In this first article of the series we discuss the science and relevance of Hindu rituals for the young today
The ancient rishis advocated rituals to elevate man to a higher realm, ultimately leading to Paramatma.
Rituals have existed in all cultures and religions since antiquity. They serve several purposes. Anthropologists contend that rituals in animals and humans reduce acts of aggression between group members. They create and strengthen the social unity of the group. The aspects of repetition and rhythm of rituals, such as the daily marching of soldiers and group singing, help an individual to identify with the group.
In recent decades medical researchers have discovered many physical, mental and spiritual benefits of religious rituals such as chanting mantras, prayer and meditation. In the early 1970s,
Dr Herbert Benson, a professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School, demonstrated that by breathing slowly and repeating a word or phrase such as God, OM or peace, reduced stress and tension throughout the body. He named his technique ‘The Relaxation Response’.
For Hindus, if a meaningful Sanskrit aphorism or mantra is chanted, this induces an even more powerful effect on the body and mind. Researchers at the Vivekanand Kendra Yoga Research foundation in Bengaluru have noted that mentally chanting ‘OM’ resulted in ‘a statistically significant reduction in heart rate’, with increased mental alertness, suggestive of psycho-physiological relaxation. In comparison, the control, which involved chanting the non-meaningful word ‘one’, had the opposite effect.1
From this effect with just a simple mantra, we may presume that more meaningful and longer man-tras, aphorisms and lyrics will have similar or even more pronounced effects on the atma. In his book, ‘Why God Won’t Go Away’, neuroscientist Dr Andrew Newberg states that rituals such as prayer and chanting connect people to God and they experience great energy. He further believes that religious rituals turn spiritual stories into spiritual experiences, and that belief turns to something one can feel. He writes, “By giving us a visceral taste of God’s presence, rituals provide us with satisfying proof that the spiritual assurances are real”2 (2001: 90–91). A delightful example of such a Hindu ritual which induces an intensely transcendent effect on people, including non-Hindu observers, is the arti. This involves the waving of lighted diyas before the deities to honour and welcome them by singing lyrical sentiments, accompanied by drumbeating, clapping, striking a jhalar, ringing a bell or ghantadi, blow-ing a shankh and fragrant incense wafting from the garbhagruha. This multi-sensorial ritual affects the brain producing an intensely joyous and ineffable feeling. Newberg describes this effect as ‘religious awe’, which triggers neurotransmitters in the brain. Hence, by altering the neurochemistry of the brain, spiritual practices bestow a sense of peace, happiness and security, while decreasing symptoms of anxiety, depression and stress”3 (2009: 56). The above findings of modern science amply corroborate the wisdom of our ancient rishi-scientists who enjoined religious rituals for the smooth functioning of society while simultaneously boosting man’s ascent to the Divine. Dr Newberg concludes, “The more we engage in spiritual practices, the more control we gain over our body, mind and fate… If you re-moved the rituals, you might be left with little more than an intellectual understanding of God”3(2009: 63, 44).
Relevance of Hindu Rituals for the Young
Hindu children and teenagers studying in large cities in India and those living abroad are sometimes questioned by peers and even teachers about many aspects of their religious practices. The best way to deal with this is to cultivate a strong cultural identity by imbibing dharmic sanskars. Another problem, that has emerged in the past decade or so, is children’s easy access to electronic media with unethical and immoral influences streaming in round the clock. For Hindu parents this presents a critical problem of nurture. For many parents the past 18 months of the COVID-19 pandemic witnessed children glued to electronic entertainment, since they were housebound. This resulted in the decline of vivek – discrimination of what to watch and play, what was to be avoided – and much time wasted daily. Many BAPS followers took advantage of the weekly online programmes and activities for children on kids.baps.org and wholeheartedly praised the website volunteers.
To return to the advantages of practising Hindu rituals. They inspire order and discipline in children’s lives. A disciplined life leads to personal self-control. Lack of discipline impairs children’s development. Rituals sanskarise – elevate – their lives. They empower children to overcome frustration, confusion, exam stress anger, unruliness, selfishness, an inferiority complex and procrastination. Many rituals, such as dhyan or meditation, mantra chanting and prayers, boost concentration and memory and instil atmic strength. A burning problem leads to a macabre spectre, to the extent that the social media and other similar time-robbers throttle children, poisoning their minds with immorality and violence. To avoid such loss of character and cultural degradation Hindu rituals offer the most pertinent antidote. Pramukh Swami Maharaj often warned that if we forget our lofty past (sanskars) then we shall destroy our future.
We shall discuss how rituals help combat the aforementioned undesirable influences in future articles.
Hindu rituals are a treasure trove of dharmic sanskars. As such, parents should inspire children to practise daily rituals by first practising the rituals themselves. A Gujarati saying teaches, “If there is water in the well then it will pour into the trough.” Also, they will need to know the underlying meanings and sentiments. As children grow older they will ask searching questions. Children who are not aware of the meanings of Hindu rituals may be unable to answer questions posed by peers or teachers. A Hindu girl in England recalled that when she was in primary school the other ethnics had detailed answers about their religion. Since her mother had considered Hinduism as old-fashioned she remained ignorant, which meant she had no understanding of her own identity. Later, by her own efforts she began to read and discover Hindu principles and practices. She described the amazing result, “People around me began to respect my presence as a Hindu.”
In their book Hindu Children in Britain, the British sociologists Jackson and Nesbitt noted the beneficial experiences of young Hindus who recited Hindu mantras. A young girl who learnt and recited the Gayatri mantra every morning with her grandmother felt “happier in the knowledge that God will help her”. Another girl divulged, “When I’m in trouble I say the Gayatri and I have good luck!” The sociologists further noted that, in contrast, when a boy was asked to describe the ‘rakhdi’, he said it was a sort of string, rope or bobble. Another boy regarded the water squirter used during ‘Holi’ as a ‘bike pump’ and named Shiv in his home shrine as ‘OM’4 (1993: 86, 97).
Hence, in order to educate and ‘sanskarise’ children, parents should inspire them to sincerely prac-tice common Hindu rituals, such as puja, mala, prarthana, arti, dandvat pranams, mansi, dhyan, dan, pradakshina, chanting mantras and Sanskrit shlokas, and singing bhajans and doing seva at home and in the local mandir. A good opportunity to inform children about these rituals, festival rituals and in-spiring stories from sacred texts, is during the evening ghar sabha – a home assembly – with all family members. Pramukh Swami Maharaj introduced this unique ritual in the late 1970s for BAPS followers. He regarded it as ‘sab dardo ki ek dawa’ – a panacea for all problems. Today, Mahant Swami Maharaj also advocates it and has immortalized it as an injunction in the Satsang Diksha (shloka 86).
Researchers who discovered the benefits of mantra chanting and meditation, such as lowering of the heart rate, advocated twenty-minute meditation once daily for health benefits.
Initially there may be many fluctuations. Yet children should be inspired to persist. Positive results will induce greater enthusiasm and diligence. This process can be repeated for mansi puja and pranayama.
In the next article we shall discuss mandir rituals.
(For details of Hindu rituals, refer to the author’s books: Hindu Rites & Rituals: Sentiments, Sacraments and Symbols. Hindu Festivals: Origins, Sentiments & Rituals (2010). Murti Puja and Bal Samskaras – A Handbook for Parents (2016). Published by Swaminarayan Aksharpith. Available on baps.store and at BAPS bookstores.)