Wednesday, 1 August 2012

The Samskaras

A samskara is a rite of passage, and virtually every world culture has such ceremonies. Rites of passage are ceremonies that mark important events in the life of an individual.In Sanskrit the word samskara literally means, “making perfect” or “refining,” and so a samskara is a ceremony of refinement, which is to say, refining or raising an individual beyond his or her mere physical existence and marking a higher spiritual existence. Samskaras bind an individual into his or her social group.
All human beings, especially the Dvija or twice-born are required to perform a number of sacrifices with oblations for gods, Ancestors and Guardians in accordance with the Vedic dictums for a Dharmic or righteous life. Basically all these rituals are of the nature of purification, and they remove sins (pāpa) and/or bestow good qualities (gunas).
In Hinduism, as with most religious cultures, samskaras are sacred ceremonies performed with the help of a priest and in the presence of family and friends.

The 16 Sanskaras
Although, the number of major samskaras fluctuates between 12 and 18 in the Grhya Sutras, later, it became 16  generally known as "Shodasha Samskaras".

In practice, however, there are only about eight samskaras that are regularly performed.The most common ceremonies are a pre-birth ceremony (Simantoyannayana), the name giving ceremony (Nama Karana), a first grains ceremony (Anna Prashanna), the first hair cutting (Chudakarana), starting school (Vidyarambha), the holy thread ceremony (Upanayana), marriage (Vivaha) and the funeral (Antyesthi). As I briefly describe these ceremonies, be aware that there is a lot regional variation, and how a ceremony may be preformed in one community may vary a lot from how it is performed in another community.

Garbhadhana (literally, gifting the womb), is the act of conception. This is the first sacrament which followed immediately on every matrimonial union. There are a number of rites performed before conception.
The different Grhyasutras differ in their point of view, whether the garbhadhana is to be performed only once, during the first conception, or every time the woman conceives. In the first case it is considered as a kshetra-samskara (once the kshetra, or 'field', has been purified, it remains pure), and in the second case as a garbha-samskara (every time the garbha, or 'womb' conceives, it needs to be purified).

 Pumsavana (literally, engendering a male issue) is a ritual conducted in the third month of pregnancy. If it is the first pregnancy, it can be in the forth month also. The pregnant woman consumes one bead of barley and two beads of black grain, along with a little curd. This is accompanied by religious chanting.
The time prescribed for the pumsavana differs in different Grhyasutras, and can be extended up to the eight month of pregnancy, according to some. Some grhyasutras also give a later date for pregnancies after the first (which might be related to the fact that the signs of pregnancy are less prominent during the first few months, if the woman has already given birth once).


Simantonnayana  (literally, parting the hair) sacrament is performed in the fourth or fifth month of a woman's first pregnancy. Simantonnayana is conducted for the protection of the mother at the critical period of gestation. This samskara is performed to both invoke protection of the mother and unborn child from demons and spirits that might want to cause harm to the mother and child, as well as to ensure good health, success and prosperity for the unborn child.
Fragrant oil is poured on the head of pregnant woman. A line of parting is drawn three times through her hair from the forehead upwards with three stalks of 'Kusha' grass bound together. The Pranava mantram Aum and the sacred words called Vyahritis (Bhur, Bhuvah, Svah) are chanted during each operation. If the child is still-born, this has to be repeated during the next pregnancy.


Jatakarman (literally, natal rites) is meant for the development of the intellect of the child. When a male child is born, the ritual connected with birth is performed immediately (within 90 Naazhika). A small portion of a mixture of gold, ghee and honey is given to the new born infant. This rite symbolises good fortune.

Namakarana) (literally, naming) ceremony is performed to name the child. It is performed on the 12th day after birth.

 Nishkramana (literally, first outing) is taking the child outside the house for the first time. The child is usually taken out into the open only in the fourth month after birth.

Annaprashana (literally, feeding food) ritual, which takes place when a child is six months old, is the first time the child eats solid food, in India, rice. A few grains of rice mixed with ghee are fed to the infant. This is an important ritual among all sections of Hindus.
Chudakarana (literally, arrangement of the hair tuft), also known as choulam or mundana (literally, tonsure) is the ceremony of cutting child's hair for first time. In the child's third or fifth year, the head is shaved, leaving behind a small tuft of hair.

Karnavedha (literally, ear-piercing) is piercing the ears. This is done with a particular thorn. Butter is applied to the wound. It is applicable to both male and femalechildren.
Vidyarambha (or Akshararambha) (literally, commencement of studies) is done either when the child attains three or five years. On the tongue of the child the letters "Hari Sri Ganapataye Namah Avignamastu" and all the alphabets are written with a piece of gold. The child is made to write the same letters from "Hari Sri" onwards with its index finger on raw rice in a bell metal vessel and the child is made to utter each word when it is written. Either the father of the child or an eminent teacher officiates at this ritual.


Upanayana is the ceremony of wearing the sacred thread called Yajñopaveetam. When male child attains eight years, the wearing of the sacred thread Yajñopavita, is ceremoniously done. It is taking the child to the teacher for initiation of formal education. The upanayanam ceremony is followed by brahmopadesham - teaching Gayatri mantra to the boy.


Praishartha (or Vedarambha) is the learning of Vedas and Upanishads in‘Gurukulam’ or ‘Pāṭhaśāla’. In the beginning of each academic period there is a ceremony called Upakarma and at the end of each academic period there is another ceremony called Upasarjanam.
13.Keshanta and Ritusuddhi
Keshanta (literally, getting rid of hairs) is the first shave. It is ceremoniously performed for a boy at his age of 16.
Ritusuddhi is a ceremony associated with a girl's first menstruation.
Samavartana (literally, graduation) is the ceremony associated with the end of formal education of Vedas in ‘Gurukula’ or ‘Pāṭhaśāla’. This ceremony marks the end of studenthood. This also marks the end of Brahmacharya ashrama of life.

  Vivaha (Marriage) The Ritual of marriage.

Antyeshti (literally, last rites), sometimes referred to as Antima Sanskara, are the rituals associated with funeral. This samskara is not mentioned in the lists of samskaras in most of the grhyasutras and other texts that speak about samskaras. The details and procedures of this rite are given in separate texts, dealing only with this topic. The reason for leaving this rite out is that it is not considered as a pure and auspicious rite, and it should therefore not be mentioned along with the other, pure, samskaras.

*The above mentioned Samskaras are quoted in Manusmrti and Grhya Sutras, the ancient texts of India.

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