Short notes on Important Vedic Rituals

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Asvamedha:

Horse sacrifice meant to establish a king’s supremacy over other kings.

Vajapeya:

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A chariot race which was meant to re-establish a king’s supremacy over his people.

Rajasuya:

A consecration ceremony which con­ferred supreme power on the king.

Ratnahavimsi:

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A part of Rajasuya ceremony in which different royal officials (ratnins) invoked different gods and goddesses. The most important ritual throwing light on the political organisation of the later Vedic period.

Garbhadhana:

A ceremony to promote conception in women.

Pumsayam:

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A ceremony to procure a male child.

Semontonnayam:

A ceremony to ensure the safety of the child in the womb.

Jatkarma:

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A birth ceremony performed before the cutting of the umbilical card.

Culakarma:

A ceremony, also known as tonsure, performed for boys in their third year.

Upanayana:

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An initiation ceremony to status to boys of the higher varnas in their eighth year.

Agni was pure Two hundred hymns are in praise of Agni. The smoke rising from the Yajna was the offerings which people made and Agni carried to the gods. Yama was the god of death.

Varuna personified water and was supposed to uphold the natural order. Soma was considered to be the god of plants. The Maruts personified the storm. We also find some female divinities, though not very impor­tant, such as Aditi, and Ushas who represented the appearance of the dawn.

Then there were Rudra, Savitr, Surya and a host of celestial beings like Apsaras and Gandharvas to whom the Rigveda addressed hymns and prayers.

Sacrifices were an essential part of religion and yajnas were performed to invoke and propitiate the gods, to celebrate victories and to acquire cattle. Hymns were dedicated to the sacrificial altar, and to the weapons of war.

The ritual of sacrifice led to the growth of mathematics as geometrical knowl­edge was needed to construct the altar and the sacrifice of animals led to the study of anatomy.

The Vedic people believed that the world was made out of a cosmic sacrifice, so sacrifices were needed for its maintenance. Religion was not ritual-based magic, rather was it a direct communion with the gods through sacrifices, hymns and prayers.

Every tribe or clan had a special god to worship. Vegetables, cereals, etc. were offered in sacrifices, but without any ritual or sacrificial formulae. No particular words were assigned any magical power.

Gods were in­voked not for spiritual upliftment, nor for any other abstract philosophical concept; were gods invoked for material gains.

Sacrificial religion is a mark of pastoralism. Animals which are old and cannot provide milk and cannot be used for breeding purposes are thus destroyed to lessen the burden of the owner. In agricultural societies, old animals can be used for pulling the plough and so the destruction of animals by sacrifice is not much prevalent there.

The Early Vedic age portrayed its pastoral patriarchal character by its religion which was also somewhat materialistic in its pursuit.

The early Vedic religion is also known as henotheism or kathenotheism-a belief in single gods, each in turn standing out as the highest.

It has also been described as the worship of Nature. Another important feature was the tendency towards mono­theism and even monism.

The use of material objects as symbols of deities was perhaps not altogether unknown. Regarding life after death, the Rigvedic hymns have no consistent theory.

In the Later Vedic period, important changes took place in religious life. Rituals and formulae became prominent in the cult of sacrifice. Prajapati, the creator, became supreme among gods.

Some of the minor gods of the Rigvedic period (e.g., Vishnu and Rudra) became important in the later Vedic period. Signs of idolatry also appeared. Some of the social orders came to have their own deities, e.g., Pushan, responsible for well-being of the cattle, became the god of the shudras.

Though prayers still formed part of worship, they no longer were valued for placating the gods. Sacrifices became far more important and involved killing of animals as well. Words began to assume magical power at the sacrifices.

In fact, religion of the Later Vedic Age is of two traditions, the Vedic and the non-Vedic or folk, which is documented in the Atharvaveda. The inclu­sion of the religious tradition of the Atharvaveda in the main Vedic system shows the assimilation of different beliefs and cultures therein.

The Yajurveda Samhita and the Brahmanas deal with the sacrificial aspect of the religion of the times. Sacrificial rituals at that time were either public or private. The public rituals like Asvamedha, rajasuya and Vajapeya were performed on a huge scale and there were elements of the fertility cult in them.

For instance, in Asvamedha, the chief queen was required to lie next to the sacrificial horse, thereby representing earth. Like­wise, in the other ceremonies, there were fertility rites so as to increase agricultural output.

All these cult elements in the rituals made them even more complicated requiring expert priests and even dif­ferent priests for different parts of the rituals. As sacrifices now assumed mystical powers, there emerged a science of priestcraft, a specialist branch to conduct the rituals.

A reappraisal of the gods accompanied this process when Prajapati or Vishnu emerged as the supreme, being the creator of the universe. It is difficult to know from the hymns of the Later Vedic Age the particular god who personi­fied a natural element.

The Atharvaveda represents the folk traditions in the Later Vedic Age and is concerned with magic. Its hymns deal with the cure for diseases; prayers for health; charms for the prosperity of home and children; cattle and fields; charms to produce har­mony; and charms concerned with love and mar­riage or its opposite, rivalry and jealousy.

The Atharvaveda thus represents the superstitions and beliefs of the people and the term Atharvan means a magical formula. The Atharvan priests no doubt invoked the Vedic gods in their rituals, but the prayers were for the objectives listed earlier.

Along with them, minor benevolent or malevolent godlings like pisacha, rakshasa, etc., were also invoked to bring good fortune to the performer and his friends and family and disaster to his enemies. Indra was assigned to kill the thief, Aswin to protect the crops, Savitr to find the site of the new house and Surya to finish off demons.

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