D. Worship and Ritual
The great and lesser Hindu gods are worshiped in a number of concentric circles of public and private devotion. Because of the social basis of Hinduism, the most fundamental ceremonies for every Hindu are those that involve the rites of passage (samskaras). These begin with birth and the first time the child eats solid food (rice). Later rites include the first haircutting (for a young boy) and the purification after the first menstruation (for a girl); marriage; and the blessings upon a pregnancy, to produce a male child and to ensure a successful delivery and the child’s survival of the first six dangerous days after birth (the concern of Shashti, goddess of Six). Last are the funeral ceremonies (cremation and, if possible, the sprinkling of ashes in a holy river such as the Ganges) and the yearly offerings to dead ancestors. The most notable of the latter is the pinda, a ball of rice and sesame seeds given by the eldest male child so that the ghost of his father may pass from limbo into rebirth. In daily ritual, a Hindu (generally the wife, who is thought to have more power to intercede with the gods) makes offerings (puja) of fruit or flowers before a small shrine in the house. She also makes offerings to local snakes or trees or obscure spirits (benevolent and malevolent) dwelling in her own garden or at crossroads or other magical places in the village.
Many villages, and all sizable towns, have temples where priests perform ceremonies throughout the day: sunrise prayers and noises to awaken the god within the holy of holies (the garbagriha, or “womb-house”); bathing, clothing, and fanning the god; feeding the god and distributing the remains of the food (prasada) to worshipers. The temple is also a cultural center where songs are sung, holy texts read aloud (in Sanskrit and vernaculars), and sunset rituals performed; devout laity may be present at most of these ceremonies. In many temples, particularly those sacred to goddesses (such as the Kalighat temple to Kali, in Kolkata), goats are sacrificed on special occasions. The sacrifice is often carried out by a special low-caste priest outside the bounds of the temple itself. Thousands of simple local temples exist; each may be nothing more than a small stone box enclosing a formless effigy swathed in cloth, or a slightly more imposing edifice with a small tank in which to bathe. In addition, India has many temples of great size as well as complex temple cities, some hewn out of caves (such as Elephanta and Ellora), some formed of great monolithic slabs (such as those at Mahabalipuram), and some built of imported and elaborately carved stone slabs (such as the temples at Khajuraho, Bhubaneshwar, Madurai, and Kanjeevaram). On special days, usually once a year, the image of the god is taken from its central shrine and paraded around the temple complex on a magnificently carved wooden chariot (ratha).
Many holy places or shrines (tirthas, literally “fords”), such as Rishikesh in the Himalayas or Benares on the Ganges, are the objects of pilgrimages from all over India; others are essentially local shrines. Certain shrines are most frequently visited at special yearly festivals. For example, Prayaga, where the Ganges and Yamuna rivers join at Allahabad, is always sacred, but it is crowded with pilgrims during the Kumbha Mela festival each January and overwhelmed by the millions who come to the special ceremony held every 12 years. In Bengal, the goddess Durga’s visit to her family and return to her husband Shiva are celebrated every year at Durgapuja, when images of the goddess are created out of papier-mâché, worshiped for ten days, and then cast into the Ganges in a dramatic midnight ceremony ringing with drums and glowing with candles. Some festivals are celebrated throughout India: Diwali, the festival of lights in early winter; and Holi, the spring carnival, when members of all castes mingle and let down their hair, sprinkling one another with cascades of red powder and liquid, symbolic of the blood that was probably used in past centuries.