Hindus believe that people are essentially spiritual beings caught on a material journey. The journey ends when they re-discover our essential nature as one with God. This is called moksha (meaning the end of delusion) Hindus believe in reincarnation (samsara). Death is viewed as a comma rather than a full stop. Every activity and effort people have made in this journey will bear fruit in this or their next life. Hindus see reincarnation as a fairer system and in a unique manner it gives direction in life and comfort in death.
Rites of passage are called samskaras and mark entry into different stages of life. Hindus believe there are sixteen samskaras but today only a few are carried out. A sacred fire called a havan is lit at most of the ceremonials. Worship is carried out through fire which is called the eternal witness to the ritual.
The namakarana or naming ceremony is one of the first rites of passage performed for a child. The paternal aunt has the privilege of choosing a name starting with a letter chosen from an astrological chart. The selected name is then whispered into the child’s ear or written in honey on the child’s tongue.
The upanayana or sacred thread ceremony marks a child’s entry into student life. It involves investing the child with a sacred thread which consists of three strands, representing the three responsibilities he must now bear towards his parents, his teachers and to God. The child is now committed to study and acquiring life skills. He must learn to show respect for his teachers and parents and lead a celibate lifestyle during these formative years.
The vivah or marriage ceremony takes place when the person has completed his studies and begins earning money and is ready to start a family. One of the most important parts of the marriage ceremony is the bride and groom taking seven steps together, called saptapadi. Each step symbolises an aspiration for married life. They include health, wealth, happiness, progeny and lifelong friendship. Marriage vows require the couple to promise to look after each other and their family.
The antima kriya is the final rite or funeral ceremony which takes place after the person has passed away. Hindus believe the body is just an outer garment which has to be discarded for a new body. There is therefore no fixation on the body hence it is not preserved but cremated. Hymns from the sacred text the Bhagavad Gita which talk of the immortality of the Self are recited to comfort grieving relatives.
Indic religions including Hinduism view death in a different manner from atheists or people of Abrahamic faiths. Hinduism does not agree with the atheists that people have only one life, they do not agree with the people of Abrahamic religions that they have only two lives, one on earth and a second in heaven. They have lived many lives before and bring with them mental impressions of their past lives in their subconscious. This shows up as their character in the present life. In a way this system is fairer because it offers measured rewards for measured work.
Rites of passage allow a focused lifestyle because it gives clear marking of entry into different stages of life. Thus a more structured approach to spiritual progress can be put into place.
The word dharma which defines Hinduism is derived from the Sanskrit root dhara which literally means that which holds everything together. Dharma becomes a search for unity that manifests itself as the diversity we experience. Dharma is put into practice by harnessing nature in order to reveal this underpinning. This esoteric definition of dharma is very close to the way science defines itself. Science too is looking for unity in diversity. It looks for patterns in nature and then offers mental models or hypotheses that can explain these patterns. This increases its power of predictability on how things behave allowing us to harness nature for our benefit. Searching for an economic explanation of the world we live in is the common goal of dharma and science.
The role of Belief: Belief is considered to be a good starting point for a spiritual journey but cannot be its destination. Science progresses using a belief system or a hypothesis and continues to evolve by checking these against experience.
Hinduism views the claims of prophets and the sacred writings as a framework upon which the individual can start his ‘experiment’ to prove the existence of God. Swanubhuti, meaning first-hand experience of God, is considered to be the only way to validate the truth claims of religion.