16 Sanskaras in Hinduism and Their Relevance from the Past to the Present
In Hinduism, rituals or sanskaras are milestones in a person’s life and hold sacred importance. It is believed that sanskaras purify the soul and cleanse sins not only from the mortal body but also from the immortal soul. Literally, Sanskara means culture, making perfect or refining in Sanskrit.
The sanskaras, as preached through Vedas, inculcate in a person, the karmas of life. They subconsciously leave impressions in people's minds which build their characteristic behaviour and perception of the world. This insight brings them stability, calmness, and inner peace. As one fails to decide which way to proceed in life, he relies on the samskaras or sanskara to provide guidance.
The Vedic scriptures identify 40 sanskaras. The 16 major sanskaras, known as the “shodasha sanskaras” are the most pious ones. In Hinduism, every aspect of life is sacred, and before the auspicious beginning of any activity, there is a celebration. This celebration of the rites of passage of a man to different levels or stages of life, from conception to cremation, form the sanskaras.
A) PRE- NATAL SANSKARAS
1.Garbhadhana: Ceremony of conception
As the name suggests, ‘garbadhana’ is the bestowing of wealth into the garbha (the mother’s womb). In other words, Garbhadhana means “gifting the womb”. This sanskara is performed after the couple is united in holy matrimony. It is the first known rite of a human and begins before conception.
Earlier, the main principle of marriage was to forward the lineage. Therefore, it was considered important for a newly married couple to cleanse their mind and soul of any negative thoughts, resulting in problems during the conception of a child. This sanskara aims at bringing harmony between the newlyweds who resolve to treat each other with respect and love.
2.Pumsavana: Secure the birth of the child
Pumsavana is a ritual conducted in or after the third month of pregnancy and usually before the foetus starts moving inside the womb. The ceremony celebrates the rite of passage of the developing foetus.
Logically, when the pregnancy begins to show at the beginning of the trimester, the mother and the child must be given food and essential herbs. This helps in the proper development of the foetus and reduces the risks associated with child birth.
3.Seemantonnayana/ Simantonnayana: Parting the hair
Simantonnayana is usually performed in the fifth or seventh month of pregnancy, where the husband ‘parts the hair’ of his wife. This ceremony is performed for the health and long life of the mother and the child in the womb. This sanskara is similar to modern baby showers where the relatives of the couple gift sweets, savouries, and items that the child might need after its birth.
B) CHILDHOOD SANSKARAS
4.Jatakarma: Natal rites
This samskara identifies the bonding between the father and the baby after its birth. According to the scriptures, the father performs this Sanskara before cutting off the umbilical cord of the newborn child from that of the mother. Following the traditional Jatakarma ritual, the father welcomes the baby by touching the baby’s lips with honey and ghee.
5.Namakarana: Ceremony for naming the child
The ancient Vedic ceremony of naming a child is usually done on the eleventh or twelfth day after birth. On this day, the parents announce the formal name of the child, which is decided as per traditional ways of naming. The Namakarana ceremony takes place in the presence of family members and relatives to give an identity to the newborn.
6.Nishkramana: First outing for showing the sun
The literal meaning of nishkramana is “going out, coming forth.” In the fourth month after the baby’s birth, parents take the baby out of the home, generally to a nearby temple. The baby formally meets the world for the first time. Impressions in the child’s mind are formed based on what it sees and hears in this world. This ritual marks the beginning of the baby’s mental growth.
7.Annaprasana: First feeding with boiled rice in 6 months
Annaprasana ceremony is performed in the sixth month or when there is visible growth of the first teeth. It marks the first time a baby eats solid food, typically containing cooked rice. Until now, the baby was nourished only through breast milk. This ceremony is done to bring good health, radiance, and physical strength to the child.
8.Chudakarana: Arrangement of the hair tuft
Also known as mundan sanskara, it marks the child’s first haircut. This sanskara represents a new phase of life where the baby’s hair is cut, and the nails are trimmed, symbolising- cleansing, renewal, and new growth.
Scientifically, the hair on the head gives us protection from different harmful elements in the environment apart from enhancing our appearance. The new hair that grows is strong and clean, explaining the purpose of this sanskara.
9.Karnavedha: Piercing the earlobes
Karnavedh translates to ear-piercing. This sanskara also has a scientific explanation. Ear lobes have an important acupressure point. Through intensive research, many neurologists have shown the link between earlobes and the hemispheres of the brain.
Piercing ears, therefore, helps in developing intelligence and enhancing immunity against respiratory infections and also from diseases such as hydrocoele and hernia.
C) EDUCATIONAL SANSKARAS
10.Vidyarambha: Learning the Alphabet
Usually performed at the age of five, it is a ritual that celebrates the child’s formal venture to learn the means of knowledge. In the Vedic tradition, Saraswati is the goddess of learning and knowledge. In the Vidyarambha ceremony, she is worshipped to seek blessings for the child. According to guru shishya parampara, the student would learn the Vedas living with the guru as part of his family, living a disciplined life with a steadfast focus on acquiring knowledge and gaining wisdom.
11.Upanayana: Holy thread ceremony
It is regarded as the supreme sanskara as it recognises the importance of the intellectual and mental development of a child. "Upa" means ‘close’ and "Nayana" means ‘to bring’. Hence Upanayana literally means to bring closer to the guru or Divine. Incidentally, Upanayana was performed for girls also but was discontinued a few centuries ago due to social norms.
12.Praishartha: First study of the Vedas
Vedārambha means ‘beginning of learning Vedas’. While Upanayana marked the beginning of education, Vedarambha refers to the initiation of the Vedic study. In this sanskara, each student, according to his lineage, masters a of the Vedas.