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Sanskaras in Hindu Religion

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Samskaras are an important element in the belief and practice of the Hindu religion. The word samskar is evolved from the root 'samskri' which means to purify or form thoroughly. Samskriti - meaning "civilization" and Sanskrit are derived from the root 'samskri'. Samskrit was considered the most refined and grammatically perfect language compared to other regional languages in ancient times. The best rendering of samskara in English is made by the word "sacrament," meaning "religious ceremony or act regarded as an outward and visible sign of inward and spiritual grace." Sacrament also means "confirmation of some promise or oath; things of mysterious significance, sacred influence and symbol."

For the Hindu, life is a sacred journey; impurity is inherently attached to the pre-natal stage of birth. Samskaras are analogous to stepping-stones guiding the path to purification. In the completion of each samskara an individual becomes closer to susamskrit - meaning refined or civilized. Samskaras exist to, among others, mark major biological and emotional stages, each consecrated through sacred ceremony. Samskaras also empower spiritual life within the individual, preserve religious culture and establish conscious adherence to the devotional duties prescribed by the gods. Samskaras are thought to operate in two ways: they remove evil, and generate fresh desirable qualities. To quote Max Muller, the emphasis placed upon these ceremonies by the ancients disclose "the deep-rooted tendency in the heart of man to bring the chief events of human life into contact with a higher power, and to give to our joys and sufferings a deeper significance and a religious sanctification. Following the path of the samskaras leads to living a life in accordance with the principles of dharma. The general idea of the samskaras is that their practice surrenders the human soul to the service of god.

Atri writes, "By birth every one is a shudra, by samskars he becomes a Dvija (twice-born). By learning, he becomes a Vipra and by realizing Brahman, he attains the status of a Brahmana."

Symbolism has a significant role in the performance of samskaras, as it does in the entirety of the Hindu religion. Both materialistic and action based symbols are abundantly obvious in each samskara, and too numerous to mention. Examples include the use of Audumbar branches, or fig branches, which stand for prosperity. The vatu (student) at upanayana and the bride at a wedding instructed to stand on a rock signifying stability and firmness. Touching of the heart in upanayana between teacher and student and in marriage between bride and groom, indicates residence of God and virtues of love and harmony. Mass of rice indicates abundance and prosperity. Eating together means fusion of hearts, grasping the hand (panigrahana) indicates assumption of responsibilities.

The standard sixteen samskars laid down by Hindu religious texts are:

1. Garbhadana (Conception)

2. Pumsavana (Ensuring birth of a male child)

3. Simantonnayana (Hair-parting)

4. Jatakarman (Ceremony on birth)

5. Namakarana (Naming ceremony)

6. Niskramana (Taking the child out)

7. Annaprashana (First solid food-feeding)

8. Chudakarana (Tonsure; removing impure hair)

9. Karnavedha (ear piercing ceremony)

10. Vidyarambha (Teaching alphabets)

11. Upanayana (Munji, initiation)

12. Vedarambha (Higher studies)

13. Kesanta (First shaving of the beard)

14. Samavartana (Completion of studies)

15. Vivaha (Marriage)

16. Antyeshti (Last or funeral rites)

The Garbhadana, or the conception ceremony, is the point at which a mother will ask the deity's for the ability to conceive a "good" son. Procreation, more appropriately the birth of a son, is believed to repay a Hindu's debt to their ancestors, which exists to encourage continuance of the family lineage.

The Pumsavana is performed during the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th month of pregnancy wishing for a son to be born. Pumsavana literally means, "the quickening of a male child." Performed on a day of male Nakshatra, the woman inhales drops of Banyan stem juice in her right nostril while reciting prayers for the birth of a son or worthy child. A sacred thread is tied to the woman's left wrist, a symbol of protection. The pregnant mother commits to a lifestyle of concern for her body and health. She must refrain from activity, which could harm the fetus; she vows not to abort the fetus, and promises to adhere to a strict diet as outlined in the scriptures. She is also encouraged to maintain a happy and joyous disposition and avoid succumbing to anger and greed.

Simantonnayana, the 'parting of the hair' rite of the woman during pregnancy, is performed during the period between the fifth and the eighth months of pregnancy. The pregnant woman calls upon the deity Rika, of the full moon, to influence a fruitful pregnancy, and the birth of a beautiful child of sharp and penetrating wit. The incorporation of a porcupine's quill is representative of sharp and penetrating wit, and the use of an ear of ripe paddy and some Udumbara leaves signifies hopes of a fruitful pregnancy. At the close of the ceremony the pregnant woman touches a male calf, symbolizing a son.

Jatakarma, the birth rite is performed at the time of the child's delivery. During this samskara the deities are called upon for the blessings of the unborn child, including the protection of both the fetus and the mother during the birthing. It is said that at the moment the father looks at the face of the newborn he redeems his debt to his ancestors. Immediately the father bathes in cold water, and is encouraged to perform dharma (good deeds). The infant receives, on his tongue, a drop of honey from a gold ring. This is believed to endow the child with Medha (intelligence). A name for the child, is whispered into its right ear accompanied by a prayer asking he or she be sparred in immature death. In addition to a long life the father also prays that the child be endowed with strength, valor and fame.

Namakarana, the naming of the child ceremony is performed on



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