What are Saṁskāras?
Every faith has its rites and rituals to support the divine thought behind and to help us one along the journey of life.
We flutter like “the candle in the wind” during our stay on this earth until we reach the Lord’s abode. Vedic Dharma (Hinduism) has a most beautiful set of 40 SAMSKARAS for our spiritual welfare from the time of conception to the final moment at the end of this life on the earth. These samskaras form the core of a vedic lifestyle.
These are rites performed to help the human being to purify their body and mind in “seen and unseen ways.” The seen aspect is the creation of a shining new object by removing dirt and grime from a tarnished object with detergents. The unseen aspect, according to one teacher is that the Samskaras are like the sanctification of the water by “charging” it with special Veda mantras in the shanti rites (ritual for peace and happiness).
There is a proper age and time in human life to perform these Samskaras. If that is followed, it is believed that the effects (benefits) of the samskaras are the greatest. Out of compassion for us, the vedic scriptures give us “substitute periods (kaalAs)”, if one misses the appropriate time recommended by the Sasthras.
The minimum number of Samskaras to be observed by men and women vary. Also some may refer to the teachers line and follow thier instructions (for example Gaudiya Vaishnavas follow only 10 samskaras). Manu, Gautama, Apasthambha, Yajnavalkya and other vedic saints have written extensively on these samskaras and the proper procedure to perform them to gain maximum seen and unseen benefits. Great Teachers of different lines like the Ahobilam Jeeyars have written extensively and have left great written works.
WHAT IS A SAMSKARA?
According to the Tarka sasthra (science of dialectics, logic and reasoning), the word Samskara is defined as “an impression on the memory”. Steady practise of scriptural injunctions establishes firm tracks in the memory so that the practitioner does not fall from the correct path. According to another definition, Samskara means “betterment” (Sams) of a thing (kaaram). The cleansing process set in motion by the observance of Samskaras leads to the betterment of life and qualifies a person for spiritual upliftment.
SAMSKARA & THE ATMA GUNAS
The practice of Samskaras develop eight auspicious gunas (attributes) that help to remove the samsaric ills caused by the sensory attachments. Since these gunas have an impact on the soul, they are described as Atma Gunas (good qualities of the soul).
A steady practice of the samskaras leading to the acquisition of the Atma gunas helps a person to attain the state of “akhanda atma anubhavam – self realization”, the supreme experience exemplified by the Vedas.
THE EIGHT ATMA GUNAS
The names of the eight atma gunas are worthy of being commented upon:
1. DAYA or universal compassion and love for all living beings
2. KSHANTHI or tolerance of ill-wishers
3. ANUSUYAI or freedom from jealousy or rancor
4. SAUCHAM or body cleanliness
5. ANAYASAM or relaxed state characterized by relaxed mood of the practitioner and his relationship with others
6. MANGALAM or inner happiness radiating as harmonious conduct
7. AKARPANYAM or generosity of spirit and time
8. ASPRUHAM or detached state of mind arising from a dispassionate nature
NISHEKATHI SMASANANTHA SAMSKARAS
The samskaras cover the life span from the time of formation (conception) of the embryo (nishEkam) to the time of cremation in the burning ghat (smasanam). Agni-Fire is an indispensable part of the samskaras that cover the entire span of one’s life. Agni is therefore saluted as a witness to the samskaras. Even cremation is considered as an offering of the ghee-smeared body to Agni as the ultimate offering.
PLACE AND TIME FOR SAMSKAARAAS
Some of the samskaras are not time consuming, whereas the others are elaborate and require continuous performance over many days. Some of the samskaras are done at home, whereas the others need a spacious site as well as extensive time for the collection of the required utensils representing the body of Yajna Varaha Murthy, ingredients (samagris) and helpers (rthviks).
A number of samskaras Aupasana homa, Agnihotra and the Pancha Maha Yajnas have to be performed daily. Two other samskaras: Darsha Purna Masa and Sthalipaka; have to be practiced twice a month. Parvani shraddha has to be conducted once a month. Rest of the samskaras have to be performed once a year or atleast once in one’s life time.
CLASSIFICATIONS OF THE SAMSKARAS
The forty samskaras can be split into the following six categories:
1. a set of seven starting from Garbhadhana to Chudakrama (conception of the baby up to the first haircut)
2. Another set of seven starting from Upanayana to Vivaha (the Gayatri Mantra and Upavitra given ceremony up to Marriage)
3. A group of five Yajnas known as Pancha Maha Yajnas
4. A set of seven Paka Yajnas
5. A group of seven Havir Yajnas
6. Another group of seven Soma Yajnas
In general most of the 40 samskaras are exstinct and only practised by very orthodox people. But everyone can follow the 10 main Samskaras, which are most important to form the consciousness of the marriage and later on the descendant (children) in particular.
The twelfth Major SAMSKARAS
1. Vivàha Karma = Marriage
2. Garbhàdhànam = Impregnation
(sub divisions for predelivery samskaras for the unborn and family)
Pumsavana = Rite for healthy child
Simantonnayanam = Protection for the wife and the unborn
Sosyanti Homa = Rite for safe delivery
3. Jàta Karma = Birth ceremony
4. Niskràmanam = Taking the child outside for the first time
5. Nàma Karana = Name-giving ceremony
6. Paustika Karma = Ceremony for continued health of the child
7. Anna Pràsana = First grains ceremony
Putra Mârdhàbhighrànam = Smelling the child’s head
8. Cudà Karanam = Hair-cutting ceremony
9. Upanayanam = Reformatory rites of a learned person (brahma upadesha)
10. Samàvartana = Graduation ceremony
Additional: Karnavedha = Piercing the ears
Vidyàrambha = Beginning education