Samskaras Origin and Significance


1. Life a Mystery and an art – Life has been a great mystery to man. Its origin, growth, decadence and disappearance have always exercised his thoughts and emotions. The Hindu S were an attempt to fathom and facilitate the flow of this mystery. Through a process of trial and error ancient Hindus realized that life was art, needed care, protection and cultivation like plants in a garden. The S were a conscious effort to meet this need.

2. Life a Cycle – As in life so in rituals life was regarded as a cycle. From birth to death it is a continuos series of incidents from desire to live, to enjoy, to think and ultimately to retire. The entire S and their ceremonies emanate from the center of life and are concurrent with its circumference. The Grhyasutras start the with the Marriage ceremony because marriage was supposed to be the center of life which supports and sustains all activities. The Smritis, however, begin with the conception of child in a womb of its mother, as life originates there and ends with the Funeral ceremonies. So the S cover lives from the time we are born to our last day and immediately thereafter.

3. Dogma a Conscious Development – In the beginning the S were spontaneous but not automatic. There was no dogma or code. As the S developed and were amplified according to the social sentiments and needs, a conscious attempt was made at the codification of the S. While this provided stability to the S, it hindered its spontaneous growth, which resulted in decay and rigidity.

4. The Procedure of the S – The forms and procedure of the S were suggested by observation and reasoning. They originated in social need and were in the course of time assumed a religious garb. Symbols and taboos played an important role in their development.

5. The Place of S in Hinduism – In the early civilization life was much simpler and not compartmentalized as it is today. Social institutions, beliefs, arts and sciences were closely interwoven. S covered all fields of life with religion being an all-embracing factor and rituals were given the sanctity and stability to all possible incidents in life. The aim of the S was to create conditions for the development of an integrated personality of an individual, who can adjust himself with the world around him believed to be full of human and superhuman forces.

As life became more complex, the Hindus recognized three definite paths of life

1) Karma Yoga or path of action.

2) Upasana-marga or the path of meditation and worship.

3) Jnana-marga or the path of knowledge.

Though the S were comprehensive in their scope originally, they later on came to be included in the Path of Action. The first path was a stepping stone to second and third ones, meant for purification of the mind. Thus the S were not of highest importance but were of primary importance and essential for every individual.

Although some Upanishadic thinkers derided the S, the classical Hindu mind, being synthetic and taking a balanced view of life, was able to reconcile the ritualism with the philosophy, side by side the highest metaphysical questions were discussed. The Buddhists and Jains criticized S too but later on developed their own rituals.

The development of Puranic Hinduism synchronized with the decline of the Vedic religion, which means that the gravity of the S shifted from the home to the places of pilgrimage and temples. While the bigger S fell into disuse others like Tonsure and Upanayana came to be performed at the temple instead of at home.

Achievement of the S – The S helped in the refinement and purification of human life, facilitated the development of personality, imparted sanction and importance to human body, blessed all material and spiritual aspirations of man and ultimately prepared for an easy and happy exit from this world. They also helped in the resolution of many social problems. E.g. the Garbhadhana or conception and other pre-natal ceremonies were connected with sex hygiene and eugenics. When the latter had not developed into full sciences, the S were the only educative agencies in these matters. So also Vidyarambha or learning of alphabets, Upanayana or initiation into learning and Samavartana or returning home from teachers are of educational importance. In those days there were no schools so S served that purpose. Every child had to compulsorily undergo a course in education involving learning and discipline. This maintained the intellectual and cultural level of ancient Hindus. The Vivaha or marriage S regulated a number of sexual or social problems by laying down definite rules. No doubt these rules tended to make society static but they added to the stability and happiness of social groups and family life. The last S, funeral combined the duties of the householder towards the dead and the living.

The critical, conservative followed the Decline of the S – The creative stage of the S and imitative ones where the S were codified, commented upon and compiled. In this process they lost their elasticity, became static and did not change with the times. The new cults of Buddhism and Jainism diverted the attention of people from ritualism to devotional practices of worship. Also the S were recited in Sanskrit which had ceased to be a spoken language. The priests had never cared to educate the ordinary man about Sanskrit or change the language of the S, as they were anxious to preserve the mystic and obscure nature of the religious ceremonies.

Another reason for their decline was the development of society and specialization of human activities. Originally the S combined religious beliefs, social customs and laws, educational schemes, rules wrt health and hygiene. In course of time each aspect of human life developed independently. So S lost most of their importance, only its religious sanctity survived, were reduced to pure ceremonies.

The advent of Islam eclipsed Hindu culture and in most parts of the country there was no freedom to perform religious rites. Later on with the advent of the British they attacked Hinduism differently. By setting up missionary schools they have prevented a majority of Indians from knowing their culture. Most of us have grown up as Indian Born Confused Desis. We study Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice rather than Kalidasa’s classics. This has made the convent educated hostile towards the traditional life of this country, sceptic towards spiritual values of life and devoid of any religious discipline.

The S were revived by the Arya Samaj and other Sanatan Dharam movements but for them to survive they will need to change with the times, become more user friendly. A good friend’s sister got married to an American recently. The complete Vivaha ceremony was translated from Sanskrit to English simultaneously and read out to the audience. The mantras say so much and so beautifully. The moot point is how many of us make the effort to understand the mantras, we are keen to get done with the marriage ceremony as soon as possible and get into action thereafter!

Apologize for any errors, am willing to stand corrected.

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