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Hindus believe that every aspect of life is sacred. That is why each significant stage, from conception to cremation, is celebrated as a reminder that life is a gift from God which should be duly respected and lived according to His wishes.This is the first installment describing the significance of the 16 Samskaras.

Since eternity man has strived to improve his own self. This
realisation, unique only to mankind, has led him to think deeper about his physical, mental and spiritual well being. Towards this end, the Vedic seers prescribed a set of observances, known as Samskaras. (Though pronounced Sanskaras in Gujarati, we shall use the original Sanskrit form.)
The nearest English word for samskara is sacrament, related to the phrase 'rite of passage'. In the Oxford English Dictionary, sacrament is defined as a "religious ceremony or act regarded as an outward and visible sign of inward or spiritual grace." In classical Sanskrit literature texts, such as Raghuvamsha, Kumarsambhava, Abhijnan-Shakuntal, Hitopadesha and Manu Smruti, samskara is used to mean: education, cultivation, training, refinement, perfection, grammatical purity, polishing, embellishment, decoration, a purificatory rite, a sacred rite, consecration, sanctification, effect of past actions (karmas), merit of karmas, etc.
A general definition of samskara, encompassing nearly all of the above is "to improve upon something while removing its undesirable attributes."

Purpose of Samskaras
(1) Cultural.
The variety of rites and rituals related to the samskaras help in the formation and development of personality. In the Parashar Smruti it is said, "Just as a picture is painted with various colors, so the character of a person is formed by undergoing various samskaras." Thus, the Hindu sages realised the need of consciously guiding and molding the character of individuals, instead of letting them grow in a haphazard manner.
(2) Spiritual. According to the seers, samskaras impart a higher sanctity to life. Impurities associated with the material body are eradicated by performing samskaras. The whole body is consecrated and made a fit dwelling place for the atma. According to the Atri Smruti a man is born a Shudra; by performing the Upanayana Samskara he becomes a Dvija (twice born); by acquiring the Vedic lore he becomes a Vipra (an inspired poet); and by realising Brahman (God) he becomes a Brahmin. The samskaras are a form of spiritual endeavor (sadhana) - an external discipline for internal spiritual edification. Thus, the entire life of a Hindu is one grand sacrament. The Isha Upanishad reveals that the final goal of the samskaras, by observing the rites and rituals is "to transcend the bondage of samsara and cross the ocean of death." To this we can add that after transcending the cycle of births and deaths, the atma attains Paramatma - the Lord Purushottam.
Although the number of samskaras prescribed by various scriptures vary, we shall consider the sixteen that are a consensus among scholars:

Pre-natal Samskaras
(1) Garbhadan (Conception)
(2) Pumsavana (Engendering a male issue)
(3) Simantonayana (Hair-parting)

Childhood Samskaras
(4) Jatakarma (Birth rituals)
(5) Namakarana (Name-giving)
(6) Nishkrama (First outing)
(7) Annaprashana (First feeding)
(8) Chudakarma (or Chaul) (Shaving of head)
(9) Karnavedh (Piercing the earlobes)

Educational Samskaras
(10) Vidyarambha (Learning the alphabet)
(11) Upanayana (Sacred thread initiation)
(12) Vedarambha (Beginning Vedic study)
(13) Keshant (Godaan) (Shaving the beard)
(14) Samavartan (End of studentship)

Marriage Samskara
(15) Vivaha (Marriage Ceremony)

Death Samskara
(16) Antyeshti (Death rites).

Pre-natal Samskaras
(1) Garbhadan (Conception)
'Garbha' means womb. 'Dan' means donation. In this the man places his seed in a woman. The Gruhyasutras and Smrutis advocate special conditions and observances for this, to ensure healthy and intelligent progeny. Procreation of children was regarded as necessary for paying off debts to the forefathers. Another reason for having progeny is given in the Taittiriya Upanishad. When the student ends his Vedic studies, he requests permission to leave from his teacher (see Samskara 14). The teacher then blesses him with some advice which he should imbibe for life. One of the commands is:
"Prajaatantu ma vyavyachchhetseehi..."
(Shikshavalli, Anuvak 11.11)
"Do not terminate one's lineage - let it continue (by having children)."

(2) Pumsavana (Engendering a male issue)
Pumsavana and Simantonayana (the third samskara) are only performed during the woman's first issue. Pumsavana is performed in the third or fourth month of pregnancy when the moon is in a male constellation, particularly the Tishya-nakshatra. This symbolises a male child. Therefore the term pumsavana literally means 'male procreation'. Sushrut, the ancient rishi of Ayurveda, has described the procedure in his Sushruta Samhita: "Having pounded milk with any of these herbs - Sulakshmana, Batasurga, Sahadevi and Vishwadeva - one should instil three or four drops of juice in the right nostril of the pregnant woman. She should not spit out the juice."

(3) Simantonayana (Hair-parting)
In Gujarati this is known as Khodo bharavo. In this, the husband parts the wife's hair. The religious significance of this samskara is to bring prosperity to the mother and long life to the unborn child. It also wards off evil influence. The physiological significance is interesting and advanced. Sushrut (Sharirsthan, Ch.33) believed that the foetus's mind formed in the fifth month of pregnancy. Hence the mother is required to take the utmost care for delivering a healthy child. Stipulating the details, Sushrut enjoined the pregnant mother to avoid exertion of all kinds: refrain from sleeping during the day and keeping awake at night, and also avoid fear, purgatives, phlebotomy (blood letting by slicing veins) and postponing natural excretions. (Sharirsthan Ch.21).
Besides samskaras which affect the physical health of the foetus, ancient scriptures contain examples of learning samskaras imprinted on it. From the Mahabharat, we know that Arjun's son, Abhimanyu, learnt the secrets of battle strategy while in his mother's, Subhadra's, womb. The child-devotee Prahlad of the Shrimad Bhagvatam, learnt about the glory of Lord Narayan while in his mother's, Kayadhu's, womb. Just as a foetus can grasp good spiritual samskaras from the external world, the opposite is also true. It can definitely be affected by certain undesirable habits of the mother. Today we know that smoking, alcohol, certain medications and drugs have a detrimental effect on the foetus. The Varaha Smruti prohibits eating meat during pregnancy. Therefore, the Smrutis enjoined the husband to take every possible care to preserve the physical, mental and spiritual health of his pregnant wife. The Kalavidhan prohibits him from going abroad or to war, from building a new house and bathing in the sea.

Childhood Samskaras
(4) Jatakarma (Birth rituals)

These rituals are performed at the birth of the child. It is believed that the moon has a special effect on the newly born. In addition, the constellation of the planets - nakshatras - also determine the degree of auspiciousness. If birth occurs during an inauspicious arrangement, the jatakarmas are performed to ward off their detrimental effects on the child. The father would also request the Brahmanishtha Satpurush for blessings.

(5) Namkaran (Name-giving)
Based on the arrangement of the constellations at birth, the child is named on a day fixed by caste tradition.
In the Hindu Dharma, the child is frequently named after an avatar, deity, sacred place or river, saint, etc., as a constant reminder of the sacred values for which that name represents.
In the Swaminarayan Sampraday, the devotees approach Pramukh Swami Maharaj or the other senior sadhus to name their children.

(6) Nishkrama (First outing)
In the third month the child is allowed agni (fire) and chandra (moon) darshan.
In the fourth month he is taken out of the house for the first time, by the father or maternal uncle, to the mandir for the Lord's darshan.

(To be continued.)

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