Religion plays an important part in the context of the family life of a Hindu and almost at every stage of an individual's span from birth to death. Life for a Hindu is a round of rituals and ceremonies. Most of the Hindu customs and traditions consist of ritualistic practices related to various religious observances known as sanskaras or sacraments. According to the Hindu Dharmasastra, the individual has to pass through, many sanskaras which are really sarira-samskaras for these are intended to sanctify the body, sarira, beginning from the moment the foetus is laid (garbhadhana) to the death (antyesti) of a person. The number of these sanskaras differs according to different authorities and some say there are sixteen which are of an obligatory character (Nitya) and twenty-four which are optional (Naimityika). These are usually conducted under direction of Brahman priests who on their part say that they use Vedic texts for Brahmans and Puranic texts for others. Of late even the 16 of these sanskaras are reduced to half a dozen in most of the Hindu communities and are chiefly observed in respect of birth, thread-girding, marriage, pregnancy and death. A sanskara is usually preceded by a symbolic sacrifice.

Pregnancy and Child Birth.

The garbhadhana or the foetus-laying ceremony to be per- formed at the consummation of marriage derived social significance when child-marriage was in vogue. At present the ritual is symbolically included in the marriage ceremony without any bustle. The grhyasutras prescribed for the benefit of the pregnant woman a number of observances of magico-religious nature and believers in the efficacy of Vedic rites follow them to varying extent. The pumsavana sanskara or the male making rite may be performed during the third month of the wife's pregnancy, so that the deities governing sex of the foetus would be propitiated and a male issue assured.

The jatakarma ceremony may be performed at the birth of the child. Here the father has to touch and smell the child, utter benedictory mantras into its ears, expressing his wish that it may be endowed with long life and intelligence. However, the first popular ritual in an infant's life is the Pancavi and Sasthi, i.e., the ritual performed on the fifth and sixth day after birth. On the fifth day, a configuration of a betel-nut, rice, flowers, sandal-paste and sickle or a sword arranged on a pat in the lying-in room in the name of Pancavi or mother fifth is bowed to by the mother with a prayer to save the child from the attacks of evil spirits. On the sixth day, a blank sheet of paper and red pen and an ink-stand arc set on a stool and worshipped as Satvi or mother sixth and a few friends are feasted. Though these worships have to Vedic basis as a samskara they are observed among many Hindu castes.

Naming ceremony.

The Namakarana rite is performed on the 10th or 12th day after the birth of the child when it is given a name. Popularly the ceremony is called barse and its observance varies according to caste. In higher castes, a Brahman is usually called in and he proposes certain names considered auspicious in view of the astrological circumstances of child birth. The family selects one of these names, but usually two names and sometimes more are given, one of which is kept for common use and the other for ceremonial use. The horoscope is usually cast and read, the name proclaimed, Pansupari and sweets distributed and drums beaten. In some castes, a ceremonial cradling is held in the evening by women of the house and the naming celebrated. On this day. the child receives gifts from friends and relatives in the form of clothes, gold ornaments and cash. The Karnavedha (piercing of the ear-lobes) may take place the same morning or may be postponed to the sixth or twelfth month. If the boy is subject to a vow his right nostril is bored and a gold wire ring put into it. The twelfth is also important in that on this day, the mother, who since giving birth to the baby was considered unclean, is proclaimed to be clean. On this day, the confinement room is thoroughly cleansed and this is the first day on which the male folk could go to see the mother and the child. The naming ceremony among the lower castes is much simpler. Five old women stand in a circle, swing the child in their saris and repeat the name given.


Among higher caste Hindus a ceremony called Annaprasana celebrates the first feeding of the child. It may take place in the fifth or sixth month after birth, but some castes perform it in the seventh month in the case of a male child and in the sixth month in the case of a female child. An auspicious day is chosen and relatives are invited who come with gifts for the child. In some castes, the maternal uncle is made to officiate at this function.


Then comes the hair-cutting ceremony known as javal. As a sanskara it is known as cudakarma, or the first tonsuring of the hair for the sake of dharma and is performed in the first or third year or at any age according to the tradition of the family. At present, the rite is gone through prior to upanayana among higher castes. Lower castes are much more keen to observe it as a ceremony thinking that the hair, the child is born with, is impure and must be removed with social celebration.


The thread-girding ceremony or munja as it is popularly known is prescribed for all Hindus claiming a place in the first three Varnas. The ceremony is also called upanayana or introduction to knowledge since by it the boy acquires the right to read the sacred books. Until this ceremony is performed he is not really a Brahman and is not bound to observe the caste rules and restrictions. A boy undergoes the upanayana which means taking him near his master, at the age of eight in the case of Brahmans, eleven in the case of Ksatnyas and twelve in the case of Vaisyas. There are also rules regarding the muhurtas, auspicious limes, to be determined according to the birth stars of the boy. The ceremony always takes place between morning and noon, never alter midday.

Preparations may begin well in advance of the thread-girding day. A formal invitation (Aksat) ceremony is held a day or two before the thread-girding when the local temple of Ganapati is visited first and the god is prayed to be present at the thread ceremony. Presonal invitations arc given to friends and relatives.

Early in the morning of the lucky day, the musicians start playing on the drum and pipe. The ghana ceremony is gone through with the help of not less than five suvasinis. Prior to the upanayana ceremony proper, the usual propitiatory rites are gone through with the same procedural details as before the performance of an auspicious samskara. These are worship of Ganapati and the Matrkas, Punyahavacan (the holy day blessing) and Devaka-Pratistha (installation of Devaka). The ceremony of Caula (shaving of the boy's head), if it is not performed in childhood is gone through and the boy is then bathed and taken to the dining hall. Boys called Batus, girt with the sacred thread but not married, are seated in a row and are fed. While they eat, the boy's mother sitting in front of the Batus seats her son on her lap, feeds him and herself eats from the same plate. The ceremony is known as matrbhojana (the mother's meal) when it is the last time that the boy and his mother cat from the same plate. The boy is then taken to the barber who shaves all the locks that were left on his head except the top-knot. The boy is then bathed and made ready for upanayana ceremony.

The boy and the parents enter the booth and take their seats on the three pats (wooden low stools) arranged on the bahule. The priests recite mangalastakas (lucky verses) and the guests throw aksatas (rice unbroken and mixed with Kumkum) at the boy and his father. At the proper muhurta, lucky moment, the priests stop chanting, the musicians redouble their notes, the curtain is pulled to the north and the boy lays his head at the feet of his father. The father blesses him and seats him on his right. The guests are regaled with pan, perfume and rose-water and sweet drinks. It is now getting customary for the guests to make some present to the batu (boy) on this occasion.

The upanayana ritual now begins. A vedi, earthen altar is traced in front of the father, blades of darbha (sacred grass) are spread over it and a homa, a sacrificial fire is kindled on it. Offerings of ajya (ghee), sesame and seven kinds of samidhas (sacred fuel sticks) are made on the sacrificial fire. With folded hands, the boy then approaches the aearya, the head priest, with a request to make him a brahmacari (Vedic student); the acarya  grants his request. He hands over to him a consecrated yajno- pavita (sacred thread) and a danda (stick) of patasa tree. The boy is made to pass between the sacrificial fire and his father, sip three acamanas and repeat texts. He then goes back between  the fire and his father and takes his seat. The preceptor then gives the boy a coconut and taking him by the hand goes out of the booth and both how to the Sun. On their return to the seats, the preceptor takes the boy's right hand and asks him to state his name and to say whose brahmacari he has become. When the boy mentions his name and has become the brahmacari of the preceptor, he lets go the boy's hand, takes him round the sacrificial fire and seating him by his side, drops nine offerings into the fire. He then gives advice to the boy. The boy then sits on the north of the sacrificial fire, bows to the preceptor and begs to be initiated into the mysteries of the sacred verse. The boy and the preceptor or his rather are covered with a shawl and the preceptor thrice whispers the sacred gayatri mantra into the boy's right ear. The shawl is taken away, and all return to their seats and give blessings to the brahmacari and the father.

The preceptor then makes four offerings of samidhas to the fire and then the boy makes an offering of one samidha and wipes off his face thrice with words purporting to he " I anoint myself with lustre and. may Agni. Surya and Indra bestow on me insight, lustre and vigour''. The preceptor concludes the sacrifice with final oblations and sprinkles sacred water over the head of the boy and in ail directions. Money presents are then made to the priests who bless the Vedic student and the lather.

At noon, the priest teaches the boy to recite the Madhyanha Sandhya (midday prayer) and in the evening the Sayam, Sandhya (evening prayer). The ceremony of bhiksavala (begging alms) is then held.

The whole of the upanayana ceremony is usually wound up within a day. Formerly when it used to last for four days, each day, the boy was taught to offer his morning, midday and evening prayers and made to worship the sacred fire kindled on the first day. The last rite of the upanayana ceremony is Medhajanana. A small square earthen mound is raised and a palasa branch is planted in it. The boy pours water round the plant and prays Medha, the goddess of mind to give him knowledge and wealth. The boy is now a brahmacari, and from now on for some years should learn the Vedas at the feet of his guru and on completion of the studies should undergo the samavartana (return) ceremony. But according to the present custom the samavartana or Sodmunj as it is called follows immediately after the upanayana. The boy makes over to the priest his loin cloth, the staff, the deer skin etc. and puts on new clothes, a jari cap, a pair of shoes, takes an umbrella and sets off, as if on a journey to Banaras. Usually the boy's maternal uncle, as may be the custom, persuades him away from the journey by promising to give him his daughter in marriage so that the boy may end brahmacaryasrama and become a grhastha (householder).

Death Rites.

When a man or a widow dies, he or she is placed on the bier in a white shroud, but for a married woman with her husband living, a red shroud is used. Hindus who follow Vedic or Puranic rites usually cremate their dead. Backward communities practise burial. Whether it is to be burnt or buried, the Hindus lay the dead body on its face with feet to the south. The hones and ashes of the dead are generally thrown into the sea or a river and sometimes a part of the bones is kept preserved to be consigned to the waters of a sacred river like the Ganga. Higher castes perform sraddha. The period of mourning varies from three to ten days in different castes hut Tells mourn only till the ensuing Monday, no matter on what day the death has taken place. The corpse has to be handled by men of the same caste. A man without any friends or relatives is buried by Mangs.

Kunbis, Tells, Dhimars, Mahars and Khatis have a strange rite called utarna or recalling the. souls of the dead. A bhagai, who has communion with the dead, usually of the Dhimar or Kunbi caste is called. Before him the son of the deceased sits, holding in his hands a bowl of milk. Drums are beaten and prayers and invocations are sung till the soul of the dead man called descends upon the head of the Bhugat and drives him to and fro in the house. His movements are closely followed by the son with a bowl of milk. At the shout " He has come " they look in the bowl and find something like grain of rice in the milk. This is taken out, touched with vermilion put inside a ball of flour and placed among the family gods. It is worshipped annually at the Holi festival. After this, the souls of other ancestors are called and an extraordinary scene follows. The Bhagat, no longer himself, but possessed by the soul of the dead inspects the store-house and cattle-sheds and surveys the present state of the family. He visits the women of the house. They weep and he weeps and they greet each other as if after a long parting. The weird scene continues till the soul of the ancestor invoked departs from the Bhagat and he becomes himself again. The special rites of the aborigines have already been described in the section concerning Gonds and others.

The practices followed among the other Hindus are as under: When a person is on the point of death the nearest kin sits close to the dying man and comforts him assuring him that his family will be well cared for. A small piece of gold is laid in his mouth and a few drops of Ganga water and a tulasi leaf are poured into it. When life is extinct, the body is removed from the bed or cot and laid with the head to the north and feet to the south on the ground and washed with cow-dung water, holy water is sprinkled on it and a wreath of tulasi leaves placed round the neck. The chief mourner undergoes a purificatory bath while the priest chants some mantras. If the deceased is an ascendant, the chief mourner and other mourners of the same degree shave their heads and moustaches. Having done this he offers oblations of rice (pinda) to the dead. The corpse is bathed and wrapped up in a new dhotar or lugde according as the dead person is a man or woman. All the relations present men and women bow to the dead. Finally the corpse is laid on a bier and borne by four persons on their shoulders to the cremation ground, the priest and the chief mourner who holds the sacred fire for burning the dead body, walking in front of the bier. Women do not accompany a funeral procession. All persons attending the procession are bareheaded. Half way to the cremation ground, the oblation of rice is repeated and they are offered for the third time on reaching the cremation ground. With the help of live charcoal brought along a fire called mantragni is prepared, the corpse is laid on the pyre and the chief mourner then ignites it with the fire. Immediately after the body is burnt, the chief mourner goes round the pyre thrice with the trickling water-pot in which the fire was brought and finally throws the pot backwards over the shoulder spilling the water over the ashes to cool the spirit of the dead which has been heated by the fire. He then pours water mixed with sesame and the rest of the mourners follow suit. When the body is completely consumed the party returns. During the first ten days all persons belonging to the family of the deceased observe mourning.


The sraddha and funeral obsequies are the only ceremonies performed for the salvation of the ancestors. A special ceremony called Narayana Bali may be performed for those that have died of accident, but in case of one dying childless, no departure from the ordinary rite takes place. The funeral obsequies are performed during the first 13 days after death. Oblations of rice are offered every day in consequence of which the soul of the dead is supposed to attain a spiritual body limb by limb till on the 13th day it is enabled to start on its further journey. Oblations are also offered on the 27th day and sometimes thereafter on the day of the death, once every month for one year of which the six-monthly and the bharni oblations, i.e., the sraddha performed on the fifth of the dark half of the month of Bhadrapad, are essential. After a year has elapsed, the oblations of the first anniversary day are celebrated with great solemnity. The annual sraddha is performed on the day corresponding to the day of death in the latter half of the month of Bhadrapad. Where the deceased's family can afford it, a sraddha is also performed on the anniversary day which is known as Ksayatithi. While performing the sraddha of one's deceased father, offerings are also made to other ancestors and deceased collaterals. Women dying in the lifetime of their husbands have special oblations offered to them during their husband's lifetime. This takes place on the ninth day of pitrpaksa and is called avidhava navami day.