restricted access CHAPTER TEN: Saṃskāras: The Hindu Sacraments
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147 CH APTER TEN Saṃskāras The Hindu Sacraments With holy rites, prescribed by the Veda, must the ceremony of conception and other sacraments be performed for the twice-born, which sanctify the body and purify in this life and after death. —Manusmṛti II, 26 The saṃskāras, often called the sacraments of Hinduism, are rituals by means of which a Hindu becomes a full member of the socioreligious community.1 They begin with conception and end with cremation, “sanctifying the body and purifying it in this life and after death.”2 The classical śāstras list a great number of saṃskāras that apparently were in use in former times; nowadays only a few are practiced, but an immense importance attaches to these in the practical life of Hindus. Manu explains the effect of the different saṃskāras (see Figure 10.1) thus: In the case of the twice-born3 the sins that come from seed and womb are redeemed through homas during pregnancy, through jātakarma, the ritual performed at birth, through cauḍa, the tonsure of the whole head leaving only one lock at the crown of the head, and the girdling with muñja grass. This body is made fit for the attainment of Brahmā through svādhyāya, the study of scripture, by observance of vratas, holy vows, through the so-called traividyā, by worshipping the devas, pitṛs, and ṛṣis, by begetting a son and through the daily performance of the pañca mahāyajñas as well as public yajñas.4 Hindus associate great significance with the ceremonies surrounding the birth of a child and the name giving. Popular works such as the Viṣṇu Purāṇa offer instructions like these: 148 Figure 10.1. Some samskāras SA ṂSK Ā R AS 149 When a son is born, let his father perform the ceremonies proper on the birth of a child. . . . Let him feed a couple of Brahmins and according to his means offer sacrifices to the devas and pitṛs. . . . On the tenth day after birth5 let the father give a name to his child; the first shall be the appellation of a god, the second of a man: Śarma for a Brahmin, Varma for a Kṣatriya, Gupta for a Vaiśya, and Dāsa for a Śūdra. A name should not be void of meaning: it should not be indecent, nor absurd, nor ill-omened, nor fearful, it should consist of an even number of syllables, it should not be too long nor too short, nor too full of long vowels, but contain a due proportion of short vowels and be easily articulated.6 Manu adds that the names of women should be easy to pronounce, not imply anything dreadful, possess a plain meaning, and be auspicious, ending in long vowels and containing a word of blessing (aśīrvāda).7 In the fourth month the “leaving-of-the-house” ceremony should be celebrated; in the sixth the first feeding with rice and other family customs. In the first or third year all males of the three upper castes are supposed to get cauḍa or tonsure. THE SECOND BIRTH Upanayana, initiation, is among the most important saṃskāras still in fairly universal use, even in liberal Hindu families. According to the śāstras it is to take place in the eighth year for a Brahmin boy, in the eleventh for a Kṣatriya boy, and in the twelfth for a Vaiśya boy.8 The investiture with the yajñopavita or janëu, the sacred thread, marks the end of the young twice-born’s childhood and innocence as he enters the first of the four āśramas or stages of his life: studentship. From now onward he is held responsible for his actions. As a child he had no duties and could incur no guilt; he did not have to observe restrictions regarding permitted and prohibited food, he was free in his speech, and his lies were not punished. In ancient time the young brahmacāri took up residence with his guru to be taught in the Vedas; nowadays the boys normally remain with their families and continue attending the same school as before. Nevertheless it marks an important occasion in the life of a Hindu boy, since it is often the first personal and conscious encounter with his religion as part of his own life. Most families keep contact with their traditional Pandit...