Samskaras Origin and Significance

The Constituents of the Samskaras

The S express beliefs, sentiments and knowledge of the ancient Hindus about the nature of human life and universe and their relation with the superhuman powers powers that were supposed to guide or control the destiny of man. The Hindus believed that man requires protection, consecration and refinement. For this they depended on the Gods. But while they sought Gods help, they helped themselves by the knowledge they possess of the natural and supernatural world. So S are a mixture of various factors though they have assumed a religious garb over time.

1. Agni or Fire - The first and most permanent of the S was Agni. It is called the houselord in the Rigveda. It helped during cold weather and became of a constant source of help to the householder. Agni was believed to be the great protector against illness, demons and other hostile spirits. Thus it was recognized as one of the S to ward off evil influences. To the ancient Hindu it was the householder, protector, high priest and mediator, messenger between gods and man. In the first capacity it supervised the ceremonies and in the second it bore offerings to gods. The Hindus regarded Agni as the director of rites and the guardian of morality. Every contract was performed and contracts, bonds executed by Agni. It was the eternal witness around which, during the Upanayana and Vivaha ceremonies, made vows so that the ties may be permanent.
2. Prayers, Appeals and Blessings - The second class of constituents are prayers, appeals and blessings. According to Tylor “prayer is soul’s sincere desire, uttered or unexpressed and is the address of personal spirit to personal spirit”. Gods were prayed to for fulfillment of desires. In more cultural S like Upanayana, the worshipper adds to his pray for prosperity, help towards virtue, against vice, so prayer became an instrument of morality. During the performance of S blessings are also expressed.
3. Sacrifice - It is another important S whose origin belongs to the same period of culture and evolved from the same anthropological belief which gave birth to prayer. Men believed that gods like men, were propitiated by praise and prayer. It was equally natural to them that gods, like men, liked and accepted gifts and presents. With the exception of the funeral ceremony other S were performed on festive occasions. Thus, the recipients of the S or their elders offered presents, made sacrifices as a token of gratitude or in anticipation of future blessings.
4. Lustration - The next class of S constituted of bath, sipping water and lustration, sprinkling of water over persons and things. To the ancient being water seemed living on account of its motion, sound and power. The purifying effects of water and its invigorating influence were revealed to men, as after having a plunge in cool waves he found himself purified and refreshed. Also many springs, lakes had miraculous healing properties, so it was thought that some divinity lived in each one of them. Water was also supposed to have the power of removing evil influences and killing demons. Bath was completely washing off spiritual, physical and moral impurities. The Hindu led a life regularly purified by water from his conception in the womb up to his death and thereafter. (Bathing was one of the steps that preceded the Upanayana, the bride and bridegroom are bathed before the marriage ceremony, and the dead body is washed before it is burnt). Sprinkling of water before an S is common.
5. Orientation – was another element of the S. it was based on the picturesque symbolism of the path of the sun and the myths according to which different traditions were ruled with different deities? In men’s mind the eastern direction was associated with light, warmth, happiness, glory, and the west with darkness, chill, death and decay. According to Indian mythology, south is the direction of Yama, the god of death, so it was regarded as inauspicious. In the entire auspicious S the recipient facing the east indicates his willingness to receive light and life. In all inauspicious S the direction was reversed. During funeral ceremonies the head of the dead was kept towards the south when it was placed on the funeral pyre and soul was its journey to the abode of Yama.
6. Symbolism – plays a great part in our S. It was a material object to convey mental and spiritual significance. Stone was a symbol of fixity and one who mounted it was supposed to be invested with firmness in his or her character. The bride in the marriage ceremonies is supposed to step on the stone suggesting her steadfastness in her devotion to her husband. Sesamum and rice were symbols of prosperity and fertility. Anoinyment was symbolic of love and affection, eating together was a symbol of union, grasping the hand was a symbol of taking full responsibility, looking towards the sun indicated brilliance and luster.
7. Taboos – numerous taboos observed at various points of the S constituted a different category. Taboo means what is prohibited. The ethical conception of man in early times was influenced by magical determination of things injurious. There were many taboos concerned with the conception of life. Early man attached mystery and danger with life, as he could not understand it. It was thought necessary to take precautions against dangers and to give vent to the sense of mystery at various occasions of life. This gave birth to various restrictions that later on crystallized into well-defined taboos about pregnancy, birth, childhood, youth, marriage etc.

There were taboos connected with lucky, unlucky days. There were many such beliefs, the origin of which cannot be traced. Having said that, there were other prohibitions that were based on rational grounds. During natural calamity, death of a person etc the S were postponed.

Taboos concerned with food were numerous. A particular food was prescribed in a particular S because it should be light, free from injurious ingredients and symbolic of the occasion. Sometimes food was prohibited. The underlying idea being that the weakness and impurity of the flesh should be removed before the man could enter into a communion with a deity of the S. 
8.  Divination – played an imp part in the performance of the S. Divination is a science that seeks to discover the will of supernatural powers. Man wanted to know the causes of the present and the past with the story of the future so that he knew which was the best course to follow. It was believed that these things are indicated by appearances and movements of various objects of the world. Natural phenomena indicated the purpose of the superhuman forces, as it was believed that gods could not but so reveal themselves. It was man’s task to discover the laws of phenomenal revelations. The question of rationale did not arise since it was believed that god was friendly, willing to help.

Of all the divinatory methods Astrology played the greatest role in the history of the S. Sacredness of human body also lent divinatory power to several marks on the body. The Linga-purana has exclusively dealt with this subject.
9. Cultural Elements – In addition to the above beliefs, rites the S contained social customs and usage’s about ethics, hygiene, medicine etc. Since S covered the full life of an individual, his physical, mental and spiritual training was combined with them. Marriage settlements were made according to social customs and rules. The life of householder, brahmachari were regulated by the moral laws of that time. Rules of sanitation were observed during the monthly course of a woman, confinement and death in a family.
10. Common-sense Elements – were independent of religious ideas. Invitations were sent to all relatives and friends to attend ceremonies. A new canopy was erected in the marriage ceremonies. Mirth was expressed by decoration of the house with sprouts, leaves, and flowers. In the marriage ceremony both the husband and the wife were dressed and ornamented according to social status. Music was played to echo the general happiness and to entertain the guests.
11. Spiritual Atmosphere – these rules and regulations were social in origin. But in course of time were given a religious shape. The whole sacramental atmosphere was fragrant with spiritual significance. Under this the recipient felt himself exalted, elevated and sanctified.

The sixteen S are Garbhadana (conception), Pumsavana (quickening of a make child), Simantonnayana (hair-parting), Jatakarma (birth ceremonies), Namkarana (name-giving), Niskramana (first outing), Anna-Prasana (first feeding), Chuda Karana (tonsure), Karnavedha (boring the ears), Vidyarambha (learning of alphabets), Upanayana (initiation), Vedarambha (beginning of Vedic study), Kesanta (shaving of beard), Samavartana (end of studentship), Vivaha (marriage), Antyesti (funeral ceremonies).

Receive Site Updates