The word saṃskāra is derived from the root verb kṛ, which means, “to do.” The prefix “sam” is generally used to denote something auspicious or good. The word “saṃskāra” therefore refers to ritually prescribed actions that help bring about purification and refinement in the life of a human being. It is said that the human birth is difficult to achieve. Unlike animals, which are programmed, and follow the laws of prakṛti, nature, the human being is totally self-conscious and gifted with free will. Wherever there is free will, there is freedom to desire, to pursue various ends. These common human ends, known as puruṣārtha, have been generally classified by the scriptures as dharma (harmonious living), artha (security), kāma, (aesthetic pleasure), and mokṣa (freedom from being a wanting person).
Regardless, of what a person seeks, the real pursuit of the human being is mokṣa, the freedom from a sense of lack centered on oneself. If one pursues artha or kāma, the pursuit is endless, because the objects of desire are finite and can never provide the security that one seeks. Consequently, one infinitely remains a wanting person, a seeker. The only way to gain freedom from seeking altogether is to understand that one is already secure, and therefore free of being wanting. To assimilate the knowledge that the seeker is the sought is the purpose of human birth. To understand that mokṣa alone is the real human end requires emotional growth and maturity. At the very least, it requires the ability to discern what one really wants, and to drop pursuits that are not in keeping with what one really seeks.
From birth to death, every jīva, without any effort whatsoever, undergoes a life cycle consisting of ṣadvikāra, six stages of modification. These modifications are the laws of nature, prakṛti. Sage Yāska’s Nirukta, a classic work on the etymological derivation of words, lists the modifications in the following order: Jāyate, is born, asti, survives birth, vardhate, grows up, vipariṇamate, blossoms, apakṣīyate, declines, and vinaśyati, is destroyed. This life cycle is common to animals and humans. For the human being, the physical growth from being a child to an adult is not enough. Since one has free will, one is not satisfied with physical growth. The process of growing into a mature person is a choice that one has to learn to exercise.
In the vision of the Veda, all aspects of one’s life are considered to be sacred. The body itself is seen as a temple, and therefore, all acts connected to the body, such as bathing or eating, are acts of worship. The saṃskāras help one understand the sanctity of one’s life, and grow to appreciate the physiological order that governs the body as a manifestation of Īśvara. The saṃskāras promote the process of purification and growth in a person in two ways: (a) Guṇādhāna, by helping to create an inner disposition conducive to cultivating virtues such as cheerfulness, compassion, and accommodation; and (b) and doṣāpanayana, removing inappropriate tendencies, such as laziness or procrastination, that act as barriers to achieving emotional maturity. Additionally, the saṃskāras serve simultaneously as markers of one’s physical growth and as rites of passage. They protect the individual from harmful influences at vulnerable times, called sandhi, especially at significant junctures of growth. Such times are fraught with uncertainty, since one does not have control over all the variables; the saṃskāras become avenues of prayer for seeking the blessings of Īśvara for protection from harmful influences. Furthermore, the saṃskāras facilitate the psychological growth of the individual by according public validation of important milestones in one’s life by the family and community. Such an acknowledgement serves to promote in the individual a strong sense of belonging and self-esteem. The saṃskāras also help person to understand his or her responsibilities at various stages in life, especially in relation to the family and society. Finally, the saṃskāras facilitate inner growth and emotional maturity, and help one make the correct choices in life, both in the relative and absolute senses. Relatively speaking, the saṃskāras connect one to Īśvara. As a result of this connection, one feels relatively secure and leads a life that is free of conflict. One grows from being prākṛta –unrefined– to saṃskṛta, refined and mature. Ultimately, the saṃskāras prepare one’s inner disposition to have the requisite maturity to seek mokṣa, and be liberated from saṃsāra, a wanting life.
The dharmaśāstrās advocate a total of forty saṃskāras to be performed in the individual life cycle. Generally, however, sixteen of the most important saṃskāras are followed. They have been classified according to the stages in which they occur.
Garbhādhāna: This is a saṃskāra that sanctifies conception. It sets the stage for the jīva to enter the womb of the mother, and for the prospective father and mother to prepare for parenthood. Mantras are chanted to bless the marital union.
Puṃsavana: Puṃsavana is a saṃskāra performed in the third or fourth month of the first pregnancy for the birth of a male child. It involves propitiating the ancestors, and the intake of medicinal herbs for protecting the fetus. The eldest son is desired for performing familial religious duties, and for continuing the lineage, the Vedic society being patriarchal. This saṃskāra is not commonly practiced in contemporary times.
Sīmantonnayana: Literally meaning “the parting of the hair,” this saṃskāra is performed in the sixth or eighth month of the first pregnancy for the well being of the mother and the child at a crucial period of gestation. The husband ritually anoints the wife’s hair and parts it with darbha grass or a porcupine quill, while chanting the gāyatrī mantra. A homa for prosperity is also done, along with propitiating the ancestors.
Jāteṣṭi: This is a saṃskāra that is performed at birth. Prayers are offered to the devatās for prosperity, well being, and long life of the infant. Holding the child, the father whispers the gāyatrī mantra, and the name of the birth star in the baby’s ear. He then presents the child to the mother for its first breastfeeding. A prayer is recited inviting Goddess Sarasvatī to abide in the breasts, and flow through the milk of the mother, nourishing the baby with the milk of knowledge. Homas for the health of the mother and the child are also performed.
Nāmakaraṇa: This saṃskāra, the naming ceremony, is performed on the eleventh day of the birth of the baby. The baby’s name is whispered in its ear by the parents, followed by homa and feasting. Bestowing a name on the child is a blessing, and becomes an integral part of its identity, and therefore the name is carefully chosen according to the baby’s horoscope, and its disposition. Children are named after a function or form of the Lord or after devatās. Sometimes, names signifying desirable attributes are given to the child in the hope that the child will embody the attribute as it grows. Care must be taken not to give names starting with negative particles. For instance, it is better to give a name such as Aikyā, oneness, rather than Ananyā, not separate. Emphasizing positive qualities blesses the name with a sense of purpose and self-esteem.
Niṣkrāmaṇa: This is a saṃskāra performed in the third or fourth month of the child’s birth. It is the baby’s first outing. The stepping of the child into the world is a landmark event in his or her development. It also marks the end of the quarantine period for the baby, where it is confined to the home, and guarded from exposure to germs and infections. The child is taken out, and shown the sun and the moon, the devatā of directions. The Lord of devatās, Indra is worshipped.
Annaprāśana: This saṃskāra is performed in the sixth month for a male child and in the seventh month for a female child. It marks the baby’s first intake solid food, and also the commencement of the weaning process. The child is fed a mixture of rice, ghee, yogurt, and honey by the parents amidst the chanting of various prayers for the health and strength. Specifically, prayers are offered to the presiding deity of the plant kingdom, which is the source of all food, and Varuṇa, the devatā of water.
Cūḍākaraṇa: This is a saṃskāra performed in the child’s third year. It signifies the child’s first haircut. All hair is ceremonially shaved off, save for a small tuft. In the Vedic tradition, hair is seen as a symbolic manifestation of binding desires that keep growing without limits. The hair that is shaved off during this ritual is offered to the Lord, as a symbol of surrendering one’s desire. Prayers are offered for the child’s longevity, health, and success.
Karṇavedha: Karṇavedha is the ritual piercing of the ears, and is performed between the first and third years of birth. The ears of the child are pierced till the sun’s rays can be seen through them. This is done for ornamentation, which is an act of worship in the Vedic culture.
Vidyāraṃbha: Also known as akṣarābhyasā, this saṃskāra initiates the child into the study of the alphabet. The child sits in the lap of the parent, teacher or elder, who holds the index finger of the child and guides him or her to trace the sacred “om” in a plate of rice, followed by the alphabet. This is an important saṃskāra as Vedic culture places a high value on knowledge and learning. Prayers are offered to Ganeśa and family deities.
Upanayana: Literally meaning “taking near,” this is an important saṃskāra that marks the child’s initiation into the gāyatrī mantra. The child is given a sacred thread to wear, which signifies his or her eligibility for studying the Veda. It is performed between the eighth and the twelfth years. During ancient times, both boys and girls were initiated into Vedic study at the gurukula, but as the tradition became patriarchal, and the division of labor between men and women more entrenched, girls were exempted from Vedic study and, therefore, also from this ritual. The ritual marks the beginning of brahmacarya, the life of a student. The ritual also allows the student to take alms, and to look upon his own mother as a giver of alms.
Vedāraṃbha: The teacher and the pupil perform this saṃskāra together after upanayana. It serves as a time of bonding and building of trust between the pupil and the teacher.
Keśānta/Ṛtuśuddhi: This saṃskāra marks the right of passage from childhood to adolescence for both boys and girls. It celebrates the first shaving of facial hair in the case of boys, and menarche in girls. Prayers are invoked for connection to the family, and for self-discipline, especially at a time when it is easy for the young adults to feel estranged or rebellious.
Samāvartana: This saṃskāra signifies the “graduation ceremony,” or the return of the student from the gurukula. Having finished his studies, the young man returns to the home, after taking a ceremonial bath, and offering prayers to the deities and gifts to the teacher.
Vivāha: Vivāha means to carry well. It is the name for the saṃskāra of marriage. It signifies the entry of the person into the life of a householder, and marks the transition from being a consumer to a contributor. Marriage also makes a person eligible to perform Vedic rituals. It is an elaborate saṃskāra, involving many steps. After propitiating the ancestors, and gaining the blessing of the devatās, the bride and the groom take seven steps together, with the holy fire as the witness, and take seven vows to fulfill their duties, share joys and sorrows together, protect each other from harm, facilitate each other’s spiritual growth. They also make a promise to each other to live together harmoniously in a spirit of equality and friendship. Making this commitment to live with another person affords a sense of security, and thereby opens opportunities for self-growth in a safe and loving atmosphere.
Antyeṣṭi: This is the last saṃskāra, performed after the death of the individual, where the body itself is given to the holy fire as the final offering. The fire received from one’s parents at the time of marriage, and used for performing rituals throughout one’s life receives the ultimate oblation of the body of the kartā, the performer of the rituals. The eldest son traditionally performs this ritual, substituted by a daughter, or a living relative in case the person did not have progeny. Traditionally, antyeṣṭi is not counted as a saṃskāra, because the last stage of life for every person expected to take to a life of sannyāsa, renunciation. A sannyāsin is not cremated, as he or she has renounced all fire rituals.