The āśrama system is a religious prescription concerning the way a man should live his life, and is an important component of orthodox Hindu dharma. It divides the total life span of a man into four phases and prescribes different ways of life suitable for the different stages. The first phase is called Brahmacharya (the phase of celibacy). In this stage of life an individual has to devote himself to the acquisition of knowledge. He is to be admitted to Gurukul, the place of learning where he gains knowledge fit for his caste.
Having crossed this stage with a diploma from Gurukul, he enters another phase that is called Grahasthya Ashram (the phase of establishing household). In this phase one should devote oneself to various earthly duties such as marriage, propagation and looking after the disabled or the weaker members of the society. In addition, one has to raise material wealth needed for the worship of gods and ancestral spirits.
Then comes the third phase called Vanaprastha Ashram. In this stage, one is supposed to turn towards the meditation turning away slowly from almost all the worldly duties. This process culminates in Sanyas Ashram (the stage of a sage) when one has to abstain completely from all the worldly pleasures and comforts (including, crucially, the use of fire) in order to attain liberation (mokṣa).
The āśrama system is mainly discussed in two groups of texts. The earlier, prose dharmasūtras seem to present the different āśramas as different lifestyle options available to men. It is only in the later, verse dharmaśāstras that the āśrama system reaches what one might call its canonical form, where the different āśramas are arranged in a series one must pass through. Interestingly, the Law of Manu (one of the most important dharmaśāstras) argues that before one may pursue liberation in the final stage of one's life, one must have fulfilled the duties of the previous stages.
These texts describe it as very beneficial system because it prescribes duties suitable for various phases of physiological development of human body, it helps build a logical social order, it helps to develop a spotless personality, it consolidates the relationship between various elements of the society, it makes the life practical and finally it makes a man fit for the salvation.
Earlier scholarship on the āśrama system tended to focus on the way in which it was put into practice. Recent scholarship by Patrick Olivelle, however, has argued that the āśrama system is more a textual phenomenon than a social institution.
Some Hindu customs and Sacraments
In a Hindu society, various ceremonies accordance with the Vedic rules are observed to mark the important aspects of life. Some of the ceremonies are described below:
The name giving ceremony is held between 9th and 11th day of the birth of a child. The ceremony is organized in accordance with the Vedic rules. A Brahman, well versed in the Vedas, is called to perform the rituals. He offers worship to the vedic gods like Prajapati, Surya (the sun), Agni (the fire) and other ancestral deity, and finally choose a name for the baby taking account of the position of the different planets during the birth. The name is written on the leaf of the holy tree ‘Peepal’ and the father (Sometimes the Guru) of the child whisper the name to the child. This ceremony concludes with a hearty feast. The ceremony is called a purifying ceremony. The house of the childbirth is supposed to be unholy for many purposes; none of the family members are allowed to take part in religious ceremonies before the name giving ceremony.
This ceremony is organised once the child attains the age of six months if the child is male and five months if the child is female. An astrologer choose suitable occasion after studying the position of the planets. Many deities including ancestral deities are worshipped and the baby is fed with the spoon made of precious metals like gold and silver. Relatives and friends are invited and a heavy feast is organized.
Tonsure is called ‘Chudakarna’ in Nepali. This is to cut hair of the male child for the first time. This is done between one to five years of age. A Brahman chooses auspicious occasion, various deities are offered worships, the instruments that are to be used are worshipped and finally, the father of the child cuts his hair with the golden razor. The child’s maternal uncle offers various gifts to the child on the occasion.
Initiation is called ‘Upanayan’ or ‘Bratabandha’ in Nepali. This ceremony is held to mark the age that the boy or girl can take part in religious rituals and sacraments. This also shows that he/she has reached the age for persuasion of knowledge. Girls are not initiated these days.
This two-day ceremony begins with the purification of the boy through fasting and observing certain rituals. His head is clean shaved on this day. On the following day a ritual called ‘Homa’ is performed and the boy is dressed like a sage. The boy, dressed thus, imitates the actions of a sage going door to door for alms. After this the boy is initiated with ‘mantras’. Different castes are given different mantras. Brahaman boys are given Gayatri mantra, Kshetri boys are given Tristup mantra and Vaishya boys are given Jagati mantra.
Most of the marriages in a Hindu society are arranged by the parents or other guardians of boys and girls. On the first day of the ceremony ancestral deities are worshipped. On the second day, the bridegroom goes to bride’s home with a procession. Various rituals such as ‘Kanyadan’ ,‘Saptapadi’, ‘Mangalsutra bandhan’, ‘Pani Grahan’, ‘Ash Masohan’, ‘Upahar dan’, ‘Sindur dan’ and ‘Dhruva darshan’ are performed at bride’s house. The following day, the bride is brought to her new home amidst various religious rituals.
The whole process shows that marriage is not a mere agreement in the Hindu society. It has great religious significance too. That is why marital bond is very strong in the Hindu society.
Funeral procession takes the dead body to riverside and it is kept on funeral pyre. Clean-shaven sons of the dead lit the pyre. After returning home, the sons close themselves inside home abstaining from all the luxuries of life having only one meal a day and mourning deep. They eat only rice, ghee and some fruits for 13 days. A religious scripture, Garuda Puran is recited to console the mourners. Food stuffs are offered to the soul of the dead in all the mourning days. After a year a religious ritual called ‘Sraddha’ is performed after which the mourners discard the mourning dress of white. Sraddha is performed every year.
Melting pot of Hinduism and Buddhism
In Nepal, Hinduism and Buddhism are the two main religions. The two have co-existed down the ages and many Hindu temples share the same complex as Buddhist shrines. Hindu and Buddhist worshippers may regard the same god with different names while performing religious rites.
Nepal has been declared as a secular country by the Parliament on May 18, 2006. Religions like Hindusim Buddhism, Islam, Christianity and Bon are practiced here. Some of the earliest inhabitants like the Kiratas practice their own kind of religion based on ancestor worship and the Tharus practice animism. Over the years, Hinduism and Buddhism have been influenced by these practices which have been modified to form a synthesis of newer beliefs.
For centuries the Nepal remained divided into many principalities. Kiratas ruled in the east, the Newars in the Kathmandu Valley, while Gurungs and Magars occupied the mid-west. The Kiratas ruled from 300 BC and during their reign, emperor Ashoka arrived from India to build a pillar at Lumbini in memory of Lord Buddha. The Lichchhavis whose descendants today are believed to be the Newars of the Kathmandu Valley, followed the Kiratas. During this period, art thrived in Nepal and many of the beautiful woodcarvings and sculptures that are found today belong to this era. With the end of the Lichchhavi dynasty, Malla kings came to power in 1200 AD and they also contributed tremendously to Nepal’s art and culture. However, after almost 600 years of rule, the kings were not united among themselves and during the late 18th century, Prithvi Narayan Shah, King of Gorkha, conquered Kathmandu and united Nepal into one kingdom.
Recognizing the threat of the British Raj in India, he dismissed European missionaries from the country and for more than a century, Nepal remained in isolation. During the mid-19th century Jung Bahadur Rana became Nepal’s first prime minister to wield absolute power. He set up an oligarchy and the Shah kings remained figureheads. The Ranas were overthrown in a democracy movement of the early 1950s.