Ceremonies in India

Article excerpt

A few months back, in the now fully literate Indian state of Kerala, more than 1,100 educated couples gathered to perform a ritual called the Putra Kamesti Yaga. This antediluvian Vedic fertility rite, which is an insult to modern science, supposedly guarantees a male child to the couple performing it. In a brazen display of sex-bias and in spite of opposition from rationalist and progressive groups, the ritual was conducted as planned, under open official patronage. Apart from the consideration that male children are immensely profitable in the marriage market, there appear to be more compelling spiritual reasons underlying the Indian fondness for male progeny: no Hindu is permitted to enter Heaven if his or her funeral rites are not performed by a son.

Ceremonies like this, however, have not limited themselves to helping the distraught secure a safe passage to Heaven. They help Indians--as they have always done--in relieving drought and in fighting famine by reminding the rain gods of their sacred duties. But since in India elections have become more regular than the monsoons, there is now a flourishing business of providing special prayer services and sacrifices that help politicians win elections. But these ignoble politicians too, like humanists, believe in the worth and value of human effort and so they happily manipulate the elections anyway. Here is some consolation to the saddened humanist: it is not very often that in India Man is trusted more than God.

We have ceremonies to purify the elements and to set right the ecological imbalance as well as ceremonies to bring peace to the world. There must surely be one for the recession; if friends from America are interested, I offer to look up the Vedas for you. Last year, for about ten action-packed days, I had the opportunity to interact with the tantrik underworld in my city when I was interpreting for two French black-magic-men who came to India to learn new skills. During this transfer of technology from the South to the North, I discovered more rites and rituals, whose utility ranges from silencing the enemy to controlling nagging mothers-in-law to seducing neighbors'wives!

Sadly, India is a nation "infested with saints, sorcerers, and god-men who thrive on the carrion of popular superstition." Life in India, for the most part, is still conceived in tribal and magical terms. Perhaps there is something in the collective unconscious of this nation, something that makes its people go back again and again to the primitive and the irrational. Indian life is built on the substratum of sociological backwardness and primitive religion and this is evident in the various aspects of life, both personal as well as public. It appears that it is this backwardness that manifests itself in the antiquated cult of nationalism and in the renewed calls for tribal loyalty to language, clan, caste, and religion. I suspect that in the endless speeches we make in India, and in the solemnity with which resolutions are passed and societal changes "willed" during seminars and congresses, we betray a subconscious belief in the potency of the spoken word and in the magical power of the mantra. In the celebration of festive occasions in contemporary India, in the human sacrifice that accompanies them in the form of communal violence, in the idolatry of political leaders and (even atheist leaders), in the transformation of the electoral process into a seasonal ritual, I see India's religious bent of mind.

An Area of Darkness

With these preliminaries, let me take you to the living museum of rituals where you will encounter the fetishism of the lower cults, tree and animal veneration, the totemic worship of tools, relics of sympathetic magic, ancestor worship, and phallic worship along with harvest and spring festivals. There are of course ceremonies to mark the important events of one's life: conception, birth, adolescence, marriage, and death. …