Customs and Rituals

What are the principal Hindu rites of passage?

Hindu tradition includes important samskaras, “activators” or “impressions,” for the various ages of life. Specific samskaras are associated with birth, childhood, adulthood, and older age. Connected with birth are rituals sanctifying conception, prayers for a male child, the husband’s expression of love by grooming his wife between the fourth and seventh months of pregnancy, and welcoming the newborn with blessings that include placing a little ghee and honey on the child’s tongue. Childhood sacraments include conferral of a name anywhere from eleven to forty-one days after birth; making its first taste of solid food at around six months; piercing of the ears for gold earrings in either the first, third, or fifth year; and shaving the head any time from day thirty-one to the fourth year of life. One childhood ritual deserves notice. Initiation into religious studies is called upanayana, “bringing near,” in which the youngster (girls were once included, but are generally not these days) is affiliated with a guru for formal tutelage in the Vedas. Another ritual marks the completion of formal studies, celebrating an official end to childhood and entry into adulthood.

Samskaras associated with adult life begin from puberty. The onset of menstruation and the shaving of a boy’s beard for the first time occasion ceremonies in the home. When young adults are engaged their families exchange gifts. Marriage ceremonies can be quite grand, including great processions in which the groom makes his entry on a white steed. Some Hindus still acknowledge the passage into older adulthood at about age forty-eight, but more widely practiced still is the moment at which an older man puts ordinary social and family concerns behind him and becomes a renunciant or sannyasi. Last of all come the samskaras surrounding death, cremation, and mourning.


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