by Jayaram V
Orthodox Hindu code of conduct places emphasis primarily on two
qualities in a human being, which also distinguish him from the
animals and the low life characters. They are education (vidya)
and proper social and religious conduct (samskarah). Of the two,
education is more important because the other (samskarah) does not
come without it. Samskarah is a personification or giving shape
to such excellent qualities as inner balance, refinement and polished
and civilized behavior. The word samskriti (culture or civilization)
(language) are closely linked to the word samskarah.
Hinduism recognizes the importance of right conduct (samskara)
in human life. It is right conduct which eventually determines a
person's next life. In the pursuit of the four aims of
human life, a person should never lose sight the importance of
virtue and righteous conduct. One may resort to deception and
shortcut to achieve goals. One may sacrifice good values and
righteous conduct for immediate gratifications, but in the end
such methods lead to one's downfall and suffering. A person's
greatest wealth is his conduct (samskara). If he does not have
it, he will not be considered worthy of respect even if he owns
The Samskaras Provide a Framework to Human life
Samskarah also means an obligatory sacred
rite or a
religious ceremony or a rite of passage. The closest English equivalent
perhaps is sacrament. But it does not convey its full purport. Samskaras
are the rites of passage a person is expected to perform during
the various stages (ashramas)1
of his life, starting from his birth till his
death. They are connected with his present and future, providing
meaning, structure, purpose and order to his life. Although meant
for an individual, they are primarily social events in which a number
of people participate, with or without the participation of the
individual for whom they are meant. By performing or participating
in these obligatory rites a person in Hindu society:
- acknowledges his religious duties (dharma),
- upholds social institutions and religious values.
- confirms his obedience to divinities and commitment to divine
centered religious life.
- accepts his position or status or identity in the social
order with humility as a consequence of his previous actions
in the past lives.
- earns merit (punya) for himself, his family, his ancestors,
his future and his society in general
- and most important of all becomes a refined and religious
individual qualified to transcend his lower nature and awaken
in his higher.
There is a misconception that the samskaras are prescribed for
men only. Tradition proves to the contrary.2.
They vary according to
Certain castes are excluded from the obligation of performing most
or of them. They are performed at various times during the four
of human life. There is no unanimous opinion as
to the number of rites. The number varies between 13 and 40.
The Gautama Dharmashastra prescribes 40 samskaras, the Grihya
sutras between 12 and 18, where as the
Manusmriti mentions only 13. The most traditionally accepted
number is 16 and they are mentioned below.
of conception, a prenatal ceremony, performed at the time
performed seeking a male child or to increase the chances
of the birth of a male child.
of hair ceremony seeking safe delivery. This is usually
performed for women and celebrated by the women.
||At the time
of birth and before severing the cord.
performed usually on the 10th or 12th day after birth.
on the first outing of the baby and usually involves the
first viewing of the sun.
on the occasion of the first feeding of the child with solid
food such as rice, ghee and lentils. Now a days this ceremony
is performed both for boys and girls.
ceremony performed usually in the first or third year of
the child's birth
piercing ceremony performed during the third or fifth year.
Now a days this ceremony is performed mostly for girls as
boys are reluctant to get their ears pierced for fear of
ridicule or looking feminine or orthodox.
on the occasion of a child's initiation into education.
Now a days this is performed on the first day a child goes
to school and starts practicing the alphabet beginning with
the letter AUM.
involving the wearing of the sacred thread, which is confined
to the upper three castes only and performed between the
ages of 8 and 24.
marking the beginning of the study of the Vedas. Now a days
not all children show interest in the study of the Vedas.
The priestly profession is not very fetching. So this ceremony
is performed in select cases only.
marking the first shaving of the beard or the approach of
manhood. In case of girls, in some regions, there is a corresponding
ceremony to mark the beginning of menstruation or change
in dress from a gown to a sari.
when a student completes his education and returns home
from the school. In olden days the schools existed in remote
places. Once a student left home for education, he would
return only after several years of study in the house of
his teacher. So his return was a matter of joy and celebration
for the family because the child not only survived the tough
conditions of life in gurukulas but also acquired knowledge
of the scriptures. Now a days the schools are located
mostly in the same village or town where the child lives
and the child is hardly separated from his or her parents
during studies. So the ceremony is truly ceremonial.
ceremony. Child marriages were the order of the day in ancient
times. Now a days they are legally banned and also out of
favor. Marriage usually marks the beginning of life as a
rites performed after death and up to 15 days. Usually involves
cremation rites, making offerings to gods and ancestors
seeking the soul's comfortable journey to the worlds of
light, scattering of ashes in select places, and serving
of food to the relatives and among the poor.
Modern education and changing social values have eroded the importance
of most of the religious rites. Only the most orthodox families
take the trouble of performing all of them strictly in accordance
with the scriptures. Some samskaras are more popular such as simantam,
namakaranam, annaprasana, vidyarambha, upanayana, vivaha and antyeshti.
Simantam is meant for the child in the womb of its mother and upanayam
exclusively for a male child ready to begin education4.
The rest are events in which both men and women participate.
Now a days Upanayanam is increasingly performed a day before
the marriage ceremony. It is an elaborate ritual in which the boys
are elevated to the twice born status by investing them with a sacred
thread consisting of three strands of cotton worn over their left
shoulders. It is renewed annually and worn till death. During the
ceremony, they wear traditional dress and required to take the oath
of celibacy. The boys are also given a secret name and taught to
recite the Gayatri mantra. At the end of the ceremony, they feign
to go to Kasi as a symbolic gesture to study the
Vedas, but change their minds after being persuaded in a dramatic
fashion by their (usually maternal) uncles.
In olden days the upanayanam ceremony marked the beginning of
the life of a celibate student (brahmacharya) under the guidance
of a teacher. But now a days it has lost much of its original significance.
The upanayanam ceremony keeps the Hindu society divided on caste
lines. The ceremony which once imparted special privileges now invokes
resentment and alienation and serves as a grim reminder of the discrimination
that was practiced in olden days.
The Role of Women
It is a tradition in Hindu society for a
woman to move
permanently to her husband's home after marriage and maintain a
nominal or minimal relation with her parents whom she visits occasionally.
However it is also a tradition for a pregnant woman to go to her
parents' home during her first pregnancy and stay their till the
child is delivered. So usually simantam, jatakarman and namakaranam
are celebrated in her parents' home. Because of the pressures of
modern life, now a days it is not uncommon to see parents coming
and staying with their pregnant daughters to take care of them during
pregnancy instead of the other way round.
A vast majority of Hindus prefer male children for various reasons.
The once notorious tradition of female infanticide in certain communities
has become a thing of the past. But modern medical technology gives
an opportunity to many couples to abort female fetuses in the early
stages of pregnancy. They do it desiring a male child or under social
pressure from relatives and in-laws. Having male children is considered
a matter of pride and prestige and female children social and economic
disadvantage. Dowry is a social and psychological problem in which
Hindu society is deeply enmeshed. While there is a lot of
talk about social reform and laws are in place against dowry, women
suffer from many social disabilities and economic hardships in choosing
their life partners.
The Sacrament of Marriage
Marriage is an important sacrament in Hindu society, celebrated
mostly with pomp and gaiety, often resulting in debt and economic
hardship for poor families. It is an opportunity for people to display
their social status and importance among friends and relatives.
From religious point of view, marriage onsets the beginning of householder's
duties (grihastha ashrama) in the life of a person so that he can
pursue the four aims (purusharthas), namely dharma (religion), artha
(wealth), kama (pleasures) and moksha (liberation).
The marriage ceremony involves a number of rituals and traditions,
some of which vary from region to region, caste to caste and sect
to sect. The most common form of traditional marriage begins with
the bride and bridegroom seeing each other in a prearranged place
and agreeing for a marriage. Since most of the marriages are arranged
marriages, this is usually done in the presence of elders who also
finalize such sensitive issues as the amount of dowry, the place
of marriage, gifts to family members, date and time of marriage,
the list of invitees and so on. Marriage according to Hindu
tradition is not just a relationship between two individuals but
between two families. In matters of marriage most children obey
their parents and elders and accept most of the decisions taken
on their behalf.
In marriage the status of a bride is that of a piece of property
owned by her father. This is in conformity with the notion suggested
Dharmashastras that at no time a woman is to be left alone
to live by herself. She should always be in the care of a male person,
be it her father, brother, husband or son. The bride goes from her
parents house to that of her husband as a gift from her father.
Marriage is therefore also referred as kanyadan (donation of a girl
child) in which the girl is passed on by her father to the groom
as a gift.
In marriage the groom and his family enjoy an upper hand. They
receive preferential treatment while the bride and her family have
to be constantly on their toes to keep the groom and his family
satisfied with the arrangements. Upon the arrival of the groom to
the place of marriage, the bride's father and relatives receive
the groom with a lot of fanfare. The bride's father or his son wash
the feet of the groom. They house him and his family in a comfortable
place with all the care and attention till the ceremony begins.
Meals are served to the invited guests before the marriage begins.
Many guests pay attention to the food served and pass comments if
the food served to them is not up to their expectations.
Usually one or two priests preside over the marriage to perform
the rituals, which usually take hours. The Hindu marriage is a very
elaborate and systematic affair. To an outsider not familiar with
Hindu traditions, it may look very boring and time consuming. But
every aspect of Hindu marriage has a specific purpose and hidden
meaning. The bride is first offered to the gods, as a sacrifice,
before she is handed over to the groom for his lifelong support
and companionship. The marriage becomes officially confirmed either
with the tying of mangalsutra (sacred thread) by the groom around
the neck of the bride or by walking seven steps (sapta padi) around
a sacred fire lit in the traditional fashion or by both.
If the marriage is celebrated in the night, which is usually
the norm in southern India, the priest takes the newly wedded couple
under the night sky and shows them the star Arundhati. The occasion
serves as a reminder for the bride to follow the shining example
of Arundhati who was steadfast in her devotion and loyalty to her
husband. It is followed by meal sharing, where the husband and wife
feed each other. After the marriage, either on the same day or after
a day or two, the bride accompanies her husband to his house or
to her in-laws' house where she begins a new life as the new bride. It
is usual for the newly married couple to consummate their marriage
in the house of the bride's parents. Honeymoon is a new practice
introduced into Hindu tradition due to western influence.
Family status and caste background matter a great deal in Hindu
marriage with interesting ramifications. Marriages outside one's
caste and religion are not appreciated and rarely celebrated in
the traditional manner by the elders of both families. Dowry is
a big problem for parents having daughters of marriageable age and
no property to backup. However, love marriages and live in couples
are not unknown. It is difficult to quantify how much acceptance
and appreciation they enjoy in society. Gay marriages and same sex
marriages are neither approved by the tradition minded which constitute
a majority nor recognized by law. In fact most homosexuals lead
a double life, one for themselves and one for society and suffer
from low self-esteem. In southern India marriage between certain
are legal and permitted.
Funeral, the Last Sacrament
Funeral is antyeshti or the last sacrament. Although a
majority of Hindus believe in karma and rebirth, most of them consider
death as an inauspicious and sad occasion. Upon the death of a person,
wailing and crying are more common among close relations and especially
women. The more unexpected and sudden the death is, the greater
the bereavement and commotion. The general belief is that at the
time of death a soul leaves the physical body through a small aperture
in the skull and travels to other worlds. The souls of pious people
with good merit (karma) go to the higher worlds and those with low
merit and bad karma go to the lower worlds. In either case they
would return to earth having exhausted their respective karma. So
death is not a permanent solution for one's problems upon earth.
It is a process in which the soul discards an old garment (body)
to wear a new one.6
The Imagery of Death
Among common people, the imagery of death is associated more
with the expectation of suffering and the negative feelings of fear
and unpleasantness, coupled with the terrifying prospects of
facing Yama and his dutas (servants), rather than the expectation
of joy and the positive feelings of comfort and blessedness occasioned
by the close proximity to such divinities as Indra, Vishnu, Siva
and Shakti who rule their respective worlds of light and delight.
A Christian feels assured of his place in heaven after death,
whether he deserves it or not. But an ordinary Hindu, even if he
has accumulated enough merit in his life through pious deeds or
devotion to God, is not sure. He is not sure how his karma would
work out eventually, because he hears many interpretations about
it. He remains either confused or unsure of his path or approach
for they often seem contradictory. As he approaches old age, he
begins to experience fear and anxiety about his afterlife, for endless
are the possibilities and numerous the worlds, both above and below,
about which the scriptures are vague and descriptions few. Death
is a very mysterious and serious situation for many Hindus, which
they would prefer to avoid thinking about rather than confront it.
The Contradictions in the Belief System
The funeral rites of Hindus are based on a very ancient tradition
of established practices and core beliefs. They are in some ways
contradictory, in the sense that the funeral rites remained more
or less static over the centuries, except for some regional variations,
while Hinduism underwent a great transformation incorporating many
new traditions, beliefs, practices and divinities. The funeral rites
are centered mostly around two worlds, the astral world of the ghosts
(preta-lok), where a departed soul stays temporarily till he builds
an astral body and the more stable world of the ancestors (pitru-lok),
where the soul enjoys the company of the souls of previously departed
ancestors. In funeral rites we find no reference to either paradise
(svarg) or hell (narak) but just two worlds. There is no clear affirmation
of the belief that upon death a soul would travel farther to much
higher worlds. There is no clarification as to why the ancestors
languish in the ancestral world for so long neither moving into
the higher worlds nor returning to the earth. These are the questions
that would perplex a student of Hinduism when he reflects upon the
subject of death and funeral rites. In his book,
An Introduction to Hinduism, Gavin Flood speaks about this contradiction
in the following manner.
"While the official ideology of brahminical Hinduism is
reincarnation and this is the model generally assumed by renouncer
traditions, the funeral rites demonstrate another model of the
afterlife operating along side the reincarnation model. Here
the dead go to an intermediate realm, the 'world of the ghosts'
(pret-loka) and, once they have a complete body constructed
through the pinda offerings, go into the realm of the ancestors
or fathers (pitr-loka)."
Death in the family is considered inauspicious and cause of aural
impurity. The bereaved family has to stay away from normal social
contacts and engagements till the impurity caused by the death of
a close relative is washed away through rituals and purification
ceremonies. The restrictions last from a few days up to a year depending
upon what is at stake. Celebration of festivals and marriages within
the family are postponed up to a year from the date of the death
of its family member.
Methods of Disposal
Hindus cremate the dead bodies. It is the established norm. But
we also find the following variations.
- In case of saints and spiritual masters, the body is usually
placed inside a samadhi or a burial chamber. A concrete structure
is built around the place where the master has left the world,
through self-will, by entering into a state of samadhi, sitting
in a lotus position. It would later become a place of pilgrimage
for his followers.
- The body of a deceased child is usually buried.
- The body is also at times left floating in a sacred river
such as the Ganges.
Death As a Sacrifice
Cremation is based on the vedic belief that Agni (fire god) receives
all the offerings of a sacrifice on behalf of all the gods and that
the body of a human being is an aggregation of the five great
elements (pancha maha bhutas), triple qualities (gunas) and 24 principles
(tattvas). Cremation is a kind of sacrifice in which whatever that
is offered to Agni is shared by other gods through him. Blessed
by the divinities, the sacrifice sanctifies the offering (the body)
made in the sacrificial ceremony of cremation and ensures a place
in heaven for the departed soul. Secondly the body is a handiwork
of Prakriti or nature made up of the above mentioned elements, qualities
and principles. When a person dies and his body is cremated, these
constituent parts return to nature to be recycled and regenerated
in other forms.
Some Facts About Cremation
The place of cremation and the time of cremation are equally
important. Cremating a body in a place of pilgrimage or on the banks
of a sacred river is considered auspicious as it would ensure the
soul a safe passage to the higher world. Cremation grounds are usually
found outside the towns and villages or in secluded places. Unless
warranted by the death of a close relation or friend, they are usually
avoided by people for the impurity they are believed to cause upon
mere visit. A lot of myth and superstition is associated with the
cremation grounds as in other cultures. In some places the cremation
grounds are maintained by a special class of people, but they are
becoming a rare breed.
With increasing population and urbanization, it is becoming increasingly
difficult to maintain the exclusivity of the cremation grounds.
In many urban areas they are gradually replaced by crematoriums,
where the bodies are incinerated within a short time using high
temperatures and the ashes are returned to the relatives for further
The body of a deceased person is usually cremated on the same
day. On occasions it is kept in the house till important relations
living in distant places arrive to have a last glimpse of the body.
Once the time of cremation is decided, the body is washed with clean
water, applied sandal paste and turmeric and decorated with ornaments
or items with whom the deceased had known attachment. It is wrapped
in a white cotton cloth of a particular kind, placed on a wooden
mat or a similar contraption and carried to the cremation grounds
by important male
7 relatives. The procession is led by
the sons of the deceased, carrying a pot of burning incense emitting
smoke, followed by other relatives and friends and on lookers. In
urban areas the body is usually carried up to a distance and then
transferred to a vehicle which is then led to the cremation place.
At the cremation grounds the funeral pyre is made ready by using
a variety of wood, depending upon the social and economic status
of the deceased. It is not uncommon to see sandalwood being used
in case of rich people, religious and political leaders. The body
is usually placed on the top of the pyre and then lit either by
the eldest son (in case of father) or the youngest son (in case
of mother). There are caste based and regional variations about
the manner in which the ceremony is performed.
After the body is cremated, depending upon the time and date
fixed by the family priest, the sons of the deceased collect the
ashes from the cremation ground in one or more urns. They are taken
to specific places depending upon the wishes of the deceased or
the traditions of the family and scattered in water (a river or
a lake), in the air and on earth. It marks the completion of the
physical life of the departed being. For a few days after the cremation,
the family of the deceased is considered highly impure (malinam)
because of their coming into contact with the biomagnetic energy
accumulated around the dead body. They remain secluded, avoiding
social contacts and visits to friends and family for the fear
of spreading the impurities. For the next ten days or so the family
members of the deceased remain busy performing special rites called
sraddha in which the deceased is offered rice balls. It is done
with the belief that the rice balls would help the departed soul
that is now residing temporarily in the world of pretas (ghosts)
to construct a special body which would give him a right to enter
the world of his ancestors (pitra-lokam). In the south, relatives
carry some pindas or rice balls to the cremation grounds, place
them in open and wait for the crows to come and eat them. If crows
oblige and eat the rice ball or even peck at them, it is considered
as a positive sign that the deceased person is happy with the rites
performed and is in the ancestral world.
The traditional funeral rites focus on the soul's journey to
the world of ancestors, neither to the Vaikuntah of the Vaishnavas
nor to the Kailasa of the Saivites. The Bhagavadgita and other scriptures
speak of the soul's journey to the world of the sun and the moon
depending upon the time at which the soul leaves the body. In the
Bhagavadgita Lord Krishna cautions his devotees to seek liberation
through yoga instead of aiming for a place in heaven, because upon
exhausting their good karma in the heaven souls have to return to
the earthly world and continue their mortal existence. These
are latter day concepts unknown in the early vedic period.
Modern spiritual masters like Swami Vivekananda and Rajneesh
emphasized the importance of remaining detached and positive upon
the death of person. According to them death is a temporary interlude
in the long journey of a soul and there is no reason for any one
to be unhappy at all. Dying is not a tragedy but a transition. It
is ignorance which makes people feel sad and unhappy about the death
of a person, where as they should rejoice in the belief that soul
is unaffected by all this and will take birth again somewhere to
continue the learning process. Besides negative emotions will have
a negative pull on the departed soul and interfere with its afterlife.
We have seen from the above discussion that the samskaras of
Hindus are, mostly if not completely. based on the vedic tradition.
Over the centuries they have undergone little change. While Hinduism
has evolved and integrated many traditions into it, the samskaras
carry within themselves an imprint of the original beliefs and practices
of the Vedas and the early vedic people. To some degree they
play an important role in keeping the vedic tradition alive.
Suggested Further Reading
The ashramas are four in number: brahmacharya, grihasta, vanaprastha
and sanyasa. To know more about the ashramas
There are some samskaras exclusive for women and in some they
participate along with men. The nature of these samskaras also vary
from region to region.
Manu considers that marriage is Upanayanam for
women. Manusmriti 2.67
Between children of brother and sister or between the daughters
of sister and her brothers but not between children of brother
and brother or sister and sister or brother's children and sister.
Female relatives are not allowed to carry the body for a number