The word Samskara is derived from the word 'samskri' which means to purify or form perfectly. The words Samskriti (civilization) and Samskrit (the perfect language) are also derived from the same root. Thus Samskaras evolved over thousands of years as the disciplined stepping stones to refinement or perfect way to progress from stage to stage in this life and to help with future birth. - The "Rites of Passage" through life.
The Sixteen Samskaras
Origins of Samskaras
The samskaras are fire rituals prescribed in the Vedas that mark various milestones in a human being's life. Some of these are srauta-karmas (explicitly enjoined in the Vedas) and others are smarta-karmas (inferred from the Vedas through interpretation and described in other texts called the smrtis). The most commonly practiced sixteen samskaras that are prevalent today are listed below.
Garbhadhana sanctifies and prepares for conception and declares that a child is wanted and welcomed. It is an opportunity for the prospective parents to affirm their commitment to each other and to the future child. It is believed that the soul, or jiva enters the mother's womb after traveling through pitr-loka (the world of the ancestors), parjanya (the rains), the osadhis (the plant kingdom) and purusa (the father). Garbadhana acknowledges that the child does not come from nowhere but rather owes its existence to the parents, the ancestors and the world. In garbhadhana, mantras are chanted to pray for conception, and a purification ritual (udakasanti) and a ritual prayer for the blessings of ancestors (nandi-sraddha) are performed.
Pumsavana is performed in the third month of pregnancy and is a prayer for the birth of a male child. It is done only for the first conception. In Vedic society, the eldest son continued the family lineage, inherited ancestral property and performed rituals and fulfilled responsibilities related to parents and ancestors. As a result, most couples wanted at least one son. On the day before pumsavana, a ritual is performed (nandi-shraddha) for the blessings of the family's ancestors.
This is performed between the later months of pregnancy, usually in the seventh month or afterwards. At this point an infant who is born prematurely can survive; therefore, the mother and father are expecting to welcome a separate individual into their family, and the family prays for the health and wellbeing of the mother and the child. Simantonnayana involves the husband parting the wife's hair (to invoke the protection of goddess Lakshmi for her) and a homa (fire ritual) is performed. On the day before simantonnayana, a nandi-sraddha (prayer to the ancestors) is performed. This samskara is an opportunity for the parents to once more affirm their support for each other as they prepare to have a child.
This samskara is performed at birth to purify the newborn child. The family prays for the child to have intelligence, health and a long life. A homa (fire ritual) is performed, the father whispers the Gayatri mantra and the name of the star the child was born under into the child's ear and the child is then turned over to the care of the mother. Often, the family will give and receive gifts and offer charity on the day of this samskara.
Namakarana is the naming ceremony performed on the eleventh day after the birth of the child. The name is commonly considered a marker of identity. Therefore, namakarana is the ceremony that welcomes the child, as an individual in its own right, into the structure of the extended family and the community. After namakarana, the child has an identity recognized by the wider world.
Niskramana is the child's first ceremonial step out of the house, performed when the child is about three or four months old and starts becoming more aware of its surroundings. The child begins to have a personality and relationships, and niskramana recognizes this developmental step. The family prays to Isvara in the form of the sun, the moon, and the eight directions so that the child will be protected at all times and in all places after entering the wider world.
Generally performed in the sixth month for a male child and the seventh for a female, annaprasana is meant to mark the child's weaning and first bite of solid food (usually a mixture of ghee, curds, rice and honey). The family prays for the health of the child and acknowledges the role of the plant kingdom and Varuna (god of water) in sustaining the child. Furthermore, annaprasana is considered the child's first acceptance of prasadam (food that is ritually offered to Isvara or God before eating).
Performed in the child's third year, this samskara involves a homa (fire ritual) and the shaving of the child's head, leaving only a tuft. This signifies discipline and control over desires.
This samskara is performed when the child is between the ages of one and three and involves piercing the child's earlobes, regardless of the child's sex.
Also referred to as aksharaabhyasa, this samskara is done when the child is five years old and marks the beginning of his or her education. The ritual involves having a teacher guide the child through the beginning of the alphabet. The teacher and the child trace out the symbol Om onto a plate of rice, and write out prayers to Ganesha, Sarasvati, Vishnu and Shiva. After this, the child is given some rice to eat. Vedic culture prized education highly, which means that the vidyarambha samskara was very important.
This initiates a child (usually male, though in ancient Vedic society girls were also initiated) into the Gayatri mantra and into the student's life of brahmacarya (celibacy). In this ceremony, the teacher gives the child the Gayatri mantra and the sacred thread and takes responsibility for the child's life. The sacred thread is made of three strings, which represent one's debts to the gods, the rishis and one's ancestors. The new student must ceremonially seek bhiksa (alms) from his mother and other women, to indicate that he is no longer a child being fed by his parents but a student who must live an austere life. Upanayana is a commitment to a life of strong discipline, respect for one's teachers and hard study.
This is performed by a student and teacher, before the student begins to study the Vedas. It signifies the student's commitment to learning and the teacher's to teaching, and involves a homa and many prayers.
Also known as godana, this is the first shaving of a young boy's beard. It marks a transition from childhood to adulthood, but is also a renewal of commitment to the student's disciplined and simple life. The student prays and observes a vow of silence for a time. Mantras may be chanted as well, for the student's success and long life.
This samskara signifies the completion of one's education and is performed for the majority of students who move onto family responsibilities after finishing their studies. It includes a homa, a bath and prayers and mantras. The student offers daksina or payment to the teacher; this payment was symbolic as the gift of education was considered priceless.
Vivaha is marriage. The marriage ceremony qualifies the husband to perform Vedic rituals and entitles the wife to participate in and benefit from her husband's rituals. The husband will take a second sacred thread to symbolize that all rituals he performs are for both himself and his wife. Together, the husband and wife will enter the grhastha (householder's) stage of life and will pursue artha (material goods) and kama (pleasure and desires) while maintaining and upholding dharma (good conduct). The ceremony is long and elaborate and consists of many stages, including a homa. After the homa, the couple will take seven steps around the fire. Each step represents a prayer for harmony, love, cooperation, wealth, dharma, children and joy among other things. The relatives of the bride and the groom also celebrate the joining of the two families.
The final samskara, Antyesti is the ritual cremation of a corpse and is usually performed by the son of the deceased person. The word Antyesti means "last religious act" and is also meant to expiate whatever wrong actions the deceased may have taken in the last days of his or her life. Cremating the body immediately unifies it with its surroundings and pre-empts decay.
- Purna Vidya, Vedic heritage teaching programme, published by Arsha Vidya Gurukulam, Coimbatore, India.
- Hindu Samskaras, Socio-Religious Study of the Hindu Sacraments, published by Motilal Banarasidas publishers, Delhi, India.
- Puja and Samskara, Musashi Tachikawa, Shoun Hino, Lalita Deodhar, published by Motilal Banarasidas publishers, Delhi, India.
Links for more information
KAMAKOTI PEETHAN SITE ON SAMSKARAS AND OTHER SUBJECTS
THE FORTY SAMSKARAS PERFORMED BY PARENTS. BY KANCHI KAMAKOTI PEETHAM
HINDU GATEWAY RITES AND RITUALS. BY FAITH LIBRARY
INTRODUCTION TO HINDUISM. HINDU WEBSITE.