Samskaras: The Rites to Mark the Passage of Life

Every culture, every tradition, and every center of knowledge around the world strives to guide humankind towards more meaningful lives based on an innate understanding of oneself and one’s true purpose in life. From birth till death, most humans progress through numerous phases in life that define our evolving roles and highlight certain milestones such as childhood, teenage years, youth, marriage, parenthood and so on.

The Indian culture, with its deep-rooted traditions of festivities, has interesting rituals connected to different phases of a person’s life. People belonging to different regions and different states have their unique ways of celebrating important events in life with a colourful amalgamation of festive wear, delectable food, decorated venues, regional music, and carefree dancing to create an uplifting ambience of joy, hope and positivity.

The Vedic tradition in India that dates back to ancient times features Shodasha Samskārās (also spelled as Saṅskāra) or the 16 Samskārās. It describes sixteen important events in a person’s life that must be emphasized with ritualistic celebrations. The term ‘Samskārās’ basically means to purify or refine. The celebrations associated with Samskārās bring people together and create an atmosphere of happiness and harmony, thereby paving the way for a more refined society.

Each samskārā in the Vedic tradition is identified by precise rituals that involve chanting of mantras and traditional ceremonies with flowers, herbs, fruits, and other offerings. Most rituals usually include seeking blessings of elders and distributing prasād among the attendees. These rituals usually performed by specially trained pundits invoke positive energy and bring peace and confidence to individuals.

Shodasha Samskaras – The Sixteen Samskaras

There are diverse number of Samskaras, and some ancient texts like Gautama Dharmasutra define upto 40 Samskaras. Out of these, 16 of major Samskaras are referred to as Shodasha Samskaras, the rites to mark the passage of life. Let us take a look at these 16 Samskaras that find mention in ancient Vedic texts such as Manu Smriti and Grihya Sutrās.

1. Garbhādhāna (ritual with intent to conceive)
The term Garbhādhāna can be translated into ‘gifting the womb’ and the ritual is conducted after a couple has been united in marriage. The ritual intends to create love, trust, respect and harmony between the couple and encourage ethical thoughts and habits. The couple seeks divine blessings to conceive children with good looks, intelligence, and long life.

2. Pumsavana (fostering the foetus)
In the Vedic tradition, children are considered divine blessings and harbingers of joy that bring meaning and purpose to the lives of their parents and extended family. Pumsavana is performed in the third month of pregnancy to celebrate the impending arrival of the new life and to appease the Gods to receive a healthy child.

3. Simathonnayana (baby shower)
This ritual is similar to baby shower functions that are marked by an abundance of gifts for the pregnant lady and her baby. It has been scientifically proved that that mental well-being of the mother is integral for the optimal development of the child. The Simathonnayana ritual is conducted during the seventh month of pregnancy for the health and happiness of the mother and the unborn child.

4. Jātakarma (ritual celebrating childbirth)
This is a heartwarming ritual that welcomes the new life and showers it with blessings to reach great heights in life. The ritual involves bathing the child and then feeding it a miniscule mix of gold, honey and ghee. Names of gods or certain mantras are then whispered into the baby’s right ear to establish its connection with the Divine. The ritual is usually performed by the child’s father.

5. Nāmakarana (ritual for naming the child)
The Nāmakarana ritual conducted on the 11th day of a child’s birth is marked by music, feasts, poojas and celebrations. Vedic traditions offer specific guidelines for naming a child. The child is usually provided five names as follows:

◙ Nakshatranāma (based on the child’s birth star)
◙ Māsanāma (based on the month of birth)
◙ Kuladevata Nāma (based on the family deity)
◙ Loukika Nāma (given name for popular use)
◙ Kula Nāma (based on the names of grandparents)

6. Karnavedha (ritual for piercing the baby’s earlobe)
It is interesting to note that both men and women in ancient cultures had the practice of wearing earrings. The science behind it is that there are crucial acupressure points in the earlobe that can be activated by piercing it. The Karnavedha ritual rganized to pierce the earlobes of the child is believed to improve intelligence and immunity.

7. Nishkramana (baby’s first outing)
A child’s mind is highly impressionable and it forms ideas based on the sounds and sights around it. After about a month after its birth, the baby is taken on its first outing or the Nishkramana during which it is treated to good omens and auspicious sounds. Usually this involves a trip to the temple during the day and a sight of the moon at night.

8. Annaprāshana (baby’s first taste of solid food)
As per Vedic beliefs, the food we eat affects both the body and the mind. Therefore, the first solid food of the child is chosen with great care and fed to the child during the ritual known as Annaprāshana. Usually conducted when the child attains 6 months of age, the ritual is believed to bless the child with health, strength, and energy.

9. Chudākarma (first haircut of the baby)
Also known as Mundana, this ritual has deep significance in the Vedic tradition. It signifies shedding of ego, cleansing, growth, and strength. During Chudākarma, the child’s hair is cut/shaven for the first time and is believed to be a new stage of life for the child. The child is surrounded by chants and mantras as everyone attending the function blesses the child with success and fame.

10. Vidyārambha (child’s initiation to knowledge)
Since education is crucial for a successful life, the child’s initiation into the endless world of knowledge is a vital one in the Vedic tradition. The Vidyārambha ritual pays homage to Saraswati – the goddess of learning and creates an ambience of divinity as the child is gently guided to write ‘Om’ and the alphabet on a plate of rice grains.

11. Upanayanam (child’s initiation into divine knowledge)
This is one of the most important rituals that seeks to bring a child closer to the Divine. Usually, conducted for boys at six or eight years of age, the ritual introduces the child to the Gayatri mantra that is believed to enhance intellect and purify the consciousness. The highlight of the ritual is when the child id made to wear the Yagnopaveetam (three threads) across the shoulder.

12. Vedārambha (marking the commencement of Vedic study)
Once the Upanayanam ritual is complete, the next important Vedic ritual in the life of a child is the Vedārambha when the child is initiated into the learning of Vedas under the tutelage of a qualified guru. The ritual involves mantra chants and poojas as the child seeks blessings on his journey to attain wisdom and knowledge. Knowledge of Vedic texts enhances the spiritual and intellectual level of an individual in addition to encouraging good living and conduct.

13. Keshānta and Ritusuddhi (ritual celebrating the growth into adulthood)
When boys and girls reach puberty, they exhibit physical changes that indicate their development into adulthood. Keshānta is the ritual for boys during which their facial hair is removed amidst mantra chants on an auspicious day. Ritusuddhi is performed when girls get their first menstrual period. During the ritual, the girl is dressed in a sari and adorned like a bride while the attendees shower her with gifts and blessings.

14. Samāvartana (graduation ceremony)
Graduation Day is definitely a milestone in the life of an individual. The Vedic tradition has a special ritual known as the Samāvartana to establish the progress from student life to that of a professional or homemaker. During the ceremony, the student who has completed his formal education seeks the blessings of the divine and his guru to enter a new phase in life.

15. Vivāha (wedding ceremony)
The wedding day is one of the most important turning points in the life of an individual. It is the beginning of a new commitment when two people commence a lifelong journey of love, care and respect as husband and wife. Vedic tradition offers the saptapadi (seven vows) that guide the new couple towards a life of peace and harmony. It is based on the concept that the husband and wife must be able to work together towards achieving their goals in life.

16. Antyeshti (final rites)
Vedic tradition maintains that although the body that is made up of five elements (fire, earth, water, ether, and air) will return to these elements after death, the soul is indestructible. Antyeshti is the final ritual in the life of a person during which the body is cremated as per specific guidelines. On the 3rd or 5th day, the ashes are collected and consecrated in a river or the sea. After a purification ritual on the 11th day, there is a feast on the 13th day to celebrate the soul’s passage from the material world to the eternal world.

Importance of Samskaras in Bharat and the Subcontinent

The 16 Samskārās in the Vedic tradition are considered as rites of passage in Sanātana Dharma (Hinduism) and finds mention in ancient Sanskrit texts as an integral aspect of the philosophies of karma. The Samskārās may differ as per the region. In addition to all these Samskārās, Hinduism and Buddhism also emphasize on inner rituals such as developing compassion and spreading positivity.

All these 16 Samskārās in Hinduism are part of the kriyas prescribed for Jain believers in the Dighambara and Svethambara schools of Jainism. These Samskārās have been described in detail in Jain texts such as the Adipurana and Acara Dinakara. Although the basic concepts of these rituals are identical in Hinduism and Jainism, there are noticeable differences in the religious rites.

Although most of these rituals are recognized by Sikhs, four of them are extremely significant in Sikhism, these are – Naam karan (naming the child), Amrit Sanskar (initiation into Sikhism), Anand Karaj (Sikh wedding ritual) and Antim Sanskar (final rites).

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