A samskara is a rite of passage, and virtually every world culture has such ceremonies. Rites of passage are ceremonies that mark important events in the life of an individual. A Baptism, a wedding, a Bar Mitzvah, a Confirmation, and a funeral are all examples of rites of passage. Such important events generally include pre birth ceremonies, birth ceremonies, life ceremonies, death ceremonies and even after life ceremonies. In Sanskrit the word samskara literally means, “making perfect” or “refining,” and so a samskara is a ceremony of refinement, which is to say, refining or raising an individual beyond his or her mere physical existence and marking a higher spiritual existence. Samskaras bind an individual into his or her social group.
In Hinduism, as with most religious cultures, samskaras are sacred ceremonies performed with the help of a priest and in the presence of family and friends. Traditionally there are twelve samskara, but some later traditions raise this number to sixteen. In practice, however, there are only about eight samskaras that are regularly performed. This number varies from family to family and from region to region. The most common ceremonies are a pre-birth ceremony (Simantoyannayanam), the name giving ceremony (Nama Karana), a first grains ceremony (Anna Prashanna), the first hair cutting (Mundan), starting school (Vidyarambhana), the thread giving ceremony (Upanayana), marriage (Vivaha) and the funeral (Antyesthi). As I briefly describe these ceremonies, be aware that there is a lot regional variation, and how a ceremony may be preformed in one community may vary a lot from how it is performed in another community.
Baby Shower (Simantoyannayanam)
Simantoyannayanam is a ceremony performed either in the fourth, sixth or eighth month of a woman’s pregnancy. It is done for the protection and health of the mother and the unborn child. Today we might compare this ceremony to a baby shower. Literary, it means “parting of the hair.” A priest is invited, mantras are chanted, and a fire ceremony (havan) is performed as the husband parts the hair of his wife and places vermilion in the parting of her hair. Family members and friends come bearing gifts for the mother and the coming new born. After the ceremony a meal is served.
The Name Giving (Nama Karana)
Nama Karana is the name giving ceremony performed after the birth of a child. Traditionally the name is not supposed to be given until the 11th day after the birth, but because Western hospitals demand a name on a birth certificate within hours of a birth, a name has to be given without the actual ceremony. In many cases immediately after a birth a family member will contact an astrologer or priest so that a horoscope can be prepared and a name determined according to the deals of the astrological chart. In this way a name is determined and legally given, but the religious samskara is not performed until much later.
First Solid Food (Anna Prashanna)
The next ceremony is the anna prashanam or the ceremony of “feeding the grains.” This is the child’s first solid food generally performed in sixth month. A child is brought to a temple, or a a priest is invited to the family’s home, and along with mantras and a sacred fire, food (usually a sweet rice preparation) is offered to God through the fire and “made” into prasada. The prasada is then fed to the child. In other words, the child’s first solid food is prasada, spiritual food.
First Hair Cutting (Mundan)
After the first grain’s ceremony, the Mundan or first hair cutting is the next samskara that may be performed. Different families perform this ceremony at different ages, but the ideal time is when the soft spot in the skull of the child vanishes, usually around 14 months. As in all samskaras, family, friends and a priest get together in the home or in a temple. Mantras are recited, a sacred fire is evoked and the priest with the help of the father or maternal uncle cut small locks of hair from four sides of the child’s head. After this ritual cutting, the child is taken to a barber that comes just for this occasion and the child’s hair is completely shaved. There is a belief that the first hair from the time of birth is impure and so shaving it off is a purification, but more importantly, the real point of the samskara is that it is a sacrifice. The parents of the child sacrifice the beauty of their child by shaving their child’s head, and in exchange they ask God for long life and prosperity for their child.
Starting School (Vidyarambhana)
The next samskara is called Vidyarambhana or beginning education. Vidya is knowledge and arambhana is commencing. This is usually performed around the ages of four or five years. The ceremony generally involves some mantras of sanctification and the worship of Sarasvati Devi, the Goddess of learning. Then, either on a chalk board or “scratched out” in a bed of plain rice, the child’s hand is guided in writing his first letters A, B, C... or whatever the local script maybe. Sometimes the name of an important family Deity, such as Rama is the first word written by the child.
Thread Ceremony (Upanayana)
The next samskara is called Upanayana. This is the equivalent of a Christian Confirmation or Jewish Bar Mitzvah. It is a coming of age ceremony and in Hinduism it is usually performed for adolescence boys. Today the ceremony is generally performed only within the traditional brahmin families. This is unfortunate because it is an important ceremony and virtually all boys could benefit from such a ritual. Traditionally the ceremony was performed by the three upper varnas and not just brahmins. The ceremony is sometimes called a “thread ceremony” because one of its important features is the investiture of a “sacred thread” that is placed over the shoulder of the boy. The thread is used in certain prayer rituals (called sandhya vandana) that are performed on a daily basis after the ceremony. The word upanayana comes from the sanskrit root “ni” which means “to lead” and so the upanayana is the “leading or coming closer,” which means the boy is becoming a man and taking on adult responsibilities and is also coming closer to the spiritual side of life to guru and ultimately to God. After the ceremony the boy is considered a dvija or twice born. He has completed his second birth. One’s physical birth from mother is the first birth. The upanayana is the spiritual or second birth that comes from father or guru. During the Upanayana ceremony the boy has his head shaved, is given a sacred bath, takes vows of study and celibacy and is given the ancient gayatri mantra which includes the investiture of the sacred thread. The mantra is whispered into the hear of the boy while ladies hold a cloth over the father, guru and boy for privacy. For more information see The Sacred Thread Ceremony.
Moving along in a chronological way the next import samskara is marriage. This is called Vivaha. As in virtually all cultures the marriage ceremony involves a bride and groom coming together in the presence of family and friends and then taking an oath of dedication to each other. In Sanskrit the word vivaha comes from the root vah which means to carry. The oath of dedication that the bride and groom take to each other is a contract that “carries” them along for the remainder of their lives. Most Hindu weddings involve an exchange of garlands between the bride and groom (jaya mala), a bestowal of the bride by her father to the groom (kanya dhanam), the lighting of a sacred fire (havan), circumambulation of the fire (parikramanam), and the taking of seven vows (sapta padi). In general southern marriages have the addition of a sacred necklace given to the bride by the groom (mangala sutra), and northern weddings have the addition of a sacred mark of vermilion applied by the groom to the bride in the parting of her hair (sindhura). There are, of course, huge variations between weddings, and many other aspects that we have not mentioned, especially in India where a ceremony can last many hours. In the West the average wedding lasts about an hour. For more detailed information see The Hindu Wedding.
The final samskara is the antyesthi or the last rites. In the West, Hindu funerals are performed very differently than in India where there is a whole caste of specialized priests that only deal with death. Out of necessity, in the West temple priests perform funeral services in conjunction with the local system for handling the dead. In orthodox culture it is considered impure for temple priests to deal with death.
Upon the death of an individual the family will call a funeral home to prepare the body as well as a priest to perform the last rites. In India a funeral is generally performed before the sun goes down on the day of passing, but in the West the funeral may not be performed for many days while permits are obtained and family members are given time to assemble. During the funeral family members and friends come to a funeral home or chapel. Last rites are never performed in a temple. A priest recites mantras, some final rituals are performed that may include a havan, eulogies are said and family and friends are given the opportunity to offer their last respects with flower petals. Afterwards the body is taken to a crematorium where the body is committed to the fire. From the time of death and for about two weeks the family is in an official state of morning. They are not supposed to come to a temple or perform puja during this period. Every evening at this time prayers may be recited in the home and at the end of this period of mourning a special havan is performed by a priest for the release of the soul. Finally a meal is served to family members and friends and gifts are given to the priest(s). Weeks or months later the ashes may be taken to India to be disposed into a sacred river or, locally if it is possible, ashes may be put into the ocean. The funeral process can be an elaborate affair and one that varies greatly from community to community. For detailed information see Hindu Funeral Rites and Ancestor Worship.
These are the major samskaras that are still practiced today. The ones that have have not been mentioned include the conception ritual (Garbhadhana), a ceremony to create a son (Pum-savana), the birth ceremony (Jata Karman), the first trip out after birth (Nishkramana), returning home after graduation, and even a first saris tying ceremony for girls entering puberty.