Sunday, March 20, 2011

The Hindu Samskaras

We are all familiar with popular functions like Namakarana [Naming Ceremony], Upanayana [Thread Ceremony], Vivaha [Marriage] etc. Besides these, there are some more functions all of which technically come under the general name ‘Samskaras’ in the Hindu tradition. These traditional ceremonies form a set of laid-down sacraments, which are performed during the lifetime of a Hindu with a view to enriching his life both materially and spiritually. Unfortunately, with the advent of Western education and its influence on the society, quite a few of these have remained dormant with the result that the purpose with which they were initiated has been lost sight of.
The term ‘Samskara’ means that action or Karma by performing which, one becomes refined and is made fit to be united with the Paramatman. The Samskaras could therefore be defined as rituals and sacrifices the observance of which will lead an individual to the betterment of his life and qualifies him for spiritual attainment. These rituals cover the entire life span of a person from conception to cremation. Just as gold or diamond which is extracted out from the ores needs refining and proper cutting in order to shine in all its splendor, so too man needs these Samskaras or purification sacraments in order to shine at his best both physically and spiritually. The purification serves the twin purpose of removing the existing blemish and replacing it by a virtue. The performance of Samskaras develops eight auspicious qualities in the individual, which help to remove all the ills of the material life caused by one’s attachment to his senses.
It is interesting to note that Agni [fire] is an indispensable part of all the Samskaras as are the recitation of the Vedic Mantras.. As per the Hindu tradition, Agni has been considered as a witness to all these functions. Even the cremation is considered as a Samskara where the body is given away as an ultimate offering [Ahuti] to Agni.
The Samskaras originated in the hoary past during the Sutra Period of Indian History
which is generally accepted as the period between 500 B.C. to 200 B.C. The manuals of rituals called ‘Kalpa Sutras’ on which the Samskaras are based were written during the Sutra Period. The problems and needs of the society then for whom the Kalpa Sutras were written were entirely different from what they are today. Sacrifices, rituals, beliefs in a host of gods, adherence to caste system based on guna and karma, Swarga as the ultimate goal of life—these factors were kept in view when the Kalpa Sutras were written. Hence, some of the rituals and details described in the Kalpa Sutras are obsolete and may not find relevance in today’s society with a totally different concept of life. However, it should be borne in mind that even though the Kalpa Sutras were written more that 2500 years ago, since the main purpose was the refinement of the individual, some portions of these rituals find relevance even today and could be observed as such.
As there has been a divergence of views on the number of Samskaras, the following sixteen Samskaras, called ‘Shodasha Samskaras’ are generally considered important. These are :
1. GARBHADHANA: The term ‘Garbhadhana’ actually means ‘depositing the husband’s seed in the wife’s womb’. As the fruit of action depends on the frame of mind at the time of the activity, this Samskara is done amidst the chanting of appropriate Vedic Mantras so as to induce a happy state of mind in the couple during the ceremony.
2. PUMSAVANA: This is performed with a prayer for begetting a strong and healthy male child. The ceremony is not in much vogue nowadays.

3. SEEMANTHA: The significance of this function is to ensure bright prospects to the mother and a long life for the child and also to induce enough courage in the pregnant lady to face her first pregnancy. This is done only during the first pregnancy.
4. JATAKARMA : Performed soon after the birth of the child to ensure safety and protection of the child. The function involves touching the child’s tongue three times with ghee to the accompaniment of Vedic Mantras.
5. NAMAKARANA: Naming ceremony of the child normally done on the 11th day of its birth. In olden days, names were chosen to suit the constellation at its birth.
6. ANNAPRASHANA: Feeding of the baby with solid food for the first time.
7. KARNAVEDHA: Boring the ear lobes of the child so that it can wear ornaments. According to Shushruta, the boring ensured enough protection from diseases.
8. NISHKRAMANA: The child is taken out of the house for the first time and is exposed to nature. Normally the first outing is to a temple.
9. CHOODAKARMA or CHOWLA: The Samskara constitutes the first tonsure or hairdressing of the child and marks a ceremonious introduction to bodily hygiene.
10. AKSHARABHYASA: This marks the instruction of the child in the alphabets of its mother tongue amidst the recitation of Vedic Mantras.
11. UPANAYANAM: This acts as a passport to a study of the scriptures when the boy is initiated with the sacred Gayatri Mantra. In ancient days it enabled the student to go to the Guru Kula.
12. VEDARAMBHA: This Samskara, soon after the Upanayanam, enabled the Brahmachari to take up to studies with all seriousness.
13. KESHANTA: This was done to with a view to consecrating the first shave of the student’s beard and moustache. The appearance of the beard heralded the advent of youth and the Samskara was an indirect warning to the student to keep a control over his impulses and passions.
14. SAMAVARTANA: The ritual marked the completion of studies in the Gurukula and returning home.
15. VIVAHA: The Wedding Celebrations
16. ANTYESHTI: Cremation of the body where the body is offered as a gift to Gods in Agni. The rite helps to purify the soul and free it from all fetters.

ARTICLE NO.613---Hindu Samskaras
Created:Friday, February 11, 2011

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