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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.

(7) Annaprashan (First feeding)
Feeding the child with solid food is the next important samskara. For a son this is done in even months - the 6th, 8th, 10th or 12th months. For a daughter this is done in odd months - 5th, 7th or 9th months. The food offered is cooked rice with ghee. Some sutras advocate honey to be mixed with this.
By advocating this samskara, the wise sages accomplished two important considerations. First, the child is weaned away from the mother at a proper time. Second, it warns the mother to stop breast feeding the child. For, an uninformed mother, many out of love, continue breast feeding the child, without realising that she was not doing much good to herself or the child.

(8) Chudakarma (Chaul) (Shaving of head)
This samskara involves shaving the head (of a son) in the 1st, 2nd, 3rd or 5th year, or when initiating him with the janoi (Upanayan). According to Sushrut, the significance of this, together with nail cutting, is to give delight, lightness, prosperity, courage and happiness (Chikitsasthan. Ch. 24-72). Charak also voiced a similar opinion.
In the Swaminarayan Sampraday, the son is first taken to Pramukh Swami Maharaj, or senior sadhus, who clip a tuft of hair. The remaining hair is shaved off shortly afterwards.
A tuft of hair (shikha, chotli) is left in place at the top of the head for longevity. Sushrut points out its significance, "Inside the head, near the top, is the joint of a shira (artery) and a sandhi (critical juncture). There, in the eddy of hairs, is a vital spot called the adhipati (overlord). Any injury to this part causes sudden death" (Sharirsthan Ch. VI, 83). In the course of time, the shikha was regarded as a symbol of the Hindu Dharma and its removal came to be regarded as a grave sin (Laghu Harita IV).

(9) Karnavedh (Piercing the earlobes)
The child's ear lobes are pierced either on the 12th or 16th day; or 6th, 7th or 8th month; or 1st, 3rd, 5th, 7th or 9th year. Sushrut reasoned, "The ears of a child should be pierced for protection (from diseases such as hydrocoele and hernia) and decoration (Sharirasthan Ch.16.1, Chikitsasthan Ch.19.21). One sutra says that a goldsmith should pierce the ears while Sushrut advocates a surgeon. For a boy, the right earlobe is pierced first and for a girl, the left. For boys today, this samskara is only prevalent in some states of India. In girls, this samskara has lost its religious significance and is only performed to enable them to wear earrings.

Educational Samskaras
(10) Vidyarambh (Learning the alphabet)
This samskara is also known as Akshararambha, Aksharlekhan, Aksharavikaran and Aksharavishkaran.
It is performed at the age of five and is necessary before commencing Vedic study - Vedarambh.
After bathing, the child sits facing west, while the acharya (teacher) sits facing east. Saffron and rice are scattered on a silver plank. With a gold or silver pen the child is made to write letters on the rice. The following phrases are written: "Salutation to Ganesh, salutation to Sarasvati (goddess of knowledge), salutation to family deities and salutation to Narayan and Lakshmi." The child then writes, "Aum Namah Siddham". He then presents gifts to the acharya, such as a pagh and safo (head adornment of cloth). The acharya then blesses the child.

(11) Upanayan (Yagnopavit) (Sacred thread initiation)
At the age of eight the son is initiated by the acharya with the sacred thread, known as janoi or yagnopavit. Amongst all the foregoing samskaras this is regarded as supreme. It is the dawn of a new life, hence dvija - twice born. The child enters studentship and a life of perfect discipline which involves brahmacharya (celibacy). He leaves the guardianship of his parents to be looked after by the acharya. This samskara is performed by Brahmins, Kshatriyas and Vaishyas, for both boys and girls. Therefore, both the boy and girl received training in discipline, truthful living and physical service. During the course of time this samskara ceased to be given to girls, who thus failed to be formally educated. Today, the tradition of education underlying this samskara has died out. Upanayan only functions to bestow dvijatva to the son.
Upa means 'near.' Nayan means 'to take (him) to,' i.e. to take the son to the teacher.
Like the parents, the acharya will mold the student with love and patience into a man of character. He will inculcate in him the invaluable knowledge of the Vedas. This is the second meaning of Upanayan. Among all the cultural systems of the world, none have advocated such a lofty and stringent ideal for studentship than this Hindu samskara. If a student sincerely observes this samskara, he will turn into a successful scholar. Added to this, during this period, he receives from the acharya, a strong background for the householder's life he will later enter.
Today, it is obviously not feasible to stay at the acharya's house. But the next best equivalent is to enter a chhatralay - boarding school. The discipline involved infuses in the student a fortitude generally not possible at home.
Whereas students wear one janoi, householders could wear two; one for himself and one for his wife.
The three strings of the janoi denote the three gunas - sattva (reality), rajas (passion), and tamas (darkness). They also remind the wearer that he has to pay off the three debts he owes to the seers, ancestors and gods. The three strings are tied by a knot known as the brahmagranthi which symbolises Brahma (creator), Vishnu (sustainer) and Shiva (leveller).
One important significance of wearing the janoi is that the wearer would be constantly aware of the different deities which the threads represented. Therefore, he would be vigilant prior to any action not in accordance with the Dharma Shastras.
(12) Vedarambh (Beginning Vedic study)
This samskara was not mentioned in the earliest lists of the Dharma Sutras, which instead listed the four Vedic vows - Ved Vrats. It seemed that though upanayan marked the beginning of education, it did not coincide with Vedic study. Therefore a separate samskara was felt necessary to initiate Vedic study. In this samskara, each student, according to his lineage, masters his own branch of the Vedas.

(13) Keshant (Godaan) (Shaving the beard)
This samskara is included as one of the four Ved Vrats. When the other three faded, keshant itself became a separate samskara. 'Kesh' means hair and 'ant' means end. This samskara involves the first shaving of the beard by the student at the age of sixteen. It is also called Godaan because it involves gifting a cow to the acharya and gifts to the barber.
Since the student now enters manhood he is required to be more vigilant over his impulses of youth. To remind him of his vow of brahmacharya, he is required to take the vow anew; to live in strict continence and austere discipline for one year.

(14) Samavartan (End of Studentship)
This samskara is performed at the end of the brahmacharya phase - the end of studentship. 'Sama vartan' meant 'returning home from the house of the acharya.' This involves a ritual sacrificial bath known as Awabhruth Snan. It is sacrificial because it marks the end of the long observance of brahmacharya. It is a ritual bath because it symbolises the crossing of the ocean of learning by the student - hence Vidyasnaatak - one who has crossed the ocean of learning. In Sanskrit literature, learning is compared to an ocean.
Before the bath, the student has to obtain permission from the acharya to end his studentship and give him guru-dakshina - tuition fees. Permission is necessary because it certifies the student as a person fit in learning, habit and character for a married life. Obviously the student is not in a position to pay fees. One Sutra describes the debt of the teacher as unpayable, "Even the earth containing the seven continents is not sufficient for the guru-dakshina." But the formality is a required courtesy and the acharya says, "My child, enough with money. I am satisfied with thy merits." He would elaborate with the impressive statements, known as Dikshant Pravachan, noted in the Taittiriya Upanishad (I.11).
Those students who wished to remain as lifelong students observing brahmacharya would remain with the acharya. Today, this means accepting a spiritual guru - an Ekantik Satpurush and becoming a sadhu. The student thus bypasses the next two ashrams, to enter sannyas.
(To be continued.)

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