Performance of sacraments seems to be a universal phenomena. This is practiced in some form or the other by people of all faiths. This includes Hindus, Muslims, Jews, and Christians, to name a few. The main motive behind performance of sacraments is to eliminate, or at least modify and improve preexisting vices, along with induction of virtues in life and develop one’s personality to its fullest extent. At least for Hindus, Vedas are the most ancient scriptures. Principles of sanskar system have been given in Vedas and detailed in subsequent scriptures, especially Grihya Sutras. sanskars act like a road map, or form of guidance, drawing attention to a particular period of development before and after birth, until death. The sanskars are the total sum of 3 things. The actions of previous births, genetics of parents and family we are born in and the 3rd and last is the environment we live in, ever since birth. Actions of past are sanskars of today and actions of today will be the sanskars of tomorrow. There are a total of sixteen sanskars that have been described. Three are performed before birth, twelve during life, and one after death. It seems that Upnayaan Sanskar is the most important and commonly performed, besides of course the wedding ceremony and ritual after death.
Introduction: Sanskar (sacraments) means “transformation or giving a new shape to life”.
Sanskars can eliminate or at least modify and improve preexisting vices, along with induction of virtues in life and develop one’s personality to its fullest extent.
Swami Dayanand Saraswati, who founded Arya Samaj, gave us a sense of direction at a time when Hindu Society was in a complete disarray and full of all kinds of evils, including but not limited to child marriage, ill treatment of widows, caste system with resultant ill treatment of some segments of society, idol worship to its extreme etc. He studied hundreds of Hindu scriptures, including of the Holy Vedas “The oldest scriptures known to mankind. He lectured and held discourses with religious leaders of different faiths. He also wrote several books. The chief among them was “Satyarth Prakash”. This text and if I may call it an Epic, is the expression of Swami Ji’s ideology or doctrine. Since he knew that theory alone is not enough to lead us in our lives, He wrote “Sanskar Vidhi”, which is the practical/functional aspect of the same ideology. It will be fool hearted to assume that Swami Ji started the sanskar or sacrament system. Actually he clearly stated in all his teachings that he was not starting any new religion or new ideology. He was simply putting forward before us, the common people what has already been stated in the Holy Vedas.
He rejected what was Avedic or not in the Vedas.
Although the base of the sanaskar system are the Vedas, particularly the Yajurveda, a lot of mantras recited in the sanskar ceremonies done today come from various subsequent texts. Main are Grihya Sutras, mainly the Gobhil, Asshwa-laayan and Paraskar Grihya Sutras. Actually after Vedas came the Braahamanas, where Vedic teachings are explained as various Yajnas. Upanayan sanskar for example is explained somewhat in Braahmana texts. Aaranyaks and Upanishads which came after Braahamanas, also have some reference to the Sanskars. Chhandogya Upanishad for example describes how a student ceremoniously holds three pieces of wood in his/her hand while applying for learning of Vedic teachings. Upanayan Sanskar is described as well in several Upanishads. One example is that of Satyakaam Jaabaal.
The System of Sacraments is quite prevalent in most if not all segments of society. Dharma Sutras apparently were written about the same time as Grihya Sutras and have dealt with VarnaashramVyavasthaa. Here the four Varanas, Braahamana, Kshatriya, Vaishya and Shudra have been described as well as the four stages of life and the 5 Yajyna.
The question now comes as to what is the need of sanskars? Sanskar/sacrament system can really be compared to the road map and signposts on the road to a particular destination. It is very easy for us in our daily walks of life to loose sense of duties as a human being. All living beings other than human are essentially preprogrammed with no choice. We humans have a choice and have to bear the fruits of our actions. Sanskars remind us our responsibilities and can help us in leading a better life.
Manusmriti says “ Janmanaa jaayate shudrah, sanskaaraat dwij ucchayate”
The next question comes as to what do we mean by sanskars. In our lives we continue to perform actions, some good some not so good. We don’t always see the clear result of each and every action.
The Sanskars are the total sum of 3 things. The actions of previous births, genetics of parents and family we are born in and the 3rd and last is the environment we live in, ever since birth. Actions of past are Sanskars of today and actions of today will be the Sanskars of tomorrow.
It is believed that by proper guidance and appropriate conduct, it is possible to change the Sanskars or the character of an individual. This is what the Sanskar system is all about.
This whole system is based on the Vedic belief that there are 3 bodies. Besides the physical body, which is physical and part of nature and is cremated or buried after death, there is so-called Psychic or subtle body, which is physical enough to interact with the physical body and non-physical enough to interact with the soul. Also there is even more subtle body caused the Causal Body. It is the causal body, which carries the seeds of Sanskars upon death when it goes with the soul. This unfolds in the form of fate of an individual in the next life as has already been explained above. It is believed that the function of subtle body depends on its 17 components. These are: 5 pranas (vital breath- namely; pran, apaan, samaan, vyan and udaan), 5 jyanendriya (sense organs- namely; eyes, ears, nostrils, skin, and tongue), 5 suksham bhut (subtle elements- namely; touch, smell, sight, sound and taste), mind and intellect.
Swami ji has put together a system of 16 Sanskars, which are as follows;
Before birth -3, during life -12, & after death -1
Samanya Prakaranam is the central and indispensable part of each and every Sanskar that is performed. Sanskar ceremonies without Agnihotra are like flour without water, which cannot make bread. Vedic mantras are recited during the performance of Sanskars have a positive effect. Appropriate sound waves have to be created for the Sanskars, which is achieved by Vedic Mantras.
If we look at this whole system of sacraments, most popular ones are Seemaant-unnayan (which is celebrated as baby shower in the western world), Upanayan ( which could be similar to baptism, bismillaa, batmitzwah or barmitzwah), Samaavartan ( graduation/convocation ceremony), vivah( vedding) and finally the antim Sanskaar or the (death rites). Occasionally ear piercing and hair cutting or mundan is performed. Rest of the Sanskars may have had a serious significance in the old times, but today so much has changed, we are living with all kinds of comforts and protection and medical care and some of these Sanskars appear superfluous and unnecessary. However for the sake of historical perspective, and a tribute to our sages and of course our respected Swami ji, it is necessary to mention all of these Sanskars in this article. This is specially so since the basic fundamentals of life have not changed that much. If none of these things had any meaning, we would not be here in our places of worship reciting Vedic mantras and congregate as well.
Now I am going to list and describe all 16 Sanskars briefly.
First three are performed before the child birth
- Garbhaadhaan Sanskar: This should be performed when the married couple decides to have a child. The would be mother should be absorbed in such thoughts, which she would desire her offspring to imbibe & absorb. There are many obstacles in having a good offspring, such as attraction to money more than a child, differences in opinion among the would be parents, inability to bear a child etc. According the Aitareya Upanishad, Atharva Veda and Manu Smriti, father is the first mother of an individual. Transfer of seminal fluid transfers the fetus in the mother. There is some discussion in sanskar vidhi about the birth or male v/s female child which may be influenced by choosing a specific day for copulation in the menstrual cycle. Minor age mothers are considered bad for the upcoming offspring.
- Punsavan Sanskar: This is to be performed after 2-3 months of conception. This is for the good physical development of the fetus. Punsavan denotes health & vigor of the offspring. There has been some suggestion in literature that by doing this sanskar in a specified way one can secure that the offspring will be of a desired gender but Swami ji does not agree with that ideology.
- Seemantonnayan Sanskar: This is for the mental development of the child. This can be performed in 4th, 6th, or 8th month of conception. At this stage the mother is called “Two Hearts”. Seemant means head, skull and the brain in it. Unnayan means to develop it. Compilers of scriptures believed that the mother is such a mould which can cast the child according to will to a great extent. Mother’s thoughts have a lot of influence on the unborn child. There are many stories to try to prove this point such as story of Abhimanyu, story of Madalsa who converted her 8 sons in to sages through Sanskars, how the killer of president Garfield was born with aggressive Sanskars and it is believed that Napolean became a great warrior because of his mother’s watching the parade of soldiers etc.
The procedure of this sanskar is as follows: First regular havan is performed and then offerings are given with Khichri or a mixture of rice, dal and ghee with recitation of mantras. The wife is praised for her beauty, she is compared to mother earth, which with proper care gives good harvest and similarly all care should be taken for the health of the womb, its nourishment and the physical and mental development of the unborn. Mantras are recited to state that just as for long and healthy life water and medicines are helpful, in a good family life, food and fun should be healthy. The parents of this baby speak that we may have such a child who has divine qualities and is outstanding. Then husband oils the hair of his wife with fragrant oil and combs her hair with some background soothing instrumental music and a mantra is recited which means that our life should be full of peace an tranquility like the moon and our conduct should be limited like the boundaries of the course of a river. Our path of life should be like the calmness of the moon in the sky and cool like the water in the river. Darkness and brightness come in the cycle of the moon and hope and despair come in life but cool and calm should remain with is us.
Finally people bless the mother with the following mantra
Om veersoostvam bhava, jeevasoostvam bhav, jeevapatnee tvam bhava.
That means may you give birth to a brave child and that may you deliver a baby full of mental and physical health.
Next 6 sanskars are performed after birth leading up to the 3 educational Sanskars
- Jaat-karma Sanskar: This is performed at birth. Baby is cleaned, bathed. ‘Om’ is symbolically written on the tongue of the newborn with Ghee & Honey. Also to utter in the ear of the newborn “Twam Vedo Asi” which means, “you are a being of wisdom & knowledge.”
- Naamkaran Sanskar: This is performed some time after birth. Significance of name is to create a positive perception. Purpose of name is not only to address an individual, but also to present a purpose before the child. Names should not be difficult to pronounce. In USA, we have to name the child before discharge from the hospital, which makes it very difficult sometimes to give an appropriate name. In this Sanskar, after Swishtkrit Aahuti, oblations (Aahuti) are offered for the harmonious development of a child. The essence of these oblations is “O Child you may have a long life, you be learned, religious, famous, industrious, glorious, charitable & prosperous”.
- Nishkraman Sanskar: In this day and age, this sanskar has no meaning other than to take God’s blessings, since the environment is so controlled and we are really not exposed to the elements.
- Anna-Prashan Sanskar: This is to be performed when the teething has begun and the child is being weaned from Mother’s milk & solid food is going to be introduced.
- Chudaa-Karma(Mundan) Sanskar: Chudaa is the same word as Judaa, which women wear. This means top covering of the head. This is to be performed in 1st to 3rd year of life. The significance of this is to draw attention of parents towards the mental and spiritual development of the child.
- Karna-Vedh Sanskar: This is not really performed as a Sanskar in modern times.
The next three Sanskars are Educational Sanskaars. This phase of life is designed to take care of Rishi rin and is called Brahmaacharyashram or the stage of celibacy.
- Upanayan Sanskar: This marks the start of pursuit of knowledge (That is the knowledge of all three entities, The God, Soul and Nature.
Both boys and girls are entitled to it. Gobhilya Grihasutra mentions in the marriage ceremony that the girl wearing yajjopaveet may be brought near the husband for the ceremony. It is also clear from various quotations in the Vedas that girls were free to study Vedas. Swami Dayanand ji has quoted Athrva-Veda in Satyarth Prakash to prove this point as well. Also Yajurveda has called the women as “stoma-prishthaa” which means the one who inquires and curious to study veda mantra.
This sanskar is performed between 8 to 12 years of age. Out of all the Sanskars (sacraments) described so far, this is probably the most important one and most widely performed in most if not all religions all over the world. For examples Parsees call the sacred thread “kushti”. Muslims call this type of sacrament Bismillaa. Christians perform Baptism.
Up-means near and Nayan-is to go near the teacher. Guru or teacher vows and assures the child that “I accept your heart as mine, I accept your mind as mine”(both teacher and student become “Ek Manah”. Word for pupil in Sanskrit is “Antey-Vasi”.
Manu ji write in Manu Smriti that all are born Shudras and it is the Sanskaras which make a person “Dwij”.
Significance of Yajjopaveet: It has three threads.
We have three obligations in life. 1. Rishi Rin (debt to rishis) 2. Pitra Rin (debt to parents and elders) 3. Dev Rin (debt to the environment). The word Devata actually means “one who gives”. Examples of these are, God, other souls, the nature and the Vedic teachings. The three ashrams of life Brahamacharya, Grihasth and Vaanprasth. These ashrams are designed to take care above three obligations in order listed.
Just to repeat therefore, the three threads remind us of our duties towards all three entities in this universe. These are: God, Souls (ourselves and all other souls) and Nature.
While doing this sanskar, different devatas are invoked and the child takes a vow to follow path of truth and virtue. Acharya releases water from his palm to the palm of the child, symbolizing learning transfer & then student spreads this knowledge in world.
- Vedarambh Sanskar: This is really performed along with the Upanayan Sanskar. Both material & spiritual knowledge are stressed. Here the qualities and conduct of teacher are discussed. Here Instructions are given by the parents to the child. Special emphasis is given to the avoidance of anger.
- Samaavartan Sanskar: This is suppressed to be performed 14 years after the initiation ceremony. This really is Graduation ceremony. Here teacher gives instructions to the student just as the parent’s five instructions to the pupil at the time of Vedarambh.
In short these are “Satyam Vada”, “Dharmam Chara”, “Swadhyaayaanmaa Pramadah”.
Although unfortunately, Manu ji is often misquoted and wrongly criticized that some of his teachings are divisive, he has given us explicit guidelines for making life better. One such example is:
“ satyam bruyat, priyam bruyat, na bruyat satyam apriyam
priyam cha naanritam bruyat eshah dharmah sanatanah”(manu 4.138)
Which means: speak the truth and with a pleasing tone, don’t speak the
truth which would hurt someone, but don’t say sweet things which are
“Maatri Devo Bhava, Pitri Devo Bhava, Acharya Devobhava and Atithi Devo Bhava”
Here Deva are those who posses more knowledge that you. Pitar are those who are elder to you.
Manu Smriti says that Dharma in not a particular doctrine, it a code of conduct in society which keeps its structure intact. “swasya-cha Priya-maatmanah” or the call of the inner conscience is to be listened to. Manu ji also said,”aachaarah parmo dharmah” or the virtuous code of conduct is supreme. It is this, which benefits the individual, society, country and the world. This is Dharma. Actually Manu ji maharaj had identified 10 elements necessary in the life of a person one who practices Dharma. These are Dhritih( patience), ksama (forgiveness), damah( self restrain), asteyam( not to steal), shaucham( cleanliness of body, mind and soul), indriya nigrah(control over one’s senses), dheeh( intellect), vidya(knowledge of nature and spirituality), satyam( truthfullnes), akrodhh( control on anger).
Similarly in the epic Mahabharat, maharshi Vyas expresses that “refrain from treating others in the manner you would not like yourself to be treated.
- Vivah Sanskar: This is the marriage ceremony. Eight forms of marriages have been described in our Dharma Shashtraas. These are: Braahama, Daiva, Aarsh, aasur, Gaandharv, Raakshas and Paishaach Vivaahas.
In the Indian culture, historically, it is known that around 1929, it was okay to have a marriage between an 18 year old boy and a 14 year old girl. In 1949, the girl’s minimum age to get married was raised to age 15. In 1976, it was considered appropriate to have marriage between a 21-year-old man and an 18 year old woman.
As noted above, there are 8 kinds of marriages. In 4 of these, the father gives away the daughter, and the other 4 are marriages of an inferior category.
- A) Father gives away the daughter:
- Brahma Vivah: this is the main type of marriage. The 3 main elements of this are acceptance of marriage by the parents, marriage according to proper vedic rituals, and no exchange of a dowry.
- Dev Vivah: this is a marriage between the purohit who performed yajna and the daughter of the yajmaan. This was a marriage with splendor, but no dowry.
- Aarsh Vivah: here there is some exchange of dowry.
- Prajaapatya Vivah: It is almost similar to Brahma Vivah, but no guests are invited.
- B) Inferior Marriages:
- Asur Vivah: this is basically selling the girl.
- Gandharv Vivah: This is a situation where man and woman live together without marriage basically to fulfill their passions.
- Rakshas Vivah: In this, the girl is either kidnapped or abducted (by force).
- Pishaach Vivah: This is basically rape.
Marriage should really be a sacrament and not a contract, as it is perceived and practiced today. The main aim of marriage should be to settle the debt of the parents by having your own children and taking care of your family and parents. It is known that there are three types of debts: Rishi Rin, Dev Rin, and Pitra Rin. Here are some of the statements which should be made during a marriage ceremony.
I am Samveda, you are Rigveda. I am heaven, you are the earth. (Atharva 15.2.71)
While acknowledging the omnipotent God, she says: O, God! Release me from the family of my father, but don’t release me from the family of my husband.
During the ceremony, rice which has not been husked is used. This symbolizes the growth of the harvested rice when it is replanted, which relates to the bride because she is taken from her home and flourishes in her new home with her husband.
In marriage ceremonies, seven steps are taken (Sapt Padi):
- 2Physical Strength 3.Wealth 4.Happiness 5.Offspring
- Togetherness in all circumstances and all weather conditions
- Friendship, Comradeship.
The significance here is that the couple is convinced that the Grihasthashram is not pure fun and games, you have to work at it. It is a commitment. One of the very important mantras recited is:
“Om mama vrite te hridayam dadhaami, mama chittam anu chittam te astu
mama vaacham ek manah, jushasva prajapatishtva niyunaktu mayam,”
Here the couple takes a pledge to conjoin their thoughts and emotions. The groom takes the vow that:
“I consider it my duty and I take a vow with God as the first witness that I shall fulfill your desires and keep you as a part of my life forever.”
Marriage has been compared to the two eternal stars in the north sky. These are Dhruv and Arundhati. Both are ever-present and Hence the comparison. The groom is compared to Dhruv, and the bride to Arundhati, which is right next to it.
Vivah leads to the phase of family life or Grihasthaashram. This is designed to take care of Pitri rin.
- Vanprastha Sanskar: This is the first stage of detachment from material possessions. In the stage of life one needs to concentrate on those aspects of social service, which were neglected during period of intense family responsibilities in the Grihasthashram. This is designed to pay back or take care of Dev rin.
- Sanyas: In this next and last stage of life, one is to detach from all actions, where fruit is desired. These are teachings of Vedas, Upanishads and Geeta. In the modern context, it should not really require one to leave home. Here one is to do more of introspection, meditation and social service.
- Antyeshti: This is performed after death, where the physical body is offered back to nature with God’s blessings. The soul leaves the body at the time of death and takes the subtle and causal bodies with it.
After death, Atma enters the emptiness of cosmos, and as preordained according to its karma, either takes a new birth or achieves salvation or MOKSHA.
This topic really is meant to be the guidance or a path in various stages for our entire life and it is very difficult to cover it in a page or two. For more details please refer to “Sanskar Vidhi” by Swami Ji and many other excellent books written on this subject subsequently.