views updated


SAṂSKĀRA The life-cycle ceremonies of Hinduism, known as saṃskāras, carry a sense of gradual perfection, purification, accomplishment, and consecration. Administered ritually to an individual even before birth, they continue to the "last sacrifice," the funeral. Saṃskāras form a classical ritual system with strong connections to the ideology of Vedic sacrifice, both domestic (grihya) and solemn (shrauta), and the nurturing presence of agni, the sacrificial fire. As many as forty saṃskāras are listed in ritual literature, but standard rites of passage would limit them to a traditional set of twelve to sixteen concerning birth and childhood, initiation, marriage, and death. More than half apply to the first three years of life. Late Vedic Grihya Sūtras and post-Vedic Dharma Shāstras begin lists with marriage, a ritual that in the ancient period included consummation and the presumed impregnation of the bride as caturthī karma on the fourth night. In later times this did not prevail. The following overview presents only the bare essentials of a single life cycle.

Garbhādhāna is the rite of conception, "impregnation," or placement of a garbha (embryo). Originally this was marital consummation. Reduction of the age of brides to prepubescence, apparently to safeguard the purity of the lineage, meant postponing this rite until well after marriage.

Puṃsavana, "generation of a male," is performed in the third or fourth month to secure a son, particularly during a first pregnancy. The husband feeds his wife two beans and a grain of barley in curds. According to another tradition, he presses into her right nostril a mixture of mashed berries and shoots from the nyagrodha, the banyan tree.

Sīmantonnayana is "upward parting of the hair," a rite in which the husband parts his wife's hair from front to back three times with a porcupine quill and darbha or kusha grass stalks. She looks at a pot of cooked rice and envisions the child to be born. Unripe fruits are involved in this ceremony, which is performed in the fourth or a later month of pregnancy, with the welfare of the mother particularly in mind.

Jātakarma is the "ritual of birth" itself, formerly performed immediately upon delivery, before the umbilical cord was cut. The first part is medhājanana, "production of wisdom," in which the father touches the baby's lips with a gold spoon or ring on which curds, honey, and ghee (clarified butter) have been placed. Vāc (speech) is whispered into the infant's right ear three times. The second half of the rite, after cutting the umbilical cord, is āyushya, with mantras invoking āyus (long life) for the infant, who acquires a secret name, known only to the parents, before being given to the mother's breast.

In nāmakaraṇa, a name-giving ceremony on the tenth or twelfth day after birth, the child receives the common name by which he or she will be known. This may be determined by the nakshatra (constellation) under which birth occurred. Names of gods and goddesses are often employed, including sectarian choices (Vaishnava, Shaiva, Shakta, etc.) special to the family. Ten days of offerings of rice and sesame, with a ritual fire or incense in the birth room, observe a period of ritual impurity due to childbirth. On the tenth or twelfth day, the normal homa (offering) fire is resumed, the mother's confinement ends, and ritual purity of house and family is restored.

Nishkramaṇa, "going out," usually in the fourth month, is the occasion for the baby to go out of the birth room for darshana, the "sight" of Āditya, the sun, and Candra, the moon. Karṇavedha, "ear-piercing," most often performed in the seventh month, calls for rings of gold wire, the right ear first for boys, the left ear first for girls. Annaprāshana is the first "eating of (solid) food," observed usually in the sixth month. The baby's tongue is touched with cooked rice (anna) that will be the lifelong staple of nourishment. Mantras accompany this sacred moment, observed with affection by the entire family. A famous chant about the ātman in Taittirīya Upanishad 3.10 concludes repetitively aham annam, "I am food."

Cūḍakarma (or cūḍakaraṇa, caula), the first "tonsure," usually occurs in the third year. The cūḍa is a tuft of hair that remains on the child's head after a trimming by the father, along with twenty-one stalks of kusha grass. The family barber then shaves the head, leaving only the cūḍa. In modern observance, this is often done in the next saṃskāra, the upanayana. Keshanta is another "tonsure" after the upanayana, for boys of sixteen or older, similar to cūḍakaraṇa except that it includes shaving facial hair as well as the head.

Upanayana, the rite of "leading near," is the first approach to a guru for religious instruction. Formerly this was the indispensable second birth for all dvījas, "twice-born" classes, and took place ideally at the ages of eight, eleven, and twelve for Brahman, Kshatriya, and Vaishya boys, respectively. Now it is observed by few castes other than strict Brahmans. Elements that included the reception of a daṇḍa staff, a mekhalā grass belt, and a deerskin as upper garment; a symbolic begging tour for food; offering kindling sticks into the ritual fire; investiture with the yajñopavīta, "sacred thread" over the right shoulder; instruction in the sacred Gāyatrī mantra (Rig Veda 3.62.10); and reinforcement of the childhood medhājanana were part of what had grown by late Vedic times into an elaborate ceremony of initiation into Vedic learning, the life stage of the brahmacārin who lived with or near a guru.

Samāvartana (or snāna) is a ritual "bath" to conclude the traditional period of instruction in the Vedas, after which the young man, usually in his late teens, is snātaka, "one who has bathed" and made the "return" (samāvartana) to his parental home. Expectations are that he will soon marry and advance from the āshrama stage of life of brahmacārin to that of grihastha, a "householder" with a ritual fire, established together with his wife.

Vivāha, "marriage," had many variations in the ancient and classical periods. Since the traditional period of Veda study was twelve years, a groom was ideally twenty-four, and the prepubescent bride eight. Among the many features of the vivāha carried into modern times are pāṇigrahaṇa, when the groom takes the bride's hand; establishment of fire and an initial homa offering to deities by the new couple; circumambulation of the ritual fire; saptapadī, taking "seven steps" north of the fire; pratisarabandha, tying a thread around the bride's wrist; parasparasamīkshaṇa, gazing of bride and groom at one another after removal of a separating cloth; ashmārohaṇa, placing of the bride's foot three times on a grindstone; pointing out the pole star Dhruva to the bride, as well as the star Arundhatī, wife of the rishi Vasishtha who, like Dhruva, was a model of fidelity. Added after the sūtra period was the significant tying of a maṇgalasūtra, auspicious thread, around the bride's neck, one that bears the tāli pendant in South India. Antyeshti, the "last offering," that is, of the body in the cremation fire, is the final rite of passage to another life.

In the classical period, all saṃskāras required fire, homas, and the presence of learned Brahmans, who were fed in an important closing step. Except for marriage and the funeral, it was the father or father-to-be who performed each ritual, after undergoing several preparations, orienting himself in space and time, and declaring the intention of the rite. In modern times, many saṃskāras have been bypassed or abbreviated—the upanayana, for example, appearing only as the groom's symbolic preliminary to marriage. Ritual manuals always allow for "local practices," an opening for widespread variation. It is noteworthy that appearance of first menstruation (rajodarshana, or samartha, "readiness" to bear children) is not a saṃskāra, although local customs in South and eastern India observe this event ritually. Until the time of Manu, compiler of the Mānava Dharma Shāstra at the beginning of the common era, some girls were designated by certain ritualists as brahmavadinī, expounders of sacred texts, and received all saṃskāras, whereas other girls received only upanayana and marriage. From Manu on, writers of ritual manuals often observed that marriage should be the basic saṃskāra for females. Nevertheless, many childhood saṃskāras are common for girls today in different regions of India.

David M. Knipe

See alsoAgni ; Hindu Ancestor Rituals ; Hinduism (Dharma) ; Shrauta Sūtras


Gonda, Jan. "The Sīmantonayyana as Described in the Gṛhyasūtras." In East and West 7 (1956): 12–31. An excellent historical and interpretive construction of this ancient prenatal saṃskāra.

——. Change and Continuity in Indian Religion. The Hague: Mouton, 1965. Chaps. 8 and 9 detail the significance of the guru, upanayana, and brahmacārin.

Kaelber, Walter O. Tapta Marga. Asceticism, and Initiation in Vedic India. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1989. Useful reflections on the upanayana, brahmacārin, spiritual rebirth, and initiatory symbolism.

Kane, P. V. History of Dharmasāstra. 2nd ed., vol. 2, part 1. Poona: Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute, 1974. Chaps. 6–9 are the most authoritative coverage of saṃskāras as a system and as separate rituals from conception to marriage.

Pandey, Raj Bali. Hindu Saṃskāras: Socio-Religious Study of the Hindu Sacraments. 2nd ed. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1969. This gives reliable attention to texts and rituals, with occasional discordant comment.

Stevenson, Margaret S. The Rites of the Twice-Born. London: Oxford University Press, 1920. Reprint, New Delhi: Oriental Books, 1971. Part 1 is detailed fieldwork coverage of the life of a Brahman in western India from birth to shrāddha, accurate although somewhat marred by a missionary bias.