Samskaras are personal sacraments in Hindu tradition observed at every stage of his life from the moment of birth to cremation and final scattering of the ashes. They differ according to caste, region or family and are based on custom as well as texts such as Grihya Sutras, the epics or the Puranas. There are sixteen of them broadly categorised under Prenatal, Postnatal, Educational, Marriage and finally Funeral Samskaras. The rites are generally performed by the father in the home and are more carefully observed in the case of male children.
Stages of Educational Samskaras
After the Prenatal and Postnatal Samskaras , the child undertakes the Educational Samskaras. They are divided into five stages-
1. Vidyarambha or the learning of Alphabets
2. Upanayana or Investiture of the Sacred thread
3. Vedarambha or Beginning of Vedic Study
4. Keshanta or Shaving of beard
5. Samavartana or end of studentship
1. Vidyarambha(Learning of Alphabets)
Origin and History
This Samskara is also referred to as Aksharlekhan, Akshararambha or Aksharavikaran. When the child is mature enough to receive education this Samskara is performed and initiated into alphabets. We infer that our ancient civilization was highly evolved and that writing was already in vogue. This is supported by the presence of the Dharmasutra, the Grihasutras while the earlier Smritis do not mention the art of writing. It is not contained even in the medieval and modern Paddhatis. It is only mentioned in the recent history of ritual literature in India which can be placed subsequent to the eleventh century like the treatises Viramitrodaya, Smriti- Chandrika, Samskara Ratnamala of Gopinatha Bhatta and the commentary of Aparaka on the Yajnavalkya Smriti. This could have been because writing was unknown in early times and was also not used for educational purposes if known. Sanskrit was the spoken language then and hymns were memorized without any help of writing. However as time passed Sanskrit ceased to be the spoken language of the people and the Sciences of Grammar and exegesis (critical explanation or interpretation of a religious text) evolved and different branches of learning came into existence. The mass of Hindu literature increased and became complicated and too unwieldy for memory. To preserve this treasure trove, the art of learning alphabets came into vogue followed by the art of writing. For a very long time this Samskara was performed with the Tonsure (Chauda) ceremony which is mentioned in the Arthashastra. This is also mentioned in the Uttar Ramcharita where Sage Valmiki began the education of Lava and Kusha after the tonsure ceremony. It was only later that a new Samskara for the start of primary education was felt to be needed and thus the Vidyarambha Samskara came into being.
Time and Method
According to Vishvamitra this Samskara is performed in the fifth year of the child from the period of Margashirsha to Jyeshta. When the sun was in the Northern Hemisphere an auspicious day was fixed. The child was bathed, decorated and scented. Veda and Sutrakaras of one’s own Vedic school were paid respects to along with prayers to Lord Ganesha, Saraswathi, Lord Vishnu and Lakshmi, Family Deity, Brihaspathi and Homas were offered. The teacher faced the East and performed Vidyarambha to the child who faced West. Saffron and other substances were scattered on a silver plank and letters were written with a gold pen by the rich while the others wrote on rice with their finger or any pen made for this occasion. Salutation to the Gods and Goddesses were written and then the child worshipped the teacher. The child read thrice what was written and then presented clothes and ornaments to the teacher and made three pradakshinas (circumambulations) around the Gods. The child was then blessed by everyone to gain knowledge and wisdom.
2. Upanayana(Investiture of the sacred thread)
Origin and History
The initiation of the youth is prevalent in all religions and the Parsis (Navjyot ceremony), Christians (Baptism) and Muslims (Circumcision rites) all have rites specially meant for this purpose like the Hindus. It is said that even the savage tribes of the world perform these ceremonies and it evolved to prepare youth to taking up active duties of citizenship thus emphasizing the importance of the clan and preserving the life of the community by shouldering the burden of the elders. Initially this arose to meet the civil needs of the people but in course of time it became saturated in religion. In Hinduism the Yagnopavitam or Upanayana ceremony was of primary importance and was a passport to the literary treasures of the Hindu tradition and religion. Without it none could marry and it was a means of communion with the society. By performing the initiation they were regarded as Dvija or twice born implying that man due to his contact with the world loses his native purity and must be born again to enter the spiritual kingdom. Thus one who did not undergo this initiation was excommunicated and debarred from all the privileges of the race. The word Brahmacharya is mentioned in the Vedas and in the Upanishadic period, society was clearly divided into the Ashramas and Brahmacharya or the student’s life became a respected institution. Initially this Samskara began as an educational samskara but later on its ritualistic significance rose into importance. The students resided in the homes of their Gurus and helped them in all their duties and the usual period of studentship was twelve to twenty four years. Selfless service and devotion to the teacher was the hallmark of the highest kind of knowledge. Later the Grihasutras gave full information on the rules and regulations and the methodology of the entire process of initiation followed by the Paddhatis which also included the local customs prevalent in their times.
Meaning and Significance
The word Upanayan implies Upa (near) and Nayan means bringing, implying bringing the child to the teacher (symbolizing knowledge). The materials used in the ceremony have a deep inner significance. The sacred thread has three strands which denotes several meanings. The strands represent purity in thought, word and deed. They symbolize the three Goddesses Parvati (strength), Lakshmi (wealth) and Saraswathi (knowledge). They also symbolize Brahma, Vishnu, Shiva and the three letters of Pranava ‘AUM”. They signify the three debts that the youth owes - to God, to his parents and to his teachers. They also symbolize the three Gunas namely Satthva, Rajas and Tamas. The three strings are tied by a knot representing the Eternal Brahman. While investing it, the Guru asks for illumination, strength and long life for the boy. After observing all the ceremonies the most important one is the Brahmopadesam or the initiation into the Gayatri Mantra. It leads to the realization of the Brahman and the Guru imparts his Shakti or power to the child along with this mantra. There is a deerskin attached to the thread which signifies spiritual and intellectual strength. The undercloth or Kaupina is the garment of immortality. The girdle or Mekhala depicts the three Vedas Rig, Sama and Yajur encircling the boy, protecting his purity and warding off evil. The staff or stick given to the boy to hold is to guard the Vedas giving him a long life with strength, wisdom and holiness. The boy is asked to see the Sun God and pray to gain knowledge and purity. The entire process signifies that the youth had to lead a virtuous life and with humility towards God, his teacher and parents he would face the vicissitudes of life with equanimity and forbearance eschewing passions and would educate himself to become a worthwhile citizen in society.
3. Vedarambha(Beginning of Vedic Study)
Initially the Upanayana and the study of Vedas began almost together but later when the Upanayana became more of a bodily ritual the need for another Samskara to mark the beginning of Vedic study was felt. This Samskara was first mentioned in the Vyasa Smrithi. After the Upanayana an auspicious day was fixed and ceremonies were performed depending on which of the four Vedas were selected for study. If the study of all the Vedas were begun then all the offerings were made together. Homas were performed and after the final offering or Purnahuthi, the Guru commenced the teaching of the Vedas.
4. Kesanta(Shaving of beard)
The Kesanta or shaving of the beard was a major Samskara and is one of the oldest as it was independent of Vedic study and depended essentially on the physical characteristics of the youth. The Kesanta was also referred to as Godana as it was characterized by the gifting of cows to the teacher by the student. It was performed at the age of sixteen and marked the arrival of youth of the student. It was also a reminder once more of his vows of Brahmacharya. When the concept of child marriages emerged, it became a common practice to close the Brahmacharya period with the Kesanta or Godana. Later on the practice was changed as it reduced the length and period of Vedic study. The ceremony was performed with the shaving of the beard (similar to the Chauda ceremony of shaving the head) and a cow was offered by the student to the teacher. At the end of the ceremony the student observed a vow of silence and led a life of discipline and austerity for one full year.
5. Samavartana (End of studentship)
This Samskara marked the close of the Brahmacharya period and termination of student life. The meaning of the word Samavartana is ‘to return home from the house of the Guru’. The most prominent item of the Samskara was bathing hence it was also referred to as Snana. During Brahmacharya period the student was said to have led a divine life which was akin to performing a sacrifice. At the end of the sacrifice a traditional bath is taken. Thus to enter the next period of his life the student performed this Samskara. Also symbolically the student was said to have crossed the ocean of learning and become a Vidyasnataka or one who has bathed himself in learning. This period was a momentous period as the student had to make a choice between two paths of life namely marriage and its responsibilities or leading a life of detachment by keeping away from the world and its turmoils. The students who chose the first path were called Upakurvana and those who selected the second path were called Naisthika. The Upakurvanas became householders after returning from the Gurukulas. The Naisthikas pursued the quest for Supreme Knowledge by continuing to live and serve their Gurus. The youth of society who were lame, blind, diseased or hump backed were compulsorily required to lead the life of a Brahmachari on physical grounds. But the remaining majority could select any one of the two choices.
There were three types of Snatakas-
1. Vidyasnataka- These were students who completed their entire course of study but not the full term of Brahmacharya.
2. Vratasnatakas- These were students who completed their entire period of Brahmacharya by observing all the required vows but did not complete the entire course of studies.
3. Ubhayasnatakas- These were the best students who completed both, observed all the vows and finished their full course of studies.
The student would ask permission of the Guru to end his student career and then offer Guru Dakshina. This certified that the Snataka was a fit person in habit, learning and character for a married life.
After the ceremony of bathing, the student cast off his entire outfit of Mekhala, deerskin, staff etc into water and put on a new loin cloth. Then the ceremonies were concluded with Homa. He was then blessed by the teacher and regarded a revered and respected personality appropriate to his education. At present the Samavartana is performed either with the Upanayana or the Vivaha in most cases.
The Samskaras were age old traditions handed down from the ancient period to ensure better functioning of the system and better conduct among the members of society. They were meant to give shape to qualities such as inner balance, polished and civilized behavior and refinement. Virtue and right conduct was the basis for the development of Samskaras. Unfortunately with the advent of Western education and its influence in society the full Samskaras are not generally performed in modern times despite the efforts of various seers and organizations like Arya Samaj etc who have tried to revive their popularity. The most common ceremonies observed at present are those of initiation, marriage and death and a few of the educational Samskaras like Vidyarambha and Upanayana.