Samskaras - The Sacraments of Hinduism

Hinduism Concepts

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) and Sanskrit (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 a kingdom.

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:

  1. acknowledges his religious duties (dharma),
  2. upholds social institutions and religious values.
  3. confirms his obedience to divinities and commitment to divine centered religious life.
  4. accepts his position or status or identity in the social order with humility as a consequence of his previous actions (karma) in the past lives.
  5. earns merit (punya) for himself, his family, his ancestors, his future and his society in general
  6. and most important of all becomes a refined and religious individual qualified to transcend his lower nature and awaken in his higher.

Important Samskaras

here is a misconception that the samskaras are prescribed for men only. Tradition proves to the contrary.2. They vary according to caste. Certain castes are excluded from the obligation of performing most or of them. They are performed at various times during the four stages (ashramas)1 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.

The Stage Name Description
Before Birth Garbhadana The rite of conception, a prenatal ceremony, performed at the time of conception
Before Birth Pumsavana Ceremony performed seeking a male child or to increase the chances of the birth of a male child.
Before Birth Simantam or Simatonnayana The parting of hair ceremony seeking safe delivery. This is usually performed for women and celebrated by the women.
At birth Jatakarman At the time of birth and before severing the cord.
Childhood Namakaranam Naming ceremony performed usually on the 10th or 12th day after birth.
Childhood Niskramana Performed on the first outing of the baby and usually involves the first viewing of the sun.
Childhood Annaprasana Performed 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.
Childhood Chudakarana The tonsure ceremony performed usually in the first or third year of the child's birth
Childhood Karnavedha The ear 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.
Student Vidyarambha Performed 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.
Student Upanayana The ceremony 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.
Student Vedarambha The ceremony 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.
Kesantha The ceremony 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.
Student Samvartana Performed 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.
Householder Vivaha Marriage 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 householder.
Death Antyeshti Funeral 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 by the 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 cousins 5 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.

  1. 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.
  2. The body of a deceased child is usually buried.
  3. 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

TThe 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 rites.

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.

Suggestions for Further Reading


1. The ashramas are four in number: brahmacharya, grihasta, vanaprastha and sanyasa. To know more about the ashramas please read this article.

2. 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.

4. Manu considers that marriage is Upanayanam for women. Manusmriti 2.67

5. 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.

6. The Bhagavadgita

7. Female relatives are not allowed to carry the body for a number of reasons.

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