Samskaras Origin and Significance

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An Uncle of mine told me that I was wasting my time on S when I did not even know what they stood for. That’s what goaded me into discovering the truth. The essay gives the Purpose, constituents, origin and significance of each S but does not tell you about the actual ceremony itself. I believe that rituals if done in good faith without superstition or expectation of something in return generate positive vibrations. The essay is based on inputs from a book Hindu Samskaras, Socio-Religious Study of Hindu Sacraments by Rajbali Pandey and notes of Dr Somdev Shastri.

What are Samskaras? The word S is derived from the Sanskrit root Samskrghan and is used in a variety of ways. Seldom found in early Vedic literature, its allied word Samskrita occurs frequently. The Satapatha Brahmana uses the term in the sense of preparing or purifying havis (offering for gods). Its counterpart word in English is sacrament which means “religious ceremony or are regarded as outward and visible sign of inward, spiritual grace” and relates to the seven rites of baptism, confirmation, the Eucharist, penance, extreme unction, orders and matrimony. S means “religious purificatory rites and ceremonies for sanctifying the body, mind and intellect of an individual, so that he may become a full-fledged member of the community”. Swami Dayanand Saraswati explained Sanskar as “ By which mind, body and soul becomes pure, simple and desire less of harming anyone in thought even. S are rules and medicine for human beings to enjoy his or her life fruitfully. He or she must follow them and it becomes pious duty of learned persons to observe them”. We must keep in mind the age and circumstances when these S were written and learn to keep superstition away from us.

I have taken sixteen of the most popular S. The number of S varies with different schools. According to Swami Dayanand Saraswati, the number of S are 16, in the Ashvalayan Grihasutra there are 13, in the Paraskar Grihasutra there are 14, in the Manu Smriti there are 14 S.

Sources of the S

The Vedas are universally recognized as the primary source of Hindu Dharma. The oldest book, the Rig-Veda contains hymns used by the priests in the sacrifices to high gods, is not ritualistic but gives us a glimpse of popular religion at various places. The wedding, funeral and conception are narrated in them. There are hyms that are not of any particular S but whose connection with the popular ceremonies cannot be denied altogether. The Grhyasutras has many references to the Vedic Mantras. The Rig-Veda does not contain the details and regulations of the S.

The Samaveda is mainly interested for its musical tune and has nothing to contribute to S. The Yajurveda represents an advanced stage in the progress of rituals. But the Yajurveda is concerned with Srauta sacrifices only and not the S. The Atharveda is rich in information about popular religion, rites and ceremonies. Here we get mantras for almost every end of human life. The wedding and funeral hyms are elaborated upon here. It reflects the faith and rites of the common people rather than the specialized religion of the priests.

Our next source, the Brahmanas are thorough treatise on Vedic rituals but give rules for Srauta sacrifices only with sporadic references to the S.

Comes next, the Aranyakas and the Upanishads are mainly concerned with philosophical subjects and do not relate to rituals although they have found mention there. From the Taittiriya Aranyaka we learn that marriages in general were late. The sixth chapter called Pare gives the mantras for the burning of the dead. The Upanishads has many references to the Upanayana S. By this period (1500 to 600 BC ) the system of four Ashramas described below had been established. Admission of a student to the guru is described in the Chandogya Upanishad. In the Brhadaranyaka Upanishad the sacred Gayatri Mantra is explained. 

The first systematic treatment of the Vedic sacrifices and domestic rites is found in the Sutra literature. It is in the Grhyasutras that we find directions for all sorts of usage’s, ceremonies, rites, and customs. They give every detail of the S and lay down mantras to be recited at different stages of a S. The Grhyasutras belong to different Vedic schools, so in matter of details, they differ from one another to an extent. There are other branches of the same literature like the Kalpas, Parisistas, Prayogas.

The Dharmasutras are closely connected with the Grhyasutras and were perhaps written in continuation with them. Dharma means right duty, law and also religious custom, usage. So these two documents at times overlap each other. The former is more concerned with the conduct of men and does not describe rituals of any kind.

The Smritis represent a later and more systematic development of the Dharmasutras. They are more concerned with social conduct than rituals, can be classified under three heads namely Achara, Vyavahara and Prayaschitta. The first head has the rules on S. They also give us a mass of information about prayers, sacrifices, household duties, funeral ceremonies etc. The second Smriti deals with Law. The main features of the Smritis are that they mark a transition from Vedic to Smarta and Pauranic Hinduism. They omit all the Vedic sacrifices and introduce new types of worship and ceremonies. Greater restrictions are placed, e.g. total rejection of inter-caste marriages. The Epics and the Puranas give us lots of information about ceremonies, customs and throw light on the various S. The Commentaries on the existing Grhyasutras, Dharmasutras and Smritis give more information about the S. They explain but supplement and restrict also. They reflect a new state of society where many provisions of the Dharmasutras were outdated and new ones were needed.

There were new interpretations. The commentators were more important than the texts as the Hindus of different provinces followed a particular commentary. The Mediaeval Treatises or Nibandhas gave a new orientation to the S. They do not owe allegiance to any Vedic school but are rather scholarly works universal in their nature and treatment. The S is treated under different sections called Samskara-Kanda.