Spiritual Practices

cpkumar's picture



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Here are answers to some of the common questions pertaining to the spiritual practices followed since ages:

*** Why do we light a lamp?

In almost every Indian home a lamp is lit daily before the altar of the Lord. In some houses it is lit at dawn, in some, twice a day at dawn and dusk- and in a few it is maintained continuously (akhanda deepa). All auspicious functions and moments like daily worship, rituals and festivals and even many social occasions like inaugurations commence with the lighting of the lamp, which is often maintained right through the occasion.

Light symbolizes knowledge, and darkness ignorance. The Lord is the "Knowledge Principle" (Chaitanya) who is the source, the enlivener and the illuminator of all knowledge. Hence light is worshiped as the Lord Himself.

Knowledge removes ignorance just as light removes darkness. Also knowledge is a lasting inner wealth by which all outer achievements can be accomplished. Hence we light the lamp to bow down to knowledge as the greatest of all forms of wealth. Knowledge backs all our actions whether good or bad. We therefore keep a lamp lit during all auspicious occasion as a witness to our thoughts and actions.

Why not light a bulb or tube light? That too would remove darkness. But the traditional oil lamp has a further spiritual significance. The oil or ghee in the lamp symbolizes our "vaasnas" or negative tendencies and the wick, the ego. When lit by spiritual knowledge, the "vaasnas" get slowly exhausted and the ego too finally perishes. The flame of a lamp always burns upwards. Similarly, we should acquire such knowledge as to take us towards higher ideals.

A single lamp can light hundreds more just as a man of knowledge can give it to many more. The brilliance of the light does not diminish despite its repeated use to light many more lamps. So too knowledge does not lessen when shared with or imparted to others. On the contrary it increases in clarity and conviction on giving. It benefits both the receiver and the giver.
Swami Chinmayananda said :

Which else shall beautify a home
But the flame of a lovely lamp?
Which else shall adorn the mind
But the light of wisdom deep?

*** Why do we have a prayer room?

Most Hindu homes have a prayer room or altar. A lamp is lit and the Lord worshipped each day. Other spiritual practices like "japa" (repetition of the Lord's name), meditation, "paaraayana" (reading of the scriptures), prayers, devotional singing etc. is also done here. Special worship is done on auspicious occasions like birthdays, anniversaries, festivals and the like. Each member of the family - young or old - communes with and worships the Divine here.

The Lord is the owner of the entire creation. He is therefore the true owner of the house we live in too. The prayer room is the master room of the house. This notion rids us of false pride and possessiveness.

The ideal attitude to take is to regard the Lord as the true owner of our homes and ourselves as the caretakers of His home. But if this rather difficult, we could at least think of Him as a very welcome guest. Just as we would house an important guest in the best comfort, so, too we felicitate the Lord's presence in our homes by having a prayer room or altar, which is, at all times, kept clean and well decorated.

Also the Lord is all pervading. To remind us that He resides in our home with us, we have prayer rooms. Without the grace of the Lord, no task can be successfully or easily accomplished. We invoke His grace by communing with Him in the prayer room each day and on special occasions.

Each room in a house is dedicated to a specific function like bedroom for resting and sleeping, the drawing room to receive guests, the kitchen for cooking etc. the furniture, décor and the atmosphere of each room are made conductive to the purpose it serves. So too for the purpose of meditation, worship and prayer, we should have a conductive atmosphere - hence the need for a prayer room.

Sacred thoughts and sound vibrations pervade the place and influence the minds of those who spend time there. Spiritual thoughts and vibrations accumulated through regular meditation, worship and chanting done there pervade the prayer room. Even when we are tired or agitated, by just sitting in the prayer room for a while, we feel calm, rejuvenated and spiritually uplifted.

*** Why do we do namaste?

Hindus greet each other with "namaste". The two palms are placed together in front of the chest and the head bows while saying the word "namaste". This greeting is for all - people younger than us, of our own age, those older than us, friends and even strangers.

Namaste could be just a casual or formal greeting, a cultural convention or an act of worship. However there is much more to it than meets the eye. In Sanskrit namah + te = namaste. It means - I bow to you - my greetings, salutations or prostration to you.

Namaha can also be literally interpreted as "na ma" (not mine). It has a spiritual significance of negating or reducing one's ego in the presence of another.

The real meeting between people is the meeting of their minds. When we greet another, we do so with namaste, which means, "may our minds meet" indicated by the folded palms placed before the chest. The bowing down of the head is a gracious form of extending friendship in love and humility.

The spiritual meaning is even deeper. The life force, the divinity, the Self or the Lord in me is the same in all. Recognizing this oneness with the meeting of the palms, we salute with head bowed the Divinity in the person we meet. That is why sometimes, we close our eyes as we namaste to a revered person or the Lord as it to look within. The gesture is often accompanied by words like "Ram Ram", "Jai Shri Krishna", "Jai Siya Ram", "Om Shanti" etc. - indicating the recognition of this divinity.

When we know this significance, our greeting does not remain just a superficial gesture or word but paves the way for a deeper communion with another in an atmosphere of love and respect.

*** Why do we prostrate before parents & elders?

Hindus prostrate to their parents, elders, teachers and noble souls by touching their feet. The elders in turn bless by placing his/her hand on or over our heads. Prostration is done daily, when we meet elders and particularly on important occasions like the beginning of a new task, birthdays, festivals etc. In certain traditional circles, prostration is accompanied by "abhivaadana" which serves to introduce oneself, announce one's family and social stature.

Man stands on his feet. Touching the feet in prostration is a sign of respect for the age, maturity, nobility and divinity that our elders personify. It symbolizes our recognition of their selfless love for us and the sacrifices that they have made for our welfare. It is a way of humbly acknowledging the greatness of another. This tradition reflects the strong family ties which has been of India's enduring strengths.

The good wishes (sankalpa) and the blessings (aashirvaada) of elders are highly valued in India. We prostrate to seek them. Good thoughts create positive vibrations. Good wishes springing from a heart full of love, divinity and nobility have a tremendous strength. When we prostrate with humility and respect, we invoke good wishes and blessings of elders which flow in the form of positive energy to envelop us. This is why the posture assumed whether it is in the standing or prone position, enables the entire body to receive the energy. The different forms of showing respect are :

Pratuthana - rising to welcome a person.
Namaskaara - paying homage in the form of namaste.
Upasangrahan - touching the feet of elders or teachers.
Shaashtaanga - prostrating fully with the full body touching the ground in front of the elder.
Pratyabivaadana - returning a greeting.

Rules are prescribed in our scripture as to who should prostrate to whom. Wealth, family name, age, moral strength and spiritual knowledge in ascending order of importance qualified men to receive respect. This is why a king though a ruler of the land would prostrate before a spiritual master. Epics like Ramayana and Mahabharata have many stories highlighting this aspect.

*** Why do we wear marks on the forehead?

Most religious Indians, especially married women wear a tilak or pottu on the forehead. It is applied daily after the bath and on special occasions, before or after ritualistic worship or visit to the temple. In many communities, it is enjoined upon married women to sport a kum kum on their foreheads at all times. The orthodox put it on with due rituals. The tilak is applied on saints and images of the Lord as a form of worship and in many parts of North India as a respectful form of welcome, to honour guests or when bidding farewell to a son or husband about to embark on an journey. The tilak varies in colour and form.

This custom was not prevalent in the Vedic period. it gained popularity in the Pauranic period. Some belive that it originated in South India.

The tilak or pottu invokes a feeling of sanctity in the wearer and others. It is recognised as a religious mark. It form and colour vary according to one's caste, religious sect or the form of the Lord worshiped.

In earlier times, the four castes (based on verna or color) - Braahmana,Kshatriya,Vaishya and Sudra - applied marks differently. The brahmin applied a white chandan (sandalwood paste) mark signifying purity as his profession was of a priestly or academic nature. The Kshatriya applied a red kum kum mark signifying valour as he belonged to the warrior races. The Vaishya wore yellow kesar or termeric mark signifying prosperity as he was a business man or trader devoted to creation of wealth. The sudra applied a black bhasma, kasturi or charcoal mark signifying service as he support the work of the other three divisions. Also



davids's picture

Explenations about Indian religious practices

This is an amazing text. It explains so many things I encountered in India and couldn't understand their meanings.

Did you write it???

Can you put it also in the forum of India and add the tag "India"? It is of such a great benefit to those who travel to India.

Thanks.

davids | Thu, 01/08/2009 - 10:53
doo's picture

India

I agree. Gives you the urge to buy a ticket and return to the spiritual Disney World.

doo | Thu, 01/08/2009 - 21:24