachalam and Logan 2). As with most patriarchal societies, Hindu society practiced the tradition of transferring property (movable or non-movable) to the bride at the time of marriage. The Codes of Manu incorporated the earliest account of property rights. “It subscribed to the view that the unmarried daughters were to be given a quarter of their brothers’ share of patrimony for the purposes of their marriage,” according to Sheel (46). The Patrimony consisted of the property that the father granted his sons. Each brother was to give one-fourth of his share to his maiden sister, as described by Manu. In Hindu law, sons are granted a share of ancestral property, independent of their family. Alternatively, daughters can only be given the right to property from their fathers. Therefore it makes it possible for a father to deny access of his property to his daughter but not his son (Sharma 47). The form in which a bride is wed is reflected by her caste and class status, which in turn determines the value of the dowry. Marriage validation required gift giving even though a woman’s right to property was dependent on marital status. The patriarchal system continued to be strengthened in the various varnas of Hinduism, while marriage was not given a simple structure. Eventually, it became the norm to forbid the passing down of non movable property due to the exploiting motives of the groom and his family. Instead, brides were given movable property as a form of dowry. As the act of inheriting property began to decline, other attempts were made to instill the dowry (Sheel 37).

Along with the notions such as stridhan, the development of the dowry system is thought to be linked to the societal structure. Scholars believe that during the Rgvedic period societies were grouped in tribal constituents, rather than on a caste system. Not only did women have reproductive roles, but they were also able to perform many other duties while the men were active in tribal battle. Although some historians suggest that the Rgvedic period did not contribute to sexual discrimination, others feel that it was crucial in establishing a hierarchy based on gender. For instance, Uma Chakravarty argues that class and gender order were established during this significant period and marked the beginning of the male dominated Hindu culture. However, rituals and practices had not yet lowered the status of women (Sheel 35). As the Vedic period passed, there was a decline in women working in the field of production. As they moved into the private sector, the family structure and patrilineal progression resulted in further caste and gender segregation. As argued by R.S. Sharma, the establishment of varna occurred during the end of the Vedic period, at the time of the Buddha. Many rituals such as rajasuya were established as a result of these rigid changes in the social structure (Sheel 36). In turn, these rituals served to authorize “the existing and emerging hierarchies based on varna, gender, and patrilineal kinship structure” (Roy 136). Prescriptive and normative literature (from that time) gave rise to notions such as caste purity via marriage, rules prohibiting adultery, and patrilineal succession. The caste system was an attempt to validate the newly emerged socio-political structure of the society. In this sense, it seems appropriate to associate marriage with property. As stated by Sheel (36), a huge quantity of Brahmin literature holds laws and customs that attempt to keep women within a patriarchal system. It was clear who the victims of such a movement were—the women. Brahmins adapted the principle of stri-dharma and not only did the women accept it, but they honored it.

Not only did the dowry originally represent affection but it also meant superior morality within the higher Hindu classes (Sheel 41). Simply put, “a better status fetches larger amount of dowry” (Sheel 18). As Nath observes, “making gifts was a visible sign of prosperity…either for distributing tribal wealth or for gaining prestige and dominant status” (85-86). One of the oldest examples of this occurs in the Ramayana (one of the most influential texts of Hinduism), where a dowry follows the marriage of Rama and Sita (Sheel 41). The Smritis validate the dowry practice by arguing that a girl “was honoured by the giving of gifts” (Sheel 44).

The most ancient record of marriage dates back to the tenth book of Rg Veda. In this ancient record, marriage was described as a ceremony of the groom holding the bride’s hand followed by prayers aimed at offspring, well being, and long life while praising Gods. The bride and groom both seemed to have freedom in picking their partners, who had to be outside of the family. Thus, this literature reflects a society where rigid social structure had not yet been established (Sheel 38). But such an egalitarian society surrendered to a government system aimed to address social issues, halfway into the first millennium. For example, the purity-pollution dichotomy became established which was unheard of. The varna system became more complex and led to the creation of the Dharma sutras (Sheel 39).

Furthermore, the complexities resulted in diversification of marriage forms and practices (Sheel 39). The Mahabharata is a text that displays the transition of marriage. Talbot points out that the “epic progresses from extolling purely ksatriya forms to recommending kanyadana for Brahmins and kanyadana or warrior like marriages to ksatriyas and in the final phase advocates kanyadana for everyone” (Talbot 61). However, discrete forms of marriage were described following the Smrti period, with a large influence from the Brahmin class. The various wedding forms were prescribed in the Manusmriti into two typical categories; either they were dharmya (socially acceptable) or adharmya (not socially acceptable). The dharmya types emphasized on the father whose duty was to arrange the marriage and present his daughter as a gift, in the way that was specified according to the type of marriage it was. By following the dharmya tradition, the father and his daughter both gained respect. This represented the kanyadana ideal which says the virgin bride is the gift. On the other hand, the socially unacceptable adharmya types of marriages were identified as not following a patriarchal system. Their marriages did not necessarily require the participation of the bride’s father. These forms of marriage were nonexistent in the upper classes and only permitted for the lower classes. However, historians noticed that the majority of these adharmya types of weddings were approved for ksatriyas. In the Mahabharata, Krishna permits and encourages Arjuna to abduct his sister, Subhadra. Yet, in the latter part of the epic, these types of weddings are inappropriate for all Hindu castes. One of these adharmya marriages includes the Asura rite which consists of the groom choosing to acquire the bride by passing on as much wealth possible to the bride and her family. It was disapproved because it was believed that a “purchased wife” was unable to perform sacrificial rites and would destroy the groom’s family (Sheel 43).

As the Dharma shastras illustrated the importance in the idea of kanyadana, they varied on the legitimacy of providing wealth after marriage. For example, the Asura marriage has been approved and/or disapproved in many different parts of Hindu history. The adharmya marriages were criticized, perhaps to help spread the Brahminical dharmya which considered daughters as being gifts. The influence that the Brahmin class had on the Hindu culture was enormous, as gift giving gained importance in the marriage tradition. However, both the dharmya and adharmya forms of marriage co-existed as they applied to different castes (Sheel 44).

Thus it is possible to understand how the kanyadana and Asura notions lead to the modern practice of dowry. The kanyadana form dominated the Hindu culture in ancient times. It involved the father gifting his daughter at the time of her marriage. With time, the transferring of property, hypergamy, and caste rules lead to the dowry representing currency transfer. Hypergamy is the practice of Hindu women marrying males whose caste is at least as high as theirs. Das (1975) explains that “stratification in status, wealth and power determines the rank and lineage within a caste group and gave impetus to hypergamous marriage to gain social prestige”. However, it is surprising that the dowry system was not heavily incorporated into Hinduism during the pre-modern times. A major factor that delayed such a movement included the fact that the kanyadana ideal did not deny other forms of marriage. It allowed for the existence of various forms of marriage, although the upper classes took it to an extreme. Secondly, although the kanyadana was particularly directed to the upper castes, the dowry custom was restricted to a small group of the society. This group was of elite status because it consisted of wealthy individuals that were able to afford gift giving. As the kanyadana ideal began to spread to other castes, the dowry came to represent a burden (Sheel 45-46).

Presently, the dowry is known to serve as a way of acquiring a fine husband and represents good social status. Rather than being voluntary as it was in its ancient context, it became mandatory. The gifts that are now presented for marriage are assessed in terms of how much cash they represent. Usually, a mediator is required to make a compromise and set a price for the dowry that the two families agree on. It is hard to determine the extent to which the dowry tradition still occurs because “those giving as well as those accepting dowry are punishable under the existing law” (Sharma 46). In fact, the only way to catch the public’s attention is through the controversy caused by “dowry deaths.” Therefore, scholars make use of indirect methods in order to evaluate trends and determine why it is still occurring (Arunachalam and Logan 3). Although a dowry system is followed by the various Hindu classes, it is important to realize that there are some exceptions. There are established societies based on matrilineal structures which helps explain the variations in the regional trends of the dowry tradition.

Ultimately, the inheritance practice changed to the price of maintaining high quality husbands during the later part of the nineteenth century. Although it is difficult to determine who benefits most from the dowry, current data reveals that a practice arose in the 1950’s where bachelors began to prescribe a list of objects for exchange in marriage (Arunachalam and Logan 12). According to the Institute of Development and Communication, although the dowry system originates with the brahmin class, eight percent of dowry deaths and abuse cases occur in the middle and lower classes of the Hindu society (Sharma 46). When the daughter agrees to marriage, she is still assured that she will be offered security and an improved quality of life. The relocation of wealth from the brides’ to the grooms’ families still takes place today and is often thought to ensure a good match. Furthermore, marriage became mandatory in the Hindu tradition even if it meant spending vast amounts of money (Sheel 47). The bride’s family eventually agrees to the amount that the groom and his family ask for mainly due to the dishonor that can arise from having an unmarried girl living in her parents’ household while her age is appropriate for marriage. If the bride’s family cannot fully pay the dowry price within a single payment, installments can be made to reach the price. Therefore, there have been two major changes from the traditional practice of dowry to the one of today. The first has been a shift from the dowry tradition being optional to it becoming mandatory; and the second has been the new role of negotiation in determining the amount of the dowry (Sheel 18).


Arunachalam R., and Logan, T.D. (2006) On the Heterogeneity of Dowry Movements.

Cambridge: NBER Working Paper Series.

Das, Veena (1975) Marriage among Hindus. Devaki Jain.

Kishwar, Madhu (2003) Laws Against Domestic Violence: Underused or Abused? New

Delhi: NWSA Journal.

Nath, Vijay (1989) Ritual Symbolism and Status Conferring Role of Dana. Gorakhpur:


Roy, Kumkum (1985) Legitimation and Brahmanical Tradition: The Upanayana and the

Brahmacharya in the Dharma Sutras. Amritsar: PIHC.

Sharma, Usha (2003) Women in South Asia: Employment, Empowerment, and Human

Development. Laxmi Nagar: Authorspress.

Sheel, Ranjana (1999) The Political Economy of Dowry. New Delhi: Manohar Publishers

& Distributors.

Talbot, Cynthia (1980) How to Get a Wife: Marriage Strategies in the Mahabharata. Ann

Arbor: University of Michigan.

Related Topics for Further Investigation

Laws of Manu







Asura rite of marriage





The Dowry Prohibition Act

Noteworthy Websites Related to the Topic

Article written by: Amarpal Dhillon (March 2008) who is solely responsible for its content.

Samskaras and Pregnancy

Pregnancy in the Hindu tradition is a very important time for a woman, especially if it is her first pregnancy, which it is hoped will take place as soon after marriage as possible. A new bride goes to live with her husband’s family, and in many cases, she has never met them before, so as a newcomer to the household, she has a low status and often feels isolated, homesick and awkward socially and sexually. Pregnancy helps welcome the wife into the husband’s family, and she is made to feel comfortable; eating well, resting often and being relieved of certain tiresome tasks (see Kakar 26 – 27).

Before conception, during pregnancy and following birth, there are many Samskara performed in the Hindu tradition. “Samskara” is a term generally translated as “rite of passage”, but it can also mean, “to perfect, refine, polish, prepare, educate, cultivate and train” (McGee 333). The Samskara performed around and during pregnancy have different purposes, but all are to aid in a healthy, auspicious pregnancy (preferably that of a son). These Samskaras are prescribed in the Grhya Sutras (ancient Hindu texts of householder rites) and are also in current ritual handbooks, even though they are not used very often anymore. The first three Samskaras I will be discussing take place from before conception to birth, and the last two take place within two weeks of the birth.

The first Samskara that is involved in pregnancy is called the Garbhadhana, also known as the niseka (see McGee 339) and relates to conception. Garbhadhana is sometimes thought to be the Garbha Samskara (the Samskara of the embryo) but is generally assumed to be the Ksetra Samskara (the consecration of the wife) (see Tachikawa et. al. 101). In the present day, this Samskara is not performed as a separate ritual but is usually absorbed into the wedding rituals (see McGee 341).

The Garbhadhana is also called the rite of insemination (see McGee 335) and it involves the husband’s seed being placed into the wife’s womb in order to secure the production of offspring. The Garbhadhana should be performed immediately after wedding, but one may also wait until the fourth day after the beginning of the first menstruation after the wedding. This latter time is thought to be when the wife’s womb is ripe for the planting of the husband’s seed. This ritual should be performed on a day that is considered auspicious (see McGee 340).

If a male child is preferred, which is often the case as a son is expected to perform his father’s funeral rites, an even numbered lunar day is considered auspicious. A full moon or new moon are considered inauspicious, as is performing Garbhadhana under Mula or Magha (see McGee 340) which are lunar mansions, or the moon one is born under (see Kapoor 215 & 238). When the night has been chosen, the husband asks his wife to accompany him and recites nine specific Mantras that accompany the husband’s different actions during the act (see Tachikawa et. al. 101). When “a learned daughter who will live out her full life span” is desired, the wife is supposed to cook rice with sesame seeds for them both to eat, together with ghee (see McGee 340).

Ancient texts assumed that gender was not determined when conception took place, but at about half way through the pregnancy. Therefore another way to ensure the foetus was a boy was to perform Pumsavana, “meant to stimulate, consecrate, and influence the fetus [sic] bringing about a male child” (McGee 340), during the third or fourth month, before the foetus could be felt moving. The day for this Samskara must be auspicious and under a male constellation, and the wife must fast and bathe before the ritual begins (see McGee 340).

Pumsavana ought to be performed in a round apartment with the wife facing east (an auspicious direction). The husband places a grain of barley on the wife’s right hand and then places a mustard seed on either side and pours curds or yogurt on top of them. The wife is to eat this mixture without repeating any Mantras. The wife is then to sip some water and the husband places his hands on her belly and recites a Mantra about his seed entering his wife’s womb and a male son being delivered in the tenth month. The husband then pounds shoots or sprouts of a Nyagrodha tree (or for “followers of the Rg Vedic Grhya Sutras, Durva or Asvagandha ‘bent grass’” (Tachikawa et. al. 103)) and mixes the resulting juices with ghee and shoves it up his wife’s right nostril while he stands behind her and she sits with her head against his lap (see Tachikawa et. al. 101 – 103 and McGee 340 – 341).

A Hindu goddess, probably Parvati because she holds a trident and is flanked by lions, is depicted pregnant on this wall at Veeramakaliamman Temple in Singapore
A Hindu goddess, probably Parvati because she holds a trident and is flanked by lions, is depicted pregnant on this wall at Veeramakaliamman Temple in Singapore

The next Samskara that is performed is Simantonnayana, which is prescribed for the fourth month and is the only Samskara during pregnancy that need only be performed once, as the other Samskara are thought to be performed on the embryo, while the Simantonnayana is thought to be performed on the mother (see McGee 341 and Tachikawa et. al. 103). The Simantonnayana could be performed in order to smooth the progress of labour and delivery or to ensure the foetus develops properly and is safely delivered in the final trimester, and is also thought to remove any pollution of the foetus that may have been a result of the pollution of its parents (see McGee 341 and Rodrigues 141). Either way, it is performed by the husband’s symbolic parting of the wife’s hair. In this ritual, the wife is to be facing west, while the husband parts her hair, starting at her forehead and moving toward the back of her head using a porcupine’s quill that has three white spots on it. As the husband parts his wife’s hair, he is to repeat two Mantras and three Vyahrtis (see Tachikawa et. al. 103.) The three Vyahrtis are Bhuh, Bhuvar and Swar, which roughly translate as earth, sky and heaven and are considered a form of Brahma (see Kapoor 420).

The Pumsavana and Simantonnayana are rarely performed today and taking their place is dohala-jevana, which takes place in the seventh month of pregnancy. The dohala-jevana involves a gathering of women who prepare a feast for the pregnant woman of food that she likes (or craves). They also adorn her with flowers or unripe fruits, sing her songs, shower her with gifts, anoint her, massage her, and generally create a high-spirited atmosphere (see McGee 341 and Tachikawa et. al. 104). This can be seen as similar to a baby shower in North America. In her final trimester, the pregnant woman is to be well taken care of and protected and should avoid inauspicious activities, as should her husband, in the interest of the welfare of the foetus (see McGee 341). She should also temporarily move back in with her mother so that she can become closer to her mother and learn from her so that she may be a good mother also (see Kakar 27).

The day and constellation under which the infant is born is noted for the purposes of jyotisa (see Rodrigues 142), which are important for marriage and naming, among other things. Immediately after the infant is born and preferably before the umbilical cord is cut, the Samskara Jatakarman, the birth ceremony, is to be performed. Jatakarman is supposed to give the child intelligence and strength and help him live a long life. Jatakarman is made up of several niceties. There are four preliminaries and then the father places some gold on an axe that has been placed on a stone, and turns them upside down so that the stone is now on the axe. The father then holds the infant over the stone with its head facing east and says two Mantras about his son being strong like the stone, sharp (intelligent) like the axe, and worthy like the gold (see Tachikawa et. al. 104).

The Aupasanagni (household fire) is then taken away, the Sutikagni (birth fire or confinement fire) is brought in, and the father throws rice grains and mustard seeds into the fire eleven times, repeating eleven Mantras as he does so in order to keep away evil spirits (see Tachikawa et. al. 104). The father than washes his hands and touches the earth giving thanks to it for delivering his child safe and healthy. The father then performs medhajanana in order that the infant may gain intelligence and strength. The rite of medhajanana involves mixing ghee with gold and Darbha grass or honey and placing it on the lips of the infant while reciting three Mantras. The father also performs Ayusya, in which he whispers the names into the infant’s ear of people who have had long lives in order to ascertain a long life for the child (see McGee 341 and Tachikawa et. al. 104). The father then bathes the infant in lukewarm water while reciting certain Mantras. He then performs the rite of stanapratidhana, the giving of the breast, where he places the infant on the mother in order that the baby might breastfeed, while he recites another Mantra. He then praises a pot of water that is placed near the head of the mother and infant to protect them both. Jatakarman is rarely, if ever performed nowadays (see McGee 342 and Tachikawa 104).

Although birth is considered an auspicious event, the actual act of giving birth is inauspicious and the naming of the infant, Namakarana, is not to take place until after purification rites, which take place on the eleventh day after birth and include ritual bathing and prayers. Therefore, Namakarana should take place on the twelfth day (see McGee 342 and Tachikawa 105).

The infant has been bathed and is dressed in new clothes and then the Namakarana begins. The father writes ‘salutation to lord Ganapati’ then the four names of his son on a bronze vessel filled with grains of rice. The first name is called the kuladevatanama (‘family-deity-name’) and is based on the family deity. The second name comes from the deity of the month the infant is born in and is called the masanama (‘month-name’). The third name is the name people are to use with him in public and is called the vyavaharikanama (‘ordinary-affairs-name’). The fourth name is based on the constellation under which the infant was born and is called naksatranama (‘constellation-name’). The father then gives honour and praise to the namadevatas, the deities who are in charge of names and then whispers the names in his son’s right ear as the infant sits on his mother’s lap. After the names have been whispered in the son’s ear, the Brahmins gathered are to make a statement about the names being “established” and address him by his names and bless him (see Tachikawa 105).

The Grhya Sutras and Dharma Sastras advise that boys’ names should have an even number of syllables and girls’ names should have an odd number. They also suggest that boys’ names end in an unvoiced aspiration or a short sound, while girls’ names should end in a long vowel such as [i] or [a] and should be easily pronounceable and feminine (see McGee 342 and Rodrigues 142). Naming the infant is thought to release it from sin (see McGee 342).


Kakar, Sudhir (2001) The Essential Writings of Sudhir Kakar. New York: Oxford University Press.

Kapoor, Subodh (ed.) (2000) The Hindus Encyclopaedia of Hinduism: Encyclopaedic Dictionary of Hinduism. New Delhi: Cosmo Publications

McGee, Mary (2004) “Samskara.” In The Hindu World. Sushil Mittal and Gene Thursby (eds.). New York: Routledge. pp. 332 – 356.

Rodrigues, Hillary (2006) Hinduism – the eBook. Journal of Buddhist Ethics Online Books, Limited.

Tachikawa, Musashi, Hino, Shoun, and Deodhar, Lalita (2001) Puja and Samskara. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass Publishers Private Limited.

Related Topics for Further Investigation




Annaprasana/ Gannaprasana



Cudakarana/ Caula


Brhadaranyaka Upanisad







Nakshatra/ Nakshastra

Noteworthy Websites Related to the Topic (keep reading until 25)

Article written by Jenna Boyd (Spring 2008) who is solely responsible for its content.

Birth Rituals in Hinduism

Hindu culture is full of rituals, traditions, and daily routines that seek to enhance and create the best circumstances for an individual while alive. These rituals are very orderly, taking place to move the individual from one stage of life to another. This personal movement, known as samskara, is ultimately to help the individual obtain liberation (moksa), and become free from the birth, death, and re-birth cycle. It is no surprise that birth would have many rituals surrounding it, as parents, extended family, and those involved with a new born would want to provide the best possible conditions for a baby to progress in life and achieve moksa. From the time of pregnancy until the child (if a boy) is ‘born again’ by the performance of the upanayana ritual, people near the new born perform many rituals and rites for the benefit the infant since it is not able to do so for itself. It is the purpose of this paper to describe some of these rituals that are preformed from the beginning of pregnancy until the delivery, as observance to these rituals plays a key part in an individuals life.

Women in Hindu society are complex as they have a duality in their roles. On one hand they are viewed as fertile, compassionate caregivers, yet on the other hand, they can be viewed as hostile, malicious destroyers (Wadley 113).An examination of Hindu women in the context of caregiver shows that along with caring for herself, her primary role is to care for her husband and children; this is why we see such concern surrounding childbearing. When a women suspects she is pregnant, it is not announced immediately, but rather the women leaves it to those around her to notice that, “she has not observed the usual monthly pollution period, is sometimes nauseous, or is widening at the waist”(Jacobson and Wadley 143). Once a women’s pregnancy is known, it is common that her brothers will take her to her parents home for the pregnancy (Tewari 259), however this is not always the case. No matter where the mother is located, she is treated and cared for in a special way to prepare for the coming child. Attention is paid to protect her and her unborn child from coming into contact with evil spirits, even to the point of abstaining from foods that could harm the baby (Jacobson and Wadley 143). The pregnant women, or jacca, is not to be our after dark, is not supposed to walk past pipal, or babul trees (since they are supposed to house evil spirits), and should always keep a piece of iron with her to ward off any spirits (Tewari 258).Upon learing of the pregnancy, one of the first rituals preformed for the jacca is called arathi. Arathi serves the purpose of removing the evil eye, and is similar to a western baby shower, since it primarily centers on the jacca receiving gifts of good fortune, as well as special foods to eat (Dhruvarajan 88).

When the jacca enters into the seventh month of pregnancy, arathi is again preformed, and further attention is given to prepare for the coming of the child. Other rituals such as rit, and kanji may also be preformed, which are very similar in the gift giving nature of arathi. In preparation for the delivery, a special birth-chamber, or sovar, is set up for the jacca and her baby. The sovar is a room that is separate from the rest of the house, preferably without windows, as the delivery should be completely private and away from the public. Much care is taken in the placement of the bed, making sure that it is not placed under the main beam of the house, and that it is not facing south, as these are believed to have a bad effect on the jacca (Stevenson 2).

When the time of delivery has arrives, the jacca enters the birth-chamber accompanied by her midwife (dai), and separates herself from everyone else in the household. This is because labor is a highly polluting experience, so polluting that the jacca is now referred to as a jachcha, or one in “a highly polluted and polluting state, similar to that of the lowest untouchable castes”(Jacobson, 144). Because of the highly polluting nature of delivery, the dai usually lives in a nearby low caste village, and travels to the home of the jacca at the time of delivery (Jacobson and Wadley, 144). If complications arise during delivery, a wide range of action may be taken, from breaking open the mouth of the great grain jar, to putting a lotus flower in water, hoping that as its petals expand, the mouth of the womb will also expand (Stevenson 2). While such traditional methods are preferred, if the jachcha faces complicated problems the dai may turn the pregnancy over to professional medical treatment.

Once the baby has been delivered, attention is given to what time the birth took place, as this will determine an accurate horoscope for the child, which, to a certain extent, will determine when other samskara rituals are preformed. On the day of birth itself, the family Brahmin priest typically holds a small ceremony for the new mother, in which he ritually brews an herbal tea in the company of the women of the extended family (Jacobson and Wadley 146). During the time following the delivery, the mother and child continue to be separated from the rest of the household (as mother and child are still regarded as being in a highly polluted state). It is believed that nine months worth of polluted menstrual blood is discharged at the time of birth, and therefore the mother and child must be purified before the return to the household. The main actions taken during this purification process called sor, are a series of baths and oil massages preformed by the dai, each progressively removing more pollution (Jacobson and Wadley 147). When the mother and child are believed to have been sufficiently cleansed, the dai, “breaks the mother’s old glass bangles…[and] rubs the mother with an ointment of turmeric, wheat flower, oil, and water to cleanse her skin” (Jacobson and Wadley 147). The baby itself is similarly cleansed by being rubbed with a ball of turmeric and dough, and receives an oil message. The mother and child are then changed into clean clothes, with the dirty, polluted clothes and bedding being thrown away. The birth-chamber itself also undergoes a purification by the dai, who “[applies] cow-dung slip to the floor and up onto the base of the walls.”

Upon the completion of sor, the mother and newborn are returned into their household and further rituals are planned, depending largely on the gender of the baby. In the case of a boy being born family and friends are invited to celebrate with the family, however in some instances the birth of a girl has limited celebration, or none at all (Tewari 260). This is based on the fact that a boy is seen as being able to perpetuate the family line and be a provider, where the girl’s role is traditionally less dominant. However while further life rituals are conditional, the birth rituals observed are unconditional as they seek to provide the best conditions for the baby to born into.

References and Further Recommended Reading

Dhruvarajan, V. (1989) Hindu Women and the Power of Ideology. Granby, Massachusetts: Bergin & Garvery Publishers Inc.

Jacobson, D., & Wadley, S. (1977) Women in India . Daryaganj, New Delhi: Manohar.

Jamison, Stephanie (1996) Sacrificed/ Wife Sacrificer’s Wife: Women, Ritual, and Hospitality in Ancient India. New York: Oxford University Press.

Leslie, Julia (1991) Roles and Rituals for Hindu Women. Rutherford: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press.

Rose, H.A. “Hindu Pregnancy Observances in the Punjab.” The Journal of the Anthropological Institute of Great Britian and Ireland Jul-Dec 1905: 271-278.

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Related Topics for Further Investigation















Noteworthy Websites Related to the Topic

Article written by: Ken Baker (April 2006) who is solely responsible for its content.

Death Hospitals in Kashi (Kasi)

The people of the Hindu tradition travel from near and far on the brink of death to inhale their final breath in their sacred City of Banaras. Banaras’ city circumference is marked by the panch-kroshi (also spelled, panch-kosi), a pilgrimage route that, at times, has approximately tens of thousands of pilgrims walking along its paths. The entire route of the panch-kroshi is about 50 miles long and generally takes five days to complete (Parry 15). The pilgrimage route of panch-kroshi is deemed so extraordinary due to the belief of the Hindu’s that all who die within this boundary will attain moksa, a Hindu’s lifelong quest for liberation (Justice 20). Hindu’s refer to the sacred city of Banaras as Kashi and speak of the attainment of moksa as ending the unwanted cycle of birth, death and rebirth. This continuous cycle, known as mukti, exists for each Hindu until moksa is accomplished (Justice 49). Kashyam marnam mukti means ‘death in Kashi is liberation’; this often quoted Sanskrit tag beautifully sums up the almost universal belief of a Hindu (Parry 21). Once this liberation has been attained, mukti ceases and the ghost of the dead is able to rise up past hell and rebirth, into heaven where it stays unchanging forever. Exceptions and regulations exist for proper attainment of moksa; a few exceptions to reaching moksa HoweverHmay be ones final thoughts, and which riverbank in Banaras one dies. The city of Banaras is located between Delhi and Calcutta in the middle of the Ganges valley (Parry 33). The Ganges River separates Banaras into two riverbanks, the west and the east. The west bank is where one will find the Manikarnika Ghat, which is the center of Kashi where it is often believed that on the west bank of Banaras, “[the] universe is created at the beginning of time and the universe burns at the end of time” (Justice 20). It is on the west bank that moksa is granted (provided the right frame of mind and other requirements have been met). The east bank is usually vacant due to people’s fear of dying on that side of the bank because of the belief that those who expire on the east bank will not attain moksa; instead, rebirth as a jackass will occur (Justice16).

As previously mentioned, there are regulations to the attainment of moksa for a Hindu. It is sometimes said that the physical act of dying in Kashi is, in fact, not a direct guarantee to mukti. Also, it is not guaranteed that one will attain mukti immediately after death. The mindset at the moment of death is what determines the speed and level of mukti that the dying will achieve. If one dies in Kashi but does not have the proper mindset at the moment of passing to achieve immediate mukti, then they will be reborn again a specified number of times before the process is ended, finally allowing them to proceed to heaven (Justice 172). There are four levels of mukti that one can arrive at, which level is attained is based on the dying thoughts one produces. Salokya is when one resides in the same world as god; samipya, the dead remain near to god; sarupya, one will take the same form of god and in sayuja, the highest level, one actually becomes merged with god (Justice173).

Within the City of Banaras there are places set up where people and a few of their loved ones are welcome to stay while they await the final breath of a family member. These places are similar to a hospital but instead of the goal of saving the dying, their purpose is to let people die in a way that allows them to attain immediate, and the highest-level of, mukti while in Kashi. Two of the hospitals that will be discussed still exist in Kashi today, although unfortunately with declining popularity. The Ganga-labh Bhavan, the first of these death hospitals, is located in the most populous area of Manikarnika and is unfortunately difficult to travel to, especially when attempted by those who are weakened by encroaching death. The three-story Ganga-labh Bhavan was once used as a Manikarnika police station; it began by two rich capitalist families, one of which traveled to Kashi bringing their grandmother for kashi-labh (promise of salvation). They found it difficult to locate a place to settle while they stayed in Manikarnika and began to wonder how anyone lower than their financial situation would find accommodation either. This capitalist family joined with another, together, they chose to lease this former police station and begin running it as a hostel where people are welcome to stay while they, or a loved one dies (Justice 59). It is thought that since the beginning of the Ganga-labh Bhavan approximately 10 000 people have died and 12 000 have registered between the walls of this three-story building (Justice 58). Since the introduction of the Ganga-labh Bhavan there are a number of rules to be followed to maintain order and allow the ghat (river frontage) to function the way it was intended to. Some of these rules include: a dying pilgrim can stay at most fifteen days; untouchables and those with infectious diseases are not permitted to stay; do not associate with the noble people staying at the rest house next door; pay special attention that you do not do things which may trouble or inconvenience others; within twenty-four hours of the pilgrim becoming Kashi-labh (‘the profit of Kashi’, attainment of salvation), the accompanying people must free up the Bhavan (Justice 60-61). It is evident through these rules that a caste system exists up until the moment of death and that the ghat is there for a purpose. Even the dying are not equal, although their bodies are deteriorating in the same fashion, some Hindu’s are still seen as more prestigious and noble than others; the act of dying itself does not even change the rules and roles of a caste system.

The second, and currently the most favoured of these hospitals of death is the Kashi-labh Muktibhavan. A man named Jaydal Dalmia, whose mother happily passed away within the boundary of Kashi, founded the Muktibhavan. After their mother’s death and death ceremonies were completed, Dalmia and his brother used the left over rupees for religious purposes and purchased a building with the intention to provide a satsang where music, religious chanting and recitation of the Bhagavad-Gita would take place. Dalmia and his brother had no intention of producing a home for the dying, but they did invite those who were fading from life to join them in their satsang. After a year or more, people started to travel to the Muktibhavan for the purpose of dying, and thus, the death hospital that it is today began (Justice 63-65). Muktibhavan is not in the center of Manikarnika as the Ganga-labh Bhavan is, yet it is the more used of the two; this is because Muktibhavan is in a less crowded area and has easier access from the railway station (Justice 126). Although Muktibhavan is further from the “center of the universe” it is said to have a more religious feel due to the constant spiritual chants, music, and the reading of the Bhagavad-Gita (Justice 126). A major objective of the Muktibhavan is to yield the maximum spiritual benefit of each guest by providing amenities that capitalize on the spiritual atmosphere for the dying. The services offered by the Muktibhavan include specific rituals and a list of rules and restrictions designed to create a religious environment. A number of these regulations include: only those faithful believers and sick on the brink of death are allowed to stay; a place to stay will be available for fifteen days, if there is a special need, with the permission from the manager, one will be able to stay; the making of food must be done on a closed stove using charcoal, there should not be any type of smoke in the rooms or verandas; those infected with infectious diseases cannot stay; incompatible, indecent or reprehensible behaviour will not be tolerated (Justice 174). The underlying rules of each of the hospitals of death within Kashi are quite similar which makes sense since they each are vying for the same purpose.

The Holy City of Banaras has been around in the eyes of believers since existence itself began. The tradition of dying within the panch-kroshi will continue for as long as the belief of dying within the boundaries of panch-kroshi attains that moksa. As travel to Kashi continues the sacredness of each of the death hospitals, Ganga-labh Bhavan and Kashi Labh Muktibhavan, will persist. They will continue aiding the dying on their journey to their sacred space in heaven through achieving the highest level of mukti. As the tradition of dying in Kashi continues, so will it also draw in new believers through the popularity that it has attained, and so on the cycle will continue.


Justice, Christopher (1997) Dying the good death: the pilgrimage to die in India’s Holy

City. Shakti Nagar: Sri Satguru Publications

Parry, Jonathan P. (1994) Death in Banaras. Cambridge, NY: Cambridge University


Further Recommended Readings

Filippi, Gian Giuseppe (1996) Mrtyu: concept of death in Indian traditions:

transformation of the body and funeral rites. New Delhi: D.K. Printworld

Oestigaard, Terje (2005) Death and Life – giving waters: cremation, caste and

cosmogony in karmic traditions. Oxford: Archaeopress.

Prakash, Satya (1985) Hindu Religion and Mortality. New Delhi: Asian Publication


Related Topics for Further Investigation

The Bhagavad-Gita




Ganges Valley



Manikarnika Ghat









Jaydal Dalmia

Death Rites


Notable Websites

Written by Sarah Richardson (March 2006), who is solely responsible for its content.