To close up this series of articles about Hinduism, we’ll turn our focus to the second most important component of religion for Hinduism – Hindu practices and behaviors.
Religious behaviors are actions that have no intrinsic meaning, but rather ascribed meaning. For example, walking around with a white cap on your head has no meaning on its own. However, when you are in a Muslim neighborhood, it suddenly has a lot of meaning. Similarly, taking a sip of wine doesn’t mean much on its own, but it carries a lot of meaning in the context of a Catholic church.
In Hinduism, behaviors are the second most important component (after community and before beliefs). Doing the right thing is more important than believing the right thing, because doing a particular action shows you are part of a particular group.
For example, in a Hindu home, the mother is more concerned that her son visits a temple (behavior) than that he believes in the power of that deity.
One unique thing about Hindu behaviors is their historic consistency. Around the start of the 19th century, Abbe J.A. Dubois, a French Catholic missionary in India, wrote a book called Hindu Manners, Customs, and Ceremonies (free download here). He gave a description of the behaviors of Hindus, not based on scriptures, but on his own observations. (Many scholars state that Dubois plagiarized the writings, but they are insightful nonetheless.)
In reading this book recently, I was shocked at how relevant so many of his observations still are today. While modernity has drastically altered the daily life of urban Indians, many of the traditional practices of Hinduism have remained relatively the same for centuries.
However, it is just as impossible to write a definitive article on Hindu behaviors as it would be to write it on Hindu beliefs. Behaviors will vary drastically by region and community. Most Hindus will not know what to do during a puja if they are visiting a different community. Even Dubois’ observations are primarily about the higher castes of South India.
Below are six essential behaviors of Hindus. These are not meant to be authoritative or exclusive. There are Hindus who don’t do all of these things, but they present a good starting point for an outsider to recognize common Hindu behaviors.
Additionally, I’ve given some tips for the outsider on each one. Here you can see what is appropriate for you to do as a non-Hindu.
1. Marks on the Forehead
This is the easiest one to spot from the outside. If you see someone with special markings on their forehead, they are almost certainly Hindu.
Some of the markings signify the kind of Hindu someone is. For example, three stripes across the forehead signifies that someone was at a Shiva temple that morning. Two vertical lines connected at the center of the eyebrows means they worshipped at a Vishnu temple. Generally only serious practitioners have these elaborate markings on their forehead.
Other markings are simple displays of devotion. After the woman of the house performs her daily puja, she will go around to everyone in the house and apply a very small mark of ash or paste to the forehead. She puts the mark on everyone, including her atheistic son who doesn’t believe any of it. The small mark is a sign that the puja was done and the home has been blessed.
It is very common for Hindu women to wear a bindi on their forehead. This has become more of a fashion accessory for women, and it is not uncommon to see it on women from other religions as well. However, it is traditionally the mark of a Hindu woman. In certain parts of India, there are particular marks that show if a woman is married or not, but these will vary from place to place.
There is some religious significance to all these markings (especially the more elaborate ones), but the beliefs are less important than the behavior. Hindus wear markings more so because “that’s what we do”, than “I believe this mark deepens my meditation or connects me to the third eye of Shiva.”
Tips for the outsider:
If you are attending a function and someone is walking around putting a mark on everyone’s head, feel free to accept it. No one will think you have converted to Hinduism. It’s also fine to refuse if you are not comfortable. Non-Indian women can wear a bindi when they are out (especially if they are attending a function like a wedding), but it is best to only wear it with Indian clothes.
2. Doing Pujas
A puja is a worship event for Hindus. Pujas can be very short and simple, or extremely elaborate. The most simple is the daily puja that the woman of the house performs. It might be as quick as a few minutes, or it might go on for fifteen or more. More elaborate pujas, like dedicating a new home, involve calling in a priest. The exact elements of a puja will vary from community to community, but here are a few common elements:
- A lamp with oil
- Burning incense
- An image of the deity
- Chanting of sacred scriptures
- A pot with mango leaves
Most Indian homes will have a puja room built-in. This is a special place where the puja is done and the puja items are kept. Otherwise, pujas can be done in temples or large rented halls.
Tips for the outsider:
If you are attending a puja, just stand politely. After the puja is finished, you may be offered some food or someone may want to make a mark on your forehead. Both of these are fine for you to accept or reject as you are comfortable, but your Indian friend would prefer you accept. Also, since the home is seen as a kind of temple, remember to take off your shoes when entering a Hindu home.
3. Participating in seasonal Hindu festivals
There are too many seasonal Hindu festivals to mention here. All of them have their own special story and way to celebrate. Festivals are also very regional; very few festivals are celebrated all across India (Diwali being the most notable exception, though even the interpretation varies across regions). Festivals are primarily about being with family, eating specific food, and having a puja at home.
Tips for the outsider:
If you are a manager, be sensitive to your Indian team members’ festivals. You may have an office in Mumbai, and one guy from Calcutta asks for a week off so he can go home for Durga Puja. Ask around and you will learn this is the most important festival of the year for people from that region. Give him the time off if you can. He will be willing to make it up during other local festivals in Mumbai later.
If you are in India for a festival, participate to your heart’s content. Many different religious communities celebrate with each other during their respective festivals. Having a guest just makes it all the more special.
4. Performing life cycle rituals
These rituals, or samskaras, happen at certain stages of life. When a child is born, there will be a naming ceremony, and perhaps a hair shaving ceremony later on. There is a special ritual for marriages, and one for certain stages of pregnancy. All of these life events up through death (and thereafter) have special functions surrounding them. A priest is usually invited to perform these rituals and family and friends are invited.
Tips for the outsider:
Being invited to a samskara event is a sure sign that someone sees you as part of their inner circle. Do your best to attend these events as you can.
5. Adopting a special diet
This one is not mandatory, but if someone is a strict vegetarian, there is a very high chance he is Hindu. The next two most populous religions in India (Muslims and Christians) eat meat, though Muslims abstain from pork. Being vegetarian for a Hindu is a sign of devotion that is nearly equivalent to doing daily prayers as a Muslim or reading the Bible for a Christian. You will rarely find an extremely devout Hindu who also eats meat regularly.
Fasting is also a part of many Hindus lives. Some will fast once a week, others on certain days.
Tips for the outsider:
Hindus are very accepting of others eating meat, but it will help build rapport if you order vegetarian when you eat with them, especially if you mention the benefits of the vegetarian lifestyle. If you are hosting a Hindu for a meal, check if they are vegetarian before preparing the menu. Eggs, fish, and things cooked in chicken broth are not considered vegetarian.
6. Visiting temples and holy sites
Visiting a temple might be a daily, weekly, or sporadic behavior for a Hindu, but all recognize the importance of it. Some people will visit the local temple early in the morning to watch the puja being done. It is also common for Hindus to take pilgrimages to larger temples or other holy sites. Depending on the region, there will usually be one very famous temple where everyone tries to visit at least once a year.
Tips for outsiders:
You are welcome to visit a temple, but it is best to do it along with your Hindu friend. Some temples do not allow foreigners into certain places, so be respectful and check before doing anything like taking a picture. When someone goes for a pilgrimage, they will often bring back some sweets from that place. Make sure you eat them as it is considered a service to you that they have done this.
Now you know
These six behaviors are ways people might demonstrate that they come from a Hindu community.
As an outsider, you often get the opportunity to participate in them as well. Doing so is not “acting like a Hindu” in a superficial sense, but participating along with friends in a special act. However, knowing as much as you can about the activities beforehand will make you much more prepared. When in doubt, ask for advice!
Be bolder in participating with your Hindu friends in their special activities. Nothing will endear you faster and build closer relationships!