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Domestic Observances: Hindu Practices

DOMESTIC OBSERVANCES: HINDU PRACTICES

The Hindu home provides a necessary center for all social and religious life. A man has not fulfilled his duties and obligations to his ancestors unless he has been a householder. A woman is considered to be auspicious and blessed while she is married, and incomplete if she is not. Indeed, neither men nor women in Hindu society normally perform calendrical or life-cycle rituals unless they are wedded and their spouses are still alive. The home is where the major turning points in the life cycle (birth, marriage, and death) occur. Although practical considerations now make the hospital and the temple possible alternative locales, Hindus still associate such major occasions with the family living quarters. Traditional domestic architecture, wherever possible, anticipates the celebration of these periodic and grand events at home.

Household Observances

At a symbolic level, the household of a couple serves as a miniature of cosmic principles. Ideally, a home should be laid out as a series of rooms surrounding a single, larger courtyard. This is the same plan that astrologers use to depict the organization and movement of planetary deities and that priests use in laying out a sacred space for ritual purposes. Because of physical constraints, a shortage of proper building materials, and other economic and social concerns, contemporary Hindu homes in South Asia frequently deviate from the traditional ideal. Nonetheless, life in a modern house can still be linked, in several symbolic ways, to this basic design.

Where Viu is the prime deity it is common to have a tulasi plant growing in the family courtyard. This plant, treated as sacred, will always be tenderly cared for. Even when the tulasi itself is missing, a distinctively shaped pedestal intended for it often forms part of the basic household layout. No exact parallel exists for homes where Śiva is the foremost god. Nonetheless, there are other ways to mark off the symbolic center of family living space for special occasions. One common practice is to erect a square canopy made of bamboo stakes, mats, cloths, and vegetable greenery. This structure will generally be tied to one or more green branches, which serve symbolically as ritual center posts. Often these are further festooned with small pouches of grain, suggestive either of household fertility or simply of abundance. Like the tulasi plant, the ritual post functions as the axis mundi. Alternative expressions of the same idea take form through elaborate floor designs, complete with a pleasing vertical centerpiece. During the month of OctoberNovember, Hindus in Bengal traditionally put an oil lamp on a pole tied to the roof. Now often replaced by an electric bulb, this light helps the ancestors see their way in an annual journey made across the sky. In South India similar lights are placed on the central pillar of the temple for the same period. These folk concepts utilize a pillar-of-heaven concept. In this way, Hindu homes symbolically link family and temple life to ordered energy in the cosmos at large.

The Hindu home also shares its form with cosmic space by its customary orientation to the four cardinal points. Walls, doors, and even sleeping or eating locations inside are often identified in this manner. In Tamil-speaking areas people say that, ideally, the main door of the house should face the rising sun. The building's interior lines will then presumably allow the passage of morning air and light through the house in straight lines. Some orthodox homes in the South actually have a large mirror that faces the eastern entry, where a hall leading through the whole is not possible. This way the same effect is achieved in an illusory but still highly visual manner. Similar cosmic overtones govern other aspects of house layout. The family hearth, for example, recalls the sacred fire used in many Hindu rituals, just as a domestic well (if there is one) symbolically leads to the underworld. A typical Hindu residence also reserves space for the gods. The household shrine can be as grand as a separate room or as simple as a small picture or wall niche. Often a family's favorite gods are pictured in poster form, but they can also be represented in other, more traditional ways, such as by lamps, pots of water, or measures of grain.

No verbal terminology explicitly associates the parts of the house with parts of the body, yet the two are intimately linked. Indeed, the human body is considered by many Hindus to be a temple of the Lord, just as the household living space is a shrine. Hence daily bathing is a key part of the Hindu toilet, and the body should be internally cleansed by fasting in preparation for important events. Similarly, daily sweeping is essential to the maintenance of the house, as is the regular whitewashing or repainting of interior walls. The use of a medicinal cow-dung wash on the floors is also part of traditional preparations for many ceremonial events. After such preliminaries, homes in many parts of India are further decorated with powdered floor designs, ritual wall paintings, bunches of specially tied leaves, or strings of flowers. These adornments help protect a dwelling against evil spirits and serve, as well, to beautify personal space. Similarly, a Hindu's own body is frequently beautified with scented powders after bathing. Protective strings or amulets, and black eye paste, can be added to ward off various unwelcome forces.

In a striking way, images of fire and cooking further link these two formsthe human body and the "body" of the homewithin Hindu religious life. On the domestic hearth each day, foodstuffs are transformed through water and heat into consumable meals. Human digestion also provides a fire that refines and transforms food internally. Fire, for a Hindu, is itself a god (Agni), yet it is also the vehicle through which offerings at domestic rituals are carried to other gods via an open flame and rising smoke. Food consumption is often seen as a parallel process that makes offerings to an internal god. Thus all eating, but especially the partaking of full meals, is a semisacred activity. Orthodox Hindus bathe and change into clean clothes before meals, and prefer not to talk while seated for any significant feeding purpose. Many Hindus are also sensitive about having maximum privacy at this time. No one but an approved cook should tend the domestic hearth, and no one but the eater should look at the meal set before him. Because of the presence of an internal fire, the period reserved for food consumption is also a time of transformation. The threat of mismanaging this process, and hence of subsequent spiritual and physical disorder, is always present at such moments. Careful controls surround the eating process for this reason.

Firm rules also govern body movements in the home. Because personal or household space should be respected and kept clean, shoes or sandals must always be left at the door. Furthermore, Hindus are very aware of the symbolism of vertical placement. The lowest floor of a house is reserved for unclean visitors. Washermen or itinerant merchants sit or stand there. Higher levels are reserved for honored guests and for family members, while the very highest spots are used for sacred shrines and for valued photos of deceased relatives. One always sits and lies at a level lower than that allocated to these revered symbols. Similarly, much family etiquette revolves around bowing to senior members, often touching their feet. Women generally cover their shoulders (and in the North, their heads) in the presence of certain relatives. Such gestures indicate an attitude of special respect. Correct male behavior is similar. Men partially uncover themselves (legs, head, chest) when performing services for pay, thus acknowledging inferior status, but cover up (at least their legs) to express deference to senior relatives and to gods.

It is difficult to delineate male roles from female roles in discussing domestic observances. In wealthy homes male servants often cook, but among close relatives it is usually women who tend the family hearth. An exception arises when women in the house are menstruating, at which time they are not supposed to touch anything in the kitchen, or indeed to even enter that room. If no other female relatives are available, men may temporarily assume the task of food preparation at this time. Hindus can also be quite particular about taking cooked food from strangers, since in such a case they know little about the caste and pollution restrictions that were observed during its preparation. Many Hindu men who travel, or who live alone for other reasons, learn to cook for themselves.

A somewhat similar division of labor by gender governs worship at domestic shrines. Many Hindu women regularly tend a family altar, laying or hanging fresh flowers around the gods and saying prayers. In homes where elaborate daily rituals are performed, however, these are usually left to a senior male. Such intensive worship is by personal preference and is generally associated with individual orthodoxy. It is also common for families to conduct day-to-day rituals themselves but to hire a priest-specialist for the more elaborate work associated with honoring family gods during special festivals or at key domestic events.

Relation to Nondomestic Observances

It would be incorrect to draw any sharp division between Hindu household rites and nondomestic observances. The human body, the domestic living space, and the public temple, as pointed out earlier, are ritually similar. Worship relating to one, for a Hindu, is often equivalent to worship at another.

Hospitality, another key theme, also runs through both temple and domestic events. The reception accorded special household visitors has its own rituals of greeting, seating, and feeding. Gods are treated as household guests, while human visitors may be treated like gods. Foods appropriately offered a guest, as well as the sequence in which they are presented, have been codified in detail. In traditional circles even the serving dishes used to welcome guests are made of special metals and molded into special shapes. Details of gesture and posture are also important when one is receiving visitors. Such gestures are sometimes carefully described in folktales. Details of such hospitality rules, but not the principles, vary by region and by a family's social or community status.

For any Hindu, the house guest par excellence is the religious mendicant. Many devout, well-to-do people make a point of feeding ascetic wanderers daily. Family honor and personal merit both increase with the generous giving of food to one who has renounced the world. Popular religious legends tell of gods who become beggars in order to test a devout householder. These holy persons challenge the donor, testing to see if he or she is willing to sacrifice personal abundance for religious devotion. In all such encounters divine grace enters the household with the guest's presence, just as a deity is thought to enter the household shrine during worship. It is not uncommon, furthermore, to give foods that were first offered at the family shrine to strangers who later appear at the door.

Public and domestic elements also come together in other Hindu observances. One tradition, becoming more and more popular at present, is the hymn-singing evening among friends. This event can be held in a public temple, but it is also commonly organized in private. The participants either seat themselves facing a household shrine or use an image taken from that altar as a centerpiece. Such gatherings redefine space in a personal home, so that it becomes more like the space of the public temple.

Hindu domestic rituals spill into the wider world in other ways. A good illustration is provided by the popular southern rite called Pokal. This is the special boiling of raw rice (pokal) on a festive occasion, and its subsequent offering to one or more divinities. The symbolism of Pokal carries with it many of the associations between body, home, shrine, and cosmos already mentioned. At an overt level, Pokal transforms raw rice into a milky, mushy gruel that is then offered to a god or goddess with a short ceremonial pūjā. In a third step, the same food is later distributed among the key participants and eaten. At a deeper level Pokal is symbolically associated with the harvest of rice or the birth of a child. In each of these three transformations there is both careful control and the application of heat. In Pokal the cooking is confined by a pot; in a field rice is ripened or cooked by the sun, there held to the earth in which it was planted; in gestation a child matures or "cooks" inside the mother's belly while still confined to her womb. The Pokal ceremony is also linked to key calendrical festivals such as the Tamil New Year, where yet a further temporal transition is celebrated.

The pokal is generally cooked in new pots, often on a new stove. Normally it is prepared in the open, on a house threshold, or at the border of a temple compound. In this sense cooking pokal is a little like cooking at a picnic. The place is unusual and the method of preparation slightly different from normal. There is also a special ritual involved in the cooking, whereby each pot must boil up and spill out in an auspicious direction, but not substantially overflow. This rice-cooking ritual may be performed at home and the product directly offered to deities there, or it may be prepared in an open temple yard by women from separate households. It will then be offered to a publicly enshrined god or goddess. The rite of Pokal thus moves a key domestic activity out of the inner sanctum of the kitchen and into more marginal and more open spaces. The preparation of this most vulnerable of food substances, boiled rice, is also opened up on such occasions to an unusual degree of public view. Both these changes suggest the temporary merger of domestic with wider human domains.

If the cooking of pokal involves a relaxation of the distinction between household and temple, it is also a key ritual in events that mark the overlap of a household social grouping with other key dimensions of community structure. A share of Pokal rice, for example, is often offered to immediate family ancestors. Furthermore, cooking pokal is a common ritual ingredient of festivals celebrated by much larger groupings of kinfolk, such as whole lineages, clans, or subcastes. The preparation of pokal is also a big event at calendrical celebrations for the village goddess. Here members of many different castes participate overtly. By joining in such an event, they define their common membership in a unit larger than the hamlet or single community.

Pollution

Hindu men and women both contract ritual pollution upon the death of close relatives. Complex rules govern how long one is disqualified from participating in festival events after a family funeral has taken place. Both sexes also suffer from temporary pollution after sexual intercourse (requiring a bath) and after eating foods cooked by persons of low caste (traditionally requiring additional acts of expiation). Hindu women acquire pollution during childbirth and menstruation as well. The rules vary by caste, region, and the general orthodoxy of the household as to the action and precautions necessary in such circumstances. Most urban or educated Hindus now consider some or all of these pollution ideas outdated. The enforcement of such restrictions persists, however, in many rural areas.

The Hindu concept of pollution is still imprecisely and incompletely understood by theorists, but it is known that this idea interweaves, in complex ways, such elements as domestic precautions, detailed rules for social intercourse, and several concepts of danger. Pollution, for the Hindu householder, involves a social misalignment, the loss of bodily substances, or a lapse in key biological functions. Either matter is out of place or primal energies have been misaligned. Pollution-linked restrictions serve to prevent such disorders from spreading. As in the Pokal ceremony, unusual admixtures and the heat that they generate are a necessary force in transformation. Such processes, though necessary, must be properly contained and monitored in order to confine the chaos produced as their by-product. Hindu domestic ceremonies symbolize the need for regulation and control. They thus ensure a fruitful channeling of vitalizing and heating forces of many kinds.

See Also

Rites of Passage, article on Hindu Rites.

Bibliography

Two classical sources of great importance on domestic matters are The Dharmaśāstras, best summarized by P. V. Kane in History of Dharmaśāstra, 5 vols., 2d ed., rev. & enl. (Poona, 19681975); and The Laws of Manu, translated by Georg Bühler, Sacred Books of the East, vol. 25 (1886; reprint, Delhi, 1964). No recent sourcebook provides a reader with the same colorful detail on a full range of Hindu domestic practices and at the same time charts an overview of first principles. Current works, however, do give a better idea of day-to-day household observances. An in-depth discussion of cooking, gastronomy, and food exchange, for example, can be found in Ravindra S. Khare's The Hindu Hearth and Home (Durham, N. C., 1976). A more technical treatment of a broad range of domestic and temple ritual is provided by Carl Gustav Diehl in Instrument and Purpose: Studies on Rites and Rituals in South India (Lund, 1956). Another excellent description of household ceremonies, especially those celebrating the life cycle of individuals, is to be found in Margaret S. Stevenson's Rites of the Twice Born (London, 1920). A still earlier work by Abbé Jean Antoine Dubois, Hindu Manners, Customs and Ceremonies, translated by Henry K. Beauchamp (Oxford, 1906), describes the whole range of Hindu ceremonials he encountered between 1792 and 1823, during his sojourn in southern India as a Catholic missionary. Though highly judgmental in places, the ethnographic detail he includes retains its value to this day. Much contemporary information about rural domestic practices in the North is contained in Ruth S. Freed and Stanley A. Freed's Rites of Passage in Shanti Nagar (New York, 1980). Information on central India can be found in Lawrence A. Babb's The Divine Hierarchy: Popular Hinduism in Central India (New York, 1975), and traditions in the Tamil-speaking area of South India (especially those surrounding the Pokal ceremony) are discussed by Louis Dumont in Une sous-caste de l'Inde du Sud; Organization sociale et religion des Pramalai Kallar (Paris, 1957).

New Sources

Bühnemann, Gudrun. Puja: A Study in Smarta Ritual. Vienna, 1988.

Rodrigues, Hillary. Ritual Worship of the Great Goddess: The Liturgy of the Durga Puja with Interpretations. Albany, 2003.

Tachikawa, Musashi. Puja and Samskara. Delhi, 2001.

Brenda E. F. Beck (1987)

Revised Bibliography

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