The word ‘Samskara’ is used in different contexts in Indian languages. In North India, the word ‘sanskari’ is often used for a refined and cultured person or for refined behavior.
The word ‘samskara’ used in its classical context refers to a rite or ritual performed to mark stages in a person’s life or for achieving certain personal goals towards Self-Realization.
Let us analyze, for a bit, the etymology of the word ‘samskara’ to understand the meaning of the word.
The word is a composite of the root ‘kr’ – to do – qualified by ‘sam’ – well or appropriate. That ‘karya’ which is done ‘samyak’ – an activity which is done well or appropriately – is samskara.
One can take any activity – karya – and evaluate for ‘samskruti’ (refinement). A task can be done badly, routinely or exquisitely. Depending upon how it is done, it gets classified as vikara, prakrutika (yatha-prakara) or samskara.
This test can be put to any activity that humans undertake. As an exercise, let us take the act of speaking. If an individual uses it to communicate routinely and achieve worldly objectives, it is prakrutika. If an individual uses his or her sharp tongue to berate others and cause pain to them, it is vikara. On the other hand, if the tongue is used in the praise of the Supreme Being, the japa of paramatma, it leads to accumulation of punya and eventual moksha. Hence this is samskara of the tongue. Such a test can be applied to every single activity of an individual’s life.
The quality of an activity or behavior lies in whether it aids in the higher purpose of a man’s life (or otherwise). According to Sanatana Dharma, the purpose of every individual’s stay in this world is to make spiritual progress, culminating in the release from wordly bondage and attainment of moksha. Therefore, the performance of any task in a way that aids his or her spiritual growth can be termed samskara, and the accumulation of such efforts leads to ‘samskruti’ or ‘culture’.
Humans, across time, ethnicity, nationality and culture, have always performed certain rituals and rites to mark progress and key life events. In the dharmik way of life, these rites are per formed as per prescribed Vaidika norms and hence are termed ‘samskaras’. The performance of samskaras at various stages of life is an attribute of the truly ‘cultured’ Hindu vs the Hindu-In-Name-Only!
The tradition of samskaras is as old as Sanatana Dharma itself. It finds mention in the Vedas, the various Smritis, Puranas, Grihya Sutras, Dharma Sutras, the Itihasa granthas and the commentaries and works of various Acharyas. Therefore it is one of the core principles of the dharmik way of life.
The commentary by Sabara on the Jaimini Sutras1 gives a classical definition of what constitutes samskara. He defines samskara as that which makes a certain person or thing fit for a certain purpose.
संस्कारो नाम स भवति यस्मिञ्जाते पदार्थो भवति योग्यः कस्यचिदर्थस्य
The Tantravartika calls samskaras as those actions and rites that grant fitness to an individual, and further says that such fitness is bestowed through two ways – removal of sins (dosha) and by the generation of qualities (gunas).
योग्यता च सर्वत्र द्विप्रकारा दोषापनयनेन गुणान्तरोपजननेन च भवति
Right from the conception of a person in the womb of his mother till his death, various samskaras define the journey of an individual and the spiritual progress of a person. The ‘garbhadana’ samskara performed in preparation for conception launches the ‘samskaarika’ journey and ends in the ‘antyeshti’ samskara upon death.
Every such samskara is intended to make the person a ‘better’ one – a more ‘samskruta’ or cultured person. Therefore, there were some qualities or gunas that were called out as essential identifiers of a cultured individual. The combination of samskaras and gunas, therefore, completed the definition of a cultured person.
The List of Samskaras
Although there is wide divergence in the scriptures on the exact number and list of compulsory or important samskaras, there is no difference when it comes to acceptance or rejection of any one of them. Smriti Muktavali, quoting the Gautama Smriti, lists 40 samskaras and 8 gunas that define an ‘arya’.
These 40 samskaras can be broadly classified into:
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The 21 yajnas that are to be performed at specific times are:
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As mentioned before, an individual was expected to perform all 40 of these samskaras and practice the 8 gunas or ‘Virtues of Soul’ (to use the words of Sri P V Kane) in order to make progress. The ashta-gunas are daya, kshamaa, anasuya, shuchi, anayasa, mangala, akrupanatva and aspruhya which translate (roughly) to compassion, forgiveness, non-envy, cleanliness, non-troublesomeness, piety, non-miserliness and lack of excessive desire.
According to Shankha Smriti, an individual who diligently performed the 40 samskaras and consistently displayed the 8 gunas would reach the brahmaloka.
Needless to say, the performance of these samskaras would help in progress in the 8 gunas. The 8 gunas would make the performance of these samskaras more effective. A positive feedback loop of sorts.
As the lifestyle of an individual started to deviate from the Vedic injunctions, the insistence on all of these 40 samskaras reduced. Over time, sixteen samskaras, which had ties with the stages of an individual’s life, gained prominence. These sixteen came to be known as the ‘shodasha samskaras’. While there are differences between various Smritis on which 16 constitute the chief ones, the widely accepted shodasha samskaras are as follows:
- The four Vedavratas
Significance of the Samskaras
There are two broad categories of samskaras among the above 16. The first set of samskaras, which include the Garbhadana, Pumsavana, Seemanta, Chowla and Jatakarma, bring purity to the individual. Therefore, the rituals in these samskaras focus primarily on chanting of Vedic mantras, consumption of ayurvedic medicines and so on. The second category of samskaras, which include Namakarana, Annaprashana, Upanayana and Vivaha initiate the individual into an important stage of life. In that sense, these second category of samskaras are really initiators of (the real) samskaras.
A brief introduction to each of the sixteen samskaras are as below:
- Garbhadana – purifies the womb of the would-be mother and prepares the arrival of a foetus.
- Pumsavana – establishes the gender of the foetus and removes sins from the foetus.
- Seemantonnayana – removes the sins obtained from the parents and also removes the sins arising due to the seed, blood and womb.
- Vishnubali – propitiates the devatas to ensure that the child born becomes a Vaishnava.
- Jatakarma – performed at the birth of the child. Ensures the child is purified and sins during the birth are removed.
- Namakarana – involves giving a name to the child. The name is usually chosen to be that of a devata or paramatma which helps in the remembrance of the Supreme Being every time the individual is addressed. This samskara establishes the identity of the person in the world.
- Nishkramana – the child is brought out to the open world for the first time. Typically, the child is taken to a temple. This samskara initiates the contact of the child with the external world.
- Annaprashana – the child is fed a meal for the first time. This samskara initiates the child into the world of external food, and helps ensure the individual only consumes good quality (and preferably satvik) food.
- Chowla – the child is given a haircut. This marks the beginning of practicing cleanliness and hygiene.
- Upanayana – this is one of the most important samskaras for an individual. Upanayana is typically performed between the ages of 8 and 12 (sometimes up to 16) and initiates the individual into the study of the Vedas. The samskara marks the beginning of the journey of acquiring spiritual knowledge and closeness with God.
- The four Vratas (Prajapatya, Agneya, Vaishwadeva, Soumya) refine the individual due to the performance of rites as ordained in the Vedas.
- Samavartana – this important samskara marks the end of the individual’s studies and the person becomes ready for the life of a gruhastha (householder).
- Vivaha – second only to Upanayana in importance, this samskara hands over the responsibility of a householder’s life to two individuals who unite. They undertake the responsibility of furthering their family by producing able progeny. The couple also bear the responsibility of helping other ashramas of society such as the sanyasis and brahmacharis.
These days, it has becomes rare to see the observance of all sixteen of these samskaras. Still, the Namakarana, Upanayana and Vivaha samskaras are observed amongst dharmika households. Of course the Namakarana and Vivaha are turning out to be more social in nature than their original religious and spiritual formats. However, they still survive.
The Hindu Samskaras are traditional rituals that help initiate an individual’s foray into various stages of life in a noble way. They trigger the spiritual inquisitiveness and enable the growth of an individual into a dharmik soul. It is critical that the present generate rekindle the practice of these samskaras and ensure the sustenance of a dharmik society. The survival of Hindu society is contingent upon the survival of the samskaras.
Rig Veda Samhita – 5th and 8th Mandalas
Smriti Muktavali – by Sri Krishnacharya
History of Dharmashastra – by Sri Panduranga Vamana Kane, Volume II
Samskruti – by Sri D V Gundappa
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