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Symbolism of Hindu Samskaras

by Jyotsna Kamat
First Online: June 01, 2005
Page Last Updated: May 09, 2017

Inculcating refined qualities (as interpreted by ancients) was at the basis of samskars. Besides, keeping off evil spirits was important in primeval people. Propitiation of deities was done through mantras and their repetition. For this propitiation, some rituals came into vogue. Invoking deities through prayer, praise and offerings of water, food and oblations which a person thought were essential for own well-being were offered to respective deities. Vishnu was propitiated at conception (garbhadana). At upanayana it was Brihaspati (god of embodiment of learning). At marriage, it was Prajapati (god of creation). These were invoked to shower boons and favors.

Symbolism

Symbols play an important part in samskaras. Audumbar (fig) branch stood for prosperity. The vatu (student) at upanayana and bride at wedding were instructed to stand on a rock which signified stability and firmness. Touching the heart indicated residence of God and virtues of love and harmony. This symbol was significant. In upanayana between Teacher and Student and in marriage, between bride and bridegroom. Mass of rice indicated abundance and prosperity. Eating together meant fusion of hearts, grasping the hand (panigrahana) indicated assumption of responsibilities etc.

Samskaras were not just dry rituals. Solemn mantras accompanied each one which had human yearning, prayer with spiritual lacing. There is poetic element to the samskaras.

For example, the mantra recited by the husband to wife, expecting healthy progeny. The samskar of garbhadana (impregnation) though the title sounds odd, has invocation to gods plus love of nature. Heartfelt prayer for eternal bond is noticed in the hymn.

Quote Begin

United are our minds, united are heart, united our navels, united our body and skin, I will bind thee with the bond of love. The bond shall be indissoluble. Lo Honey! My speech is honey. On my teeth dwells concord. The concord that belongs to the Chakravaka birds, hovering over the rivers, belongs to us too over the rivers of which the divine Gandharva is possessed, belongs to us too.

I am the fire and thou are the earth. I am Saman (music chanting from samaveda) and thou art Rik (poetry chanting from Rigveda) I am the sky and thou art the earth. Come let us come together and yearn for a child. May Mitra, Varuna, Brihaspati, Indra and Agni keep thy garbha (womb) fit and fine.

Quote End

Conceiving was not just a biological act of physical intimacy. It involved dignified union that was sanctified through prayer to deities who controlled law of nature. Gandharvas are semigods. They are also presiding deities of mutual love.

This recitation is just an example of a less significant ceremony and one of the three prenatal samskaras (viz., Garbhadana, Pumsavana and Simantonnayana). The mantras recited at the time of Upanayana (initiation) and marriage are more instructive, elaborate and sacramental. The mantras in early times were recited by the members directly involved in getting samskara. Nowadays the mantras are mechanically recited by the priest who at times may not himself be aware of the hidden message and the participant only will be repeating a word or two.

Samskaras : Hindu Sacraments
Refinements

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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

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