Samskaras Origin and Significance

The Purpose of Samskaras

It can be divided into the popular and cultural purposes. The former is motived by unquestioned faith and naïve simplicity while the latter is priestly and cultural.

1. The Popular Purpose – Ancient Hindus like others believed that they were surrounded by superhuman influences that were potent enough for good and evil consequences. Therefore, they tried to remove hostile influences and attract beneficial ones so that they may grow and prosper.
a) Removal of Hostile Influences – several means were adopted to remove such influences. The first of them was propitiation. Demons were offered praise, oblations and food so that they may return satisfied without causing injury to the individual. The second was deception for e.g. at the time of tonsure, the severed hair was mixed with cowdung and thrown into a river so that none could play magic upon it. When the first two methods proved inadequate, a third step was taken. Mischievous spirits were plainly asked to go away, threatened and directly attacked. While performing Chaturthikarma (the fourth day after marriage), the husband invites Agni, Vayu, Surya etc to remove injurious elements from the newly married wife. Other devices used were Water. It washed away physical impurities and warded off demons. Noise was made at the time of burial to scare away lurking spirits.
b) Attraction of Favorable Influences – Just as untoward influences are to be warded off, favorable ones are to be attracted for the benefit of the recipient of a particular Samskara. The Hindus believe that every period of life was presided over by a deity. Thus, on every occasion the deity was invoked to confer boons and blessings on the man e.g. at the time of conception, Vishnu was the chief deity. But there was no entire dependence on Gods. Men helped themselves by various means. Touch exercised a magic power e.g. a branch of a fig (udumbara) tree was applied to the neck of the wife, as the touch was believed to bring fertility.
c) The Material Aim of the Samskars – were the gains of cattle, progeny, long life, wealth, strength and intellect. The Samskars were domestic rites and naturally during their performance things essential for domestic felicity were asked from gods. It was a belied that by prayer and appeal, their desires and wishes were communicated to the deities who responded to them appropriately.
d) Samskaras as Self-expression – The householder performed the S to express his own joys, felicitations and even sorrows at the various events of life. Birth of a child, marriage were happy occasions while death was a sad one.

2. The Cultural Purpose – While recognizing the popular purpose, the great writers have attempted to introduce higher religion and sanctity of life into them. Some kind of impurity was attached to the physical side of procreation and lying in the womb. Therefore it was thought necessary to remove the impurity from the body by performing various Samskaras. Social privileges and rights were also connected with the Samskaras. The Upanaya was a passport for admission into the Aryan community and its sacred literature. It was also a special privilege to the twice born and denied to the Sudras. To mark the end of education and for entering into married life one had to perform the Samavatana Samskara.

Another purpose of the S was the attainment of heaven and even liberation or Moksha.  When great sacrifices ceased to be mere propitiation of gods and became a means for securing heaven, the S, which were domestic sacrifices, also rose in their efficacy. Says Harita about the fruits of S “One who is consecrated with the Brahma S attains the status of Rishis, becomes their equal, goes to their world and lives in their close vicinity. One who is consecrated with Daiva S attains the status of Gods. As people regarded heaven as the ultimate goal of life in the ancient times, the S became instrumental in the attainment of that coveted state of existence’. Sankha-Likita remarks “ Purified by the S and always practicing the eight virtues of the soul, one gets, merits and heaven, he goes to the world of Brahman and reaches the state if Brahmanhood from where he never falls”.

3. The Moral Purpose – In the course of time a moralizing feature emerged from the material body of the S. Gaurama gives eight good qualities of the soul ie mercy, forbearance, freedom from envy, purity, calmness, right behavior and freedom from greed, covetousness. The S were never regarded as ends in themselves. They were expected to grow and ripen into human values. For every stage of life rules of conduct were prescribed in the S. Superstition there was but an ethical attempt for the moral upliftment on individual is visible.

4. The Formation and Development of Personality – the cultural purpose that evolved from the ancient rites and ceremonies of the Hindus was the formation and development of personality. Angira giving the analogy of a painting says, “Just as a picture is painted with various colors, so the character of an individual is formed by undergoing various S properly”. The Hindu sages realized the necessity of consciously molding the character of individuals instead of letting them grow in a haphazard manner.

The S cover the full span of life, and they even try to influence and impress the individual after his death through the cult of soul. They were arranged in such a way that they produce suitable impressions from the beginning of one’s life. The S were a guide that directed the life of an individual according to his growth. So a Hindu was required to live a full life of discipline with his energies channeled into a well-guarded and purposive channel.

The Garbhadhana S was performed at a proper time when the couple was physically fit, in a healthy condition when they knew each other’s heart and had an intense desire to have a child. A congenial atmosphere was created by recital of hyms. Throughout her pregnancy she was protected from evil influences and her conduct was regulated to influence the growing child in the womb. At the time of birth Ayusa (for long life) and Prajnajanana (for talent) ceremonies were performed so that the newborn was blessed to become strong with the right intellect. After the tonsure ceremony, when the child grew into a boy his duties were prescribed and his responsibilities explained to him without encumbering his mind and body with book knowledge and school discipline, bag. The Upanayana and other educational S formed the great cultural furnace where the emotions, desires and will of the boy were melted, shaped so that he may live an austere but rich, cultured life. The Samavartana was an entrance and probation for the life of a married householder. The various sacrifices and vows prescribed for a householder were introduced to remove selfishness from the relationship and make one realize that he was part and parcel of the community.

The death of man was made easy by previous arrangement and his soul was given solace and help in its journey to the other side of life. S are a matter of faith but none, may be considered to be unscientific or deny the cultural motive underlying the S.

By making S compulsory, the Hindu sociologists aimed at evolving a type of humanity uniform in culture and character having the same ideal in life. We Hindus have a certain culture, all those who invaded this country and tried to destroy our culture have failed but have got assimilated or influenced by Indian culture. We can thus say that the Rishis of yesterday years were successful in using S as a tool to unite Bharatvarta in a cultural sense.

5. Spiritual Significance – Spiritualism is a chief feature of Hinduism and every phase of Hindu religion is mixed with it. This spiritual outlook of the Hindus transformed the S into a spiritual Sadhana. The spiritual experience is of those who have received the sacraments. To Hindus the S are “an outward visible sign of an inward spiritual grace”. He looks beyond the ceremonial performance and feels something invisible which sanctified his whole personality. So for us Hindus S are a living experience and not a dead formalism.

The S served as a mean between the ascetic and materialistic conception of the body. The ascetics try to worship the spirit while discarding the body while the upholders of the second view do not go beyond the body ignoring the spiritual aspects of life, were therefore denied the peace and joy that are contained in the spirit. It was the job of the S to make the body a holy thing so that it might become an instrument of spiritual intelligence.

The S were a gradual training in spiritualism. Through them the common man realized that all life if properly understood is sacrament and every physical action should be connected to spiritual reality. It was a way in which active life could be lived side by side with spiritual realization. Thus, by duly celebrating ceremonies and rites, Hindus believed that they escaped physical bondage and crossed the ocean of death.

6. Different Stages – Such was the purpose of the Hindu S. In their creative period they were true to life, flexible and a living institution, not rigid as we perceive them today. They were adapted to different areas and times. Every family performed the ceremonies in their own way. Then set in the intellectual classification of the S when they were codified. At this time the creative period was drawing to a close and an attempt was made to settle things finally. Minute details were recorded and no departure from them was desired. The Hindu mind was not closed as yet.

Then came a third period in the religious life of Hindus. Their energies were exhausted in preserving themselves so they could not create anything new and their only business was to collect and preserve. Suffering from an onslaught even a slight variation from the fixed course was a sin. To make matters worse the language of the procedure and the Mantras became unintelligible in the course of time. This was the time when the true spirit of the S departed and left behind blind followers. The S became rigid and ceased to change with the times. In modern times various religious movements have tried to simplify and unify the S.

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