To mark various stages of human life, Hinduism had a series of sacraments and rituals referred to as rites of passage in accordance with the Vedas to enable them to lead a Dharmic or righteous life. They could be segregated into two categories, those which were simple and uncomplicated though also considered superstitious and the others which were cultural and priestly and developed when society evolved and humans tried to improve upon nature. By performing a particular Samskara with the corresponding rituals the importance of each milestone of a human being was celebrated in society. The important events were broadly classified into pre natal, post natal, educational, marriage and death samskaras and were sixteen in number generally known as Shodasha Samskaras. The Samskaras were flexible and not rigid and were adapted to different times and different localities.
Stages of Prenatal Samskaras
The prenatal Samskaras were divided into-
1. Garbhadana(conception of the child)
2. Pumsavana (bringing forth a boy)
3. Simantonnayana(Parting of hair)
1. Garbhadana (Conception of the child)
After marriage the first sacrament which followed was Garbhadana or the act of conception. Unlike in the beginning where primitive conditions prevailed and procreation was a natural act, this Samskara evolved during a far advanced period when the prerequisites of an established home, a marriage recognised by society, a need for children and religious beliefs that prayers to Gods helped man in begetting progeny was established.
Origin and History
The Vedic period contains several hymns with prayers for conception and offspring and begetting a son was considered important as he removed debts and helped in perpetuating the family name. Rites were conducted before conception to beget noble and virtuous children. In the Sutra period, the Grihasutras mention that different kinds of vows were to be observed before conception according to the type of son one wished for to be born. The Dharmasutras and Smritis mention rules for conception like the most fertile period, the most auspicious times and the religious periods to be avoided with maximum focus on the child to be born. In later years this samskara was considered a sacred and compulsory duty of married couples as a large number of children were required in society to help it to progress both politically and economically. Extinction of a family was regarded as a sin or curse as it was felt that ancestral debt could be paid only in the form of children. Later on the number of children ceased to be of importance except in royal families or rich and landed families who needed many children and the character of the child and the economic conditions of the families to bring up the child with honour and virtue were given greater importance.
2. Pumsavana(bringing forth a boy)
Origin and History
This Samskara was performed to beget a male child. In the Vedic period the Atharvaveda and Samaveda give prayers for male children. Verses were chanted and sometimes medicinal herbs were given to the pregnant women. In the Sutra period the Grihasutras mention that during the third and fourth month of pregnancy when there was a constellation supporting the birth of a male child this Samskara was performed. The Dharmasutras, Smritis and later on the Paddhatis followed with a few more rituals with some stating that they should be performed only for the first conception while others stated that they should be performed for every conception. Since the banyan tree was said to have curative properties for pregnancy like preventing abortion, excess of bile etc, the juice of the banyan tree into the right nostril of the pregnant woman at an auspicious time was inserted and this was also said to ensure the birth of a male child.
3. Simantonnayana(parting of the hair)
The object of this Samskara was practical as well as superstitious and in this rite the hair of a pregnant woman was parted. It was generally believed that a pregnant woman was not safe from evil spirits who wished to destroy the foetus hence rites were performed to ward them off. Since the mind of the child began to take formation from the fifth month the pregnant woman was required to take great care during this period and parting of the hair was said to signify a symbolic gesture. The husband by invoking the Goddess to protect his wife and unborn child would part her hair showing his love and affection through the gesture thereby strengthening the bond between them. The verses included the prosperity and well being of the mother along with long life to the unborn child.
Origin and History
This Samskara is mentioned only in the Mantra Brahmana in the Vedic period while in the Grihasutras, Smritis and other works it is described and explained in detail. It was performed in the fourth or fifth month of pregnancy and later could be performed upto the eighth month. There were diverse opinions as to its performance only for the first pregnancy or even for subsequent ones. With the chanting of mantras and various rituals the husband parted the hair of the wife by combing it upwards with a number of sacred items like Durbha grass, porcupines quill etc with each item conveying an inner deep meaning. The ceremony symbolised the fertility of the pregnant woman.
The Prenatal Samskaras laid down various rules and regulations regarding the duties of the expectant mother as they realised that every action and behaviour of the mother influenced her unborn child. Hence her diet, positioning of her body during sleep, the activities that she could undertake, the places to visit, the thoughts to be cultivated and those to be eschewed, her speech and actions, everything was mentioned in the Ancient texts to ensure smooth delivery and virtuous and noble progeny. The duties of the husband were also defined as his well being and prosperity directly affected his pregnant wife. His behaviour, nature and character were all defined specially at this stage so as to ensure the well being of both the mother and the child.