Hindu religion is one of the oldest religions that have been practiced by millions of people around the world. The religion has various rituals (samskara) attached to it. Our Vedas stresses elaborately on samskaras from conception to cremation. Various rituals are performed for birthdays, education, marriage and funerals.
Samskaras are rituals performed at various stages of the human life in order to facilitate emotional growth. According to vedic vision, all aspects of human life are considered sacred. When a person performs the samskaras with care and devotion, it brings awareness of “Isvara” in him and a better understanding of the larger role he needs to play in the society as an individual. The impact of the samskaras is: a significant change in a person’s way of thinking and attitude which is attributed to his/her psychological growth.
Origin of Samskaras
Human beings are different from the rest of the creation in the Universe, because human beings alone have the ability to make a choice before performing an action. Human beings alone have the free will to perform a dharmic (good) or an adharmic (bad) action.
Karma (action or deeds), is the universal principle of cause and effect, action and reaction. Hindu scriptures divide the karmas into three parts:
nitya-karma (performed daily)
naimittika-karma (performed occasionally)
kamya-karma (performed to gain some desired end)
Some karmas like śrauta-karma are performed for the benefit of the world and gŗhya-karma are particularly performed for the well-being of an individual or a family. To achieve the desired end, there are some procedures to be followed while performing these karmas. These procedures are provided in the vedic book of kalpa-sastra and dharma-sastra.
Importance of Samskaras
Samskaras mark the important events in our life, just as a road having a signpost indicates the distance covered and gives directions to guide a traveler.
Samskaras are also performed by the people for material gain like health, wealth, education and marriage. The samskaras are also used as a tool to awaken the society, like educating the masses and to have a uniform code in the marriage system. Samskaras were instituted by our ancestors, to bring sanctity and stability into the lives of individuals and to cultivate a prayerful attitude.
As a whole, samskaras were created to mould humans spiritually, physically and mentally.
The Sixteen Samskaras
According to Hindu scriptures, there are sixteen samskaras:
13. Kesanta / Godana
Garbhadana (gifting the womb)
Garbhadana — The samskara needs to be performed before the birth of a child.
Jiva after death goes to the pitr-loka (ancestral world). It travels there for some days and then gets ready for the next stage of development. Jiva enters the earth’s atmosphere with the rain cloud (parjanya) and the rain is absorbed by the earth’s soil. The moisture in the soil is absorbed by the plant kingdom (osadhis). These plants are consumed by the animals. (For e.g., Plants and grass are eaten by the cows and goats, then the humans consumes their meat or milk). Through the plant kingdom and the animal kingdom, the jiva enters the human (purasa – father) and develops as a sperm. In the next stage, from the father jiva enters into the mother’s womb and the jiva is born again. This process of death and birth continues until the jiva is purified. For the purification process, samskaras need to be performed, so that the jiva attains mokska and reaches the God, and that ends the human life cycle.
In this samskara, prayer to the God is made for the birth of good, virtuous and a healthy child. Our birth depends upon on the karma from our past life. This means, whatever good things happen to us in our present life, is because of the good action taken in our previous life and whatever bad things happen to us now is also because of the bad things we did in our previous life. Every human’s birth place depends upon the action taken in his previous life. One should remember the law of karma-phala (fruit of actions), what we sow is what we reap; we need to follow the dharma to have a good life in our next and following lives. We are not aware of our past life, whether we lived happily or suffered, but we can change our future by our present actions. This is a gift to us, only human beings alone have this power.
Pumsavana (engendering a male issue)
This samskara is primarily performed for the birth of a male child and also prepares the women for the motherhood. The necessity to have a male child was felt because of the belief, that only a male child could carry the family traditions from one generation to another. Unlike today, where there are many instances reported on female infanticide; at no point of time during the vedic period there was any dislike or sense of burden felt for a girl child. The pumsavana samskara also involves an intake of a particular herb that protects the fetus from any harm.
Simantonnayana (parting the hair)
This samskara is performed to invoke the blessings of Goddess Lakshme, to protect the mother and the child. The ritual is performed only during the seventh month of the first pregnancy. The word simantonnayana means to part the hair. The husband uses a carved comb made of wood consisting of seven teeth. It denotes that we pray to the previous six generations (pitrs) and the elders of this generation seek their blessings.
Jatakarma (natal rites)
This samskara is performed after the birth of the child. It is a religious ceremony of prayers and gratitude. Prayers are recited for the well-being of the child, as the child now begins his/her life as a separate entity, severing its umbilical connections with its mother. This samskara helps to knit together the father, mother and the child as a bonded family.
Namakarna (naming ceremony)
Namakarna samskara is performed on the eleventh day after birth. The name gives the person’s identity, so the name is chosen with care. A name also has a certain influence on the person. For instance, when a person is named “Rama”, unconsciously the individual may be motivated to live up to his name. People who call him are also constantly reminded of the Lord, thus invoking in them a sense of devotion towards the Almighty.
The Namakarna samskara involves the following steps:
The priest chants the mantras invoking the blessings of Lord Ganesha.
He then sprinkles holy water on the mother and child for purification, and offers haldi and kumkum to the mother.
Then the father takes the baby on his lap and prays for the child’s health and intellect. He feeds the child honey mixed with ghee, to give the child vigor.
The priest then calls the child three times, by the name chosen and blesses the child.
The grandparents put anklets on the child and pray for his well-being.
The grandmother applies kajal to the eye and prays for the child to have sharp eyesight.
Finally, the mother puts the baby in the cradle and the priest blesses the child.
Niskranama (first outgoing)
This samskara is performed when the child is three months old. It can be called as the first normal outing for the child. The child is taken to the nearby temple to seek the blessings of the God. By this time, the child is more aware of the world and its surroundings. It is a milestone for the child as it learns to interact with the people around. This milestone is recognized and Isvara is thanked again by this ceremony. This ceremony symbolizes as an opportunity to introduce the outside world to the child.
Annaprasana (feeding food)
This samskara is to introduce the solid food for the first time to the child. The food to be eaten by the child is prepared with care and is first offered to the Lord. Thus the first food taken by the child will be the Prasada received with the blessings of the Lord. Various prayers are chanted for the health and strength of the child.
Cudakarna (arrangement of the hair tuff)
This samskara is performed to have a long life by cutting hair. It signifies a transition from babyhood to the next stage, where the child recognizes himself as one with a distinct identity and is capable of better understanding and communication. The tonsure ceremony symbolizes the surrendering of one’s countless binding desires to the Lord. They also pray for the child’s longevity, intelligence and success.
Karnavedha (ear piercing)
This samakara is performed in which the ear lobe is pierced. This samskara is done along with the Cudakarna. First, the right earlobe is pierced followed by the left ear for the boys, while it is opposite in the case of girls.
In this samskara, a goldsmith is invited and is honored. At the end of the ritual, he is also bestowed with tambulam and cash.
Vidyarambha (commencement of studies)
By the age of five, the child has developed certain cognitive skills and is ready to begin reading and writing. Knowledge is considered sacred and venerated as Sarasvati. This attitude of seeing everything with reverence and as a blessing from Isvara, is unique to our culture. Every parent aspires that their child should grow to be a knowledgeable person. Therefore when the child is ready to receive formal education, this samskara is performed.
On an auspicious day, the child is made to write ‘Om’, on a plate of rice by the father; holding the finger of the little one and helping the child trace the alphabets. The guru, who is held in great esteem then makes the child repeat the sacred word three times and formally initiates learning. The child also repeats the prayers after the priest, representing the beginning of a life-long education under a teacher.
This marks another milestone in life, whereby a young boy becomes eligible to begin a life of brahmacharya. By this time, he is old enough to leave his home and stay at the gurukula for a period of time, to learn the Vedas. This samskara helps the mother see that her child is no more a child, but is ready to leave the comforts of a home and reside in a guru’s house independently.
This sacrament marks the beginning of the first ashrama in one’s life, where one has the right to perform certain karmas. He is taught the Gayatri-mantra, which is a prayer asking for emotional maturity and wisdom. During the upanayana ceremony, when brahmopadesa is given, the teachers and the child are covered with a silk cloth and the teacher teaches him the Gayatri-mantra. This covering symbolizes rebirth, not a physical birth, but the awakening of the person through knowledge from a guru. That is why he is called a dvija or twice born.
The young brahmachari affirms the following:
I will offer regular prayers.
I shall study and listen to discourses attentively.
I shall respect my guru.
My mind shall pursue noble thoughts.
I shall use my learning to protect dharma.
Vedarambha (to study vedas)
This samskara is performed by a student with his teacher before the study of the Vedas. A homa is performed to different devatas, who are invoked for the study of Vedas. As the guru and sishya are together in performing these rituals, it creates an everlasting bond of affection and reverence. The student is required to lead a disciplined life and had to follow a certain code of conduct throughout this period. Some are mentioned below:
Sandhyavandana (performed thrice a day).
To rise early in the day and not to sleep during the day time.
To diligently follow the instructions of the guru.
To follow dharma and cultivate good food habits.
The life of a student is thus structured and regulated. The school term opens with a solemn ceremony in the month of Sravana on an auspicious day. This samskara shows the sanctity of knowledge and reverence for the guru.
Kesantha / Godana (getting rid of hair)
This samskara is for recognition of the significant transition from the childhood to the beginning adulthood. This samskara is particularly performed to reaffirm one’s commitment to the completion of the education at the gurukula. At this period, the student recognizes and acknowledges the changes occurred to him both physically and psychologically. He thanks his guru through this samskara and offers gifts showing his gratitude. He also seeks his blessings to complete the brahmacarya-ashrama in good stead. This samskara is important as it reiterates the student’s commitment to complete his education.
Samavartana (returning home from the teacher)
This samskara denotes the completion of education or the readiness of the young man to move into the next ashram i.e., from brahmacharya to grhastha-ashrama. During this time, the student seeks permission of his guru to end his student days. He offers dakshina to his guru at this samskara, even though knowledge is considered priceless in our society. The guru advises his student that all his actions should benefit the community and he must never swerve from the path of dharma. The guru reminds him that he must always take care of his parents and guests with utmost care. This samskara shows the persons gratitude towards his guru. After this stage, which marks the end of brahmacharya, the person needs to enter into the next stage i.e., grhastha-ashrama, to get into this stage, the person needs to be prepared psychologically. In that stage he needs to support a family and he heads the family and becomes a decision maker in all the household issues.
In our culture, marriage is considered as the means of inner growth and companionship. The vivaha samskara provides the structure for a committed and responsible relationship between two individuals.
This Samskara has the following procedures
In a kanya-dhana, the prospective father-in-law washes the feet of the bridegroom, considering him as Lord Vishnu. He then offers his daughter to him with all the devatas as witness and together they seek the grace of the God.
After the kanya-dhana, there is mangalya-dharana tying ceremony. Managalya-dharana is the tying of the sacred thread at an auspicious moment, fixed according to the horoscope of the bride and the groom. The groom ties the first knot and applies the kumkum on the bride’s forehead and makes a lifelong commitment of living together in happiness and sorrow. The groom’s sister then fastens the next two knots accepting the new bride as part of the family.
The next stage is pani-grahana, in which the groom holds the bride’s right hand and prays for good health, progeny and prosperity. This ritual symbolizes the groom’s acceptance of the bride as a gift from the God.
After the homa, the bride and the groom walk the seven steps together, sapta-padi. With each step, they pray together for the welfare of themselves and their families.
The seven-step vows are:
1. May peace and harmony prevail in our life.
2. May we be blessed with wealth and prosperity.
3. May we share joy and happiness and perform the required Vedic rituals.
4. May one’s love and mutual respect make life a comfortable journey.
5. May we have children with long life.
6. May our lives be woven together into a beautiful fabric.
7. May we share the bonds of friendship.
In the Vedic tradition, marriage is a bond of friendship between the two individuals. They share a life together and help each other grow and mature.
Antyesti (funeral ceremonies)
This is the final samskara in the life cycle performed by the sons, for the safe passage of the soul into the ancestral world. This samskara particularly helps the family to come to terms with their loss and also benefits the departed soul, as the family members pray for his/her well-being. In this samskara there is twelve day period of mourning, the support of friends and it is important to express one’s thoughts and feelings regarding the loss. All this helps a person to deal with and overcome their sorrow.
The Hindu samskaras are performed at every important aspects of human life. The Vedic rituals followed in the Hindu samskaras have tremendous significance starting from the conception till the end of the human life. Before the birth, samskaras like Garbhadhana, Pumsavana, Simantonnayana are performed and after the birth of the child samskaras like Jatakarma, Namakarana, Niskramana, Annaprasana, Cudakarna, Karnavedha are performed. As the child grew up samskaras like Upanayana, Vedarambha, Kesanta, Samavartana are performed. When the person attains the marriage age Vivaha samskara is performed. When the person dies Anteyshi samskara of the person is done by the family members.
In the Vedic Hindu Samskaras, every samskara has a special purpose. For eg., Garbhadana is performed before the birth of the child and Pumsavana is performed to have a male child and Simantonnayana is performed for the development of mental qualities of the child. Every Samskara should be taken in a positive way. Like Pumsavana samskara should not be interrupted as to dislike towards the female child. The Vedha-rambha is performed for the education purpose and carries a very good purpose. During the time when there was no uniform system in providing education, this samskara emphasized the need to provide education.
Vivaha samskara emphasized the defined rules for the marriage system. The samskaras like Cudakarana and Karnavedha have a scientific meaning attached to it. And the Samskaras – Kesanta and Samavartana emphasized the importance of a Guru in students’ life and teaches them to give respect their Guru. As the Vedic religion is amongst one of the oldest religions in the world, the significance of the Vedic Hindu Samskaras is now studied and researched in various parts of the world. We should be aware of all these samskaras and try to implement them in our life as well. The samskaras helps us to complete the human cycle and facilitates soul’s safe passage from this world. As the human gets embroiled in the wheel of birth and death, these Vedic samskaras make the journey and re-journey of life much easier and endurable.