It is a breathtaking, spiritual, inviting and divine experience as quoted by some Indians. These feelings are used to describe the mystic and cherished tradition that is Indian Hindu rituals and celebrations. These rituals and practices are not just beautiful, but serve as a way for women to be more active in the household worship setting and elsewhere and contributes to the major role women play in Hindu traditions. As mentioned in Stephen Huyler’s book Meeting God, there are many ways in which Indian women are involved in the Hindu religion and rituals. Although not having many personal rights in a highly patriarchal society, religion offers a way for women to both express themselves and their agency as they prepare rituals, decorate their homes and maintain their sacred home shrines.
India’s oldest and most widely practiced religion is Hinduism. Through the use of food and flowers, women decorate statues or shrines of various representations of Gods, all derived from the same deity. In Hinduism, God is organized by different desired characteristics and is represented by separate Gods and Goddesses. Throughout their lives, Hindus have the freedom to choose to worship whichever God is most pertinent to their life at any given time. In order to honor their Gods, Hindus engage in Puja, which means, “the ceremonial act of showing reverence to God or Goddesses through invocation, prayer, song and ritual” (33). This is much like communion in the Catholic religion as it is a form of ritual used to worship and connect with Jesus. Along with the practice of rituals, Hinduism is unique in the fact that it encompasses aspects of many other smaller belief systems, making Hinduism desirable to “one of every six human beings on the planet (and) 82 percent of Indians” (31). The religion also embraces a judge free attitude and encourages free religion as Hindus believe that all religions are a way to enlightenment. This is also true for Hindu children as they are free to choose the God or Goddess that most influences their lives and are free to worship them as they please. However, many Indians seek the help of religious figures to ensure that their rituals are being performed correctly (31).
Indian devotion starts before the sun comes up and continues after it has long sunken beneath the skyline. For many Indians, the day starts with some kind of water ritual in which puja is being expressed in favor of Ganga, the goddess of the Ganges River. Stephen Huyler writes, “They visualize her magnificence, her nurturing presence as the purifier and Mother of All Existence” (24). In Hinduism, natural elements are essential. Resources such as water, sun and fire are key to Hindu rituals and worship practices. Huyler goes on to say, “At the moment the sun’s first rays peek above the sandy horizon, and they begin singing to the Sun God, Surya, the source of all Energy, the Great Provider” (24). For Hindus, the day is filled with worship and rituals paying homage to the Gods and/or Goddesses that provide for them. It is rituals such as these which solidify their individual place in the community and offers a chance for them to connect with the divine on a personal level.
Rituals also serve as a way to ensure good Karma and is considered part of the everyday Dharma in which Hindu Indians are responsible for fulfilling each day and throughout their lives. There are many ways in which women fulfill their dharma by being heavily involved in Hinduism via the rituals and religious practices. Women are primarily responsible for decorating the home, cooking the feasts and maintaining the home shrine which is considered a temple inside the home and is upheld with the highest regard in India. While at home, women get up early in the morning to paint decorations on their homes such as lotus flowers. The paint is made from ground rice and water and used as a way to sway favor with the Gods and Goddesses. The night before, the women of the house and sometimes even the children help to cover the walls in dung in order to provide a clean slate for the next day’s paintings (66). In this way, women are free to be creative and in charge of the work being done. The same is also true for the decoration of statues and shrines either inside the home or elsewhere. Although it is true that men can engage in dressing or decorating a statue, figurehead or shrine, this is primarily the woman’s job. This also gives agency and authority to women of the Hindu tradition versus Indian women of other religions in India. Rituals such as the morning river rituals, whether done in the Ganges River itself or elsewhere, gives women freedom from the home and freedom to worship how they please without the interference of men. It can be argued that worship is an outlet for agency and allows a certain degree of freedom not otherwise allowed to women in India.
There are many different rituals and celebrations which take place in India as part of a Hindu tradition. One ritual which is solely devoted to women is the ritual of yantra. Described in Huyler’s Meeting God, yantra is “a symbolic formula of lines used to attract energy of a deity into a sacred space” (204). Yantras are used for a multitude of reasons such as praying for a family member and even for finding a good husband. As depicted in the book, on page 205 and 206, Huyler focuses on the yantra ritual performed by three women whose hope is to find “a good, reliable husband” (204). By drawing a massive lotus flower and lighting candles within each petal, they attempt to appease the God Mariamman in a ritual that will take six hours. In this way, women are able to express their desire for a husband and father to their children allowing them more freedom than the traditional Indian culture of arranged marriage and Patriarchy in which women have little to no choices when it comes to choosing a partner. This also seems a rather bold ritual for conservative Indian culture since women are traditionally are not permitted to act freely on their sexual desires.
Aside from rituals and celebrations, Hinduism features dozens of Goddesses such as Lakshmi, Sita and Vishnu. It is through these Goddesses that female power is derived. Not only does it allude to the fact that women play a vital role in Hinduism, but it sets a standard for the behavior and status of women within the Hindu religion. This also introduces a new level of respect for women as most men choose to worship a Goddess rather than a God. The idea of mutual respect between a man and a women is not common in patriarchal society and the use of female deities in the Hindu religion offers a way to bridge the gap of more traditional Indian values and mix them with contemporary Hinduism.
Hinduism is a unique and beautiful religion filled with elaborate rituals, festivals and celebrations. It provides an avenue for agency for Indian women and allows them to be involved and in charge of various aspects of the religious process at all times. The presence of Goddesses and the worship thereof demonstrates a different dynamic of respect for women not usually seen in the study of Indian culture. Without the help of women and all of their tireless work, Hindu rituals would not be possible. From painting the exterior of their homes, maintaining their in home shrine and preparing feasts, women play an important role in the everyday worship of the Gods and Goddesses of Hinduism.
Huyler, Stephen P. Meeting God Elements of Hindu Devotion. Yale University Press. New Haven and London. 1999. Print.