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Introduction to Hindu Samskaras

by Dr. Jyotsna Kamat
First Online: December 16, 2004
Page Last Updated: May 09, 2017

It is the culture or refinement distinguishes mankind from its fellow creatures. It took a very very long time for the human beings to evolve certain norms or disciplines which were considered 'a must' in a civilized society. Slowly such social norms were  transformed into religious rites or rituals typical of each community. Hindu samskars (a.k.a. samskaras) which symbolize disciplinary rites, were evolved over four millennia to make a house-holder's life refined and useful. From birth to death, sixteen samskars or rites of refinement are laid down by sastras and religious texts.

These samskars (or samskaras) are considered stepping stones in shaping a perfect individual in Hindu society. They were meant to be purify the person by observing of which a person became 'susamskrit' (civilized or refined).

The word samskar is evolved from the root 'samskri' which means to purify or form thoroughly. Samskriti (civilization) and Sanskrit are derived from this root 'samskri'. Sanskrit was considered the most refined and grammatically perfect language compared to other regional languages in ancient times.

The sixteen samskars laid down by Hindu religious texts are:

  1. Impregnation (Garbhadana) 
  2. Pumsavana (Ensuring birth of a male child) 
  3. Simanta (Hair-parting) 
  4. Jatakarma (Ceremony on birth) 
  5. Namakarana (Naming ceremony) 
  6. Karnavedha (Ear-boring ceremony) 
  7. Nishkramana (Taking the child out)
  8. Annaprashana (First solid food-feeding) 
  9. Chudakarana (Tonsure; removing impure hair)
  10. Vidyarambha (Teaching alphabets)
  11. Upanayana (Munji, initiation)
  12. Vedarambha (Higher studies)
  13. Keshanta or Godana (First shave of beard)
  14. Samavartana or Snana (Completion of studies)
  15. Vivaha (Marriage)
  16. Antyeshti (Last or funeral rites)

The samskaras vary in ceremonial details from one community to other. All the sixteen rituals are hardly observed now-a-days except among highly conservative pockets of rural India.

"God dwells in human body" was the ancient belief. It became a befitting place (Brahmi) for Brahma the supreme spirit only when sanctified by various samskaras, sacrifices, Vedic study and observation of vows, declared Manu, the Law-giver. Another law-writer Shankha commented "Refined by samskaras a person, who was able to cultivate the eight noble qualities viz., mercy, forbearance, freedom from envy, purity, calmness, right behavior and freedom from greed and coveting would rise up in the world of Brahman from where he has no fear of fall."

Atri's statement is famous. "By birth every one is a shudra, by samskars he becomes a Dvija (i.e., twice-born). By learning (studying Vedas), he becomes a Vipra and by realizing Brahman, he attains the status of a Brahmana" (Janmana jayate ....etc.)

Shabarand Kumarila summarized thus "Samskars are those rites which impart fitness and eligibility to perform certain actions."

In short, Upanayana, the eleventh samskar was a passport for education and openings. Vivaha (marriage), the fifteenth samskar was a door way to house-holder's duties and social obligations. According to Manu this stage was the most important one. A householder depended on all the other ashrams. Hence, wedding ceremony alone made an individual fully responsible to undertake social obligations.

All the samskars have lost their religious important nowadays and recitation of mantras are either mechanical or half-uttered. Samskars number two, three, four, six, ten, twelve, thirteen and fourteen have disappeared. Seventh or Annaprashan is important in Bengal and Eastern Regions and the eleventh has become optional! Even when performed, they are just ritualistic. Upanayana and marriage have become big socializing events of status where feasting and gifts have taken priority. But it is worthwhile to know the hidden precepts of samskaras to understand how our ancients determined an individual's behavior in society. To be disciplined, faithful and charitable were virtues which made a person good citizen.

See Also:

Samskaras : Hindu Sacraments

The Ear Piercing Ceremony for a NewbornWedding of Shiva and ParvatiThe Naming Ceremony for a Child
Introduction to the MudrasPeople Gathered for a Religious CeremonyRituals of  Shraddha

Kamat's Potpourri Indian Customs & Culture Sacraments

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