Hindu Religious Year

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HINDU RELIGIOUS YEAR . The religious celebrations of the Hindu year appear to be countless, and thus the main difficulty in presenting them here is selecting a pattern that is sufficiently comprehensive to take into account their intricacy. The difficulty is met at two levels. First, diversification occurs not only across broad regional areas, but throughout subregions as well. Second, villagers of a particular locality will share only a part of the series of annual festive observances, most of which vary according to caste, family custom, and sectarian bias. Moreover, even for a festival acknowledged to be pan-Indian, local variations occur concerning the date and the particulars of ritual and mythological background.

Very often, in order to highlight sociological factors, anthropological studies give mere chronological listings of localized festivals. From that perspective, however, the meaning of rituals and of their dating is left open to question. One must be content either with the functionalistic explanation of a fictitious solidarity supposedly reinforced by festivals, or with the obvious general purpose of every ritual, prosperity.

More sophisticated views have been elaborated to account for the multiplicity of local traditions in relation to the Sanskritic-Brahmanic "great tradition" (Srinivas, 1952; pp. 213228) as well as for the "processes of universalization and parochialization" that McKim Marriott has found to be "generally operative in Indian civilization" (1955, p. 218). Although these theories were initially expressed with careful qualifications, later scholars have sometimes cited them in an almost mechanical manner: The relationship between the "great" and "little" traditions has been reduced to the nineteenth-century pseudohistorical understanding of an irreconcilable dichotomy between Brahmanic religion and the so-called autochthonous tribal, Dravidian (or even pre-Vedic) ones.

With the structural studies of myths and rituals, a renewed interest has grown for the study of Hindu symbolism and, as an outcome, for the study of the Indian calendrical system. When one observes the popular use of intricate almanacs (pañcāga ), one cannot but ascertain the all-inclusive character of the Hindu conception of time in relation to efficient activity and hence to religious celebrations.

The Hindu Conception of Time

The year is the main unit of time in so far as it is equivalent to a day of the gods. From this unit, time computation expands in two ways. The small units, that is, from the year downward, depend on astronomical considerations and directly concern humans in this world. The great units given by the Puranic cosmogonies are on the scale of the gods and have nothing to do with astronomy. However, the eschatological speculation of the cosmogony not only teaches that time is basically cyclical in the very periodical succession of creation-degradation-resorption, but it also institutes a homology among the cosmic periods, the levels of ultimate values, and the divine manifestation for this world (Biardeau, 1981, p. 173). In other words, humankind is at the very center of the cosmos. Because a human is the only being able to act with a goal in mind, by ritual activity at the level of what is at issue on the earth, humans alone are capable of sustaining the whole sociocosmic structure with its two poles, that is, liberation from transmigration and ultimate resorption into the Absolute, as well as the very continuation of this world.

Thus to refer to this world Hindu thought uses the term karmabhūmi "earth of (ritual) activity (or of transmigration)"; such activity cannot be but efficacious if the proper actions are observed at the right time and the right place. The principle of appropriateness, which is especially emphasized in the Hindu medical texts, remains at work insofar as every important undertaking of daily Hindu life is related to an astronomical conjunction. It is not a mere question of choosing a good date but of selecting a conjunction of time in which two or more specified astronomical phenomena meet and combine their effects; thus, one is reminded that time is not only cyclical but that it also introduces a rupture in its apparent continuity.

The Hindu Calendrical System

The Hindu calendar combines the solar year with a lunar year, both systems being synchronized by adding or deleting lunar time units. A solar month begins with the sakrānti ("entry") of the sun from one rāśi (zodiacal sign) to another (the twelve rāśi s have almost the same names as the zodiacal signs of the Western system). Because this system disregards the precession of the equinoxes, the vernal equinox, which is supposed to occur when the sun enters Mea, or Aries, takes place around the thirteenth day of April. In the same way, the great sakrānti of mid-January marks the Indian winter solstice and thus the beginning of the solar year, when the sun's course is northward (uttarāyana ); from mid-July its course is southward (dakiayana ). The distinction between the two halves of the year is one of the important structural oppositions of the Hindu conception of time.

For the lunar months, the waxing and waning of the moon provides the major opposition between a bright and a dark fortnight. The very name of the full moon, pūrimā, conveys an idea of fulfillment; moonlight gives people strength, and the time of the full moon is thus auspicious for offering sacrifices to the gods. On the contrary, the dark half of the lunar month and the new moon, amāvāsyā, "when the sun and moon 'dwell together,'" are more ambiguous and are often devoted to ancestor worship. Each lunar day (tithi ) of a fortnight is named in order by a numeral. Some of them are consecrated to a specific god: For example, the fourteenth of each dark fortnight in a year is consecrated to Śiva, but among them, that of FebruaryMarch is the most important and has been sometimes mythically associated with a nakatra, or lunar constellation. For in conjunction with the synodical revolution of the moon, the zodiacal belt, already divided into twelve rāśi s, is also divided into twenty-seven segments, each taking the name of a nakatra and each deemed to be ruled by a specific (Vedic) deity with a specific influence. Each lunar month is named for the nakatra that appears (though sometimes with a slight astronomical variation) to be in regular conjunction with the full moon. When the months are solar months, they have been given either the names of the lunar months, as in Tamil Nadu or Bengal, or those of the rāśi, as in Kerala. Whichever the case, both solar and lunar cycles with their related elements are taken into consideration. However, there is a great diversity of regional calendrical systems; sometimes a particular holiday is celebrated on different dates in different regions. The variations derive from several factors: Not only do lunar and solar months coincide, but, depending upon the region, the lunar month is known either as "ending with the full moon" (pūrimānta ) or as "ending with the new moon" (amānta ). Furthermore, each region has several almanacs based on different textual traditions. As in the Western system, the seven planets (including the sun and the moon) are correlated with the days of the week; to the seven are added two mythical bodies, Rāhu and Ketu, which are said to cause eclipses. In addition, planets interfere at sporadic intervals throughout the year.

For any given celebration, not only is a date fixed corresponding to an astral conjunction, but smaller units of time are also assigned with separate values of their own. The determination of the specific moment (muhūrta ) for the performance of an auspicious act involves highly sophisticated calculations that must account for the fact that the different sidereal components of the date have varying durations. Additionally, there are seemingly endless values to these many combinations that induce auspicious as well as inauspicious periods when no serious enterprisesespecially religious onescan be undertaken.

It would appear, then, that in the Hindu calendrical system each segment of time derives value from its relation first to the astronomical moment and by implication to the cosmical time. Theoretically speaking, the significance of a religious event comes partly from its occurrence in conjunction with different sidereal cycles and partly from the symbolic meaning attached to each astral phenomenon. From a practical viewpoint, however, this is not so easy to ascertain. But, considering that symbolic meaning always carries several possible interpretations, the conception of time mainly provides for a series of distinctive oppositionssuch as bright and dark, pure and impure, and so forthas a mental framework for (religious) activity.

Furthermore, the notion of a proper or auspicious time would not be so significant if it did not correspond to the notion of a proper place. If crowds gather every twelve years at Prayāga (Allahabad) in northern India or at Kumbakonam in the South for ritual bathing (and with the intent of future salvation), it is because at that very place waters of different sacred rivers are said to mix together at the very time of a special astral conjunction. In a similar way, worship throughout the course of the year takes place not at random but in a delimited space, either in the home or at the temple or at any temporary place that has been set aside according to rule for that purpose. Hinduism emphasizes the relationship of (sacred) time to (sacred) space; that is, the site of the temple or of any home inscribes in its space the same values that are represented in the conceptual square diagram of the earth. The dimensions of space and the positions of the gods are coordinated with the symbolic projections on earth of the solar and lunar cycles and of other astronomical phenomena. The definition of space thus includes a definition of time according to the specific values assigned to each orientation. Consequently, by delimiting a spaceor only by facing a specific directionfor worshiping a deity at a prescribed conjunction of time, the worshiper reenacts a cosmos appropriate for his sacrificial relationship with the divine.

Structure of the Religious Year

Among the diverse kinds of religious celebrations, there is but a thin line demarcating vrata (religious obligation usually involving a fast, a purificatory bath, and special worship) from utsava (festival). They share many elements, and from a list of almost fifteen hundred vrata s and utsava s that Kane (1975) has compiled, twenty-two are still celebrated in various Hindu regions.

At least one-fourth of these are observed by all Hindus throughout India and Nepal. There is also some difficulty in distinguishing private from domestic observances, and popular festivals, celebrated at every level of society, are possibly associated with the temple festivals. Some of the largest temples may include in their festive calendar all the sacred days of the Hindu year and other ones as well, according to the personality of the main deity and to the myths of the place. A temple celebration may provide some Hindus for a reason to undergo a vrata, sometimes in connection with a pilgrimage. In small, localized temples of goddesses or subordinate male gods the date of the festival, and eventually of the vrata, may appear only minimally connected with the general calendrical system. Such events do conform to their proper seasons and to long-lived tradition, and therefore must be understood in relation to the specific regional pattern.

Most religious celebrations are held during the bright half of the lunar months. The full moon is sacred and is observed, if not everywhere on each month, at least in one region or another. The relatively few celebrations that fall during the dark half of the lunar month assume special significance. The three main such festivals are dedicated to Śiva, to Ka, and to the Festival of Lights, Dīvālī. The significance of these sacred tithi s of the opposed bright and dark halves of the lunar months is correlated to the structure of the solar year.

In many parts of India the New Year begins with mid-April, at the vernal equinox. In Andhra Pradesh the vernal equinox is called Yugādi ("beginning of a cosmic cycle") and it is often held that this is the time when Brahmā begins the creation. The time of Dīvālī, however, which comes after the autumnal equinox, is also perceived as a beginning. The New Year tends to be celebrated at the balanced time of the equinoxes, whereas both solstices mark an intersection between opposing periods. If one remembers the equivalence of the year to a day of the gods, the solstices are then the metaphorical sunrise and sunset, sensitive transitions that must be manipulated carefully, particularly in the case of the sunset, which is perceived as pradoa ("break in time," or "fault").

Makara (Capricorn) Sakrānti ("transiting") of mid-January, or the winter solstice, is a sacred date almost everywhere in India. It is especially celebrated in regions that observe solar months, such as in the southern state of Tamil Nadu, where the festival of Pokal combines worship of the sun, of the ancestors, and of cattle, with a ritual cooking of the new rice and prescribed gift-giving. However, even in areas that observe lunar months, the period of the summer solstice, though not marked by a special day, is the beginning of a period of intense religious activity. At this point seasons must be taken into account insofar as the summer solstice corresponds with the monsoon time of the tropical year. Even in areas with regional climatic variations (in Tamil Nadu the rains do not come from the east until October), everywhere in India the agricultural year begins with the monsoon approximately when the sun begins its apparent course southward. The very accumulation of natural events strengthens the symbolic cosmic drama at issue. Edādaśī (the "eleventh day" of the bright fortnight) in July-August is recognized as the time when Viu, the king and sustainer of the world, goes to sleep for four months; that celebration is thus called the Cāturmāsya ("four months"). The celebration of Viu lying on the cobra Ananta (celebrated on the fourteenth day of the bright fortnight of SeptemberOctober), is reminiscent of a pralaya, or a destruction of the world submerged by waters, just before a re-creation. This particular fortnight belongs to the pit s ("fathers"), and ancestors are especially worshiped at the new moon of AugustSeptember and during the dark half of SeptemberOctober in a ceremony called Pitpaka, just before Navarātri. During these four months, the asura s (demons) threaten to take the place of the gods and the earth is left to the power of the underworld beings. Thus the naga s, or mythic cobras associated with water and fecundity, are propitiated on Nāga Pañcamī, the fifth day of the bright fortnight of August-September.

Because it is felt that people must protect themselves from inauspicious forces, during the full moon of AugustSeptember the twice-born of the upper social orders (brāhmaa, katriya, and vaiśya) reaffirm the close relationship to the divine that is theirs by virtue of the investiture of the sacred thread, the symbol of their second birth. In a custom observed mainly in northern India, a "thread of protection" (rakābandhana ) is tied by the domestic priest to the hand of his clients, or, more commonly, by a sister to that of her brothers. During this period no marriage is allowed, for it is felt that women are the best mediators for helping to pass through this crisis time, which is crucial to the fecundity of the earth and the continuation of the sociocosmic order. Women thus propitiate different forms of the Goddess (from July to September) and undergo vrata s for the sake of their husbands on Haritālikā, or Tīj, the third day of the bright fortnight of SeptemberOctober. Śiva's son Gaeśa is worshiped in the fourth of the same fortnight (with a renewed interest, since 1893, in Maharashtra), and the i s, the archetypal Vedic seers, on the fifth.

However, the birth of Ka on the eighth of the dark fortnight in AugustSeptember, and that of Vāmana, the dwarf incarnation of Viu, on the twelfth day of the bright half of SeptemberOctober (the Onam festival in Kerala), foretell the final restoration of the sociocosmic order. But the main battle is left again to a feminine power, the goddess Durgā, who, after "nine nights" (Navarātri), from the first to the ninth of the bright fortnight in OctoberNovember, killed the buffalo demon. The final "victory of the tenth" (Vijayadaśamī) emphasizes the revival of dharmic kingly rule on earth. On the fourteenth of the dark fortnight in OctoberNovember light comes again with Dīvālī, which celebrates Lakmī, the goddess of prosperity, with lamps, festivities, and the retelling of stories about Yama, the god of death, and about the inevitable victory of the gods over the forces of evil. At last, Viu awakes from his sleep on the eleventh of the bright fortnight of NovemberDecember.

In South India, the myth of the sleeping Viu is not well known. Instead, the celebration of Śiva's son Skanda, a favorite god in Tamil Nadu, reflects a popular myth in which Skanda is the slayer of the asura: On the sixth of the bright half of NovemberDecember the mūrti s (images) of Skanda and of the asura are taken out in procession, and the priest (or another participant) holds the spear and symbolically kills the demon. The next full moon, called Karttikaidīpa, duplicates the lightings of Dīvālī. Despite regional variations, the second half of the solar year seems to be perceived everywhere in India as inauspicious and dangerous; it is a period in which the gods must assent to the underground, the demonic, and the feminine powers for the very sake of the fecundity and continuation of the earth.

The first part of the year is auspicious and bright, but, as a corollary, it is unfruitful. Early in the season, during Śivarātri (on the fourteenth of the dark fortnight in FebruaryMarch), Śiva bestows salvation on his devotees, even if they include hunters, who kill animals. As told by a popular tale, a hunter who spent the night of Śivarātri in a forest, pouring water and throwing leaves of the bilva tree (which is associated with Śiva) on a buried liga, thus worshiped Śiva without knowing it and obtained salvation when he died. The narrative recalls that salvation through devotion to Śiva is possible for all people, even for those of the lowest social order who have no access to sacred knowledge. It is reminiscent also of the fact that Śiva himself takes the form of a hunter in some myths. As regards the Śivarātri celebration, Śiva is believed to have originally appeared as an unending column of fire, affirming his supremacy over Brahmā and Viu, thus recalling his relation to the fire of a cosmic destruction before the universal flood.

The fifth of the bright fortnight of FebruaryMarch is dedicated to the beginning of spring, personified as Vasanta, the "brilliant" companion of Kāma, the god of love. The celebration of Vasanta seems to be to the season of love what the worship of the nāga s (six months previous, during August-September) is to fecundity.

The beginning of spring also marks the beginning of the preparations for Holī, at the full moon of MarchApril. Holī is a very popular festival in northern India. Often defined as the festival of the śūdra (members of the fourth and lowest order of Hindu society), Holī is an occasion in which normal, socially restrained behavior is momentarily forgotten; everyone engages in playful dousing with colored powder and water and shares in the bonfire that symbolically destroys all of the world's evil. In Bengal, Holī is associated with the worship of Ka. Holī is not known in South India, but there the full moon of MarchApril is variously celebrated, either with the burning in effigy of Kāma, whom Śiva burnt with his third eye, with the marriage of particular gods, or with the worship of Skanda or other deities. The fires of Holī and Kāma are counterpart to the waters on which Viu sleeps lying upon the cobra Ananta, which occurs six months later, on the day before the full moon of SeptemberOctober.

Spring merrymaking ends with the turning of the vernal equinox. Again with the bright half of AprilMay, a Navarātri festival of nine days is held. This festival is the counterpart of the autumnal Navarātri but is less elaborateoften only two or three days are consecrated to the Goddess. However, the birth of Rāma (an incarnation of Viu) on the ninth echoes the royal restoration of the great Navarātri for the sociocosmic order. With the two next full moons, Yama (or, in Tamil Nadu, Yama's attendant Citragupta, who records the good and evil deeds of human beings) and the pit s (in Gujarat) are remembered. The full moon of MayJune is dedicated to terrible or warrior forms of the deity (Narāśimha or Skanda). Formerly, on the third of the bright half, a fast was held in some northern areas for Akayya ("the inexhaustible"); whatever was given on that day was said to become inexhaustible and undecaying. The vrata anticipated the then threatening scarcity of food and water. On that date was also celebrated Viu's avatāra as Parasurama ("Rama with the axe"), who became incarnate in order to kill all katriya s, because one of them had stolen his brahman father's cow, the inexhaustible wealth without which no brahman can sacrifice. This mythical event indicates that something has begun to go wrong in the sociocosmic order.

During the oppressive heat of the last month before the summer solstice, people can do almost nothing but wait for the rains. The Ganges River (Gagā) is believed to have come down to earth on the tenth of the bright fortnight of JuneJuly for the salvation of human beings. On that day a bath in the Ganges or in a sacred river is prescribed for destroying sins. This is considered a time of cosmic crisis, for the sun is moving southward (an inauspicious direction), and monsoon floods follow the burning sun of MayJune, recalling the image of a cosmic dissolution (pralaya ) in which destruction by fire is followed by deluge. The month of JuneJuly is called Jyestha ("eldest"); the feminine form of this name is Jyeha, indicating Lakmī's "eldest" sister, Alakmī, the goddess of nonprosperity or misfortune. On the full moon of Jyeha women renew their series of vrata s by worshiping the goddess Sāvitrī and the ever-growing banyan tree for a never-dying husband.

There are comparatively many more ascetic observances during the second half of the solar year than during the first, for during the first, bright half of the year the emphasis is rather on the direct relationship of human beings to deities, and most of the festivals for family gods (kuladeva ) and locality gods (grāmadeva ) seem to be held during that period. These particular festivities have not been taken into account here because they vary so much from region to region. Instead, this article has emphasized the structure of the Hindu religious year with its complementarily opposed halves. The author has also chosen to rely mainly upon the mythological background for these observances, which emphasizes their sociocosmic significance; on the village level, however, this meaning is not always recognized, and the rituals serve mainly pragmatic interests having to do with food, disease, fate, and so forth. From this point of view, there is a correspondence between the different significant levels. Moreover, one must not forget the importance of bhakti, pure devotion, which has a particular influence on worship at every level of society.

Finally, the religious calendar taken as a whole does not convey a sense of rigid sectarian bias. Emphasis on one deity or another appears to be primarily a regional matter. Vaiava devotees, of course, will give more emphasis to celebrations of Viu, and Śaiva devotees, to those of Śiva. A few exclusive sects may have their own specific festive dates more or less grafted onto the general calendrical system. But in general, the very complementarity of Viu, Śiva, and the Goddess contributes to the balance of activities throughout the religious year.

See Also

Bengali Religions; Cosmology, articles on Hindu Cosmology, Jain Cosmology; Dīvālī; Durgā Hinduism; Gāapatyas; Goddess Worship, article on The Hindu Goddess; Hindi Religious Traitions; Hinduism; Holī; Indian Religions, article on Rural Traditions; Ka; Kaism; Kumbha Melā; Marathi Religions; Navarātri; Śaivism; Śiva; Tamil Religions; Temple, article on Hindu Temples; Vaiavism; Viu; Worship and Devotional Life, article on Hindu Devotional Life.


For the calendrical system as well as for the Hindu religious year, P. V. Kane's History of Dharmasastra, 2d ed., rev. & enl. (Poona, 1975), vol. 5, pt. 1, is the most scholarly and complete work, although not always easy to use. See also Jean Filliozat's "Astronomie" and "Notions de chronologie," in Louis Renou and Jean Filliozat's L'Inde classique: Manuel des études indiennes (Paris, 1953), pp. 177194 and 720738. Madeleine Biardeau's Études de mythologie hindoue, vol. 1, Cosmogonies puraniques (Paris, 1981), reprinted from Bulletin de l'École Française d'Extrême Orient 54 (1968), 55 (1969), and 58 (1971), is the only comprehensive study of the significance of the cosmogonic time units. The conception of time in relation to the conception of space is given in Stella Kramrisch's The Hindu Temple, vol. 1 (1946; reprint, Delhi, 1976). For a study of the influence of seasons through Sanskrit medical texts, see Francis Zimmermann's "tu-Sātmya: Le cycle des saisons et le principe d'appropriation," in Puruārtha (Paris, 1975), vol. 2, pp. 87105. Karen L. Merrey's paper "The Hindu Festival Calendar," in Religious Festivals in South India and Sri Lanka, edited by G. R. Welbon and Glenn E. Yocum (Delhi, 1982), gives useful and clear information about the calendrical system and about the correspondence between the diverse computations. For South India, see C. J. Fuller's "The Calendrical System in Tamilnadu (South India)," Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society (1980): 5263, and for Nepal, Marc Gaborieau's "Les fêtes, le temps et l'espace: Structure du calendrier hindou dans sa version indo-népalaise," L'homme 22 (1982): 1129, which gives an interesting interpretation of the Caturmasya. For the Banaras region, see Judy F. Pugh's "Into the Almanach: Time, Meaning and Action in North Indian Society," Contributions to Indian Sociology 17 (1983): 2749.

For the observances and festivals of the Hindu religious year, see P. V. Kane's book and several papers in the volume edited by G. R. Welbon and Glenn E. Yocum, both cited above. Margaret Sinclair Stevenson's The Rites of the Twice-Born (1920; reprint, New Delhi, 1971) remains one of the most interesting studies in general and specifically of the Saurashtra (i. e., Gujarat) brahman community. For the religious year in Uttar Pradesh, see McKim Marriott's "Little Communities in an Indigenous Civilization," in Village India, edited by Marriott (Chicago, 1955), pp. 172222; Oscar Lewis's Village Life in Northern India (Urbana, Ill., 1958); and Susan Snow Wadley's Shakti: Power in the Conceptual Structure of Karimpur Religion (Chicago, 1975). For Madhya Pradesh, see Laurence A. Babb's The Divine Hierarchy: Popular Hinduism in Central India (New York, 1975). For Karnataka, see M. N. Srinivas's Religion and Society among the Coorgs of South India (1952; reprint, New Delhi, 1978). For Tamil Nadu, see M. Arunachalam's Festivals of Tamilnadu (Tiruchitrambalam, 1980) and my own Les dieux et les hommes: Tirunelveli (Paris, 1979). For Nepal, see Veronique Bouillier's Naïtre renonçant: Une caste de Sannyasi villageois au Népal Central (Nanterre, 1979).

Marie-Louise Reiniche (1987)