Hindu Family Ritual

The minimum definition of ritual may be considered as the observable, though not always openly observed, routine of worship. Such a routine, perhaps, is essential for any system of religious belief to survive, since it lays down certain organisational regulations and procedures to ensure its endurance as a social institution; once thus structured, ritual can continue in reassuringly familiar performance while leaving the way clear for consideration of the more vital issues of religious thought and philosophy. Since, then, it is the performance of ritual that manifests religion as a social fact, the routine of ritual will be influenced by co-existing norms and practice, while, in mutual reinforcement, the religious beliefs of a society help to determine what is socially acceptable within it.

It is possible, however, for ritual to acquire a much deeper relevance than its practical function as a routine of worship would indicate. In many religions (and Hinduism is one of them), correct performance of ritual procedures may be regarded as sufficient in itself to ensure fulfilment of desires, or granting of blessings; ritual becomes not simply a means of expressing a plea or a devotion, but a way of certainly securing benefits. Illustrative of this are the Hindu (post-cremation) Sraddha ceremonies, carried out to improve the state and welfare of the departed spirit, or the kissing of the walls of the goddess Kali’s shrine in Calcutta by Hindu women desiring children, especially sons.

So complex and involved is the ritual of Hindu devotions that specific Brahmin (priestly) castes are designated as performers of certain specific ritual acts: witness the priests of Yama, god of death, funerary specialists, who attend the funeral pyres at the burning ghats in Benares; or the household priests, who perform ceremonies at the private altars of those for whom they officiate; or the temple priests, whose duty is to attend on the images of the gods housed therein, and perform the set ceremonies of worship. Such specialist duties are not interchangeable, and those who perform them are hierarchically ranked according to their function.

Significant is the extent to which a religion tends to regulate the social life of believers. All religions have rituals and ceremonies necessary and vital to the social life of the societies to which they are endemic, but some go far beyond, and the Indian caste system is a case in point.

Hinduism is not highly organised ecclesiastically; the Brahmin priesthood, though hereditary, is not organised into a unified and identically trained body, and no Brahmin is necessarily a priest. Hinduism is not a congregational religion, and the most important rituals are individual, family, or caste group affairs, which results in the considerable variation of individual expression in performance.

In contrast to the lack of systematically organised and centralised ecclesiastical institutions, Hinduism has ordered and ritualised social life to an extreme degree. Certainly many social practices now associated with Hinduism were non-religious in origin, but have been sanctioned and affirmed by religion. The origins of a particular practice are unimportant for a consideration of its effect — if Hindus have believed that a certain way of social behaviour is an expression of religious teaching, then, to them, it is a part of religion, and therefore must be observed by a devotee.

Hindu Rites-de-passage

The rituals of Hinduism differ according to type and importance. Some are of a corporate nature, others individual; some are public, others private; some are obligatory, others optional; some are of regular occurrence, others occasional.

The complete range of Hindu ritual observance is so complex and far-reaching that, for any description to be meaningful, some selective procedure has to be adopted; therefore I have tried to describe below a few rituals connected with the rites de passage, or ceremonies denoting stages of life, common among the three upper (twice-born) divisions of Hindu society. (1) Obviously, in a country of sub-continental size, like India, there are innumerable regional, sectarian, or community variations in these rituals, so that details of ceremonies vary even when their significance does not.

The rites de passage of all societies represent the ritually-performed socially-recognised passing of an individual or a group of individuals from one stage of life to the next; such rituals, secular or religious, mark the abandonment of certain duties or activities appropriate to one stage of existence, following this by a period of transition, training or adjustment before the assumption of new responsibilities and actions consonant with the new status achieved, into which an individual may be said then to be fully initiated.

The major Hindu rites de passage concern the three main events of existence — birth, marriage, and death:

Birth rituals celebrate the arrival of a new member of the temporal family, and publicly announce membership of it, and acceptance by it;

Marriage rituals publicly acknowledge that the new bride is now part of her husband and his family, and that any offspring of the union are legitimate and have rights within the family;

Death rituals mark the departure of a member of the temporal family into another existence, and are a time for members of the family to mark their relationship to the deceased and pay their respects, and for those related to the dead person in the male line to make their offerings for the benefit of the spirit.

Ceremonies connected with these three events are marked by physical gathering-together of family members, thus emphasising the corporateness of the group and its unity of action. The parts played by family members in the rituals show the relative importance at different times of males and females, maternal and paternal kin, and so on.

Birth rituals actually begin during pregnancy, and take the form of rites calculated to ward off the evil eye, protect the foetus and expectant mother, promote good health and, above all, to encourage the birth of a son.

In the fifth month the rite of Binding the Protective Thread takes place in some parts of India. This is a women’s ceremony, attended by women relatives of husband and wife, though a propitious day is chosen by the family’s astrologer. The expectant mother is anointed with turmeric and rice, then a bangle is tied around her wrist by her husband’s sister. Sometimes this guard takes different forms: it may be a piece of cloth containing iron, cowrie shell and dust from a cross-roads mixed with the film from an image of Hanuman, a god particularly noted for his triumphs over demons.

Sometimes a ritual worship of the Mimosa Suma tree is carried out by the expectant mother in the seventh month. In the fourth or sixth month the old Vedic rite of Simanta, or Hair-parting, should be performed: its purpose, again, being to bless and protect mother and child. This involves worship of Ranna Devi, the wife of the sun, represented by two brass jars with coconuts (two, since even numbers favour Sons, odd numbers daughters). For each jar seven lucky women (2) are invited to the ceremony, making fourteen (again an even number). The expectant mother takes a ritual bath in a house chosen by the astrologer; during the walk back to her mother-in-law’s house she is ritually protected on all sides from the evil eye, contact with a barren woman, or witchcraft. Back in the house, to which she is welcomed by a priest intoning sacred mantras, she undergoes the main part of the ceremony: the combing and parting of her hair and its oiling, done by her sister or sister-in-law. Her parents bring gifts, and another protective guard in the form of a gold/silver bangle, may be put on her wrist by the sister-in-law. This ceremony continues among Hindus in Britain, though in modified form, taking place in one home only.

At birth and during the immediately succeeding days, only women have contact with mother and child, and, as women may not recite the Vedic mantras, the traditional ceremony at the cutting of the umbilical cord has been dispensed with. In village India the Sudra midwife performs certain minor rituals associated with lessening of birth-pains and easing labour. On the sixth day after birth an important ceremony takes place. For the first time since birth the auspicious turmeric mark is made on the foreheads of mother and child by an unwidowed woman who has never lost a child, and the father’s sister makes a symbolic offering and takes the baby’s troubles to herself by making a circular movement with her arms towards it and cracking her knuckles against her temples. The offerings made at this ceremony are given to the family priest, and the midwife is also given generous gifts of food.

From the tenth day the mother begins the steps back to ritual purity, and the baby, too, begins to figure in family life.

On the eleventh or twelfth day, the Naming Ceremony, or Namakarana, is performed, (3) when both maternal and paternal relatives gather together, thus making a corporate gesture of acceptance and welcome for the new family member. The father’s sister again has a prominent role; she ties scarlet threads to the baby’s cradle and the baby itself, as protection against the Evil Eye, and gives the child small pieces of gold for good fortune. She it is who ritually names the baby, after advice from the family priest, and the mother is expected to do reverence to her, and present her with a few small coins.

A few other family rituals mark a child’s early years: piercing of the ears; the first hair-cutting, which is begun by the family priest and completed by the family barber — an interesting combination of ritual specialists taken from the highest and lowest castes; and, particularly among Brahmins, the start of education, or going to school.

Perhaps the most important initiatory ritual for boys of the three twice-born social divisions is the Thread Ceremony (Upanayana), and great emphasis is placed on its correct performance. In the case of a Brahmin, it takes place at about eight years of age; a Kshatriya should be about eleven, a Vaishya twelve-thirteen. The ceremony, originally lasting three days, marks the boy out as belonging to one of the three high divisions of society; it also indicates the end of his childhood, since he and his mother now formally eat together from the same plate for the last time; and through it he enters the Brahmacarya, or student, stage of life, being put under the authority and guidance of a guru. Until the ceremony has been performed a boy cannot marry, since, of course, he has not been acknowledged as a man. The thread is usually of cotton, and must always be worn once it has been ritually donned to the accompaniment of sacred mantras intoned by the priest. The thread is renewed annually.

The boy undergoes some instruction from his new guru, especially learning the all-important gayatri mantra, essential to daily worship. He makes offerings to Agni, the sacred fire, and anoints his body with some of the ashes. He is now ceremonially pure, and has become a full member of his twice-born caste. He can now perform the evening worship, Sandhya, for his family.

The end of the ceremony marks the boy as being now marriageable; he takes a ritual bath, eats a ritual meal, then dons new clothes provided by his mother ‘s brother. He symbolically begins a pilgrimage to Benares, but is prevented from leaving home by his maternal uncle, who may even carry him physically back home, or bribe him to return with offerings of money or gold. In Maharashtra he is tempted to return by the offer of marriage to his maternal uncle’s daughter, for in the Deccan Brahmins may marry their maternal cousins, which would be a relationship smacking of incest elsewhere.

The final entry to manhood takes place with the first shave. The family barber is called to do this, for which he should get a turban. Traditionally, also, a cow should be presented to a Brahmin, but this is rarely done nowadays.

Hindu marriage rituals are traditionally lengthy, and take several days to complete, but in modern urban India, and even more so in Britain, the ceremony is often abbreviated to only one day, so that minor rituals have to be excluded, and attention is focused on the essential parts of the prescribed ceremonial. Formerly it was considered desirable for the bride and groom not to see each other before the wedding, and during the early stages of the ceremony a veil, or curtain, was held between them by priests; this was lowered, however, before the formal giving away of the bride by her parents. This giving of a daughter always had to be performed jointly by her parents, and unless the bride’s mother, as well as her father, indicates assent in public, the marriage cannot go forward.

The family genealogy, or gotra, of both bride and groom, is quoted by the officiating priest, to prove publicly that they do not come from the prohibited degree of relationship, i.e., there is no kinship link for up to five generations on the mother’s side, and up to seven on the father’s.

During the ceremony the betrothed pair are linked symbolically by the tying of a corner of the bride’s sari to the groom’s scarf or shawl. Jointly they make their offering of ghee (clarified butter), to Agni, the sacred fire, while the officiating priest intones the established Sanskrit mantras, or prayers. The couple should circumambulate the sacred fire, and meanwhile the groom should speak a text both religiously and socially significant:

“This am I, that art thou; that art thou, this am I; I the heavens, thou the earth. Come, let us marry, let us beget offspring. Loving, bright, genial, may we live a hundred autumns.”

Not only does this text state the indissoluble union that is ideal Hindu marriage, it also stresses its primary purpose, the establishment of a family, the securing of the survival of the patrilineal inheritance and welfare unit. It urges, too, the peaceful, happy, fulfilling relationship that should be sought by the couple; maybe not one designed to experience the troughs and peaks of emotion and passion, but nevertheless one based on security, certainty, faithfulness. Such permanence is reinforced by the bride’s standing on a grinding-stone, during which the groom should say: ‘Ascend this stone. Be firm as a rock.’ Implicit in this part of the ceremony, which is not demanded of the bridegroom, is a recognition that break-up of a family unit springs most often from disagreements among married-in daughters-in-law, not brothers.

The most significant part of Hindu marriage ritual is represented by the seven steps taken by the couple before the sacred fire, in the presence of all. Unless these are taken, the marriage is not complete; each of the seven steps has a special significance:

“Take one step for securing food. Take two steps for strength, three steps for increase in wealth. Take four steps for happiness. Take five steps for children. Take six steps for the seasonal pleasures. Take seven steps as a friend. Be faithfully devoted to me. May we attain many sons. May we attain to a good old age.”

Other marriage rituals, such as a symbolic sharing of food by bride and groom, re-emphasise the new unity of the couple, to the exclusion of all others. Among Hindus, only those in the closest degrees of relationships, mother and child, for example, eat from the same plate; this sharing of food at marriage is a clear demonstration of the new union. For a modern young Hindu couple, who have known each other before marriage, many of the minor rituals will have lost much of their significance, but traditionally, when a couple would not see each other until the ceremony itself, and not clearly even then, owing to deliberately concealing costume, and shyness, such seemingly innocent rituals, necessitating the close proximity of an unrelated person of the opposite sex in public, and with family approval, would have had a meaning and decisiveness missed today.

Traditionally in India the marriage ceremony takes place at the bride’s home, but in Britain few houses are large enough to accommodate all the friends and relatives who must be invited, and the uncertainties of the weather preclude large outside functions. Halls are hired for the occasion, often from local churches or schools; sometimes, if available, two separate rooms are used, one for older guests, who can gossip and chat while eating the lavish food provided, the other for a disco for the young couple and their friends, where the strains of amplified pop music prove that East and West can meet, stridently and (to some) harmoniously! The religious ceremony is still regarded as the effective act of marriage; the obligatory visit to the Register Office is a ritual imposed by an external legal system which has to be conformed with before the socially and culturally meaningful religious rite and community gathering validate the union not only of two individuals, but of two families.

In a strongly family-oriented society such as the Hindu we might expect funeral ceremonies, which commemorate the earthly departure of a member of the kinship group, to be significantly marked, and indeed this is so. Care must be taken over the proper performance of these rituals, so that nothing may hinder the propitious re-birth of the atman, or soul. The funeral ceremony, like the others described, is essentially a family concern, a family responsibility, and during the rituals the privileged and vital position of the son is re-emphasised. He it is who, after the corpse has been bathed, shaved, and dressed in new clothes, and when sandal paste has been put on the forehead of the deceased, and a leaf of the holy tulsi plant, together with a coin, placed in the mouth, whispers the sacred syllable ‘Om’ in the ear of the corpse. This syllable is said to attune the individual soul to the Infinite; and no-one who has heard a Hindu priest resonantly intone the word at the commencement of a religious ceremony can deny the thrill of awe and expectation that comes of the experience. It is the son, then, who is the mediator between dead parent and Brahman, the Supreme — through the son the individual soul is attuned to a new sphere preparatory to entering it. It is the son, too. who ignites the funeral pyre, and sees that the ritual offerings of ghee (melted butter) are poured upon it.

To Hindus, the all-important need for a son is not merely to ensure the continuance of the family and to secure inheritance of land and moveable property in this world; from a son comes the certainty of a properly-conducted passage into the after-life, and an assurance of reincarnation or moksha (release). Responsibilities do not cease with death, nor with cremation; there is a requisite period of mourning with its attendant rituals, its offerings of food to ensure the safe passage of the spirit in the world of the dead. The performance of these ceremonies is also a safeguard for the living, for a displeased, neglected spirit can being misfortune on its living relatives. After twelve days, the pollution arising from close association with the dead is removed ceremonially by bathing, by being shaved and cutting the nails, and a feast is provided for relatives and friends. On the anniversary of the death it is generally expected that a ~raddha, or memorial, ceremony be performed, at which food offerings are made for the soul of the dead person, and a feast is prepared for relatives, close friends, and specially invited Brahmins; in the case of a wealthy family these last may number hundreds, as there is spiritual merit in feeding Brahmins, which will rebound to the good of the soul. The sraddha ceremony, however, is not a Vedic one; rites for the dead, according to the Vedas, cease on the third day after cremation when relatives should return to the cremation ground and collect any remains of the dead person from the ashes of the pyre, for separate disposal.

After the ritual cleansing ceremony on the twelfth day after a death, life for family members begins to return to normal; no longer need they wear exclusively the white of mourning, and they can return to their usual work. For widows, however, mourning should never cease: many will wear only white saris until their own death; they should never again wear jewellery or perfumes, or the red kum-kum spot on the forehead and (as is the practice in some areas) the red-stained hair-parting which denotes a married woman whose husband is alive. The glass bangles so commonly worn by Indian women of all classes should be ritually smashed at a husband’s death by the widow, thus symbolising the end of her role as a wife, and her endeavour to appear attractive and pleasing, as a wife should. (4)

It is clear that, for Hindus in Britain, the traditional cremation ceremony, with its incineration of the body on a pyre supplied by relatives, lit by a son, to which are added offerings of sandalwood, camphor, ghee, agar, musk and saffron, is impossible of performance. Cremation, however, is easily obtainable, and is probably the most favoured method of disposal of the dead in modern Western society. Hindus in Britain have adapted quickly to the use of the crematorium, and the non-sectarian chapels provided there pose no problems for Brahmin priests who may be asked to officiate by intoning the sacred mantras from the appropriate Vedic texts. After cremation, Hindus may choose to send the ashes back to India, where they may be scattered in the Ganges or any other sacred river; some decide to bury the ashes in the British manner, a memorial tablet being erected at the spot. A mourning period may be observed, as well as the sraddha ceremony in due course, for which relatives and close friends will be invited, and which they will feel it their duty to attend.

Since the major Hindu rituals are home- and family- based, their performance, especially in an urban environment, affects the surrounding community little. The strength of Hinduism, like that of the poplar tree, lies in its capacity to bend and adapt without breaking or, ultimately, altering its basic form. For the Hindu, the Truth is always One, though it be expressed in numerous different ways, and this theory has influenced the practical attitudes and adaptability of Hindus wherever they find themselves.

“He who sees the One Spirit in all, and all in the One Spirit, henceforth cannot look with contempt on any creature.”


1. The ‘twice-born’ are members of the three upper varna, Brahmins, Kshatriyas, and Vaishyas, called ‘twice-born’ since males of these groups are ritually ‘re-born’ as men into society at the time of the Thread Ceremony (Upanayana).

2. ‘Lucky’ women are those whose husbands are still living and who have never lost a child. Widows and barren women are essentially unlucky, and may pass their ill-luck to others.

3. This is still an important ceremony among Hindus in Britain, although it is usually held much later. Until a child is thus publicly and formally named, the chosen name should not be used, as evil spirits may hear it and call the child away to its death before it has received the ceremonial protection. Even after the naming ceremony a nickname (usually an uncomplimentary one, to deceive the evil spirits) may be commonly used, again to protect the child.

4. Such strict observances of widowhood are no longer obligatory, even in India. Nevertheless, many widows choose to wear white or dark and plain saris, avoiding jewellery, make-up and perfume. To gain social approval a widow should do nothing, and wear nothing, to attract attention or admiration; her reason for appearing desirable, beautiful, and joyful, namely, her husband, has gone. There is nothing left for her to do but mourn, and her appearance should reflect this.


  • Burghart, R. (Ed.). Hinduism in Great Britain. London, Tavistock, 1987.
  • Kanitkar, V. P. (Hemant). Hindu Festivals and Sacraments. Barnet, The Author, 1984. (Available from the author, 83 Bulwer Road, New Barnet, Herts. ENS 5EU. £5.00 post free.)
  • Kanitkar, V. P. (Hemant). We Are Hindus. Edin- burgh, St. Andrews Press, 1987.
  • Knott, Kim. Hinduism in Leeds: A Study of Religious Practice in the Indian Hindu Community and in Hindu-related Groups. Leeds, Department of Theology and Religious Studies, University of Leeds, 1986.
Back to top