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The Samskaras (Sanskrit: संस्कार saṃskāra) are rites of passage finding varied acceptance among religious adherents of Hinduism (Vedic), Jainism and some schools of thought in Buddhism. Sanskār is a commonly used Hindi pronunciation of the word and signifies "cultural heritage and upbringing" in modern speech.
The samskāra (sanskaar) are a series of sacraments, sacrifices and rituals that serve as rites of passage and mark the various stages of the human life and to signify entry to a particular Ashrama (i.e. stage of life). All human beings are required to perform a number of sacrifices with oblations for God, Ancestors and Guardians in accordance with the Vedic dictums for a Dharmic or righteous life and become Dvija or twice-born by the performance of these acts. Basically all these rituals are of the nature of purification and/or bestow good qualities (gunas). A person does not have to foster a relationship between religious-spiritual knowledge and the practice of religious-rituals. It means a person having deep religious spiritual knowledge may or may not be involved in the ritual processes. Similarly a person involved in rituals may or may not have the religious knowledge.
Most Vedic rituals consist of Homa - fire sacrifices of elaborate and intrinsic designs and complex methodology, accompanied by recitation of Vedas by qualified Priests in honor of a particular Demigod or God (i.e. aspect of divinity), fire offerings of various ingredients, gifts to be given in charity, presence of elders for blessings, amidst sanctified sacrificial grounds, sacred herbs and good omens. Each important milestone of a Human life is to be celebrated by undertaking a particular Samskara wherein the significance of that milestone is ritualistically conveyed.
The 16 Samskaras
Most of the Brahmins used to follow complex rituals in connection with major events in their lives, such as pregnancy, childbirth, education, marriage, and death. Although, the number of major samskaras fluctuates between 12 and 18 in the Grhya Sutras, later, it became 16 (Hindi: sola) in number, generally known as "Shodasha Samskaras" (Ṣoḍaśa Saṃskāra).
Garbhadhana (IAST: Garbhādhāna) (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 act of first sexual intercourse or insemination is known as nishekam. (Garbhdhanasamskaram is cited in Manusmrti, 2.27).
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 (IAST: puṃsavana) (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 fourth 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. (in SED Monier-Williams cites Grihya-Sutra,MBh.)
The time prescribed for the pumsavana differs in different Grhyasutras, and can be extended up to the eighth 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 (IAST: Sīmantonnayana) (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 (IAST: Jātakarman) (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. (Cited in Manusmrti 2.27)
Annaprashana (IAST: Annaprāśana) (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. (Cited in Manusmriti 2.34)
Chudakarana (IAST: Cūḍākaraṇa) (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. (Cited in Mn.2.27,35)
Karnavedha (IAST: Karṇavedha) (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 female children. (MW cites Purāna-Sarvasva.)
Vidyarambha (IAST: Vidyāraṃbha) (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. (Citation Mn.2.69)
Upanayana (IAST: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. Along with the sacred thread, the hide of the antelope called Krishnajinam is also worn by the boy. The upanayanam ceremony is followed by brahmopadesham - teaching Gayatri mantra to the boy. (Cited in Manusmrti 2.27)
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. ( Mn.2.71)
Keshanta and Ritusuddhi
Samavartana (IAST: Samāvartana) (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 Brahmacharyaasrama of life. (Citation: Mn.3.4)
Antyeshti (IAST: Antyeṣṭi) (literally, last rites), sometimes referred to as Antim Samskar, 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.
Controversy in the total number of samskaras
Since ancient times there has remained a dispute between experts on the total number of samskara that exist. As written in Gautamsmriti 8.8 there are 40 of them, Maharshi Agnirane directed of 25 of them, but according to the Puranas, 12 or 16 of them are main and necessary. These ceremonies are enjoined on the first three (twice-born) castes in Manusmrti and Grhya Sutras (Grihya Sutras) (esp. Pāraskar). Some list 42 samskaras, i.e. the 16 listed above plus the 21 compulsory Yajnas, plus the 5 panchamahayajnas .
Vidyārambha, Vedārambha and Antyeṣti are not enumerated as separate samskāras in ancient texts like Manusmriti or Grihya Sutra (Pāraskar). To this list may be added Karṇavedham too, which reduces the list of most essential samskāras to 12 only.
- Pandey, R.B. (1962, reprint 2003). The Hindu Sacraments (Saṁskāra) in S. Radhakrishnan (ed.) The Cultural Heritage of India, Vol.II, Kolkata:The Ramakrishna Mission Institute of Culture, ISBN 81-85843-03-1, pp.391-2
- Translation by G. Bühler (1886). Sacred Books of the East: The Laws of Manu (Vol. XXV). Oxford. Available online as The Laws of Manu
- Monier-Williams, Monier (1899). A Sanskrit-English Dictionary. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass.
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