The Indian Hindu childhood rituals are a set of rites of passage that children in the Hindu religion must experience through their adolescent years. There are a total of four rituals intended for the early years of a person’s life called samskaras, from the smrticandrika section of the Devanabhatta (Michaels 14). The four rites of passage for children are jatakarma (the birth ritual),namakarana (name-giving ceremony), niskramana (the first outing), and annaprasana (where the child is given their first solid food) (Michaels 6). Samskaras are intended for the all-round development of a person, and they give people the ability to face life. Each ritual is performed at a different stage in the child’s life, and they lead them towards a better, healthier way of life (Prasoon 20).
Samskaras, or rites de passage, as coined by Arnold van Gennep in 1909, are universally observed ceremonies to ritually identify changes in life (Michaels 1). Samskaras were shaped during the Vedic period, starting around 500 BCE, where they were formed from the concept of diksa. Diksa was then more of a ritual preparation for the instructor of the sacrifice than a life-cycle ritual, but the two eventually formed into samskaras. The link between life cycle rituals and the social status of individuals brought about the basis of the Hindu caste system (Michaels 5). The Hindu tradition recognizes up to forty samskaras (along with the four childhood samskaras), and sixteen of those have achieved almost a canonical status in the religion, as they are found in the nibhanhas (Michaels 4). It is in the grhyasutras that the detailed descriptions of the main bodily samskaras may be found. The dharmasastras list the samskaras of right conduct (acara) focusing more on marriage and initiation. The four main childhood samskaras can be found in the smrticandrika section of the Devanabhatta (Michaels 4).
Samskaras are equal parts physical, spiritual and psychological for an individual, and they help an individual achieve perfection in purifying ideas and actions. The main goal of practicing samskaras is to achieve inner purification, the cultivation of higher thoughts and doing greater deeds for the betterment of all (Prasoon 21). The practice of these rites of passage creates an environment of physical, spiritual and psychological balance, parallel to the laws of nature (Prasoon 20). Similar to reconciliation in Christianity, samskaras rid the body of sins, dirt, faults, and deformities, in turn allowing that individual to achieve spirituality (Prasoon 21). However, samskaras are not solely meant for the lives of the religious, but are essential for life in general, as these rituals have scientific aspects to them (Prasoon 23). They have more in depth psychological aspects and are deeply related to our unknown self. Without these qualities within the individual, they become lifeless skeletons which lack the flow of life that makes a man human and different from animals and beasts (Prasoon 23).
Before one can practice a rite of passage, there are preliminaries that must be established before an individual or group can proceed with the ritual. One shared aspect in all samskaras is that one has to feed brahmanas learned in the Vedas (Kane 212). Every rite begins with a cleanse (acamana) by the performer as well as breathing exercises (pranayama), then references to the place (desa), time (kala) and the ritual which they are performing (samkalpa) are made. In all auspicious rites, the individual must take a bath, tie his topknot, and use a place on the ground which is lined with coloured materials. Two auspicious jars (kalasas) are filled with water and placed on this piece of ground with pots covering the openings (Kane 212). All items necessary for the ritual are then placed north of this piece of ground, and two low wooden stools are placed west of the area (Kane 213). The performer sits on one stool facing east, with his wife to the right of him and a son, if included in the ritual, next to his wife. All Samskaras and other auspicious rites are performed at designated auspicious times only, unless the ritual is to be performed on a fixed day (Kane 213).
Prasoon states that the best samskaras should be given during childhood, as children are very impressionable and whatever is imprinted in their mind remains forever (2009). This gives the samskaras the power to distinguish between good and bad for the individual (Prasoon 71). Kane also states that the samskaras from jatakarma to cudakarma were only to be performed for twice born males (1941). The first samskara performed is the jatakarman (birth ritual) (Michaels 8). This consists of cutting the umbilical cord of the infant, feeding honey (medhajanana), and blessing the child (asusya) and the mother (matrabhimantrana), or touching the shoulders of the child (amsabhimarsana). Eleven days after this ritual is performed and the tension of the childbirth is over, the namakarana (name-giving) ritual is performed (Michaels 8). The name of the child is astrologically determined and whispered by the house priest into the left ear of the child. This name is mostly kept secret and only used for ritual purposes. The third samskara is the niskramana (the first outing) (Michaels 8). This ritual is performed on an auspicious day within the first 3 months of the child’s life. The child is taken out of the house and shown to the sun (adityadarsana), and this marks the end of the impure period. After six months, the last childhood ritual, annaprasana, is performed. This ritual consists of giving the child its first solid food; usually a sweet rice preparation (Michaels 8). By accomplishing these rituals, the accumulated taints due to seed, blood and womb are removed from the child and purity arises within. These samskaras have been treated as necessary for unfolding the capacities of development and inner change within humans (Kane 192).
To this day, almost all traditional Hindu families observe at least three samskaras (initiation, marriage, and death ritual). Most other rituals have fallen out of practice and thought, and are either hardly ever performed, or have been drastically shortened (Michaels 2). For the first of the three major samskaras still practiced, the males participate in the Sacred Thread Ceremony (upanayana) as their initiation into the vedas (Michaels 9). In this ceremony, the boy is given the holy cord and is then taught the gayatri hymn by the priest. Through this process, the males are ritually born into the vedas, and become known as ‘twice born’ (Michaels 9). For the women, their initiation ceremony is the wedding (vivaha, panigrahana) (Michaels 10). The parents of the woman select (gunapariksa) the bridegroom for their daughter. During the marriage procession (vadhugrhagamana), the bestowal of the bride to the groom by her father (kanyadana) takes place, as well as the exchange of garlands between the bride and groom, and the lighting and circumambulation of the sacred fire (agnipradaksina, parikramana, parinayana). For the grhyasutras, a man becomes complete and fit to sacrifice when he is married (Michaels 10). The final major ritual that is still practiced today is the death ritual (antyesti) (Michaels 11). This ritual can also be seen as the third birth, as it is the ritual that takes the deceased and leads them from the underworld to heaven, alongside the other ancestors. Through this ritual, the body is wrapped and brought to the place of cremation. The eldest son or other male relative lights the pyre alongside the priest, then the ashes are usually thrown into a river (Michaels 11).
There are numerous benefits from samskaras.
The greatest gifts from performing these rituals are mental and physical
health, and enabling individuals to concentrate and to work harder and more effectively
(Prasoon 64). Another
benefit is the individual receives necessary oxygen and energy for their body
through the performance of these rituals. It can rejuvenate and
revitalize the soul as well as refine and all-round better an individual’s life
(Prasoon 64). It frees people from the poisons of life and leaves them with a
feeling of accomplishment and satisfaction (Prasoon 65). One can only receive
the best if they do their best, and this is the mentality of the Hindu religion
regarding samskaras, making them a vital part of a person’s life
(Prasoon 65). Childhood rituals in particular are essential for the growth and
prosperity of an individual, as it establishes a sense of what is expected of
them in life and how to become an outstanding individual in their religion.
References and Further Recommended Reading
Kane, Pandurang Vaman (1941) History of Dharmasastra Vol II Part I. Poona: Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute.
Michaels, Axel (2017) “Rites of Passage” In The Oxford History of Hinduism: Hindu Law: A New History of Dharmaśāstra. Edited by Patrick Olivelle and Ronald R. Davis.Oxford Scholarship Online: Oxford University Press.
Michaels, Axel (2017) “Ritual” In The Oxford History of Hinduism: Hindu Law: A New History of Dharmaśāstra. Edited by Patrick Olivelle and Ronald R. Davis. Oxford Scholarship Online: Oxford University Press.
Prasoon, Shrikant (2009) 16 Hindu Samskaras. New Delhi: Pustak Mahal.
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Article written by: Meghan Tkachuk (Spring 2020) who is entirely responsible for this content.