Hindu samskaras are a series of sacraments, sacrifices and rituals that serve as a rite of passage, marking important events at different stages of an individual’s life. These samskaras are not mere formalities of social observances, but to purify the soul at vital junctions in life’s journey.
Such important events generally include pre- birth ceremonies, birth ceremonies, life ceremonies, funeral ceremonies and even after- life ceremonies. In Sanskrit the word samskara literally means, “making perfect” or “refining,” and so a samskara is a ceremony of refinement, which is to say, refining or raising an individual beyond his or her mere physical existence and marking a higher spiritual existence. Samskaras bind an individual into his or her social group.
In Hinduism, as with most religious cultures, samskaras are sacred ceremonies performed with the help of a priest and in the presence of family and friends. Traditionally there are sixteen samskaras,. In practice, however, there are only about eight samskaras that are regularly performed. This number varies from family to family and from region to region. Be aware that there is a lot of regional variation, and how a ceremony may be performed in one community may vary a lot from how it is performed in another community
Moving along in chronological sequence, the next import samskara is marriage. This is called Vivaha. As in virtually all cultures, the marriage ceremony involves a bride and groom coming together in the presence of family and friends and then taking an oath of dedication to each other. In Sanskrit the word vivaha comes from the root ‘vah’ which means ‘to carry’. The oath of dedication that the bride and groom take to each other is a contract that “carries” them along for the remainder of their lives. Most Hindu weddings involve an exchange of garlands between the bride and groom (jaya mala); a bestowal of the bride by her father to the groom (kanya dhanam); the lighting of a sacred fire (Havan/Homa); circumambulation of the fire (Mangal phera); the taking of seven vows (sapta padi); a sacred mark of vermilion applied by the groom to the bride in the parting of her hair (sindhura); and a sacred necklace given to the bride by the groom (mangala sutra) There are, of course, huge variations between weddings, from different regions and cultural backgrounds of India, and many other aspects that we have not mentioned. In the West the average wedding lasts about an hour and half. For more detailed information see The Hindu Wedding.
Baby Shower - Simantoyannayanam
The third in the series of pre-natal Samskaras, this is performed between the fourth, sixth and eighth months. In some communities it is performed in the seventh month of pregnancy. This rite is called Simanta which means to “part the hair of a pregnant woman.”. The deity invoked is Raka, the presiding deity of the full moon. By invoking Raka. The child should be beautiful like the full moon. As the mind of the foetus begins to develop, the purpose of this samskara is to protect the fetus, especially its newly developing mind, from all negative influences, and also to stimulate the development of the unborn child's intellect.
Naming the Child - Namakarana Samskara
In this ceremony the child is given a name. This can be performed either on the tenth , eleventh, twelfth, twenty-first, hundred and first day, or full year from the child’s birth. The child should be in good health and not premature while performing the ceremony. Names are given based on the arrangements of the constellation of stars at the time of birth. The child is given a spiritual name as a constant reminder for us about our relation not only with child but with God as well. The name acts as a shield against evil so a good combination of sounds should be there while giving the name. As the sound vibration will follow and identify a person for rest of his life, the name should be chosen very carefully.
First solid food - Anna Prashanna
This is the ceremony were the child is fed cooked food for the first time. The object of this ceremony is to pray to the gods with Vedic Mantras to bless the child with good digestive powers, good thoughts and talents. It is performed when the child is six months old. As the child is fed sweet-rice ( rice pudding), five pranas (life airs) that sustain the body are invoked.
First Hair Cutting - Mundan
After the first grain ceremony, the Mundan or first hair cutting is the next samskara that may be performed. Different families perform this ceremony at different ages. As in all samskaras, family, friends and a Hindu priest get together in the home or in a temple. Vedic Hindu Mantras are recited, a sacred fire (Havan/Homa) is evoked and the priest, with the help of the father or maternal uncle, cuts small locks of hair from four sides of the child’s head. After this ritual cutting, the child’s hair is completely shaved. There is a belief that the first hair from the time of birth is impure and so shaving it off is a purification, but more importantly, the real point of the samskara is that it is a sacrifice. The parents of the child sacrifice the beauty of their child by shaving their child’s head, and in exchange they ask God for long life and prosperity for their child.
Starting School - Vidyarambhana
The next samskara is called Vidyarambhana or beginning education. Vidya is knowledge and arambhana is commencing. This is usually performed around the ages of four or five years. The ceremony generally involves some mantras of sanctification and the worship of Sarasvati Devi, the Goddess of learning. Then, either on a chalk board or “scratched out” in a bed of plain rice, the child’s hand is guided in writing his first letters OM A, B, C... or whatever the local script maybe. Sometimes the name of an important family Deity, such as Krishna or Rama is the first word written by the child.
Thread Ceremony - Upanayana
Upanayana is the equivalent of a Christian Confirmation or Jewish Bar Mitzvah. It is a coming of age ceremony and in Hinduism it is usually performed for adolescent boys. The ceremony is sometimes called a “thread ceremony” because one of its important features is the investiture of a “sacred thread” that is placed over the shoulder of the boy. The thread is used in a certain prayer . The word upanayana comes from the sanskrit root “ni” which means “to lead” and so the upanayana is the “leading or coming closer,” which means the boy is becoming a man and taking on adult responsibilities, and is also coming closer to the spiritual side of life, to the guru, and ultimately to God. The upanayana is the spiritual birth that comes from the father or guru. During the Upanayana ceremony the boy is given the ancient gayatri mantra which includes the investiture of the sacred thread. The mantra is whispered into the ear of the boy while the ladies hold a cloth over the father, guru and boy for privacy. There may be few variations according to family tradition.
Funeral - Antyesthi
The final samskara is the antyesthi or the last rites. In the West, Hindu funerals are performed very differently than in India where there is a whole caste of specialized priests that only deal with funerals. Out of necessity, in the West temple priests perform funeral services in conjunction with the local system for handling the deceased.
Upon the death of an individual, the family will call a funeral home to prepare the body as well as a Hindu priest to perform the last rites. During the funeral, family members and friends come to a funeral home or chapel. Last rites are never performed in a temple. A priest recites mantras, some final rituals are performed that may include a Havan/Homa, and family and friends are given the opportunity to offer their last respects with flower petals. Afterwards the body is taken to a crematorium where the body is committed to the fire. From the time of death and for about two weeks thereafter, the family is in an official state of mourning. They are not supposed to come to a temple or perform puja during this period. Every evening at this time prayers may be recited in the home, and at the end of this period of mourning a special Havan/Homa is performed by a Hindu priest for the release of the soul. Finally a sanctified meal is served to family members and friends.
These are the major samskaras that are still practiced today. The ones that have not been mentioned include the conception ritual (Garbhadhana), a ceremony to create a son (Pum-savana), the birth ceremony (Jata Karman), the first trip out after birth (Nishkramana), piercing of the ears (Karna-vedha), and returning home after graduation (Samavartan).
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