Worship and Devotional Life: Hindu Devotional Life

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Although there is great variety in the forms of devotional life in Hinduism, some common themes may be identified that characterize the general religious impulse behind their variety. One important theme is that of ritual enhancement: Devotional practice aims at sustaining or improving the circumstances of the worshiper. These aims may be immediate and practical, such as the healing of disease, avoidance of the destructive influences of malevolent forces, fertility of crops, animals, and persons, and maintenance of family solidarity; or they may be more soteriological in character, such as the pursuit of liberation (moka ) from the bondage of rebirth. In this way, devotional life may be seen as a series of elaborate strategies for the enhancement of an individual's or group's situation as defined in terms of both worldly and transcendent goals.

A second theme centers on the ordering function of devotional life. Ceremonies frequently require the creation and/or maintenance of conditions of ritual purity. This purity may be temporary, brought about through bathing, cleaning, and providing substances deemed pure and religiously efficacious for the various rites, or it may be of a more permanent sort, such as the employment of members of castes, especially in their roles as priests, who are deemed sufficiently pure within the caste hierarchy to make their participation in devotional performances ritually effective.

A third theme is that of negotiation or exchange, in which devotional performances become occasions for giving human resources of food, gifts, and devotion to supernatural entities and powers in exchange for human well-being, which is understood to flow from those persons and powers as a consequence of the rite. While this negotiation process may have as its goal the pursuit of order and the existential enhancement of the worshiper, it may also involve episodes that are chaotic and/or playful.

The major forms of devotional practice in the Hindu tradition include sacrifice (yajña ); ceremonies for the ancestors (śrāddha ); life cycle rituals (saskāra ); meditational or ascetic practices (tapas ); worship of deities (pūjā ); pilgrimage (yātra ); personal vows (vrata); festivals and fairs (utsava, melā ); sacred calendars (pañcāga ); and religious healing or exorcism (cikitsā ). Some of these devotional practices have ancient textual warrants for their authority that date back to the period of the Vedas and that are perpetuated by members of the traditional priestly castes, especially brahmans. Others are preserved in oral tradition among castes and communities further removed from the ritual texts and practices of the traditional religious elite groups. In both cases, these devotional traditions rest on the assumptions of their participants that they possess long-standing authority and efficacy.


As both the Vedas and the Brahmanas, books of ritual instruction and commentary, attest, sacrifice (yajña ) is among the earliest forms of devotional life. The sacrifices are distinguished in the later literature between those performed in temporarily constructed enclosures or in the open air for larger communities (the śrauta, lit. "solemn," rites) and those that are restricted to individual households and are performed indoors. At the center of Vedic sacrifice is the use of fire and the ritual transformation of the patron or sacrificer (yajamāa ), who is given rebirth through the sacrifice into the world of the gods. Fire is personified as the god Agni, who mediates between the worlds of gods and humans and who is associated with the warmth of the world and its creatures. Priests who maintain sufficient purity act on behalf of the patron who sponsors the sacrifice and for whom the benefits of the rite accrue. The Vedic śrauta sacrifices frequently employed sixteen or seventeen brahmans in various specialized roles. The priests offered oblations of milk, butter, honey, grains, fruits, animals, water, and soma, the elixir of immortality (amta ), along with recitations of mantras. The śrauta sacrifices included the Agnihotra, a relatively simple morning and evening series of offerings; the Aśvamedha, in which a horse roamed for a year to measure the boundaries of the kingdom and then was captured and sacrificed to the gods for the protection and well-being of the kingdom; the Rājasūya, which consecrated the king by putting him through a ritual rebirth that included the rebirth of the cosmos; and the Agnicayana, which reinvigorated the cosmos by constructing an altar of fire, feeding the gods offerings of divine drink, and providing a voice for divine speech through the sustained recitation of sacred formulas.

Usually a king or tribal leader served as the sponsor of such sacrifices on behalf of his clan and the world as a whole. In this way, the sacrifice had as a specific goal the enhancement of a particular individual and as a general goal, universal enhancement. The fire served as the symbol connecting personal, political, cosmological, and metaphysical understandings of the world through its capacity to serve as element, deity, animating power in all beings, and receptacle of offerings. These offerings usually involved the blood sacrifice of animals and the brewing of soma, a beverage having hallucinogenic properties and believed to contain immortalizing power much desired by the gods. The aim of the śrauta rites was to reestablish or maintain the welfare of the universe. They provided food, long life, sons, cattle, and power; they did not seek to confer release from the world (moka ) but to sustain it in its optimal form. The sacrifice, with its fire at the center, served as the axis around which the cosmos, containing all that moves and does not move, journeyed through time and space. Since the Vedic period these rites have undergone gradual eclipse, and in the present day they are performed only occasionally by groups of brahmans who raise the funds for their performance through contributions.

Following similar patterns resting on the same religious beliefs and assumptions, the domestic (ghya ) rituals articulated the religious concerns of people rooted in the world of family and kingdom. The head of the household served as the patron or sacrificer before the household fire by offering butter and grain cakes variously directed at the gods, ancestors, all beings, sages, and humans, all of whom often appear in the guise of guests and beggars. These rites, along with the life-cycle rituals (saskāra s), continue to be performed by traditionalist brahmans. In addition, the Vedic tradition of sacrifice has had a profound influence over other forms of devotional life beyond the boundaries of Brahmanical practice, from temple worship to popular fairs and festivals.

Ancestor Rituals

The Śrāddha rites, or ceremonies performed for the dead, begin at the conclusion of the corpse's cremation. According to the textual traditions of the Ghyasūtras, which were contemporary with the Brahmanas, the rites should last for a year, although twelve days as a symbolic year is the more common pattern. These Śrāddha rites continue to be performed among brahmans and other castes traditionally understood to be "twice-born" and therefore eligible for the benefits of Vedic rites and knowledge. After the eldest son, serving as the sacrificer, has ignited the cremation fire and the body is consumed, a temporary ritual body (pia ) fashioned from cooked rice is assembled over a period of ten days. This body contains the ghost (preta ) and serves as a receptable for subsequent offerings, thus enabling the deceased to be nourished on the long journey to join the ancestors in the divine world. On the final day the assembled body is cut into three pieces and merged with pia s representing the deceased's father, grandfather, and great-grandfather dwelling in the earth, atmosphere, and heavens, respectively. These rites establish the deceased harmoniously within their appropriate worlds and prevent them from becoming hungry and haunting their living descendants. In this way the ceremony honors and serves the needs of the ancestors, seeks their influence within the world of the dead for the benefit of the living, and protects the living community from potential peril wrought by ancestors insufficiently sustained in their respective worlds.

Other ceremonies, performed on the new-moon day of each month, provide ritual veneration of the ancestors as part of the regular rhythms of the religious calendar. In these rites a brahmanand in some parts of India, a crowrepresents the ancestor and receives offerings of pindas, water, and sesame seeds from his descendants. Annually the descendants journey to sacred sites and rivers to have pinda ceremonies performed.

Life-Cycle Rites

The literal meaning of saskāra is "refined" or "well-accomplished," and thus the saskāra s, or life-cycle rites, are directed at the ritual perfection or consecration of an individual at various moments in life. The traditional number of these rites varies with different texts and performance traditions, most of them having from twelve to sixteen rituals that might be performed throughout a person's life. These include rites for auspicious conception, the birth of a son, safe delivery, birth (Jātakarman), naming the child, first solid food, first haircut, initiation into learning the Vedas (Upanayana), and first hearing of the sacred Gayatrī mantrathus marking the transition into the first of the four life stages (asrāmas ), namely, studentship (brahmacarya ). The marriage rite (Vivāha) marks the onset of the second stage, that of the householder (ghastha ). Saskāra performance calls for fire, offerings, and brahmans to receive the offerings that remain after the gods and ancestors have been honored.

Although today only a relatively few groups of brahmans maintain the yajña traditions, the larger patterns of Vedic sacrifice have continued to shape later devotional life. The sacrifice's concern for achieving ultimate conceptual order and performative effectiveness found new voice in the speculative and ascetic traditions making use of a number of meditative techniques, the best-known of which is yoga. The concern for the constituency of the ancestors continued to be articulated in the Śrāddha rites, in which descendants construct new and purified bodies for the dead. The worship of the gods, which is not emphasized in yoga and Śrāddha practices, becomes highly developed in the tradition of pūjā, which makes use of permanent or disposable images of gods and goddesses.

Ascetic and Meditational Practices

The practice of sacrifice in ancient India yielded a tradition of speculation on the sources and meanings of the sacrifice itself. The ritual commentaries (Brāhmaas) invited meditations on the homologies between elements of the sacrifice and those of the cosmos and the individual in order to identify that which lay at the source of all reality. Knowledge paralleled ritual exactitude as a source of power to participate in and even transcend profane time and space. The practice of asceticism (tapas ) provided the moral, physical, psychological, and intellectual environment in which the one who knows the inner meanings of the sacrifice might achieve proximate or ultimate religious transformation.

Ascetic and meditational practice is probably the most ancient Hindu religious practice. Evidence from images and cylinder seals from the Indus Valley of the third millennium bce suggests that ascetic practices were part of this pre-Vedic culture. As speculation about the homologies between the sacrifice and the yajamāa (patron or sacrificer) grew during the late Vedic and Brahmanic periods, the fire of the sacrifice became identified with the bodily warmth produced during prolonged periods of meditation. As an acquired skill resulting from intense practice, tapas was principally a technique for achieving power and therefore had no inherently moral quality; it became a means by which one might appropriate the creative heat that animates the Vedic fire and thereby direct its power toward one's own ends. In the epic and Puranic traditions, gods and demons alike make use of ascetic practice in order to overpower or resist their opponents. As the internalization of the creative heat of the cosmos, tapas came to be recognized by virtually every religious and philosophical tradition in South Asia as a valuable or necessary component in the pursuit of both proximate and ultimate religious goals. The Bhagavadgītā classifies tapas according to its uses or goals; it recognizes the purpose of release from rebirth, which it considers to be a "pure" goal; the purpose of obtaining supernatural powers; and the purpose of increasing one's enjoyment of worldly pleasures. These three goals are classified as sattva ("luminosity"), rajas ("energy"), and tamas ("inertia"), respectively.

The traditions of tapas that have been most systematically formulated are those of rajāyoga, that is, the classical system of Yoga as taught by Patañjali; the controlling of bodily and mental states, or hahayoga ; and the use of complex visual and aural symbolization drawing upon sexual and ritual imagery in order to achieve powerful and highly desirable religious experiences, or Tantra. As a form of tapas, Yoga draws upon ancient traditions of South and Central Asian shamanism in which trances were induced through strict regulation of diet, breathing, bodily movement, and autosuggestion in order to ascend into ecstatic states. During the Upaniadic period (c. 800 bce200 ce) there emerged further systematic formulations that classified bodily and mental states in a finely distinguished hierarchy leading to moka (release from rebirth) as its ultimate goal. One of the most important of these various meditational traditions found precise articulation by Patañjali in his Yoga Sūtra, written probably during the Gupta period (320540 ce), with important later commentaries such as the sixteenth-century Yogavārttika of Vijñānabhiku. The social contexts of yogic devotional practice were small communities of ascetics assembled around a guru ("teacher") who was highly regarded for his skills in the practice and for personal religious charisma. This classical formulation of Yoga remained largely compatible with Brahmanical orthodoxy and orthopraxis.

The practice of asceticism found particular favor among sectarian devotees of Śiva, the mythological embodiment of ascetic power. This tradition combined the classical with the more esoteric and eroticized practices and postures of the non-Vedic traditions of Tantra.

Unlike the ascetic traditions of Brahmanic culture, which held sensory experience suspect and emphasized celibacy and the restraint of erotic impulses, Tantric practice pursued the senses by integrating erotic desire into ascetic transcendence. Building on the techniques of hahayoga, the vāmamarga, or "left-path"indicating deviation from the "right-path," or Brahmanic orthopraxisprovides for practitioners to become initiated into "circles" (cakra s) in which males identify with Śiva and females with Śakti, his consort. While Vedic and Tantric mantras are chanted the adept heightens his or her sense experience by consuming Cannabis sativa followed by fish, meat, aphrodisiacs, and liquor, and by engaging in sexual union with the consort. The female practitioners, called śakti s, imitate the active role of the Goddess in the cosmos by initiating sexual union with the males who take the role of Śiva. By a highly stylized process the male adept simultaneously retrains his mind, his breath, and the flow of his semen. The intensity of these forms of control is understood to pull up the animating power of the universe (kualinī ) through the physical body into the subtle body and finally to merge with the Śiva-Śakti principles at the center of the cosmos. This experience is believed to result in a quick, though potentially quite dangerous, path to moka.

Tantric practice and imagery inspired much of India's erotic art, much of which is founded on the iconography of Śiva's ithyphallic emblem (liga ) located in the center of Śakti's "seat" or "vulva" (pīhā ). By reversing the logic of orthoprax asceticism, which stressed renunciation of sensuality as the means of overcoming attachment to the world and its consequences for karman and suffering, Tantra exploited sensual experience and placed the practitioner in the midst of heightened sensuality, using its power for mystical ends. This radical reinterpretation of the traditions of tapas never won favor in the Brahmanical tradition, but remained a marginal movement. It did, however, influence temple devotional life, especially in South India.

Worship of Deities

Derived from the Sanskrit root meaning "honor" or "worship," pūjā involves the ritual offerings of foods, service, and gestures of respect usually bestowed upon deities in their iconic forms. As a devotional tradition, pūjā appears to have emerged during the late Brahmanic period from the practice of honoring brahmans during their visits to the home. The practice then became amalgamated into later bhakti, or devotional Hinduism, through its classical textual formulation from the sixth century onward in ritual sections of the Puranas. Today, pūjā is one of the most pervasive forms of Hindu worship, and is observed with varying degrees of complexity by most Hindus. The enduring popularity of pūjā as a devotional undertaking may be in part its ability to combine elements of Vedic practice with popular religious sentiment.

Pūjā s vary widely in ritual complexity, from simple offerings of sips of water, flowers, food, the recitation of mantras, the singing of devotional songs (āratīs, kīrtanas ), and the waving of lighted camphor before the image, to extended ritual episodes that draw on Vedic texts involving offering hospitality, invocations, bathing and dressing the image, and offering many kinds of foods, flowers, and leaves. The image of the deity is frequently made of perishable materials such as clay or wood, and may be brought ceremoniously into the home. It is placed in a part of the household set aside for the deity's residence and then ritually enlivened by establishing in it vital breath (prāapratihā ). There it dwells as a living member of the household for a period of time and is then taken to a nearby river, temple tank, or ocean to be immersed, thereby dissolving back into its primal elements.

Similar patterns of hospitality and praise may be seen in pūjā s performed in temples. The temple traditions rely heavily on the images and mythologies of divine kingship: The deity is the king or queen of the universe and the shrine is his or her palace. The temple images are periodically enthroned and taken in procession around the ritual boundaries of the kingdom, where they are seen and adored by multitudes of worshipers. The priests perform the duties associated with pūjā in both large public settings and small private ones for client worshipers.

Central to the religious appeal of pūjā for many Hindus is the experience of darśana ("auspicious seeing"). When an image of a deity is prepared and placed on view in the home or temple, appropriately honored and attired in festive costume, the deity makes himself or herself available to be seen by worshipers. The deity "sees" them and extends his or her grace to them, tangibly in the form of prasāda, the sacred food that, having been offered to the god or goddess and thus become sanctified by its proximity to the deity, is now returned to the worshiper. At the same time, the deity is "seen" by the worshiper, thereby establishing a visual and personal moment of mutual religious contact.


As with many other religious traditions, Hinduism has long valued visits to sacred places. These places are frequently associated with geographical features such as rivers (Gangotri, Allahabad, Banaras), places marking land's end (Kanya Kumārī, Rameśvaram, Dvarkā), and mountains (Bādrināth). Other shrines derive their sanctity from the deities who reside there, for example, Viu at Puri and Tirupati, Ka at Vrndāvana, Śiva at Ujjain and Nāsik, the Goddess at Kāmakhya, Madurai, and Kāligha. Some pilgrimage centers have appeal throughout the subcontinent, drawing pilgrims from upper classes and providing religious merit for those who journey the distance to receive the darśana of the deity enshrined there. Other centers are more regional, or local; they serve pilgrims from the more immediate areas and may have large constituencies from particular castes and groups of castes. The pan-Indian shrines are generally the centers for the "high gods and goddesses" of the Hindu pantheon who are celebrated in the Sanskrit lore of the epics and Purāas, whereas the regional and local shrines house deities whose lore is carried more commonly through oral and non-Sanskritic literary sources; these regional deities are, however, frequently associated with one of the "high gods." Pilgrimages (yātra ) may be made at any time, but those undertaken in conjunction with sacred times in the religious year are understood to be particularly efficacious.

Pilgrims make the often arduous journey to shrines for many reasons: in order to honor the deity who lives there, to bring offerings, to celebrate the magnificent and heroic deeds performed there as told in the sacred lore of the shrine, to receive the deity's grace through the experience of darśana, or "beholding," to gain personal religious merit, to derive specific benefits such as healing or the expiation of past misdeeds, or to enhance their personal status in their home communities when they return. Pilgrims often visit shrines as part of the performance of a vow (vrata ) in which the pilgrimage becomes a gesture of gratitude given in exchange for benefits bestowed by the deity. Pilgrimages also serve as occasions in which Hindus temporarily move out of the hierarchical structures of home and village and enter into a more amorphous realm in which the pilgrims encounter one another as parts of a single generic religious community with the shrine as its symbolic center. Finally, pilgrimages to shrines serve as occasions for religious educations and microcosms of the religious life; they are journeys, at once personal and collective, through auspicious temporal and spatial contexts that enhance the devotees' religious appropriation of their lives.


A vrata, or vow, is a ritual practice undertaken for a specific length of time in order to achieve a particular goal. It is usually undertaken by an individual and may include various forms of renunciation, such as fasting, celibacy, and an increased intensity of religious awareness that usually takes the form of reciting stories (kathā ). A vrata kathā ("vow story") can be either ancient or contemporary, and its purpose is to disclose the origin of the vow and its efficacy. As a form of devotional practice, vrata is more commonly observed by women, and is often directed toward goddesses. The aims to be achieved through their observance of vrata s are often quite immediate and pragmatic: the birth of children, particularly sons; success in business and on examinations; abundant harvests; healing of illness; return of an errant spouse; and so forth. The vrata involves a basic exchange in which the devotee demonstrates her (or his) heightened religious devotion and faith which the deity receives as a gift and in which she or he delights. In return, if the deity is satisfied that the vow was pure in its intent and execution, she or he rewards the devotee according to the request made in the vow. In this way the tradition of vrata makes use of the Hindu renunciatory impulse in order to contribute to the maintanence and enhancement of the everyday world.

Fairs and Festivals

Just as nature passes through seasons of cold weather, heat, and the rains, Hindu religious life passes through seasons marked by various collective religious observances. Each deity has his or her own month or season. Which festivals are observed is shaped in some measure by caste and sectarian affiliation. In North India, for example, the religious year begins in the month of Caitra (MarchApril), with the first festival being Navarātri, or "Nine Nights," in honor of the Goddess. As the hot season approaches the festival life takes on a more austere and ascetic character. It is the season for honoring the goddess Śītalā, the bringer of fever diseases. Her images are cooled with water in an effort to prevent her (and the cosmos she embodies) from becoming overheated and thus conveying fever to worshipers. The monsoon, occurring during the months of śādha (JuneJuly) and Śrāvaa (JulyAugust), disrupts travel from place to place. It is the time when the various mendicants cease their pilgrimages and settle in shrines and hermitages for the rainy season to observe Cāturmāsya, or the "four-month" retreat. This period has its mythical parallel in Viu's cosmic sleep. The full-moon night of the month of śādha (June-July) is called Guru Pūrimā and is the time when Hindus pay homage to their religious teachers.

With the conclusion of the rainy season, festival life increases in intensity through the relatively cool and dry months that follow. The months of Śrāvaa (JulyAugust) and Bhādrapada (AugustSeptember) are filled with religious fairs (melā s) held at shrines and temples, where the images of the deities are displayed for worshipers to receive their darśana (auspicious viewing). Melā s are also recreational and commercial occasions for merchants and traders to set up temporary booths and sell their wares. An important festival during the waxing fortnight of the month of Śrāvaa is Nāga Pañcamī ("serpent's fifth"), because it falls on the fifth night of the fortnight. Snakes are particularly dangerous during the rainy season because the flooding forces them out of the subterranean holes in which they had taken refuge during the preceding hot, dry months. Although especially associated with Śiva, the veneration and propitiation of the serpent is acknowledged by Hindus from many different ranks. The full moon of the month of Śrāvaa is the occasion for the honoring of brothers and sisters in the celebration of Rakā Bandhana ("tying the amulet"), in which sisters tie elaborately decorated wrist-ornaments on their brothers.

The goddess Gaurī and the gods Gaeśa and Ka are celebrated during the month of Bhādrapada (AugustSeptember), followed in the fall season by the month of śvina (SeptemberOctober) with the rituals of remembrance of the ancestors (Pit Paka) in which the annual Vedic śrāddha ceremonies are performed. This is followed by the second Navarātri, or nine-night worship of the Goddess, called Durgā Pūjā. Rāma is worshiped with sacred dramas and processions celebrating his victory over the demon Rāvaa. During the following month of Kārtika (October-November), the popular festival of Dīvālī, a Vaiava celebration particularly popular among merchant castes, marks another year's return of Lakmī, the goddess of wealth and good fortune. It is a time of housecleaning and refurbishing, the purchase of new clothing and cooking pots, and general renewal of life. It is a highly auspicious time in the Hindu year, and Hindus, especially in the north, celebrate it with great enthusiasm.

The cold season lasts through the months of Mārgasīra, Pauśa, and Māgha, and brings about a decrease in the rhythm of fair and festival activity. The sun is worshiped especially during this season, and it is a good time for Hindus to undertake pilgrimages to near or distant shrines. As the weather begins to warm again during the months of Phālguna (FebruaryMarch) and Caitra (MarchApril) the major celebration is Māhaśivarātrī ("great night of Śiva"), the principal festival in honor of the god Śiva. Ka, the erotic cowherd, is celebrated with the dionysian festival of Holī in which devotees dance, play pranks, and douse one another with colored water. Although the new year does not actually begin for another fortnight, Holī serves as the event of chaotic renewal that marks the end of the old year and begins the new year with appropriate exuberance.

As classified and prescribed by the sacred calendar, the Hindu year provides a temporal structure for an array of religious moods and activities to take place. As one moves through the days and weeks of the year, various occasionsboth solemn and raucousaffirm the many gods, goddesses, ancestors, and auspicious as well as inauspicious powers. As a totality of time, the religious calendar provides an eternal architecture through which time as the experience of irreversible duration may pass. Every year is new and different from the last, yet through the observances of sacred festivals and fairs each year is a repetition of the enduring and paradigmatic forms of religious experience and community life.

Sacred Calendars

The Hindu sacred calendar is called the Pañcāga ("five limbs"). It contains the temporal structure of opportunities for religious enhancement by identifying those segments of time that are appropriate for various undertakings, whether they be moments of auspicious power or moments of danger. The Hindu year is based on the twelve lunar months, which are slightly shorter than the solar months of the Western calendar. Each month is made up of two fifteen-day fortnights (paka s, "wings"). The first is the waning or dark (ka ) fortnight moving toward the new moon night (amāvāsyā ); the second is the waxing or bright (śukla ) fortnight, which culminates in the full moon night (pūrimā ). Each day of the month is thus described by its place in fortnight (e.g., "the fourth day in the bright fortnight"). Days occurring during the bright half of the month are generally regarded as inherently auspicious, because time, like the moon, is moving toward fulfillment; days occurring during the dark or waning half of the month tend to be associated with danger and inauspiciousness and often call for more cautious behavior and an increase in asceticism. Because the lunar months are shorter than the solar, the calendar adds an extra month every two to three years to make it coincide with the solar calendar.

The lunar days and weeks move through cycles overseen by deities. For example, Sunday is ruled by the Sun (Ravi) and is therefore called Ravivāra; Monday is governed by the Moon (Soma) and is called Somavāra; Tuesday is overseen by Mars (Magala) and is known as Mangalavāra; Wednesday, ruled by Mercury (Budha), is called Budhavāra; Thursday, ruled by Jupiter (Bhaspati), is called Bhaspativāra; Friday, ruled by Venus (Śukra), is called Śukravāra; and Saturday, ruled by Saturn (Śani), is called Śanivāra. The Pañcāga details the auspicious and inauspicious powers inherent in each lunar day (tithi ). This information is useful to Hindus in planning new undertakings such as setting out on journeys, opening businesses, and, especially, performing weddings. Because time is not merely neutral duration but already carries with it certain identifiableand to some extent predictablepowers, the moment of one's birth serves to define or characterize one's character and destiny. Astrological information regarding the precise time of one's birth carries considerable weight in arranging marriages, and it is commonplace for the horoscopes of prospective brides and grooms to be scrutinized to determine if the potential marriage carries sufficient auspicious powers to ensure its success and its capacity to enhance the lives of others in the extended family. In cases where the astrological signs may be inauspicious, avoidance or compensatory ritual undertakings may be recommended by astrological specialists.

Religious Healing and Exorcism

The Hindu cosmos is a complex structure of interacting, and at times competing, powers with which (or whom) Hindus must align themselves to their maximum advantage through devotional actions that generate personal and collective enhancement. This enhancement is frequently represented through imagery and ritual strategies having to do with purity, renunciation, and propitiation. The pursuit of these forms of enhancement shape particular ritual actions, diets, and social associations. Nevertheless, even when these efforts are undertaken, but especially if they are neglected or held in contempt, individuals can fall prey to malevolent forces. These malevolent forces take the forms of "hungry ghosts"those spirits who are trapped in the interstitial realm between the living and the deadwitches, demons, and sometimes deities (such as Śītala, the goddess of smallpox) who themselves have been victims of misfortune. They tend to inhabit territories of maximal pollution such as graveyards and cremation grounds, places where violent and untimely deaths have taken place, or in marginal areas, such as forests, at the edge of the inhabited worlds. They appear under cover of darkness, frequently attacking their victims in dreams. Diseases, particularly diseases of a psychosomatic or psychological character for which precise empirical diagnosis is lacking, are often understood to be the result of the malevolent intervention of one of these spirits, either out of the spirit's own bad temper or as the consequence of a curse of a worldly opponent.

Individuals are diagnosed as possessed by malevolent entities if, in addition to physical symptoms such as fever, they exhibit erratic behavior such as falling into trance and verbally abusing members of their family. Certain exorcist-healers are called upon to induce the evil spirit to come out. These healers, frequently from low-caste or tribal communities, are recruited on the basis of their personal charisma and their knowledge of and fearlessness within the territory of the demonic. They bring a specialized knowledge of mantras and medicines to the treatment of their clients or patients. Often the exorcist goes into shamanic trance and takes onto himself the voice and persona of the demon or argues with it in a way suggestive both of juridical proceedings and drama. The patient is frequently accompanied by members of his or her family, so that the diagnosis and treatment of the illness serve to integrate into rather than isolate the patient from his or her family. In some cases, shamanic healers maintain regular practices in or around religious shrines and pilgrimage centers and serve clientele who come to the shrine for general religious merit and treatment for specific disorders.


While each of these general types of devotional practice has nearly infinite variations in textual tradition and local custom, they all serve as structures for symbols, actions, and understanding that help to locate Hindus in complex and at times conflicting worlds of meaning. The devotional practices of Hinduism hold in common the goal of moving individuals, groups, and the whole cosmos toward conditions of greater well-being. This movement is always undertaken in the face of counter movements, symbolized by particular forces such as demons or the more abstract formulations of cosmological entropy expressed in theories of the yugas or in the belief in the deterioration of wisdom, virtue, and well-being through the mere passing of time. Devotional practices give Hindus something to do in the face of the desire for enhancement and the anxiety over its erosion or nonattainment, something to do that brings them together as siblings, families, castes, communities, and as the whole culture itself.

See Also

Bengali Religions; Bhakti; Cakras; Dīvālī; Domestic Observances, article on Hindu Practices; Hahayoga; Hindi Religious Traditions; Hindu Religious Year; Holī; Iconography, article on Hindu Iconography; Indian Religions, article on Rural Traditions; Kualinī; Marathi Religions; Music, article on Music and Religion in India; Navarātri; Patañjali the Grammarian; Pilgrimage, article on Hindu Pilgrimage; Poetry, article on Indian Religious Poetry; Pūjā, article on Hindu Pūjā; Rites of Passage, article on Hindu Rites; Sanyāsa; Tamil Religions; Tantrism, article on Hindu Tantrism; Tapas; Temple, article on Hindu Temples; Vedism and Brahmanism; Yoga.


Descriptions of Hindu devotional practices are scattered throughout the literature on Hinduism, but some sources distinguish themselves as places to begin in pursuit of further study. On Vedic sacrifice (yajña ), see P. V. Kane's History of Dharmasastra, vol. 2 (Poona, 1941), pt. 1, chaps. 1718, and pt. 2, chaps. 1935, which provides detailed discussions of ritual procedures, although it may appeal less to nonspecialist readers. Agni: The Vedic Ritual of the Fire Altar, 2 vols., edited by Fritz Staal (Berkeley, Calif., 1983), provides the fullest textual and ethnographic documentation on traditions of Vedic ceremonialism in India today. On ancestor worship, see David M. Knipe's "Śapiikaraa : The Hindu Rite of Entry into Heaven," in Religious Encounters with Death, edited by Frank E. Reynolds and Earl H. Waugh (University Park, Pa., 1977). A good treatment of Hindu life-cycle rites can be found in Raj Bali Pandey's Hindu Saskāras, 2d rev. ed. (Delhi, 1969). For a discussion of asceticism in its orthoprax and Tantric forms, see Mircea Eliade's Yoga: Immortality and Freedom, 2d ed. (Princeton, N. J., 1969); Agehananda Bharati's The Tantric Tradition (London, 1965); and Philip Rawson's The Art of Tantra (London, 1973). For a discussion of pūjā, see P. V. Kane's History of Dharaśāstra, vol. 2 (Poona, 1941), and Jan Gonda's Viuism and Śivaism (London, 1970). Little systematic research has been done on vrata, but a useful introduction may be found in Diana L. Eck's Banaras: City of Light (New York, 1982).

Discussions on Hindu pilgrimage may be found in Agehananda Bharati's "Pilgrimage in the Indian Tradition," History of Religions 3 (Summer 1963): 135167, and Surinder M. Bhardwaj's Hindu Places of Pilgrimage in India (Berkeley, Calif., 1973). Festivals and fairs are best discussed in sources with specific ethnographic focus. Two good books are Lawrence A. Babb's The Divine Hierarchy: Popular Hinduism in Central India (New York, 1975) and Ákos Östör's The Play of the Gods (Chicago, 1980). Sacred calendars are discussed by both Eck and Babb, in works cited above, and in Muriel Marion Underhill's The Hindu Religious Year (Calcutta, 1921). Discussions of healing and exorcism may be found in Sudhir Kakar's Shamans, Mystics, and Doctors: A Psychological Inquiry into India and Its Healing Traditions (Boston, 1982).

New Sources

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

Gold, Ann Grodzins. Fruitful Journeys: The Ways of Rajasthani Pilgrims. Berkeley, 1988.

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

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

van der Meij, Dick, ed. India and Beyond: Aspects of Literature, Meaning, Ritual and Thought: Essays in Honour of Frits Staal. London; New York, 1997.

Paul B. Courtright (1987)

Revised Bibliography

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